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.

The future of budget travel: Q&A with Benji Lanyado

Many budget travel topics are old hat. Everyone interested in traveling on a budget knows, for example, about the money-saving potential of hostels, supermarket dining, train passes, and low-cost airlines.

We can come up with tips, talk about new stylish hostels, pass on information about fare sales, and strategize about how best to exploit a particular train pass, but the truth is that there is little among these subjects that is genuinely new.

But what about newer developments in personal technologies? How will they change the way we travel on a budget?

For some time now, freelance journalist Benji Lanyado has been pursuing these questions, mostly in articles for the Guardian. Lanyado has been writing for the Guardian since his last year at university, when the newspaper asked him to be their Budget Travel columnist. Among the most suggestive of his pieces for the Guardian are his TwiTrips articles, through which Lanyado submits Twitter to the on-the-ground challenges of traveling. Most exciting about this series is the ease with which its principles can be adapted for use by readers.

Lanyado also engages larger questions about the future of travel. See this recent article pondering the future of guidebooks for one example.

Q: How did the TwiTrips come about? Have they changed the way you travel in general? That is, when you’re on different sorts of assignments or traveling for pleasure, do you instinctively turn to Twitter for information? On balance, how would you rate these TwiTrips against more conventional travel adventures in terms of obtaining local information and getting a sense of the destination?

A: At the beginning of last year, Twitter was approaching its “moment” in the UK. Jonathan Ross and Stephen Fry were scheduled to talk about it on the former’s Friday night chat show. I’d been thinking about using it for some kind of live travel piece for a while, and had experimented with it while in Berlin to find some suggestions for what to do in between researching for assignments. I was walking down Oranienstrasse and asked my Twitter followers if they had any tips. Within a few minutes someone had guided me into a fantastic little cafe 100 yards away.

I ran the idea past the Guardian Travel editor, Andy Pietrasik, who was very keen for me to try a live Twitter Trip. We ran the first TwiTrip in February, to Paris, streaming it live on the Guardian website a few days after the Fry/Ross interview had aired, and the response was incredible. Over a period of 36 hours I received hundreds of tips, and various news outlets and TV programmes ran stories on it. Since then we’ve done TwiTrips to a dozen destinations across the UK. The last one was Liverpool this November.

I certainly now instinctively turn to Twitter for travel advice when I’m on the road. Compared to traditional media (guidebooks, etc.) I find that the information you can glean from Twitter is more specific, more current, and more personal. It’s an incredible real-time link to the local public. That said, I don’t think it’s the only way to travel. Whatever works for you is great. And few things beat stopping a local, in the real world, and asking him or her what you should do.

I also have a considerable head-start on Twitter newbies, as I’m lucky to have over 5000 followers to help me on my way. As a journalist, I can amplify things to a bigger audience during the TwiTrips. But I still don’t think you need lots of followers to get travel benefits from Twitter. Every major city across the world has scores of people tweeting about what to do when you’re in town, and up-to-the-minute info on events.

The beauty of Twitter is that you can find time-specific ideas (i.e. there’s a great band playing at this great bar TONIGHT) and be connected to the lifeblood of any destination.Q: A few months on from your article on Foursquare in the Guardian, what are your thoughts about the potential of Foursquare as a travel technology? Is it useful essentially as a crowdsourcing device, or are you discovering other uses?

A: Foursquare, primarily, is a lot of fun to use at home. Knowing where your friends have been and where they are is a very nice new frontier for social media. But on the road, the “tips” function really comes into its own. The idea of location-specific recommendations hovering in the air around you is one of the most important new standards in travel technology in years, and it is one of the strongest arguments for apps over traditional guidebooks. When you can have access to information about places within 100 feet of where you are standing, the notion of flicking through 500 pages to find a vaguely suitable tip written a year ago seems a little ridiculous. Foursquare aren’t the first to harness the power of location, but their implementation with the game element is a very neat way to do it.

Q: One pitfall in relying on user-generated content is that it is often difficult to evaluate anonymous evaluators. (Do they share your values, your interests, your standards?) Do you see Twitter as providing a way around this problem? That is, by choosing your followers are you essentially curating information in advance? Or, alternately do you not see this user-generated content pitfall as a problem?

A: Increasingly, I find UGC a little too noisy. Tripadvisor is a good example of this. The service has gone so far beyond a critical mass that there’s now JUST TOO MUCH INFORMATION on it. And yes, you’re right, it’s very difficult to ascertain the validity of UGC, as you usually have no idea whether or not the person reviewing is anything like you or shares your tastes. I don’t really see Twitter as a form of UGC, as there is a lot more face involved. You can usually read about the people who are Tweeting at you, see the type of people they follow, read their tweets etc. You get to know certain people who share your tastes.

Q: Where, if anywhere, do you see social media failing against more traditional media in generating especially useful information for budget travelers?

A: The main problem is the noise. While guidebooks are inherently limited, they are also beautifully confined. For a lot of people, a couple of hundred pages of information is more than enough. The Internet, meanwhile, is seemingly infinite. It’s difficult to know how far you should research into the provincial nooks of the web before you’ve gone too far and have too much information. There is also an issue over trust capital. Guidebooks might be old-fashioned but they are also a relatively safe bet, as they come with a reputation to uphold. That said, I think you are more likely to get crappy advice from a guidebook than from an individual through social media, as there is a lot less accountability with guidebooks.

Q: Do you have you eye on any newish apps or sites for their potential as budget travel tools?

A: I really like the look of the new batch of Time Out city guides, especially considering that they are built to be used offline, using only a GPS signal rather than relying on data roaming. Much cheaper that way. Yelp, Urbanspoon, and some of the augmented reality apps (Wikitude, Layar, etc.) are pretty fun too, although the power of AR is yet to be fully utilised. I’m very excited about developments in 4G (superfast mobile internet) and the apps that will be built around it, but this is a little way off yet.

Visit Lanyado’s blog for musings on technology, soccer, travel, and other topics as well as links to published articles.

Check out Gadling’s budget travel section for more budget travel tips, strategies, and information.

[Image: Elliott Smith | Guardian.co.uk]

Not so PC: Guidebooks About Your Own City

Sometimes you got to wonder how guidebooks get away with it: in a world so PC you can barely make a generalization about anything at all, the essence of guidebooks these days is, in a nutshell, all about making bold statements based largely on generalization and cultural stereotyping. That is, after all, how they make them fun to read.

It’s actually quite funny to read a guidebook about your own city or country. In the TimeOut guide on Prague, I liked how the author summarized the Czech culture: “Czechs continue to drive like lunatics, drink beer for breakfast and insist that grey pate made from mutilated chicken organs really does taste good.”

Or this one: “Czechs are famous for inviting near strangers into their houses, their liquor cabinets and even their beds.”

There you have it. Although that is probably not how most Czechs would like to be described to the rest of the world, it is hard to disagree with the message. Plus, who cares about what the locals think, they are not the ones reading it. Although, arguably, they should.