THE BLOG
11/18/2014 10:08 am ET Updated Jan 18, 2015

How Travel Guidebooks Are Working Against You

Imagine a guidebook author writing about a ski run after a big snowfall. The author might be mesmerized by the virgin powder and amazed that not a single other skier is around to ruin the fresh tracks. But unless you get lucky with the weather, it's not an easy experience to replicate. Now recommend that run to hundreds of thousands of skiers (based on your amazing experience) and you can almost guarantee that no one will enjoy that same solitary powder run. That's guidebook writing (much of it, anyway).

By the time a restaurant or hotel finds its way into a popular guide, the prices may go up, the quality (or ownership) may change, and the guidebook author's experience may be hard to replicate. In such cases, it's better to have been there when the guidebook author passed through. Good news: you can. How? Travel like a guidebook author, not a guidebook reader.

The first guidebook authors who came through followed their noses, talked to other adventurous travelers, asked questions of the locals, and looked for tips in the local newspaper. That's how they found those cultural nuggets. It's not like Karl Baedeker, Tony Wheeler, Rick Steves, Arthur Frommer, and other guidebook authors are or were endowed with culture-finding superpowers.

Yes, there's some hit-and-miss, but that's part of the adventure. Or does having a "traveler's mindset" mean following someone else's recommendations the whole time?

A good travel tip is one that is not just up-to-date but also fairly private. Consider a new and trendy little nightclub in a small town. How much coolness is left if thirty tourists show up? The travel tips you read in popular books and magazines are often more a like a tip sheet for which places will soon be overrun and ruined.

In this respect, guidebooks (and other publications and programs acting as guides) are the asphalt of the beaten path.

Instead, try this guide author technique to find a tourist-free, authentic experience: use Google Translate to search the local newspaper and spot a recent restaurant, hotel, or show review and go there. Or ask the breakfast waiter at your hotel for a tip instead of the concierge or front desk staff, who are likely to hand out the same tips to hundreds of guests.

Text and photos excerpted from my new book (an antidote to traditional travel guides): TRAVEL: The Guide

PHOTO GALLERY
How Travel Guidebooks Are Working Against You