A Few Things Guidebooks Always Get Wrong

regensburg Germany

I’ve always been a big fan of guidebooks, I think many of us have. No matter how far we progress in the digital world, there will always be a need I think for a physical book people can carry around with them. I know that for me getting a small guide about my next trip isn’t just practical, but it helps with the excitement and anticipation. Even if I don’t use the book on a day-to-day basis, I love reading about the trip weeks and even months beforehand. That being said, I do also actually try to use them when I travel, as I’m sure many of you do as well, but these important books aren’t always helpful. Over the years I’ve noticed some areas where they excel and others where they usually fall flat, sometimes at no fault of their own. So, with that in mind, I thought I’d share some of those areas where guidebooks always seem to fail – and fail spectacularly at that.

Figlmüller Wiener Schnitzel Vienna Austria

Restaurants and hotels

I’ve skipped over these sections for as long as I’ve been buying guide books; their utility in question long before the advent of the Internet. In regards to restaurants, the issue is the rapidity at which they open and close. Since guidebooks can go years between updating all segments, this usually means restaurant data is woefully out of date and useless. Even if the restaurants are open, to pick a few out of a city with hundreds is folly, and can’t be regarded as anything more than randomly selecting a few to share. The best way to find places to eat is to ask people who live there when you visit or walk around town until you see something you like. I never, ever plan restaurants in advance unless they are very well-known or worth planning for and to-date I’ve almost always been happy with my dining experiences. Hotels are another useless section because we don’t need a guidebook to tell us what some of the properties are like, not now when accommodation searches nearly always start online. The reviews aren’t really reviews either since the likelihood of the author staying the night is slim to none, instead it’s a regurgitated backgrounder probably lifted from the hotel’s web site with a general reference to its location within the larger city context. It’s just unnecessary and that time, energy and page space could be instead devoted to suggestions that would actually aid the modern traveler.

Paris Metro sign

Regurgitating tired advice

Guidebooks are not updated every year and when they are updated, many times the authors either don’t visit the destination in question or they spend limited time there. It’s thanks to the way the guides pay the authors and how the authors then tend to work. Some are better than others, but few are great in providing more than a basic introduction to a country or city – with a few notable exceptions. Because of this, the nuggets of advice that we as travelers regard as gospel, are just regurgitations of information that has probably been included in the guides since they were first written. Once again, in an age when travel planning usually starts in front of an electronic device and not at the library, they have to start to move away from the basics and provide some real insider knowledge. That’s why Rick Steves has and probably always will be a great travel resource. He knows that YOU know about the Louvre in Paris. Done and done. He moves past the “be sure to visit on the 1st Sunday of every month” advice to tips that are actionable and useful. Maps, even how to walk through the museums are included; now that is a good guidebook. Sadly far too few reach this level of utility and to demonstrate my point, here are some tips I’ve gleaned from the guidebooks currently sitting on my office shelf.

  • “…to your left, hordes gawp at Manneken-Pis, the bronze statue of a small boy peeing merrily away which has, bizarrely, become the symbol of Brussels.”

This guide devoted less than a full sentence to what is one of the top attractions in Brussels and then seemed to passive aggressively judge people who want to see it.

  • “The huge rotunda of the Dublin City Hall is breathtaking. It was built in 1769…”

Blah, blah blah. This reads more like a middle school vacation essay than it does expert advice. Tell me how to get there, why I should go and what I should know that is not immediately gleaned from the web page of the City Hall itself.

  • “Everything in St. Peter’s is made of marble, bronze or gold, and what appear to be altar paintings are actually mosaics with minuscule tesserae. The outstanding artworks…”

I actually had this guide while in Rome and remember being incredibly confused in the Vatican and left not seeing all that I wanted, especially in the beautiful but massive St. Peter’s Basilica. Ultimately, that’s my fault as a traveler but the fact my guidebook included what was essentially a Wikipedia entry didn’t help either.

Museum Island, Berlin Germany

Stop assuming everyone is a budget traveler

Yes, most people regardless of their income like to save a little money when they can. But what I find often in guidebooks is that in their quest to appeal to everyone, they seem to focus too much on the budget angle of travel. I know that when my partner and I travel, it’s not what one would call budget – far from it. I also know that most of my friends are the same way. We tend to try to save money before the trip on hotels and airfare, and once we’re on our actual vacation we are content to spend a little more in order to have amazing experiences. More and more this is the norm. So do I want to see the Louvre on the 1st Sunday of the month when it’s free? Hell, no. Why? Because the rest of the city will be there with me, crowding me along as I try to enjoy the artwork. Instead I am more than happy to pay full entry fees or, better yet, hire a guide for a few hours who can either help me navigate it or get me into the facility in the off-hours, like several tour companies manage to do around the world. That’s worth it for me because I enjoy the experience more and I learn much more than I ever would being smothered by half of Paris. But that’s just one example; guidebooks it seems are full of budget tips and tricks, but not as much information for those willing to pay more for exceptional experiences. That needs to change and if it doesn’t soon, then the guidebooks may lose the next generation of travelers entirely.

Don’t get me wrong, I love guidebooks, I buy them frequently and almost always have them with me when I travel. I can’t imagine hauling out my iPad to look something up as I’m driving along in a new destination. No, you need an actual book for that. But how we travel and how we get the information we need for an amazing vacation is changing, and while I know the guidebook companies understand that, I don’t think they are innovating fast enough and in the end, no matter how useful they may be, at some point they will lose the information war if they don’t do something drastically different.

How do you use guidebooks when you travel?

By: Matt Long

Matt has a true passion for travel. As someone who has a bad case of the travel bug, Matt travels the world in order to share tips on where to go, what to see and how to experience the best the world has to offer.

8 thoughts on “A Few Things Guidebooks Always Get Wrong”

  1. Matt,

    Great article. I particularly loved the part about the guidebooks being aimed at budget travelers. It always amazes me when people choose to stand in long lines all day rather than spending a little extra to bypass the wait. I guess that comes from my MBA background. A simple cost-benefit analysis shows that a few extra bucks will get you more time (time being the most valuable commodity on earth!), time which can be spent seeing other sites. So you are able to leverage what really works out to a small amount of money (in relation to the overall cost of travelling) into actually experiencing more of what you traveled to see in the first place. In the early nineties my cousin and I spent three weeks traveling around western Europe. We originally planned on 4-5 weeks (based upon prices in the current guidebook) but once we got there we realized that if we cut a week or so out we could have a much better experience.

    I still look back on that trip as one of the best I ever took – I don’t think an extra week would have changed anything. In fact, my stories would probably me more along the lines of how bad the (cheap) food was and how tired we were from sleeping hard.

    Print media is certainly facing an uphill battle – I mean, we are speaking online aren’t we – and I imaginge guidebooks are feeling more than their share. You hit on one major reason for their struggles. By focusing on the budget, backpacker traveler they have chosen to market to a demographic who basically gets all their information online. A demographic who has eschewed print media. A guidebook that detailed the more personal experiences that you touch on would create more value for the type of person who would be inclined to purchase a hardcover book. Gary Arndt talks about selling “travel porn”, basically selling travel through beautiful images and descriptive text. Guide books would be better served focusing on this rather than the budget side of things.

    Then again, that’s what travel blogs are for!


    Dale Hampton

  2. Pauline Frommer

    Obviously I have a horse in this race, but your point about guidebooks not being updated each year is incorrect. It really depends on the series. At Frommers, we update all our most popular guides yearly. Right now, I’m dashing around New York City, trying all the new restaurants, ditching old ones that have lost their spark, and trying to find the places that will introduce readers to the zeitgeist of NYC right now. It’s a curated list of places that really are worth seeking out, usually because the food is superb (and I cover all price ranges, as do all our guides, and don’t assume all readers are budget travelers), and, in the case of NYC restos, because it may introduce you to foods you can’t find in your hometown (like Japanese specialties beyond sushi, Filipino foods, and Sri Lankan cuisine—all additions for 2016, that weren’t in the 2015 edition).

    I also mention, in my NYC guide, that going to museums on the free nights will also entail the most waiting in line, and the most crowds, so perhaps those are NOT the ideal times to go.

    As for the “tired advice”: in our writer’s guidelines we ask our authors very specifically to give the reader advice and context, not just a description of a historic sight (you don’t need us to know that you’re looking at a marble wall, but you might find it interesting to find out just how that massive slab of marble was transported to the site, before the time of electricity).

    Long story short: you may be reading the wrong guidebooks. Please don’t dismiss the entire genre based on these complaints as they truly don’t apply to every series.

    1. Thank you so much for adding your obviously unique point of view. I tried NOT to lump all guidebooks in the same bunch, and did include language to that effect in the post. I realize many are great, but many aren’t.

      1. Pauline Frommer

        I think you need to look at the differences series to series. Some update every three years, using a stable of travelers as writers. Others (like Frommers) update most of the books yearly, and use primarily local authors, so that we don’t give a “once over lightly treatment”. I’m a native NYer and I write the NYC guide, we have a Paris-based author for Paris, a Washington, DC-based author for DC, a Rome-based author for Rome, etc We have a few “parachute artists” who cover some destinations, but we hire folks who we know will do a thorough job. Jason Cochran is our London author (and also Editor in Chief of Frommers.com) and he’ll be in London for a full 5 weeks working. So please be careful of generalizations (like your headline “A few things guidebooks always get wrong”. Sorry to be so touchy.

  3. Pauline Frommer

    One more comment on hotels: I’ve seen the rooms in EVERY hotel I recommend and I do so anonymously. So when you take the advice from our guidebooks, you’re taking advice for someone who has some basis of comparison. We do NOT lift content from hotel websites, and frankly, seeing all those hotels is the most exhausting part of my job (and the job of Frommer’s writers). But we understand that it’s important because of the web competition we have. We have to offer a service that you won’t find by looking at a search engine (where the info is written either by the hotels themselves or by travelers who’ve been to exactly one hotel or by hotel staff masquerading as travelers).
    Hope you’ve been well Matt, and hope this wasn’t too long-winded.

  4. I agree on many points. Your comment about the Vatican hit home – when we were there in July, we left hot, tired, and frustrated, and without setting foot in St. Peter’s. We even thought we were doing things the right way to start off, with tickets to the Vatican Museum purchased in advance of even leaving home. Still, what I would have loved more than anything was for a book, or website, or anything to have said “When you get to the Vatican, the lack of signs will be frustrating. And there will be nothing that really tells you how to get to the Museum entrance as you approach the massive Piazzo San Pietro. So, before you go get in the massive security line you see in front of you, here’s how to get to the Vatican Museum.” And then, once inside, details showing how to get from the Sistine Chapel into the Basilica would have been helpful too. I knew this was possible, but without a guide, the fact that particular passage wasn’t signed became problematic, and we ended up more than an hour later, back outside, and faced with another long security line to get back in for the Basilica. So we left without seeing it, because we were just too hot and exhausted to deal with it.

    If I had to do it over again, we would have paid for a guide to take us through the Vatican. But very few sources go into the kind of detail we desired, or suggested spending the money for a guide.

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