Why a travel guidebook is still the best companion

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In a recent online travel chat, someone asked, “What is your most useful travel tool?” The answers were a flurry of websites and apps that found the nearest pizzeria in 12 seconds. My answer was different: to my mind, a good travel guidebook is still the best companion.

In today’s always-online world, it’s almost automatic to pull out your cellphone and do a quick search when you need something. And there’s a lot of great info out there on the net, from businesses, official sources and travel blogs like this one.

But is that always the best way to guide your travels? I’ll argue it isn’t. For me, there’s still great value in old-school travel guides, for a number of reasons. Here are a few.

They clue you in

Most people use travel guides while they’re on the go, but they’re a great source of background info that can add a lot of depth to your trip. Lonely Planet books are often good for this: get the book a few weeks before you go and spend some time reading the sections on the country’s history, culture and food.

Then,Chinese street musician when you get off the plane, you have some understanding of where you’re travelling. (I find this also serves to get me excited about the things I’m going to see, adding extra pleasure to the trip.) And while you’re at your destination, you can dip into the book to find out why they wear those strange headdresses, or what instrument that fellow was playing on my recent trip to Beijing.

They’re always handy

You can always look up things with your cellphone or tablet — except that in some places your phone doesn’t work, and finding reliable wi-fi can be a real trick in many parts of the world. But the old-fashioned travel guidebook is always there, tucked into your day bag, for a quick look-up. It’s small enough not to be a burden — and if you really don’t want the extra weight, load the digital version into your phone or tablet, no need for wi-fi.

They have maps

One of the most useful things you can have on your travels is a map, and guidebooks have them, in a handy, accessible form. A good guidebook has maps of the country you’re visiting, the city you’re in, even the neighbourhood or the major attraction you want to see. On a recent trip to China, the map in my Lonely Planet Beijing book guided me all over the city, and the transit map helped me navigate the city’s extensive subway system. The map was usable without detaching it from the book, so it never got lost.

They’re affordable

For years, I used to go to the bookstore before I travelled and fork out $30 for a guidebook. But times have changed, and with online services like Amazon, these days you can get one for more like $20 — even less if you opt for the digital version. Is that worth it? I always say, if it helps you find one affordable monkey temple khatmanduhotel, or have one experience you would have missed, it’s paid for itself.

They’re collectible

Long after I return from a trip, the guidebook lives on in my bookcase as a living memory of the great places I’ve been. It’s an instant source if I need to recall the name of a place or how I got from here to there. And usually there are a few things I missed when I was on the road — that’s good reading for a winter night. As well, they’re a great resource if you want to write something about your trip — like a travel blog.

One last thing: I still find it a lot easier to find what I want in a real, paper-and-ink book than by flipping through endless pages on a digital device: that’s why I usually buy the hard copy when I get a travel guidebook. If that makes me a dinosaur — well, whatever works …

 

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About Author

Paul Marshman is a retired journalist who spent 30 years as a writer and editor on Canadian newspapers, while travelling to the ends of the earth. Now he continues to travel while passing on his travel experiences to you.

10 Comments

  1. Amen, Paul. I’ve always found guidebooks greatly enhance my travel experience. The information on the destination goes a lot deeper. I used Lonely Planet’s guidebook to Cuba when I was exploring Hemingway’s ‘islands in the stream’ last week. A mobile app is useless if cellphone coverage is minimal or you find yourself with low battery and no charger.
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  2. Hi Paul,

    We agree as always.

    I used to tear out portions of my guidebooks that I would need for my trips–restaurants, hotels, etc.–but now Lonely Planet has a super alternative. Although I still love the paper ones for preparation at home, I now download online its relevant chapters that can be used without an Internet connection while travelling.

    Wayne, I’ve heard that Paul can be bought with a case of Blue. 🙂

    • That’s a good tip, Don — in fact, probably a better idea than downloading the whole book. I’ve only gone with the digital version once, and I found it very hard to navigate. That’s why I still like to have the paper version in my day bag.

      By the way, I prefer Molson Export 😉

  3. Maybe like so many things these days, this is generational! As a teacher, when we work on research with pre-university students, the general response to books is why should I work my way through it to find what I want (& may not find) when online it’s instant. It’s not quite the same thing, but I think the point is similar. We were sitting in a restaurant in Banlung, Cambodia, last night & of the 15+ travellers in there we were the only ones who were carrying a guidebook & reading not off our phones but from paper (we have laptops, kindles & smartphones with us). Maybe the others didn’t bring anything out with them but do carry ‘paper’, who knows? I also find a significant chunk of what’s online to be semi-reliable at best. Tripadvisor seems to be the #1 go-to but too many of the reviews are far away from my experiences & trying to decipher the reviews on booking.com, for instance, is really difficult as too many people write reviews for $5 hotels as if they are staying at the Hilton. However, starting from Google with my most recent search ‘Hoi An Banlung’ & then variations of other words I literally found little of use. The one online source I do use is Wikitravel as I see it much in the same way as a guidebook, i.e. well-laid out & easy to see dates on it. That said, since buying my first guide book ‘Eastern Europe on a Shoestring’ in 1985, I wouldn’t travel without one, as a ‘guide’ not a ‘bible’, supported today by the myriad of other resources that can be found online.

    • Thanks for that insight, John. It’s true that there’s a lag between writing and publishing so paper guidebooks can be less than current, but I still think the information in them is more reliable than much of what you find online. The “citizen journalism” on the web is instant, that’s true: but it’s often arbitrary, irrelevant or just wrong. Thanks for the tip about Wikitravel — I’ve only given it a quick glance so far, but maybe I’ll take a second look.

  4. Agree with you Paul! I usually buy a lonely planet book just a few days before my trip. They not only serve as a guide book, but also a memory of the sunny days, the rainy days, the smells, the food and the people I have met on that trip.
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