On Travel Guides and Paywalls

MikeachimLunacy, Travel8 Comments


A Guide To (And Thoughts On) Travel Guide Books

1. I’ve heard it said that travel guide books started with Arthur Frommer’s Europe on $5 A Day (so gloriously celebrated / sent up last year in Doug Mack’s Europe On 5 Wrong Turns A Day). This is a bit like saying music started with the gramophone record. For example, The Periplus of the Erythraean Sea is a 1st-Century travel guide. More? OK – if you squint and close one eye, Herodotus was a travel guide author, although judging from some of his “eye-witness accounts” of mythical beasts and impossible magics on his travels, he may have been an ancient Greek equivalent of Thomas Kohnstamm. I could go on.

2. Modern travel guide sales are apparently on the wane. As in, “off a cliff”. Travel guide publishers are undergoing dramatic changes. Lonely Planet has just changed hands, and the current owner of Frommer’s, Google, looks all set to pull the plug.

3. Millions of hectares of news print have been devoted to this decline. Why is this happening? Can it be stopped? There are obvious talking-points – “Because of travel blogs and Wikipedia” – and obvious counter-points – “What travel blog can possibly measure up in rock-solid reliability and professionalism to a fiercely edited guide book?” – and counter-counter-points – “A guide book which is out of date the second it’s printed?” – and then probably some kind of fight breaks out and people have to be separated. (Yes, even on Twitter.)

4. I’ve never written for a guide book publisher, I have very little idea how they’re put together and I have yet to make a living selling books.

5. In 2007, on the train from London to Paris and from Paris to Bari (Italy), and then on the ferry from Bari to Patras (Greece), and then in various hotel rooms and on ferries for the following fortnight, I read the 11th edition of the Rough Guide to Greece. It’s a brick of a book weighing approximately 300 kg (I’m just guessing here – it may weigh a lot more) and I used it to get cheap accommodation on Naxos, to get an affordable slap-up dinner on Crete and to navigate my way round Athens when I was sweaty and tired and completely uninterested in anything but getting to my hotel room and collapsing. But I also read it. I read it pretty much cover to cover. It’s readable.

6. I went on Twitter and asked for suggestions for well-written guide books. Travel writer Freda Moon pointed me towards this:

Freda Moon @FredaMoon  >>@Mikeachim I’ve read the classic “People’s Guide to Mexico” cover-to-cover. Twice. http://amzn.to/10olnvt 


7. How many modern travel guides are designed to be read right through, front to back? And what would be the result of designing them in this way a little better?

8. Why do we read something right through? Because we’re hooked and we want to see how it ends.

9. So, we’re into storytelling – that thing that still sells books, and always will.

10. In what ways could travel guides embrace good storytelling and still retain the thing they’re most famous for – being dependably accurate and useful? Would storytelling get in the way of that, since storytelling is so subjective? And could this new wave of travel books be steered out of the dust-gathering reference sections of online bookshops and into areas where titles are [online equivalent of “flying off the shelves”]?

Further Reading: Robert Reid, author of a hefty chunk of Lonely Planet‘s output, explains exactly what guidebooks are for.


The Telegraph has just announced that it is extending its international paywall model to its UK audiences – the first British newspaper to do so.

Inspired by this terrific development, I’d like to announce that as from today, I will be putting myself  behind a metered paywall as well.

Not this blog – which will remain free until the day I die or finally get to sell out as I’ve always dreamed of doing, whichever comes first.

No. I mean me. So. Here’s how it works:

Non-subscribers (aka. “Fools”)

My first 20 “interactions” with you this month will be as normal (amiable, reasonably open-minded, occasionally somewhat useful, more by chance than anything else, let’s face it). 

If you choose to engage me beyond this free allowance, I will become cold, aggressively distant, unhelpful, nonspecific, cynical and generally an unreliable pain in the ass.

I will also interrupt our conversation to read out adverts which you will either have to sit through or pay me £1 to skip.

Subscribers (aka. “Friends”)

For just £4.99 a month,  I will be the best friend you could ever ask for.

And if you sign up for my Pro plan (£14.99 a month), I will send you a Vimeo link of myself erasing all the data I have collected on you, all the times you have visited my site. All of it. Even…you know….all that other stuff you were doing online.

(Big shout out to Facebook for helping me set that up – worked an absolute dream, guys).

The question is – do you think I’m worth it?

(The answer is Yes, but I’ll let you approach it your own way. Just don’t take too long. I have bills to pay).

Image: The Travelling Bum
  • One of my favourite ‘Not a travel book’ travel book, which is full of stories, is Tree of Rivers, by John Hemming. The story of the Amazon. I started it on before a trip to the Amazon a few years ago and was so engrossed I didn’t put it down except when absolutely necessary on my 20 hour journey. Currently in New York visiting son at grad school . Done the main sights so relying heavily on Lonely Planet to occupy my time when he is in class. And find some good places to feed him when he is not! The scribbles in my book will be as good a souvenir as my photos.

  • I imagine that guidebook felt like 300kg by the time you were home again! My first stop in planning or dreaming up a trip is a “dead tree” guide. Sure websites, blogs, chapters for your reader are handy but there is something essentially so present about holding open the Moon or the LP or the Rough guide in your hands and reading. Forgive me for being one of those tired old saws who is bemoaning the loss of print.

    I travel with a e-reader (the one that begins with a K and ends with Amazon) because it saves weight in my suitcase or back (meaning I can carry home more shiny bits from where I’ve been) but I miss reading books. Real books on paper.

  • Last weekend I went on my first trip trying to use an e-reader guidebook (also on an indle-Kay), and I was surprised at how much worse an experience it was than having a paper one. Finding the information I wanted was difficult, the maps were unreadable (and of course I couldn’t mark them up) and it didn’t lend itself to easy reading.

  • I found that many guide books are not kept up to date
    This is annoying.
    I rather explore the area as that is the most important reason and essence of going aBROAD

  • I’ve actually never purchased a print copy of a guidebook before. I’ve always relied on the internet (and a lot of research on my part) to discover the best things to do and places to go. This has worked well in the past, because most of my travels have been in the US (allowing me to use the gps/map feature on my phone to get around while I’m there).

    My mom and I are doing a mother/daughter trip to Europe this summer (my first time across the pond, and my mom’s first time since the ’70s), and we won’t have use of a data plan while we are there – therefore no gps/map on the phone.

    I’ve found the TripAdvisor city guide app is pretty helpful, and can be used “offline”. While this app will help with a map of Paris, Amsterdam, or Venice, it is not available everywhere and I’m still looking for an alternative for various cities in Poland (Krakow, Warsaw, and Wroclaw). Perhaps a guidebook would be the right choice in this instance.

  • I don’t if i cud ever get myself to read a guidebook, and that too cover to cover. I think it’s a mental block, the assumption that I can’t possibly find anything in there that i cannot find online. Damn…that kinda sucks !

  • Our longtime favourite is ageless “Molvanîa: A Land Untouched by Modern Dentistry.” It better than all the rest of them altogether.

  • Travel Guides are great and a tremendous amount of research has gone into them, but they can be a little patronizing at times. They are not the bibles that they are made out to be, and are often out of date before they are published.