Guidebooks seem to be the one travel accessory that everyone loves to hate. Self-proclaimed “travelers not tourists” bemoan the fact that the likes of Lonely Planet create a typical tourist trail through cities – bars, restaurants and hotels that are overrated and overrun with tourists. They insist on ignoring the guidebooks altogether, saying they don’t need them – they’ll just talk to the locals and figure things out on their own.
To heck with that.
After traveling around the world for 13 months, with multiple Lonely Planet books leading my way, I doubt I will ever head overseas without one again.
Before my trip, my guidebooks were essential as I planned my budget and itinerary.
Long before I left, I built up a collection of LP guides: Russia, the Trans-Siberian Railway, Central Asia, Georgia, Armenia & Azerbaijan, Eastern Europe and a brand new Ukraine guide shortly before I departed. I highlighted, I underlined, I took notes like crazy. I read country histories and regional highlights to get an idea of what I might want to see. I jotted down recommend tour companies so I could check out their websites and the names and emails of recommended guides so I could reach out once I hit the road. I used listed prices for hotels and taxis and buses to create my budget, allowing for the fact that prices would likely go up a bit by the time I hit the road.
The guidebooks also gave me a sense of what countries required a visa, how easy (or hard) it may be to get around, what cultural norms I might expect, how easy it may be to find an ATM and what to expect at border crossings. Thanks to Lonely Planet, I knew I could take a train from Nukus in Uzbekistan to Aktau in Kazakhstan – even though 3 travel agencies I contacted in Uzbekistan told me that I couldn’t. Thanks to Lonely Planet, I knew a couple ways to get from Kars, Turkey to Tbilisi, Georgia – something that came in handy when the bus my guide told me to take turned out to not be running.
Contrary to popular belief, my guidebooks were also great inspiration for getting off the beaten path.
It was in Lonely Planet that I first read about taking the pilgrimage to the underground mosque at Beket Ata in Kazakhstan. It was in Lonely Planet that I first learned about the existence of the Yangykala Canyon in Turkmenistan – a place that most Turkmen don’t even know about. And it was Lonely Planet that inspired me to take the ferry across the Black Sea from Ukraine to Georgia. I would say at least a quarter to a third of the places I visited would not have even been on my radar if I hadn’t read about them in an LP guide.
I also loved Lonely Planet for its maps.
I am very big on arriving in a new city with a map in hand. I like to be able to get my bearings as soon as I step off the bus or train. However, it wasn’t always possible to buy a map in advance or get one on arrival – and that’s where Lonely Planet came in. While the books didn’t have maps for every city I visited, they did have at least basic maps for most cities. And on at least one occasion, the Lonely Planet map was easier to read than the official tourist map! Wandering around Samarkand, I got horribly lost trying to follow the map I got from the Uzbekistan embassy – but as soon as I pulled out my LP guide and studied the map for a minute or two, I figured out exactly where I was and where I was trying to go.
I will confess I used numerous other guidebooks in my research prior to my trip: Bradt’s, Odyssey Guides and Rough Guides could all be found on my bookshelf.
Lonely Planet became my guidebook of choice because it was the easiest to bring with me.
Many LP titles are available in Kindle versions and, for those that are not, you can purchase and download PDFs of individual chapters from the Lonely Planet website. When the new edition of the Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan guide was released while I was in Armenia, I had access to it all online in just a couple clicks. And when I added in Turkey and Barcelona to my itinerary, I just downloaded the PDFs for the regions in Turkey I planned to visit and for just the city of Barcelona (without having to buy the whole guide to either country!).
It’s true that not everything I read was accurate.
But that’s what happens when authors complete their research several months to a year before the book is published and some of the books I had were published 2-3 years before my trip. This was especially true in Central Asia, where things are changing rapidly. I planned to travel from Tajikistan to Uzbekistan via the border near Penjikent, only to learn that the border had been closed for a year and a half – or since a month after the last Lonely Planet came out. Prices in the region were especially out of whack; I paid some taxi fares that were close to double what my guidebook suggested they should be. And visa information was nearly obsolete; indeed, Kazakhstan changed its rules twice while I was on the road and Kyrgyzstan eliminated its visa requirement just a month before I arrived.
I never relied solely on my Lonely Planet guides –but overall they were an excellent source of information and inspiration and gave me the reliable starting point I needed as I took a thirteen month journey around the world.
Do you use guidebooks when you travel? Why or why not?