The traditional travel guidebook is becoming passé … obsolete … nearly as dead as most of the big bookstores that once carried them. Yes, there’s an app for that, and tons of websites, blogs, magazine articles, and videos.

Rick Steves personally updating all his books every year? That’s an eternity now when Trip Advisor can give you the most current prices, user reviews, and links to make reservations. Tote around a big Lonely Planet guide? Downloading the e-book to a tablet or smartphone saves space and lets you check updated information anywhere there’s Wi-Fi.

In fact, on a trip to Japan, I didn’t carry a guidebook — I barely even consulted one.

So, are guidebooks necessary? Yes, they still are useful for planning where to go and what to see. That front section of most guidebooks that suggests itineraries, the introductory summaries to each chapter that recommend the best sights, and the back sections that explain practicalities such as visa requirements and banking hours are all helpful. But much of that basic information is available for free on the publishers’ websites.

The other useful thing about guidebooks are the hotel recommendations, but lately most of them have cut back these sections to a handful of their most recommended places, rather than providing a more comprehensive list. That’s a concession to the wide array of information online, although it also means those few recommended hotels can book up quickly.

Why not make a mash-up guide out of the best of all of them?Moreover, the quality of guidebooks isn’t at the level it once was. Publishers have consolidated, some guides are under new owners, and the founding editors aren’t there anymore. Lonely Planet has changed owners twice in the past decade. Arthur Frommer sold his guidebook business, then Google bought it and decided to kill the print books, and now Frommer has bought it back from them. Those guides lose something when their original creators are gone.

A decade ago, I would have recommended picking a guidebook that reflects your personal travel preferences: a Lonely Planet or Rough Guide for experienced independent travelers; Let’s Go guide for students and twentysomethings; Moon Guide for Latin America; and Fodor’s or Frommer’s for families and older travelers with more money. Now that is limiting. Why not make a mash-up guide out of the best of all of them and throw in any other source you can find?

Well, for one, it’s time-consuming. Then there’s the problem of organizing and carrying around all that information. Back in the day, Rick Steves advised his readers to photocopy the parts of his books that pertained to the places they were visiting and leave the book at home. That actually was smart because you could head out every day with just the three pages you needed. Still, that makes for a lot of paper.

Today, you can just consult a few favorite sources on a mobile device when you need it. Check out a few of the recognized guidebook websites for basic information, bookmark sites for trains and buses, seek out some local city guides, and download a guidebook’s e-book or app if you think it’s necessary.


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