Travel By The Book

If Pausanias, the ancient Greek writer who by most accounts penned the first travel guidebook in A.D. 180, walked into the travel section of any large bookstore today, he would surely be shocked by the volumes beckoning from the shelves. "Caribbean Cruises and Ports of Call," "Around Paris With Kids," "Istanbul to Cairo on a Shoestring" --the only thing missing is the "Rough Guide to Travel in Outer Space." (That, too, will surely come one day.) It's unlikely Pausanias could have imagined the trend he would spawn with his "Guide to Greece," which explained the treasures of his homeland to foreigners (primarily Romans). But like so many of his compatriots' works, Pausanias' tome transformed civilization as we know it.

During the next two millenniums, the production and use of guidebooks continued at a steady pace. But it wasn't until Lonely Planet debuted with "Across Asia on the Cheap" in 1973 that the modern guidebook boom was born. The book inspired a flood of competitors--including the Rough Guides and Let's Go--to challenge previously established outfits like Fodor's. Unfortunately, the proliferation of books also fueled a virtual stampede to once remote spots. So, always in search of the new, publishers are starting to rethink their strategies. They are branching out to appeal to more specific requests: quick trips to the coast, weekend getaways or intraregional travel by car. And most significantly, the books are going online.

In Pausanias' day, the adventurous most often relied on word of mouth to learn of exciting new destinations. Travelers have returned to this time-tested method--in Internet chat rooms. It's impossible for a print publication to keep up with the newest restaurant in Rangoon, an East African terror warning or the Mexico City Hilton's latest discount deals. When I moved to New York three years ago, my parents gave me a two-decade-old Michelin Guide to Manhattan. Harlem--where I live today--was adorned on the map with a skull and crossbones: do not visit for fear of your life. Of course, how was Michelin--or my scared-out-of-her-wits mother--to know that the neighborhood would change so much that ex-president Bill Clinton would one day have his offices up there?

Now chat rooms and message boards with up-to-the-minute info keep information current, and sites like virtualtourist.com offer invaluable--albeit not always professionally written, edited or fact-checked--tips about everything from hotels in Halstead and houngans in Haiti to shopping in Sri Lanka and sunbathing in Somalia. Planners can scour Web travelogues and peruse personal vacation photos simply by Googling their destination of choice. (If you find the writing subpar, just try another one; it's not as if you paid for a book or anything.)

The Sherpas of the guidebook industry refuse to be left behind: all the big names have Web sites with up-to-date information and chat rooms where travelers can compare notes. Some provide daily e-mails on travel bargains or new adventure ideas. Travel.roughguides.com even serves up assistance in designing your travel itinerary. And Lonely Planet offers one of the most frequented message boards of all: the Thorn Tree (75,000 registered users, and dozens of new topics each day--ranging from the latest on land mines in Cambodia to whether there is a ladies' prayer room at the airport in Damascus). The technological revolution isn't just about the Internet, either: if the techie tourist wants to stay connected while sightseeing, he can download travel guides for certain cities onto his Palm PDA.

Of course, none of these advances will help those who really want to "discover" new worlds. A growing number of tourists are instead striking out with little more than Global Positioning Systems, leaving the guidebooks at home. But that can be risky: using satellites, a GPS will simply steer you toward the coordinates you have entered, or beam down your current latitude and longitude. It won't necessarily tell you what could come your way. In February a group of 32 tourists set out for the Sahara in Algeria armed only with their GPS's. When they went missing, the Algerian government was unmoved, only later authorizing a search. It's their own fault, an Algerian official said; they should have taken a Bedouin guide.

Maybe they should have taken a guidebook, too. The plethora of new options means that today's trip planners are far more likely to turn to multiple sources for advice, picking and choosing fragments from each when building their itinerary, rather than relying on just one. John Nettleton, a 63-year-old worldly traveler from Oregon, uses a mixture of various guidebooks, word of mouth and the Internet to sketch out his trips. Travel planning is "like sex," says Nettleton. "The foreplay and thinking about it is sometimes as pleasurable as the actual act." And sometimes it just puts you even more in the mood for the real thing.

Travel By The Book | News