5 Reasons Why You Should Ditch That Travel Guidebook and Just Go

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Photo Credit: Flickr | Danny Howard

It was taking for some time for our plane to approach and land in Denpasar International Airport. To maximize the use of this time, I pulled out my heavy Bali Lonely Planet guidebook. I was scouting for cool dinner place near where I was booked to stay for my Bali holiday. It was my first solo travel out of the country and this guidebook helped me build my confidence in tackling an unfamiliar territory.

Kuta was a touristy spot so most of the places near me were international brands. I asked the hotel staff that assisted me on where I can order a local cold beer and decent meal for a cheap price. He directed me, out front the hotel,  narrow street, old wood door beside place selling Bali t-shirts.

“You wont miss it.” he said, his face beaming with pride.

In my 4 days of stay in Kuta region, I realized I hadn’t consulted my Bali Lonely Planet guidebook and yet here I am sharing my travel experience from my desk back at home. Safe and sound. And yes, scouting for cheap flights for my next trip.

In my many years of backpacking countries with picturesque countryside, I only bought 2, two! Lonely Planet guidebooks. Bali and Spain. Since then I relied on my research and guts. Here’s how I ditched the idea of bringing a travel guidebook for my next trip and decided that its more fun and rewarding!

I made awesome discoveries on my own

Did you know that The Pantheon is directly facing the Jardin du Luxembourg? I didn’t know that too at first, but then I got lost in Paris’s maze of cobbledstone streets and thats where I ended up. In front of The Pantheon. And there was a roundabout that was directly across the street to the gorgeous expansive garden. So I walked toward the garden, bought a bottled water and jambon et fromage in one of the many sweet-smelling boulangerie along the street leading up to the garden. I ate my lunch in one of the hundreds of steel benches around the park.

One of the best pieces of advice that I’ve heard too many times was to go local.

“Get up early and follow the locals. Eat where they eat. Eat where it’s busy.”

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So I experienced The Philippines’ best coffee in a small cafeteria tucked in the oldest market in Iloilo, south of the country. I had the most filling apple pie in the streets of Pokhara, Nepal, and for $1! I’ve tried the best of Tokyo’s street food under a skyway, in a narrow alley. 

In Nepal, while waiting for a taxi to bring me to Thamel district, another backpacker standing a few feet from me seemed to be waiting on a taxi too. I saw him flagged one but the driver ignored him and sped away. I approached the tall lanky guy and asked if he was waiting a taxi for Thamel too. He said yes and I asked him if we could go together and share the ride. Along the way, we exhanged stories of where we came from, where were going next and which hotel. He was swiss and been to Nepal many times that he already made good friends with many local guides and of course knew Thamel district by heart. He shared with me tips on where to get good breakfast with good Himalayan coffee.

I ate some of the best and cheapest food this way. Often I would meet someone and sometimes share a taxi with another solo traveller and discover how best to experience the city.

And more often than not it was exactly the experience I was searching for.

I honed my traveler’s instinct quicker

Mindanao, a region in south of The Philippines has been categorically placed as not safe for female solo travellers. I tell them that I’m headed to Zamboanga and Cotabato. To that, I usually get this frown where their eyebrows unite into one long hairy line.

I grin back that I’ll be fine and try to come back in one piece. I’m bringing my common sense and packing my thinking cap anyway.

As I travel to more destinations, I’ve found a way to hone my traveller’s instinct. If something doesn’t feel right, I make a U turn. No discussion with self. I turn around and decide to spend a quiet time somewhere else, window shopping, hitting bookshops or hit the local market, load up on food and drinks and return to my hotel.

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There’s a lot more to a place than the usual tourist attractions

8 days in Paris did get a little boring. After rounding up Trocadero and the rest of Latin Quarter, I went to Gare du Nord. After some minutes people watching at the second floor coffee shop near the berths, a eureka moment happened. I went down to the ground floor, I looked up the giant screen scouting for short train rides. Lille.

“Un aller-retour pour Lille s’il vous plaît.” I said, in my thick broken french accent.

Not at all prepared for what greeted me. Hordes of colorful balloons at the Lille train station. Outside were people on the streets marching to some festive band.

If you used a guidebook, you would be in Versailles now, walking its expansive grounds, trying to fit the castle in your camera frame. 

Not me. I’m here walking along the streets of Lille, amid the festive Grande’ Braderie were everything and anything is laid out on the street for sale. Old or new. Good or bad. Usable or what not. 

And no, the festival wasn’t listed in any guidebooks for Paris. I just discovered the festival when I reached the jam-packed train station of Lille. And it was quite a memorable daytrip!

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It can be fun to just let go

Sure enough, I got lost. Not just once, but in all my travels. I got lost along Rue de Ecolé looking for Shakespeare & Company bookshop, I got lost in the tiny city of Pokhara, Nepal but managed to book a paragliding adventure in one of the old and small tour agency along the main road. 

I cannot recall how many times I missed a train stop or made a wrong turn. But I’ve learned the art of having fun and just letting it go. I always manage to end up in an unknown neighborhood but still making amazing discoveries and chance encounters with another solo traveller or a charismatic local.

There is a mixed feeling of uncertainty and excitement when you get lost in a maze of streets somewhere around the world. But this thrilling combination of being lost and found is always rewarding in the end. So just let it go.

Decoding bus stop maps and learning to say thank you in many languages is always fun.

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My travel guides are the people I meet everyday

Songkran spent a whole 30 minutes on the reception desk, sharing his laptop screen with me. His finger pointed to the screen.

“You should go see this in Patan. It is one whole block of boulder. The people carved it to make it a temple.”

For the days that I spent in the capital city of Kathmandu, Songkran, the part-time hotel receptionist and part-time drummer in one of bars in Thamel, was my living, talking guidebook.

The adorable and talented family of musicians that I stayed with in Paris was my travel guide in reaching Sacré Coeur on my first day in the romantic city. A lovely gay couple shared breakfast with me on my first morning in Amsterdam. They helped me rent my bike at Mike’s for that morning.

These are the best way to discover the characteristics of the destination. No way near to how a guidebook presents you a list of places to go to and how to get there. Nothing beats the real face to face interaction with a local or with another like-minded solo traveller. It gives you that feeling of relief that there’s another free-spirited soul to talk to. finally, after being with only your thoughts for hours or even days.

I came across this post, by Matthew Kepnes about how the travel guidebooks are evolving into a travel website plastered with sponsored ads. I share his sentiments actually.

To quote from his article,

“Listings in guidebooks ended up becoming a litany of things to tick off. Going in blind, towns and cities came alive and traveling became a trip into the unknown. More often than not, when I spent long enough somewhere, I would end up passing any major sights anyway and discovered some not-so-popular treasures too.”

So what’s wrong roaming around with a travel guidebook in hand?

It’s a sad picture of a tourist, not a traveller.

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Cveti Ganeva - last month Reply

Very interesting article 🙂 I am impressed!

Sarah - last month Reply

I love this! I’ve been moving into this direction as well in my travels. I like to plan things out before I get to a place, so I know things to do, but once I’m there I just go with what feels right. Talking to locals is always the best. Thanks for sharing!

Leigh - last month Reply

Ah, I completely agree with this! I never really consulate those travel guides anymore. I have new methods of finding things that I enjoy. I must admit I way prefer blog posts for travel research! I love people’s personal recommendations and photos!

    Carla Abanes - last month Reply

    Me too, I love reading blog posts and true travel experiences. Thats one of the reasons I created my own travel blog too. To share mine. Thanks for dropping by!

Emma McKay - last month Reply

Wonderful read – really love that you found amazing discoveries without a travel guide. I’m the same way, I think I’ve bought one Lonely Planet in the last 5 years (due to most tourist websites being in another language) but unfortunately it was almost completely OUT OF DATE! Meeting people and getting their first hand info is absolutely the best way to do it.

    Carla Abanes - last month Reply

    Thank you! Yeah, my Lonely Planet Bali guide is now 6 years old and never been opened again since then. Thanks for dropping by.

Justin Torres - last month Reply

great tips! I love travelling alone and sometimes I get scared to be lost but this helps! Thanks for this

Siddhartha Joshi - last month Reply

You are absolutely right about it! I have never purchased a guide book so far and have no reasons to complain at all 🙂

I do, however, buy books from the local stores about the place…just to get the vibe of the place and learn more. Asking locals for suggestions or even using local apps for food etc are way better than consulting guide books these days…

Tal Bright - last month Reply

Great tips 🙂
I also like to discover things on my own and ask locals for advice when I travel.

Meagan - last month Reply

Many of your points rang true to me (the “eat where the locals eat” one, especially!) but this really stuck out because it’s so on point: “I’ve found a way to hone my traveller’s instinct. If something doesn’t feel right, I make a U turn. No discussion with self. I turn around and decide to spend a quiet time somewhere else, window shopping, hitting bookshops or hit the local market, load up on food and drinks and return to my hotel.”

One of the challenges of traveling with a companion is, if they don’t get the funny gut feeling, too, it can turn into one heck of a conversation (voice of experience speaking!). But the more we travel – and travel together – I think we’re getting to a point where gut instincts on either side don’t go unheeded. It’s definitely a process!! 🙂

Thank you for sharing!

Sarah Elliott - last month Reply

Interesting perspective. I still like to consult a good guide book, but I don’t like to take them with me. I like to read them and get ideas, make notes of things I think I would really enjoy then find the rest after we arrive.

Annika - last month Reply

I agree wholeheartedly. My best travel memories originated from talking with locals and going off the beaten path. You can’t really experience a place if you have your nose down in a guidebook. lol.

Paige W - last month Reply

I agree that it isn’t good to just travel with your nose in a guidebook and never explore on your own. However, I do still use them. I like to know what’s in an area because even though there’s SO MUCH MORE than the tourist spots, some of those spots are pretty dang cool too! People flock to them for a reason. So, I use them for a rough route through a country, but I never book all my nights of accommodation because you never know where you’re going to want to stay or what you’re going to want to do. You get great tips from locals and fellow-travelers, as you said. I never use it for food or lodging, though. That’s all about where the locals recommend or where I wander.

Natasha Haley - last month Reply

This is a great read. Sometimes I think we get too caught up in planning, but the books are a great way to begin the adventure before you actually go. We took one with us to Thailand and it just made our packs heavier and we barely used it. We like getting lost in a place and discovering places on our own

Punita Malhotra - last month Reply

I agree to your core point of giving in to the spontaneity of discovery. Using guidebooks and travel blogs as reference points has become a natural part of travel these days (and understandably so), but sticking to them with a vengeance can kill the spirit of travel. However, I would have to disagree with the labels of tourist-traveller. We all have our own personalities and that determines how we travel and what we do on our trips. Each to his own…

pranav - last month Reply

this is something different ! thanks for the information 🙂

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