Worth the Weight?
Travel guidebooks are heavy, expensive, mostly out-of-date, full of useless information, and lack personality. But that doesn’t mean they’re useless. In many ways, they’re still better than travel blogs.
The deeper I’ve sunk into the world of travel blogging myself, the more I’ve realized that to be the case.
So here’s why savvy travelers should second-guess what they read in travel blogs and consider forking over some dough for travel guidebooks instead.
Why Travel Guidebooks are Better than Travel Blogs
✓ Travel guidebooks provide you with researched facts
Guidebook writers do the hard, unglamorous, and un-Insta-worthy work of researching the history, cultural facts, and practical information about the places they write about.
Travel bloggers generally don’t bother researching or providing such facts. The farthest they’ll go is to pull a cursory tidbit or two from Wikipedia.
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.
✓ Travel guidebooks aren’t distracting
Travel guidebooks don’t harass you with ads and pop-ups.
They also don’t require you go online to read them, so you’re at no risk of falling down any internet wormholes.
✓ Travel guidebooks don’t spit regurgitated tips at you
If we were to survey travel bloggers on how they decide where to go and what to write 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.
So grows the snowball of regurgitation. Yuck.
Travel guidebook writers dodge the snowball of regurgitation and help readers do the same. They seek tips from local insiders instead of other bloggers and are from or live in the locations they write about.
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✓ 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…
✓ 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 travel 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, but to keep it, so their priority is quality content over seductive headlines.
✓ 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.
✓ Travel guidebooks don’t require batteries or WiFi
You don’t need an explanation of why this is a good thing.
✓ 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.
✓ Travel guidebooks help you discover less-touristed attractions
Travel blogs have little 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
From our experience, the more we understand the local culture and its history beforehand, the more we appreciate it when we immerse ourselves in it in real life.
A more entertaining way to get this understanding than reading textbooks is to read fictional and non-fictional stories and biographies that take place in the regions we travel to.
Here are just a few 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, and Bill Bryson’s In a Sunburned Country for Australia.
These are independently published guidebooks written by local residents. They 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 down some interesting spots to check out. A couple of them turned out to be trip highlights, like El Tacoton, which we wrote about in our post on Mexico City food.
In addition to at our B&Bs, 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 have to look past the first handful of search results to find them.
Lonely Planet benefits from the virtuous cycle of being the biggest travel guidebook out there: they have the most readers, which attracts the best writers, who make the best guidebooks, which attract more readers.
Their guidebooks also 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, 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, do your own thing.
Make your own discoveries by exploring beyond what anyone else. Ask people for their tips when you’re there and follow your instincts and curiosity.
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.