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I’ve seen more travel guidebooks on library shelves and coffee tables in vacation rentals than I have in travelers' hands as they navigate a new city. I get it. Travel guidebooks have been replaced — like so many other things — by smartphones and internet access, online searches, blog posts, TikTok video roundups and aspirational Instagram photos.
The pandemic certainly hasn't helped either. Travel guidebook sales were down 25% in the first quarter of 2021 compared with the same period last year, according to NPD BookScan, which collects data on book sales.
Just about anyone can write an online guide to certain destinations or make a list of top places to eat and things to do, and sometimes you can find incredible and unknown restaurants and attractions that way.
But in a world where information is easy to publish and algorithms decide merit, it’s worth broadening your research when planning your own trips.
Here are some reasons why you shouldn’t overlook travel guidebooks.
Why you should pack a guidebook
1. You don’t have to sort through mounds of information
While the internet is teeming with recommendations, tips, opening hours, reviews and photos, it can be a bit much. You'll undoubtedly spend hours reading and researching online, trying to figure out whether a few one-star reviews mean you should skip that sushi restaurant or whether your 10-year-old can do the hike. And in the end, you might decide that neither option fits into your schedule anyway.
Guidebooks may not have all the answers, but they’re a good place to start building an itinerary without wasting time on extraneous details right away.
2. The writers are legit — and have actually been there
You not only have to sort through lots of information online, but also assess whether the sources are trustworthy. In this case, have the writers actually been there? And have they been there recently?
Many print publishers routinely refresh their content. For example, the travel book publisher Lonely Planet updated about 140 guidebooks per year before the pandemic, Piers Pickard, the company's publisher and vice president of print, told NBC Today.
You might be shocked (or not) to find that many writers pull together online guides by aggregating research they did on the internet. The only service they’re providing is doing the searching for you and giving you a narrowed-down list.
Guidebook writers, on the other hand, have to visit the place and usually spend more than a few days there. They speak from firsthand experience. They get information straight from the businesses — instead of their websites or online reviews — which is particularly important in places where people have less internet access. Some guidebook writers even interview local business owners or other visitors.
It’s not impossible to find these types of writers on the internet, but at least with guidebooks, you know the writers are held to a certain standard of accountability.
3. Guidebook writers aren’t paid to promote a business
There’s a trade-off for the “free” information that you’re getting on the internet. Someone, somewhere is usually getting paid along the way. Travel bloggers and influencers might get a commission if you book or buy through their affiliate links, or they might have been gifted a hotel stay or activity in return for a positive write-up. Sometimes it’s easy to spot this kind of sponsorship or promotional language, but sometimes it isn’t.
Plus, these writers might have been treated differently from a regular customer. They might have gotten the nicest room on the property or special access to festivals. Your experience might be completely different from a VIP's.
Guidebook writers are paid, of course, but they’re paid by a publisher. Its interests are to sell guidebooks, not specific places at a destination.
4. You don't need the internet to access information
Guidebooks make you less reliant on technology, so you'll still be able to find a stellar restaurant or cute store when internet access isn't available. It’s also smart to have the backup map in a guidebook, just in case you’re ever lost and without Wi-Fi.
There are plenty of places in the U.S. and around the world where you won't have cell phone service or internet, whether it's remote or you skipped paying for an international data plan. According to Statista, only about 60% of the world's population has access to internet.
There could also be country-specific restrictions on internet access. One time, I visited China and when I got there, I couldn’t access the itinerary I had created in Google Docs because of the government ban on Google. Even using other sites was difficult: Logging in to a Wi-Fi network often required a WeChat account, and my account didn't work there.
5. Guidebooks have gotten more diverse and innovative
The proliferation of travel information on the internet has forced publishers to step up their game. Travel guidebooks today look a lot different from the paperbacks you might remember with a stock photo of a city on the cover. Some guidebooks now are aimed at people of color or have perspectives from many different writers to help cover a destination more holistically.
You can find audio guides and more illustrative guides as well. Whatever your interests are, you can likely find a guidebook that matches your travel style and intent.
6. It’s a souvenir
Reading any book is a journey. Even though you might not read every single word of your guidebook, its status as a trusty companion on a trip might earn it enough sentiment to become a pretty cool souvenir and addition to your bookshelf.
Plus, you can put it on your own coffee table when you run a vacation rental there someday … just kidding.
Consider packing a guidebook
Even though guidebooks can be a useful resource, remember that not all guidebooks are perfect. Writers come with unconscious bias, and their writing can end up more exploitative than respectful of local cultures. In the best cases, good editors and publishers can root out those issues in a way that self-published bloggers may not be able to.
Still, getting a physical book is worth considering. Guidebook writers have the firsthand experience and judgment to help shepherd you in the right direction when planning your own trip.
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