If you're going backpacking for a few weeks or around the world on an open-ended trip, you don't need to lug around a Lonely Planet or a Frommer's. Two weeks into a seven month stint in South East Asia, I threw mine away - left them in a hostel somewhere in Chiang Mai - and never looked back.
Guide books make great doorstops (and can be handy to wedge your international-plug-adapter into the rusty-socket that it doesn't quite fit) but they're far from necessary. They're heavy, take up space in your backpack, and there's a good chance that they'll already be out of date by the time you get where-ever you're going. I can't count the times that the "hostel" listed in a guide book turned out to be a restaurant, to have a dozen clones (it's disturbingly common in some places that, once a hostel gets a nod from the backpacker's bible, a dozen more open up with the same name) - or didn't even exist. Not to mention, there's the times that you catch someone reading up on a place as they leave it. Suddenly, you have a list of "sites" to feel guilty that they'd missed. Without a guide book to depend on, you'll have to take an extra step to find out about interesting places yourself. And that can be half the fun.
Instead, get yourself a blank journal and fill it with your own travel tips and plans.
If you're a pen-and-paper writer, make sure you bring an extra journal along that just for travel tips - no journaling in this one! (Make sure you get one with a pocket for loose slips of paper, subway maps, and business cards that you're going to collect along the way - and a built-in elastic bands that keep them closed can be a life-saver.)
Do some homework before you leave: The internet has all the information you need. I'm willing to bet you were already researching your destinations - so write down what you find! (Plus, you can just go into a bookstore, pick up a guide-book, and copy things down to your heart's content. Just don't tell them I suggested it.)
If you're the color-coded, page-tabs, highlighting type, you can type out a word doc, print it, and paste it into your new journal. If you're a back-of-an-envelope in crayon type, you can clumsily scrawl stuff down on whatever page opens. (My advice: start out as organized as you can because by the end, you're going to find every page written on in five different directions and there are times when you need to find just that one thing, right now.)
You don't need to copy down everything. Just the stuff that gets your heart pumping - the places that are the whole reason you wanted to go on this trip in the first place - and a few things that, well, they might not sound like you, but who knows, might be fun for a change of pace.
- Museums and historical sites: You'll want to know the opening hours, entrance fee, and location. Try to find the official web-page (and make sure you check for the time of year, since summer hours are often different) for the most recent info - and there's a good chance they'll have a "how to get here" page that tells you subway stops and/or landmarks.
- Restaurants and bars: It's worth writing down a nice place to treat yourself to. Or that really indie place your favourite blogger said makes great cappuccinos. Or that bar that has live jazz bands on Tuesday nights.
- Tourist Information Center: Get the phone number. Mark the location on a map. (You'll thank me later.)
- Hostels: I try to make sure I have a couple of names, addresses, and numbers for places before I hit a city. I might not go to them - I prefer to wander around and find a place on my own - but it's nice to have the information, just in case the bus pulls in at 3am in a sketchy part of town. Plus, reading up on hostels is a great way to get a feeling for a town and the ethos of the travelers it attracts. If it's got a rave review, or an stunning view, or fantastic breakfasts, or you have to book a couple of nights in advance, or your cousin stayed there five years ago and wants you to give a photograph to the owner for him - doesn't hurt to write it down!
Keep gathering information while you move. Don't worry if you don't know everything about where you're going before you get there. As great as the internet is, there are some things that are just easier to figure out once you're on the ground. Keep an eye out for:
- Maps: Print them off the internet, grab the free ones at the airport or the tourist center downtown or the front desk of your hostel. (Or do what I did, and rip them out of the guide book you were leaving behind.)
- Tourist Information Centre: If you're in a big city, hit that place first. It has maps and pamphlets and all sorts of wonderful information about public transportation. That place is your friend. (At least the first week.) If you're in a small town (or have made it to the countryside), then don't worry. You won't need a map.
- Phone number for a good taxi: A good, reliable taxi driver is a prince, a legend, a man among men. A taxi driver who won't leave you stranded on the side of your road (with all your bags and a tent and extra gear), or drive you the long way around town to hike up your fee, or take you to his friends' hostel instead of the one you asked for - and who might even help you catch the bus on the road that you missed at the station, or help you buy a cellphone on a Sunday after business hours - this is a guy whose number you need to save, even if you think you don't have plans to go back to that town. Ask people to recommend their taxi driver (any long-term expat, volunteer coordinator, hostel keeper, or business man has one). A good taxi driver is all the more valuable the further away you get from civilization.
Ask other travelers for recommendations.
Other travelers are your single best source of information. I can not emphasize this enough. Get a few backpackers around a table and they will naturally start giving out travel tips (along with stories about their digestive tracts).
You barely even have to ask – and if you do, it's all the better to make friends. Don't be afraid to pull out your notebook – ask them to repeat the name of that place (ask them how to spell it). Places to avoid are just as important, as well. And what other travelers can tell you about polite customs and ettiqette can be far more useful than the stuff in the guidebook. Of course, you have to take some of the advice with a grain of salt – especially if the mood gets competitive and everyone is swearing that their place is the absolute best (or worst). But if you get someone one-on-one (say, the guy next to you on the bus or waiting for a flight), it's a great way to start a conversation.
The best hostels I ever stayed in were on the recommendation of a stranger – and some of the most most interesting cities I've visited happened the same way – and one of the most beautiful beaches I've ever seen. (Come to think of it, the whole reason I went to Burma was because of a guy next to me on a bus.)
Don't be afraid to change your plans on the spot.
I've heard people refuse to change their plans because they don't have the guidebook to a certain city – but, more often, it's the man excuse they have for clinging to their guidebook: what if I want to go somewhere I hadn't planned on?
These days, the internet is never far away. Want to go to Laos instead of Vietnam but you'll have to go to another town first and spend the night? Hit an internet cafe. I bet you that you can manage to find the bare basics (is the bus station in town or out of it, three hostels, and where's the main tourist attraction) for where-ever you're headed in less than 40 min.
Never commit to a hostel for more than one night when you first arrive.
If you know nothing about a place before you check-in (you absolutely had to crash at the first possible place, or the taxi took a wrong turn, or you got lost in an alley, or everywhere else was sold out), don't pay for more than one night.
I could tell you to check the room (the lights, the fan, the water, the amount of bugs) before you pay, but there will come a time when you forget – and there are some things that a cursory once-over will miss. (Like the prostitute working out of the rooms around you. Or the loud disco downstairs. Or the weird smell after dark. It happens to all of us.) They'll want you to commit to longer – fight it. If the place is fine, they'll always let you stay longer – and if it isn't acceptable, you can get out in the morning.
Find the "backpacker ghettos" and "expat zones".
There's a Khao San Rd in every major city - they might not be pretty and they might not be your cup of tea - but they're there for a reason, and they can be pretty damn useful. You can buy painkillers, toothpaste, phone credit, batteries, a fresh t-shirt, check your email - and then get the hell out of there in a day. (You can do all of the above while drinking a cold beer and complaining to other grizzled loners like yourself about how much you hate the fake, tawdry, tacky, hedonism of the backpacker ghetto in question - and probably get some great tips while you're at it.)
Don't forget: Emergency information.
Obviously, phone numbers for your parents and grandparents and best friend should be on the front cover of your journal (and save a few pages for people you meet on the road to scribble down their email addresses, too). But, if you're traveling for more than a month, it is a question of when, not if, your bank card (or camera or laptop or entire bag) gets stolen or lost.
- Information about your insurance: Maybe you're a better grown-up than I am, but without it written down, I have no idea who my health or travel insurance providers are. You shouldn't write down any any pin codes or passwords, but make sure you have a policy number or the specific title of your plan with you.
- Phone number for your bank to cancel your card: Having this number handy could be the difference between losing a week of your time or losing your entire savings. (Trust me, you want this number. Because when you realize at 4am that your wallet's been stolen yet again, you don't want to have to call your mother, yet again, to google the number for you.)
- Local police number: I program this into my phone when I arrive. Hopefully you won't need it, but... You want a sense of security? Here it is.
Let's be honest:
The real reason that we carry guide books is security - not information. We do our research ahead of time - or make up our minds on the spot. Guide books are safety and backup. They allow us to to triple-check the (incorrect) opening hours of the train station and stand on a corner staring at a (totally incomprehensible) map.
Don't get me wrong - I love guidebooks. I love reading them at home and I understand just how much of a good idea they seem at the time, when you're preparing to head off to a country you've never been before (where no one you know has ever been before) and you're not sure exactly where you're going to end up.
But after the first week on the road, you're not going to go a hostel just because its name jumped out of the page at you, and you're not going to spend hours trying to track down the "affordable, authentic yet welcoming" restaurant from page 304 when you've been walking for five hours and the place around the corner smells absolutely amazing. And the amazing place that everyone's been raving about - the one nice meal you wanted to treat yourself to after three months of washing your laundry by hand on a rooftop - the pizza you've been craving after a month of rice and beans?
You're not going to miss those because you didn't shell out to buy a a guide book or three.
Not when you can make your own.
Without a guide book, you'll have to make your own decisions of what to see. You'll chose what matters, you'll figure out what you care about.
Better yet, you'll realize just how much you didn't need it.
And the feeling of having done it on your own? It's amazing.