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What is the future of travel guidebooks?

Sharing my findings on how people curate, organize and share travel content
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Hi everyone,

This is my second post in a series of discussions in which I am sharing some findings on the way people curate, organize and share travel content. The main objective here is to engage in conversations with the broader Travel Massive community.

The first topic was covering the different sources used by travellers to collect travel inspiration and information and is available here:

Now, I would like to dig deeper in some of those information sources and understand what makes them attractive / trustworthy sources. The second topic therefore relates to the current usage of travel guidebooks.

Here's a summary of my findings based on numerous interviews:

Travel guidebooks have long been a popular resource for travellers looking for information about destinations, attractions, accommodations, and more. With the rise of digital technology, however, many people are now turning to online resources like blogs, travel apps, and social media for travel advice. Based on interviews with individuals aged 25 to 35, 58% were still using travel guidebooks on a regular basis, with however different usage across the information funnel. For some, guidebooks act as their first go-to source of information after choosing the destination, for pre-trip research and high-level overview. For others, guidebooks will only be opened in the train / plane to the destination to get immersed in the culture or to get some historical background around places they are planning on visiting.

Some of the mentioned pros and cons of using travel guidebooks in the digital era:

👍 Pros:

1. Comprehensive information: Guidebooks are known for providing comprehensive information on a destination, including history, culture, customs, and local insights that may not be found online.

2. Convenience: Guidebooks are easy to carry around and can be accessed without an internet connection. They are also convenient for planning and organizing a trip, as they can be used as a reference tool throughout the journey.

3. Reliable source: Guidebooks are often written by experienced travel writers or locals, who have in-depth knowledge of the destination. They can be a reliable source of information that is less prone to errors or misinformation.

👎 Cons:

1. Outdated information: Guidebooks are usually published a few years before the current year, and some of the information may become outdated quickly. This could include the closure of certain restaurant and attractions or changes in transport routes. This is especially true for pre-covid guidebooks.

2. Lack of personalization: Guidebooks provide general information about a destination, but they may not be tailored to individual needs and preferences. Online resources can offer more personalized recommendations based on a traveller's interests and tastes.

3. Heavy reliance: Depending solely on a guidebook can limit a traveler's sense of exploration and adventure. Travelers may miss out on hidden gems or unique experiences if they only stick to the guidebook's suggestions.

My questions:

• Do you still use travel guidebooks?
• What makes them an attractive or unattractive source of information?

Looking forward to engaging discussions on this new topic!

18 days ago (edited)
Founder, Travel Massive

Hey Benoit,

Thanks for sharing your insights, and a good round up common issues.

This reminded me of a company called Offbeat Guides which launched WAAAY back in 2007 which addressed most of the issues you've raised here. They created customized, on-demand guidebooks in both PDF and print format.

The company was created by Dave Sifry, who was well known at the time for founding I met Dave at a trade show in Singapore many years ago (before I started Travel Massive) and he was kind enough to buy me coffee and have a chat. If I recall, they managed to get a placement in Expedia's booking path (kinda a big deal). Sadly, Offbeat Guides shut down a few years later — I guess due to lack of demand for their guidebooks.

Watch this video (skip the intro) where Dave pitches the concept of on-demand guidebooks. Offbeat Guides was truly ahead of their time.

This video is 14 years old, so there's no thumbnail!

Hope this helps your research!

18 days ago (edited)

Hi Ian,

Many thanks for making me discover Offbeat Guides! This was definitely an innovative concept at that time, and a first try at making travel search easier and personalised.
I will try to get in touch with David to get additional feedback and have a discussion on the broader travel sector!

18 days ago (edited)
Head Chef, Travelfish Pty Ltd

Offbeat Guides, Flash from the past! Another one was Wikitravel Press by Jani Patokallio, but the site, like Offbeat Guides, seems to be dead. There’s still a few travel sites around doing PDFs etc, we’ve done them for 15+ years, 100k downloads or so, but in my experience people like them when they are free—less so if they have to pay for them—I guess as Offbeat etc found out!

Re guidebooks etc, LP as an example is reworking all their titles substantially, including a big move away from listings, and, I’ve heard moving all to a four-year cycle. I’ve always found the front and back of the book to be the most valuable, and I don’t see the internet stepping in to address that any time soon. Nothing online comes close to the usability of a guidebook in my opinion—books have been around for a while for a reason.

18 days ago

Hi Stuart,

Do you mind elaborating on your second paragraph? If I remember correctly the first pages of the LP books are covering the top spots at the destination, a high-level map, few itineraries and some basic travel information (currency, language, transport, etc.) while the end of the book usually displays some cultural and practical information together with a short dictionary for the most common phrases in the local language. What makes you think this can not be replicated on the internet or through a mobile app for example?

18 days ago
Head Chef, Travelfish Pty Ltd

Traditionally front was history, culture, society, lingo etcetera while the back of the book was logistics, visas and so on. In between was the meat of the guide. This has changed a bit over time, with them adding more itineraries etc to the front bit. When I say “front and back” I’m referring to the older LP/RG style, but I mean everything except the listings.

Sure, this stuff could be done on internet yes, so for eg wikipedia for history, but in practice few want to write it as is very hard to monetise and requires a level of expertise few travel writers/bloggers have. It is why there are millions of pages of hotel reviews because the ads/affiliate stuff is lucrative—less so on 3,000 words covering 16th century Thai history.

18 days ago
Director, Your Second Homeland

From a sustainability perspective, we need to go paperless because every time we print, we killing a few more trees, filling a few more landfills and leaking print ink into the water system. We need to educate the clients that whatever they are looking for can be found online. It all then boils down to amazing content, up to date facts and apps that can engage with the client to further assist in feeding them the information they seek.

18 days ago
CEO, Horizon Guides

Not sure guidebooks rank very highly in the overall tourism emissions league tables!

18 days ago
CEO, Horizon Guides

Admittedly my backpacking days have slowed down somewhat in recent years, but nonetheless agree strongly with Stuart below that nothing beats an old school guidebook while travelling independently. The use case has clearly changed a lot: directory/listing type information is now available in real-time at your fingertips, but the front & back sections are timeless and have less of a viable business model in online format. I've not seen a new edition LP for a longtime but wouldn't be surprised if they morph into some sort of "portable coffee table books". There's still LOTS of quality, expert information that people want but can't be monetised in the narrow SEO driven world of the internet. In my office right now I'm looking at bookshelves of my old LPs & RGs, there aren't many websites that have that sort of enduring cachet.

We dabbled with some of this at Horizon Guides before covid. There was a niche/longtail market for it, but we couldn't really get the economics to add up with Amazon print on-demand. A print publisher with the right infrastructure could possibly make it work.

17 days ago
Retired Travel Blogger

I wrote about this issue in my blog as we planned our world trip. If it is OK, I will quote it here:

I think I can never have enough information. Part of the fun part of travelling is going through all the material to see what you want and where you want to go. I’m particularly fond of the DK Eyewitness books with their Top 10 for various cities. They’re smaller and quite comprehensive. They’re also helpful if you only spend four or fewer days in a particular city. Fortunately, we now have a broad collection of them and can lend them to friends.

What’s been interesting about COVID is that many of these travel books have not been updated since 2019. Some new ones are coming out, but I don’t want to pay that much for the new additions. A caveat, depending on what you’re using the travel books for, they may be out of date, and your information may provide a surprise when you get there. I don’t use these books, particularly for restaurants and hotels, for that very reason.

Here are two options we use to collect our travel books before going. One, we go to various hand-me-down stores. The ones offered by charities like Salvation Army are handy. You can pick up travel books for $3 to $4 that are relatively current. The other option to get the latest views is to borrow from the library. We have ten books we acquired this way and ten from the library that need to be returned. That is 20 books to go through!

Now the next question, of course, is how many will you take with you. Books are heavy, cumbersome and can take up a lot of space. For this reason, we’ll be taking very few with us. We are visiting seven countries with numerous locations, so we must travel light.

The other thing we’ve done is take images of some of the critical pages we were interested in, copy them into a document, and convert them into PDFs. Then we load them up into Good Notes so we can access them anytime.

For me there will always be a future for hard copy travel books.

17 days ago
Travel Blogger and App Developer, VacationCounts

Great topic. I think if you survey people over 35 :) I imagine you'll find even higher travel guidebook usage. However I do completely agree with the set of pros and cons you've researched and documented in this post.

I still rely on them for initial inspiration and helping to pick out destinations and top things to do given the number of days I have to take a vacation. The web is certainly better for digging into the details and planning a real (and up to date and day-by-day) itinerary. I think of a travel guidebook like a travel magazine dedicated to one country, city, or region (and without the ads). I look at my computer and phone long enough every day, so having a physical book is for me a relaxing and enjoyable way to get ready for the next vacation.

Also, I find it fun to visit a bookstore at home and while traveling to check out the travel (including travel writing) section. I often find guidebooks to regions that I didn't realize were popular to add to my own bucket list. Unfortunately there are few dedicated travel bookstores left in the world, like the incredible Daunt Books and Stanfords in London.

12 days ago
travel writer,

From the perspective of the disability community, especially those of us who are mobility impaired, websites are a great help for most current information. However, smaller, potentially accessible trails are often overseen by very small land trusts and other organizations and have limited information on websites about their properties. Rail trail websites are often out of date, (especially about where to find parking) and provide little or no information about trail surfaces (essential knowledge for mobility impaired travelers). I have some what I call hyper-local paperback guide books for my area of south central MA and northern RI, specifically aimed at travelers with mobility challenges (older, young parents with strollers, recently injured or living with permanent mobility impairments). While very limited in scope these continue to sell.

10 days ago