Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Another anti-Lonely Planet rant: The dumbing down of travel guidebooks

I've blogged about Lonely Planet fairly often over the years - from musing over their future direction back in 2005, through wondering what would happen when they were 75% sold to BBC, to complaining about the Disney-isation of my formerly favourite guidebook publisher. This week as part of my work reviewing travel books, I took a good look through Lonely Planet's list of books they'll release in 2009, and I have to say, I wasn't overly impressed.

I accept that it's all about making business decisions (I'll accept it, although I don't like it), but it sure seems like Lonely Planet is overdoing it in targeting mainstream travellers. They have a bunch of city guides that they advertise as giving you "twice the city in half the time" - stuff like the Las Vegas Encounter or the Florence Encounter guides - which seem aimed at cramming all the "necessary" sightseeing into as short a time as possible. That's not what Lonely Planet used to be about, and it's not a style of travelling I like or want to see encouraged - it's usually poorly-informed, wasteful travel that leaves a big footprint without providing much in the way of learning and life experience for the travellers. Sorry to rant, but that's what a marketing phrase like "twice the city in half the time" makes me do.

To be honest, it's a long time since I bought any guidebook and I think that for me, the time of guidebooks might be pretty much over - I can collate my own information from many different sources, and love doing this kind of pre-trip research. However, I must admit to having borrowed the Adelaide & South Australia guide from my local library recently. Not because I needed actual travel details or information, but because I wanted to choose which part of South Australia we'll explore when we fly to Adelaide later this year. This old-style Lonely Planet guide had lots of nice commentary about the different regions and helped me with my choice. But I don't need to travel with it; and if the guides all go in the direction of the Encounter series then I won't even be borrowing them from the library in the future. I guess Lonely Planet has a lot more customers now, but a lot less customers who are people like me.

PS: In defence of Lonely Planet, I got a message from a LP staff member who mentioned that guides for Lombok, China, Jordan, Kenya, East Africa, Nicaragua, Afghanistan, Guatemala, Iran, Burma and Tibet are all in the 2009 catalogue too. Fair enough, I say; but I haven't changed my position on my dislike of the "twice the city, half the time" marketing strategy.


  1. I find the visitor's guides from the city I'm planning to go to to be pretty good. Or I check out a variety of different sites for information while planning a trip which unfortunately, have been few and far between over the past few years. If only I had the time and money to do what I really want to do in life.

  2. Chris, how true: "If only I had the time and money to do what I really want to do in life"! Of course I do pretty well at making my time and money stretch for travels but I could easily spend my whole life on the road and still not get everywhere I wanted to "properly". Thanks for your comment.

  3. I totally agree with you, Amanda. I used to be a Lonely Planet fan a long time ago, where there was no internet and LP was undoubtedly the best source of information available. But over the years, I started to notice big differences according to the destinations. While the guides on US, Canada and South America were still displaying a lot of useful information, the ones related to African countries were really poor. Sometimes, I was really asking myself if the writer had really been in the country... So I stopped to buy them. Too expensive for what they offer, while I can find a lot of updated information on the web. I might just go to the library to have a quick look and take some notes, but nothing more than that.
    I also share your view that travel guides are overall obsolete. But if I had to recommend one, I would point at the "Guide du Routard". It has a similar philosophy of what LP used to be, but (for the time being) has not lost its original spirit.

  4. Hey there
    We're travelling around the world and we totally agree with you!
    We have just written a mail to the Italian LP Staff about the problems that the Guide caused in our trip.
    Let's do by ourselves our guide with our tales or travellers blog!
    Rossella e Emanuele


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