Reading between the lines – travel guidebooks and how to use them

What’s your choice? Time Out, Let’s Go, Lonely Planet or Rough Guides?

Personally, I'd go for the one on the right – hey, I wrote it, I'm allowed!

Personally, I’d go for the one on the right – hey, I wrote it, I’m allowed!

Most people have a favourite guidebook series, and even the most tech-savvy traveller tends to have a tried and trusted paperback ‘bible’ stuck away somewhere in their bag.

Guidebooks are useful, insightful, helpful and informative – and also infuriating, misleading, out of date and sometimes just downright wrong.

I should know, I’ve written dozens of editions of Rough Guides over the years (those are in the first category above, obviously) and I’ve also travelled extensively around the world with other peoples’ books.

Here’s an insider’s view on how to get the most out of your travel guide.

Check the date
Just because it’s on the bookshop shelf or in the Amazon basket doesn’t mean it’s up to date. Most guidebooks are only updated every two to three years, sometimes longer, and it will have been researched anything up to a year or more before publication. So a guidebook dated last year could easily contain information that’s 2 or 3 years old. It doesn’t mean everything in the book is wrong or out of date – but you can count on prices going up, places closing down or changing hands, and great new places not even mentioned.

By the way, guides with this year’s date on, and splashed with the words ‘updated annually’, don’t fill me full of confidence either. The research will still have been done up to a year ago, and ask yourself how in-depth an updating job the author can do in such a short time? (one of the reasons most guides only get updated every 2 or 3 years is because it takes a lot of time to cover a country and do a job properly).

Plan with it – don’t bet your life on it
Assuming you’ve got the most up-to-date version available, your guidebook is an invaluable planning tool. You can figure how roughly how much money you’ll need, how you can get around, and what you’d like to see. Photos and maps are all great for inspiring your upcoming trip.

Estonian guidebook, Jimmy HarrisBut because things change – and guidebook writers aren’t infallible – don’t assume that every word is Gospel. The world is full of perplexed people standing outside shut buildings, saying “But the Rough Guide said…”.

If time and money are an issue, and you simply have to see that place or do that thing, then double-check the information – on travel forums (most guidebook series have great ones), websites and social media.

Learn to read between the lines
Guidebook writers don’t have the time or the money to visit, stay and eat in every place in their guide. Bit of a shock? Sorry.

If a hostel review sounds, well, a bit vague, and talks mostly about its location or price (both of which you can find out from its website), then chances are the writer hasn’t actually visited the hostel in person.

Hang on, this isn't a "delightful boutique hotel"

Hang on, this isn’t a “delightful boutique hotel”

If the restaurant review gushes about dishes and recipes that (there’s a surprise) are also picked out on the restaurant’s own website – well, go figure.

Conversely, if there’s heartfelt, personal detail in the account, then you can bet the writer experienced it first-hand.

These might sounds like reasons to distrust some of things in guidebooks, but – as above – it’s a job with limited time and money. What’s probably true is that some due diligence has been conducted – these places will also be in other guidebooks, or have been recommended in some other way, and if you stay or eat there you’ll probably do just fine.

Cut the guide some slack
For all the reasons mentioned, the guide isn’t going to be right every time. But you’ll soon get a feel for whether or not – generally speaking – the guide can be trusted.

So some of the prices are out of date? But did the writer get it spot on about the feel of the place or the experience? If so, then you can trust that they did their job properly and let the minor changes go. The world is full of people arguing with waiters in restaurants, saying “But it’s only supposed to be 50 cents, it says so here” – don’t be that person.

Put the book away – you don’t always need it
If you wander around City A, Country B or Continent C with your nose firmly in the Lonely Rough Let’s Go Get Frommer’s Guide, you will miss the entire point of your trip in the first place, which was to experience something new. By definition, if it’s in the guidebook, it’s not new. Someone has been there before, and possibly thousands of people are there now, bumping into each other because they have their noses in the guidebook.

Sometimes, you just need to put the book away and ask a local

Sometimes, you just need to put the book away and ask a local

Go down a different street, eat in a restaurant not in the guide, ask a local, sleep under the stars – I don’t put everything I know into my guidebooks, because some places are special to me, and you can find your own special places too. In fact, I insist.

Share the love
If you like a guide or have something to praise, then get in touch with the publisher or the author. We love that! Social media has made it an instant matter to say if something was great (or not so great), and all this feedback helps writers produce better, more up-to-date books and websites.

Be your own guidebook
Just by staying in that city, travelling around that country, taking that bungee jump – at just that point – you are the most experienced, up-to-date authority there is. So tell your hostel friend, recommend your tour to a hotel owner, tweet your experience, Facebook your photos, Instagram your trip.

Guidebooks can only get you so far, but one-to-one, face-to-face advice and inspiration – that’s the motherlode for other travellers.

You are the guidebook. Be the guidebook.Lonely Planet, Quinn Dombrowski

Looking for more great Jules Told Me travel tips?
Doing your laundry on the road – I show you how to keep it clean
5 things you should never travel without – this list will surprise you!
Finding a great local restaurant – not always easy, here’s how


Image credits
Barcelona guides by Bobcat Rock, via Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0
Header image: Estonian guidebook by Jimmy Harris, via Flickr, CC BY 2.0
The doorbell doesn’t work by anyjazz65, via Flickr, CC BY 2.0
Untitled (Cuba) by Gabriel Rodriguez, via Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0
Lonely Planet by Quinn Dombrowski, via Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0

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7 Comments
  1. I love reading guide books-even if I’m not going anywhere! Lately people seem to put all their faith in sites like TripAdvisor but anyone off the street can post something- and I know there are places post their own reviews. I think you can do research but nothing beats talking to someone who has actually been there. Ciao, Cristina

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  2. You’re so right Cristina! (I would say that, I suppose…). But while I have a lot of time for the democracy of TripAdvisor, and the fact that it’s basically real-time reviewing, you’re right – I do want to know that I trust the opinions of the authors, and that’s why I love building up a relationship with a good guidebook.

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