Don’t leave home without your Lonely Planet

Last week, I got into a “Twitter Tiff” (copyright me 2008) with long-haul traveler and photography phenom Gary Arndt over the following tweet, which I sent out while gripped in jabbering frustration over a spate of recent blog posts ripping people that carry a guidebook when they travel:

I declare that smugly claiming to be too cool or savvy to travel with a guidebook is officially passé and open for ridicule.

Now, before I start tuning up Gary’s guidebook hating rhetoric, I’d like to state that he chose to ignore my actual point in his post. So, just for the record, so we’re all clear, I’m going to rephrase it in story form…

Once upon a time, a dashing and fragrant guidebook author, whose name rhymes with ‘Knife Lettersen’, returned to his hostel in Braşov, Romania. He was tired from his long day of being awesome, but he nevertheless decided to sit down in the common room for a few more minutes of work before signaling that security could drop the velvet rope and let the autograph-seekers surge forward. But before that could happen, he had an unpleasant experience. When he pulled out his guidebook to check the accuracy of his bio and admire his own picture, a nearby barefoot, unwashed vagrant, well into his second two-liter bottle of Ursus, snorted and said “Guidebooks are a crutch for travel noobs.”

Now, I don’t necessarily disagree with this in some cases, but you know what? Drop the effing attitude, jackhole! You don’t wanna use a guidebook? I very literally could not care less. But don’t condemn everyone who does use a guidebook as being some sort of inferior chicken-shit. And in fact, there are so many people out there now wielding this attitude problem, that I have declared that it has gone a full circle from being ostensibly gutsy and cool to being passé and therefore being open to mocking – by me – just like people wearing Zubaz. That was the point of my tweet. Thank you.

And another thing… These same elitists conveniently ignore the mirthful irony of frittering away their guidebookless days reinventing the wheel. Getting to and from the far-flung bus station. Waltzing right into very avoidable scams. Walking around the city for four hours, schlepping their backpacks, looking for a place to stay that both meets their budget and standards. You know what I did in those four hours? I went directly to my hostel, checked in, went to two museums and then took a nap. Do you really feel as if you’re immersing yourself deeper in the culture by wandering around town in a fog of Do It Yourself-Righteousness, checking prices and rooms and getting lost, when you could be doing actual mind-expanding activities? But I digress…

Now, obviously there’s a large variety of guidebooks to choose from. I’m mostly an LP guy for a variety of reasons related to the way I travel. Also, having spent time with countless LP authors and editors and knowing the almost absurd detail that goes into putting LP books together, I have a very strong inherent trust in them. So, since my main guidebook user experience is with LP and since Gary name-checked LP in his anti-guidebook blog post, I’ll do the same and mostly stick to discussing LP books in all their glory.

Here’s why I, a 20-year travel veteran, visitor of over 40 countries, former expat, polyglot extraordinaire, still use guidebooks when the occasion calls for it:

Orientation: Probably my biggest annoyance while on the road is being lost (except in places like Venice, where being lost is half the fun). In some cities, very good maps are readily available as soon as you alight from the train, or at the outset in your hostel lobby, but this is not as common as you would hope. And frequently, those maps are not too great. Being able to get yourself oriented after a good wander, instantly knowing the direction and distance to your hostel and maybe a good place to eat is priceless. Also, guidebook maps have the added advantage of having Points of Interest (POIs) plotted out, like your hostel or the invisible-from-the-street-but-still-awesome pharmacy museum, which makes a world of difference when you’re trying to pinpoint an address on a three mile long boulevard or in an alley too small to warrant a mark-up on the tourist office’s free map.

Details: Now LP tries to strike a balance between destination info and practical info, which suits my needs perfectly. At the wretched detail extreme, there’s guidebooks like Rough Guide, where pages and pages of description are devoted even the most minor destinations. There’s just no reliable, thorough comparison online, where you have to search and dig, reading wikis and blogs and then wonder about the accuracy. And tourist office brochures tend to be very abbreviated. With a guidebook, it’s all there in your hand while you’re standing at the site in question and (usually) it’s all been painstakingly edited and fact-checked. I spent four of my seven months on the road in Europe in 2003 without a guidebook and I don’t even want to tell you about the information, curious tidbits and whole sites that I missed just because what was online and tourist office brochures (when there was an office at all) simply wasn’t comprehensive enough. Furthermore, even a rock solid, exhaustive city guide web site won’t do you any good while you’re on the street, unknowingly walking past a great site that’s one block over while exploring a new neighborhood. And Lisbon, I swear I’ll be back some day to make up for that.

Practical Info: This is the stuff that will save you fantastic amounts of time, money and headaches. What are your transport options when you arrive in a city at midnight? Is this $20 Biological Tax being solicited by a guy in a questionable uniform at a border crossing really necessary or just a local yahoo running a scam? Can I get to Tulcea from Braşov, or do I need to go to Bucharest first? How about Belgrade? How often does the ferry to Sardinia run in December? Hell, I’d pay for the “Dangers & Annoyances” section alone. If the guidebook does nothing but save me one time from paying $50 for a $5 rip-off taxi ride in Bucharest, it’s paid for itself. Sure you can get some of this info online or even on the ground after standing in line for 20 minutes and then quizzing the Information Desk lady at the train station, who doesn’t share a common language and who’d much rather light a cigarette than help you. That caliber of on-the-ground “help” while I was in Nice, France is how I ended up on a train to Genova, Italy instead of Geneva, Switzerland. Why put yourself through that?

Important phone numbers/dialing codes: This sort of rolls up into the practical information category, but it should be stressed that having the phone number to your embassy, the local hospital or the code for accessing an international operator while you’re sitting in a train station platform at 1am is stuff that you can’t always depend on finding by asking people on the street or even your hostel clerk.

Language/Phrases/Glossary of Terms: Yeah, these sections are usually pretty broad if you don’t spring for a dedicated phrasebook, but nevertheless they’ve saved my ass several times.

Eating/Sleeping Listings: OK, I’ve been saying for four years that guidebooks should do away with accommodations listings. In most destinations, online will always be more up to date and convenient for booking. But as far as trusting those 80 online traveler reviews? No, I don’t trust them. I’ve met, studied and categorized the behavior of so many people on the road, to such a degree, that if there was a university giving away honorary PhDs in travel sociology I’d have one. In fact, I think I’m going to start referring to myself as Dr. Pettersen for form’s sake. Hunter S. Thompson got away with it. In any case, here’s why I take online hostel reviews with a grain of salt: of the 80 people that wrote those reviews, 25 were dimwit travel first-timers (not that there’s anything wrong with that, we’ve all been there, but I don’t trust them to write a dependable hostel review), 15 were partying drunks, 10 were unreasonable assholes and five were straight up schizophrenics. Also, a few of the most glowing reviews were probably written by the hostel owner or employees (and a few of the most negative by the competition across the street).

So, out of 80-odd reviews I have to assume only about 20 people have the capacity to write a fair hostel review, and of that 20, probably only 10 are looking for the same things I’m looking for in a hostel. All the rest are just skewing the results of that quick-glance rating system those web sites prominently feature. Can I take the time to read all the reviews individually and would that help me make my decision? Yes. But I’d rather be doing 20 other things while I’m in Salzburg than sifting through 80 reviews for every hostel in Vienna. On the other hand, guidebook authors usually, but not always, know exactly what to look for in a hostel. So, yes, I trust one guidebook hostel review more than I trust 50 online hostel reviews.

And if I may use supporting evidence, take this into account: how many people write to an airline after they’ve had an exceptionally great flight? Maybe one in a thousand. How many people write to the airline after an exceptionally bad flight? Probably one in five. Christ, have you ever looked at guidebook reviews on Amazon? You’d think they were all shit. My point is, people are always more likely to take the effort to write a review if they’ve had a bad experience than if they’ve had just an OK, above average, or even great experience. People that had terrible experiences can’t wait to get online and start ripping away. I do it all the time.

As for guidebook eating listings, every arrogant do-it-yourselfer I’ve ever spoken to sagely proclaims that their system of asking locals is better than any stupid guidebook. Well, guess what numb nuts? The guidebook author asked locals too! What, do you think they just walked into the biggest restaurant on the town square and listed them because of their pretty umbrellas? By ignoring guidebook listings, do you fancy that you’re somehow avoiding the suckers eating the bland, over-priced tourist fare? Please. Give the author a little credit. No guidebook in the history of the universe hires travel rubes to do their research (except Let’s Go). Maybe you’ll find a good place, maybe you’ll even find a better place than most of the places listed in the book, but how many bad meals and time wandering around contemplating menus will you waste while finding that place? If re-inventing the wheel day and night is your idea of real travel, don’t complain when things go wrong half the time.

I’ll concede that when you go to certain destinations, say India or China, and every joint listed in the LP is packed with people clutching their LPs, it becomes a little ridiculous. You can only laugh when you see stuff like that. And when they order the exact same dishes that are mentioned in the review, well… We can’t all be fearless, travel savvy wizards, can we? There’s a lot of situational and destination-specific caveats here, but overall you’re probably doing no better by flouting guidebook eating suggestions.

In closing, as one guidebook hater once grudgingly admitted, she still buys guidebooks, if nothing else, to use as a security blanket. You don’t need to open it up every time you turn a corner, in fact please don’t, but having that compact, readily available, grenade of information, whether it be in small increments or in disaster-averting extravagance, is always going to improve your trip. Double goes for the ones with my picture in it. Not my old picture. That one sucked.

['Lost' photo credit: haystacks3]

Agonizing over travel insurance? Maybe I can help…