Travel Guidebooks Are Dead.
Travel guidebooks are bulky, expensive, mostly out-of-date, full of useless information, and lack personality.
But that doesn't mean they're obsolete.
Long Live Travel Guidebooks!
In many ways, travel guidebooks are still better than travel blogs. We now know this better than ever from our forays into the not-so-inspiring world or travel blogging.
So here’s why savvy travelers might want to head to the bookstore before taking off, why we should be skeptical of blogs, and some of the best guidebooks for planning your travels.
In This Guide to Guidebooks
Why Travel Guidebooks are Better than Travel Blogs
1. Travel guidebooks give you researched facts.
Guidebook writers do the hard, unglamorous work of researching the history, cultural facts, and practical information about the places they write about.
Travel bloggers pull a cursory tidbit or two from Wikipedia and spend more time researching the most Insta-worthy photo spots.
It's not worth bloggers' time to do any more than that. They can't beat more academic sites in the search rankings and even if they could that traffic isn't easily monetized.
2. Travel guidebooks aren't distracting.
Travel guidebooks don’t harass you with ads and pop-ups.
They also don’t require you to go online to read them, so you're at no risk of falling down any internet wormholes.
3. Travel guidebooks don't spit regurgitated tips at you.
If we were to survey travel bloggers on how they decide where to go and subsequently blog about, I bet 90% or more would say they use other travel bloggers posts.
Here are the gory details:
- Blogger A visits somewhere for a couple days, becomes an "expert," then spits out a bunch of heavily edited photos and breathless tips.
- Blogger B finds and swallows up A's post, does the same stuff, then spits out their own bigger and "better" post.
- Bloggers C, D, E… all the way ZZ, swallow up both A and B's stuff, and spit out more of the same.
- And so grows the snowball of regurgitation.
Travel guidebook writers dodge the snowball of regurgitation and save us readers from the same. They seek tips from local experts instead of other bloggers. And they often live in the locations they write about.
4. Travel guidebooks actually need to be helpful to win you over.
If travel guidebooks are unhelpful, readers won't buy them and they’ll go out of business.
If travel blogs are unhelpful, they can still get tons of readers and make money.
This is because, for travel bloggers, the games to be won are improving search engine ranking and increasing social media following. Being helpful isn't mandatory to win these games. It helps for sure, but more important is strategically playing the algorithms and using psychological techniques to snag your attention.
Speaking of getting your attention…
5. Travel guidebooks don't trick you for clicks.
Clickbait headlines are terrible.
If you don’t believe me, read these, “10 shocking ways clickbait headlines are secretly killing you.”
I despise these practices. But I take part in them too.
Any blogger who doesn't use clickbait titles is like a Tour de France bike racer who doesn't take steroids: Doomed.
Guidebooks don’t need to use the same dirty tactics.
They’re not vying to get our attention. They're trying to keep it, so their priority is quality content over seductive headlines.
6. Travel guidebooks are easier to read.
Travel blog posts are often hastily put-together, poorly-written, and excessively-long mishmashes of information.
Conversely, travel guidebooks are professionally edited to ensure they are concise, clear, and easy to read.
7. Travel guidebooks don't require batteries or WiFi.
You don't need an explanation of why this is a good thing.
8. Travel guidebooks aren't trying to suck more money out of you.
Once a travel guidebook is in your hands, the writers' and publisher’s job is done.
They have your money.
They just hope you appreciate it so that you buy another one for your next trip and recommend them to your friends.
Travel bloggers are the opposite.
First they need to snag your attention, then they do whatever they can to get into your wallet—by directing you to hotels, tours, and stores that pay commission or by selling their own stuff.
And when bloggers get paid by the attractions they recommend instead of by the reader, this creates a serious conflict of interest.
For example, if the truly best hotel in town doesn't pay commission, a travel blogger is likely to recommend the next best one that does. Similarly, bloggers are incentivized to recommend more expensive attractions because they earn higher commissions.
9. Travel guidebooks help you discover less-touristed attractions.
Travel blogs have less incentive to write about less-touristed attractions because people don't search for them online.
No searches means no traffic, which means no money, so they focus on the most well-known and highest-searched attractions.
Travel guidebooks focus on the same attractions, but not entirely. They have hundreds of pages to fill and do so with attractions you wouldn't think to search for on Google. That's the upside of them being so big and heavy.
For example, when Kim and I were traveling in the Philippines, I read in our Lonely Planet guide about a secluded beach town called Ocam Ocam. There were only a couple paragraphs about it but looked interesting, so I googled it and found…
Not a single blogger had written about Ocam Ocam.
We "took the risk," went anyway, and had quite the adventure—one we would never have had if we only relied on bloggers.
Our Favorite Travel Guidebooks
The more we understand the culture and history of our destination before we travel, the more we appreciate it when we immerse ourselves in it.
Locally-based fiction and non-fictional stories and biographies are the most entertaining sources of this understanding. Or you can read textbooks if you're a real geek.
Here are a few of our favorite examples:
- James Michener's The Covenant for South Africa
- James Clavell's Shogun for Japan
- Stephen Clarke's A Year in the Merde for France
- Bill Bryson's In a Sunburned Country for Australia.
Independently published guidebooks written by local residents go into even more detail and have a lot more personality than mass-market guidebooks.
They're hit-and-miss, but a good one can be a real home run.
For example, in the bookshelf of our Airbnb in Tulum I found Mexico City: An Opinionated Guide for the Curious Traveler. Since Mexico City was our next stop, I read through it and noted some interesting spots to check out. A couple of them turned out to be trip highlights, like El Tacoton.
We tend to find these local guidebooks at bookstores in the cities we're visiting. (It helps to be able to flip through them before buying.)
Nowadays, they're all on Amazon, too. You just might have to look past the first handful of search results to find them.
Sometimes we read other travel guidebooks like Moon and Rough Guides, too. So we recommend you search forums and Reddit for "best travel guidebook for [your destination]." But we most frequently gravitate toward Lonely Planet.
Lonely Planet benefits from the virtuous cycle of being the biggest travel guidebook publisher out there: They have the most readers, which attracts the best writers, who make the best guidebooks, which attract more readers.
Their guidebooks also tend to have more of what we want from travel guidebooks: A wide breadth that helps us find lesser-known attractions and introductory info on the history and culture.
Rick Steves' Guides
Rick Steves' European guides are blog-guidebook hybrids.
They have the personality and opinions of blogs, but with the depth of knowledge that comes with guidebooks.
Even though the target demographic is older than us (Baby Boomers), we still find plenty of helpful information within them.
The Secret to Planning a Great Trip
Whether it be blogs, travel guidebooks, or word of mouth, no source of travel information is perfect.
To have a great trip, your best bet is to beware of the downsides of each one and not over-rely on any.
Most importantly, quit following other people's guidance. Do your own thing.
Explore beyond what anyone else recommends. Ask people for their tips when you're there. And follow your instincts and curiosity. Make your own discoveries.
By forming your own opinions instead of being influenced by others', you'll enjoy an authentic, one-of-a-kind trip.
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**This was a joke. See what I mean about clickbait? Now go back to reading.