In praise of guidebooks

Once upon a time the internet didn’t exist. If you wanted to find out about something you had to look it up in a book. For holiday destinations that meant getting a guidebook.

My first holiday away from my family took place as a student going on an Interrail trip with my friends Chris and Bif. Absolutely essential to that was the enormous Thomas Cook European Rail Timetable, packed full of detail in very small print. We also had a very sketchy guidebook for students, which claimed to cover all of Western Europe, and Bif turned up with “Europe on 5 litres a day”, a guidebook dedicated entirely to beer.

These books (apart from the rail timetable) left a bit to be desired in terms of practical information, so as the years went on I became a serial purchaser of guidebooks, often to places I didn’t even end up visiting. I loved the vicarious pleasure of reading about foreign lands and dreaming of what I would do when (and if) I got there. For me, much of the pleasure of travelling has always been tied up in the pre-trip research and planning.

I decided that I preferred the Rough Guide imprint to Lonely Planet. Even if they didn’t always contain as much pure factual information their guides seemed to be better written and to give more of an idea of the spirit of the place they described. Having said that, Lonely Planet was our companion when we travelled around South America because of their better coverage. As time has gone on the two rivals have become more alike in style. The go to guidebook now for pure volume of useful facts (and by far the best choice for South and Central America) is Footprint. It is so detailed that their Scottish Highlands and Islands guide includes Invergarry and our hostel.

Sadly, the digital era has seen the market for printed guidebooks shrink. Many people now want to get their information only from downloads or eBooks, if they want a guidebook at all. Especially in less “exotic” destinations many people will now simply rely on the internet for all the travel information they think they might need. Here at Saddle Mountain Hostel we are still surprised by how few of our foreign visitors come to Scotland with a guidebook. Whilst we are delighted to welcome them, it shows in the sense that many of them have absolutely no idea of what there is to do or where to go. They expect to find out when they get there.

We try to help by providing a selection of guides for guest use, as well as maps and more personalised travel advice. We hope that it is appreciated, although many of our younger guests get very spooked at having to look at and interpret an actual map.

For me, though, you can’t beat the thrill of looking at a printed book and letting yourself dream. There is something reassuring about holding its weight in your hands. When on the road, it won’t be affected by the lack of a Wi-Fi signal or batteries running down. With that in mind I am already reading and planning for a trip in winter 2017, books at the ready!

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