Lonely Planet: Don’t Leave Home Without It

LP guides

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.

Yangykala Canyon, Turkmenistan

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!).

Samarkand, Uzbekistan

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?


20 thoughts on “Lonely Planet: Don’t Leave Home Without It”

    1. In my opinion, Google can be time consuming and hard to parse through – it can bring up a lot of irrelevant results or ones that just rank high due to good SEO but offer little relevant information.

  1. I do like the maps in Lonely Planet and I agree that the guide is excellent for pointing attention toward places worth visiting and activities worth pursuing. But:

    On a recent visit to a highly-rated (in TripAdvisor, no less) restaurant in Arequipa, Peru, my wife and I sat down and looked around the place only to realize all of the other 4-5 couples dining there had a copy of Lonely Planet on their table. It was kind of funny, actually. The restaurant ended up being very average and, in all honesty, overrated.

    It is easy to pooh-pooh Lonely Planet. We wondered whether the restaurant used to be great, LP picked up on it, tourists/travelers showed up, and the quality of food and service declined as a result. I hear being featured in the guide is a sure-fire way to get business, so, the thinking on part of restaurateurs might go, why bother keeping quality up if LP owners show up anyway?

  2. There was a discussion some time ago on Twitter between brazilian bloggers about guidebooks and I was defending my addiction to LP guides. Totally agreed: it helped me many times go off the beaten track and get and insight into details I didn’t find elsewhere. .

  3. I like the Michelin Green Guides and often use them for longer trips, combined with a lot of online research. For other and definitely for short trips I rely on the internet alone.
    I find guide books very handy to have with me as well. I usually don’t need to use them a lot when traveling, but when I like to do something alternative to my planning, it’s good to have them. Sometimes I just don’t feel like looking things up on the net, where there is sooooo much information. In that case the place specific info of a guide book is useful as well.

  4. I feel that a physical guide book is a necessity. E-book versions are ok but do you want to keep on bringing out your iPad of Kindle every time you want to check something?

  5. One more thing, I like that you use your guidebook for inspiration! Without it, you are left asking each tourist where they just came from, and heading to the exact same places. I have read about areas in a guidebook and thought – we should go there – places I never knew existed otherwise…

  6. Great post Katie! I rely on the guidebooks for maps, and how to get from one place to another (even if out-of-date) its a good start. Have generally used LP, but used the Rough Guide for Central America for 2 months. It was fine, but ended up being a rough trip, pun intended. I would have bought LP, but only had access to one bookstore and it was not in stock.

    I also take a look at blogs and internet resources, but that can’t help you when you are on a long distance bus and wondering where you need to get off for your hotel, or in a country like Cuba, where internet is virtually nonexistent. I do hate carrying them around, but have struggled with Kindle versions of travel info so far. I am sure the quality will improve in the future!

    I am in Myanmar right now, and its interesting because LP is the ONLY guide out there it seems. Everyone is carrying it around, and you can spot it from a mile away. It is already woefully out of date as things are changing so quickly here, but it is the only real information resource. So, we have one like everyone else. But, we try to eat at restaurants that are not listed in the guide, to spread our tourist dollars around, and to avoid the most touristy spots.

  7. I used to be a big fan of Lonely Planet but as I got older, although still very useful, I felt like they weren’t written for my age-group. I’ve switched to Frommers and really like them. But they’ve recently changed the kind of paper they use and the books are now much heavier so I’m not sure I will continue to buy them. I don’t know who had this idea… Who cares about shinier paper? All you want is light-weight…
    I think guide books are ESSENTIAL on a trip. And I do a lot of research prior to the trip, like you.

  8. Of all the major guidebooks – I’ve found the Lonely Planet ones the most user and reader friendly for the types of travel I enjoy. We buy one for pretty much any trip we plan on taking – I’d say I use it mostly for planning a general outline of the trip and when on the road we use it for restaurant finding and looking for other things to check out if we need an activity. I’ve also found their lodging recommendations to be quite reliable. I particularly enjoy the hiking and tramping books.

    I really don’t understand the attitude towards guidebooks in general – saw a lot of it a recent twitter chat where some scoffed at the use of guidebooks. Can’t we all just let each other travel in the way that works best for each of us? 🙂

  9. I travel with a guide book on longer trips that I have taken, but less so on shorter trips. Like you, I think they are great if treated the way that they were designed to be used: as a guide. I do not rely on them solely for all my information. I also use the internet, blogs and advice from locals. Yes, you can get more up-to-date on the internet, but that is dependent on you having an internet connection at the time that you need the information – not always the case when you are wandering around a new city looking for somewhere to stay.

    As for the ‘traveller, not tourist’ attitude – what is the difference between carrying a guide book or using trip advisor on your fancy smartphone/laptop that you are travelling around with?

    Having said all this, I try to avoid openly walking around with guide book in hand 🙂

  10. Oh yes, I use guidebooks. I seriously need some sort of reference point before I go anywhere! Before heading to Germany a friend of mine gifted me a LP guidebook and I was forever grateful. It helped me plan my weekend trips in Germany and although a few things were outdated, overall it was fantastic. I would never have known about the Chocolate factory in Koln otherwise. 🙂 I cannot imagine going to another country (yes, I include the US in that–I’m Canadian) without a LP book. Great post.

  11. I like guide books, but unless LP is the only company that covers that country (like when I went to Iceland in 2005), I tend to shy away from that brand, just because it’s sooooooo popular. I’ll skim it in a book store for ideas and comparisons, but usually I roll my eyes at the hordes who can’t get their noses out of it. I lean more towards Rough Guides for facts and Rick Steves for general reading.

  12. I’ve met some of those people who say they don’t travel with a guide book; over breakfast they were asking me what my guidebook said about how to get to the Mekong Delta. Don’t travel w/o a guidebook, my ass!

    Having been to Thailand before we thought we wouldn’t need a guide book this time. Wrong. Then we thought we would just try the Kindle version. Which I hate. I’ll be buying a paper version next week when we try to leave Chiang Mai to head north.

    Guidebooks have their place and are just that; GUIDES not bibles. They are great starting points and have not lost their place in my pack!

    1. When I do shorter trips going forward, I’ll probably bring paperback guides with me as well – I like those much better than the Kindle versions! BUT, when traveling for 13 months straight, downloading the Kindle versions were almost a necessity as there was no way I could carry that many guidebooks and most of the books I found in bookstores along the way were like 3 editions old!

    2. I agree so much with you comment and enjoyed Katie’s post. I was really hoping the kindle versions of the guide books would work for me but I hated it.

      I like having a well organized wealth of information with me at all times in the form of a guidebook when I am on the road. I am sure all of this information is out there on the web somewhere but I am usually not connected when I travel. They have helped me solve problems a number of times.

  13. This is a tricky subject to tackle, especially as I stand on that pedestal that from one angle looks like it’s titled ‘High & Mighty’, but I’ll chip in none the less.

    We had an LP guide that we had for the beginning of our journey in the summer of last year, a lump of a think we took to calling ‘The Bible’. It was great…for the first few days, then it just became this out-of-date history book that would have no further baring on our future plans.

    Sure, I enjoyed skipping through it from time-to-time – I actually really enjoy the brief history chapters at the beginning – but apart from that I just kept thinking to myself; “there’s a blogger sitting in City A right now writing up-to-date information that’ll be relevant for at least the next few days”. So what was the point in the book any more? Especially as the internet is so much more accessible these days (mostly).

    Maybe if LP bring out an app which updates itself every day with new information sourced from new information submitted by travellers on the go, maybe I’ll change my mind.

    1. Love the idea of an app.

      The issue I have with relying on bloggers for info is that, in my experience, very few bloggers provide the practical info you need. When I was researching my trip, the few blogs I came across that covered the countries I was planning to visit usually just shared experiences and left out any meaningful practical info. So even though my guidebooks were dated from time to time, they gave me a better starting point than almost any blog I read.

      Now, it’s true, when traveling to heavily visited areas, you likely don’t need the guidebooks as much because there’s more info out there on message boards, blogs and through tourist offices and websites.

  14. I feel the same way: I don’t like to rely entirely on guidebooks but I find them extremely useful. They also help me get excited for wherever I’m going next.

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