I’m sure you’ve seen them. The people walking around with a guidebook in their hand, referring to a map to find the next landmark they seek, or perhaps that perfect place for coffee that was recommended. Guidebooks such as Lonely Planet, Rough Guide, Moon, and many others fill up endless shelves at bookstores. In speaking with fellow travelers it isn’t uncommon to hear “Oh XYZ [book] recommended that place!” And therefore we’d be insane to not go visit it or stay there.
There is no denial that guidebooks can be helpful. When planning my trip to Peru two years ago, I checked out a few of them from the library. Had it not been for the Lonely Planet author’s advice on an alternate way to get to Saqsaywaman, I would’ve missed out on an interesting hike (too steep to call it a walk) and some great photos and views as well. I also followed their recommendation to a lodge in the Amazonian rain forest which turned out to be a wonderful experience and helped out a local orphanage at the same time. But can you become too dependent on them and lose out on great experiences.
When I first tried to plan some parts of our indefinite journey, I quickly decided the best plan was to have no plan. I remembered that when getting to know locals, either while chatting on the bus, in a cafe, or while eating street food, I had some of my best experiences and found some of the coolest spots, many of which either weren’t mentioned in the books or were given only a brief commentary. I’ve often thrilled at discoveries while taking a wrong turn or just jumping on a bus and taking it until I thought it was a good place to get off and go exploring. I decided that we would do as little planning as possible, and it’s been a wonderful experience.
One of my favorite things to do is to ask a local where they would go on vacation, where they take visiting family, where the places are that don’t see many tourists. Those are the places I’m most interested in! Sure, there are simply some things one must see: It’d be kind of silly to go to Paris and skip the Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame, and Sacre Cœur. But other than the big things I try to stay away from standard tourist attractions. I prefer to eat where the locals eat, stay in neighborhoods away from expat communities, etc. Sure the books have some of this advice, but I’ve managed to find some true treasures this way that weren’t available in any other resource. And I don’t knock expats who like to hang together. I get that. I just don’t care to travel that way. When I follow guidebooks, I end up following in everyone else’s footsteps rather than enjoying discovering things on my own.
So I’m recommending everyone dump guidebooks, right? Nope. I think moderation is good. Use available resources to inform yourself. While many places are online, some communities just haven’t caught on. Sometimes I’ve found my best lodging resources in a guidebook because most places didn’t have an online presence, especially the more budget-friendly ones. They can offer invaluable tips on how to get to locations, what a normal taxi ride should cost, etc. Things that are awfully helpful to know before arriving in a new location. But don’t let them be your main way of traveling, and if you really want to look like a clueless traveler (AKA probably easy scam or theft target) make sure to carry it around in open sight with you. Few things are better at screaming “Hey come take advantage of me!”