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  • Tim Mathis

The Best Travel Guidebooks of the Last 50 Years (and Why they Still Matter)

Updated: Jul 5


A weird AI Image generated by "best travel guide"
Look at this weird "travel guidebook" created by an AI robot.

The travel guidebook is dead. Long live the travel guidebook. 


In the internet age, and particularly since the rise of the smartphone, prophets of doom have predicted the imminent demise of the travel guidebook. While the robots may indeed be coming for us all, I do think that there’s a hopeful future for this seemingly old-fashioned tool. I believe that in part because I spent a few years immersed in the genre while I was working on my own book about the Camino de Santiago, The Camino for the Rest of Us.


While travel guidebooks aren’t usually thought of as literary works, across the last fifty years, several have been undeniably important. A few guidebooks have shaped travel culture itself, and have helped turn travel into a central aspect of modern life. They have helped make travel seem possible, but just as importantly they’ve made it seem broadly appealing. They’ve helped people to understand why they should travel, not just how, and they’ve helped average Joe Bloggs like myself make it to places like New South Wales, New Caledonia, and New Zealand.


That sort of travel guide, I think, is not going away anytime soon. Here are the books that I’d place in that category: 


The best and most important travel guidebooks of the last 50 years, according to me. 


Across Asia on the Cheap. 1973. Maureen and Tony Wheeler. 


The original Lonely Planet guide was self-published by a couple of dirty hippies, in order to give other hippies advice about where to find the best pot and hostels in Asia. That book, and its Lonely Planet descendants, helped transform backpacking from a niche countercultural interest to a central rite of passage in much of the Western world. The original proto-Lonely Planet wasn’t much more than a long pamphlet, written in a thoroughly informal style. However, it immediately struck a chord with the type of (mostly European) seekers who’d started drifting overland between Europe and Southeast Asia in fried-out Kombi’s (heads full of zombie…). The authors, Maureen and Tony Wheeler, were entrepreneurial and built on the success of that guide to develop a global brand that contributed massively to the growth of international budget travel for decades. Across the years they kept some of their early budget ethos, but by the 2000s Lonely Planet guides didn’t resemble Across Asia on the Cheap in any significant way. They hired armies of young, poor travel writers to give updates on local hostels and destinations, which is cool, but their books developed into thousand-page encyclopedic tomes covering most everywhere you could dream of visiting. (The Wheelers sold the brand off piecemeal to the BBC in 2007 - 2011, making something like $100 million on the deal. Since then the brand’s lost quite a bit of money, luster and influence.) You can get their OG ‘best travel guidebook ever’ for free online now, which seems appropriate.



Nowadays Rick Steves’ guides are much nerdier than Lonely Planet guides, and are marketed to an older, more American audience. Still, their genesis was remarkably similar to the Lonely Planet story. Rick went to Europe as a young adult, fell in love with it, and wrote a free travel guide to help promote his tour guiding hustle. People on his trips stole the guide, so he decided to give the people what they want, and self-published the first edition of Europe Through the Back Door. As with Lonely Planet, he expanded on this book’s success to write dozens of other guides, primarily focused on European travel. Europe Through the Back Door was informal, niche, funny, and budget minded. Because he’s stayed integrally involved with the brand, the voice of these books haven’t changed much over the years. Rick Steves came off as goofy, smart, and likable in his first book, and that personality has carried through across the years. Steves has been less influential than Lonely Planet with the international backpacking crowd, but he’s arguably the most important authority for typical American travelers. Along with the books, he’s created an entire brand through television shows, a radio program, and online resources that keep a personal feel. Angel and I always use his free audio walking tours when we go to Europe. 



The Bradt guide brand is now the largest independent guidebook brand in the world. They're woman-owned, and they have a really remarkable story. This book - the first book in the brand - is the guide that really introduced the world to the Inca trail and helped make Machu Picchu a bucket list destination. Hilary Bradt and her husband at the time, George, had been backpacking for years, and spent quite a bit of their time in Latin America finding hikes and traditional trails that were off the beaten path for tourists. One of those was was the Inca trail. They took notes, self-published it, and created the first English-language guide to the trail. George left Hillary abruptly a few years later, so she carried on building the brand on her own, focusing on off-the-beaten-path destinations, and places that didn't have pre-existing travel guides. Their founder, Hilary Bradt, is releasing a book in May 2024 telling her story.


Let’s Go! Europe. 1961. Oliver Koppell.  


Let’s Go! didn’t survive the onslaught of the internet and the pandemic, but for a time it was the world’s bestselling budget travel guidebook brand (at least according to their marketing department). While it’s a quintessentially (privileged) American version of the story, the genesis was once again very similar to the other guides we've discussed. In fact, it deserves credit because it pre-dated all of them. In 1960, a Harvard Freshman named Oliver Koppell went to Europe, loved it, and wrote a 25 page pamphlet to hand around to other students on their way to the continent. It was Harvard, so initially these were distributed on private flights that the university chartered for their Student Association. It started first as a free product for his peers, but Koppell and Co. were savvy, and his dad (of course) had connections. The idea gradually developed from pamphlets into full books, and then into a global guidebook brand focused on budget and student travel. It was offbeat, opinionated, and fun to read. Lonely Planet gets most of the credit for the development of modern backpacking culture, but Let’s Go! came first, and deserves props for enabling decades of (maybe a bit entitled) American college kids to spend their summers wandering in Europe. (Full disclosure: I haven’t read the original, but their USA book was the first travel guide that I ever bought. I loved it, in case you’re wondering.) 


The People’s Guide to Mexico by Carl Franz and Lorena Havens. 1972. 


According to the authors, The People's Guide to Mexico started as a series of letters to their friends in Alaska who were thinking of joining them on a van tour of Mexico. It developed into the only travel guide that I’ve personally read just for fun. (You can probably even hear the influence in the title of my book, The Camino for the Rest of Us. I’m a hack, I admit it.) It’s gone through more than a dozen versions across the years, but is one of the few guidebooks that consistently retained it’s original character - a chaotic, madcap collection of travel advice, personal stories, historical background, and cultural experiences. Unlike the others, it didn’t develop into a series, but across the years it did expand, and the most recent edition is over 600 pages. While Lonely Planet guides became encyclopedic and somewhat sterile (if also useful in their way), The People’s Guide kept its early DIY feel and. Its length grew by shoving in more stories, chaos, and fun. Like the other guides, it was clearly written originally by enthusiasts, and it’s still a book about how to travel in Mexico (slowly and flexibly), as much as where to travel. Using it, you never lose sight of the fact that you’re learning from a couple of old gringos who just really love the place. It’s an extremely likable piece of work if you’re a certain kind of traveler.



Guidebooks enduring through history
This is what AI did when I asked it for a "guidebook enduring through history"

What makes the best guidebooks endure? Personality, curation, innovation, and accessibility.


Basic, useful travel information was a key backbone of all of these books and their associated brands, but a shared set of features distinguished them from other guides. These features, I think, are what set them up to endure. 


  1. In their early forms, all of these guidebooks were written from a personal perspective and produced with a DIY ethos. That approach guaranteed that readers knew they were getting advice from someone who’d been there and had the experiences themselves. It felt like insider information rather than test-marketed pablum. It also meant that they were fun to read. They read like conversations with a friend who’s just gotten back from a trip that changed their life, who wants to help you do the same.

  2. None of these guides were comprehensive in their early forms, but felt like curated advice about how to have a particular type of travel experience. They didn’t review every restaurant, museum, or hotel, but they did provide the knowledge readers needed to enjoy a summer touring European capitals by train, or following the Hippie Trail through Thailand, or drifting in a van around Mexico. All of the guides burst with enthusiasm for their approach, and spread a gospel of true belief in a specific sort of life experience. 

  3. In that vein, all of these books were saying something important about travel that wasn’t being said elsewhere at the time. In Across Asia on the Cheap, that was “Hey guys, in Asia you can totally drop out of the rat race and experience the world for months (or even years) if you save up a few hundred bucks.” In The People’s Guide to Mexico it was “Hey gringos, there’s this colorful, relaxed, endearing world that’s different from anything you’ve experienced, and it’s right across the border.” For Let’s Go and Rick Steves it was something like, “Hey Americans, Europe is close, approachable, and endlessly fascinating.”  And for Brandt, it was "If you've never heard of a place, it's probably a great travel option."

  4. All of these books were populist in the good sense, and focus on making extraordinary experiences accessible to regular people. (That’s even true of Let’s Go, produced by rich kids at Harvard.) While travel can often seem like a rarified practice reserved for the wealthy, in tone, all of these guides communicated that anyone can do this stuff. They reassured European kids that they could figure out the chaos of Pakistani border crossings, and American vacationers that Parisians won’t actually harass them if they can’t speak French. 


Are any modern travel guidebooks building on this tradition?


Even if the internet has killed encyclopedic hostel guides, people still need the things that these early travel guidebooks provided. They need insider advice from people who “get it.” They need to know what travel experiences they might be missing. They need to feel like their trip fits in with something bigger. They need to know how to travel where they’re going, and why. And, I’d say, they need to connect with writers who are as excited about the trip they’re planning as they are. 


It’s not surprising then that some of the most popular recent travel books tap into the elements that have helped those classic travel guides endure. These aren’t location guides, per se, but…


Vagabonding by Rolf Potts is a modern classic, and a personal, narrative manifesto about how to be a backpacker (philosophically), based on years of personal experience. While it’s not location specific, it is about a classic type of experience: long-term, undirected world travel. And while it wasn’t independently published, Potts did cut his writing teeth in the wild west of early freelance travel blogging. 


How to Travel the World on $50 a Day by Matt Kepnes is kind of the Rick Steves to Vagabonding’s Lonely Planet, if that makes sense. It’s a nerdier guide to long-term backpacking that’s much more targeted to practicalities, but is written to enable people to do the sort of thing that Potts was talking about. Kepnes got his start building a DIY blog, and has developed his brand into one of the most influential forces in modern budget travel.


In a slightly different vein, perhaps the most novel modern incarnation of vagabond culture, “vanlife,” has been informed in large part by DIY communicators. Bloggers and YouTubers have been key influencers, while the bibles have been written by independent and self-published authors with a strong sense that they’re writing about a movement, How to Live in a Van, Car, or RV - And Get Out of Debt, Travel and Find True Freedom by Bob Wells is the most venerable, and is a charmingly DIY product. (Wells’ was enshrined culturally when he featured as a sort of vanlife guru in the book and film Nomadland.) 


None of those books are about particular places, but they do tap into the same human needs that made those earlier guidebooks popular: identity, adventure, practical advice, and aspirational visions about what’s possible. In fact, you could say that these are modern books about how to participate fully in the culture that the classic guidebooks like Lonely Planet and Rick Steves helped create. (Side note/shameless plug - I wrote my own previous book, The Dirtbag’s Guide to Life, in a similar spirit.) 


In recent years, the closest location-specific analogues I’ve found to the classic guides are the Wildsam Field Guides, which are focused on travel to curated destinations in the US. The founder, Taylor Bruce, originally envisioned these guides as a thorough re-imagining of the travel guide focused on capturing the spirit and culture of places vs. just providing a list of places to visit. Like the older guides, the first version (a book about Nashville) was self-published, and sold thousands of copies in its first months of existence before he decided to expand the project into a wider series. 


Long Live Travel Guidebooks


Reports of the guidebook’s demise have been greatly exaggerated. Sales have stabilized in recent years, and people are clearly still finding value in travel guides - at least of a certain type. Still, the travel writing world is going through an existential crisis, and has been for more than a decade. 


The good news is that an existential crisis is probably useful every once in a while. In life, a sense of impending doom triggers you to refocus on your priorities. In travel writing it’s the same. What type of guidebook even matters? What’s a guidebook for these days? Beyond what’s marketable, what’s a travel guidebook contribute to the world? Those are the sorts of questions you have to ask if you’re trying to write a book these days. 


Looking back at these classic guides, it’s possible to pull out some common traits that make guidebooks essential. Personally, I hope that this is the direction that travel guides will be moving - back towards personal, curated, innovative books written to open up extraordinary travel experiences for average people. I think there are some good signs. Even if the internet does seem like its trying to kill everything good these days, I don’t think the robots are destined to win.


----


When I started writing my book The Camino for the Rest of Us, I wanted to create a guidebook in the classic vein. 


Hundreds of thousands of people walk the Camino de Santiago every year, but it’s a strange and widely misunderstood travel experience. Logistical information is easily available online and in other guidebooks, but it’s also a trip that screams for a personal tour guide.


So, I wrote a book that’s thoroughly personal and niche. My voice and stories are a big part of it. I’m an unapologetic stan for the Camino when it’s approached in a certain way, so I teach the Camino strategy that I think works best. My revolutionary message is that pilgrimage is for everyone, so the book comes from a particular and unusual angle: teaching pilgrimage to pilgrimage skeptics. Rather than trying to cover all of the hostels and restaurants and attractions along the way, I focus on covering everything you need to know in order to have a transformative experience. 


Why? Because I love the Camino, and I want to help people have a particular kind of travel experience. And, yeah, I want to participate in the starry-eyed, DIY, idealistic tradition I've been describing here. Like independent authors before me, I believe that the right type of travel guide can be magic, and can help open up possibilities that wouldn’t exist otherwise. 



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Viola Virginia
Viola Virginia
4月03日

I can’t wait for your new book release. Thanks for the rundown of some of these travel classics. Excellent bonus!

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