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, 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.
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 hotel, or have one experience you would have missed, it’s paid for itself.
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 …