We used to have these things called books, and some told you where to go
March 20, 2013 11:16 AM   Subscribe

Does BBC Worldwide's sale of Lonely Planet at an £80 million loss (after writing down its value by £67 million over 6 years), on top of Google's purchase of Frommer's last year, herald the end of travel guidebooks?

Of course, some have been wondering this for years already.
posted by gottabefunky (51 comments total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Disappointingly, Google Goggles are not physical goggles, or glasses of any kind,
posted by KokuRyu at 11:21 AM on March 20, 2013

posted by ChurchHatesTucker at 11:24 AM on March 20, 2013 [3 favorites]

I hope not. Guidebooks don't have international roaming charges, don't run out of batteries, and don't require a reboot when they start crashing randomly.

Besides, I just like them.
posted by selfnoise at 11:24 AM on March 20, 2013 [23 favorites]

With the portability of smartphones and tablets, I think guidebooks are becoming outdated, yes. Tripadvisor, map and language-learning apps are what we used for our latest trips.
posted by misha at 11:25 AM on March 20, 2013 [1 favorite]

Ask Metafilter is the best travel guidebook that I know of. It's been a completely indispensable planning reference for every trip that I've planned during the past 2-3 years.

Nothing else even comes close.
posted by schmod at 11:26 AM on March 20, 2013 [5 favorites]

There will always be guidebooks, but as the massive market they once were, probably not. I mean, you could find 20 travel guides to Yosemite National Park. Does the world need that many of these books? That's the problem, that publishing costs have gone down, lowering the barrier to entry and diluting the value of these books.
posted by GuyZero at 11:26 AM on March 20, 2013 [4 favorites]

I still like physical guidebooks. I make heavy notes and use them like a travel journal, sticking in ticket stubs and things. Years later you can pull them out and revisit with an actual artifact from your travels.

Of course when I travel one of the greatest luxuries is going sans electronic devices.
posted by 2bucksplus at 11:26 AM on March 20, 2013 [5 favorites]

Does the rule for newspaper headline questions hold true for Metafilter post questions as well? If so: no.
posted by bq at 11:26 AM on March 20, 2013 [1 favorite]

Guidebooks are great for learning more about a place but even with phones and tablets i pefer to mark up a paper map with routes points of interest etc
posted by The Whelk at 11:29 AM on March 20, 2013

Books are the opposite of computers, which is why we can only have one of them in the world.
posted by DU at 11:30 AM on March 20, 2013 [6 favorites]

Anyway, I would be curious to hear about how the websites for these books are doing. We do "local" marketing for hotels and attractions, and, besides NAP, getting listed with Frommers and the websites of other guides is really important.
posted by KokuRyu at 11:31 AM on March 20, 2013

From his castle made of weed, Rick Steves laughs maniacally (or at least as maniacal as a Lutherin can laugh) from behind his metal mask, "Fools! Don't they know that guidebooks are nothing without a brand, an ethos behind it?" He raises an iron-clad fist to the heavens to order another glass of room temperature tap water. At first, he gulps greedily, rivulets of water running down his face, but then as thoughts of those competitors that have departed swell, he slows, melancholy.

"Richards," he mumbles into the last dregs of his drink. "Richardsssss..."
posted by robocop is bleeding at 11:33 AM on March 20, 2013 [10 favorites]

They'll survive until travel.metafilter.com finally gets rolled out (again), then they're all doomed.

(Note: Ask Metafilter travel locations is probably the closest we'll get to a dedicated travel sub-site)
posted by filthy light thief at 11:35 AM on March 20, 2013 [1 favorite]

I had no idea that LP had even been bought by anyone, let alone BBC Worldwide. But then, I got laid off in 2002 and didn't really keep up with the company.

Guidebooks definitely have their uses, not that we really used any for our recent Southwest US tour. We checked things in guidebooks before we left, but mostly kept resources on our phones/laptops. LP did have a free short ebook that covered some of the places we were planning on going, so I threw that on my kindle instead of bringing a physical book along.
posted by rtha at 11:35 AM on March 20, 2013

I used lonely planet as my bible in Central America and it rarely steered me wrong, (except for one hostel in Granada which had taken a real turn for the worse.) It's better at general advice on travel and culture than it is at specific recommendations these days, though. I started to rely on trip advisor and wikitravel more often as the trip went on, though. I actually had my book lifted from me twice at hostels and had to track down newer copies. It was the only thing anyone actually stole from me, other than a windbreaker.
posted by empath at 11:38 AM on March 20, 2013

I actually find that you can be too reliant on guidebooks, to your detriment. On my last trip, I had a lot of guidebooks - but after a couple days I found that I was getting too reliant on them, and falling into a trap of making checklists of things to see like it was freakin' homework. After a couple days I decided to just ditch the guidebook and do what I felt like, and went to go spend a day riding the narrowboats in Regent Canal and taking pictures of ducks and felt much better.

And actually, having physical books helped me get to that point sooner; I'd leave the books behind at the hostel, and wouldn't be tempted to check them against my "progress" during the day. If I'd had a smartphone I would have been too tempted to keep doing that.

Planning a trip to Rome and Florence now, and while I've checked a few books for some important facts (like, "avoid the vatican museum on Mondays"), I'm keeping the checklist to a minimum and will rely more on whim and serendipity, which actually is always the best part.


I actually never was all that into Lonely Planet anyway. The name alone sounded kind of...depressing.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 11:39 AM on March 20, 2013 [1 favorite]

I advice folks traveling overseas to get a local SIM with data service. I did this in the last country I visited that had non-english language that dominated (ie: all signs/written word).

My travel experience was completely changed by google maps. Subway navigation (I set the place I was setting on the outside of town as 'home' and then wandered the city until I needed to get home) was easy and painless....

Even better, random exploration was seemless... Sure I had to figure out what areas of town would be fun to hang out in, but once I was there I just typed in, lets say 'thrift shop' and had google maps tell me to walk 3 blocks straight and one block left until I was in an old funky thrift store.

I never want to travel without connectivity again.

(minus side - my phone at the time didn't have removable batteries, so I needed to either a:) get home before the battery ran out, or b:) find a place to charge my battery. With a dead battery I was completely lost, not a great feeling).
posted by el io at 11:41 AM on March 20, 2013 [2 favorites]

Guidebooks are pretty obsolete for restaurants and hotels/hostels nowadays. The options change too fast, and just being listed in a popular guidebook often makes them less appealing. HostelWorld and yelp and TripAdvisor are much better.

For attractions, I think they are still useful. To know what's in a town to see, and whether it's worth it is something good to know, that's not easily matched by the internet.
posted by smackfu at 11:42 AM on March 20, 2013

I hate the way that books are static (whereas a web site can be updated), but at least I can plan for that (whereas you never know quite when a web site drifted to a stop).

Books don't need power, can be used to hold paper documents, and don't have licensing restrictions. I still have the Rick Steve book that helped me prepare for my first European trip in 1988, and others since. I love them as ephemera and impromptu scrapbooks and sloppy travel journals.
posted by wenestvedt at 11:44 AM on March 20, 2013

yeah, pretty much. I expect a move toward being able to pick-and-choose locations and interests and printing on demand if you really want to.
posted by Zed at 11:45 AM on March 20, 2013

Some enhanced digital Frommer's guides are available via Inkling. The survival of travel guidebook brands will depend on how much they invest in developing innovative and interactive (but still reliable) e-books/apps/whatever. The printed books will persist, but they will be secondary to the digital product, possibly printed on demand to ensure the most up to date information.
posted by Kabanos at 11:50 AM on March 20, 2013 [1 favorite]

The maps were what really helped me more than anything else. You can't wander around, say Santa Ana in El Salvador, holding out your iPhone when you get off the bus looking for a hostel. There was one point in my trip in Nicaragua where I got stuck on a bus for 12 hours on a rural highway when a highway was blocked by a protest, and I was going to have to hitch-hike to a different city than I had planned on going to. I could have used the guide book in that situation to find a hostel and orient myself when I wouldn't have had print outs, and either carrying around an iPhone or trying to find an Internet cafe that was open late at night would have been less than optimal. Luckily, some passengers walked with me to an open bus station to where I wanted to go, but having the book with me made the whole thing less stressful- I knew I could figure something out. There's basically no way I would spend any amount of time in a developing country without a hard copy of a guide book, even if I primarily use things like trip advisor.

The other thing it's useful for is having conversations in hostels with strangers, because you can pull out the book to make plans, which again, is not as easy with spotty cell or wifi service, or in places where pulling out a 400 dollar phone or tablet isn't smart. I also had a neat conversation with a local woman in rural El Salvador on a bus who wanted to practice her English, so she read the section on her fairly small home town with me, telling me things that the book missed, and also reading about what foreigners thought of her little town, which was way off the beaten path.

There are just a lot of cases where having the book is extremely helpful, if not necessarily essential.
posted by empath at 11:51 AM on March 20, 2013 [1 favorite]

Ah - agreed with Zed - the Frommer's guides linked to above already give the option of buying individual chapters, so this might be a natural transition to customized travel books.
posted by Kabanos at 11:53 AM on March 20, 2013 [1 favorite]

A printed guidebook is out-of-date as soon as it's published. Online sources update much faster, and... Google Maps.

We bring along a guidebook as a backup, just in case the devices fail to work.

On preview: What zed said. There's still opportunity for publishers.

How about in addition to a POD guide, offer the guide as an app with robust trip planning, itinerary management, and mapping? And links to relevant info (history, architecture, flora and fauna) along the way, wherever you happen to be ("What's that?" "It's probably a cormorant." "No, what's that bird standing on?" "It's the remains of the BelShore Swimhouse"). And a place to manage and share your trip photos and videos. And another place to track all your travel and lodging details.
posted by notyou at 11:55 AM on March 20, 2013

the Frommer's guides linked to above already give the option of buying individual chapters, so this might be a natural transition to customized travel books.

Oh, see, yeah, the ability to put together customized travel books are something I'd consider an e-reader for. I don't need the sections on sports or nightlife, thanks...
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 11:57 AM on March 20, 2013 [1 favorite]

If I were going to fix it, I'd cut out all the recommendations for restaurants and hostels for each town except for a 'safe bet' at each price range- one that is reliably clean and safe- and refer people to the website for more options. I'd include more maps, more background information about the towns and culture, more suggested itineraries, more phrases in the local language, ideas for backup plans if your plans go sideways, more pictures and more conversation starters. For a lot of travelers this is the only book they carry, so treating it more as a tool than a reference would be a good thing. They should assume the travelers will be using it supplemented by the Internet, so they should design it as 'what you want or need in an unfamiliar place when the Internet isn't convenient'.
posted by empath at 12:04 PM on March 20, 2013 [2 favorites]

Pros of e-guides: Lonely Planet maps have always been about as useful and accurate as my horoscope.

Pros of printed guidebooks: On day five of having explosive diarrhea in a Godforsaken hole, you discover that you can't wipe your arse on a Kindle.
posted by quarsan at 12:08 PM on March 20, 2013 [1 favorite]

...Another vote in favor of e-guides - you can pretend you're Ford Prefect.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 12:15 PM on March 20, 2013

... you discover that you can't wipe your arse on a Kindle.

posted by Kabanos at 12:15 PM on March 20, 2013

There are still a lot of places where tourists don't often go, and so it's hard to crowd-source information about them, at least from the perspective of a visitor. I'm planning a trip to such a place now, and there is just very little. It's hard to imagine this changing much in the near future.

The best information I've found so far has been in a guidebook. Someone paid someone to describe the place, and published it. That's something I think will still be valuable for out-of-the-way places -- although whether the market remains big enough to support it, I don't know.

An ebook would be pretty equivalent except that those can malfunction and you need to keep them charged... and if you get them wet they can be destroyed rather than made a little wrinkly.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 12:15 PM on March 20, 2013 [1 favorite]

Remember TripTiks from AAA? You'd go and tell them where you were going and they'd put together this map just for your route and highlight it and mark out attractions along the way?

Still around and now available online. We used it ("them"?) a couple of years ago for a road trip to Fort Collins, CO (from Long Beach, CA). The interface was a little clunky. We printed out our itinerary and made changes to it online via a laptop after we'd left and an October snowstorm pushed us south.
posted by notyou at 12:16 PM on March 20, 2013 [1 favorite]

From the article: " Of course the poet might still be there, but more likely is that he made his own great journey, one like nobody else's. "

It's always a bit off for me when rich westerners wax poetic about their vacations (sorry 'journeys') in poor countries as if they had some sort of greater spiritual significance. Travelling's fun, but let's not get overly caught up in our own awesomeness.
posted by signal at 12:20 PM on March 20, 2013

Aha! I go to Wikipedia and Wikitravel, and click the "Print/Export" > "Create a book" option on the left. Then I add articles of interest about the destination to the book. Then I download it as a PDF. Then I email it to my Kindle account, so it appears on my tiny, light-weight Kindle, which won't need charging for the week of vacation (or I can just take a charger).

We also get the awesome DK guides, because they are short and have the main cool things to see and have pictures and maps of the things you're looking at so you can easily orient yourself. For detail we have the Kindle with all the Wiki info.

We're Western tourists, and happy to do Western tourist stuff. We do not believe we can get to know the locals or the city we're visiting in a week, and that's fine by us. We're here to see your museum/castle/bridge/palace.
posted by alasdair at 12:26 PM on March 20, 2013 [4 favorites]

Guidebooks don't require electricity or bandwith to work; of course the technology companies are against them. On the other hand, the electronic versions are updated rather quickly in comparison.
posted by Renoroc at 12:35 PM on March 20, 2013

I used to work in a bookstore and the sheer number of travel guides we offered always boggled me. I understand the utility, but having 6 different guides to Nicaragua always struck me as excessive. But I'm the traveler that wanders around with his iPhone out to find things so what do I know.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 12:48 PM on March 20, 2013 [1 favorite]

One possible next-gen model I'd endorse is something like the "Not For Tourists" guides. I believe they started in NYC, and in any case their compact, crazily info-dense and perfectly mapped New York guide is indispensable for me as a semi-frequent business/working holiday traveler to the city. Even in Manhattan -- maybe the most information-dense place in the world, where the hardest thing for a visitor is sifting through the sheer volume of opinions and reviews and advice about what's good and what's hip now and so on and so forth -- the Not For Tourists guide provides a service nothing digital can yet equal.

The key is that the core info is (relatively) timeless and perfectly presented: landmarks, sights, institutions (both formal and informal), essential services, all on very compact little maps, all with just enough background info or editorial advice to amount to its own distinct package. Flipping from the map page for Greenwich Village to the one for Park Slope as you ride the subway between them is 100 times more efficient than trying to track your progress on a Google Map or flip through e-reader pages. And the book's barely bigger than a smartphone itself.

Here's a case in point as to why it works: If I've got a meeting in a part of the city I've never spent any time in -- let's say Chelsea -- and I want to grab lunch ahead of that meeting, I do not necessarily want to sift through a thousand Yelp/Zagat/Chowhound recommendations and cross-reference with a Google Map and doublecheck to see the latest word on this hipper-than-thou boite I'm being pointed to. I want to know: If you lived in Chelsea for 10 years, and someone was blowing through Chelsea and wanted a great longstanding local eatery to grab lunch in, what would your suggestions be. NFT nails that kind of recommendation almost every time.

I'm reasonably sure its contributors are longtime New Yorkers, which is what differentiates it from most guidebooks, where the authors are often not resident in the regions they write about. That deep native knowledge, plus the sheer density of info and functionality -- yes, print still does things digital can't do on those fronts -- make it a really solid model for the 21st century guidebook.
posted by gompa at 12:51 PM on March 20, 2013 [1 favorite]

I don't have a data plan on my phone, but last summer I managed to travel across the country just fine with a Trip-tik, maps and only the occasional internet connection at night once I had checked in. But I reckon I'm old-school.
posted by suburbanbeatnik at 12:54 PM on March 20, 2013

I just got back from a trip to Hawaiʻi and I have to say, the Blue Guide from Wizard Publications was a revelation. Funny, insightful, useful, and very very local; I felt like I got real inside info on the place. It's an independent guide but published very professionally and seriously and, for whatever reason, is the most popular guidebook people buy for Hawaiʻi. It's fantastic and makes me think the formulaic blandness of Fodor or Frommer's or Lonely Planet deserves to die.

On the flip side I'm friends with one of the founders of Triposo, a mobile electronic guide. It's mostly assembled from online open licensed content, like Flickr and WikiTravel, then algorithmically crunched down to a useful downloadable guide. Quality varies, but I've found it a useful adjunct to other guides.
posted by Nelson at 1:09 PM on March 20, 2013 [2 favorites]

Guidebooks don't have international roaming charges, don't run out of batteries, and don't require a reboot when they start crashing randomly.

This, very much so. Also, guidebooks (and paper maps) can be stashed in a backpack, I don't have to worry about them getting cracked or crushed, and they continue to work far outside of cell tower range.
posted by gimonca at 1:15 PM on March 20, 2013

It's not an either/or situation, though. I use Tripadvisor heavily before going anywhere, then make sure I have a book with me on the plane, then I often buy a small guide or paper map locally after getting where I'm going.

One thing that's always puzzled me about Lonely Planet is how dull and empty their online discussion areas seem to be. You'd think with a big brand like theirs, they'd attract more attention and activity.

I *loved* Lonely Planet in the 80s and 90s.
posted by gimonca at 1:23 PM on March 20, 2013

I think guidebooks will be around for a long time. In my family I'm the one to do research before a trip, but everybody else still has an opinion.
Having a professionally put together summary of a location you can hand somebody as we get on the plane is useful.
I like the DK eyewitness guides for the broad brush and the internet/askme/tripadvisor for the detail.
posted by bystander at 2:14 PM on March 20, 2013

While there are a lot of things that can be approved in travel guides, I think the kind of traveler you are and where you're going can affect their utility. Apps and google maps are great, but if you're traveling to a place with unreliable / exorbitant / non existent internet, that is just not an option. Especially when you're a lone female traveler, you can't risk having no information in a place like Brunei or Uganda (even if guidebook information can be a little outdated). I think i'll always be a guidebook user (along with other internet resources) for any travel to a less than first world country.
posted by CPAGirl at 2:25 PM on March 20, 2013

I think there's still room for guidebooks, but they have to have a personal voice and can't be generic like Lonely Planet or Frommer's. For example, I just bought the book Hawaii: The Big Island Revealed, which is primarily written by one person, Andrew Doughty. I love reading the book, because he seems very warm, human and funny -- like getting advice from a trusted friend. He's not afraid to write negative reviews of places and puts everything in context. Maybe there's no more room for guidebooks like Lonely Planet that are written by a bunch of different writers -- that's the sort of thing that web forums and blogs can much more easily replace.
posted by peacheater at 2:29 PM on March 20, 2013 [2 favorites]

The thing that makes me sad about e-books is that you can't lend them to anyone once you're done with them. Any time I've traveled i've found that sharing with strangers is where the real learning takes place. Something about expanding your humanity, learning humility and participating in the aspects of life that come free to all humans.
An e-book can never get passed along a string of travelers, getting tattered and gathering little notes in the margins, becoming a souvenir of lived travel. to me traveling is about stepping out of the virtual and into the reality of being human. Personal, individualized technology seems to get in the way of this, in my stubborn luddite opinion.
posted by winterportage at 2:44 PM on March 20, 2013

When I did most of my active wandering in the late 80s and early 90s, I used the Lonely Planet books almost exclusively. So did every other multi-year backpacker, pretty much. Your main source of useful information was other people you met on the road, and the books were lifelines when you didn't have any good info, or tools for general planning. They were portable paper databases, basically, and wildly variable in their accuracy and currency (something which was well-known to the people using them).

I don't expect that travelling -- except in the most remote places -- has anything like the feel it used to back then. Always being connected, exchanging emails and skype calls and stuff with the people 'back home' -- I don't know, it would take a lot of the adventure, the feeling of being out on a hero's quest of some kind, and attenuate it nearly down to nothing, for me at least. Maybe I'm wrong -- I'm sure there are compensations to it being more difficult to get truly lost.

I'm kind of glad I did most of my traipsing around the planet back in the old days, though, when I could return to Canada for a few months every year or two, tanned and haggard and beaming, have joyous reunions, tell my tales to my friends over many bottles of booze, make a few bucks, then head out again out of their lives, in search of mystery and fun.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 4:05 PM on March 20, 2013 [4 favorites]

rtha: I had no idea that LP had even been bought by anyone, let alone BBC Worldwide. But then, I got laid off in 2002 and didn't really keep up with the company.

Oakland? We must have worked together, even though I stupidly quit before I got the layoff package. I still remember giving Maureen Wheeler (and all of her perfume. So much perfume!) a ride somewhere in my car.
posted by Duffington at 4:50 PM on March 20, 2013

Couple of things: So Lonely Planet has a pretty awesome web presence as well, or rather I should say they traditionally had some awesome discussion fora, until some new year kerfuffles. Haven't hit Thorntree in a while, must admit; prefer specific region-specific fora such as IndiaMike and so on to get better information.

TripAdvisor is great, but it isn't a replacement for what Lonely Planet (the books) does (do); the thing they do best is to give you this historico-geographical *narrative* for a town. So you read the highly summarized but effective history, stare at the respective city's map, decide on your own limited itinerary (possibly based on LP's recommended two- or three-day itinerary) and hit the ground. Don't really find the hotel / restaurant recommendations that useful lately, to be honest; especially here in Asia, the pace at which new guest houses/ hotels etc crop up is too fast for LP, which does updates roughly every two-years max. Of course, the ultimate in an LP guidebook are the specials; the guide for Angkor Wat is hands-down the best I've seen anywhere. TripAdvisor just doesn't do itineraries that well.

Seen in that sense, LP guidebooks face a bigger threat from Wikitravel than TripAdvisor or Yelp. Wikitravel often has bad grammar, and poorly written pieces, but you get the gist of what a place has to offer very well. So if you're looking for a a checklist to start with but want to do your own thing on the ground, so to speak, it's actually quite useful.
posted by the cydonian at 4:37 AM on March 21, 2013


posted by rtha at 5:32 AM on March 21, 2013

The Lonely Planet's treatment of its forum is a classic case of how not to do community management. But travel has changed, their discussion board is not what it was.
posted by quarsan at 2:16 PM on March 24, 2013

Don't really find the hotel / restaurant recommendations that useful lately, to be honest; especially here in Asia, the pace at which new guest houses/ hotels etc crop up is too fast for LP, which does updates roughly every two-years max

The other trouble is that the limited space in a print book and their expanded scope usually means they will list a couple of hostels, a couple of cheap hotels, a couple of nice hotels, and the very best expensive hotel. If you are only hitting hostels, and those two are full (because they are in the LP), then you need some kind of alternative anyways. And eventually you start going to the alternative first.
posted by smackfu at 6:01 AM on March 25, 2013

« Older Tiny eagles eating fish   |   How To Have The Best Pregnancy Ever Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments