The Truth About Guidebooks

Dawn MacKeen reports from firsthand experience on why you shouldn't trust everything your guide tells you.

Published August 7, 1998 7:00PM (EDT)

Seven days after graduating from college, I boarded a plane and landed in the middle of Greece, with little knowledge of the language, the culture or the geography. I had two months from that moment to become an expert on the country for the now-defunct Berkeley Guides; to travel to, research and write about 15 islands and nine cities and towns, stretching from the northeastern island of Lesvos clear across the country to the southwestern island of Zakinthos. In 60 days, and in each location -- and one of the islands I had to cover was Crete, with five of its own destinations -- I had to find the best hotels, campgrounds, restaurants, museums, archaeological sites, beaches and bars, as well as the prices and schedules of the ferries, trains and buses. Plus I had to write them all up -- and find some time to eat and sleep.

Armed with a backpack stuffed with every guidebook on the region and old newspaper clippings, a few changes of clothes, an AT&T card to call my editors back in Berkeley and the biggest bottle of ibuprofen a person could buy, I was ready to cover half of Greece, to trek the mountainous dirt roads and seek out the red sand beaches, to get sick on boat decks while en route to places inaccessible by car, to fall off walls in order to peek at crumbling ruins. I was ready to go "off the beaten path" and to "travel on a shoestring" -- to be that poor student traveler all the marketing materials had talked about when announcing the debut of the Berkeley Guides series, which would now include guide to Europe for the first time. I had lived near a Greek family growing up, had studied rhetoric in college and had inhaled the works of the ancient Grecian orators, and with that I sold myself as someone experienced to do the job. It was up to me (remember, I was "experienced") to fill up my empty notebook with everything a traveler might need when coming to the regions I was covering -- the Ionian, Dodecanese and Cycladic islands, Crete and the Peloponnesus -- and then some.

What I did was akin to party-hopping, touching down on each island just long enough to get a sense of it, and then moving on to the next, with all of them quickly merging into one blue Aegean blur. With a $35 daily stipend, I couldn't exactly hire an army to aid me in scouting out the streets, pensions and ruins, so I dipped into my own pockets to take the twice-as-fast hydrofoils instead of the slow-moving ferries, rented motorbikes instead of relying on the undependable, time-consuming bus system, went on dates with locals to ferret out recommendations from them and arrived alone in the dead of night in strange places (without a room to sleep in) so I could keep up with my editor's schedule. I even went back to work within an hour of crashing on a motor scooter -- despite the fact that I could barely walk. But no matter how hard I tried, it was never enough.

There was no way to research everything readers and publishers could want. So I started to just glance at the places I was supposed to be reviewing. Is this hotel OK? Glance -- yeah, looks that way. Is this a good restaurant? Glance -- yes, looks like one. But I struggled with never being able to give readers the "best" information possible; I was simply doing the best I could under the circumstances.

Unfortunately, the circumstances I worked under -- the tight deadlines, the superficial method of information gathering, the financial restrictions -- are almost a guidebook industry standard (or I should say, sub-standard). And yet guidebooks are thought of, and promoted as, the definitive key to a place -- comprehensive in scope and discriminating in judgement. The glossy covers almost scream at you with their inflated claims: "Everything you need for a perfect trip"; "The perfect companion for independent travelers," saturated with "expert advice" and "travel bargains." Guidebooks have become almost biblical in their authority, filled with words to travel by, passed down from someone who knows to someone who doesn't -- required reading before any trip.

But there's a huge disparity between what readers think they're getting for $19.99 and what they actually get. I've known people who have read their guidebook so many times they can recite it almost word for word -- which places to visit, how to get there, what to see (and, by sheer exclusion, what not to see). They have traveled from one end of town to another just because of a restaurant recommendation. Yet they could probably have gotten just as good advice by asking a local where there's good calamari -- which is most likely what the guidebook writer did, without ever taking a single bite.

"If readers assume I've tested every hotel in, for example, the Lonely Planet Thailand guide, they must be idiots!" says Joe Cummings, author of more than 30 guidebooks, travel atlases and phrase books. "It's physically and economically unfeasible to sleep in every hotel and guesthouse in Bangkok alone, not to mention the rest of the country. In one district of Bangkok there are over 200 guesthouses -- I'd never get around to writing a guidebook if I had to sleep in every hotel."

The few sentences describing a place are often fragments jotted
down hastily on the spot and then later pieced together. Robert Holmes, who has written for Insider's, Thomas Cook, Frommer's and Fodor's guides, says he allots about 10
minutes to do a museum. He walks quickly
through a place to get an idea of it, gets the admission
info and the historical focus and then checks it off his list. When I was
researching my Greece guide, I would walk in, ask the first guard I found
what the museum was known for, look at a few statues, scribble down what
the placards said and leave.

The eye can become trained to recognize the ills of a place pretty quickly,
but how well can you really judge a place with only a fleeting look? It's
hard to ascertain what a pension's noise level is like at 3 a.m. without
first losing a night's sleep there, or if a bistro uses old meat for its
entrees until you eat there, or if there's a
dangerous undertow at the secluded beach you've found without going in for
a swim. "People don't realize how superficial guidebooks have to be done
to be
produced in the time and budget that's allocated," says Holmes.

They also might not understand the publication process involved. When the year "1998"
is emblazoned
across the cover of a guidebook, buyers often think that they're
getting information
gathered in 1998. They should think again. Most of the time,
the information has been researched and written at least one year before --
in some
cases, the bulk of the information dates back several years -- and has just been updated by phone.

Producing the first edition of a guidebook, especially if it is well researched,
can take years: All the information has to be collected, then the book has
to go through the writing cycle, the editing cycle, the production cycle
and the distribution cycle. Even in the guides with the fastest
turnarounds, the information is about six months old before it gets onto the
bookstore's shelves and into your hands.

Editors of the bestselling books readily admit that some
places have probably gone out of business, changed owners or even gone from
hotel to brothel by the time guidebook-toting travelers show up on their
doorsteps. "Mistakes get made in every guidebook," acknowledges Anna
Portnoy, publishing
director of Let's Go, the budget guide series written and edited by Harvard
students. "Prices are wrong, directions are wrong. We obviously do our
best -- as any guidebook does -- to get accurate information, but things
slip through the cracks."

Let's Go is just one of about a dozen brand-name series -- such as Frommer's,
Fielding's, Baedeker, Michelin, Rough Guide, etc. -- lining the walls of
bookstores nowadays. With such intense competition for every book
sold, publishers are in a race to get their books out as quickly as
possible for the lowest dollar amount. As a result, they're often
not realistic about how much time it will take the writer to gather the
information, says Tom Brosnahan, author of guides published by Frommer's,
Berlitz, Lonely Planet and Insight, and an advisor to the Society of
American Travel Writers' Guidebook Institute. This downward trend began in
the 1980s, Brosnahan says. "Travel took
off, air fares came down to real
terms, people got richer and so they traveled more and the travel book
business just
exploded. Pretty soon, every publisher and his neighbor were trying to get
into this market. They were like, 'Quick, find us some schmucks with
underwear to write these things up and get them out there.'" People were
given deadlines that they couldn't meet and amounts of money they couldn't
even live off.

It's precisely these financial and time restraints that have led one
guidebook writer to the dark side of the guide. "When I get tired, I
sometimes say,
'Oh, fuck it,' and pass something by and
make do on secondary sources -- fatigue gets to you, laziness sets in,"
he says.
"If you're not being paid well for a project, you can't really expect
somebody to go out and break their back."

In the worst-case scenario, some writers have been known to travel all the
way to their destination and then not even leave their
hotel room; they write their book or chapter from within the room,
with other guidebooks as their main resource.

"We all read other guidebooks and gain inspiration and information from
them, but some writers go too far and depend on other guidebooks for most
of their info," acknowledges Cummings, who feels that this is one of the
biggest problems facing
the industry. "Even though it's a perfectly legal thing to do as long as
the prose itself isn't plagiarized, this cheats readers, who are expecting a
unique perspective on their chosen destination."

Updates have their own problems. Even guidebook writers with the best
intentions can't afford to revisit a place if they're getting paid only
$1,500 or $2,000 to update a book. Airfare and ground transportation would
suck up most of that. That's why if a guidebook says "updated" on its cover,
it doesn't mean that the writer has actually traveled to the location and found
all the newest places to go for that year. It could simply mean that he or
she has traveled as far as the refrigerator, while calling the phone
numbers from the previous year's guide to make sure that they were still

Consider the plight of Chris Baker, who has been writing guidebooks for the
last 15 years for Moon, Lonely Planet
and Frommer's, among others. When he was given $2,000 to update another
publisher's book on Jamaica, he couldn't afford to return to the country.
The whole thing was done from the comfort of his home in Oakland, Calif.
"I actually went back to Jamaica a few weeks ago for another reason," Baker
says, "and
found out that it was absolutely impossible to discover very important
changes from homebase that I had discovered on the road. So while these are
little niggly problems, they do factor into whether a guidebook is accurate
or not."

Holmes faced a similar problem after being paid the same sum to
update a California guide. He says the amount wouldn't have
covered the cost just to check everything out firsthand -- let alone pay for
his time. (And he lives in California.) So he made
some phone calls, took information from press releases and relied heavily
on his recollection of the places. Right before the publication went to
press, his editors found the mention of a ride at Disneyland that
had been closed down for about three years.

The quality of a guidebook is also compromised by another one of the
biggest problems in the guidebook industry -- the widespread acceptance of
complimentary rooms and meals. When writers
can't afford to pay for everything they review, hoteliers and
restaurateurs often "comp" them -- giving them rooms and meals for free.
Brosnahan says he sees no problem with taking a
$300 room for free; otherwise, he couldn't afford to stay there and
wouldn't be able to assess the place as thoroughly. He says it doesn't affect his
objectivity -- if there's noisy plumbing or
other problems, he mentions it.

But not everyone is so sure. "There are journalists who say that [hosting]
doesn't affect their judgment, but it does, it colors your frame of mind,"
says Holmes. "It automatically puts you in a good mood if you're in a
good accommodation and you're not paying for it." Holmes recounts a time
when he was in Hawaii on other business and staying in a hotel with his
family. While he was there, he was also updating a guide to
Hawaii, but since he was just a paying guest -- no one special as far as the
hotel was
concerned -- he was stuck in a room above a loading dock with trucks
backing in and out starting at 6 in the morning. When he complained to the
management and told them who he was, they apologized and said that if they
had known who he worked for, things would have been different -- he would
have been
given a quiet oceanfront room.

Looking back, I sometimes wonder about all the mistakes I might have made in my book,
how it affected the people who bought the guide, planned their vacations
around the places I recommended, took everything I wrote to heart. I dread the day when someone I meet tells me about an ill-fated
trip and then points his/her finger in my direction.

But I guess that same person could just as likely thank me for some of the places I stumbled into
and then jotted down. And this is true for most travel guides. Guidebooks
do offer gems in the form of thoughtful recommendations and necessary information to navigate
through a city or region for the first time. They are useful tools and can
be a person's best companion in a foreign location.

But readers need an
attitude adjustment: Take guides for what they are, and know that not every piece
of information they present is definitive. Travel guides are
just slices of a world -- sometimes ripe, and sometimes
gone rotten. This doesn't mean you should throw your guidebooks away; but don't limit your world by what a harried travel writer
has scribbled. Sometimes it pays to venture into the margins.

By Dawn MacKeen

Dawn MacKeen is a former senior writer for Salon, and author of a forthcoming book about her grandfather’s survival of the Armenian Genocide, "The Hundred-Year Walk: An Armenian Odyssey" (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, January 2016).

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