Guide books: Are they needed?
14 December 2012
This is probably a highly debatable topic in the current world of travel, people are asking themselves “should I take a guide book or not?” There isn’t really an easy answer to those who are tossing up this question, but for the people who are set on their travel methods I imagine it wouldn’t be a hard question to answer. So I guess this post would be me stating my opinions on whether or not you should take a guidebook when you go travelling, hopefully this assists you in your decision. Firstly I will let you know that I do not travel with a guide book and some thoughts on here may be slightly biased towards that, take that into consideration before you go off doing exactly as I do!
I’ve come from a family that has been travelling constantly. My father who was actually the first guy to start writing conventional travel guides to get from Europe overland to destinations such as India and Australia, along with every country in between. He was one of the authors that was instrumental in the success of Lonely Planet and helped build that company into what it is today. So why the hell don’t I use guidebooks? I out of everyone should be the first person you’d except to you use a guidebook coming from such a background. Well what I’m getting to now will be my answer to that question.
I personally believe that the golden age of “real” guidebooks is dead. They died off a long time ago, some would argue over 10 years ago and I know that my father would be an advocate of that claim; he actually stopped writing travel guides for Lonely Planet after 20 years because it was being driven into the commercial market of reviewing 5 star resorts etc., which he didn’t agree with and continually advocated that Lonely Planet was a travel guide for “real” travellers. The definition of a “real” traveller these days would be warped, but he certainly knew what he was talking about. The contemporary situation with guide books is pretty dismal for a “real” traveller and I’d even go as far as to say that travel guides these days are certainly not for people who want to travel on a budget. All the popular mainstream guides like Lonely Planet and Rough Guides for examples are aimed towards a traveller or “tourist” that is willing to travel more “commercially” so to speak.
“Why are you hating on guide books?” this was a question I was asked no longer than a week ago now. My response was simple and I replied “I think that contemporary guide books have lost their soul, when I read a old Lonely Planet from back in the 80’s or 90’s they had character and wit, now when I look at a guide book all I see is the book telling people what to do and where to go. Of course times have changed and a business needs to evolve with the times, but at the same time travellers have lost their integrity these days and it almost feels like they are subliminally following what the guide books tells them. You see travellers wandering around with the book in hand, doing everything step by step. For instance this is so evident when you get off a bus in an unknown town and everyone around you has the newest edition of the countries Lonely Planet guide and can’t make a decision for themselves, they stand there while they are getting heckled by taxi drivers reading their books, asking it where to go.” Some may see my thoughts as cynical, but I would much rather view it as going against the grain. However, I do still hold the thought that contemporary guidebooks are a wealth of knowledge on the country itself and it educates travellers on the cultural and natural side of the country for example and this cannot be criticised because being educated about your destination is something that I would want all travellers to do to the fullest extent possible.
“So what do you use for information?” was the next question asked by the curious traveller. “Well” I started “there is a little thing called the internet for a diverse range of opinions and information. I use peoples travel blogs, forums and travel websites for information, which is sometimes tedious, but you get pretty good information. However, the internet has its drawbacks and is mostly full of shit, but once you sieve through that you generally get an idea of things. I still don’t use websites like Trip Advisor because I think it gives off the wrong impressions for many hotels and guesthouses. For instance some people reviewing online may be accustomed to 5 star and therefore give the poor old guesthouse a crap review, now that’s just unfair. I guess the bottom line is about making up your own mind about certain things, you never really know until you’re there and experiencing it. A great example of this would be a guesthouse getting a rave review in a guide book and various internet sites and you could rock up and get bed bugs, who knows?!”
The girl’s friend looking at me in bewilderment, her look almost symbolised someone that couldn’t fathom not using a travel guide, I continued “Local knowledge is also an extremely underrated and untapped resource. When you get your head out of the guide book you start to meet people, take chances and risks and you end up having some great stories or bad ones, but travel is all about trusting strangers, it forces you to and that’s part of the fun.” They ended up disagreeing with me in the end, but you can’t convince everyone right?
So what’s my recommendation to someone reading this? Well I think that this is a personal choice and you need to make up your own mind on this issue, I’m not going to sit here and type “don’t use one” or “use one sparingly” or “don’t leave home without it” it is completely up to you and it all depends on what you’re after I guess, but I will say one thing, there are alternatives and like nature, diversity leads to strong foundations, monocultures do the opposite and you can almost use that as a metaphor for trave guides, research and use information from a diverse range of sources, not just one.