Guidebooks, apps, and internet resources: traveling in the age of crowdsourced resources


When I traveled through Europe 15 years ago, guidebooks were virtually essential. You didn't have online maps with GPS integration, you didn't have crowd-sourced review sites and travel resources, and you certainly didn't have all of it in a smartphone you could stuff in your pocket. What you did have were guidebooks (and word of mouth). Sure, the information could be out of date or unreliable, written by authors with weird tastes, and you could bet that the places listed in your guidebook were on everyone's radar and at least somewhat visited, but at least you could be reasonably certain that you would be able to successfully visit the places listed in the book, and that they were some of the better places in the region to visit.

How things have changed. Today, there are a plethora of online travel resources: Google maps, Yelp, hostel booking sites, Trip Advisor, Wiki Travel, Lonely Planet's thorn-tree forum, blogs, etc. These online resources are often more accurate, up to date, unbiased, specific, and a helpful than the information you find in guidebooks.

Mapping apps with GPS and off-line capability

Perhaps the most important thing you need is a GPS-equipped smartphone or tablet.  Combine this with an app that lets you download maps for offline use, and you have a powerful mapping system that can make finding things very easy (searching for locations can still be hit or miss, depending on how exotic the locale is and whether you know the coordinates of the place you're looking for). I've met people who have used Google maps to find out the proper goat trail to follow while hiking between cities in Georgia.

A couple of offline mapping apps I've used include:
  • Here maps for Windows Phone and Android
    If you're using Windows Phone (and who is), the bundled 'Here' mapping app allows you to download map packages for offline use. They also offer an app for Android phones with offline integration.
  • Maps.me for Android, Kindle Fire, iOS, and even Blackberry
    Maps.me allows for offline mapping even on its free version, and is available on basically every smartphone platform other than Windows Phone. 

Translation Apps

Word Lens is an incredible app, as it uses your camera to translate text and signs in real time, without needing an internet connection: point the camera at a sign in Russian, for example, and the screen will display it in English. Unfortunately it doesn't support a lot of languages, but Russian is widely used in Central Asia. The company that makes Word Lens is now owned by Google, and both the app and all currently-available language packs are free. Download it for iOS and Android here.

WayGo does the same thing for Chinese, Japanese, and Korean. Language packs are $6.99 each. You can download the app here.

Google Translate can also do this kind of visual translation, but it needs an internet connection to work—something that may be quite expensive while you're traveling. You should download it anyway, for iOS and Android.

Voice-based translation apps typically require internet access, so I don't use them.

Wikivoyage & Wikitravel

At their best, Wikitravel and Wikivoyage offer a more independent, comprehensive, up-to-date, and accurate alternative to guidebooks. Entries may list substantially more information than a guidebook offers, with more specific and detailed information, as well as information not listed in the guidebook.

The downside is that many entries are very sparse, and there is no easy way to tell how old the information is: it could be from last week, or it could be from four years ago. There's also little consistency from entry to entry, and some of the listings are clearly edited by biased parties (the owner of a hotel, for example).

Although Wikivoyage is supposed to be a fork from Wikitravel and should therefore have all of the content from before the fork, there do seem to be differences in content with Wikitravel often having more or better information. I would check both, even though Wikivoyage is better supported by apps.

Wikivoyage has a listing of apps and their features here.

Hostel-booking sites

These sites are good for booking hostels, and even better for reviewing hostels. I would personally trust the reviews on these sites more than I would trust guidebook reviews, as guidebook reviews are based on perhaps a single night's stay made at least a year ago. Furthermore, hostels frequently slip once they have been listed in a guidebook, as they start to try and profit from their guidebook-enhanced reputation.

Of all the competing hostel-booking sites, my favourite is hostelbookers.com. Why? Because they do not charge a booking fee, and only take the standard 10% deposit fee. (The individual hostels don't actually see any of this 10% deposit, so it's not really a deposit but a fee also charged by the booking site: hostelbookers is the only one that doesn't charge an additional transaction fee.) Some hostels aren't listed on hostelbookers, and sometimes hostels have different prices on different sites,  so it often makes sense to check multiple booking sites. Hostelworld is another comprehensive site \i use as a backup.

The downside is that in many locations (including almost everywhere in Central Asia) you won't find any hostels listed on the hostel-booking networks.

Get the hostelbookers app for iOS or Android here.
You can get the hostelworld apps for iOS and Android here.

Trip Advisor

Trip Advisor (get the apps for iOS, Andorid, and Windows Phone here) helps address the previous problem: it simply reviews places and attractions, including hostels not listed on hostel-booking sites. It can also be used to find accommodations in any specific are, but is more difficult to use it as a search engine in that sense.

As with most user-generated reviews, I often find it helpful to look at the negative reviews first, and see if the concerns outlined in those reviews are things that you would also find problematic; most reviews are probably more positive than they should be, just as they tend to be on Amazon or Yelp (hostel-booking sites seem to be more accurate and less positive, perhaps because they grade using a percentile system). 

Trip Advisor also reviews sites and attractions, but these are less useful, in my opinion. So much depends on what an individual person likes, whether they went with a guide, as part of a tour, as an independent traveler, and when they went. Looking at the negative reviews is especially important when using Trip Advisor for deciding where to visit.

Blogs

Blogs can offer some of the best and most specific information, and some of the most relevant solutions to problems you may be facing. And if you find a blog written by someone with similar interests and tastes, you can get highly-specific and informative advice on what to see. This is is amplified by the fact that blogs typically have lots of pictures, and in my experiences pictures are the best way to tell if you want to visit some place or sight.

The problem, of course, is how to find these blogs. Most of the blogs I've liked have been discovered by searching for specific problems, and which have led to blogs describing how others have solved those problems. Unfortunately, this means you likely won't find these resources until after you've started your trip and are already experiencing issues.

Forums

Forums, like Lonely Planet's Thorn Tree Forum, are also a good source of information. If you want to ask a specific question you have to go through the hassle of registering, but when you Google for specific issues, answers from the Thorn Tree are frequently at the top of the list. If you have a question that you can't find the answer for via search, you're unlikely to get a timely answer from the forum by posting there (especially since most answers are written by a handful or members, while those asking the questions rarely return to share their knowledge).

I rarely browse or visit forums except when directed there as the result of a Google search.

Guidebooks

I've reviewed the Guidebooks I used here.

In the past, there used to be only one type of guidebook: the text-based guidebook with ample logistical information, few if any pictures, that aimed to provide comprehensive information on where to stay and eat, and what to see. These types of guidebooks still exist, but we've also seen a rise in picture-rich guidebooks that offer less logistical advice and seem something close to a traditional coffee-table book in terms of content.The kinds of guidebooks are probably better for trip planning, and determining what you want to see.

Traditional Guidebooks

I have lots of problems with guidebooks. Here are some of them:
  • Even those that are supposedly updated yearly are well out-of-date by the time they're published. For example, lots of information published in the 2013 edition of Lonely Planet China was outdated and inaccurate when I traveled in mid 2012. Research happens as much as 18 months before publishing, and very little—if any—last minute fact-checking occurs to ensure the information is up-to-date at the time of publishing. In fast-moving places like China, this often means that the locations of bus stations have changed, hotels no longer exist or no longer accept foreigners, prices have changed by as much as 100%, etc.
  • Multiple authors means varying quality, varying perspectives, and an unfortunate lack of uniformity. At its most innocuous, this means different tones: one is chatty and glib, another is pretentious and condescending, while another is matter-of-fact. More problematically, authors describe things very differently and without taking into account the other places that the guidebook covers or the standards adopted by other authors: a quick example would be how LP's Uzbekistan author describes the Uzbek Ferghana Valley as being hyper-conservative, when in fact it mus much less conservative than the Kyrgyz side of the Ferghana Valley, as well as nearby areas of Tajikistan. Some authors appear to do minimal research and are unreliable, while others are accurate and knowledgeable. I would place little trust in anything Michael Kohn has written, while I would implicitly trust anything by Bradley Mayhew.
    An additional problem this presents is that guidebooks by multiple authors don't give you a good basis of comparison between similar sights in different regions. For example, when reviewing Tibetan temples in China, it would be nice if each author had actually seen Tibetan temples throughout China, and not simply the one they're reviewing in Beijing, Xiahe, Lhasa, or wherever. Sadly, this doesn't happen, and each author tries to make the sights in their own area sound as attractive as possible, even if they are second-rate versions of things best seen in other areas.
  • The 'research' conducted by guidebook writers is frequently substandard. I have reason to believe, based on their description of certain places, that some authors haven't visited some of the places and sights they recommend. In many places the guidebook copy reads almost verbatim to copy released by local tourist authorities and/or local tourist companies. Often the routes and suggested itineraries are the exact same that tourist companies offer. Some guidebook authors have admitted that much of their research consists of reading traveler blogs and then attempting to verify some of the details. The end result is that you get a substandard, unvetted product that can lead you astray—but which also requests that you help them out by writing in with corrections. In essence, some editions and updates are like crowdsourced publications that have been cobbled together by the paid "author" who functions more as a curator and editor than anything else.
  • Even when the research has been done well and is accurate, much will depend on the individual taste of the reviewer. This is especially problematic when it comes to reviewing sights, as the same overblown adjectives (stunning, majestic, glorious, breathtaking, etc.) get trotted out without conveying a lot to the audience.
  • In more popular destinations, much of the writing is smarmy, sarcastic, and pretentious. Authors pretend to be authorities and knowledgeable critics on everything from art to architecture to music, but they not infrequently make factually false statements and proclamations that reveal their ignorance.
Despite all their very real shortcomings, logistical guidebooks remain extremely important, and especially so in places like Central Asia where internet resources are unreliable, and tourist infrastructure thinly covered by online resources. So long as you accept that much of the information will be wrong—and sometimes obscenely so—these guidebooks remain a good anchoring point that will at least give you a sense of security as you travel to new destinations. Sometimes their primary use is to put you in touch with the establish local guesthouse, which is where you will get most of your actually useful information (be it from the guesthouse operators or from fellow travelers).

Trip-planning guidebooks

A lot of the disappointment over guidebooks comes from sights not meeting expectations. The fact that you will almost never read a disparaging word about a sight in a guidebook contributes to this, as the reality is that not all sights are not the compelling, must-see destinations they are frequently touted as being.

This is where the glossy, pictorial trip-planning guidebooks, such as Lonely Planet's "Discover" series, come in. They show you what you can expect to see. Sure, they may be heavily cropped and show the destinations from the best perspective possible, but in the very least they give you some idea of what you might expect. In this sense they are like blogs, and they allow you to easily compare different sights and destinations. The predictable trade-off is that these guidebooks offer much less logistical and practical information, and are much less comprehensive. There's no way I would travel with one as my primary source of travel information, although they can be very good for determining where you want to go and what you want to see.

By far the best resource I've seen for Central Asian and the Silk Road is the Insight Guide for the Silk Road, an earlier edition of which I reviewed here. Written by Bradley Mayhew, it offers an outstanding pictoral description of major sights along the Silk Road from China to the Middle East, as well as excellent historical context in the text. Because it's a guidebook that covers the entire Silk Road, and written by the same author, it lets you know if better examples of the sight can be seen elsewhere, and it doesn't list things just to list them. If other Insight Guides are written in the same style, I wouldn't hesitate to recommend them as well.

Paperback or eBook?

As much as I love my Kindle, guidebooks on Kindle are not a great solution for me.

In theory, having a digital guidebook would be great: imagine if every place listed in your guidebook had embedded GPS coordinates that would link to your mapping app, or if you could use voice recognition to search for something. That would be really neat. Unfortunately, digital guidebooks are little more than quick and dirty electronic conversions of guidebooks originally designed for print. The kindle versions suffer in particular since many of the colors used on maps show up as grey and are difficult to distinguish from the background. Add in the fact that it's difficult to flip back and forth through an e-book with the same speed and accuracy as you can with a physical book, as well as the lack of effective indexing and hyper-linking, and using guidebooks on electronic devices can be hugely frustrating.

Although I ended up carrying as many as 5 guidebooks with me, I don't really regret the space and weight they consumed, and a few of them made nice gifts to locals I met along the way.

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