The Lonely Planet Effect – Guidebook Love, Guidebook Hate

the lonely planet effectUpdated November 8, 2016

I should start by staying I love Lonely Planet. I really do. And I’m not alone. Their famous blue volumes are probably the most trusted, well-written and exhaustively-researched travel guidebooks around, giving excellent advice for nearly every destination in this great wide world . There’s more than a few reasons they’re found in the clutches of backpackers and travelers of nearly every nation.

Which is precisely why I hate Lonely Planet.

Before I go any further, I should apologize for any blasphemy towards this seminal guidebook company. I have friends at Lonely Planet, not to mention my own luggage has been known to carry the sacred text—I value their maps and copious information sections quite highly. The trouble with Lonely Planet is that it is so universal, making it difficult, sometimes impossible, to avoid other followers when you’re looking for something “hidden” or less-known. It’s what I call the Lonely Planet Effect: the commodification and blind patronization of establishments reviewed by Lonely Planet, leading to overcrowding, poor service and higher prices for those that put their trust in them, and even those that don’t.

Out in the field you see the success of the establishments Lonely Planet favors, swinging with foreigners, volume in hand. And then you see those that don’t make the cut, forced to join the fray at train stations and bus depots actively pursuing their clientele.

In India, I was surprised just how profound the Lonely Planet Effect is. It was my first or second day in the country, in Bombay, and I was understandably shell-shocked. To avoid any energy sucking decision-making of my own I made for a Lonely Planet restaurant in the Fort area. I scanned the block for signs of the place: empty restaurant, empty restaurant, smattering of locals, empty restaurant… then I saw it, a dining room surging with white people, foreigners, travelers, people looking unsettlingly like yours truly, taking a Lonely Planet-inspired bivouac from the howling storm that is the streets of Bombay. For me, this restaurant was clearly a casualty of the Lonely Planet Effect.

I should be okay with this. People can go where they choose, and when a trusted voice has given them the green light, especially in a place where green lights are so often eclipsed by red flags, it makes perfect sense. But as my travels continued I couldn’t help but notice just how pervasive Lonely Planet’s influence was, and how I started to avoid the spots they reviewed. More than once I discovered that a guest house included in a Lonely Planet edition, even years back, was charging twice as much as a similar unrecommended room across the street, and only after some hard bargaining could you get the price advertised in the book. I also saw restaurants proudly announcing “Recommended by Lonely Planet” on their signage as the backpacking masses were subjected to inflated prices and increasingly mediocre food.

My “shelter from the storm” mentality died out pretty quick in India, as did my tolerance for habitually following Lonely Planet’s recommendations. I will freely admit to loving my Lonely Planet—it’s super handy for comparisons and town overviews—but my experience with the eat-sleep-drink advice leads me to caution those that follow the letter of the LP law. If you’re trying for a more original trip, perhaps leave the “brick” at home. It is possible to travel without it, and what’s more likely is that you’ll find yourself in places where the crowd hasn’t quite made it, yet.

Photo Credits: