Are Guidebooks Dead?


Last month, three things happened that were interesting to me as a guidebook writer: After Google purchased the venerable Frommer’s guidebook series, they announced that they would no longer keep them in print. I read an article about the “rapid decline of the printed guidebook.” And I got my biggest royalty check ever in payment for my guidebook sales.

A couple of weeks ago, I had a coffee with Arthur Frommer at the Washington DC Travel and Adventure Show. While he sold the guidebook series with his name on it a long time ago, Arthur still gives spirited talks at such shows all around the country. The first edition of his GI’s Guide to Traveling in Europe, which eventually became the groundbreaking Europe on $5 a Day, was published the year I was born (1955). I have a copy of it on the bookshelf in my office as a kind of personal and thankful reminder of how Arthur’s work gave people like my parents the confidence to travel independently through Europe back when that was a new thing for middle-class Americans. You could make a case that without Arthur Frommer opening that door for my family in 1969, I’d still be teaching piano lessons.

I loved traveling with Arthur’s book for a decade (along with the backpackers’ guide, Let’s Go: Europe). Arthur’s personality — his sass, elegance, and Ivy League respect for culture and language — along with his passion for making Europe accessible (first to his fellow GIs, and ultimately to a whole generation of American travelers) inspired me. Way back in 1984, Arthur invited me to appear on his cable TV show and introduced me as “Rick Steves, the new Steve Birnbaum, Eugene Fodor, Temple Fielding of the travel guide industry.” At the time, his prediction seemed a little wacky, but — in part because most publishers have found it’s cheaper to write and update guidebooks by committee rather than employ individual personalities — my generation has failed to produce a class of well-known guidebook writers. Arthur Frommer’s endorsement was a huge break for me, and even though I had a hard time believing it, I used the quote a lot.


In an age of consolidation, when only big is viable, guidebook publishers are big and few in number. The major guidebook series in the USA are Fodor’s, Frommer’s, Lonely Planet, Dorling Kindersley, and Rick Steves. And for many of these, the future looks shaky. Lonely Planet was owned by BBC in London for less than six years before they unloaded to a tobacco tycoon it for less than half what they originally paid. Its fate is unknown. Frommer’s was purchased in August of 2012 by Google, who recently announced that they will let almost all of their 350 titles go out of print — leaving the company with piles of data to shuffle into its searchable banks, but no bookshelf presence. Dorling Kindersley (or “DK,” publishers of the glossy, illustrated Eyewitness and Top 10 series) is owned by Penguin, and Fodor’s is owned by Random House — and now that those two publishing giants have agreed to a merger, DK and Fodor’s are likely to merge with them, creating more uncertainty.

And the Rick Steves line? We’re as strong and determined as ever. This week, I’m setting out with a band of 25 fellow researchers with the goal to visit in person virtually every sight, hotel, restaurant, launderette, train station, boat dock, and other place mentioned in our guidebooks, as we make them up-to-date for next year.

I think guidebook publishers are challenged in the same way news corporations are. It’s expensive for news services to pay for individual correspondents to bring home the news when it’s just out there on the Internet for all to scarf up — and viewers don’t necessarily respond to more costly, higher-quality journalism. And, in the case of TV news, the limited funds are much better spent on a good-looking anchorperson to read the news rather than quality people to gather it. That’s why top-notch investigative journalism is at a critical low point these days.

Considering the modest profit margin for publishing a guidebook, publishers have a similar problem in hiring trained researchers to actually research their books in person. And new crowdsourcing alternatives to guidebooks (like TripAdvisor, CruiseCritic,, Yelp, Urbanspoon, and so on) give travelers the impression that they have all the reviews they’ll ever need from other consumers. With the increasing popularity of these options, a tough business equation has become even tougher.

All of these review-based websites are certainly useful and informative, and I use them myself when traveling somewhere new. But I believe that — just as you wouldn’t want to get all of your news from amateur bloggers — casual online reviewers take a hit-or-miss approach that isn’t always an improvement on an experienced guidebook researcher with a trained eye. Most users reviewing hotels on TripAdvisor have experienced a few dozen hotels in their lives; a professional travel writer has inspected and evaluated hundreds, or even thousands. And, while these sites are particularly helpful for sleeping and eating, they do virtually nothing to explain what you’re seeing when you get there. Guidebooks’ sightseeing advice, self-guided museum tours, and neighborhood walks help you engage with and understand the place you’ve traveled so far to see, with a depth that crowdsourced websites don’t even attempt. For all of these reasons, I find crowdsourced sites a handy tool to enhance, but not replace, the information I learn from a good guidebook.

Complicating matters is the advent of digital, non-print formats, which challenge traditional book-business thinking. But, while ebooks seem exciting, print sales still dominate (for now, at least); only about 15 percent of total guidebook sales are electronic.

Are guidebooks dead? Not yet, that’s for sure. I’m flying to Egypt and the Holy Land as I write this, my bag heavy with Lonely Planet, DK, and Bradt guides to Egypt, Israel, and the Palestinian Territories. The question can be interpreted in two ways: Will people still be traveling with good old-fashioned print guidebooks in tow? And is the entire concept of a guidebook (whether in print or electronic) still viable? My take: For another decade, travelers will be toting print editions of guidebooks. Slowly, print will be replaced by digital. There will be a battle between various electronic information services, including guidebooks. Many users will opt for GPS-driven, crowd-researched apps. But plenty of others will still use guidebooks in their futuristic digital format — probably souped up with streaming video and GPS features. And, God willing, I’ll still be out there making sure mine are accurate and up-to-date.



27 Replies to “Are Guidebooks Dead?”

  1. I don’t see myself ever replacing the informative and well written guidebooks that have become a staple in my travel luggage. I follow two travel blogs, your blog and Arthur Frommer’s, and have traveled to destinations on advice based on both of your recommendations. I view web based guides as supplementary to the guidebooks you create as I find them to be much less researched and tend to be written by non-seasoned travelers.

    My favorite thing to do is to explore my local library’s guidebook section and check a few books out for research to help me decide on my favorite book for final purchase! Last night was a look at India!

  2. Sometimes I ask myself if people go on trips to learn about places and people-or to use electronic gadgets. And I don’t think it’s both. Have toys, will travel.

  3. Will continue to purchase, read, enjoy and use your guide books as long as I am able mentally and physically travel. Used Kindles, iBooks, and all the other “toys”. Recently rediscovered the fun of going to the library and checking out books. Just really enjoy the feel of a real book….besides, the sections are too difficult to “tear out” of downloaded data! Please keep on publishing!

  4. I’ve tried using my tablet with both e-books and Google when I’m on the road, and it is just too unreliable. Connections may be slow or non-existent, and even if you think you know a good search term to plug in, it might mean wading through dozens or more entries that come up, and I find myself turning to the guide book that’s I flagged ahead of time, or using its index to look something up more quickly than I can on a device. I don’t plan to change to an electronic gadget any time soon.

  5. I’ve tried the internet and for every hotel, restaurant,etc there are reviews that are 100% everything wonderful and great and those that are 100% terrible. Plus there are people who are paid to give good reviews and bad reviews. It made it much more stressful to decide on a hotel, etc. I’d rather have someone I trust, like Rick Steves give me an honest review I can rely on.

    Plus the guidebooks tell you what is good to see, when to see it, etc. If I was going to Los Angeles, how would I know about the Getty Musuem, Norton Simon, Huntington Library, George Page, LACMA, etc. Sure I could do a general Google search for museums of Los Angeles, but how many of these would I miss. And that’s an obvious one. What about other things to do and see that I would probably never find by googling unless I already knew about it. Rick Steves guidebooks tell you what is in the area and the best way to get tickets, best time to go, etc.

    Yay for guidebooks!!!

  6. I could never give up the guide book. I love the new cover you have put out to tear out pages and only take what you need. I have a kindle and just love it, but sometimes I love to just pick up a good old fashion book! And I feel “secure” with my real guidebook!

  7. I love guide books, I find them much easier to access when traveling. I can mark them, sticky note them, tear our just the pages I need for a specific trip and then use them as a quick resource to update my journal notes (especially the correct spelling of places). Long live the printed guidebooks.

  8. I hope you will continue to print and update your guidebooks. I have used them, and others, like Frommer, and Dk for places I would be going to that I am not familiar with and for places that I have been several times. (Just in case I am missing something). It is like visiting a place several times, you always see something different about the place that you never noticed or have seen, but see it differently each time. (Rome for example). I also like the guidebooks, because I can’t remember everything and you can reference a particular part of the guidebook to refresh. Yes, I have used,,, Tripadvisor, Expedia, to get a quick general idea of a place to stay, eat, or see in the a new area. But, it can’t replace the travel guidebook where someone has been there and have written from personal experience. Yes, there are reviews and remarks on the other web sites mentioned above, but sometimes you wonder about the good and the bad. You and your guidebooks, blog and other experiences will always be a major part of my travel guidance. Take care, and enjoy your adventure.

  9. I appreciated this post for the industry analysis, yet I am more struck by the accomplishment of a small business person whose products are still outselling and out-competing these corporate titans! Rick, I’m toasting you with Raki from Istanbul in admiration. Well done.

  10. If I may weigh in: everyone can appreciate the way to keep in pace with technology, your apps being a good example. That being said, I for one (speaking as a still-young 40-year old man) am not ready to give over my travel assistance completely to technology. In my numerous travels through Europe, Mr. Steves, your papermade guideys have been my closest companion. There’s nothing quite like looking to your bookshelf and seeing a row of guideys to remind you of the amazing sights seen, experiences had and friendships fostered as a solo traveler. Including a certain Spain guidey or 2008 that bears a certain Road Scholar’s autograph. No app can provide you with those kind of keepsakes, can they? Looking forward to your new reports…be safe and thank you for being such a positive catlyst in my life..

  11. I always assumed that one-day I would have to surrender my printed RickSteves and LonelyPlanet guidebooks and use the electronic versions instead on an iPad; a transition which I feared as I love my printed guidebook. However, now that Rick mentioned the posibility of combining GPS with the guidebooks, I can’t wait to purchase my first “GPS-enabled” RickSteves guidebook! Hopefully we’ll see that technology in the coming decades. Brilliant idea Rick!

  12. “a professional travel writer has inspected and evaluated hundreds, or even thousands.” And he has stayed overnight in some of them, sometimes years before the guidebook is published. Notice how some guidebooks hide the publication date? Guidebooks are getting less and less useful for restaurants and hotels. The internet wins there. For history, culture, and attractions, guidebooks still rule.

    And I did not put in the wrong CAPTCHA code twice.

  13. I think the electronic vs. paper is a generational preference. Today’s younger generation (e.g., college students) embraces the digital world to the point that many don’t like doing anything ‘off-line’. My preference (I’m close to Rick’s age) is for paper (e.g., guidebooks) because: (1) I don’t like reading documents on a computer (or tablet) screen for long periods of time; (2) electronic devices can break (then what do you do when your hard drive crashes or your battery is dead and you’re nowhere near an electrical outlet?) and can be the targets of thieves; and (3) I like being able to quickly pull a guidebook out of my backpack and find what I need using the book’s index or some tabbed pages. This is not to say that I don’t use the web extensively to research topics and collect information both at home and in my job; I just like having the guidebook closely at hand when I travel. Call me paranoid, but I also make paper copies of all of my research data.

  14. I will continue to use guide books for general reference. I agree, with another person that using them to chose a resturant is more challenging due to the delays in publishing and changes in markets.

    Having said that, on our recent trip to Spain, we ate twice at resturants in the Rick Steves guidebook. In each instance a local referred us to the resturants and only later did we actually noticed that they were in the guidebook.

    I use the library to borrow guidebooks and when they go out of circulation I will purchase them. Our Spain 2009 Fodor book was more than adequate for information on cities and sites.

  15. I am not a materialistic person, but the guidebook that accompanied me in my wanderlust era is a prized possession. As a long-term independent traveller, I returned with it dog-eared and dirty, missing pages and scribbled with notes. What an artefact! I don’t care if the Smithsonian would want it. They can’t have it!

  16. Greetings fellow travelers:

    Why would anyone read a guidebook from anyone other than Rick?

    der Doppelganger
    WEDU Tampa

  17. I use the internet to supplement books when I’m researching hotels and restaurants, but despite the weight I still travel with actual paper books (albeit cut up ones), even though I also take electronic gadgets. I’d much rather pull out a map on a crowded street instead of an iPad or even a smart phone. How often are guidebooks stolen?

    But finding good, well-researched guidebooks (Rick excepted) is definitely getting harder. The author of Cadogan’s Beijing guide recently crowd-funded a new edition as no publisher (including Cadogan) was willing to invest in a new, detailed guide. And Beijing is hardly an off-the-radar destination!

  18. We should continue to support good research and writing by the experts like Rick. Paper may be dying, but good journalism shouldn’t be thrown out as well. Hopefully a good electronic version for the paper guidebook will come around some day. My aching shoulders and backpack straps would welcome it!

    And I still don’t trust the review sites until they have hundreds of reviews, and then I just look at the averages and throw out the one and five star reviews.

  19. All of my European travels have been accompanied by a a Rick Steves guidebook, and I can’t imagine not having it shoved down into my purse. The internet is handy overseas, but there is something irreplaceable about the dog-eared corners, highlighted passages, notes in the margins, and receipts and pamphlets that always seem to find their way between the pages of my guidebook.

  20. Hard copy guide book…quicker to use, recharging not needed, being near a tower not needed plus I trust the reviewer and I am very tech savvy for an older person: Droid smart phone, tablet, two laptops. Also I can recycle it when it is no longer useful. Please keep them coming!!

  21. We go to Europe usually once a year for at least 5 weeks. We love getting the print guides (yours especially) ahead of time and spend hours combing through them for tips great and small. We mark them up like crazy and take them with us when we go. We always discover something new from your books to enhance all of our travel adventures…hints about avoiding crowds, great little coffee houses, best views from the bridge, etc. We are going to Serbia, Bulgaria and Romania for 6 weeks in September. Encouraged by you and by your zest for travel, we no longer feel we need to stick to the most traveled part of Europe and are quite comfortable reaching out even further. We’re not sure where we go next, but keep your books coming. We LOVE them! SA and CA

  22. We spend two months a year traveling in Europe and could never do so on our budget if it were not for your guidebooks. One time I purchased your e-books for the countries we would visit. Big mistake. We would be in a certain area and want to find a place to eat or sleep and it took too long. As soon as we found a bookstore that sold your books we bought them.
    Your small city books are perfect as supplements.
    DK is invaluable for art.
    Keep publishing PLEASE! ON PAPER!

  23. I love reading guidebooks before a trip, so I can dream up great itineraries, during a trip to follow a walking tour, and even after a trip, to relive the highlights. I rely on well-researched professional guidebooks. Online reviews are nice to have, but I take them with a grain of salt. Rick, I trust. That said, my concession to the 21st century is that I take my e-books with me, not the stack of bricks I used to carry 20 years ago.

  24. I buy Rick Steves guidbooks to read as entertainment even when I am not about to travel to that destination soon. I like to dream about going to a future
    destination-what hotel I will say at–what restaurant I would like to visit. Then I file away the destination for future plans. I find researching a future trip a big part of the fun and I know I can trust Rick Steves to give me the most truthful recommendations. I have travelled all over Europe with Rick Steves at my side and there is just something about a printed page that I still love even though I have an IPAD.

  25. As a heavy consumer of digital media I’m the kind of person who would never bother with a paper guidebook, that was till we had family visit (we live in Spain) and they brought along thier Rick Steves guide book and I was surprised how helpful it was.

    As an aside I love crowd sourced reviews and in particular negative reviews, simply tells me a bit more about the place.


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