Road Trip Planning and Guidebooks: With a Grain of Salt

I admit I have a love/hate relationship with guidebooks that dates back to when I first started using them just out of college.

Rainbows and dreams on your road trip.

The love part comes first. Those glossy colorful photos and wonderful descriptions transported me and I just couldn’t wait to get there and experience it all! It sounded so amazing, and sometimes it was – but, often the description or advice seemed to have nothing to do with what I actually found when I got there.

One of my first trips using guidebooks wasn’t a road trip – it was a trip to Greece. I planned and drooled over my guidebooks for months beforehand. I’d gotten both Frommer’s and Fodor’s so I wouldn’t miss anything. I made checklists of places to go and a flexible itinerary for each day. Even the restaurants where we would eat each meal were from the books. Back then, we didn’t have the internet – well, it wasn’t what it is today, anyway, so the books were my only resource.

The first place we went for a meal had been described as an amazing restaurant with a huge old tree growing in the middle of it with delicious food. When we got there, we had to wonder – had we missed it/misunderstood the sign? Were we in the wrong place?

There was a skinny stick of a tree in the center of the restaurant that looked dead. There was food, barely edible. What had happened?

I chalked it up to a fluke and kept trying, and kept having many unfortunate experiences with an occasional success thrown in. What was going on? How could there be such a high failure rate? Had these reviewers/writers even been there?

Over time I heard about the "business" of travel reviews and it really made me mad. Many of these people in the travel writing business (not all) take kickbacks and other payouts from the sights, venues, hotels and restaurants and review them positively based on that rather than a genuine recommendation. They lie and wax enthusiastically about these places just to pad their pockets.

Other times, old stuff is printed like it’s brand new information – so it’s completely out of date when you get there. And it gets worse – some of the travel writers haven’t even been there! They take a few known facts, make up a few things to make it sound like they were there, and lie about a trip they never took. There are many stories out there on the web about this type of fraud.

As my experience grew, I learned to ask around rather than consult a book. Then the internet exploded and changed everything. Today you can get honest reviews on any place you want to go. You’ll also see some shady stuff, but you can sift through it to find the real thing. My favorite site is TripAdvisor.com (opens in new window). I have used it religiously since I found it and have had a great experience. Generally, it’s real people posting real reviews and the site makes a major effort to keep out the scammers and owners trying to make their place look better with bogus reviews.

I admit I occasionally backslide and completely trust a guidebook: most recently when my husband and I went to the Florida Keys on a road trip to Key West.

We wanted to stop in every Key and get a feel for it. One of the recommended sights from our guidebook in Islamorada was Robbie’s Pier. It was played up to be a top sight in the area with a gift shop and tarpon fish who fed there. It sounded like a fairly large attraction and we decided to check it out.

Now, whenever I’ve seen something that was described as a "pier" it was a huge dock going out into the ocean – the kind where you can take long walks and watch sunsets. What was Robbie’s Pier? It was a tiny dock in a swampy area that was swarmed by giant tarpon fish that you could feed. There was a small gift shop as well, but it really didn’t match the description at all!

My husband and I laughed about it then and, even now, when we think something’s overblown/ridiculous, we always look at each other and say, "Robbie’s Pier!"

I’m not saying Robbie’s Pier isn’t worth seeing – it’s quaint and kids love feeding the tarpon. The issue is that the description in the guidebook didn’t come close to matching the reality; just like that dinky dead tree and bland food in that "fabulous" restaurant in Greece.

Should you use a guidebook when planning your road trip? Absolutely! They can be a fun addition to your arsenal of resources – just take their information with a grain of salt. You’ll enjoy your road trip much more if you’re not expecting the guidebook to be 100% correct.

I highly recommend the Hidden series of guidebooks published by Ulysses Press. They haven’t covered every state or country, but when they do cover the area where you’re planning to travel, I suggest you pick up a copy. They’re not filled with photos, but the information is excellent. They specialize in things off the beaten track and I’ve really enjoyed exploring places with one of their books in hand.

Take it from me, a die-hard guidebook lover, in their proper place guidebooks can be helpful and enjoyable to read. Just don’t forget that grain of salt!


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