Which is better for travel: Google or Lonely Planet?
When I was about to embark on this journey, to travel the world in search of home, I knew that I needed some form of “Ultimate” guide.
Let’s not forget this was over 5 years ago. Google Maps was only in development then, Lonely Planet was just releasing PDF’s and there was barely a glint of a smart phone on the horizon let alone an iPad to store or view anything.
The here and now alternatives for travel information
Times, and my travels have changed though. Now a laptop is under 1kg, and better yet – the smart phone, iPad like tablets and wide-scale wi-fi availability bring together a challenge to the paperback bible of travel.
As much as I have respected the information within Lonely Planet in the past, my enthusiasm has faded over the years.
Maybe this is due to my own experience level in travel increasing, or because of new alternatives. Back then I only tore out the pages I needed. Mainly the maps.
Once I know how to get to a place, it’s all easy from there.
That said, one alternative – Rough Guide’s generally comes under less of my tearing frenzy due to some genuinely interesting writing. Unfortunately I find their maps and labeling system chronically annoying and outdated. As for the other guides … well, let’s just say they’re not for me. Footprint was borderline once, nice maps, but the structure …
With a smartphone in hand I have access to Wiki’s, hostel review sites, blogs, and travel forums. Not to mention the ultimate in self location awareness – Google Maps. Mix in some pre-downloaded Nokia Maps, and a cheap sim in every country how could I possibly get lost? Everything is in my pocket.
Pro’s & Con’s of using both methods in travel
I travel far too often and for too long to carry the physical weight and expense of a new Lonely Planet Guide for each country. It’s simply not logical. I have looked at their buy by chapter and calculated it out to be about the same cost as buying the book depending on where and what you are printing.
In fact the whole print a chapter thing simply does not work in some countries. I’ve brought my shiny USB into plenty of places en-route and asked if they can print a few chapters out, only to be greeted with a shaking head. When the heads do nod, then the printing is only one-sided, and on an excessively expensive ink-jet printer. Dejected I begin the $5 bartering process with the man with the latest “pre-release” edition of said guidebook waiting outside with a waggling head. Faded maps and all.
Fresh from ripping out the useful bits from the guidebook and designating the ‘flowery language’ bits concerning ‘overly friendly locals’ to the bin; I take out my smart phone.
Here though I find PDF guides equally inept. Constant scrolling, ill-fitting on-screen pages and the lack of ability to take fast easy notes frustrates me too much to make this medium work for me either.
An iPad, no thanks. It’s too big & awkward for taking out on the street the way I travel, and it has severe limitations that a smartphone can offer as an all in one device.
Enter Google with another option to knowing where I am and what there is to see: Search and Mapping.
All is not so great with online maps!
Still, up until one year ago Google had not mapped El Nido, not that the tiny town in Palawan (Philippines) is hard to get lost in. But it’s always good to know that the place at least exists!
Recently though, I checked again and it’s there! Road names and all, with a little blue GPS dot flashing my exact location. The cost to me, mere cents. It’s near impossible to get lost anywhere with this system.
What’s more, Google Maps are accurate. I seem to remember walking down a main road in Brasov Romania that wasn’t listed on my Lonely Planet map. It was 4am, it took 3 hours to find a crummy recommended hostel – and yes; I am still a bit bitter.
With Google Maps if I type in a search for a guesthouse it will fire back something useful, like it’s exact location, plus linked reviews. Pure travellers bliss. In Manila I could get off a bus onto a crowded road and head straight in the direction of the guesthouse that promised no GAP year students, no tour groups – touts at the bus station, be damned.
With the torn out page solution it would always take a while until I got my bearings. Street signs permitting, elbows at the ready; I stare at a crumpled map while telling the touts that I know exactly where I am!
There simply is no doubt; Google’s application kicks Lonely Planet’s proverbial paper map to the curb. Mix in ready access to wiki’s, forums, and reviews – it seemed near perfect.
That is until a few months ago.
Perhaps it’s Google playing with Augmented Reality, or perhaps someone is still practicing the moniker of BETA testing. But now as I search for a guesthouse on Google Maps – at least 4 or more little red markers pop up in different areas of the map telling me this is where the guesthouse is.
Misinformation overload at its worst timing.
These are user additions. I notice these additions come and go. Maybe they know this has the potential to be not so good. As in the photo example here, too much information can get a little confusing. The problem is, as I’m sure you can imagine, this can cause a traveler untold problems in finding the right place. Likewise with “suggestions”, or other places to stay.
Eventually, I suspect Google will soon monetize maps with sponsored listings, thus making it even more tedious to find the cheap, or pre selected guesthouse of choice. Least we forget what happens when we are in a country without gprs/3G etc, or we simply run out of credit/coverage or battery. Overland travel is another story, as more often than not there is no sim available at the border.
And no, I am not a fan of prepaid plans on international roaming rates. In country sim’s and costs are simply much cheaper, for my type of travel at least.
As for Nokia Maps? Well the idea is nice. Download all the maps to your phone, and you don’t even need an internet connection to get around… unfortunately they’ve not even road mapped the Philippines yet, and I am not holding my breath. What’s more, at one stage my Nokia map was telling me whilst in El Nido, that I was 5 miles out to sea… useful eh?
What’s better: a guide book or everything online?
Is technology lagging here or is it the companies themselves? Surely Lonely Planet can see the writing on the wall? Using a combination of Wikitravel, hostel sites, and google maps, one can effortlessly move around a country knowledgeably without stepping out-of-place even once nor have the need to carry a hefty paper book around.
Or will Google’s monetization of maps and reliance on user contributions and ‘connected only’ regions cause its own downfall in the world of travel? I think not. Frustrate users, yes, but fail, no.
Will Lonely Planet risk all on Augmented Reality in the hope that it’s users will follow their prechoosen walking tour paths? Maybe so. And maybe it will work for a certain type of tourist. City breaks, weekend travelers etc
One things for sure; Apple iPad apps, private travel companies developing mobile app’s, interactive website guides and a host of other media are all also thinking about how they can get a bite of the travel guide pie. Maybe even Rough Guide’s will move back into the picture and surprise us all with something revolutionary.
Google is pushing ahead either way; and, it’s working to an extent. Lonely Planet still has a great reputation, the feel good factor of a book, market dominance, and hopefully, if not obsessing too much with iPhone & iPad beta apps, a plan to move forward with innovative technology.
As for me?
I still shred guidebooks, and photocopy pages. They lurk with a pen in a side pocket. I like having this information to hand and the ability to scribble notes only I can read. But in my other pocket are two batteries, a smart phone, and the ability to not waste time in getting to exactly where I want to go with the exact information I need.
Both serve a purpose for my travels, for now. But I wonder which pocket is more likely to be emptied in the future?
Mindanao; Google have mapped it, LP barely mention anything about it! It’s technically a warzone (gloria said so), and yes I’m right in the middle of it with something very new to say…
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