Are Guidebooks Worth It?

A stack of travel guidebooksA few months ago, it was reported that Thomas Kohnstamm made up stories he wrote for Lonely Planet, saying he never went to the country he was supposed to review. The story received wide press coverage and brought up the credibility of guidebooks and travel writers. In reality, he was assigned to write about the culture and history of Colombia, not review destinations. All the reviews and local information were done by people who actually live in the country.

There was a lot of talk that this might bring down the guidebook industry. I don’t buy that. People will still buy guidebooks. Lonely Planet’s sales might fall in the short term, but overall, they’ll be OK. For your average person, a guidebook is still the easiest way to get information. But it begs the bigger question, are guidebooks worth buying? Should we trust them like we always have?

Yes and No.

I buy guidebooks because they make good guides. They provided useful information about a country’s history and environment, as well as major attractions, practical transport information, and maps. When I get into new areas, I flip open my guidebook to read up on the destination and take a look at the maps, check prices, or check the train schedule.

I hardly ever use guidebooks for accommodation or restaurant information. I use recommendations from other travelers or just try my luck and hope it works out. Guidebooks are good to have as a back up, but that’s it. They shouldn’t be used as bibles. The problem is that many people do use them as bibles.

But guidebooks have two main faults:

  • The information can be dated – By the time the author gets the reviews together, the publisher edits them, and the book gets printed, the information is at least a year old. That’s not very helpful since a lot can happen quickly, especially in rapidly developing areas of the world, like Asia and Central America. As a traveler, you need up to the minute information, and no matter how fast they turn out those guidebooks, they just can’t keep up that quickly.
  • They can be vague – There are guidebooks that cover all of America, Africa, Europe, Southeast Asia, East Asia, the Pacific Islands- any region you can think of. With such a vast area of coverage, it’s hard to get the depth of information you need. Not all the cities and towns will be on it, nor all the attractions, modes of transport, and the selection for food and stay will be very limited. You can only put so much information into those little paragraphs. You won’t be able to get the depth of information you need if you pick up an area guidebook.

If you haven’t been to a country before and are looking to get some practical information, then a guidebook is worth buying. But remember their limitations – they are not bibles. Use them for the basics, but use alternative sources such as the Internet, forums, online magazines, or travel blogs to find out what’s hot right now, where to stay, current prices, and what time that train actually leaves.

  1. Govinda Ale

    Guidebooks make trekkers blind!

    Only dull folks use guidebooks and miss out what’s happening around them. Guidebooks are full of errors. Things are changing faster everywhere than guidebooks are printed or updated. Certainly this is a living fact in remoter areas like trekking paths in the Himalayas.

  2. Dr Bosque

    Since living in a scenic part of Mexico, I’ve heard that Lonely Planet requires that a certain percentage of recommendations be made with each new edition – regardless of how goo the ones being removed are.

  3. Dr Bosque

    Yikes, I didn’t read that very carefully – meant to say that a certain number are required to be CHANGED with each edition.

  4. I always buy a travel guide, but I like to make notes in it for myself both before and during my travel. I like having pictures to look at when choosing attractions/sights, but more than often the books I buy are outdated on restaurant information even if they are edited ‘this’ year.

  5. The only time I ever use guidebooks is before I leave home for a trip, and even then I only rent them from the library to have a browse and get me stoked from my trip! I’ve never traveled with one, nor do I ever intend to, and it’s always been fine. They are heavy, take up too much space and are incredibly expensive. If you feel more comfortable with one, why not – but I find that getting suggestions from other travelers and making it up as you go is much more fun!

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