Meet travel’s new MVP (same as the old one)
While working for Lonely Planet for nearly 15 years, I researched guidebooks in Siberia and Transylvania, trained at Mountie boot camp in Saskatchewan, and even shook hands with Al Roker. But the most eye-opening thing I learned along the way was this simple fact about Americans:
ALMOST NO ONE KNOWS WHAT A “GUIDEBOOK” IS
Whenever I met someone around the US, and explained that I worked for a guidebook company, I’d find myself holding my hands mid-air and clutching an imaginary book to reinforce the point. Sometimes I’d add that “a guidebook is a book with information for travelers to plan their own trips.” Yet, almost without exception, they’d ask:
Seasoned travelers tend to know what guidebooks are, but increasingly find it fashionable to diminish their worth:
What a pity. Even while digital and web world are snatching up veteran guidebook publishers, and observers debate the industry’s uncertain future, I’m certain a guidebook remains both a travel planner’s MVP, yet at the same time one of travel’s most underrated contributors. And that if more Americans knew how to use one, even for 10 minutes, they’d travel more and farther — and better.
This article explains what 10 minutes with a guidebook can do to help you have better trips. But first, more on the exciting trend of…
Over the past three years, travel writers and travelers have increasingly equated a sense of “authenticity” or “local experiences” with things “not found in a guidebook.” On Google, references to such phrases has increased by 344% from 2009 to 2012, rising from 150 instances a year to a devilish 666 last year.
National Geographic Traveler’s “Beyond the Guidebook: Where the Locals Go” blog commonly has less information than a guidebook, for example its breezy article on the Taj Mahal compared with Lonely Planet’s five-page special section.
During a recent Twitter #chat group, a few dozen people squarely defined “off-the-beaten-track destinations” as a place that’s “not in a guidebook.” Yet all 70-plus examples the #chat group gave of their favorite “off-track” destinations were in guidebooks!
And Emmy-winning Equitrekker Darley Newman champions her TV show for covering places “not in guidebooks.” Yet her top pick of an “untapped destination”? Cappadocia, Turkey, a highlight covered in every Turkey guidebook and called “the most interesting site” in the country by Tony Wheeler in Lonely Planet’s first guidebook. Back in 1973!
Poor guidebooks. Can’t get a break. Maybe we should start over from the beginning?
What is a guidebook?
This is not a guidebook. It’s a magazine:
This isn’t a guidebook either. It’s a TV show:
This isn’t a guidebook. It’s an online travel site with user-generated content:
This is a guidebook:
Yes. In the 21st century, a “guidebook” is increasingly less defined by its form (on page, or as an app on a mobile device) but how the content was researched and created. In other words, by travel experts who go to places they write about, scour the ground for as many options for dining, sleeping, doing stuff as possible.
Sites like TripAdvisor, while useful at times, are mere tubes and wires by comparison. Its content is generally blindly reliant on whatever its audience provides. And enough of their “reviews” turned out to be written by services like hotels reviewing themselves (glowingly) that a British court required the site to scrap its banner claim: “your trusted travel source.”
Why you should use a guidebook
- knows more than you do, and tells you how to learn
- can save you money
- helps you plan a personalized trip for you, by you
- gets you to places where no one goes
- gets you to places where everyone goes
- gives orientation to a region better than any other travel source
- is your friend, perhaps your only friend, in a place you’ve never been before
In his Europe through the Back Door, publisher/TV host Rick Steves (right) writes that guidebooks are “$30 tools for $3000 experiences.”
Or you could look at it this way:
For less than the cost of a moderately priced dinner for one person, with a glass of wine and that apple crumble you eyed on the way in, you could have the eyes and ears of a handful of travel experts that have, over a generation or two, combed the place you’re going.
Ignoring that resource is a lot like ignoring a local that is keen to shed tips and context of a place you’re visiting. As with any advice, you can choose to use it, or not.
Do you always need a guidebook?
No. Depends where you’re going and for how long. This chart explains:
The biggest mistake made with a guidebook
Somewhere along the line, many people have gotten the idea that a guidebook is like a tour guide, that you hold your full attention to it once you’ve arrived, and follow it religiously site to site. (Even the Times took a poke at “guidebook-toting package tourists,” not really a common occurrence in my experience.)
Many people seem to overlook this, but the best time to use a guidebook is before a trip. Even before you know where you’re going. I’d say a guidebook’s life should be more like 80% before a trip and 20% on the ground. That means a guidebook is ideally already into its “retiree” period by the time you’ve landed in Santiago or Taipei.
How to begin using a guidebook? (a 10-minute exercise)
Say you’re going to Toronto or Lima or Miami for work and want to add on four to seven days. Or you’ll be in the area visiting family and want to add a few days without the headaches of Aunt Polly’s negativity. A guidebook can help. In 10 minutes.
Let’s look at the Miami example using Lonely Planet’s Florida guidebook.
1. I often start looking at the most unexpected, buried part of a guidebook. Since I know the starting point is from Miami, I simply look at Miami’s transport details (usually at end of a city section in most guidebooks) to see what your nearby options will be. You can see quickly that it’s going to be hard to go far without a rental car. So plan on one.
(In some cases, you might see neat trains or ferries or bus trips that can offer easy/fun/cheaper access by public transport — research those destinations farther if that sounds appealing.)
2. I next look at the front-of-the-book photos, and just as importantly the regional map to zero in on areas nearest to where you’re going. Look for attractions, parks, scenic drives, fun towns that appeal to you. In Lonely Planet’s guide, the front-of-the-book highlights map showed a few potential highlights nearby. The Everglades jumped out to me. I’ve not been, and really know nothing about the particulars of visiting. Now I can follow the page references here to learn more.
3. I go to the Everglades chapter, but I certainly don’t read every word. Not yet, and probably not at all. I start by reading the highlights in the front of the chapter, then skim the opening paragraph of each destination section. All through the Everglades chapter. That way I can see what appeals to me the most. In some cases, the winner for you will not be a “highlight.” You can almost always find it quickly this way.
In the case of the Everglades, I find in the “when to go” section that bugs and heat make a summer visit unappealing, but off-season “wilderness camping” sounds intriguing. I need more information on this.
So I flip to the page reference for “wilderness camping” section and learn about “chickee” campsites. But then I read about all the gators. Am I up to that alone? Not so sure. (Tulsa childhood made me a relative “city kid.”)
3. After zeroing it down to two or three options, I try to find a next action I can take on my own by phone or online. Often that’s either an appealing hotel or B&B I’d like to stay at (some guidebooks have icons signaling author’s favorites — look at those first) or, in this case, an operator, who can set me up with a canoe, a map, and the gear I’d need to tackle the Everglades on my own or on a tour. I might just do this.
Now, that was ten minutes. I could have done that in a bookstore. I have more research to do, but this gets me started. Perhaps next I contact the canoe company on my own, find out about those gators, and whether I’d feel comfortable tempting them on my own or not. I’m likely to do this before buying the book — or instead of it.
Can’t you get the same details online?
Yes and no. But mostly no. Though I always research trips online too, one of the main advantages a guidebook has over most online content is that it gives a sense of orientation and regional differences. The Everglades may be an obvious choice for south Florida, but in lesser-known places it can help give a sense of the layout of a place. (For example, I can’t count the number of country-tickers I’ve met while researching Bulgaria in Sofia, who split up the trip between Romania and Turkey with a couple days in the capital, not realizing they went hours out of their way, and to a less desirable place than a place like Veliko Tarnovo.)
Most user-generated sites offer essentially no help on this.
As a test, I decided to research an area of Italy I’ve never visited: its boot. I looked up Wikipedia to find the names of the regions in question and jotted this map down:
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:
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.
In the near future I will talk about what you should do if you have one hour with a guidebook before a trip. (Or make a video if I’m not too lazy.) As an example, I recently researched the enormous backwoods of non-coastal Maine with the Moon guide above and was able to plot out this personalized, five-day itinerary in about one hour. I knew none of it beforehand (I often make little color-coded maps to help orient myself):
And I was quickly hooked. I mean, did you know Maine is like an eastern Alaska, with lumberjack roads and fly-in cabins on remote lakes with no road access? That some areas speak French? Or that in 1839 there was a “war” between armed lumberjacks of the US and British Canada? And the only fatality came, perhaps, when an American was run over by a supply wagon while he was sleeping? GOLD, this.
Looking ahead, I really have no idea what’s going to happen to the guidebook industry. I think they’ll increasingly find a home in the digital world. They have no choice but to. But as long as the notion of expertise goes with it, I’m fine with whatever form works.
If that form of guidebook content begins to disappear altogether, what a shame. Even more so that they’ve been around us all these years, a mine of travel wisdom increasingly untapped.
It’s your trip of course. Have fun however you choose to go. Even if it’s checking off a “bucketlist.”
Here’s how to make a travel video, or rather NOT to make one, based on many errors I’ve made in creating 100 and counting videos.