Everywhere we go on this trip, we see tourists young, old, purple, and green clutching guide books to their chests, poring over these massive tomes with the eye of a cryptologist or palm reader.
I promise you, there is nothing to be divined by going cross-eye over those pages, or even skimming them.
For one, you’re trusting the opinions of only a few, completely anonymous people who visited a place 6-12 months prior to publishing. Though crowd-sourcing sites like TripAdvisor (TA) are far from perfect, you’ll have more than just one opinion, and those opinions will be much more recent and thus relevant than anything you’ll read in a guide book. You’ll also have a bit of information on who’s doing the reviewing. On TA, for example, you can see the reviewer’s city of residence; the number and content of all reviews, forum posts, and photos by that person; and how many helpful votes he or she has received, in addition to any other info included in his or her bio. While it’s not a complete picture, TA at least provides some context for a person’s opinions, and you can directly message any reviewer as well (I’ve gotten a response back every time I’ve done so).
Another problem is the guide book curse. Here’s how this goes: Guide Book X writes up a business –> business booms (hotel rooms are sold out, reservations are impossible, etc.). Prices go up –> complacency sets in. You’ve made it in the Book, so the hard work is done, and it will be years before you have to put in much effort again. All you have to do is sit back and watch the masses and dollar bills roll in. Obviously, this doesn’t happen in every case, but we’ve experienced it often enough to call it a pattern.
Finally, and most importantly, journalistic standards seem to have gone out the window for some. We’ve been told by more than one hotel owner that guide book writers, specifically Lonely Planet, will often phone ahead to inform businesses of their visit, which naturally means the red carpet treatment. We’ve also heard that many writers don’t even attempt to look for new businesses – they simply revisit businesses listed in previous editions. Worst of all, apparently some businesses don’t get revisited AT ALL – they might get a call to verify rates or that they are still open, but otherwise, a guide book endorsement that is years old would simply be reprinted. This doesn’t surprise me in the least – we visited a place recommended by Lonely Planet for their cocktails, and it turned out to be just a coffee house. This is not a rare occurrence.
None of this is to say that Lonely Planet or other companies like it are bad actors with dishonest, lazy people working for them (more so than any other company, anyway). In fact, we use Lonely Planet’s website as a resource for general information like weather, transportation, itinerary ideas, etc. – though, always in conjunction with other travel websites, forums, blogs, etc. The point is, the physical guide book is a hopelessly outmoded source of information and just can’t compete with the power of crowd-sourcing and the internet.
For the love, lighten your load and throw these dead-weights out the window. Or, as I read on another traveler’s blog, keep for toilet emergencies when traveling in third world countries.
Lest we leave you completely in the dark, here are some of our favorite online resources:
- General: wikivoyage.com, travelfish.org (for SE Asia), lonelyplanet.com/thorntree (LP’s forum), other travel blogs (click here for a bunch of great ones all in one place!)
- Restaurants: tripadvisor.com, local food blogs (I find them by playing around on Google with the city name plus various search terms like food blog, eats, street food, best-of, eating, yummy, etc. – some of my favorites include bangkokglutton.com for Bankgkok, istanbuleats.com for Istanbul, eatingsaigon.com for Saigon with a Hanoi sister site coming soon(!), ladyironchef.com for Singapore and elsewhere in Asia, eatingasia.typepad.com for Penang, and alexanderlobrano.com and davidlebovitz.com for Paris)
- Train travel: seat61.com
This is Part 2 of 5 in a series featuring our tips on how to get the most from various travel “experts”. Click here for our thoughts on “experts” in general, here for Part 1: The Travel Agent, here for Part 3: The Blogger, and stay tuned for Parts 4-5.