There’s an app for that: Have travel guidebooks had their day?

APPS have become such a big thing in travel of late that the humble guidebook seems to be slowly being pushed off the scene.

iPhone travel apps

Pic: AP.

After all who wants to lug around a heavy book when everything can be accessed at the touch of a button on your handy, light weight device?

So has the end come for the “dead tree” guidebook? Let’s take a look.

Weight and size

The lumpy guidebook vs the weight of your phone? It’s a no brainer, particularly as airlines start clamping down on check-in kilos and travellers get ever smarter with cutting down the size and weight of baggage and what they do and don’t need.

Pic: Marina Neil,

Information available

City guidebooks that are configured for smart phones are available everywhere. And unlike printed guides they are easier to update and therefore tend to be more current. We all know the frustration of turning up at a cafe/restaurant listed in a guide only to find it’s long since closed.

However, while the snappy writing on an app can be good for an overview, nothing of course beats the detail of a print guidebook. Apps are perfect for a short trip, but if you’re going anywhere for any length of time you may well prefer the guidebook.

Plus not all destinations are covered by apps yet so there is a problem with the number of titles, particularly for off the beaten track destinations or those little gems that are often covered in more detailed guidebooks, such as an obscure monastery or hidden castle, that just won’t get mentioned in an app.

Pic: Lonely Planet


Time and time again travellers can be seen referring to their apps for directions, restaurant suggestions, transport information and more while they’re on the go. If you’ve got GPS then apps like AroundMe and TripAdvisor will let you know what’s nearby, which can be really handy. Even so, you may still have to wade through a lot of information, and misinformation to find what you want. In some ways it can be more time consuming then simply thumbing quickly through a book to find what you want.


Guidebooks remain a more comfortable read. Certainly more so than phones, though tablets are definitely giving guidebooks a run for their money. While a smartphone travel app is good for quick directions and snippets, nothing beats paper for an in-depth read.


With many apps costing as little as $1-2, it’s hard to justify spending $30 on a book that may simply gather dust in your pack, or at home on your bookshelf. On the other hand the increasing number of apps out there has meant the market has been flooded with some often poor quality options. Buy a dud or three and have some bad experiences on the road and you may well wish you’d just stuck to a trusted guidebook title.


As mentioned previously the quality of apps can vary, as indeed it does with a guidebook. But the trusted guidebook is like the holy grail that is to be revered and consulted at all costs. Besides, do you really trust the information produced by Mr Joe Traveller of the new fandangled app?

Many first time app users may be best to stick to guidebook publishers they trust and try their apps first – Fodor’s, Conde NastLonely Planet and Footprint are good first options – or a particular author they like. There’s also the option of eBooks for your iPad rather than apps for your iPhone. It’s also worth noting that companies like Lonely Planet now  allow you to buy individual chapters of print titles in PDF format. So if you’re visiting, say, Chiang Mai, Thailand you can simply by the Northern Thailand chapter for a of the price of the full book.

The feel

I may well be a book lover, but nothing beats thumbing through your printed guide, marking pages of interest or even adding  little notations to the text (Lonely Planet’s eBook series on the iPad however does allow you to highlight sections and make notes in it). Plus it makes a fantastic read during down times and the perfect companion when you’re at a bar or restaurant on your own. The bulging nature of bookstores also suggests the guidebook still remains popular with enough people, and not just those of us that grew up with books and without technology.

Travel Guidebooks


Durability and multi purpose

This section is added with thanks to one Tony Wheeler, who recently pointed out his guidebook survived a dip in the pool which his smartphone did not (he’s in favour of the long-term survival of the guidebook of course). Amongst other uses for my guidebook I’ve used it to beat off an assailant on the Paris metro, as a pillow on an Indian train, a fundamental element in a shelf I devised in a 3x3m room I let in Mongolia, inexhaustible reading matter when I ran out of novels on a 36 hour train in China and of course as notepaper to write down email addresses.

So will apps replace guidebooks? Well maybe one day, but my call is not yet.

If you are an app person, check out some of our travel app guides:

Korea travel: There’s an app for that – March 2012 edition
5 essential Singapore travel apps
Essential iPhone apps for traveling in Australia
Essential iPhone apps for traveling in Beijing
6 must-have iPhone travel apps