Can guidebooks be trusted?

This item appears on page 24 of the November 2008 issue.

A controversy was sparked earlier this year by Thomas Kohnstamm’s new book, “Do Travel Writers Go to Hell? A Swashbuckling Tale of High Adventure, Questionable Ethics & Professional Hedonism.”

The book is a tale of the author’s adventures and misadventures in Brazil while he was supposed to be updating chapters of a Lonely Planet’s guidebook. In addition to his tales of sex, booze and some drugs, Kohnstamm freely describes how cavalierly he approached his assignment for his publisher.

He soon decides that Lonely Planet hasn’t given him enough time and money to do all that’s expected of him. Instead of renegotiating his contract or resigning, he blunders along, whining, accepting free rooms and meals and even taking pleasure in dallying with a waitress after closing time and then including in his review of the restaurant the remark, “the table service is friendly” (pp. 192-193).

Ultimately, he returns to the US and writes furiously as he confronts his looming deadline. I’ll let Kohnstamm speak for himself: “I write from my experience. I write from my research. I write from my imagination. . . . I write about hotels and restaurants and towns that I never visited. I write about hotels and restaurants and towns that I feel guilty about not visiting. I write about hotels and restaurants and towns that I never visited and could care less about. . . .” (p. 264).

Kohnstamm obviously was trying to be provocative, and it probably will help the sales of his book.

Some of his claims, evidently, were hyperbole. He’s listed as an author of Lonely Planet’s guidebook on Colombia, but in an Associated Press article he’s quoted as saying, “They didn’t pay me enough to go to Colombia. I wrote the book in San Francisco. I got the information from a chick I was dating who was an intern in the Colombian consulate.”

Shocking, isn’t it? But Lonely Planet responded that Kohnstamm was never expected to go to Colombia at all. He was hired to work on background chapters (on history, culture, environment and so on) and not to review the hotels and restaurants.

To my mind, Kohnstamm condemns himself as being self-indulgent, irresponsible and dishonorable, and I urge anyone reading this to not put money in his pocket by buying his book. Nonetheless, it does suggest questions that we, as consumers of guidebooks, might do well to think about.

I have 36 Lonely Planet guidebooks on my shelves, as well as assorted Rough Guides, Bradts and others, and I must admit that I never questioned whether their authors actually could have visited and did visit all the sites, bus stations, hotels, restaurants and bars that they described. When I discovered an occasional error, I attributed it to human fallibility or to changes since the guidebook was written.

Now I’ll always be a bit more skeptical, but not because I believe every guidebook author is another Kohnstamm. Instead, I’ll wonder, for example, just how much the authors of Lonely Planet’s guidebook to Viet Nam really were able to learn about the 49 hotels and 65 restaurants and cafés that they listed in Hanoi alone. And I’ll wonder how a guidebook company can check the accuracy of what its authors send in from all over the world.

According to Kohnstamm, he was paid a flat fee and required to cover all his own costs. If so, not only does the publisher receive no receipts to verify where its authors went, stayed and ate, the guidebook authors have a financial incentive to cut their expenses however they can.

In response to Kohnstamm’s book, Lonely Planet said that it was conducting “a full review” of what he wrote about destinations in three books that are in print. But that can be done only by having people at those destinations to review his reviews. Surely, that would be too expensive for any company to do on a regular basis.

When I’ve had a choice among several guidebooks to the same country, I’ve often opted for the most recently published one, figuring that it will be most current and, therefore, most accurate. Now I’ll have other criteria to weigh. For instance, I’ll look for evidence that a guidebook’s author knows the language of the country about which he or she is writing and perhaps even has lived in that country awhile.

Kohnstamm tells us that a guidebook is “just a loose tool to give basic information and is not the singular or necessarily the correct way to approach a destination” (p. 3).

Guidebooks are only a guide, after all, and we shouldn’t rely on them too heavily. Instead, we’re supposed to make our own decisions about where to go, how to get there and where to eat and sleep.

That’s easy to say, but if you’re not on a package tour with your activities abroad all planned in advance, that advice isn’t very realistic, especially if your time and money are limited and you don’t love to learn from your mistakes. Relying heavily on a guidebook is often not a choice but a necessity.

I plan to visit Venezuela in December of this year, and the only guidebook printed within the last few years is from Lonely Planet. The “coordinating author” is Thomas Kohnstamm. Oh, well, at least now I’m forewarned.


Washington, DC

ITN sent a copy of the above letter to Lonely Planet and received the following reply.

Lonely Planet has over 360 freelance authors, based all over the world, with extensive travel experience and specific regional expertise. They must have excellent writing and research skills, and they need to be adventurous, intrepid, independent-minded and passionate. Foreign-language expertise is desirable and for some destinations is essential.

We’re extremely proud of the talented people we attract. Potential authors who demonstrate the above (traits) will be asked to do a writing task, which we then assess. Our bar is set high; we receive a lot of writing samples every year, and most applicants don’t make the grade.

Like many other guidebook publishers, we employ independent freelancers as authors, and we trust in their integrity and their ability to complete their assignments and follow our policies. Authors sign a contract that clearly outlines our expectations, including a specific requirement that “all the statements in the work purporting to be facts are true or are based on reasonable and reliable research for accuracy.”

They are given an extremely detailed brief before they leave on assignment. Our Commissioning Editors remain in contact with authors throughout their research and write-up.

When the author submits the manuscript, we do a high-level review of the quality and content. We check whether it meets the brief, and we spot-check reviews to ensure perishable information has been updated.

Our editors and cartographers also talk regularly with the author to clarify things as the book gets ready for the printer. We keep an eye on the changes made between editions, and there are certain flags that tell us if something is amiss.

Lonely Planet has a clear policy that its authors do not accept freebies, comps, discounts or preferential treatment on the basis of being a Lonely Planet author. This is so you can be sure that what we’ve said in the guide is our own opinion and is unaffected by any commercial considerations.

There are a few exceptions — such as government departments providing assistance to gain access to remote areas — where we decide it is to the traveler’s benefit if we do accept help. But this must be approved by a senior editor and made transparent to readers in the book.

Of course, our authors are also allowed to accept the kind of hospitality any traveler might receive, such as a cup of tea in England or a mug of fermented mare’s milk in Mongolia.

FRANK RUIZ, Public Relations Manager, Lonely Planet Americas, 150 Linden St., Oakland, CA 94607