Not so long ago, I used to religiously buy a printed guidebook every time I planned to visit a new country. The thought of landing in a foreign land without that invaluable and knowledgeable companion tucked under my arm was frightening. Of course, back in these days, people were not lugging around laptops and mobile devices, where information is available in seconds from a few clicks or taps.

But what about now? Over the last five years, portable electronic devices have multiplied like rabbits, and it is the rare traveller who does not carry a smart phone, tablet, or laptop on her travels. Now that you can access the internet from pretty much anywhere (through WiFi), is there even a need for paper copy?

travel guidebook versus mobile device

The way I see it, printed guidebooks have the following advantages and disadvantages:

Advantages:

  • Having all the information in one place
  • Ability to mark things with a pen, bend page corners, etc.
  • Ability to access the information anywhere, even in the absence of WiFi, or in glaring sunlight
  • Something you can read lying on your couch in anticipation of your trip (not so easy to do with electronics – or maybe I’m just old!)

Disadvantages:

  • Already partially out of date by the time they are published
  • Bulky and heavy to carry
  • Cash outlay necessary
  • Tendency to use them as a “bible” and limit yourself to what’s in there

The bottom line is, it’s really up to you. Some people like thumbing through a physical paper book. Some people are fine with online resources only. In my case, it depends where I’m travelling. If I’m going to an “easy” country, which for me means a place where the culture is similar to my own, I tend to avoid the expense and bulk of a guidebook and rely on websites, people’s advice, and the tourist office, especially if I can understand and speak the language. On the other hand, if the place is very foreign, with a different culture and language, I like travelling with a book to complement what I find online.

What's going on here? I have no idea! (Istanbul, Turkey)

What’s going on here? I have no idea! (Istanbul, Turkey)

This doesn’t mean I need to log around a giant guidebook. If I’m only visiting one city, like was the case with Istanbul last fall, a small pocket-size book on that city is sufficient. Lonely Planet offers those for several international cities and popular sites like Angkor Wat in Cambodia.

Another thing that makes Lonely Planet my favourite series is the fact that they let you buy individual chapters in PDF format. Until recently, they were the only company to do so. Hence, if you’re only going to visit Luang Prabang in Laos, you can buy only that particular chapter, and decide whether or not you want to print it, or just access it on your device.

Saving money on guidebooks

Pretty much every company offers digital versions of their books by now, which are cheaper and can be a good compromise if you don’t want to lug around physical books. Fixed-size maps are notoriously hard to view on a small screen though, and you can’t mark them like you would with a paper copy.

If weight is your main reason for not carrying paper guidebooks, keep in mind that on a long multi-country trip, you can often trade in your guidebook for another one in a used bookstore, trade with travellers going the other way, or just leave your book somewhere and buy the next one.

On the other hand, if your trip is short and you have access to a public library at home, you may be able to save yourself the cost by simply “borrowing” the book just before your trip.

The guidebooks I use

My travel guidebooks

As you can see from this photo, my guidebook “collection” is overwhelmingly Lonely Planet (LP). Besides the reasons listed above, I also like their excellent maps, and the fact that hotel and restaurant listings show actual prices, not just a price-range code.

I only stray when I can’t find a particular country or region in the LP series, which is rather rare given the number of titles they carry. Sometimes I’ll buy a second guidebook to complement the LP guide. For example, if I’m travelling to a specific European country for only a few weeks, I may get a Rick Steves guidebook as well. This series specializes in Europe and is aimed at North Americans with very little vacation time. Consequently, they focus on the best there is to see and do, instead of covering everything.

Other guidebooks I have occasionally bought are from Moon Handbooks and Footprint. Like LP, these series cover accommodation, restaurants, sightseeing, as well as all the practical information you’ll need. While doing research for this article, I discovered that Footprint now also offers its books as individual PDF chapters!

Some series are better for browsing before you leave home, as they’re crammed full of pretty glossy pictures (thus heavy) but won’t tell you where to take the bus. I’m thinking here of series like Eyewitness or Insight travel guides, books better suited to the coffee table than your bags.

For me, there is still value in having a good paper guidebook, but I don’t need one on every single trip anymore. Having a laptop connecting me to the rest of the world, wherever I am, is rather reassuring.

Note: If you’re too busy to research your trip online or read guidebooks, I offer customized travel reports based only on what you need to know. Contact me to discuss.

Other note: This post contains affiliate links.


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