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Can You Trust Travel Guidebooks?

K.C. Summers

Travel writers on the take?! I'm shocked, shocked.

A new memoir by a rogue guidebook writer is causing a big kerfuffle in the travel community. In his book "Do Travel Writers Go to Hell?", former Lonely Planet contributor Thomas Kohnstamm says that during his assignments for several LP guidebooks, he cut corners (as in, didn't even visit some of the places he wrote about) and traded favors (sex with a waitress on a restaurant table being the most memorable) for positive writeups. Folks are also outraged that the guy allegedly wrote a whole guidebook on Colombia while he was ensconced in San Francisco, but that appears to be not quite true: In an interview on the World Hum travel blog, he says he was never meant to be an on-the-ground reporter for that book, but was hired to do the intro. Whatever.

Lonely Planet, for its part, has posted a point-by-point rebuttal of Kohnstamm's claims and says it will "immediately review" all the content he provided. "Where we find problems or discrepancies, we will tell you immediately and replace that content with accurate, up-to-date material."

Yes, well. I hate to shatter any illusions out there, but it's no secret that many guidebook and travel writers are less than scrupulous. Of course, it depends on your definition of scruples. Many publishers openly allow their writers to accept free trips, lodgings and meals; others have a "don't ask, don't tell" policy and look the other way. Lonely Planet, for its part, says it doesn't allow its writers to accept freebies for favorable writeups, but you could drive a truck through that loophole.

As soon as I joined The Post Travel section, and despite the newspaper's well-known policy against freebies, the offers started pouring in. It's a time-honored tradition for tourism offices, airlines and cruise lines to dangle free trips or offer "media rates" to travel writers, and for hotels and restaurants to offer comped stays and meals. It's all done very slickly -- no travel provider is so unsubtle as to demand favorable coverage.

Most writers who take comps say they can't be bought and that their coverage isn't influenced one way or another by the fact that they've gotten comped. Okay, if they want to tell themselves that, fine, although we all know there's a subtle sense of obligation that comes with being comped. Even assuming you're incorruptible, there's the appearance of conflict of interest. At The Post, all our freelancers are required to sign a statement saying that they've paid for their trips themselves. If we find out otherwise, they're out.

By K.C. Summers |  April 16, 2008; 1:44 PM ET  | Category:  Guidebooks , K.C. Summers , Travel Strategies
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I don't normally write about travel but found myself at the press lunch for the Maxjet launch a few years back (sitting at the table with someone from the Post travel section, although I can't remember now who). Anyway, one of the things in our goodie bags was a free roundtrip to London, and oh boy did it kill me that I couldn't accept it under my publication's rules. I mean, I get it, and I agree, but...a free roundtrip to London! Sigh. (Oh well, look where Maxjet is now...and I'm still employed.)

Posted by: hh | April 16, 2008 2:20 PM

Guidebooks are notorious for sending a low-paid stringer to refresh ancient material. There's also a cultural bias in many books and a trend to recommend the tried and true over anything new and innovative. The Washington Post has high standards for their material, but many other publications don't and their material often reflects free hotel visits and restaurant meals. Unbiased travel information is pretty hard to come by. If you don't believe this, next time you're in a book store scan some travel books that discuss a place where you live or know well.

Posted by: Tom | April 16, 2008 4:54 PM

I noticed that the bolded sentence specifically said freelancers, and I just wanted a bit of clarification: Does the no comp/no media rate standard also extend to Travel section staff members? It seems you allude to that in the second to last paragraph, but I'm not totally sure.

Posted by: TB | April 16, 2008 5:04 PM

Absolutely, TB, our policy refers to staffers as well as freelancers. We don't print stories that result from comped or sponsored (or partially sponsored) trips. Period.

Posted by: KC Summers | April 16, 2008 5:52 PM

I look for guidebooks to give me a sketch of a place. I always take specific recommendations with a grain of salt however. But, if the writer's personality comes thru in the writing, I am more likely to give suggestions a little more weight. Case in point, in preparation of a trip to Georgia, I picked up a guide book that was written by a native who was also a foodie. I checked out some of his favorites, and found myself in some places that I would have normally given a pass. But the food was good, and the prices were either very cheap or very reasonable. If they had ended up all being expensive, I would have suspected that the writer's meals were comped. As it was, I feel it was the writer's honest opinon, and he paid his own way.

Posted by: rja112 | April 16, 2008 7:47 PM

I use guidebooks extensively. I try to always get ones published within no more than 1 year old and I consistently use Fodor's and Frommer's. I also compare and contrast the information in all the books I use. And with the internet, I am also able to use material from local papers. That way I feel I have a fuller picture than relying on one guidebook. I am not the most adventurous traveler, so because I am sticking to mostly well trodden paths I have been well served by my research.

Posted by: EHardwick | April 17, 2008 11:52 AM

I find that it really depends on the guidebook: in general, I've had good luck with Lonely Planet (I used their Ireland, Italy, Slovenia, and Croatia guides, and was favorably impressed), but of course you need to supplement that with research of your own. I do NOT trust Fodor's restaurant reviews because they survey readers, and it's easy for fans (or non-fans) to stuff the ballot box. (Ditto for sites such as VirtualTourist and TripAdvisor.)

Posted by: Tina | April 17, 2008 12:50 PM

I'd never take restaurant recommendations from a guidebook but then I only like to read them to find out which things I might want to see and what to research.

Posted by: Little Red | April 17, 2008 12:52 PM

I always pick up a guidebook - frequently an out of date one - more for a general overview of the city or country, or to follow a walking or driving tour if I have a very limited amount of time. I'll do more in-depth research on line for hotel and restaurant recommendations, but the real fun is stumbling upon a great find on my own.

Posted by: Karen | April 17, 2008 3:38 PM

Thanks for the response, Ms. Summers. I'm glad to hear the policy applies across the board and that we can trust the Post Travel section to present articles that aren't biased by comps.

Posted by: TB | April 17, 2008 4:31 PM

I am shocked! I always thought all those reviewers were anonymous. That's the best way to write a review of something. Show up when they don't know and don't have their best foot forward. Find out how they treat the "regular" people. I always thought I wouldn't mind writing for AAA or something since I have stayed in some really crappy hotels, some nice ones that weren't bad, and some really nice ones that I could have stayed in forever. But you can't do an honest, reliable job with them knowing you are coming. (And of course you need to be a good writer as well.)

When the Washington Post came out with their top 50 restaurants my DH and I tried one. As it happened, the kitchen had a problem and only one stove worked, or something like that, so the food service was slow, the quantity was scanty but they had the best macaroni and cheese I have ever eaten in my life. I am sure we will try the place again but that particular night was not their best. Now you have a truly unbiased opinion of that restaurant...

Posted by: DP | April 18, 2008 8:02 AM

I rely on books from Foders, Frommers, AAA and columns in The Washington Post, Chicago Tribune. I compare these with suggestions from the Trip Advisor website.

Posted by: Meg Graham | April 18, 2008 10:53 AM

Could you name names, please? Whom should we not trust?

As for research, I like the DK Eyewitness series, and I live on the Fodors and Slow Travel forums, where there is a huge wealth of information.

Posted by: Liz | April 18, 2008 12:51 PM

I've used the Lonely Planet Guidebooks for trips to Mauritius, Libya, Italy (Venice and Florence), Paris, and London. I've never been disappointed or felt let down. I do admit to feeling a little jealous when I was in the Pantheon in Rome when I saw a fellow tourist with a DK guide to Rome with COLOR photos of the interior of the Pantheon. BUT I'm getting old, have a lot of stuff to carry when I tour, and appreciate the detail/brevity/light weight of the LP guides.

Maybe some writers 'wing it', but a good guide gives you an overview of a place, high lights spots to visit that interest YOU, help plan a trip, and then helps you find what you're looking for when you are there.

With the internet, people do have backup in case a guide turns out to be useless. DK provides podcasts with its guides. I'm looking forward to more podcast/kindle/wireless guide books - light weight, plus one can get up to date information, and lock in those great reservations via the internet for popular tourist spots like the Uffizi or the Vatican Library.

Posted by: Anne R. | April 18, 2008 1:43 PM

I find that guidebooks are like any other reviews (movies, restaurants, etc.) in that you find that your taste matches some authors' and doesn't match others'. Of course, you have to take a chance on using a guidebook before you find out whether you agree with someone's taste, so there's some element of rolling the dice, but I've found that if I spend 10 minutes or so perusing a book at the store before buying I can at least get a sense of whether I think I'll find the book useful. For example, if a guidebook is focused totally on budget lodging or hostels, I won't buy it because the attractions mentioned are likely to be addressed from a "budget travel" perspective (which isn't my scene). If I see political rants, or lectures on Americans not behaving properly, I'll put the book back.

Overall, I've found that the Lonely Planet and Moon Handbooks series have been fairly reliable, but as others have noted, limiting oneself to these books is not necessarily wise either. The greatest resource can be a website run by an American living in a destination (for example, I found a great one for Cozumel run by a US citizen who lives there). They tend to have insights that the guidebooks can't easily offer.

Posted by: Rich | April 21, 2008 11:57 AM

I've always used guidebooks as a rough sketch of what you may get in a place. Some info is very helpful (rainy/dry seasons, currency, etc.), but so much of restaurant and hotel reviews is based on personal opinion and taste. The only guidebooks I've ever felt extremely attached to were Wizard Publications' books on Hawaii...very honest assessments of restaurants, hotels, attractions and beaches are written by people who actually live there and are updated yearly. Those books have never steered me wrong, and after a few hours in to our last trip, my family started calling them the Hawaii Bibles!

Posted by: AB | April 21, 2008 5:01 PM

So far no one has mentioned the guides we most use: Rick Steves for things to see and the area in which to stay to be convenient to them, then the Michelin Red guide for which hotel to choose in that area and for restaurants, since we like things a little more upscale than Steves' choices. Also, Michelin is much more comprehensive. I don't think either of those sources are on the take.

We do usually also look at Frommer's and Fodor's, and unfortunately, Michelin isn't *everywhere*.

We've had very few disappointments in the forty years (ohmigosh, it's really been that long!) we've been traveling.

Posted by: Jack L. | April 24, 2008 9:30 AM

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