Sunday, October 27, 2013

The Demise of Lonely Planet As We Have Known and Loved It

In 2007, I took a wonderful trip to the Andalucia area of Spain. During an earlier trip to the US, I had purchased a Lonely Planet book for that area, but I later decided to add a week in Portugal since I was going to be right next door, anyway. I had an ancient LP for Europe on a Shoestring, so I figured that would do for my short time in Portugal. In some ways, it was fine; in others, it was useless. I vowed to never again travel without an up-to-date Lonely Planet book. 
I'm a budget traveler and always will be. I don't believe in wasting my hard-earned money on expensive hotels and meals. Besides, I travel to meet people and try to understand how and where they live. I want to stay where they would stay. I believe that luxury accommodations separate travelers from the locals. Besides, traveling on a budget allows me to stay twice as long or travel twice as often.
Lonely Planet was founded in 1972 by an Australian couple and was aimed toward backpackers and budget travelers. The books told all about a place (and still do.) It helped us figure out which budget lodgings were comfortable and which were ratholes. It helped us find a decent meal at a reasonable price.
When I went to Italy with girlfriends a couple of years ago, I taught them how to use a Lonely Planet book. First, I read through and decide where I want to go. I mark all those pages with tabs. Then I read some more and figure out what it is I want to do in those places. I highlight the good stuff. Next, I consult the maps and hotel information. I decide where I might want to stay, carefully considering the hotel's location in relationship to my mode of travel and to what I want to see while there.
If you are a planner, you can make a reservation. If you're more laid back, mark the four or five hotels that seem to suit you best and take your chances when you get there. Generally, I don't make reservations; I never know when I'll run into a fellow traveler who will tell me about some wonderful place I didn't know about. If I'm tied to reservations, I might miss out.
By the time I've done all my research, I have bunches of tabs sticking out in all directions, some marking where I want to go, others marking where I hope to stay or what I want to see. The book is also marked up with lots of highlighters in different colors.
The best part happens when I get to my destination. Those big books can be very heavy, so I (gasp!) cut the book apart as I travel and carry only the section relevant to where I am that day. If done carefully, the binding holds each section together so I'm not leaving a trail of pages behind me. After three weeks of traveling all over Italy, this is what my book looked like:
After Italy, we planned to cross over to Croatia because my friend really wanted to go there. As a birthday present, I had purchased a Lonely Planet Croatia for her Kindle. I was excited to see how it would work in an electronic version. I kept thinking of how nice it would be to not have that weight to carry in my luggage.
It worked just fine if all you wanted to do was to sit down and read the book cover to cover. The all-important village maps were so small that they were useless. And forget the colorful highlighting and tabs on the pages. The electronic process was horrible! OK, so her Kindle was a really old one - one of the very first. We figured that was the reason for the problem.
Now we jump forward two years to my trip to Provence. Now I have an iPod Touch. It is smaller than the Kindle but I know how to enlarge photos and type, so I thought an electronic version would work fine. Once I arrived in France, though, I realized that I had the same problem finding a particular village I wanted to visit. I thought they'd all be listed in a table of contents. Nope. I could enlarge the maps, but once I did, I could only see a tiny area. After struggling for a couple of weeks, I broke down and bought a real book as soon as I found one in English.
I was staying in an apartment the entire time and eating at home, so I hadn't even paid much attention to the dining and lodging sections. Once I had the book, I began paying attention. Gone are the budget hotel listings. Room prices seem to average between 100 and 300 Euros per night. Restaurant meals tend to cost as much as three or four nights stay at a typical hostel.
Of course Europe is expensive, especially to someone who lives in Mexico, but there are many budget options that are not listed in the book. Hostels have almost disppeared from its pages. No more picnic suggestions.
So what happened? It seems that Lonely Planet was bought out six years ago by BBC Worldwide. The founders kept 25% of the company, and presumably some control, for awhile. But they finally sold the rest to BBC a few years ago. Then, this year, BBC sold to Kentucky millionaire Brad Kelley's NC2 Media. Apparently, BBC pledged to keep things the same, but the changes are obvious, and I have also heard that many employees were laid off. BBC took a huge loss when they sold. Personally, I think that's what they deserve for ruining a good thing.
They claim that their target audience has changed from budget travelers to the mainstream and affluent audience. The problem with that is affluent travelers use travel agents. They are too busy working to spend hours pouring over a book to decide were they want to stay. And dining? That's why they have a concierge in those fancy hotels. 
I say Lonely Planet made their luxury bed, so let them lie in it. They won't get any more of my money.
Sorry about the rant, but thanks for reading, anyway.
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  1. I share your traveling philosophy (altho' I'm starting to get too old to travel that way much longer); and also your feelings about print over electronic guides. Too bad Lonely Planet has gone over to the dark side.

  2. I recently gave away my 2008 LP on Mexico thinking I needed to update it, so I may have made a huge mistake! What is the last year that the LP was good for MX? I found that the 2008 seemed to be valid and also found after returning for an extended cross country journey a month ago that prices on lodging at least has doubled since 2008 at most suggested budget places!

  3. Hi Don. I don't know what to tell you about the LP Mexico. I still use the 2008 edition to get a rough idea of prices and then look the hotels, etc., up on the internet or call them to find out current prices. Yes, lots of prices have gone way up, but I know that some near where I live are the same as they've been for years.