Getting the most out of a guidebook

by Steve Brock on February 21, 2011

We never would have found these ancient - and secluded - friary ruins in Ireland had we not read about them in a single guidebook: none of the half dozen other guidebooks we had noted them. That meant we had the entire place to ourselves...and the cows and sheep.

What’s so meaningful about a guidebook? Nothing really. It’s what you do with it that will determine if the outcome is meaningful or not.

In today’s interconnected world, you wonder if the guidebook itself is becoming an anachronism, a throwback to a time when people read actual newspapers and a social network usually involved a potluck. So I’m less concerned with the medium in which the information is presented – books, printouts of PDFs, downloadable e-books, podcasts, phone apps or live access to Web sites while traveling. The question to me is this: Is the content of value to the traveler?

I know of some travelers who say no.

Those who oppose guidebooks say that such aids:

  • Prevent or at least hinder personal discovery
  • Lead you to the same places everyone else goes and reinforce stereotypes
  • Err on the side of the safe, tried and true international hotels and restaurants rather than local ones, or, when they do come across an indigenous find, they ruin it by telling everyone. That hidden gem then becomes as private as a Royal Wedding.

 I agree with those points to some degree. But to me, it all comes down to how you use a guidebook. Here are some thoughts on how to get the most from written guides (we’ll save the subject of live tour guides for another time):

  • Realize that all discovery is personal. Just because a million people have been to the same place before doesn’t make it any less meaningful for you the first time you go there.
  • Use the guidebook as a starting point. Use it to identify places and events that sound interesting to you and to avoid those that don’t. The primary value to me of a guidebook is that it saves me time. Think of it as a filter, not the final word on what to see.
  • Don’t settle for just one perspective. As I noted last time, I always go to the library and check out as many guidebooks as I can. I’ll usually end up buying one or two to take or photocopy (or more recently, download onto a Kindle), but I only purchase the one that most aligns with my style, needs for this particular trip and travel sensibilities. Look over several and find what works for you.
  • Focus on both the similarities and differences. Most guidebooks will overlap 80-90% in what they cover, at least in terms of the sights to see. That 90% will include the popular, touristy places. But read carefully for the other 10%. In the details listed in only one book, you often encounter some of the most interesting finds, places you’d never discover on your own. 
  • Cast your guidebook aside once you get your bearings. Guidebooks serve well to provide you with background, an initial orientation and some possible places to consider you might never find on your own. But once you get there, you’ll experience more meaningful encounters through talking with locals and other travelers and making your own discoveries. 

 All of the above points matter, but here’s the main reason I use guidebooks: They prime me for openness.

That may seem counter-intuitive because if anything, you may think that guidebooks close you by pointing you toward the same old sights and foisting someone else’s perceptions on you. But to me, by having a greater background and familiarity with the popular sights and even other people’s opinions courtesy of the guidebook, I’m actually free to look around more on my own without worrying about what I might miss.

What about you? How do you use guidebooks? Or do you? Do you just show up and wing it? Has your use changed over time? Do you have a favorite? Share your thoughts on what works for you.

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