It’s not something widely mentioned. However, get a few travelers gathered around a fire or in a circle at the hostel bar, and you’ll start to hear it talked about: the surprising regularity at which travelers run into each other. Often these reunions happen several times over the course of a trip, sometimes hundreds (thousands?) of miles and countries apart. It’s always a surprise, though it shouldn’t be, and is usually a welcome occurrence. It happens in internet cafes, hostel common rooms, and even at random on the city streets. It seems to defy common sense – after all, the world is a big place, isn’t it?
The truth is, we make the world we explore significantly smaller by following pre-established paths. The most significant of which is what I’ve come to call the Lonely Planet Trail (LPT). If you’re like most20-30 somethings planning a backpacking/hosteling style trip you probably opted for a Lonely Planet guide book. Why? Because frankly Fodor’s, Rick Steves‘ etc. have done an excellent job servicing their own niches but lack real value for the average backpacker. Meanwhile Lonely Planet has targeted backpackers and done a great job developing a useful resource. A resource which has become the go-to guide for backpackers the world over and holds a special spot in most backpacker’s packs, right next to their socks and underwear.
It makes sense when you think about it – no matter how random or willing we are to go off the beaten path, we’ll still take all the help we can get. That help (hostel information, things to see/do, even a map) typically comes in the form of a blue book with big white text on it. Which, comically enough, adds a certain level of standardization to our travel route. The most entertaining part is, that it’s almost inescapable. I can be a bit of an Ox at times and it’s not unusual for me to take off on a trip without doing a lot of research, having an itinerary or taking a guide book and yet, I’ll still find myself on the Lonely Planet Trail. Why? Because the recommendations I receive, tips and must sees are all driven, in large part, by Lonely Planet.
Going to Guatemala? What should you see? What should you do? Where should you stay? It’s all there, just a few well worn pages away. Ask ten backpackers and you’ll probably find that 80% of their responses are similar/nearly identical and not without good reason. Lonely Planet does make very legitimate recommendations. But, those recommendations are also something to be very mindful of when charting your trip. There’s a lot of stuff out there that didn’t make it into LP or that the author’s might not have liked/missed. Don’t assume that if it’s not in the book, it’s not worth seeing.
Personally, I enjoy traveling along the LPT – in no small part because it ensures a more social experience. It’s not, however, ideal for those who are really looking to break free and engage with the local population. People often complain about how little time they spent away from other travelers. I’d suggest that it’s often because they mistake hostel travel for truly immersive travel – which isn’t always the same.
My biggest suggestion for people who find themselves traveling the LPT is to take a critical look at the suggestions before making decisions. Is LP great for finding accommodation? Yes. Is it good for finding local “must see” attractions? Usually. Is it good for budget/authentic food recommendations? Definitely not. Tour companies? Hit or miss.
At the end of the day, I think the thing to keep in mind is that once a company/venue is featured by Lonely Planet, they’ve become the default go-to source for that service. Which often results in a decrease in quality, increase in prices, and a decrease in availability.
As you chart the course for your next trip, make sure to take these factors into consideration. Remember, your ultimate goal is to get what YOU want out of the trip and the best way to do that, is to examine even our most trusty travel tools with a skeptical eye.
Until next time, I’ll be keeping an eye out for YOU on the Lonely Planet Trail. No doubt, we’ll share a pint soon!