A Personal Lament To The Death Of Guidebooks

Death of guidebooks - Frommer's bookshelfIt was with a heavy heart that I read the news last week that Frommer’s guidebooks will cease to be printed. The guidebooks were purchased by Google last summer, and as of this year, the entire future list of titles will not be released. With the takeover of digital apps, social media, and user-generated content, we knew this was coming, but it still feels like the end of an era. It’s become fashionable for any traveler (especially for writers, including our own bloggers) to be dismissive of the printed guidebook, claiming they get all their tips “from locals on the road” or via social networks, possibly demurring to an occasional read of Lonely Planet. Let’s dispense with the tired traveler vs. tourist argument; we can all benefit from practical info for navigating a new place, and no matter how “local” you go, there’s nothing wrong with visiting the museums and attractions for which a destination is known. Even as an active member of the “new media,” I mourn the death of guidebooks like that of a friend.

The greatest gift of the digital age to the traveler is online trip planning. I’d never want to go back to the days of travel agents and phone reservations. I’ve spent hours on the Internet booking flights, reading hotel reviews and soliciting advice and recommendations from friends, but guidebooks have always been the heart of my pre-travel ritual. Each year, after we had narrowed down the destinations to a few (often places where American Airlines and Marriott coincided, back in the days where work travel generated a fair amount of status, miles and points for free vacations), my husband and I would spend a few hours at a bookstore, poring over the guidebooks for points of interest, relative costs of travel and local events that might happen during our travel dates. Back when I worked at Conde Nast Traveler magazine, my desk was next to the research department, making me feel like a kid in a candy store. Shelf after shelf of guidebooks, atlases and travelogues gave me a keen eye for what features are the most useful in a printed travel companion.In addition to having the most current information, I look for an efficient presentation (while I love travel photography, I don’t care for it in my guidebooks, taking up valuable real estate and showing me things I hope to see myself) with detailed maps, a short phrasebook and menu guide, as well as a point of view in a guidebook. I had always made fun of Rick Steves and his fanny-packed followers, but in Portugal, I discovered his “back door style” is really quite helpful for navigating crowded tourist attractions and distilling fun facts about a museum’s history (look elsewhere for nightlife advice, though). My respect for Mr. Steves solidified with his book “Travel As A Political Act,” particularly due to his advocacy for travel to Muslim countries and the importance of getting a passport. Time Out city guides offer a surprising depth of cultural sidebars in addition to nightlife listings. Occasionally, you might be lucky to stumble upon an indie series like the gorgeously-designed Love Guides to India or Herb Lester‘s guides to the “usual and unusual” in Europe and the U.S., but these were often only discovered once you reached your destination. Lonely Planet was usually a given, having the widest range of places and most annual updates, but my heart belonged to Arthur Frommer.

Frommer’s guides were never the hippest or most inventive, but I liked their no-nonsense and concise layout, stable of local writers and the personality that shown through the pages with “Overrated” tags and honest advice. I loved the history behind the Frommer’s brand, imagining how Arthur’s original “Europe on $5 a Day” changed the way Americans travel and opened up a world of travel daydreaming and practical trip planning. Writer Doug Mack recently published his own book, “Europe on 5 Wrong Turns a Day” using Frommer’s 1963 book as his only guide. Vintage guidebooks are priceless slices of the past, whether it’s a reissued Victorian guide, or a handbook for your trip to the USSR (the later is now one of my prized possessions). In 50 years, what will people learn about how we traveled to Asia from Facebook photo albums and TripAdvisor reviews?

Destination and books chosen, I relished my New York commute armed with guidebooks before the trip. While I hated to ever brandish a guidebook while traveling, I didn’t mind being seen with it on the subway, where people might see me and think, “There’s a girl who’s going places! Literally, to Chile!” I imagined a stranger might strike up a conversation, offering their tips for their aunt’s restaurant in Santiago or their best friend’s guesthouse in Valparaiso (I was evidently envisioning a live version of Twitter). Even now that I do float travel questions over social media, I first try to research via a custom Google search that limits results to my trusted sources, ranging from travel writer friends’ blogs to big media like New York Times’ travel section and, of course, Frommers.com.

During a trip, I’d carry a book in my purse during the day, but I only removed it for surreptitious glimpses of a map if seriously lost. While in a museum, I might allow myself the luxury of reading the book in full public view. In the evenings, I might peruse the book before dinner, not for restaurant recommendations, but for hints on what neighborhoods and streets might yield the most options. My husband has always loathed making reservations, even in our own city, preferring to rely on instinct, menu/curb appeal and highest density of locals. At the end of the night, I liked going back to read more about the places we’d seen, learning about the backstories of a city, and understanding the cultural importance of the names we saw on statues.

Once I moved abroad to Istanbul in 2010 and constantly clutched a smartphone, my guidebook usage slowed, but I never fully gave it up. English books were expensive and travel plans were made much more freely (weekend in Budapest on Friday? Why not, when it’s a two-hour flight?), but I still tried to cobble together some basic info before going to a new country – stuff like: how much to tip, the best way to get to the airport and the going cost of a bottle of local wine. Basically, stuff that could be found in a guidebook. In many eastern European countries, I found the excellent (and free) In Your Pocket guides, produced by expats and natives, with tips on everything from happy hours to hidden Soviet murals. The guides are available in various digital forms, but I always preferred to find a paper copy, easy to roll up in a purse and read cover-to-cover like a magazine. I experimented with various Kindle books and documents and apps to collect the many links and tips I found before a trip, but found a lot of limitations: poor maps, advice from inexperienced travelers, lack of context and real “meaty” content. Especially when I was stuck with a lack of Wi-Fi, a dead battery or a setting where it would be unwise to flash any form of technology, I’d yearn for an old-fashioned book.

After I return home, I can’t say exactly what happens to my guidebooks. I don’t revisit places often, so I tend to pass on books to other travelers, leave them in airplane seat pockets, or recycle them when I have to purge books. I always liked the idea of keeping them on my bookshelf, a visual reminder of where we’d been, like passport stamps in your living room, but my shelf space can’t keep up with my wanderlust. Many travelers like a printed book so they can make notes and annotations in the margins, but I consider a book a sacred space to be left pristine, though my books are accessorized with receipts, ticket stubs and bar napkins. I keep these artifacts in duty-free bags and hotel envelopes, possibly for a scrapbook I will never make, or for future generations to marvel at the fact that we once paid for hotel Wi-Fi.

Now that we’ve reached the end of an era, what’s to come in the next? Now that anyone with an Internet connection can tap into a local network, or crowdsource restaurant recommendations, is Mr. Frommer and his ilk destined to become a relic of travel, like steamer trunks and airplane ashtrays? I’d say that until apps and social media can overcome the limitations of user-generated content, there’s a niche for printed guidebooks, but the choice of print over digital is more visceral. We need guidebooks as long as there are people who love browsing in bookstores, who appreciate a beautiful map, and who don’t give a damn about being a traveler or a tourist, as long as they are going somewhere.

[Photo credit: Gluten Free Mrs. D via Twitter]

Upcoming travel blogger conferences for 2012

travel bloggers conferenceIf the word “conference” immediately conjures images of tipsy, poly-suit clad conventioneers, comic book geeks, or coma-inducing workshops, you obviously haven’t attended a travel blogger gathering.

‘Tis the season for some of the year’s biggest travel industry blowouts. Each has a different focus–some are for accredited travel writers, others hone in on the burgeoning travel blogging industry or events tailored for the public. What they all share is an emphasis on networking with industry professionals, travel trends, and continuing education in the form of field trips, workshops, seminars, panel discussions, and yes, a fair bit of partying.

Below, our picks for the best in travel industry camaraderie and information exchange:

Travel Blog Exchange (TBEX)

The year’s most anticipated travel scribe gathering will be held June 15-17 in Keystone, Colorado. Expect a mix of over 350 fledgling and veteran writers, PR and travel industry experts, guest speakers, and workshops. In your downtime, take advantage of Keystone resort and environs by hiking, mountain biking, paddling, fly-fishing, or riding. Psst. Europe TBEX will be held in Lausanne, Switzerland, October 11-13.

New York Times Travel Show (NYT)
Held March 2-4 at Manhattan’s Jacob C. Javits Convention Center, this is a great event if you’re an accredited writer with a specific niche (Industry Professional Sessions include topics like “Focus on Africa,” and “Focus on Travel Media”); there’s also a “trade-only” day. The public and and newbie writers can explore the Exhibition Hall, check out a variety of cultural events to be held on five stages, and let the kids run amok in the Family Fun Pavilion. Bonus: Accredited travel professionals can attend the Friday Exhibition Hall and travel industry welcome reception, and Saturday and Sunday seminars and Exhibition Hall free of charge.

Travel Bloggers Unite (TBU)
Feel like a tax write-off trip to Umbria, Italy (did I just say that)? From April 20-22, this UK-organized conference unites travel writers and bloggers with travel PR experts, tourism boards, and travel companies. Seminars include photo walks and workshops, and using social media. Best of all, delegates will be able take free post-conference tours of Umbria.

Book Passage Travel Writers and Photographers Conference

Lonely Planet guru/Gadling editor Don George co-founded this renown industry event with Book Passage owner Elaine Petrocelli in 1991. Held annually at Petrocelli’s Marin County bookstore (located 15 minutes north of San Franciso; the other Book Passage is a tiny shop in San Francisco’s Ferry Building). The event has attracted in the past luminaries such as Tim Cahill, Larry Habegger, and Gadling’s David Farley. This year, esteemed writer Susan Orlean will be in attendance, and the schedule includes four days of seminars, workshops, panel discussions, and optional evening field trips. If you’re serious about travel writing–and few places provide as much topical diversity as the Bay Area–sign up, stat.

Be sure to check out Don’s article on “Top tips for TBEX and other writers’ conferences” before you sign up or get on a plane (they say advice doesn’t come cheap, but this is free, baby).

[Photo credit: Flickr user Dia™]

Presenting Xtranormal’s “I want to be a travel writer


Travel meets journalism at Roads and Kingdoms

travel journalismLast month, writers Nathan Thornburgh (a contributing editor to TIME and recent guest of Fox News) and Matt Goulding (food & culture writer and author behind the Eat This, Not That! book series) launched a new website with the intriguing tagline: “Journalism, travel, food, murder, music. First stop: Burma.” Combining on-the-spot reporting on current events and politics with in-depth cultural observations, rich photography, and engrossing narratives, Roads and Kingdoms feels like a travel blog we all want to write: a bit daring, occasionally foolhardy, and often inspiring. Fresh home from their first major trip and recovering from Burma belly, Gadling talked to co-founder Nathan about Roads and Kingdoms.

How would you describe your blog in one sentence?
Travel meets journalism.

How did it come about? How has your background in news helped (or hindered) your travels?
Matt and I felt like our work – he writes about food, I’m a foreign correspondent – actually had a lot in common. As writers on assignment, we found that the best parts of being on the road – the amazing meal on the street corner, the back-alley bar with the great live jams, the sweaty tuk tuk ride through the outskirts of the city – are left out of the final product. It’s those parts that we want to provide a home for. It’s a different kind of travel mindset, whether you’re going to London or Lagos. Journalism is all about being curious, which is a quality great travelers have as well.

It’s not meant to remain a blog: we’ll be launching our full site soon, which won’t just be our travels, but a variety of dispatches in the Roads and Kingdoms style, from writers and photographers and videographers around the world.
Why did you choose Burma as a first destination?
First off, we think Burma is going to be a huge tourist destination in the years to come, if the country continues to open up. It’s an amazingly vivid and warm country, and has a lot of the traditional rhythms of life that Thailand, for example, has lost.

Burma also had the perfect combination of stories for us to launch Roads and Kingdoms with. We were able to report on the killer hiphop scene in the south, up-and-coming graffiti artists in Rangoon, and of course, the amazing (and all but undiscovered) Burmese cuisine. Then Matt went to Bagan, this breathtaking valley of temples that will become a big part of Burma’s tourist boom. While he took in the temples, I visited the heart of the war-torn north, where I was able to hang out with gold miners and Kachin refugees and see a part of Burma that not a lot of people get to see.

What do you hope to inspire in readers?
We’d love to inspire readers to travel the way we do: with a sense of wonder and a big appetite, with curiosity and an awareness of the backstory behind the destinations.

Flashback, Burma Day One: Bad Crab from Roads and Kingdoms on Vimeo.

Roads and Kingdoms did not get detained in Myanmar for being journalists entering on a tourist visa. But Nathan still hit an unexpected roadblock on the first day in Burma: a plate of chili-slathered, rancid crab.

What are the challenges in blogging somewhere like Burma?

We were fortunate that our trip coincided with Hillary Clinton’s historic visit to Burma. The government didn’t want to create any problems that week, so we were incredibly free as journalists there; much more so than I could have ever imagined the first time I went in 2003. I was followed and watched when I visited the north, but they didn’t interfere with my work. However: Internet access still sucks. You can’t blog if you can’t connect, and that’s a huge problem in Burma.

How is social media adding to the blog?
Social media is huge for us. We’re starting out as a Tumblr, for example, not just because it’s great for articles/photos/videos, but because it’s so shareable. We want people to get involved, not just as passive consumers, but as advisers and compañeros along the way.

Where are you going next?
We have a short list, and we actually want readers to help us decide. London? Moscow? Lima? It’s a big world out there!

Follow the adventures at RoadsandKingdoms.com and connect with Nathan and Matt (and assorted interns) on Twitter @RoadsKingdoms and Facebook.

Archaeologists blog as they excavate Nea Paphos World Heritage site

archaeologists, Nea Paphos
Archaeologists excavating at the ancient city of Nea Paphos in Cyprus have written about their work and discoveries in a blog.

A University of Sydney team has been working to uncover medieval walls built atop a Classical theater and investigating a public fountain dating to the first century AD, the Cyprus Mail reports.

Nea Paphos is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It was founded around 300 BC, and the theater was built around the same time. It served as the capital of Cyprus during the Hellenistic and Roman periods and was an important spot in Byzantine times, when a castle was built nearby. Legend has it that Aphrodite emerged from the sea at the nearby beach. I’ve been to that beach and it’s so beautiful I’m not surprised the legend arose there. Aphrodite probably started as a Phoenician fertility goddess long before the Greeks and Romans arrived, and continued as the cult of Aphrodite until 391 AD when the Roman Emperor Theodosius banned all pagan religions.

The team has wrapped up its work for the season but they and their blog will return in 2012. I’m glad to see archaeologists reaching out to the public this way and I hope more follow the University of Sydney’s example. There’s a lot of popular misconception about how archaeologists do their work and blogs like theirs help remedy that.

Photo of the Odeon of Nea Paphos from second century AD courtesy user einalem via flickr.

Travelbloggers Fundraiser Passports with Purpose Enters Year Four

Disclaimer: I helped found this initiative and I’m hardly neutral on it. I’ll do my best to stick to the facts here but first, I’ll say this: It’s been awesome.

Passports with Purpose, the travelbloggers fundraiser, turns four this year. Founded in 2009 by four Seattle based bloggers, the initiative pulls together bloggers and travel providers (and their PR reps) to raise money for carefully vetted nonprofit causes that focus on education as a channel to alleviate poverty and improve quality of life. Oh, and there are fabulous prizes, too — for example, last year, Gadling’s Mike Barish gave away a SkyMall gift card.

This year, Passports with Purpose (PwP) is supporting Room to Read, the literacy program founded by John Wood after he’d trekked through Nepal. PwP aims to raise enough money to fund the contstruction, staffing, and provisioning of two libraries in Zambia.

In 2010, PwP raised more than $60,000 for Land for Tiller’s Freedom (LAFTI). The funds were used for construction of 25 homes for families in Southern India. PwP co-founder Beth Whitman attended the ground breaking ceremony for the village in Karrungani, Tamil Nadu. On the conclusion of last year’s fundraiser, PwP recieved this note from Peggy Burns, Exective Director of Friends of LAFTI:

We are so excited that 25 families in Karunganni will soon have a decent place to live. It is all thanks to you, your generous sponsors, and over 300 caring individuals who wanted to make this world a better place. Bravo to all of you.

In 2009, PwP raised nearly double the original goal of $13,000 and funded the construction of a school in rural Preah Vihear, Cambodia. The overage was allotted to additional services that ensure the continued success of the project. Michelle Duffy attended a ribbon cutting ceremony at the Passports School in March, 2011.


Passports with Purpose uses social media, blogging, and the generosity of sponsors to achieve success. Repeat sponsors for 2011 include Round the World with Us, Traveller’s Point, and HomeAway.

But it’s individual bloggers that are the key to PwP’s continued success. Bloggers who want to participate will find detailed information on the Passports with Purpose website.