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Europe on 5 GB a Day: What Does It Mean When Smartphones Replace Travel Guides?

A couple weeks ago, with little fanfare, Google bought the 55-year-old, red-and-white branded travel guidebook company Frommer’s for a reported $25 million. For the search engine giant, the upsides are immediate: Just like that, Google—which last year purchased the Zagat series of restaurant guides—acquired still more expertise that competitors like Yelp and TripAdvisor can’t claim. 

For the dwindling circle of Frommer’s devotees, meanwhile, the implications are a bit less certain. Initial reports suggest that Google will spare the print division that has been compiling the budget holiday guides since founder Arthur Frommer self-published his first book—The GI’s Guide to Travelling in Europe—back in 1957. But in the long run, the book part of Frommer’s is probably history: Paper isn’t really part of Google’s DNA, after all. Instead of competing for shelf space against the likes of Rough Guides or Lonely Planet, Google could use the purchase to tweak its search algorithm, favoring Frommer’s original online content—which in turn can point readers towards Google’s own digital travel services, in a mutually reinforcing cycle of profit.

The end of a print version of Frommer’s—or of any other vestige of that allegedly golden travel era that came before you could ask Twitter for dinner recommendations in Sao Paulo—might be greeted like the death of some beloved expat café. But it would be only an extreme example of the travel guide business’s overall shift to digital. The U.S. travel guidebook market, in fact, has shrunk even faster than the publishing industry overall over the past five years. And while this is partly due to the American family’s thinning travel budget, it also reflects a basic fact that’s clear to anyone who’s ever hiked up some cobblestoned foreign side-street only to find that the low-price, top-quality inn touted in their travel book had closed six months earlier: There’s much more to gain from digitizing a travel guide than from making an ebook out of your average pulp novel. 

While publishers like Frommer’s—which was bought by Simon & Schuster in 1977, and John Wiley in 1991—historically derived steady sales from new editions issued every year, apps can be updated every day. They can be integrated with booking services, consumer reviews, travel blogs, and social networking sites, or peppered with ads tailored to a traveler’s preferences. They can be downloaded one city at a time, without needing to carry around places not on your itinerary. And with zero manufacturing costs, they can be had for around $2.99 apiece. 

All of which make them a vastly superior choice, particularly for a generation without an aesthetic attachment to print. Let’s Go, a backpacker-focused company run by Harvard students, has already seen thousands of downloads of the apps it debuted two weeks ago. “It’s hard to not say ‘well, I don’t use paper,’” says publishing director Sara Plana, who spearheaded the initiative. “But essentially, that’s the calculation that occurred.”

Still, it’s worth pausing to ponder the meaning of the demise of the print travel guide. The books, after all, used to be honest-to-goodness objets d’art. The Baedeker’s line of compact, red leather-bound volumes, packed with maps and opinions about the most worthwhile sights of Victorian Europe, are now sought-after collectors items. After World War II, a handful of publishers emerged to guide a new leisure class venturing abroad, establishing the trusted names still in use today: Lonely Planet, Insight, Fodor’s, Rough Guides, Eyewitness, and Frommer’s. (Arthur Frommer himself had enough cultural cachet not so long ago that he was depicted in the Yankee-teens-abroad comedy Euro Trip.)

In the decades between the dawn of the cheap intercontinental flights that democratized travel and the moment smart phones pole-axed publishing, the dog-eared marked-up travel book become a cherished souvenir of epic trips (unless you’re the type that leaves them behind at your last hostel). Throngs of inveterate wanderers, meanwhile, aspired to subsidize their lifestyle by writing for one of the guides. Most of those who sought to make good on this fantasy, alas, found out that landing a gig was harder than it seemed. 

Robert Reid, Lonely Planet's U.S. travel editor and a 15-year veteran of the industry, says the craft of travel writing won’t change just because it’ll be showing up on a two-by-four-inch screen. His scribes will still visit 50 hotels in Delhi to cull a selection of fifteen. 

The content, however, has already shrunk with the move to digital. Baedeker’s was known for its extensive—and, given their Victorian era, occasionally cringe-worthy—digressions into ethnography and history.  These days, lot of the quasi-scholarly material winds up on e-guides’ virtual cutting-room floors. “Almost all the things that you have on the ground in a traditional guidebook, that’s all there, every bit of it’s there,” says Reid. “The one thing that isn’t is the background that you read on a trip. The history, the culture. That isn’t going in, because people don’t really read that way on the phone.”

For me, losing a few pages of context here and there was no big deal compared to the relief of evading the better travel guides’ inherent drawback: Mass. Traveling super-light through India recently, I had little time to plan before I left, and no interest in toting a brick-like guidebook like the rest of the baggy-panted hordes. I went where friends recommended, found hotels on TripAdvisor, and had a Rough Guides e-book for essential sightseeing information in each city. Best of all, I downloaded maps onto my iPhone that would tell me exactly what direction I was heading on the tiniest alley in Bombay, no awkward paper folding required. 

In search of context, I picked up other books about the cities I visited. But not everybody will, and if publishers continue to leave out the interstitial paragraphs that tell travelers something more than where they should sleep and eat, that’s a tremendous loss. The traditional guidebook Reid talks about, beyond listing the essentials, is fundamentally a book about a place. You read it to be a more informed guest in a foreign land, and you’re still going to want it to get an overview of a country before deciding where to go, even if you leave it at home. The danger with a digital guidebook, used in isolation, is the same as the problem with all electronic media: You might find exactly what you’re looking for, and not much else. 

Of course, there’s no reason digital travel guides have to just be the DVD extras—a smartphone can hold thousands of pages without getting cluttered. Frommer’s staff can keep writing their literary intros, even in the new Google era. The challenge is getting people to actually read them on a device maladapted for the purpose. Especially before the batteries run out.