Do you need a guidebook to go travelling? Has the internet and the smartphone made the guidebook redundant?
After years of declining sales, guidebooks are selling in increasing numbers again. Why? Because more people are travelling. Why? Because they can, because, thanks to the internet, travel is easier than ever to organise.
We can find information on flights, hotels, car hire, tours, activities - everything, every tiny little thing. We can compare prices to find the best deals. We can read travel blogs about the places we want to go and we can see incredible photos from every corner of the planet. We can do all this at the touch of a keyboard or the swipe of a finger.
So why would anyone still want to buy a guidebook?
I have a bookshelf full of guidebooks. Some of them have travelled thousands of miles and they are dusty and dirty, scribbled on, creased.
There are good reasons to turn to a guidebook instead of an electronic screen for travel information. But first, let's agree that a guidebook is only a guide (the clue is in the name). It's not an instruction book. You can choose to follow the guide or you can choose to go your own way.
Pros... Guidebooks are a handy size, aren't they? They fit neatly into a bag and comfortably into your hands. That little block of pages contains more than enough information to get you excited about your travels. You can take it wherever you go. Read it on the bus. Read it in the bath. Less awkward than a laptop, easier to read than a smartphone.
Guidebooks are made for browsing. Flick between pages with gusto. Fold down page corners with ease (yes, I know, some people think this is A Serious Crime but, hey, pages are made of paper, and paper is really good for folding, and a folded corner is a really good way of marking a page).
Guidebooks are conveniently divided into headings, subheadings, sections, maps, diagrams, pictures, indexes - all of which makes browsing a breeze. The guidebook genre has been evolving for many decades, so publishers know what works and what doesn't.
But what about content?
Guidebooks are edited and organised into neat little self-contained units, with little repetition. The same can't be said of content on the internet, where information is repeated from one website to another and to find something new you might have to trawl through lots of stuff you already know. But the internet is vast, endless - all the information you could ever want is there, somewhere - and a guidebook is finite, limited by its page count.
...and Cons Of course, guidebooks can never be as up to date as the internet (though we all know that not every website has up to date information either). Availability and prices for hotels, flights, tours, places to eat - guidebooks cannot compete here as these change so quickly.
Guidebooks can't be as comprehensive in their coverage as the internet can be. But this is exactly the strength of the guidebook: content is selected and edited because it is relevant. You don't have to sort the wheat from the chaff because someone has already done that for you. If you're into wheat/chaff sorting, head straight to the internet.
You'll find a wider variety of opinions about travel destintations on the internet, whereas guidebooks are put together by a small number of experts. Is this good or bad? That depends on who you trust for your travel information and what kind of information we're talking about. Recent hotel reviews? Trust the internet. Reviews of major tourist sites? Do you really need these? Would a bad review put you off going to see Machu Picchu or Angkor Wat?
Guidebooks have a physical presence, a size and a weight, which, though comforting, soon adds up if you're heading off on a long journey. There's not much you can do about this without changing the laws of physics.
Before you travel Before your travels, you can treat a guidebook a bit like the internet - you don't have to read it from cover to cover (have you ever tried reading the internet from cover to cover?). You don't even have to read most of it. You can just pick out the bits you like the look of. And while you're reading those bits you might find other bits that are interesting too.
The internet is absolutely brilliant for travel research but it demands discipline. You start looking at one thing and before you know it you're looking at another thing, and you suddenly find you've spent an hour looking at silly videos on YouTube and your research got lost somewhere down the back of the screen.
At least if you turn to the wrong page in a guidebook, you might stumble across something that's relevant and helpful.
To plan travels before you go away, to see what activities there are, to get excited by food you might encounter and sites you might see, and to have all this information in a single, small volume - this is where a guidebook wins over hours spent online.
Use a guidebook as a starting point then go online to refine your ideas, research in-depth and make bookings.
While you're travelling Guidebooks don't need WiFi or battery power. They don't have screens that can get cracked or smudged. Water and dust are not the arch enemies of the guidebook. You can make notes and scribble on a guidebook (you can scribble on your smartphone too, if you really want to). If you need to phone someone, you can refer to the guidebook while phoning. If you need to write something, you can use your guidebook to lean on. You can drop a guidebook, as many times as you want, without fear of terminal damage.
But this is all a bit one-sided, isn't it? Is a guidebook really better than a smartphone? Well, it's better at some things than a smartphone. But a guidebook can't make phone calls, access email or get a GPS signal.
I suggest that you use a smartphone for the things smartphones are good at and a guidebook for the things guidebooks are good at.
When you get home Does your guidebook have a role when your travels are over? I think so, especially if you've treated it without kid gloves and it's become battered and a bit worn. Notes you made on the pages are reminders of places you visited and plans you made. So are tickets or postcards you stuffed between the pages in a hurry.
A guidebook can help preserve your travel memories in a way that an App on a smartphone or a pile of facebook status updates can't.
A guidebook is a physical reminder of your travels. Try flicking through the pages of an old guidebook and see how many of the pictures and maps still seem familiar, even after several years, and see what memories they evoke.
In conclusion I like guidebooks. I like flicking through them in shops. I like reading them before, during and after travelling. If they didn't exist, some smart person would invent them and be praised for managing to combine information from so many disciplines - history, geography, architecture, nature, art and more - into a reassuringly durable, portable, book-sized book.
What do you think? Are guidebooks good or not good? Are there any pros or cons I've missed? I haven't even mentioned e-readers (Kindles and the like) because I've never used one. Any comments about these?