Do Guidebooks Stifle Your Travel Discovery?

by admin on February 26, 2007

Sitting on dinner tables, peaking from coat pockets or hiding the readers’ faces in museums, the casual observer sees the ubiquitous Rick Steves’ guidebook throughout Europe. Their wrinkled clothed owners briskly walking from one Rick experience to the next, following the guidebook as if it is the path to enlightenment.

In Rothenberg, Rick’s back door travellers fill the cobbled streets each summer to experience its middle-age charm. Relaxing over dinner one night, we observed the couple at the next table thumb two Rick tomes between courses, while another woman read her order from the guidebook ensuring she received Rick’s recommendations. Furiously writing notes throughout the prescribed meal like a school assignment, she ticked off each experience before hurrying into the night to her next task. We lingered over strudel (cliché but I love it) and coffee before strolling home, unencumbered by books, cameras or the need to do anything but enjoy the night pondering how travellers use their guidebooks.

We love Rick’s guidebooks, simply referred to as Rick in our family, but it informs our travel without dictating our itinerary, and adopting his guiding philosophy to find and open new back doors. Rick focuses on the culture, art and history of Europe and his guidebooks are devoted to those experiences but are they your only interests? Visiting Bologna, a town Rick does not recommend, drove our Italian itinerary because I love Ducati motorcycles and for me motorcycling nirvana is the Ducati Museum there.

Without Rick to guide us, we stumbled from Bologna’s train station to our charm less, cramped hotel with erratic air-conditioning then bumbled our way through the city unable to unlock its history. Until Bologna, Rick had led the way as we lazily followed. In Bologna, we found our back door and learnt to put as much effort into our planning as Rick does into his books.

Tourist Crush in fromt of the Mona Lisa

Tourist Crush in fromt of the Mona Lisa

The true essence of travel is to experience life from a new perspective and enrich yourself by absorbing into your everyday life the cultural elements you found attractive. Unless participating in a high stakes treasure hunt, a photograph in front of Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa does not justify a visit to the Louvre. Search for experiences not photo opportunities and create memories rather than trophy albums containing photos of famous sights you do not understand. Follow your passion; tour the Ferrari factory, dig for antique dolls in Thüringen or attend a rock concert in Paris to find your back door.

Europe Through the Back Door opened the way for travellers looking for more than a package tour racing them from curio shop to curio shop. As Rick Steves graduated from independent tour guide to travel guru, some readers lost part of his message: to experience other cultures not just view them through the tinted window of a tour bus. Leave the guidebook in the hotel room and blaze your own trail through an unfamiliar city. Rick is a guide not a messiah; use his guidebook as a tool not a bible, and a revelation in travel awaits you.

See you at the Travel Festival I’m hooked.

Related blog entry posted at the Sydney Morning Herald Travel Blog.

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{ 3 comments }

nath July 18, 2007 at 7:17 am

Great article. Often you hear these ‘seasoned travelers’ preach about their own single-handed discoveries and the evils of guidebooks. Personally, I think guide boks to have a place, but should by no means be treated as a bible. When I travel I will generally have a travel guide of some description or have a t least read bits about where I am going from one – by I also ensure that I out the guide down as often as possible and just wander – be it through a city or just take off on a bus and see wht happens. Usually, but not always, thats seems to me when the real memorable stuff happens. I think its important to stike a fair balance of ‘using and not using’ and also take advantage of other great resources such as locals, expats, those who have been there, and, or course, the internet.
Regards, Nath

Jakob July 20, 2007 at 5:27 pm

This is exactly what I expected to find out after reading the title idebooks Stifle Your Travel Discovery?. Thanks for informative article

SteveMadsen July 20, 2007 at 11:07 pm

The Internet is changing everything and guidebooks are due for a change soon. Most people I’m meeting on this trip are booking hostels through hostels.com or similar sites. A large part of the book is redundant as a result.

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