Can travel books enter the 21st century?


When you travel, a whole ton of online resources are available, but there is still great value in the classic guidebook that you pay money for. Free tourist information (particularly from tourist boards) is not acting in your interest. Some of the ad or booking supported travel sites do give independent information (or aggregated user information) but they have their biases as well, and are also full of review-spam.

Travel books were never perfect of course. You have to like the voice and recommendation tastes of the authors. Most books seem to resist being properly negative in their reviews, trying to always find something to praise in every area. (One exception is Rick Steves, who is happy to tell you what not to see as well as what to see, but at the same time he tells you nothing about places not in his recommended areas.)

I've been wanting a very fancy travel app/device for a long time, first proposing the value in 2008 and we aren't anywhere near that yet. But I expected more, and am pretty disappointed at how even tour books are still way behind. technologically.

In fact, about all tour books have done is put out very basic e-books. That is a big boon -- you don't want to have to carry around lots of heavy physical books when you travel, but they could do so much more, either with dedicated apps, or some very slight modifications of existing e-book readers. I was disappointed that pretty much nothing happened after Google bought Frommers. There are local travel apps for many cities, but they tend to be quite poor.

Make the maps interactive

For example, it would be nice if e-book readers supported the declaration of maps, so your GPS location could be put on the map. This is not even that hard on "not to scale" maps that are popular in some travel books -- you just need a simple interface to let the editor clear on pairs of points in a real map and the hand-drawn one anywhere the scale gets non-linear.

In reality though, it would be better if they just created annotated maps to go onto Google maps or other such tools. At present, it may be difficult for them to "sell" map overlays as I don't think Google supports that. I think the losses from the map overlays being free are tolerable compared to the improved UI until that happens.

Sections of the book should also be geo-tagged with their location, so you can quickly move to the part of the book that's about where you are, or where you point on a map. This actually would be pretty easy to do in the editing tool -- just have it list all the placenames found in the book, expanded to their full name, and let the editor approve them, and also tag which ones are the "main" reference for that place.

Choose your own path

In addition, a lot of tourbook itineraries (driving and walking tours) have to be written as though you are doing them in one particular direction. Often you come in from the other side and it would be nice if they could automatically flip directions as needed, or do only the segments you like.

Give up on the hotel and restaurant listings

An old school tourbook can spend 2/3rds of its pages, or more, on hotel and restaurant listings. They don't take weight, at least, in an e-book, but they still make it harder to use. Time to give up and leave people to Tripadvisor, Yelp or Google or other such sites. Or partner with them or build your own site. Or shrink your list to say, "Here are the ones highly ranked online to avoid, or here are the unknowns." Truth is, lists of hotels that don't have availability and live prices are an anachronism today.

Put the effort into better coverage of locations.

Understand what I've seen before

One of the classic problems with all tourist information is it seems to be written for people on their first overseas trip. Look at the section on any European town and very commonly it will list the cathedral as the top highlight of the town. And it is, until you've seen many similar cathedrals. Very quickly, you want the book to tell you, "This cathedral is still worth it even if you've seen 100" or of course that it's not. Same for most museums and other oft-duplicated styles of tourist sights.

A great tourbook app will know where I've been, either because I went there with the app, or told it, and adjust its advice accordingly.

Create a master route optimizer

A grand level of tour planning tool would be something akin to the "shortest route" tools found in any navigation system, except it can generate "most interesting route."

To do this, it would want to amass a large database of tourist sights with ratings, and also rate towns and road segments according to tourist interest, special qualities and scenic value. It could then optimize all these as the tourist liked.

This is not new. The road navigation tools I used on laptops with handheld GPS in the 1990s tagged roads for scenic value and could give you the fastest, shortest or most scenic route. I want that on steroids, thanks to the growing databases of information on tourist sights. I even suspect you could build a neural network that could process photographs taken along routes (by tourists or things like the Google Streetview car) and give them a decent "scenic" score by training on well known scenic routes.

A clever tool could know not just the quality of the destinations, but also current and forecast weather and hotel availability. And it could know what you have already driven to avoid having you duplicate a road, or even duplicate a type of road if that's not what you want.

It's commonly true that while you might read in a guidebook that one road through the mountains or one village is particularly nice, it turns out that many other roads and villages are similar in quality. It can also know the converse, and tell you, "go quickly through this area to save time for the great stuff up ahead."

So rather than ask it "What's the quickest way from A to B" instead you would ask "What's the most interesting/scenic/relaxed/tasty/fun way from A to B in 2 days?" Like many travel tools, it would give you options -- including the fastest route. Even when you're in a hurry, you might like to know that "You can take a fast route and get there in 3 hours, or a route that's much more scenic and get there in 4." If you have the spare hour, you'll do it.

It could also tell you, "Hotel rooms will be hard to find if you stop in C, but easy if you go a bit further to D or take a detour to E."

Just give me all the travel books

Every location will have many different travel books available, including some of the majors (Frommers, Fodors, Lonely Planet, Rick Steves, Moon, DK, etc.) and often minor guides and self-published guides for each places. Lonely Planet and some smaller guides are available in Kindle Unlimited, which pays publishers based on how much of the book is read.

I would love -- and pay a good price for -- a package of all the books. Now, by a good price I don't mean the sum of all the prices, but some price which ends up paying the publishers more because of the bundling but saves me money when I use just the relevant sections of each book.

If the books have the location tagging, it will be easy to do a quick search to get a summary of what each book has on a location.


I'll toss in the ability to auto-generate points of possible specialty interest. For example, I enter "comic book stores" and it creates a listing that is geo-based as you suggest above in conjunction with the other sites, restaurants, etc. So I hit the standard sites but get told "Hey, two blocks east is a top-rated comics store you might want to check out". I would like amalgamated ratings/reviews, but I suspect most sites wouldn't care for that sort of info scraping that'd likely keep you from going to their sites and delivering eyeballs.

Yes, this is one of the customizations which would be nice. Sadly, not all will have enough people who like it to support it. Ideally you would be able to import layers from other people who tag things by special interest. A list of comic shops, as you say. Atlas Obscura is a perfect example of the sort of layer you might want to be able to add.

I do a lot of travelling and enjoy seeing as many things as I can, so I've thought about this a lot. I don't know that I'd agree all freely-available tourist information is poor - some quality newspapers still do decent articles that are not obviously incentivised. And clearly the glut of blogs and social media reviews means that you really need to do something different to stand out, like the NYT's "36 Hours in..." series, clearly catering to wealthy but time-poor readers.

The question is, how do you make money from this? App development is always more expensive than people think when you have to include constant maintenance and QA; and consumers have shown a stubborn reluctance to buy paid apps (I speak from experience). You'd probably have to adopt a free-to-download model where you get a certain amount of taster content for free, with more content/features available after paying more money. Possibly you could go for a subscription model, although that would really lean towards more of a magazine-style approach if you wanted people to stay subscribed. Alternatively you could make money via affiliate links/lead generation, although that could ultimately compromise the content.

That said: I've started going to more Disney theme parks recently, which are surprisingly complex when it comes to optimising your time, to the point where there are very detailed blogs and eBooks (costing $10-20) that seem to have a decent audience. Those eBooks are not "smart" but the websites will also offer paid tools that will auto-generate day and week-plans based on historical and predicted ride wait times.

I agree that newspaper content like 36 hours is good. I guess I don't class it as "free" in that it is professional content that travel writers were paid to make, and it's ad supported. The free content I refer to are typically guides written with a motive of redirecting your tourist dollars. Wikivoyage is one exception, but frankly, it's not usually very detailed and contains some spam snuck in.

The first few suggestions in my post don't require much app development, in fact they just need some minor modifications to existing e-book readers. Amazon should do maps in kindle, as well as search by geography.

The obvious player to do the "Find the most interesting route" is Google or Tripadvisor, they have other motives to build their travel apps.

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