On the Road

Travel Guide Books


A guide to the Lonely Planet, guidebooks and the consumer travel industry

The evolution of the travel guide books was always going to be bad news for the planet. They’re responsible for a generation of consumer travelers who talk about ‘doing’ places and a tourism industry that leeches the life out of places that really used to be fun to travel to.

Guidebooks tend to be written by one or two impoverished writers who are given a budget to travel a country, make notes on every café, guesthouse, beach and plaza they see and they keep whatever cash is left. The portrait of the destination that emerges is naturally quite superficial but, in the absence of any other immediate info, it takes on almost biblical status for the average backpacker.

Yet shit, when you arrive in a new town in the middle of the night in Mexico, you want to find a cheap place to bed down for the night and the Lonely Planet tells you just where to go.

The guide book phenomenon has a lot in common with the spread of mobile phones – we never used to need them and suddenly they’ve become indispensable. If I don’t have my guide book how will I know where to sleep? Where to eat? Where to go?

Well, believe it or not people used to get by in the old days. Travelers ended up talking more to the locals instead of holding their guidebook between them and the local culture like a crucifix and the whole experience was a good deal less predictable.

The truth is many of today’s backpackers are happy to travel in an insulated world of hostels, tourist cafes and sightseeing without ever really experiencing what a place is like. If you have a guide book between you and the place and people you’re visiting then your experience is limited to the prejudices of the authors.

Like mobile phones, travel guide books do have their uses, it’s just a question of knowing where to stop. Borrow one from a friend, write down the names of some cheap accommodation in the big cities and then ditch the thing. Do you really need an extra kilo of restaurant listings in your rucksack?

There are better and worse travel guides of course and here we review some of them for the 21st century traveler. Who knows, maybe you always dreamed of a job reporting for the LP……

And then the next time a backpacker talks about ‘doing’ a country you can reply:

‘Oh, as in “Daisy Does Dallas?’ (obscure porn movie)