How to make a guidebook a bajillion times less annoying

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Ah, guidebooks. The world’s most derided travel accessory. Filled with hundreds of pages of practical information, yet spurned with the contempt befitting a bitter arch-nemesis.

“You don’t need a guidebook. The info’s always wrong, and you can just ask people for help instead.”

Okay, fair enough. But I’ve always wondered what these people do when they get into town at 4am and there’s no one anywhere in sight, without a map of the town to lead anywhere useful. What’s wrong with guidebooks then?

Cyrillic text in Bulgaria
Time for guidance.

Much of the debate around guidebooks focuses on inaccurate information, and subjective opinions; in other words, prices tend to be wrong, and hotel and restaurant recommendations aren’t particularly inspiring. And yes, it’s sometimes true.

But personally, I’ve never bothered using guidebooks this way. I only ever use them for info that rarely changes: Maps, and history. Knowing where I’m going and what I’m looking at is incredibly convenient, and far more fulfilling. If I don’t have a map, I feel like I’m wasting time. If I don’t have a history lesson, I feel like I’m missing out.

Plus you’ll get things like bus schedules, basic phrases, cuisine info, etiquette tips, what number to call instead of 911…the list just goes on and on.

And sure, you could find this info online for free, but if you want to take it with you, you’d either need to print out dozens or hundreds of pages, or look it up on your phone, and deal with roaming charges or SIM card purchases, and battery drain. If you plan on picking up free maps from tourist offices, you have to find the place that’ll give you a map, before you have the map…for every town.

I can generally see where the non-guidebook backpackers are coming from, but it has always seemed to me like $30 for a guidebook with just about everything you need is a pretty good deal, and if you ignore all the subjective restaurant tips anyway, there’s not much to complain about. Besides, it also makes for great reading material on those 36 hour bus rides, particularly if you’re learning about your next destination while en route.

I expect that someday we’ll all have amazing smartphones with infinite free international internet connections and battery life, but until then, paper works just fine. I’m happy to have maps and history lessons on hand at all times.

But there’s one overwhelmingly annoying nuisance that guidebooks have resoundingly failed to resolve:


Pfarrkirche St. Johannes (Hechingen) Kaiserbibel
A typical guidebook. Kind of. (photo by Muesse)

Guidebooks are unnecessarily obese tomes of questionable value if you’re only ever using a few pages per day. And I think this is why so many people go out of their way to find methods that’ll allow them to ditch the guidebook. It’s just such a hassle to haul around, so they just don’t bother.

But neither do I. I only ever take a few pages at a time, and it’s just great.

How to fix the gigantic brick guidebook problem

Instead of carrying around a massive volume, I slash the guidebook into teeny pamphlet-sized country chapter booklets, which conveniently fit into a back pocket, drastically reducing the nuisance of having to carry gigantic things around all day.

It ends up looking like this:

Guidebook cut to pieces.
Mmm, shiny.

If you tape the edges, they’ll outlast your trip, and you can hand them out to fellow backpackers on your way to your next adventure. Or you can leave them in random bus stops, like a secret backpacking Santa. It’s actually pretty easy, and it makes for a fun little arts and crafts project.

To do this, you’ll need to buy the regional guidebook instead of single-country volumes, which gives each country its own chapter. Generally these offer a decent amount of information for most visitors, though I would recommend trying to get as specific as possible thereafter (get the guidebook Western Europe rather than just Europe, for example).

You could use the same technique for single-country books––China and India guidebooks tend to be huge, so it might be helpful to split them up too.

Onward we go!

Tools needed:

  • Guidebook
  • Sharp knife
  • Packing tape

Step One: The incision

Open up the book to the beginning of a country chapter, opening it as far as it’ll go, and gently cut right into the spine. It won’t feel like it’s doing anything at first; just keep slicing, over and over again, until you can push it apart a little more each time, and eventually you’ll cut through:

Guidebook cutting
Slashy slashy.

This method preserves the glue of the spine; ripping out pages will not.

Keep doing this until you’ve cut each country chapter into its own mini-booklet. Remember to do this for the book’s intro chapter as well, which gives info on the whole region, and is quite useful.

Step Two: Tape!

Tape over the entire front and back, along every edge. I like to go parallel along the vertical, like this:

Guidebook taping
No, not videotaping.

Fold over the edges whenever you can, and cut them off when you can’t.

Keep taping until you’ve taped the entire front page, and the entire back page. It’ll be super durable this way.

Step Three: Binding repair

The first and last page are the most precariously secured, sometimes detaching from the binding completely, as you can see below. So open them up, and tape right along the inner spine:

Guidebook inner spine taping
When in doubt, tape.

It might end up a little crooked this way, but it’ll stay together. You generally only have to do this for the first and last page of each booklet.

Once you’ve taped the entire front and back cover, and any loose pages, it’ll look like this:

Finished taped guidebook pamphlet
Stronger than adamantium.

Thin, light, strong, and utterly convenient. It’s great.

I think this is a big reason why I still use guidebooks. I’d go crazy carrying the whole thing around all day, which I think is why so many people try to do without it. But if you cut it down to size, it won’t hold you back.

Maybe I’ll go all-digital someday, but in the meantime, I’m content to be a cantankerous old man who fears newfangled contraptions and refuses to change.

Besides, it’s not old-fashioned. It’s vintage!

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