I used to love guidebooks. On my round-the-world journey, I actually started the trip with three of them weighing down my backpack — the Lonely Planet backpacker guides for Central America, South America and Africa. This was in addition to six other paperbacks I starting off carrying.
I have a slight book addiction.
Although I do love the feel of a book in my hand and do fondly remember hours spent on buses in South America looking through my guidebook and making plans for upcoming weeks….
Guidebooks have lost their relevance in today’s world. It’s time to put them to out to pasture.
These days, the bottom line is that getting your travel information from the internet, even from the reviled Trip Advisor, is a far better choice than buying a guidebook in almost every single circumstance.
Other than supporting your favorite guidebook writer (and I count some as good friends of mine), there is absolutely no reason to waste you money buying another guidebook for the rest of your natural life. Here are some of the many reasons:
As a byproduct of the publishing cycle, guidebooks are out of date even before they even hit the bookshelves. Those reviews you are reading about the cleanliness of the hostel common area or of the quality of the breakfast were researched a year or two before you arrived.
Nothing in a guidebook is current and up-to-date.
Contrast that with any of the online travel review websites, whether Trip Advisor or HostelBookers or Virtual Tourist or Hostel World or any of the other dozens out there. The reviews are usually from the last month or two, sometimes even just days before you arrive. They are also dated reviews, providing temporal context you will never get from a guidebook.
A fellow travel blogger was swapping emails with me recently about where to stay in Amman, since I was there at the time. Winter is pretty cold in Amman, likely running counter to your perception of the Middle East. One thing I was able to determine quickly via reading through some recent reviews was whether each hostel had heaters in the rooms, since reviewers had just been there, during the same cold weather snap my friend was about to deal with.
You’d never get that sort of information from a guidebook. And in the dead of winter in Amman, that is information that will make or break a good night’s sleep.
Depth and Bulk
Let me make sure to say this a few times throughout this post, because I am sure to hear about it in the comments — guidebook writers are generally wonderful people that work their asses off, are for the most part professional, and bring years of experience and dedication to their craft.
That being said, they still aren’t nearly as good as what you get on basically any online review source from crowdsourcing the work of reviewing.
Guidebooks have page limits. The internet does not. Your average guidebook writer might be far more knowledgeable and more erudite that 97.24% of the people posting reviews on the internet, but you know what those reviewers have in spades over the guidebook?
Mass. In this case, the bulk of crowdsourcing wins out.
A guidebook may be able to dedicate one paragraph to any individual hotel or hostel. Perhaps a full page on an important local tourist site, perhaps even with a map.
The internet has no such limitations. The hostel I am staying at currently, Abraham Hostel in Jerusalem, has 190 reviews in Hostel World and 103 reviews in Hostel Bookers. The same goes for reviews of tourist sights, when the best times to photograph locations, how to avoid crowds at certain places and more — you can get all that information so much more fully. completely, and currently online than you’d ever be able to get in any guidebook. Finding a good hostel online is much easier.
Now is it true that a bunch of these online reviews worthless, poorly written and sometimes even fraudulently placed there by competitors? Of course. With the wheat comes the chaff.
Much of the bulk you get via internet review sources is garbage.
But are you really so stupid to fall for the garbage? If you have an ounce of common sense, you can scroll through the reviews and very quickly toss out the best and worst in your mind and come up with a general consensus opinion of a place. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist.
Or a guidebook.
Free, Free, Free
The easiest reason to not ever buy another guidebook is that you’ll save money. If they were providing some amazing insight that you couldn’t find free on the internet, perhaps it would be worth your money, but the typical “Mid-Priced Guide to Western Europe” is just a waste of your money and space in your luggage.
Save yourself wasting $20 on the guidebook and go buy your friendly guidebook writer a beer. They aren’t getting hardly any of the money that comes from the sale of their work anyway.
Avoiding the “Lonely Planet Effect”
I have talked to a number of hostel owners all over the world about the business of running a hostel. By the way, if you are sitting there in your living room thinking about some sort of life change, but are worried about how to make money… a well-run hostel can be a gold mine. It may seem counter intuitive that a business that is selling its beds for $5-15 a night verses $200 a night for a fancy hotel is a better business, but there is some good money to be made.
One thing that those hostel owners confirmed to me was the same thing that any of us that have been traveling for a while have known: as soon as they get listed in Lonely Planet, they jack up their prices.
I’d say out of the hundred or so places I looked at in Latin America and Africa that were listed in my Lonely Planet guidebooks probably 98% of them had higher prices in reality than were listed in the book. Why? Because of the “Lonely Planet Effect.” The mention in that ubiquitous guidebook meant they were fairly certain of a large increase in customers. Increase the demand. Increase the price.
It got to the point pretty quickly on my RTW trip where I’d just use my Lonely Planet guidebook to find the places to avoid, so I could get away from the crowds and spend a little less money.
Avoiding Bad Guidebook Writers
As I said earlier, the vast majority of guidebook writers are great people that work way too hard for the limited amount of money they get paid and do as good a job they possibly can with the limited about of time they have in each location.
But like any profession, there are also some crappy ones in the guidebook writing profession. And the problem from your point of view is that realistically you have no way to determine the good ones from the bad ones. Unlike the crowdsourced reviews on the internet, you don’t get the benefit of multiple opinions — generally a city or country is reviewed by one guidebook writer, so if you catch a unethical one or just plain bad one, you’ve just wasted your time and money.
A few months ago, one travel guidebook writer was on Twitter basically talking about how he/she selected hotels that he/she was going to review on an upcoming trip. Reading between the lines it seemed that if the appointment to see the rooms wasn’t done on his/her schedule and as just as he/she wanted it to be, well….
A related issue is that guidebooks simply are inconsistent. At one point in Colombia, I pulled out the Lonely Planet Guidebooks – the Colombia specific one and the South America general one. In one book, a hostel’s review said, “Great place, wonderful location, very clean rooms, but the owners are rude and horrible.” In the other guidebook, the same hostel’s review said, “Great place, wonderful location, very clean rooms, and the owners are some of the nicest and most helpful people on the planet.”
Look, I appreciate that different people have different impressions of the same place. That is normal and to be expected. But if the internal editing checks and balances aren’t good enough to catch that stuff, there is good reason to question everything they publish.
Better Knowledge Base
Guidebook writers are going to tell you that they know far more about a location, its culture, and its history than anyone that is reviewing places on Trip Advisor or Hostel Bookers. That’s generally true. And I did enjoy those few pages in most guidebooks.
Then again, I can also get the same knowledge, and sometimes better, from reading wikipedia on my own and asking the person at the front desk of my hostel if they want to go get a beer and talk about the town they live in.
Where guidebook writers fall short is on the basics that we all want. The internet sources are far better.
Guidebook reviewers don’t stay at all the places they review. They can’t. They simply don’t have the time, even if they wanted to.
Like the writer I referred to above, most of them will just go around town and check out the rooms in a dozen or so places, write up a cursory review of the hotel on that basis and move on. That’s better than nothing, but it falls far short of answering the questions you might have about a place.
Is it a party hostel or not? How loud it is on certain floors? Does the hot water work? Does the roof leak when it rains? Are their any horror stories about booking tours from the place? Has the cleaning crew stolen anything from people’s rooms?
Take a look at reviews on most any of the internet sites and you get dozens of reviews that hit on those topics and more. The massive advantage crowdsourced review sites have is that they have tens of thousands of people writing reviews, every day of the year, rain or shine, during different seasons and other variables that a one-stop review can’t keep up with.
Perhaps there is a case to be made for some sorts of speciality guidebooks, for instance, if someone wanted a food tour of Southeast Asia from a certain perspective or some other small niche market, but if you are spending any of your money on the general “Guidebook of France” or “Backpackers Guide to Australia” you are wasting good money you should be spending on buying some good local beers.
DISCLOSURE: I was not paid to write or say any of this. HostelBookers has been a previous sponsor of the Ultimate Train Challenge, but they are completely unaware I have written this post. I have never done any business with Trip Advisor or Hostel World or any of the other sites I have written about here. Nor have I had any particularly bad business experience with Lonely Planet or any other guidebook publisher. As everything on this website, I just write whatever I think and believe.
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