Is Tony Wheeler right not to dismiss the guidebook?

Tourist with guidebook

Image obtained from under Creative Commons (c) Gabriel Bergin

I’m sure I wasn’t the only one whose knee-jerk reaction to the article by Tony Wheeler in The Independent in the UK.

That name sounds familiar…?

Yes, that Tony Wheeler. The man behind the guidebook empire of Lonely Planet.

Oh right, so your reaction was probably –

“Well he would say that, wouldn’t he?”


But nevertheless I was compelled to write this post because of a simple fact. I agree with him. It may be fashionable to say that the book is dead, nobody reads anything on paper anymore and anything you need can be found online. Fashionable, but wrong. Now I do appreciate that age plays an important role here. I know that most people my age (early 40s, since you ask) and upwards prefer hard copy. You can send us a slick, well-designed and compact (in memory terms) PDF for our perusal and you can bet that we’ll print it out and read it away from our screens. I’m getting better at this and do read smaller documents on my computer or even smartphone but more than a few pages and the Luddite in me awakens. This may sound ridiculous to the younger reader but look, we grew up with paper and habits stick.

But hold on, you’re a gadget nut too…

That’s right. I see the appeal of online services and apps – I’d hardly have launched this website if I didn’t. But even here we recommend all readers to get a decent guidebook for all the basic information. You know, so I don’t have to spend hours finding out about flights and bus tickets. Then come here for the latest news, advice, information and tips as well as stuff that Lonely Planet didn’t get to hear about. It’s also great to have something to read on your journey and when you’re at your destination. There’s no need to feel awkward being alone in a bar or cafe if you have a book to flick through.

Has that ever really been a problem for you?

Not me perhaps – but some people do get all self-conscious. Going back to Mr Wheeler, he asks: “Why use a guidebook researched last year when you can get an instantaneous opinion of that restaurant, posted while the reviewers wait for the bill and they’ve not even left the place yet?”

Let’s ignore the fact that you’ll be lucky to find a guidebook researched last year unless you have stellar timing. Most books are also updated far less frequently these days as publishers cut costs. But he goes on to point out that these ‘reviewers’ may be like those he met who post a one-star review of a tropical hotel because they thought it atrocious that there were, er, tropical insects and animals nearby.

The old Trip Advisor problem?

That’s it. Trip Advisor is both a blessing and a curse. We are like sheep and prefer to do what others have done first and enjoyed. No matter how we try, it is not easy to pick a hotel ranked 999 of 1,000 on Trip Advisor without qualms. And herein lies the crux of the matter – whose opinion do you trust?

When people ask me for advice I always have the same response. Find a guidebook or website that best reflects your own tastes. A little research will soon reveal whether you are a Time Out or a Rough Guide person. In the same way you’ll quickly find out whether Nomadic Matt or Grown-up Travel Guide is your kind of online resource. Then use everything. Make notes or print information from the web and take the guidebook for those offline times (there will be many). Surf when you can, but don’t obsess. Do you really want to waste your trip trying to find an internet hotspot or worrying about the charges you’ll be hit with when you get home?

tourist with phone

Image obtained from under Creative Commons (c) Ed Yourdan

Most of all, travel with open eyes and an open mind – it’s good to plan, but even better to ditch those plans because you’re suddenly offered an opportunity to do something that isn’t in any guidebook. Or app…

Where do you stand on this – are you a digital or an analogue traveller – or a bit of both? Tell us whether you think the guidebook is dead and if so, why?


This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. I love guidebooks, both to pursue in advance of my trip and to help me navigate during the trip (although, once on the road, I tend to wing it when given the opportunity).

    Mostly though, I think you are right on about finding folks that share your approach to the world and following their advice. Trip Advisor is great, but you have to read a lot of reviews to figure out whether or not you would like a particular cafe or hotel. Also, I’ve met Nomadic Matt and he is a great guy, but I so NOT Nomadic Matt! His stories are great, but generally not really USEFUL for me.

    Thanks for the post!

  2. I think we still need guidebooks even though I admitt I am relying less on them as time passes. Maybe it is because I am a planner and I need some specific details (hard to get on Internet sites) to make a rough schedule and decide how to move from A to B. On my last trip, I didn’t bring a guidebook but still printed some stuff from the Internet (some from guidebook websites). Everything went very well and we got tons of recommendations from locals. So maybe I am close to the point where guidebooks are not necessary for me.

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