The Future of Travel Guides?

Travelling with technology
Travelling with technology

The Good Old Days

For me, the late 1980s and early 1990s were a fantastic time in terms of travel.  I was young, energetic and had absolutely no fear.  I had no qualms about travelling in style or comfort and I was very willing to travel rough.  I also travelled very light.  You couldn’t describe me as a backpacker back in those days because I didn’t actually travel with one of those oversized behemoth’s that makes a backpacker stand out from the common tourist.  Instead, I had a simple three-day pack which only contained the absolute basics.  If I needed clothes, I would buy cheap clothing from local markets.  For accommodation, I would stay in relatively cheap local hotels (sometimes even in places that also charge by the hour), and for transport, I would take whatever cheap options were available, whether it was sitting cramped in a tiny non-airconditioned bus loaded with produce and drunk musicians sitting on the roof, or tucked up in the back of a pick-up truck.

In those years, I seriously got around and saw the world.  From Asia, to Australia, back to Asia, to parts of the former Soviet Union including Russia, and finally to Europe, before I returned to Asia again.  After money, the most important and useful item that I lugged around with me was my travel guide.  In those days, Lonely Planet had become the big name in travel guides and their “Southeast Asia on a Shoestring” and “Thailand: A Travel Survival Guide” were the two best titles in their inventory.  I used to read their guides from cover to cover, and then go back and re-read the bits relevant to an upcoming trip.  Many times I found myself making random changes to travel plans while en-route, and suddenly having to get the guide out while in a cramped bus to quickly work out accommodation/onward transport options.  Other times, I remember being in dusty, deserted bus stops, studying maps of where I supposedly was and trying to work out the lay of the land.

The way I travelled in those days was truly adventurous and using a paperback guide to assist with navigation was an awesome part of the experience.  Nothing was cooler than being in some strange little town for the first time, and finding a hotel or restaurant or noteworthy attraction at the exact location that the guide promised.  I remember the disappointments and sadness when something wasn’t exactly as stated in the guide, and then having to do a bit of leg-work to find out where it really was.

Travelling in Today’s World

The way we travel today has totally changed, thanks entirely to technology.  The only way for travel to become adventurous now is to go totally off the beaten track, and even then its hard to find true adventure, because so many others are already there, doing exactly the same thing.  Travel has become a lot more comfortable over the years.  Most countries have matured significantly in terms of their transport and tourism infrastructure.  More importantly, all the information you could possibly want (and then some) is available on the internet.  The reality is that you don’t even need a travel guide any more.  Most people, when travelling, will go on-line and check tripadvisor for accommodation, restaurant and tourist attraction advice, possibly use google maps (and street view) for navigation, use an online booking agent such as Agoda to find best prices/location on hotels (and even more detailed reviews on those hotels), and possibly even check out youtube for some video of the area.  Finally, to get various opinions and detailed tips and tricks, the various discussion forums dedicated to different countries are now becoming an immeasurably useful source of information.

The sad fact is, it is entirely possible to write a travel guide without even ever setting foot in the country you are writing about.  Unfortunately, it really does feel like a lot of travel guides today are written in exactly this manner.  I won’t name the publisher or guide, but I recently bought an “up to date” guide for a lesser known Asian country.  I came across so many inaccuracies and totally out of date information that the guide was next to useless.  Some of the information was already out of date before the previous edition had even been released.  I could have saved my money on the guide, spent a few hours doing my own research on the internet and I would have had a more accurate picture of the country.  I suspect that with the increased competition, guide publishers seem to be focusing more on quantity rather than quality.  As a result, guide book authors are under significant pressure to research information for several different guides, and with the internet at hand, it is easier to travel through a location very quickly and then obtain the details later via the internet (or worse, save the cost of an air ticket entirely).

What About Travel Guides?

The question then… is there a future for the travel guide?  I believe there is, but I also believe that travel publishers need to properly adapt to how technology has changed people’s access to information.  Everything that a traveller needs is already on the internet and available for free.  Therefore publishers need to provide guides that offer sufficient benefit and convenience so that it justifies paying money for a book.

Publishers have already shown a willingness to adapt to changing technology.  Travel guides are available as e-books and there are even mobile phone travel apps.  The benefit of e-books is portability.  In the old days of travel, lugging around my paperback guides was a real hassle.  With e-books, all you need is an e-reader, which can even be your mobile phone.  You can even have your guide on multiple devices.  Apps are starting to emerge, that provide interactive information guides, and more importantly, interactive map packs that don’t require an internet connection to give you real time location services.

However, the quality and availability of the different products varies quite wildly, even between products by the same publisher.  A related issue is that with electronic publishing, anyone can now release travel guides and apps.  There is no longer a gatekeeper seeking to maintain minimum quality standards in publishing, with the result that some of the items published are absolute crap.  I remember purchasing a city entertainment guide last year that turned out to be nothing more than a word file listing a bunch of locations, but offering no details or even addresses for them.  There were plenty of freely available internet sites that provided more information.  Fortunately, for such instances, there is a “refund” option on Amazon, so such authors won’t last.  Unfortunately, as travelers, we need to wade through the crap to find the better guides.

I find the situation even more difficult with mobile apps, because without downloading the app, all you can see are a bunch of screen shots that the author has placed on iTunes or Google Play.  It is only once you purchase, download, install, and then run the app that you can determine whether it was worth it.  I have found a lot of travel apps so far to be a waste of money, offering no real benefit to travelers.  The most common app is nothing more than a bunch of pages offering a selected listing of summary information, ranging from accommodation, to restaurants, to activities, and with a bit of a blurb about the country or city.  This format in fact offers less than an e-book guide (less information on that travel destination) and fails to take advantage of the technology available as an app.  I am not saying all travel apps are crap though.  I have found a few really good ones too (this is a topic for a separate blog).  The best apps are the ones that include off-line map packs, where the maps are interactive and tie into the GPS on the traveller’s phone or tablet.  These apps show current location, give directions to different destinations and the maps are interactive, allowing users to search for places close to them.  The best of these apps even give useful details (the same level of detail as a good guidebook) about the different locations on each map (or with certain apps, they give you the option to download and install wiki articles about useful places).  Unfortunately, these sorts of guide apps are still very much in their infancy.

I therefore believe that the future of travel guides currently lies more in the app market.  The e-book market will need to evolve to allow more interactive e-book formats for it to stay in the race (but it seems like this will happen).  The future travel guide will offer full interactivity, easy search and location features and make good use of multimedia (video, maps, sound, images, integrated with GPS).  Travellers can use the app prior to departure to do some reading up on places they want to visit.  Once they arrive, they can simply use GPS tracking to pinpoint their current location, and easily find destinations close to them.  The more innovative app publishers will start adding other features as well.  I have a number of ideas on that front, but I am going to keep those very closely guarded for the time-being given that I am currently developing a platform for travel apps.

Conclusion on Travel Guides

Technology has become both a curse and a godsend to travel.  I curse the internet because it has taken so much of the mystery and adventure out of travel.  However, at the same time, it means I get much more value for my money when I travel, and I am much more prepared (and ultimately more comfortable).  That explosion of freely available information has provided a real challenge to travel guides because now, more than ever, those guides need to convince potential purchasers that they actually do offer value for money.  The biggest value for a traveler is that the guide offers all necessary information in a single, easy to find location, rather than requiring the traveler to spend hours (or days or weeks) scouring the internet for that same information.  The next important benefit that a guide can offer is convenience as a travel aid, for instance, by taking away the need for an expensive internet data account when travelling.

My Own Foray into the Travel Guide Market

I am no stranger to writing travel guides.  I have one published already (see my Amazon author page linked at the bottom of this blog).  I am also currently working on both the second edition of the existing guide, and in addition I am working on an exciting new guide.  My current guide (which I co-wrote with fellow Viking, Jay Brookman) is for… surprise… surprise… Pattaya, Thailand.  No one to date has written a decent guide on Pattaya, notwithstanding that it is the biggest tourist drawcard in Thailand after Bangkok (and 23rd most popular tourist destination in the world).  We initially released the guide as an e-book while we sorted out all the issues that go along with publishing a print version.  As an e-book, we performed very well against our competitors, notwithstanding that our book was also the most expensive Pattaya guide for sale.  However, we were also the only guide that had any interactivity at all written into the book and the only guide with maps, pictures and clickable links.  The competing e-books were nothing more than text and our biggest competitor didn’t even have a functioning table of contents so that it was impossible to navigate his book (and this from a travel writer who has written for big name publishers).

Our print book was released just before Christmas, and what was actually quite a surprise was that paperback sales were quite strong, possibly stronger than electronic sales at the moment.  I have to admit that this is unexpected, but I suspect this may be due to this particular guide being more attractive to an older demographic that still prefers physical books compared to e-books.

The next step now is we are creating a platform for apps for iOS and Android that allows full interactivity, offline maps, and some innovative secrets to be revealed later.  To be honest, this is all very exciting stuff, and I really do look forward to seeing where things will be guidebook-wise in the next ten years.  I am quite confident that travel guides will still exist then, although probably not in the form that we currently take for granted.

Some Quick Links:

My Amazon Author Page:

Pattaya: The Comprehensive Guide:

Our Youtube Guide to Pattaya (which also showcases the interactive abilities of the e-book):

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