The travel industry owes a lot to guidebooks. First published in the 1830s by John Murray to facilitate the burgeoning market for long distance tourism, the books turned less familiar European, Asian and African geographies from merely places where foreigners lived into something that British and German nationals could bag.
These early guidebooks introduced the concept of significant “sights” or attractions and star ratings for available lodging, restaurants and amenities. Their invention and subsequent publishers such as Lonely Planet, Frommers, In Your Pocket and others encouraged hundreds of millions of people to fall in love with the outside world and sometimes learn from it. These written guides are also partly responsible for the good (more economy, culture exchange) and bad (more crowds, destruction of nature) that come from global tourism.
Then the Internet happened. Mobile happened. TripAdvisor, Yelp, Wikitravel and Google Maps happened. So are paid guidebooks, either printed or downloaded to smartphones, still worth it?
Those who still publish or contribute to them understandably say yes. “Guidebooks are $20 tools for $3,000 experiences,” writes legendary travel guide Rick Steves. “An up-to-date guidebook pays for itself on your first day in Europe.”
Similarly, veteran travel author Robert Reid argues that guidebooks save time, help you discover nearby points of interest faster and are less disorienting than free Internet sleuthing. In a post peppered with illustrations, he recently dished on how to use a guidebook. “Because of a guidebook,” he writes of Italy, “I had many of my first questions already answered. I was deeper into ‘the boot.’ And more inspired to go there.”
As for me, I’ve only carried a guidebook with me on one occasion: my first time out of the country (to Brazil). And rather than reaching for a destination-specific guide and consulting it while on foreign soil, I instead prefer to browse overview publications that might inspire my next trip, such as The Travel Book (pictured).
In that sense, guidebooks don’t travel as well as they used to. Yes, they’re certainly handy and can still serve a purpose, albeit an increasingly limited one. And like a spherical globe, they’ll provide a better sense of space than the flat, warped sizes, but hyper convenience of Google Maps.
But the world has changed. The people have spoken. Researching online before you go is the ideal way to discover, personalize and anticipate an upcoming trip. Upon arrival, keeping your head up—whether from a book or phone—is the best and most spontaneous way to see the world and experience its people.
The real problem with guides (printed or otherwise) is that they might induce a “gotta see it all” mindset. Travel was never meant to be that. Thinking otherwise is like trying to fill a cup with no bottom. In my experience, using guides to avoid and reduce the things you add to your itinerary—as opposed to focusing on what to add—is the best way to avoid that misguided and dogmatic belief.
Off the Grid columnist Blake Snow writes epic stories for fancy publications and Fortune 500 companies. Follow him on Twitter.