Travel Cartoon falling
Tales from the Road, Travel Cartoons

On Life Without a Travel Guide Book

Greece Lonely Planet We got off the ferry in Rhodes, fought our way through immigration (amid a horde of Turks and Greeks who evidently didn’t understand how to queue) and emerged into Greece. I went to pull out my trusty Lonely Planet guidebook to review the map before we went in search of our guesthouse and realized I’d left it on the ferry.

AH #$%^!!!

As soon as I realized I’d lost it, I had an attack of separation anxiety unlike anything I’d ever experienced before. We were about to spend 25 days in a new country and I’d never traveled without a guidebook before. I could have left behind my wife or my camera and not felt so lost. Okay, I’d have freaked out had I lost my camera.

Pull Quote from PostKristi charmed her way back through immigration and had a look on the ferry, but alas, it was gone. Thus we embarked on an experiment: what is travel like without a guidebook?

Lonely Planet and other guidebooks are getting a bit of a bad rap nowadays. Cool travelers declare that they don’t look at them much and many blogs and websites claim to have knowledge or sites not listed in guidebooks. A few days before losing my guidebook, I myself had read a blog post entitled Is Wandering Dead? that asked if we are relying too heavily on books and the internet and not discovering on our own. I commented that I might try to go without a guidebook more.

I got my wish. It wasn’t pretty.

Let’s get back to the Bells at the port of Rhodes. We had a general idea where our guesthouse was and I have a 6th sense when it comes to directions that is almost supernatural. You could kidnap me, put a smelly canvas sack over my head, dump me in the slums of Calcutta and within 20 minutes I’d be at a cheap guesthouse drinking masala chai having found my way out without asking directions. I’m just that good.

So we took off walking through labyrinthian old town Rhodes. After a series of wrong turns and walking in circles, I stepped off a curb and sprained my right ankle. Luckily, my left knee absorbed the entire force of my body and 50 pounds of backpack as I crashed to earth.

Travel Cartoon falling

The pain was blinding. I managed to drag myself to the curb where Kristi left the backpacks with me and went to ask directions. Another 30 minutes later, we finally found it.

Takeaways:

  1. If you lose your Lonely Planet, it is probably best to regroup and not take off in haste, especially if you have no real idea where you are going.
  2. Having a bad attitude can lead to injured knees and sprained ankles.
  3. Maps are your friend.

Narrow streets Rhodes

Labrynthian Old Town Rhodes – Difficult to navigate when you know where you are going.


Guidebooks are great for planning

We didn’t have a guidebook for Rhodes or Symi and I can’t say we missed it. We had a pretty good idea of what we wanted to do in those towns, thanks to the aforementioned lost guidebook. I use it for pre-planning, reading through it over and over again before the trips.

But before going to the large island of Crete (where we spent eight days) and Athens, we downloaded the Lonely Planet chapters on our iPad. It would have been impossible to tackle Athens without help and although we already knew what we wanted to do in Crete, those chapters proved to be very helpful.

Fellow Oklahoman and former Lonely Planet editor Robert Reid has a great post on his blog entitled How to use a Guidebook. As a test, he researches an area of Italy he has never visited, comparing online sources and print guidebooks. Here is an excerpt from his post:

Then I gave 10 minutes each to research the area in Travel & Leisure magazine, the New York Times travel section, Trip Advisor, and a couple Italy guidebooks (I had Fodor’s and Lonely Planet handy). T&L and NYT only had a couple articles each from the period over the past 10 years, though I found them useful.

On TripAdvisor, I found the “where to go” so elusive, I spent most of my time navigating pages, and then only found limited reward. If you KNOW you need a hotel in Lecce, great, you can find it. But how can you find that Lecce is the place you want? What are you missing, beaches, scenic drives, rugged coasts, cave homes, farmhouse B&Bs. Who knows?

Here’s a sample of what I learned from my experiment:

-1

In the same time period with the two guidebooks, I learned about all these themes/places. And of towns I’d want to visit like Madera, a town used for films like that Passion of Christ because of its timeless look. It’s a place that’s rising, but hard to reach without wheels. As are the masseria, the appealing farmhouse hotels that T&L and NYT talked about. One in particular caught my eye, where a guy with a vintage Alfa Romeo drives you around his farm. That’s fun. I found out how far the region (coasts, mountains, farms, cave villages) is from the popular destinations of Naples and the Amalfi Coast, and how you could add on four or five days…

In short, I had many of my first questions already answered. I made this whole destination feel REAL. I was deeper into “the boot.” And more inspired to go there.

Because of a guidebook.

He says that 80% of the usefulness of a guidebook is in planning the trip. I totally agree.

I use guidebooks to learn about new places, make maps of areas I want to go and get an idea of prices. I am a logistics guy: I want to know how I am getting from point A to point B and nothing beats the guidebook for that.

Guidebooks are Losing Value for Hotel Bookings

On our most recent trip, we made all our hotel pre-bookings exclusively through booking.com. All the listed hotels have photos, room choices and up-to-date reviews that are guaranteed to be from actual customers, unlike Yelp or Trip Advisor. Guidebooks are losing their usefulness in this regard.

The Lonely Planet Italy does a terrible job of listing places to eat. In many places the restaurant listings were very expensive with a lack of budget options. Some places listed in Rome had meals starting at 70 euros, which is okay if it is a once-in-a-lifetime experience that will blow your mind, but the reviews didn’t hint at anything special.

On our most recent trip, we went with the old standby for selecting restaurants – we looked for inviting places that were busy with customers. Somehow, that method works great.

Example of page at Booking.com

As an example, we stayed at this great guesthouse in Symi. There are 45 photos and 46 reviews on the booking.com page. This is much more useful than a guidebook.

Reunited (and it feels so good)

In Athens, we robbed a tourist found a 2nd hand LP and used it in Meteora and Thessaloniki where it came in very handy. It was nice to have city maps, transportation info and descriptions of places at our fingertips. I even used it to find a place to eat in Thessaloniki!

I will never scoff at a guidebook again. I totally understand the usefulness, especially with the maps and pre-planning logistics.

And next time I am about to arrive in a new city, I’ll make sure I don’t leave it behind.

______________

What sources do you use when planning a trip?

Do you use a guidebook?

If so, what do you use it for?

______________

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19 thoughts on “On Life Without a Travel Guide Book

  1. Hmm, I haven’t ever used a guide book, but from reading your post seems like maybe it’d be a good idea, maybe I’ll try it next time! I normally just look online for a few things to do a head of time.

  2. I am with you! By the time I arrive my guidebook pages are already well worn and I have found them extremely useful. I do research on line prior as well. Rick Steeves has often been my go to in Europe. Oh yes and because we try to travel carry on only I only take the sections of the guide book I will need. Every ounce counts 🙂

  3. Love it, great post. My Lonely Planets have only ever really been used in passing. I always take them with me but they are far more just for a casual read on the beach. It’s far better to just pick up from what everyone else has done and more to the point what you shouldn’t spend your time doing!

    • Jono – good point, word of mouth from fellow travelers is still probably the best tool. When I was younger and stayed in hostels, this is how I got almost all my recommendations. Now that I’m married, we meet fewer travelers and don’t get as much advice. Moreover, we were in Sicily in December and met ZERO other travelers so that wasn’t possible.

      Of course, asking a few locals is always a great idea too. Thanks for commenting.

  4. Hi Jeff, I still consider the Lonely Planet guides as my travel bible, with Rick Steves’ in a close second for Europe. As for S/E Asia, the LP ‘on a shoestring’ is worth it’s weight in gold. I usually don’t find places to stay on the internet as the places I like to stay usually don’t have a website. And, places to eat? I like to wander and when I’m hungry, I’ll stop into the next eatery that looks good.

    I spend a lot of time online while planning before I go but once I’m on the road, I find it time consuming and distracting to use a laptop. Interaction with locals and other travelers is so much more valuable to me.

    • Those are some good points, Steve. Many places I stay in the developing world don’t have websites. On our last trip to Europe, every place had a website and was on booking.com, expedia.com, etc. Next time I travel I may not use the web so much for bookings.

      I also am the same way when it comes to using books and internet while on the trip. I do a lot of online research before the trip, but almost none on the trip. I also like a guidebook because I don’t feel stupid or feel like a target if I’m looking at a map in a book, but I do feel like a target looking on an iPad map when searching for something.

  5. I’m the trip planner in the family and I take my job seriously. Travel books are great for choosing destinations and narrowing down itineraries. I use them along with the Internet to get a good sense of what we want to see and do at each location and book things that require advance reservations, like maybe a kayaking trip. But once we arrive, I rarely reference the travel book and we just see where we end up.

    Spontaneity is a mixed bag: sometimes it ends up you have one of the greatest experiences of your life and other times you end up eating slop and wishing you’d searched out a Subway. But either way, it usually makes for a good story.

    Love the drawing by the way! If I did one of my husband he would be carrying four bags, weighing about 50 lbs each. I would likely just have my purse.

    • Spontaneity is a mixed bag. In Greece, we saw this crowded restaurant and went inside. After we ordered from a waitress that looked like a cross between Chirstina Aguilera, Lady Gaga and Boy George, we realized that all the customers were about 16 or 17 years old. Our pizza arrived with a mysterious foam on it, like the servers had to walk through a rave and foam party to get from the kitchen to the restaurant.

      But I always say the best way to pick a place to eat is to eat somewhere busy with locals.

      Your husband needs some sort of portable dolly he can take. I might try to invent and sell something. Look for it soon along with Bell Bar T-Shirts and brown paper bags for drinking.

      • Mystery foam, huh? You were brave if you ate it…

        Eating with the locals is great advice. We’ve had some great meals, often in strange, out of the way, or even terrifying locations, but it was worth it.

        Yeah, you should get on that. And invent something for when we go hiking too. I hate carrying things.

  6. Guidebooks…
    Good: For helping narrow down general destinations, and (usually) providing a map. Getting me excited about a trip. Pretty pictures to start the drool going.

    Mixed: Hotel suggestions – guidebook writers rarely stay in the hotels they are writing about. They take a 5 minute walk through the hotel, which doesn’t give them much info.

    Bad: Restaurants – I personally have never successfully used a guidebook to find a restaurant. Either the restaurant isn’t there or I get distracted by somewhere else. And it’s too easy to get buried in a guidebook and forget to EXPERIENCE WHERE YOU ARE. I typically use a guidebook to decide what city or town to go to, then ditch the book while I’m there. And – too many choices! Sometimes I find myself struggling with analysis paralysis – which location is the superior choice for my limited time? In reality, most everything would be great.

    And I find Rough Guides to generally be vastly superior to LP, which have really small print crammed on a page, and are too focused on the backpacker/surfer crowd, which does not describe me. And I think Rough Guides are generally just written better.

    And – 50lbs?????

    • Kevin – I agree with you on the “good” and “mixed” parts, though I have found several great places to eat through guidebooks.

      On a couple of occasions, like the time we spend 2 months in India, we’ve had both an LP and Rough Guide. We found that the RG had more history and more information about places, but we ended up using the LP more in the end, maybe because we are just used to it.

      I think these newer LPs are going higher class. They are listing more top end hotels and more fancy restaurants. Maybe they are seeing their clientele grow up a little.

      And yes, I bought a new, huge backpack that I love and I brought way too much stuff.

  7. Pingback: Bring This, Not That: Travel Guidebooks or Not? : Travelpro Luggage Blog

  8. Pingback: Guide Books | Travelguide

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