‘Proper travellers’ tend to sneer at the Lonely Planet guidebooks and, in particular, at people that follow them too carefully. Part of this is resentment at how they have produced a familiar environment in very different countries. The repetitive breakfast menus in vastly different countries have led to the creation of the Banana Pancake Trail. Wikipedia describes this trail as including Pushkar, Goa and Varanasi in India; as well as Thailand, Laos, Vietnam and even parts of China.
But there are things you need to know about a country before you get there, such as how to get around, what legal rights and cultural expectations surround travellers, and which places are best avoided. It’s also good to know the local scams – while getting involved in a jewellery investment in a foreign country is foolhardy, there are elegant cons that easily capture the jet-lagged and unwary.
I would never have gone to India without a guidebook but my favourite moments have been places that were a little off that trail: cities like Gwalior or Lucknow that are almost completely ignored by tourists; chai shacks at the sides of busy roads. And I’ve done better with hotels by turning up in a new city and seeing what is available. I could probably discard the guidebook and have a more interesting time without it.
Perhaps the guidebooks shouldn’t list establishments but rather give you just enough information about a place before you arrive: what you should see there, places to start looking for hotels if you can’t find somewhere near the station; where to move on to if you can’t find anywhere to settle. A guide that is part of the trip rather than trying to define it. One that persuades you to go and gives you the confidence to see what happens.