The Old Shoestring

Now that Lonely Planet is declining, the signs were there already but now it’s serious as they’re laying off editorial staff, I wonder with what I’m supposed to replace it. To be honest, I’ve already tried to replace it more than once, Let’s Go, Rough Guide, Routard, Footprint, Touring Club, but each and every time I had to go back to Lonely Planet because the other guidebooks, albeit rather good in certain sectors (food, the arts, hilarious commentaries) were simply not enough to get me from one place to the other independently in non-English speaking countries. They lacked logistics, and a backpacker without logistics is a use

Am I really supposed to replace the Lonely Planet with an iPad or iPhone with some apps and augmented reality? Well I could do that. I would look a stupid rich Westerner, which I probably am. But the problem is, who would provide the contents? How would I know the contents are reliable?

The point is not the medium, the problem is the message. Finding yourself lost in the Mekong Delta with a tablet in place of a Lonely Planet guidebook is probably the only circumstance in the contemporary world where the medium is not actually the message, and I think even Marshall McLuhan himself would agree to that. Or he would insist that the medium is indeed the message, but then he would have to agree that the message is “I am a very stupid, very lost Westerner”. Oh, but you could access the Lonely Planet website with your tablet, you say. Yes sure, provided that I have electricity and that the contents on the web site are well researched, written and edited, and websites rarely are, compared to printed books.

Lonely Planet started to decline when they stopped investing on maintaining and improving the contents. They tried to compensate with the so called “new look”, an unimpressive graphic project in black and blue, and with the web site and the social networking, but when you’re tired, hungry and your limbs are bitten by what you dread are malarial anopheles mosquitoes, you don’t really care about the medium, you care about the message.

What a Lonely Planet guidebook still does, basically, is providing information for basic survival. Telling you how to go from one place to another (what kind of bus, train, cable car, street car, servicio colectivo, shinkansen, vessel you need, whatever kind of local transportation), summing up the basic amusements and annoyances (which may be dramatically different from those back home, so different that you may not be able to recognize them and differentiate them), and listing a few reputable places to eat and sleep. You may not like them, but as soon as you’ve reached your intended destination and you’ve catered to your basic needs, you can go explore and find what you like. You’re not called an Independent traveler for nothing, after all.

When you’re a backpacker you are easily labelled. In Vietnam they consider you a rich eccentric, in Hong Kong they giggle at you constantly, in Japan you’re a hairy foreign demon. What you really don’t need is to brandish an expensive toy in the air to add the additional label “clueless and gullible”.


Lonely Planet founders Maureen and Tony Wheeler.
Photograph: Richard I’Anson/Lonely Planet