Why I Never Pack a Guidebook When I Travel

I was writing in my journal when two German girls walked into the dormitory where I was staying in Bangkok. They were speaking in German, naturally, as one girl flipped through a Rough Guides: Thailand tome, most likely reading aloud things to do the next day. Two days later, I found myself climbing temples and taking selfies with them in Ayutthaya, an island-city a couple hours north of Bangkok. But my first thought when I saw her guidebook was, “Why did she bring that with her on a journey round-the-world when she only has so much precious weight and space in her backpack?” I have always been skeptical of the guidebook.

I should mention that I have never read an entire guidebook, so perhaps you shouldn’t completely trust my advice. But I have read many articles within, and I prefer Wikipedia. I concede: Wikipedia is probably not better than a guidebook for discovering the best street food in town, or what hostels have pee-stained beds, but I can find out that information from other sources. If I packed guidebooks, I would only use them to research the basic history of a country/culture, and other relevant information about places I wanted to see. Wikipedia and Google thoroughly and interestingly accomplish that task for me, and all from a lightweight smartphone and/or tablet.

Now I can hear people interjecting, “But what about when the internet isn’t accessible?” Good question. But more often than not, I can save a page for reading offline, and copy necessary details into my pocket-size travel journal. I want to stress that I’m not the techiest of travelers. The only electronics I travel with include a smartphone, iPod, and tablet laptop, and I don’t even use them every day. I like reading books where turning the page involves grabbing grubby paper, sliding a finger beneath, and flipping it over, especially while traveling (I use hostel book exchanges). I have, to my endless frustration, even attempted to travel with a fountain pen.* But for me, the romance of non-tech travel ends with the guidebook.

Finnish Bar

Such good drinking advice for Helsinki…have YOU ever been to a bar with a swing?

As much as I grow nostalgic for a dusty room overflowing with books (and one of those cool library ladders that glide along the shelves), I won’t be packing a guidebook anytime soon. In fact, my favorite way to glean information about a travel destination is by talking to other travelers and locals. For instance, over some beers at my hostel in Bangkok, I mentioned I would be in Helsinki for one night, and wondered what to do. A Finnish guy gave me a whole list of bars to go to and shots to try (I didn’t get to them all…). I never would have known about Bar Llamas, a bar with a swing (!), if he hadn’t told me. And I can’t say how many times hostel workers or Couchsurfing hosts have told me places to go, or stories about their city that blew my mind. No Lonely Planet or Rough Guide has the space for all these personal stories, and that is why, ultimately, a person outstrips a guidebook.

A guidebook is so heavily impractical, quickly irrelevant, and contains both too little and too much information. For these reasons, and because I don’t completely trust the opinions of those who write for guidebooks (though they usually do a decent job on this account), I never pack a guidebook when I travel. There is, however, an exception, and a genius one if I do say so myself (which I do, again). Many public libraries offer e-guidebooks with your free membership, which are easy to download and bring with you on your computer or smartphone. And you can pull them up offline for easy access! You might think I’m cheating, but I think it’s practically genius. 🙂

So the next time you sit down to plan your trip pack list, consider ditching the guidebook. It’s just too heavy, and you can find the information you’re seeking from better, cheaper sources (i.e. real people and online). If you’re worried about being unprepared, do some research before you leave, and copy pages of the guidebook that you find particularly useful. You might even be able to have the actual guidebook on your computer or phone on location. As you blaze down the Chao Phraya, wind whisking your hair into a frenzy, you’ll gaze up at the temples, never once thinking, “I wish I had my guidebook…”.

Ayutthaya Figurines

Gotta love figurines!

*Has anyone traveled with a fountain pen? Do disposable ink cartridges leak while traveling? And can you find the correct size cartridges for your pen in every country?