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]

Should travelers boycott Arizona because of gun laws? Frommer leans towards yes

Arthur Frommer, longtime travel book guru, posed a question about Arizona’s “open carry” gun laws. In Arizona, Frommer found out, people can bring loaded guns to political rallies. That’s what happened in Phoenix earlier this week when some of the protesters, who showed up outside the convention center where Barack Obama was speaking, visibly wielded guns–including an assault rifle. Such action is legal in Arizona, something Frommer feels alarmed by.

In Arthur Frommer ONLINE yesterday, he wonders if travelers ought to boycott Arizona in protest of such open carry laws since he thinks a gun law that allows people to bring loaded firearms to political protests violates citizens’ safety. He doesn’t want to travel to such places. As he wrote, if a gun had gone off, mayhem could have happened.

It’s not that Frommer objects to guns–or at least he doesn’t say if he does or doesn’t. He thinks there’s a problem when a person carrying a gun in public does so in a way that puts people in danger.

Last year, I expressed my concern about guns being allowed into US national parks for similar reasons. Of course, others have a different opinion and some expressed those in the comment section. Some comments pointed out issues I that hadn’t thought of. Some state roads and US highways, for example, pass through national parks. If a person is carrying a gun in his or her car and happens to be traveling on such a road, he or she would be in violation of a gun carrying law if guns were not allowed in a national park.

Still, there’s Frommer’s point that if people are allowed to have their guns with them as a means of intimidation, and other people are traveling through such spots, doesn’t that put people not involved in jeopardy? I seem to remember from US history classes that even when the west was wilder there were some places where people who were carrying guns had to leave them outside a town or saloon. Or, maybe that’s just the Hollywood version.

Check out some of these wacky laws, place names and signs from around the world!

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Want a cheap way to travel to Europe? Check out a “positioning” cruise

A friend of mine is writing a memoir about her mother’s life. Part of it includes details about her mother’s work as a “ladies maid/companion” of sorts for an alcoholic, wealthy woman. My friend is British– and her mother died when she was well into her 80s living an ordinary life through a world rife with change.

Sprinkled throughout the memoir are historical details to set the place and time. I find it a fascinating read, particularly the details about her mother’s travels on a cruise ship. If it weren’t for her job, my friend’s mother would have never taken a cruise–or seen the world past her working class roots. Cruises were not part of her station in life.

These days, of course, cruises are such great deals that you don’t have to hire on as a companion to someone to make a trip across the ocean. Ed Perkins, travel writer commentator suggests another way to score the cheapest option. According to Perkins, “positioning cruises” can get you to Europe in 13 nights for $599 if you don’t mind a non-ocean view cabin. If you want to see the ocean, the cost is $900 more. These are the prices he found from Miami to Barcelona from Hotwire.com. There are many, many options.

If you are flexible, prices go down the closest you get to the time the ship pulls away for shore. If you run with your suitcases flying behind you yelling “Wait for me! I can leap across” as the ship is starting to pull away, the price is almost free. Just kidding. I made that part up.

It is true that prices go down the closer to the departure day, though. These cruises aren’t the type that go from port to port to port. This is a trip across the ocean with the amenities on board. There may be a Bahamas stop, but, that’s it. The scope of the amenities depend on what sort of cruise ship you are on–mass market vs boutique.

As Perkins points out, since this is a one-way trip, you eventually need to have a one-way flight back to the U.S. if that’s where you are heading. One-way flights can be arranged, and are often cheaper if tacked onto your cruise deal. I wonder if you waited long enough, you could find a similiar deal for the return trip?

If I were having a “gap year” that Neil writes about, I think this would be an excellent way to start it off. While you’re staring out across the waters, pondering, letting your mind wander, you can imagine all the places you could go with days, weeks, months of exploring the world and meeting folks before you.

The article I read was in yesterday’s Columbus Dispatch, but there isn’t a link to it. Here is another article, also by Perkins from last September. He makes the same suggestions, although, the prices are lower this time of year.

In another article I found, this one by Arthur Frommer, Frommer suggests contacting major cruise lines to find out about this type of cruise deal, although, I think the deals he is referring to are on the ships that are coming back the other way. He calls them “repositioning” cruises.

Here’s a link to AffordableTours.com which may be a place to start whether you are “positioning” or “re-positioning”. The major cruise lines are listed.