Death of the guidebook?

Jan 22, 2012, 09:01 IST | Dhvani Solani

Are crowd-sourced websites, twitter tips, online hotel bookings, customised apps and blogs bursting with info that people swear by, killing the humble guidebook, once considered a traveller's Bible?

Are crowd-sourced websites, twitter tips, online hotel bookings, customised apps and blogs bursting with info that people swear by, killing the humble guidebook, once considered a traveller's Bible?

Twilight. The Eiffel Tower stood tall and erect behind her, pronouncing its grandeur in all its imposing and stately splendour. But Shivani Kapadia couldn't care less. Her mental snapshots of Paris were devoid of the customary sights and sounds.

24 year-old Adityan Kayalakal shows off his tablet, which he uses
on trips to find information
on-the-go. Pic/ Sameer Markande

"What I actually want to do when I am travelling is get into the skin of the city, and simply stare at daily life passing all around me, making me feel like part of it," says the 33 year-old kindergarten teacher who was visiting friends in Paris last year.

"Don't get me wrong. I love reading, and carry travel guidebooks for reference. But it's more convenient to just check into Foursquare on your smartphone, get a list of all the caf �s nearby, compare the reviews on TripAdvisor and then sit back at the recommended bistro with a wine bottle for company. Compare that with lugging around a 1,000-page guidebook and squinting in the sunlight to read the fine print," she says. Evidently, life, for some, is too short for a bad cup of coffee.

Kapadia is perhaps not the only traveller excited about having technology at her fingertips, quite literally. While she digs Foursquare, a location-based social networking website that gives users a list of venues nearby that they can 'check-into' and often get discounts at, it's hard to ignore the way technology is changing the way we travel and plan our trips.

Get the answers online
Rewind to 2007. Just five years ago, planning a trip, be it a quickie of a weekend or a long-term affair during a gap year, meant running to a nearby bookstore to shell out money to buy a Frommer's, Outlook Traveller or a Lonely Planet, apart from taking printouts of the online search hits. Today, when most of us have a smartphone, and many even flaunt a tablet, getting tips and trivia for free over the Internet has come to mean a lot more since we can actually carry them around wherever we go, without inconveniencing our tiny handbags.

The Internet, as they say, has answers to all life's questions.  What route is the most scenic, as compared to the shortest one? Where can I drink the best Singapore Sling in Singapore? Where can my wife dance on Chikni Chameli in an Amsterdam nightclub? How does dog meat actually taste? Answers to most questions, inane or inappropriate as they might sound, find their way into a million sources online, be it websites, blogs, user-generated content, discussion forums, podcasts, apps, tweets, Facebook groups or e-books, and multimedia features such as a GPS locator, audio and video.

"When there is that much free stuff online, why would you want to pay those couple of hundred bucks to buy guidebooks?" asks physiotherapist Sayali Gupta, who looks to escape the city the first chance she gets. "There is always an issue of credibility when you are looking at things online. But most of us are smart enough to differentiate between a plug and a genuine tip. All you need is to check different websites to shortlist the places you want to see and the things you want to do."

Not always the best
What's wrong with a guidebook? "It is most likely to give you information on a generic basis, something that anyone would like. But when you are doing your own research online, you can customise your itinerary to fit in your interests and hobbies, be it taking a culinary trail through Australia, a drive down the Konkan coast or one that takes you across the European places where famous authors have lived and worked," feels Gupta.

But what about the fact-checking and credibility that goes into the making of most good guidebooks? What about the independence from advertisers online? When there is that much information in terms of text, pictures and videos online, do you get a feeling like you know too much about a place before even getting there?
"Well, we are all dying under this information overload anyway," replies Kapadia, "and you often wish there was more quality control. But it's a small price to pay. It's better than all of us travellers ending up at the same caf �, restaurants, hotels, trails and sights just because a writer suggested it when he didn't have the time or the money to try out the rest."

Her words find echo in the  book Do Travel Writers Go to Hell?, published in April 2008. In it, ex-Lonely Planet freelancer Thomas Kohnstamm detailed how he had sold drugs to make ends meet as he researched a guide to Brazil, took freebies in return for positive coverage and recommended a restaurant at which a waitress had invited him to return for sex on a table after closing time.

The guidebook later noted that the restaurant "is a pleasant surprise ... and the table service is friendly". Are guidebooks -- this makes you wonder -- still the gospel truth? "No matter how honest it is, you can't expect a guidebook to provide the most recent information," feels 24 year-old Adityan Kayalakal, who works with an advertising agency. "Something as simple as sending out a tweet about your travel query can get you amazing personal experiences and tidbits that are not written about elsewhere."

That's exactly what he did when planning a month-long trip to Europe last year. He plodded through websites and blogs, and has relied on the same formula for an upcoming bachelor party for a friend in Bangkok. "From booking my hotels after reading the reviews on TripAdvisor to finding out what day is a good one to visit the Louvre or looking up the Paris Metro Line on the hotel website and having the concierge translate it for me, the digital medium has worked wonders for my trips." Of course, having a brand new BlackBerry tablet is set to make his experience even better.

PDFs and podcasts
This convenience could be why major guidebook publishers have started catering to the digital nomad. Log on to the Lonely Planet website and you will find that most of their guidebooks are now also available as Adobe PDF versions that can be downloaded on your phone, e-readers or laptops, often at a price cheaper than their print counterparts (Rs 720 for the print version of their Istanbul city guide, Rs 658 for the PDF version).

Apart from being able to download the planning, contents and index chapters for free, the Lonely Planet e-shop also gives you an option of buying PDFs of individual chapters so that you don't have to buy a guidebook for the whole country unnecessarily. While Fodor's and Frommer's also sell e-books, the best bet in the Indian travel series, Outlook Traveller, has no such option yet. iPhone users can take advantage of the Frommer's Travel Tool app which includes currency and measurement conversion tools, a packing list, flashlight, trivia games, and more.

Travel guidebook heavyweights like Fodor's too have gone the podcast way, offering a range of downloads that can take you on walking tours of a destination or tell you where the best spas are located. Still not convinced? We'll let a few statistics do the talking. During Iceland's volcanic ash crisis in 2010, 4.2 million free Lonely Planet apps covering 13 destinations were downloaded within four days. The Thorn Tree, Lonely Planet's online community is used by over 6,00,000 travellers and counting. How many guidebooks did you buy in the last two years?

Trip top
We quizzed people who travel for a living, to find out where they get their dose of vital stats and information from. Here's what the travel gurus had to say. Feel free to take a pointer or two.

"Many adventure destinations are not covered extensively by either the Internet or guidebooks. We rely on a library and travel websites. Books are usually more committed to the information they give out, and you can depend on them for knowledge of the altitude of the places, the villages en route, climate, etc. Usually, there is conflict of data across different websites and blogs, and so, when we need to be absolutely sure, we resort to a guidebook. Written material while travelling is nice, since your phone or laptop might not always have access to the Internet. And most of us like to keep away from our phones while travelling, anyway. Travel website Indiamike (.com) is a good resource.
"Have written material on you while travelling to remote locations."
- Jayesh Morvankar, Odati Adventures

"The size and weight of guidebooks are a deterrent for smart travellers. You are spending so much on your holiday, why would you want to spend more on a guidebook that usually is not cheap on the pocket? The printed word, I believe, is more for the relaxed traveller who is heavily involved in seeing the sights. Personally, I find the format of a guidebook too textbook-ish to enjoy. I'd rather pick up a travel book like Seven Years in Tibet if I were travelling to Tibet, than a staid guidebook. What's dependable are the tourism department websites, rather than blogs, since those are too personal."
"I find the format of guidebooks too textbook-ish to enjoy."
- Sumitra Senapaty, The WOW Club -- Women on Wanderlust

"I use a combination of the Internet and guidebooks for information. While guidebooks tell you more about established places, blogs help you discover new places. Blogs are great because they are usually specialised, be it writing about culinary journeys or travels around Europe. Guidebooks getting replaced by the digital format depends on where you are. If I'm going to Myanmar, and am not sure of my smartphone working there, I'd rather carry a guidebook. But when I go to places like Spain or Italy, I carry my iPad. Take prints as a backup. They can really save your life in a new country. The CouchSurfing and TripAdvisor websites and the Thorn Tree travel forum are very resourceful."
"Blogs are a way of discovering newer places."
- Yogi Shah, The Backpacker Co

"When I am planning to go to a new place, I keep my eyes on it for six months during which I look up websites, newspapers, magazines, blogs and many different sources. Usually, I try establishing contact with a local, who may or may not be in the travel industry. I use CouchSurfing to contact locals, and scour blogs since they often have authentic and offbeat information. I corroborate this with other sources and information off the Internet, so there is no conflict in the facts at hand. Getting in touch with tourism departments to know about the local flavour of life and the culture is a good idea too. I haven't really felt the need to use a guidebook."
"I haven't really felt the need to use a guidebook."
- Vipul Chheda, Kshitij World

Old school charm

"Guidebooks give you direction and put things in perspective while helping you stay focused," says Keith Menon (26), partner at Spiro Spero that is into designs, concepts and events, and co-founder of AWOL -- Away w/o Leave, a social experiment to help youngsters dealing with quarter-life crisis using travel. "Even in places like Goa which I've visited often, I trust a guidebook." He's adds though that he prefers to research places that are not conventional tourist traps on the Internet.

Backing him is Madhur Patil (21), an engineering student based in Pune, who plans an annual foreign vacation with her family. "If the guidebook is too heavy, we photocopy relevant pages and take them with us," she says. "You have so many options online that it can drive you crazy. A guidebook gives me the relevant bits, like when the museum of my choice is shut or how to best see Barcelona in three days. There are disappointments too, when the places mentioned have shut down or been replaced, but those are few and far between."

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