Blowing the lid off of Lonely Planet

Do Travel Writers Go to Hell?: A Swashbuckling Tale of High Adventures, Questionable Ethics, and Professional Hedonism, by Thomas Kohnstamm

This one has been coming for a while. A news blog I’ve been reading just published a summary of coverage of a former Lonely Planet writer’s tell-all book that has now spread all over the internet. After reading the Kirkus review of this book, I have no desire to read it, as it appears to consist mostly of tales of the author buying drugs and sinking to new lows to get girls to sleep with him. In one highly publicized passage, he described how a restaurant got a positive review:

“The waitress suggests that I come back after she closes down the restaurant, around midnight,” he writes. “We end up having sex in a chair and then on one of the tables in the back corner.

“That performance earned a guidebook entry describing the restaurant as “a pleasant surprise” where “the table service is friendly.

However, most of the other juicy quotes that have arisen have been far more damaging to Lonely Planet, and seem to corroborate grumbles that I’ve been having with their business for a while. Mainly the author claims that “I was not able to go to all the places I needed to go to,” and that he instead would write up a “sort of mosaic job to tie up the loose ends.” He also repeatedly asserts that the advance Lonely Planet gave him (which is supposed to cover travel costs) was far from adequate.

I’m not surprised one bit by all of this. From what I can observe, Lonely Planet has been sitting on top of the travel guide food chain for a while: in the few hostel lobbies and airports I’ve been to, just about every young traveler has had a copy of their blue Argentina guide in hand, whether in English or another language. Being this fat and happy appears has not been good for them, as it seems to inspired a glib tone and complacent editing and updating. Some of the restaurant reviews in the current edition are in a such a glowingly laudatory tone that they sound like publicity penned by the management (“It’s an institution!”); a listing for a campground where I stayed noted its choice location but failed to note that this location happened to be across the street from an open-air nightclub which had already been in operation for several years.  In some entries about Argentina’s national parks, basic information about hiking is absent, but you will find a note that says: “For more information, see Lonely Planet’s Trekking in the Patagonian Andes” ($19.99 retail). To be fair, it would be impossible to include comprehensive trail reports, but some basic information for planning purposes would be easy and appropriate as LP books are supposedly geared towards the active/backpacker set.

As a coda to this story, my parents came to visit and brought me a copy of The Rough Guide to Argentina, which I’ve been using ever since.  It’s not better, but I like it more.

Here’s a link to the NYT blog entry where I first read about this, and from which I lifted several of the links.


One response to “Blowing the lid off of Lonely Planet

  1. I have often found many travel guides–especially those written by and for the young and hip–so self-righteous and all-knowing. The tone is so cliche and off-putting, and I am glad that guy is getting exposed for being an irresponsible writer and a self-promoting toolbag. If he couldn’t afford to travel for his stories, he should have not taken the assignment.

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