Spontaneous Travel Tip: You Don’t Need A Guide Book

Did you just book flights to the other side of the world? To an exotic destination with a name you cannot pronounce? Got a flashy new Lonely Planet travel guide teasing you on your local bookstore shelf, shouting “pick me up and I’ll take you to places you never knew existed”. Its contrast-rich images bring you right in the middle of the beautiful waterfalls, beaches and to the local culture you’re gonna soon experience for yourself.

But, do you really need a guide book for travel? I don’t think so.

Reasons To Skip Guide Books

Timeliness

Once you pick up that Lonely Planet from the bookshelf, much of the information is already old. Things change fast in travel business: companies have cancelled their flights to certain locations, hotels don’t exist anymore and visa requirements have changed. The publication cycle of these books can be really long, ranging from 1-5 years, and when the book eventually hits the shelves, the information is several years out of date.

picture of old books

Guide books have a short shelf life.

It is way better to check Booking.com and Hostelworld for up-to-date information on accommodation. You can find people who just recently visited the hostel/hotel and reviewed the place. Information on transportation tends to change really fast too. For up-to-date air travel, I use Skyscanner and Momondo. For train travel, I would go with the excellent guiding of Seat61.

Influence

I have met so many travelers with super tight schedule on things to see and do. I have also met a similar sized group of people who were really disappointed in their destination. This was mostly because of the hype they had created in their minds while planning for the trip. The moment you start creating a stressful list, a thorough program for your two week holiday, you have lost the essence of travel. Guide books make you plan too much before even leaving your home. They share the experience of one or few authors, who based their opinion on short experience in the location.

Guide books are biased. Like I mentioned before , they are written by one or at best a few authors, with specific interests and preferences. It’s not hard to realize how empty guidebook’s recommendations can be. Just go to your local bookstore or library and pick up guide book for your country, find the section with your hometown in it and read. How much did they leave out? The information is pretty shallow, right?

don't be a sheep

This party hostel is amazing: they’ve got a free welcome drink and a jacuzzi! Baa!

Guide books also favor certain cafes, restaurants and accommodation options. When the owners realize they’ve got travelers flocking into their business, prices skyrocket, the local customers disappear due to hiked prices and suddenly you have a place only frequented by well-off foreigners. You won’t engage in conversations with the local people.

Not all planning is useless and I think it is really important to check the basics like visa requirements, vaccinations, insurance and government travel notices before starting your trip. For updated info on your travel location, I recommend the excellent Wikitravel.

What I’m saying is, it is way better to start your trip with an open, uncorrupted mind. If you set your expectations too high, you will be disappointed. See, smell, taste and get the feeling of the place first and then pick up a couple of destinations recommended by locals and fellow travelers.

Cost & Weight

Guidebooks are expensive and heavy. You can easily spend 30$ on a book. You can spend the money on something more useful like on a proper travel lock for 7$ (Amazon), this clip wallet for 10$ (Amazon) and this led headlamp for 13$ (Amazon).

picture of piggy bank

Don’t blow your piggy bank savings on guide books.

Lonely Planet: South America on a shoestring weighs 800 grams (1.8 pounds) and Rough Guide to South America On a budget weighs 720 grams (1.6 pounds). If you are traveling with two big books and you’re flying with low-fare companies (15 kg limit), 10% of your luggage consists of guide books. Just leave them at home and stock up on souvenirs instead!

Be Spontaneous

Guide books sell because of fear and uncertainty. They advertise with quotes like “MUST THINGS TO DO!“, “YOU HAVE TO SEE THIS!” and “DON’T SKIP THIS!“. After all, you most probably will see these places even without the books. For example, I just spent 8 months in South America without one. I ended up going to most of the places recommended by Rough GuidesLonely Planet and Fodor’s (I checked afterwards!).

It just happens that the local people and other travelers are the best source of information when you travel. You have experienced guide books and travel guides all around you with up-to-date information and great first-hand experience (after all, guide books are second-hand information).

Guide books may come useful when you’re preparing your first trip abroad. The advantage of bringing your guide book is that you have the information in front of you. What I like the most about guide books is that most of them include key phrases in foreign languages. This is really helpful for everyday communication in the destination.

be spontaneous

Diving head first to a new culture.

But, it’s just that there are so many other options online. You can even download apps on your cellphone and study the new language on the go! Even if you don’t have a WiFi connection around you, there are always bunch of people you can ask for help. I own a couple of guide books but I never travel with them. Cool stuff happens when you let loose, leave the guide books at home and dive face first in to a new culture.

During my trip in Bolivia, I missed the free walking tour and decided to have a look around the city. I got a bit lost, ended up in a public park and got approached by a local professor with whom I had mutual people in our networks. Despite not having a common language (I know a bit of Spanish!), we ended up drinking a couple of beers and talking about politics for hours.

Even if you decide to buy the Lonely Planet from your local bookstore and take it with you to your travels: take your head out of the book at times, sniff the air, engage in a conversation with a stranger, and in the end you accomplish more than just checking off items from your bucket list. Be the author of your own guide book!

2 Replies to “Spontaneous Travel Tip: You Don’t Need A Guide Book”

  1. Hi there – thanks for stopping by my blog, Appreciate it!

    Interesting take, I guess it does depend on the type of traveller you are though.I think though, that you need to use them judiciously, as you point out. You don’t need to plan your trip in advance and try to cram everything in to 2 weeks, but that is more a personality and cultural issue (and the amount of holidays you have, rather than the fault of a guidebook. I tend to take a book (in e-format along) – mainly for any historical perspectives etc. some of them also have walking routes etc. and brief information on architecture etc. e.g. things like the Pantheon haven’t changed much over the years -you could probably get a guidebook from the 60ies and it would still be ok. However, most of the relevant information that is uptodate I get online as I go. I look for restaurants online (not on trip-advisor though, because often people just write: large portions, cheap – and that’s not my focus at all) so I check Michelin – for the non-starred recommendations, which are simple standard restaurants priced reasonably but consistently evaluated. For other recommendations on a location I check local blogs – e.g. in Cyprus found a food blog, wrote to the lady and asked for market etc. recommendations.

    Despite the books I take along I never plan ahead what I will do when I get somewhere, I go with the flow. E-book or no. I once booked a plane to Sardinia, flew down, found out it was a holiday for the Italians so ended up hiring the only car left, an insanely expensive mini, and then driving around Sardinia as the fancy took me going by the simple premise: of what do I feel like doing today. I still have a guide book though I think, although I cannot remember.

    for me the most important thing about travel is being open to the environment and the local population, avoiding too many clumped together tourists – but trying to get a real feel for where you are. This happens far away from must see things.

    And if you have months to spare, whether the bus leaves today or tomorrow or 4 hours later really doesn’t matter that much anyway. That is the beauty of really traveling – having enough time…

  2. I really loved this post. I’m quite addicted to travel guides, and always pick up second hand ones when i can find them cheaply. I love their glossy pics, their promise of adventures – but i usually leave them at home, for all the reasons you mention. And the ugly truth is that the Lonely Planet can make or break a struggling business in a third world country; i saw much of this through years of travel in South East Asia. And you mentioned seat61! One of the most informative travel sites ever put together. I love that bloke!

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