Are travel guidebooks still useful?

I noticed a generation gap when I began planning an upcoming vacation trip to Greece, a destination that my son and his family visited last year. When I asked if he had any guidebooks, he said he doesn’t use them and relies entirely on the Internet. So, are travel guides going the way of typewriters and newspapers?

Their popularity does seem to be fading based on the fewer and fewer titles I find at my local bookstore and on Amazon. Many familiar guides haven’t been revised in years. So do guides have much value anymore?

Based on my recent trip to Japan I instinctively purchased a couple, DK Eyewitness Tokyo and DK Top 10 Tokyo. They were just revised and each provided lots of basic information in an easily readible format with useful illustrations and maps. While I’ve been to Tokyo dozens of times, I wanted to have the latest guides in hand. I also used the Internet extensively for my research and planning, and found each has their advantages.

While the Internet offers more updated information, especially when it comes to temporary closings, operating hours, and reviews, the guidebooks provided me with better historical context, more thoughtful commentary, and generally more accurate information about the most important things to see. For example, topics such as walking tours were succint with helpful maps and graphics.

In contrast, many of the websites covering travel destinations are filled with ads, sales pitches, and recommendations created just to generate referral fees and clicks. While there are many worthwhile sites if you search hard enough, many are simplistic and poorly written. Some are set up as slide shows, requiring you to click from item to item as a way to generate more clicks and run more ads. I abandon those immediately for the scams they are.

With some effort, you can usually find much of the content found in guidebooks on the Internet, but spread out among dozens of sites. A guide book is much more succint and faster to digest, while many of the web sites can be unreliable or a waste of time. When I searched “What to do in Greece,” dozens of sites came up with very similar lists. If I bought a book with the quality of their content, I’d return it because of its lack of depth.

By example, one Internet article titled “10 Tips when visiting Greece” provided advice such as “bring your sunscreen,” “bring some cash,” and “beware of dress codes.” That’s because these articles are written to attract clicks and not to provide real content. As AI becomes more prevalent, we’ll see much more content disguised as helpful sites.

Books that are written by locals can provide more useful content because they don’t rely on clicks and ads to succeed. They’re incentivized to write meaningful content that will result in positive reviews in order to sell more books. Their books often contain information that only locals know, allowing you to explore sites off the beaten path. Good books take research, hard work, and an understanding of the local culture, as opposed to some travel blogs that simply lift their material off of Wikipedia or competiting blogs.

But guidebooks are slowly losing some of their value. No longer are they needed to find hotels and restaurants; the Internet is better at that, allowing us to find the current rates, obtain hotel details, check ratings and make reservations.

Maybe I’m old-fashioned, but I’ll still rely on travel guides to get an objective understanding and accurate overview of an area I’m about to visit. A thorough reading of a well-written guide will help me be a better judge of what I find on the web.

by Phil Baker

One thought on “Are travel guidebooks still useful?

  1. Kevin M says:

    I love travel guides, but as you note, they’re not often updated any more. They can still serve, though, as a framework for planning a trip, which you then flesh out/verify by checking online to see if mentioned attractions are still open, whether access has changed, and so forth.

    What I really wouldn’t rely on in them is hotel or restaurant recommendations, because they’re likely well out of date. Hotels change flags too often and restaurants open and close so much (especially since the pandemic began) – they may have suggestions to check, but obviously you’ll need to verify whether the business still even exists, much less whether it’s still considered a good bet.

    Books are also good for mentioning other things nearby attractions I want to see, things I wouldn’t necessarily stumble onto on the internet.

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