They Don’t Make Guidebooks for Trailblazers

by Keith Savage · 15 comments

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I’ve been to Barnes & Noble about six times in the last couple of months, hemming and hawing, and stumbling toward the plush, communal chairs, my arms loaded up with guidebooks from every publisher under the sun. For the last decade this routine has been the opening act for each of my trips abroad. It’s one part due diligence, two parts information gathering, and about 15 parts self-indulgence. I just really, really love reading guidebooks and imagining the open roads ahead of me.

Never before have I felt anything other than enriched, fulfilled, and blissed out after a lengthy session of pouring over their tidy layouts: the incredible context of Rough Guides, the crunchy details of Lonely Planet, the likable smarm of Rick Steves.

Until now, that is.

Up until less than an hour ago I was filled with confusion and frustration, failing to comprehend the suddenly vapid text spilling from these beautifully-bound books. I was on the verge of returning my second book; my lovely crutch was broken. Shattered. Given the nature of my future travel plans, I was nothing like the audience for these books!

Guidebooks are fantastic and I fully plan to continue reading them as recreational material. However, the vast majority stick to some core – and sensible – content: accommodations, travel, food/drink, sights, adventure sports, etc. They focus on this material because the people that use guidebooks are typically on vacation and these are activities people enjoy doing on vacation. I intend to slow travel and dig deeper, spending 2-4 weeks in some locations. I will quickly exhaust the surface-level information typically found in guidebooks.

I want to know what’s happening when nothing’s happening. I guess, in a sense, I’m seeking the “mundane.” The Seinfeld of travel experiences. Because I think it’s in day-to-day routine that you capture swift insights into the culture, much more easily than from the museum/plaza/opera/whathaveyou. I’ve had the feeling that I could be anywhere in the world as I’ve browsed the wings of museums. For what I’ve got planned for the future, I don’t think I’m the target audience of guidebooks. My aim is not to be guided, after all, it’s to learn, share, and help other like-minded folks follow in my footsteps.

While I’m sad to miss this guidebook geekery, it’s also liberating to have recognized that my plans and guidebooks simply aren’t going to mesh cleanly, and that I should relegate their use to the basic nuts-and-bolts information. There’s a theme coming together from blogs I’ve been reading and buried in some of my previous posts, and that is: you aren’t supposed to know. Dreams don’t come with instructions, and, even in this age of information saturation, there is knowledge that can only be gained through experience, by walking down those open roads.

Am I forgetting a guidebook publisher for slow travel? Think museums are the pinnacle of cultural expression? Tell me in the comments!

Listening to: Mono
Drinking: Alamos, Argentine Malbec

Original photo by Nevada Tourism Media Relations via Flickr under Creative Commons

floretaNo Gravatar March 21, 2010 at 12:13 PM

yes! i consider tourist an insult and i’m glad to be a “lazy traveler”. living in the culture as opposed to blazing a trail. it’s a totally different mindset. one is almost colonial, while the other is more anthropological. i’d like to bridge gaps, not announce my americanness… ya know?
.-= floreta´s last blog ..Flip-Flops =-.

KeithNo Gravatar March 21, 2010 at 3:24 PM

Great point about colonial vs. anthropological. Very interesting way to put it! I’m pretty firmly in the “anthropological” camp, I suppose. Neat, thanks for that idea.

Andy JaroszNo Gravatar March 20, 2010 at 3:46 AM

‘Seeking the mundane’: perfect words Keith. That’s it, isn’t it? Those great experiences when, for a brief moment, we feel as though we could belong in a place. The moment where we watch others’ everyday lives carrying on with no regard to us observing those lives.
As you say, these experiences are not found in a guidebook. The guidebook has its place in helping us plan a route and advising on how long it might take to get from A to B. The author can also share their research and insights of a place that can be informative, entertaining or both. But ultimately, the experiences we all look for and remember are our own. Great article Keith.
.-= Andy Jarosz´s last blog ..What makes a travel experience truly memorable? =-.

KeithNo Gravatar March 21, 2010 at 3:26 PM

Thanks Andy. I like the way you’ve paraphrased the idea – very eloquent. Have you had travels like that? If so, how would you describe them?

locomoteNo Gravatar March 19, 2010 at 10:03 PM

I’ve never been one for guide books. I traveled Thailand about 7 years ago for a month, and the recurring theme I heard from the “cool travelers” I met there was that a general rule is that as soon as a shop is put in the Lonely Planet, they raise prices and lower quality standards — it doesn’t have to be good now, people will come anyway.

I don’t think that’s true across the board, but I just have this general idea that if something is in a major publication, then the likelyhood of it being a fail is higher than if you just roam the streets and look for the shops where all the locals are sitting.

There’s something unendingly satisfying about roaming the streets, picking out a shop that looks nice, and having an amazing experience. ^__^
.-= locomote´s last blog ..Sinners in the hands of an angry god? =-.

KeithNo Gravatar March 19, 2010 at 11:26 PM

Yep, I agree that making your own experience is infinitely more satisfying and memorable than recreating something from a guidebook. But again, guidebooks do have their place in travel planning.

Nomadic ChickNo Gravatar March 19, 2010 at 9:54 PM

I think you know my stance on guidebooks. I got more info taking two minutes to read a post on India from The Planted than a standard guidebook. There is a guidebook on India that I plan to seek out, but geared towards women solo travel. Museums are wonderful to discover cumulative history on a country, but not the everyday, and that’s what you’re seeking. I expect to see some Savage guidebooks by next year. 🙂
.-= Nomadic Chick´s last blog .. =-.

KeithNo Gravatar March 19, 2010 at 11:27 PM

Wow, not sure I can deliver on the guidebooks by next year. Who knows though…I’m putting up the sail so we’ll see how the wind blows.

Mark PawlakNo Gravatar March 19, 2010 at 7:44 AM


For me, I can’t abide organised tours. I too need to be bored, in the background, assimilated to the dust and hustle. Casual. Keep the camera away, stop time yourself. It’s difficult mind: awe and amazement need to be tempered with patience, and perhaps a little ambivalence. If it’s ordinary, real, day-to-day you need, just stop. It comes to you.

For me – and this is old-skool – it’s the pen and paper that helps. A little jotter of my own. The pleasure in experiencing something that is totally unique, without having it sign-posted to me is also delightful – as is discovering it later in said respected travel guides. I only use writers who have been to locations themselves; it always reveals itself in the writing. Good luck. Wander with the wind: like life, it comes and goes. New travel/sports blog here for your comments, latest post could interest you – all welcome.
.-= Mark Pawlak´s last blog ..Nature is the law =-.

NeepsNo Gravatar March 19, 2010 at 6:11 AM

I really like this idea. Maybe it’s the anthropologist in me but I think that one of the most “nourishing” and satisfying aspects of travel is in achieving some understanding how other people live. That’s probably only possible when spending time in a locale and being present to the day-to-day lives being lived there (short of actually participating in the daily life of a community). I think there’s much to be gained in an outside view of our own culture, not least as a curative for the tendency of so many Americans to think ours is THE way, and this may be the most practical way of gaining that perspective.

KeithNo Gravatar March 19, 2010 at 3:37 PM

Well, that’s my mindset in a nutshell 🙂

JoelNo Gravatar March 18, 2010 at 9:53 PM

Good post – this is why I read travelogues and memoirs instead of guide books. I like the human side of travel.
.-= Joel´s last blog ..5 BIG Ways To Save Thousands For a RTW Trip =-.

KeithNo Gravatar March 19, 2010 at 3:34 PM

You know it’s true. I’m finding blogs much more useful than guidebooks for planning my next trip. The amount of information freely available in the travel blogging community is amazing.

SuzyNo Gravatar March 18, 2010 at 9:35 PM

Great piece. It’s sad that most people buy guidebooks because they want the what to see, where to eat, etc. Nothing is just spontaneous for tourists and it should be. I completely agree. I am more of the mindset to stay in a place for awhile and capture that locale in every form. There are things a guidebook will not tell you. Most cultures must be lived for awhile to fully understand a place in a well-rounded manner, or so I think. I didn’t know Italy until I lived there for awhile and with actual Italians.
.-= Suzy´s last blog ..Spring in the Boboli Gardens of Florence Through the Camera’s Eye =-.

KeithNo Gravatar March 19, 2010 at 3:33 PM

Truth be told, I’m transitioning to your point of view. I’ve always kind of believed that mindset, but I have relied on guidebooks a lot. That simply won’t be an option during my forthcoming trips. Thanks Suzy!

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