Put Down That Travel Guidebook

Looking at a Guidebook

Ten years ago, travel guidebook writer Thomas Kohnstamm, co-author of a dozen Lonely Planet guides to Latin America and the Caribbean, admitted that he worked on a book for Colombia though he didn’t visit the country.

Kohnstamm said, “I found out very quickly I was not able to go to all the places I needed to go to. I was not able to make the money stretch out to the end. They didn’t pay me enough to go to Colombia. I wrote the book in San Francisco. I got the information from a chick I was dating who was an intern in the Colombian consulate.”

He also told how the life of a travel writer is one of poor pay, dealing drugs to make ends meet, and stealing information from other sources.

Lonely Planet, predictably, reacted very strongly and refuted his claims, and Kohnstamm himself later backed off his comments a bit.

So, what to make of travel guidebooks?

They’re fine. I buy them. Like them. Even prefer Lonely Planet. Especially the maps.

The only real gripe I have with travel guidebooks isn’t about the books themselves.

It has to do with their readers.

Specifically, the travelers who suffer from what I call guide-book-itis — the practice of burying one’s face in a guide book WHILE YOU’RE ACTUALLY MISSING OUT ON THE ACTUAL SITES IN FRONT OF YOU.

I’ve seen it all over the world. Tourists voraciously reading their guide books and ignoring the scenery while they were:

  • Sitting in Trafalgar Square in London
  • Walking through the Forbidden City in China
  • Crossing the Sydney Harbor Bridge on foot in Australia
  • Sitting on park benches in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
  • Riding on buses through rural West Bengal, India

Yes you SHOULD take a travel guide book on your trip, for the maps and perhaps some background reading on the country’s history and culture.

But my advice to you is:

Don’t read the guidebook until you’re on the plane back home.

That might sound a little strange, perhaps, but the more you travel, the more you realize that you should trust your own eyes and ears and judgment.

Don’t know where to eat or sleep or how to get from point A to B?

Look around for yourself. Talk to strangers, ask questions, be friendly, don’t panic, use your common sense.

You’ll be sure to make new friends and gain confidence in yourself by doing this.

I started doing the read-the-guidebook-on-the-flight-home thing on my very first trip abroad (to Nepal in 2000).

It was quite by accident, simply because I was really bored on the interminable Pakistan Airlines’ flights back to New York and had no reading material.

I’ll definitely have a guide book with me on my next trip, but if you catch me reading it anywhere but on the plane, feel free to smack me over the head with it.