What’s Guiding You?

I’ve been sensing a few grudges and a lot of ill-will towards travel guidebooks coming from the self-appointed ‘travelling elite’ such as professional travel bloggers and ex-pat tour guides who are basically guidebook writers themselves who would be desperate to get a fraction of the success of Lonely Planet.

San Pedro de Atacama, Chile

San Pedro de Atacama, Chile

Bloggers will profess – or boast – how they travel without guidebooks and never read them, preferring to speak to locals for a more authentic experience, or do their research online for advice and information. Quotes like ‘I don’t read Lonely Planet’ and ‘I never travel with a guidebook’ are proclaimed on home pages as if it’s a badge of honour.

While much of the advice in guidebooks will be fairly simple and can quickly become outdated, one thing worth remembering is that it’s a ‘guidebook,’ not a ‘rulebook.’ There are ‘suggested’ itineraries and some options of places to stay with conveniently placed maps to assist with orientation. The brief histories of each country give an insight into how the place you’re visiting became the way it is and of the people you will likely encounter.

By doing your research online you’re still using a travel information resource, but instead of doing it on buses or at airports when there is a lot of time to kill you’re spending your time searching for internet cafés or being unsocial in hostels and wasting time using the free wi-fi when there’s a whole new city on your doorstep. I’d rather stop briefly to consult a book than look like an idiot walking around with my smartphone in the air searching for a signal.

There’s nothing admirable or impressive about travelling without a guidebook, you’re just getting your information from a different source while saving a fraction of weight in your luggage. You can still talk to locals if you’re travelling with a guidebook, you might even have more to talk about because it may throw up a few questions.

I’ve tried both. I know that driving a van around Europe without a guidebook I didn’t realise how close I was to Andorra as I went by, nor did I know that with just a short detour in Italy I could have swung by the Leaning Tower of Piza. Subsequently I missed these places. Without a guidebook in the USA I was too stupid to know that the Anaheim Street Station in downtown Los Angeles was not the same as the city of Anaheim, and subsequently NHL tickets went to waste.

Conversely, travelling with a guidebook in Central and South America I was aware of hidden treasures like San Pedro de Atacama in Chile and the Corn Islands of Nicaragua, places that may have been overlooked as no other travellers I had met ever mentioned them, and I couldn’t speak the language well enough to gather this information from the locals.

Finally, after far too long, I’m off again soon on a trip through Southeast Asia. I’ve considered going with just my wits and curiosity and relying on the support of strangers for directions and information. But instead, I’m going to risk the condescension of any professional holiday-makers I might encounter, and endure the minimal weight of my 2008 Lonely Planet Southeast Asia on a shoestring, complete with scribbled notes and the wear and tear of previous journeys. I assume a lot of the information will be out of date, but that’s an issue I’ll deal with at the time.


6 thoughts on “What’s Guiding You?

  1. MaitoMike

    I like to travel without much planning, but browsing through the occasional guidebook is always useful. There’s always room for education and it’s better learning something beforehand as opposed to the hard way. Whereabouts in SE Asia are you visiting? I suggest Kota Kinabalu if you’re traveling to Malaysia (it’s on Borneo Island) and you can’t miss Singapore.

    1. shamsplanet Post author

      Yes I’m going to Borneo! Was thinking about KK but as I’m flying into Brunei I don’t want to have to backtrack before heading to Singapore. Is KK a must?

      1. MaitoMike

        I haven’t been to Brunei, personally, but I’d assume the people, food, and culture is similar to that of KK? That being said, KK has some amazing views of the sunset and easy access to tropical islands in the South China Sea. In addition, the people are very nice and there’s a lot of delicious local foods and a street market with tons to see! It’s a lot different than KL – a big city vs. a small town feel. If you don’t have a chance to visit KK this time around, certainly have it on your list for next time!

  2. Forrest

    Beautiful mountain photo! I’d love to see that in person.

    I can only speak in a more local sense. I do a great deal of hiking, and much like traveling internationally, there are a great many guide books for this. (“100 Hikes in:” The North Cascades, Glacier Peak Wilderness, Alpine Lakes, Central Cascades, etc) I’ve flipped through all of them and read all descriptions of interest, adding many of them to my list, checking them off slowly. Eventually I stopped using the books (mostly because I lent them out and they don’t always come back!) and find the combination of maps and other peoples’ photos and trip reports posted on the internet to be just as useful, but more easily customizable to my moods.

    But you’re 100 % correct that having a guide book doesn’t prevent you from benefiting from other sources of info. It just gives you one more.

  3. claireandmarkgotravelling

    Another great post. And more importantly congratulations on your upcoming travels. I look forward to reading about your experiences.
    This post actually made us chuckle. We love the Lonely Planet Guides, and have used them all over the world, and most recently last week in Tenerife. They make traveling so much easier in many ways and I have lost count of the number of sites and experiences we would have missed out on without them. Making my own knife…http://claireandmarkgotravelling.wordpress.com/2011/02/16/285/…being my personal favourite.
    My biggest concern with the guide books is that they can never be totally thorough. Every now and again we stumble upon somewhere that didn’t make the book. It is easy to imagine that the little town might be missing out on the money that tourists bring for the sole reason that the researcher got bored and moved on maybe.
    As for the self proclaimed travelling gods who looks down their noses at guide books, they also tend to :
    – Dress like locals
    – Love the sound of their own voice
    – Have a strange attraction to unusual religions
    – Barter way too heavily with poor people

    1. shamsplanet Post author

      ha ha, yes! Aren’t the experts annoying! I agree with all of those, especially the last one. Sometimes I don’t mind giving up a dollar when bartering if the person really needs it.


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