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]

Where are all the travel guide apps for Android?

travel guide apps for AndroidNearly two years ago, I bought my first smartphone: the T-Mobile Android MyTouch*. I’m only occasionally jealous of my iPhone-carrying friends, as I find few travel guide apps for Android. Even after a move to Istanbul, I still use and rely upon it daily; Android‘s interface is fast and easy-to-use, and seamless use of Google applications like Gmail and Google Maps is part of the reason I bought it in the first place. Living in a foreign country means English-language books and magazines are expensive and hard-to-find, and like many travelers, I don’t want to carry bulky books around when I’m on the road. This leaves a perfect opportunity for mobile developers to provide real travel guide content and not just travel-booking apps, especially apps produced by reliable media sources with professional editorial. These days, every guidebook and travel magazine publisher is coming out with apps for the iPhone and now iPad, supplying users with content and directions on the go, but there are hardly any for Android.

So what’s available for mobile travelers from the top travel book and print sources? Better hope you’re running Apple OS…Guidebooks:

  • Fodor’s: Happy 75th Birthday Mr. Fodor, but we wish you had more than just five city guides for purchase (in London, New York, Paris, Rome, and San Francisco) and only for Apple.
  • Frommer’s: iPhone guides are available for ten major cities in the US, Europe and Asia, but nada for Android.
  • Lonely Planet: iPhone users are spoiled for choice: dozens of city guides, language phrasebooks, audio walking tours, and eBooks optimized for the iPad. Android users in 32 countries including the US are in luck: there’s a free Trippy app to organize itinerary items, as well as 25 “augmented reality” Compass city guides and 14 phrasebooks. NOTE: This article originally mentioned that the Compass guides were unavailable in the Android Market store, but they should work for most US users. I happen to be in a country where paid apps are not available and not shown in the Market.
  • LUXE City Guides: 20 cheeky city guides work for a variety of mobile phones, including iPhone and Blackberry, but none are compatible with my Android. Bonus: the apps come with free regular updates and maps that the paper guides don’t have.
  • Rick Steves: If you are headed to Europe, you can get audio guides for many big attractions and historic walks for iPhone, plus maps for the iPad. You can also download the audio files free for your computer, and props to Rick for mentioning that Android apps are at least in development.
  • Rough Guides: Here’s a new one: the Rough Guides app works for many phones but NOT the iPhone OR Android! It’s not as slick as some of the other guides (it’s a Java app) and you will use data to use it on the road, but it provides lots of info for many cities in Europe. You can also find a Rough Guides photo app on iTunes to view pictures from around the world with Google Maps and captions from Rough Guides.
  • Time Out: City travelers and residents might want to look at the apps from Time Out for 5 European cities and Buenos Aires, with Manchester and New York on the way. More cities are available for free on iTunes, search for Time Out on iTunes to see what’s available. iPhone only.
  • Wallpaper* City Guides: 10 of the design mag’s 80 city guides are for sale for iPhone for Europe, Tokyo, New York and Los Angeles.

Print media:

  • Conde Nast Traveler: It makes sense for magazines to embrace the iPad, and CNT has free Apple apps specifically for Italy, cruises, and their annual Gold List of hotels and resorts. Blackberry users can download an etiquette guide, but Android users are snubbed.
  • National Geographic: As befitting any explorer, Nat Geo has a world atlas, national parks maps, and games featuring their amazing photography, all for iPhone. A special interactive edition of National Geographic Traveler is for sale on the iPad; you can also read it on your computer. Androids can download a quiz game and various wallpapers; and all mobile users can access a mobile-friendly version of their website at natgeomobile.com.
  • Outside: Adventure travelers can purchase and read full issues on the iPad, but no subscription option yet.
  • Travel + Leisure: The other big travel glossy also has an iPad app for special issues. Four issues have been released so far with one available now on iTunes (romantic getaways) but future editions will follow to be read on the app. Just in time for spring break and summer, they’ve also released a Travel + Leisure Family app with advice and articles specifically geared towards travel and families. The apps are both free but you’ll need an iPad – these are designed for tablets, not phones. You can also read full issues of T+L and their foodie cousin Food & Wine on Barnes & Noble’s NOOK Color ereader; you can save per issue if you subscribe to the e-reader version.
  • USA Today Travel: Most major newspapers have mobile readers for all types of phones, but USA Today is the only one with their own travel-specific app. AutoPilot combines an array of cool travel booking capabilities and information with articles and blog post from the newspaper. Only iPhone users can enjoy free.

Two of our favorite magazines, Budget Travel and Afar, have no mobile apps yet but great online communities to tap into their extensive knowledge.

All in all, other than Lonely Planet’s Compass guides, a pretty weak showing for Android travelers. While iPhone has been around longer as a mobile platform that Android, they’ve lost the market share of users to the little green robot. As Android is available on a variety of phone manufacturers and providers, expect that number to continue to grow, along with the variety and depth of content for mobile and tablet users. Will the developers ever catch up or will travelers have to choose?

*Android has not endorsed this or paid me anything to write about them. But to show I’m not biased – Apple, feel free to send me a sample phone and I’ll test out the apps!

Photo courtesy Flickr user closari. Special thanks to Sean O’Neill, who blogs on Budget Travel and the new BBC Travel blog.

Pauline Frommer Travel Guides

Hawaii Guide CoverLike father, like daughter is what they say in this biz these days, I suppose. Pauline Frommer, daughter of the famous guide book extraordinaire, is introducing her own line of guidebooks catering to the adult budget traveler, but not the backpacker. On the market for purchase now include popular destinations such as Hawaii, New York and Italy. The Baltimore Sun online notes that 40 year-old Pauline will edit all the books in the series and write some of them. So least she’s not just using her name to sell I guess. The Pauline Frommer guides range from $16-$20 and can be purchased at Frommers.com.

I wouldn’t mind testing one out myself and if I had to choose from the three I’d go with Hawai’i. I’ve lived there / been before, but could always use a few recommendations on how to eat and sleep in paradise for cheap.