Lessons from Middle Earth: How to Use a Guidebook Without Letting it Ruin Your Trip

We travelers are blessed with endless sources of literary inspiration for our myriad wanderings. Certain characters jump off the page and seem to almost lead us along by hand—pausing now and again to whisper sage advice in our ears. There’s much to be gleaned from Dean and Sal in On the Road, Richard in The Beach, Huck and Jim in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn—but perhaps no character from literature provides such a perfect metaphor for the post-modern traveler as Frodo Baggins in the Lord of the Rings.

Through his journey, Frodo carries a golden ring which, though invaluable at times, threatens to become his undoing. It calls out to be worn, tempting the hobbit at every turn. Here in our world, travelers often pack a comparable burden, one that’s similarly glossy and seemingly just as useful but soon casts a spell over its owner. It is the guidebook.

Believe it or not, this idea isn’t the major leap that it first appears to be. Both Frodo’s ring and the traveler’s handy guidebook are entrancing—bestowing upon their owners a false sense of control and security. Both have alluring qualities and can be useful in certain situations but are crippling when relied upon too heavily.

The temptation in the case of the traveler is simple: many guidebooks are loaded with useful information. Travelers reading sample itineraries are quickly tricked into thinking that their guidebook can save them from missing something spectacular. Soon they’re pulling it out at every opportunity and burying their noses in it as they walk through crowds. Meanwhile, they fail to notice that at that very moment they might be missing genuine, unique, spontaneous experiences. If someone could only shake them out of this trance to say:

This is the trip! This is it! Over here are fresh lychees for sale! Look! There are children playing soccer in circles at your feet!”

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But alas, once a guidebook has someone in its grip it seldom lets go until the exit visas are stamped. When the fog finally lifts many travelers are left with the sinking sensation of having shadowed someone else’s path.

As you may have guessed, I am generally anti-guidebook and have made sparing use of them. But recently, on my way to Ecuador, I felt compelled to pick up a guidebook a few weeks before departure. My reason was simple and consistent with the rationale of many a guidebook user: the trip was too short to go in completely blind.

Like Frodo, keeping the power of the ring at bay by passing it off to his friend Sam, I devised a plan to ensure that the guidebook’s presence wouldn’t overpower my experience. The five points that follow outline my strategy for those who may want to give it a try:

1 – Don’t bring it

This is the most crucial step; you must leave the guidebook at home. That doesn’t mean you’re not using it at all, you certainly are: as a research tool before departure. Read it, study up, look at routes, gather information—then set it back on the shelf. Why bother with a paperback facsimile of a country when you are right there in the thick of things?

It’s a little like the SCUBA diver who brings his fish chart with him underwater. Sure, study up on land, compare notes, discuss the fish you saw and see if you can figure out what each one was—but why waste precious oxygen while you’re underwater looking away from the ACTUAL fish to a pasteboard drawing of them? You’re better off focusing on the experience at hand.

>>read more about 10 Non-Travel Resources To Help You Travel Better

2 – Make notes

Instead of bringing your guidebook along, jot down a few thoughts in a small notebook. Write down the names of interesting sounding sights, a waterfall, a town. If you feel you must, take notes on hotels or guesthouses that seem particularly interesting—but put a question mark next to the names and check them out in person.

The point is not to practice your transcription skills; the point is that you’ll be much more approachable glancing at a handheld notebook than a 300-page doorstop with a highly recognizable cover (which all the guidebooks have…if I could walk through Red Square with a guidebook that looked like War and Peace then maybe). Even the best guidebooks contain tons of material that you only need to see once. Read it at home, after that it’s dead weight.

3 – Read the ‘Dangers’ chapter

These are usually the most valuable pages of any guidebook. Read about when and where the muggings happen (guidebooks generally get this right), what illnesses are prevalent and where it’s unsafe to swim.

Read the list of common scams as if it were a pulp crime novel.

This, if anything is where a guidebook’s favorable attributes are reminiscent of Frodo’s ring—helping to make its owner invisible to potential threats to their safety.

>>read more about 10 of the Most Dangerous Destinations

4 – Don’t trust them

Not all the way at least. Keep in mind that guidebooks have authors. Those authors are reflecting their own personal impressions, which, while certainly of interest, may not reflect your impressions. The guidebook becomes a liability when the opinions of the writer (who gets tired, hungry and cranky at times, just like the rest of us) are overvalued.

Remember, there are lots of ways to gather information—local recommendations and advice are particularly crucial (yet underused) assets to any traveler. There’s a lot of lag time between when a book is researched and when it hits bookstores, where as talking to locals offers up to the minute information.

Chat, ask questions, get strangers to share their favorite cheap restaurant, food kiosk or four-star dining experience. Scribble names in your notebook. Collect as many opinions as you can. When the same places start coming up over and over you’ve found a good launching off point.

5 – Accept the fact that you are going to miss something

The guidebook gives us the illusion that we can see, taste, touch and try everything all on one trip. But most trips aren’t long enough to make that a real possibility—in fact, most lives aren’t long enough to make that a real possibility. Trying to do it all often leaves people feeling as if they’re running a race they can’t win: constantly wanting to see more, but inevitably experiencing less.

At a breakneck pace you don’t have the luxury of meeting people, getting lost in winding cobblestones streets (and who could with their guidebook map in hand?) or sharing in the hospitality of strangers—all of the things that people want to do when they travel.

My advice: slow down, pick a smaller amount of space to cover, focus on a region rather than a country. Slowing down helps to stretch your time out and leaves you open to the spur-of-the-moment—like joining the soccer game with those kids—and that’s where real, lasting travel memories come from.

This method may seem like extra work, but remember that like Frodo’s ring, the guidebook’s sway is seductive and its overuse could derail any journey. In the spirit of the brave hobbit, the intrepid traveler is challenged to overcome this hypnotic power—by following the steps above, devising their own plan or (if all else fails) by giving the book a quick glance, making a few notes, and throwing it into the fires of Mordor.

>>read more about Travel is Not a Contest

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Photo credits:
Middle Earth, New Zealand, by sektordua on Flickr, Guidebooks by SheepsRUs on Flickr , Notes by laihiu on Flickr, Danger sign by Timewinder on Flickr , Sbarro’s by /me on Flickr, Red Square by McBadger on Flickr


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Older comments on Lessons from Middle Earth: How to Use a Guidebook Without Letting it Ruin Your Trip

Cristina Dima-772
05 August 2009

I found out that the hostel/hotel I’m staying at is the best place to gather info! I never travel wt a guidebook. i do all my research at home and i’ve got notes in my cell or in a notebook to check when i need them.
But once I get to the destination, i start asking around :)

Traveller At Heart
05 August 2009

Missing something is inevitable – unless travelling is a “job” to you, or you’re more interested in “telling” rather than “seeing”. Great article.

05 August 2009

Excellent advice. The scuba simily resonated for me — I have also learned to leave the camera on the dive boat for at least half the dives. When I have it I spend the entire dive focused on photo composition, not the whole, wide ocean. Same can apply above water. But I have to wonder about the picture of Sbarro — I hope it’s cautionary, not intended to illustrate local advice. ‘Cause no New Yorker is going to send you there over any of the many variations on “Ray’s Pizza.”

Stephen Bramucci
05 August 2009

Miamic: You hit the nail–The Sbarros photo is a warning draped in neon. When I’m in NYC I’m going out to Brooklyn for Grimaldi’s, or down to Spring Street for Lombardi’s– god I miss NY pizza. Thanks for the thoughtful comment!

05 August 2009

Well, I don’t think it’s an all or none thing. Before I go I read the history/cultural info, but I wouldn’t do without the maps, bus, train, plane info because I am usually going from country to country. I am not going to sit down and copy out info. I do however, tear out maps and transportation pages I want to refer to while on the road and take them with me. And even if you have a book with you it doesn’t mean you have to carry it around like a newbie. Tear out the city walks pages and take with you. And you can still do all the things you have suggested. It doesn’t have to be in lieu of a book. I’ve been on the road 7 years and travelers who refuse to use books seem like travel snobs to me.

05 August 2009

I mean “take” a book or at least part of it.

Stephen Bramucci
05 August 2009

Laughing Nomad: There’s things you say that I totally agree with– the value of info on maps and transport — but in my opinion as a long-term traveler, there’s definately a more inaccesible vibe that goes along with toting a travel guide.
If you’re doing your reading back at the hostel like Cristina Dima-772 mentioned then that’s not a problem. I guess what I’ve always found is that when someone has access to endless information they’re tempted to use it all the time. So even a savvy traveler with the best intentions ends up consulting their guidebook more and more as the trip goes on (a proof to this theory is the amount that new I-phone owners spend clicking away on their phone, even while in public). One solution is to study up at home and leave the guidebook on the shelf as I’ve mentioned…BUT I TOTALLY AGREE THAT ITS NOT THE ONLY METHOD. If your style of travel works for you it’s definitely the right style– so on that count I couldn’t agree with you more. I guess this piece is more for people who have been working with a guidebook and find their experience lacking. Thanks for the insight on the other side of the coin. It’s great to get more perspective on it.

Traveller At Heart
06 August 2009

Well stated, Stephen Bramucci. No one way is for everyone.

wandering educators
12 August 2009

there are so many ways of traveling – we rip out the parts we want and leave the rest at home (well-read, usually!)…i love the part abt asking locals – we always do that, and find the BEST places to eat and stay. thanks for an interesting article!

13 August 2009

This is probably the best article I’ve ever read about guidebooks! I wrote one myself that didn’t even come close… very good points (though I do bring the guidebook with me, it’s more of a security blanket than a book I’m constantly referencing while I travel). My favorite point of all is not to trust them – I used to treat guidebooks as if they were the Word of God – not so much now that I’ve discovered how often they’re wrong…

16 August 2009

I am someone who is pro-guidebook for a whole load of reasons. But it is interesting to listen to the philosophy of someone with the opposing view.