Print Travel Books Are Dead, and There’s No Good Replacement

Why aren't there better smartphone apps for serious travelers?

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Slaven Vlasic / Getty Images

Travel-guide legend Arthur Frommer, left, poses with his daughter Pauline Frommer and fellow guide author Rick Steves at the New York Times Travel Show on Feb. 26 2011

Travel news site Skift is reporting that Google, which purchased the venerable Frommer’s travel-information empire last August, is killing off its line of printed books — more than 55 years after an ex-GI named Arthur Frommer kicked it off with the first edition of Europe on 5 Dollars a Day. When Google made the acquisition, it wouldn’t say whether it planned to stay in the dead-tree business; given that it’s Google we’re talking about, it would be startling if it had kept the paper guides going.

Me, I used to buy a serious travel book — and sometimes several — every time I went on a trip which involved any meaningful sightseeing. But that era ended years ago, once I started taking a smartphone on my wanderings. When I began planning the trip to Stockholm I just took, it didn’t even occur to me to do any paper-based research.

My favorite travel guides by far, incidentally, were Richard Saul Wurman’s exceptional Access Guides, which were about as app-like as a wood-pulp product could get. As far as I can tell, none of them have been updated this decade. If it’s not worth keeping the Access Guides current, the whole category is doomed.

I don’t have to recap why a smartphone with access to apps and the Internet is capable of trouncing any printed travel book. A phone, despite being more pocketable than a book, can contain an essentially infinite quantity of continuously-updated information; it can provide access to crowdsourced advice from thousands of people rather than spottier recommendations from whomever happened to write a particular book; it knows where you’re standing when you’re using it, and can therefore suggest the nearest destinations and tell you how to get to them. How can paper compete with that?

Here’s the weird part, though: As far as I can tell, apps and the Internet haven’t actually managed to improve upon the best travel books. I used several iPhone apps while I was in Sweden, but it’s possible I would have been better off toting a copy of Frommer’s Stockholm.

Some quick notes on the apps I tried:

  • I used one called Triposo, which was not bad. It let me download a free guide to Stockholm so I could use it without racking up international roaming charges. But if it were a printed guide, it would be just O.K. — and it included listings for lots and lots of items for which it basically knew only name, address and category.
  • There are things about TripAdvisor’s app¬†I admire — including its elegant interface for self-guided walking tours — but it also has gaping holes compared to a conventional guidebook. In Stockholm, at least, it usually lacked basic details such as the hours of operation for the attractions it listed, and its lists of what it claimed were the “best” restaurants were based on reader reviews which were too thin in number to be helpful.
  • Afar and have nicely-done apps, but for now, at least, they’re not full-blown replacements for a traditional guide; they let you peruse and share highly selective personal recommendations. In Stockholm, what they’ve got is good, but far from comprehensive.

It’s possible, of course, that there’s a dazzling Stockholm app I didn’t stumble upon, or that there are better options for other cities. But is there a definitive, complete,¬†transcendentally¬†wonderful travel app out there — one which not only matches what Frommer, Fodor, Access, Lonely Planet and others have done for decades in print, but goes far beyond it?

If so, it has a low profile. And if not, it’s a great opportunity for someone. Maybe someone like Google, which still owns all that Frommer’s content, even if it no longer plans to use it in its traditional form.