In the northern hemisphere summer of 2007 I took a three-month road trip through the US Midwest, Pacific Northwest and down the West Coast, with LP and my friend Funtime. We spent an indecent amount of time sweating in a cramped Honda Accord, listening to the same few CDs on rotation and discussing things that amused us at the time but would probably seem facile if we were to run the tape.
Tucked under the front passenger's seat was a thick USA Lonely Planet, which I had bought in frenzied anticipation for the trip. We covered thousands of miles and well over a dozen destinations, but we never really consulted that book. Seldom was it looked at. I remember it clearly too, sitting in shared neglect with all of the postcards I bought with the misguided idea that I would one day send them to an actual person.
I know that it is a fabled institution, but I've never found a Lonely Planet to be a particularly worthwhile investment. I'm just not really a guidebook person.
When I was 19, I spent four weeks backpacking alone around California. For Christmas the year before I left, my sister gave me a California travel guide. I studied that book. I read it repeatedly. I turned its advice over in my head. I looked at all of its restaurant reviews and accommodation recommendations. I spent much of the next eight months working and reworking my itinerary, pricing things out, shuffling days around, in search of an elusive and perfect balance for my trip. That book was my pre-trip Bible. I was convinced that there were truths in there that would open up another world for me.
But then I actually travelled. My predetermined arrival plans were always more complicated in reality than the book outlined them to be and the places were more alarming. The restaurant recommendations were often iffy or even completely out of date. I discovered that I didn't even really enjoy stacking destination on top of destination, that my days were a lot more satisfying if I just had one or two key destinations in mind and took my chances along the way.
Since this first trip, I have found myself drawn to buying a Lonely Planet before I leave, but then never using it. The books serve as a symbol of hype, or a post-trip souvenir. But an actual in-holiday aid? Not so much.
I guess it comes down to what sort of traveller you are. My ideal trip is to spend an extended time in one place. I'll gather a loose idea of the areas of towns I'd like to get to and the must-see attractions, but I never set myself a schedule. I enjoy ambling, and atmosphere, and trying to sink into the wallpaper of a city.
I don't find myself needing a guidebook when I'm on the trip.
LP is a chronic pre-trip researcher, and so we balance each other out nicely. We'll head out on a broad, vaguely defined journey for a day, and she'll have researched 10 or so good restaurants around where we might end up. It works well.
I've been on holidays that took in several locations in rapid succession, and enjoyed them. I do see the virtue and the excitement in them. I've just gravitated to them less over the years. I spent five weeks in South and Central America, but I chose to have three weeks stationed in Buenos Aires and two in Mexico City. There's something about spending that length of time somewhere and getting a sense of the rhythm and, dare I say it, the soul of a place that I find indelible.
In wonder also, do we even need an official travel guide in these modern times?
I spent a week in Brooklyn and New York recently. As soon as I was off the bus, I had plugged my destination into Google Maps on my iPhone, which picked up where I was in the city and gave me directions via public transport to my hostel. I visited Pollstar in the days leading up to the trip to check for any concerts or cultural events, and plugged any restaurant names into Yelp while I was on the go, to make sure I wasn't about to waste a meal on a metaphorical turkey of a restaurant.
So my iPhone can now supplement my ad hoc travelling style with local knowledge. I see that for $5.99 I can buy an interactive Lonely Planet app for my phone. But doesn't most of that same information come free these days?
So then, what sort of traveller are you? Does your travelling style rely on guidebooks? Why?
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