No matter where you go in the world, Egypt, South America, the most remote Pacific island imaginable – one thing is for certain:
Where there are backpackers, a majority of them will be carrying a Lonely Planet Guidebook.
It is pretty much a cliche – hordes of budget travelers sitting around waiting in a bus stop, boat dock, or even on the beach — all dutifully studying their Lonely Planets. In certain destinations, I almost feel embarrassed to pull mine out and I have actually busted several people giving me info about places by saying “They say…don’t go here” or “they say…its a great spot. They even use the book’s exact wording about a place.
It turns out “they” means Lonely Planet. I know because I have the same book!
I’ll admit, for better or worse, I typically carry a Lonely Planet too. However, there is a difference in using a guidebook properly and turning it into the Lonely Bible.
My experience over the last 3 years of using Lonely Planet:
- Information. Lonely Planet usually has all the info I’m looking for and I know where to find it. I can always find a crash course language guide in the back, lots of tips and goodies about border crossings, and what my transportation options are.
- They are relatively thorough. Of course, everyone has experienced (myself included) going to a listed hostel or guesthouse only to find a pile of rubble where it used to be.
- Find the party. If you are traveling alone, its easy to find company in a strange new place with a Lonely Planet guide. You can pretty much count on the top listed places being full of backpackers – which makes it easy to find the party, information, meet people, etc.
- Maps. The small local town and beach maps are nice, I usually tear them out and just carry them with me. A good alternative is to use http://images.google.com in an internet cafe and print your own map.
- The Lonely Planet effect. I didn’t make that up! Experienced travelers know that the top listed restaurants and guest houses in a guidebook are probably going to be the worst. First, they will be extremely crowded – which runs the underpaid staff ragged and makes them hate to see you walk in. Second, once a place is listed, its good to go for a couple of years, or until the next guidebook update. Why would they give you good service or clean rooms when they are guaranteed a steady stream of business thanks to Lonely Planet regardless?
- The weight. These books are huge – and feel like a brick in your rucksack. This is mostly because they are full of useless information padded around the useful stuff. The first thing I do when I buy one is get a razor blade and start doing surgery by cutting out pages. I cut out places that I am not going (and staple them for possible later trips) and all the standard propaganda they feel politically obligated to include at print time.
- The possible impact to your trip. Maybe half the magic is wandering into a strange place with no itinerary or map anyway? I had one of the best times of my trip in northern Thailand where my Beaches guidebook was useless. I pretty much hired a motorbike and spent 2 weeks just figuring it out myself.
- The ThornTree forums. As simple as I can say it – don’t go there unless you want to be bullied, insulted, and bump heads with “elite” backpackers that have tightened their dreads so tight they cut off blood to the brain. www.bootsnall.com is a great travel community alternative. Or much, much smaller but a tight family – the backpacker forums on my website. 🙂
- Joining the bandwagon. In China, I wrapped the outside of my Lonely Planet up with duct tape because I had heard it was a banned book due to content on Tibet and Tienanmen. Ducting it had the added bonus of keeping it from getting destroyed in the rough environment and keeping it secret from other backpackers!
- Local Impact. Part of the Lonely Planet effect – there may be an incredible guest house just around the corner that offers cheap clean rooms, the best service, and a smile….yet, the family is struggling to stay alive simply because they failed to be listed in the latest update.
This leads to rule #1 — don’t use your guidebook as a Bible! Think for yourself. Research it yourself. Always trust your gut or other travelers; information over something in print.
Rough Guides and Moon books are both pretty good alternatives to Lonely Planet and are coming up fast in the backpacker community.
If you do plan to travel with a Lonely Planet guide, try to pick one up at your local independent bookstore rather than support a giant corporate entity. If they don’t have it, I order mine directly from Lonely Planet’s website for usually less the price listed on Amazon.