A 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.