This is actually a more important question than many people realise and your answer is likely to have a huge impact on the type of trip you end up having. For maybe 80-90% of backpackers, the answer is yes, buying a good guidebook is the best way to plan a backpacking trip. Not only do they take them, many travellers turn their guidebook into some kind of mythical piece of literature (their Bible) and basically their whole trip is formed by the contents of it.
For the other 10%, the sheer mention of the words ‘Lonely Planet’ seems to instigate peculiar feelings of anger and contempt for anyone who thought it necessary to bring a guidebook. The truth is there are many different types of traveller and many different approaches you can take when you head off travelling. Your decision on whether to take a guidebook depends on what kind of trip you want to have and there is something to be said for both approaches.
Do backpackers really need a Guidebook?
Situations where a Guidebook may be the best way to plan a backpacking trip
- You are travelling on a really tight budget
A good shoestring guide provides you with plenty of suggestions for places to eat, drink and sleep that won’t break your budget. Following those suggestions can help you save money throughout your trip and generally speaking, being better informed will help you avoid situations where you end up paying typical “tourist prices” for things.
- You are visiting countries that aren’t typical backpacking destinations
In places popular with tourists, there’s generally lots of information in English about things to do, places to see and getting around. On popular backpacker trails like a typical Southeast Asia itinerary, you’ll also most likely meet lots of travellers, share ideas and chances are most of them will have a guidebook you can borrow if you’re desperate in any case. If you’re going to Kazakhstan that probably won’t be the case. Therefore, a guidebook might be useful if you’re heading to a place where there is no such thing as a well-trodden track to follow.
- It’s your first-time travelling and you’re a bit nervous
A guidebook is a bit like a safety net that will help you out when you need it. First-time backpackers almost always take one, just try not to fall into the trap of using it at every mundane opportunity as you’ll miss out on many of the unexpected thrills of travel.
- You’re pushed for time & planning an ambitious itinerary
If you’re limited on time and want to try to see as many places as possible, then getting a guidebook may also be wise. It’ll save the amount of research you’ll need to do on the road and help you pack as much in as possible each day.
Reasons why you might not take a Guidebook
- You want to interact more with locals than other travellers
It is bizarre how many backpackers travel half-way across the world to visit countries with vastly different cultures, only to spend 99% of their time with people who basically come from a similar background to their own. Not bringing a guidebook may from time to time lead to you staying in non backpacker places, eating in local restaurants and not simply going to everywhere your guidebook has recommended, which will often be full of other travellers who have read the very same advice. Not having a guide will also most likely lead to you asking more questions which can also act as ice-breakers that’ll enable you to get to know some local people.
- You want a truly unique experience.
Backpackers in Southeast Asia and Latin America typically visit the same places, see the same sights, stay in the same hostels and get drunk in the same bars. Guidebooks unquestionably contribute to that and they can lead to many travellers having very similar overall experiences. Not bringing a guidebook can really help to give your trip a more personal touch.
- You can’t find one that is up-to-date.
This is quite an important point in the aftermath of a pandemic when backpacking trips were almost impossible. Many of the big guidebooks have not been updated since Covid-19 wreaked havoc on the world in 2020 and as such the most recent editions may contain a lot of outdated information. All over the world, there are many hostels, bars, restaurants and other businesses that relied heavily on travellers that may not have survived the pandemic. Therefore, guidebooks are unlikely to be anywhere near as reliable as they once were, at least not until the first post-pandemic editions are rolled out.
Which Travel Guidebooks are best for Backpackers?
These are handy for anyone travelling on a really tight budget and by far the most popular amongst backpackers. Lonely Planet historically offered shoestring guides for four regions – Southeast Asia, South America, Central America and Europe. The most recent editions are now a good few years old though and don’t account for the impact of Covid-19.
Most travellers seem to consider Lonely Planet to have the best guidebooks for backpacking. However others find their guides a bit bland and predictable. Some others to consider include:
Most of the above guidebooks are available in electronic format if you prefer. They are generally cheaper and will save you a bit of space in your backpack too.
However e-books are not much use if your chosen electronic device gets damaged, stolen or lost which isn’t at all uncommon when you’re travelling. Also consider that the time you need your guide most is often arriving in a new town when you are looking for somewhere to stay. Batteries have a nasty habit of dying just as you arrive somewhere new especially if you have been listening to music, reading or watching something throughout the journey in.
This article on the best way to plan a backpacking trip was last updated in December 2022.