Five things travel guides never tell you

In this month’s issue of National Geographic Adventure, Robert Young Pelton dispenses guidebook advice in a column called Cooking the Books: Five things travel guides never tell you. The jist of his advice is to not take your guidebook too seriously. “Ask the locals where to go and what to do,” Pelton writes. “Travel is still an adventure, after all. That’s something that the guidebooks seem to forget.”

Pelton’s five main points about guidebooks are as follows:

1) They’re outdated.
2) They fudge things.
3) They wear rose-colored glasses.
4) They kill what they love.
5) They work best in combination.

The full explanation behind these five points is online here.

Besides talking to locals, what else does Pelton advise? Well, among other things, he recommends that you pick up a copy of Vagabonding, by a certain Rolf Potts. “Try reading something that tells you how to appreciate the art of travel,” he says, “rather than how to spend money.”

In addition to Vagabonding, Pelton recommends travel accounts by Marco Polo, Ibn Battuta, and Sir Richard Francis Burton, as well as travel primers from the likes of Doug Lansky, Rob Sangster, Bruce Northam, and Edward Hasbrouck

Posted by | Comments (4)  | October 11, 2004
Category: Travel News

4 Responses to “Five things travel guides never tell you”

  1. Jish Says:

    The article certainly puts you in great company – congrats!

    Aside from those 5 main points, I’d add several more. Here’s one: they discourage the pursuit of knowledge. If the guidebook tells us all we need to know about a site of historical significance … then why not stay in the hotel and read all about it, rather than hear the words of locals or the site’s tour guide?

  2. David Stanley Says:

    Everything Pelton says is true but you’ll still need to buy a guidebook unless you want to avoid wasting a lot of time and money on the road while missing out on quite a few interesting things.

    Pelton suggests using Google to collect information. Yes, but most of the free information on the internet is one-sided advertising or the work of enthusiastic amateurs. Sure, the amateurs can provide some excellent tips, but they won’t have explored the whole range of travel possibilities, such as checking every hotel, restaurant, bus station, nightsclub, etc, in a place. They’ll be a world class expert on the hotel where they happened to stay, but that’s it.

    Much of the information on the internet is outdated or incorrect, and the enthusiastic amateurs who create hobby websites have no incentive to update it. After all, who is paying them to do so?

    Also, personal tastes vary a lot and a professional travel writer is more likely to try to cater to a wide audience than a newly returned traveler who wants to tell the world about HIS or HER trip.

    I visit the travel forums often to glean fresh facts, but I’d never try to plan a trip to a strange place based only on what I read there. If I’m going to Disneyland or Acapulco, sure, who needs a guide? But try going somewhere like Ethiopia or Fiji with no independent information. It will cost you a lot more than the cost of a guidebook, I guarantee.

    The average travel guide costs US$20. The average trip to another continent costs US$2000 and up. Only a fool would jeopardize the success of their trip trying to save one percent of the cost.

    Pelton points out that travel guides create travelers trails swamped by herds of backpackers or whatever. So true, especially when everyone has the same guidebook (i.e. Lonely Planet).

    But a really good guidebook will cover an entire destination, not just the hot spots you’ll find in the likes of Frommers. In my new guide to Fiji I have 16 pages on the Yasawa Islands where 90 percent of Fiji backpackers now go, but the whole book is 356 pages long. It’s not that hard to get of the beaten track and have a South Pacific paradise all to yourself. Most backpackers are just too lazy and unadventurous to do so.

  3. Rolf Says:

    Thanks for your perspectives. I might add this, straight from the pages of Vagabonding:

    “Guidebooks should never be your only source of travel information, of course, but they deserve a special mention because they

  4. Rolf Says:

    While I’m at it, here another take, from Taras Grescoe’s The End of Elsewhere: Travels Among the Tourists:

    “Frankly, I’ve dropped my guidebook many times, and what usually happens is: 1) I walk the wrong way and spend an enriching afternoon exploring some industrial suburb; 2) I take the metro to the gallery and find it’s closed on Tuesdays; or 3) I cave in to hunger and have a bad pizza in a fast-food joint and discover, when I pick up the guide again, that I could have lunched on splendid gnocchi with pesto in a bargain trattoria down a nearby sidestreet.”

    …So I think the point in all this guidebook advice is to use your guidebook in moderation, and to know where its usefulness begins and ends.