6/18/2012

Dump the Mis-Guide Books


Go ahead. Do it. I know the thought's crossed your mind. Probably the last time you walked into a tourist trap packed with fellow travelers holding the same copy of Fodors or Lonely Planet.

Throw the guidebooks away. Or burn them in protest. Either way, your trips will improve dramatically.

For me, the epiphany came in Ho Chi Minh City. After a long day traipsing around town, my brother and I longed for an authentic Vietnamese meal. So we plowed through our guidebook and decided on a restaurant that promised tasty local fare amid a locals-only atmosphere. We walked into the restaurant and saw 10 tables. Europeans or Americans sat at each table with their guidebooks resting on their laps or under chairs.

"That's it," I told my brother that night in the hotel. "No more guidebooks." To accentuate my point I threw our book across the room and into a wastebasket.

And our trips have never been better.

Think about it. When tourists come to Orange County, the guidebooks point them in the direction of Disneyland or the Newport Peninsula. Is this the best we have to offer? Do those places truly reflect Orange County today?

Conversely, if the tourist spent a couple minutes talking to Orange County residents they'd learn about, say, a desolate beach in Laguna, a wonderful Mexican restaurant in Santa Ana or a pristine wilderness trail in unincorporated East County. Or maybe a Vietnamese restaurant that's more authentic than our joint in Ho Chi Minh City.

Still not convinced? Here are some more reasons.

The whole concept of an "up-to-date" guidebook is impossible. Look at the date on yours. If you're lucky, it's only a year or two old. Or is it? Find a copy from 10 years prior and you'll probably find the book hasn't been re-written, just edited, tweaked and spruced up with fancy new photos.

How many people work for a guidebook? 100? 200? Even if the number were 100,000 it wouldn't be nearly enough to constantly scour every neighborhood for the latest and greatest information.

I went to Rio last December and heard about a nightclub jammed with dance-crazy Brazilians. I saw no tourists the entire night I visited. On a return trip three months later, I saw no people the entire night. The Rio revelers moved to another venue after declaring that one passé.

Of course none of this information was in the guidebooks. The only restaurants, clubs and bars they promote are the ones that have been around for years - the same types of establishments we avoid at home.

How about basic information concerning an area's main sights? The books do better here, I'll admit. The best ones throw in a decent history lesson or two along with detailed maps. Still, they often miss things like holiday schedules, hours that have been adjusted, discount days or the best times to view the "must-see" venues. Besides, all this information can be easily obtained with a quick stop to an information center or through a quick chat with a concierge.

Another reason to ditch the guidebooks is the practice of paying for print. Though the reputable publishers prohibit payola practices, hotel, tour and restaurant owners all over the world brag about buying favorable mentions. In Vietnam, a café owner told me he sent money every year to a writer so his establishment would remain in a guidebook. He was angry with his "cheap" neighbor for refusing the bribe, yet tacking up a sign that bragged about a recommendation.

Think about being forced to get all your news from books - everything from weather reports to stock prices to headlines to sport scores. Impossible, right? Yet this is precisely the rationale of travelers who cling to guidebooks as their sole source of information.

Quick aside here. One of the most popular guidebooks on the planet is Lonely Planet. It's also one of the most aptly named. I laugh every time I hear the words "Lonely Planet." If their readers travel with their heads buried in their book, of course they're going to be lonely.

Are you wavering yet? Here's what will happen if you do leave the guidebooks at home.

You'll talk to more people, many of them offering rides, meals or personal escorts in addition to recommendations. You'll feel like you're experiencing something authentic as opposed to being led through another tourist trap. You'll travel far more spontaneously, taking advantage of gifts and opportunities when they arise. You'll realize you don't need to see everything on a trip. The churches and museums will still be there the next time. You'll probably make more friends with whom you'll stay in contact long after the journey is over. You'll feel like you know a location far better than you ever did with guidebook-dominated travel.

There are whole industries that exist solely by convincing travelers that they cannot leave their homes without certain "essential services" - travel clothes, travel insurance, even travel agents in the age of Internet. The truth is you don't need any of them.

But that gets me off on a tangent. For now I'd be more than content if you left the guidebooks at home.

This is a guest post from Franz Wisner, the Author of the memoir "Honeymoon with My Brother".


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Location: Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

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