Digital Guidebooks: Can They Really Replace Paper Books?

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I love guidebooks. I know it’s not cool to be addicted to Lonely Planets, and many people don’t think they are necessary in the digital age but I can’t give them up. Sure, I love getting travel tips from other bloggers and online forums but for me this just supplements the information in a guidebook. When I arrive in a new place I like having maps on hand and a comprehensive, reliable source of information on how to get from A to B. Sometimes we don’t have internet or the hours it takes to research online.

But what I don’t like about guidebooks is the weight, especially as we travel light with only a carry-on backpack. Five months ago we decided to make the switch from paper to digital and bought ourselves a Kindle 3G and iPod Touch. Reading a novel on a Kindle turned out to be much better than on paper (read our full Kindle review for all the features we love) but the transition with guidebooks wasn’t quite so smooth. We’ve been experimenting with different digital guidebook formats to find the best replacement for our old paper bricks.

Digital Guidebooks on the Kindle

If you have a Kindle you have two options for guidebooks. Buy the full Kindle book from Amazon or buy the PDF chapters from the guidebook’s online shop (Lonely Planet, Footprint and Fodor’s offer this). As the PDFs don’t convert very well to the Kindle (especially the maps) I prefer buying the books on Amazon.

One of my favourite features is the ability to get sample chapters from any of the guidebooks. Just browse the Amazon site for guidebooks to your destination and click “Send Sample Now” in the top right. Within minutes the sample will be sent to your Kindle. This not only gives you the ability to compare different guides but is a fantastic resource for planning your trip. The samples tend to be generous and even if you don’t want to buy the book you can get lots of great free information.

Lonely Planet has the best selection of electronic guide books but you’ll also find guides on the Amazon site from Rick Steves, Moon Guides, Frommer’s, Rough Guides and many more. They usually cost less than the paper version.

Thanks to the Kindle’s paper-like screen reading the guidebooks is a pleasure with no eye strain, so is great when you are in the planning stages and reading through the whole book. It is more difficult to navigate than flicking through a paper guide though and it can be frustrating trying to get to the page you want quickly.

I’ve found that with practice this gets easier if you take advantage of the Kindle features. When you are planning your trip you can highlight, bookmark or make a note next to things you want to refer to later – a place to stay, restaurant or sight for example. Then it’s easy to get back to the page when you are out and about. You can also click on a link in the Table of Contents to take you to a certain chapter, or use the search feature.

One of the advantages over paper books is the live links. You can click on links to take you to other areas in the book and also on websites that are listed. The Kindle opens up the built in browser (if you are connected to Wifi or have the 3G version) and takes you to the page. Although the browser is still experimental and is very basic it’s handy to have.

The maps are the one aspect that aren’t great on Kindle guidebooks. It helps if you click on a map to zoom in but the quality still isn’t perfect and they can be hard to read.

Digital Guidebooks on the iPod Touch/ iPhone

Although I much prefer reading on the Kindle’s paper-like screen there are some definite advantages to having a guidebook on your iPod Touch or iPhone. For one thing it fits in your pocket so you have access to huge amounts of offline information without having to carry a book or even Kindle around. It’s also easier and quicker to flick through pages using the touch screen. The map quality is better and you can easily zoom in making them easier to read. You have the same useful feature of live links in the book but the web browser is much better on the iPod.

If you buy a Kindle guidebook on Amazon you can use the free Kindle app for the iPod and have the book delivered to both your Kindle and iPod. It will also sync any bookmarks and notes across your devices.

You also have the option of buying PDF chapters direct from guidebook sites like Lonely Planet. The PDFs work much better on the iPod than on the Kindle and can be a good option if you are only visiting one or two areas of a country and don’t need the entire book. We also think the PDF maps are slightly higher quality than the Kindle ones.

iPhone Apps

If you only have an iPhone or iPod Touch then you can also consider buying an app rather than a book. We’ve had a look around some of the Lonely Planet City Guide Apps and find them easy to navigate and read. The big advantage here is the map – it’s very detailed and you can click on any attraction and it will take you to the map to show you where it’s located. All of the information is available offline, and the apps are cheaper than the books.

Google Maps

One thing we’ve found ourselves using the most on our iPod Touch is Google Maps. The app is free and you get access to the usual detailed Google Maps including directions – much more detailed and accurate than a guidebook map. The only down side is that you need to be online to access it. One trick we’ve found is that if you look at the map when you are online and zoom in and around the area you’ll be visiting it saves the information so when you are offline you can access it. We’ve found this really handy and it just takes a bit of forward planning.

So are digital guidebooks a good replacement for paper books?

We definitely think so. The advantages of saving so much weight and being able to buy books anywhere in the world outweigh any of the minor inconveniences.

We have found that the combination of the Kindle and iPod Touch has been perfect for us. The Kindle is easier to read on for pre-trip planning but the iPod is better when you are out and about as it fits in your pocket, is easy to flick through and has better quality maps.


  1. I have 2 questions.
    I have not yet shifted from reading books to a Kindle or Ipad, even though I have access to both. However, since I was hit by a car, which damaged my vision, I find that the print in guidebooks to be too small. I know that this problem would be solved using a digital format. So I am thinking of getting a digital guide for an upcoming trip to India and Sri lanka.

    How I usually use a guidebook is to read, __underline, __highlight and __dog-ear corner of pages/sections THAT I WANT TO FIND QUICKLY. Is there a way to do this on an Ipad?


    Is it possible to PRINT our some Key Information (Which you can do with a paper book?

    I would really appreciate your knowledge and answers to these questions. Thank you, Viki

    Reply ↓

    • Yes you can highlight sections and bookmark pages easily on the Kindle (same with the Kindle app on the iPad). You can then export your highlights by emailing them to yourself as a PDF and text document which you can then print. It’s not quite as easy to flip between pages as in a paper guidebook but being able to compile all the highlights in one document is very handy.

      Reply ↓

  2. I’m at the moment wanting to buy a Kindle, but I have a hard time choosing which one to buy. I will very much need the map feature, since I do not want to carry a guidebook around, nor do I have a phone that is very capable with maps, since the screen is too small.
    So I was wondering how bad the map feature actually is, and if it would be possible to see a screenshot from your Kindle, when it looks as good as it gets and one when it’s as bad as it gets?
    There seems to be very few photos of maps on a Kindle on the internet, not even on Amazon’s homepage, maybe it’s because the quality of maps really are that bad?

    Kind regards


    Reply ↓

    • Hi Jacob
      I’ve noticed that the latest Kindle Lonely Planets have much better maps. We manage just fine with them although for big cities it’s useful to supplement them with a free paper map that tourist offices provide. You can also download the Lonely Planet maps here (good quality) and print them:

      Reply ↓

  3. Hmmmm, this will be a debate for many more years. I think paper books are bought for the omantic concept aand they’re a good conversation starter. I’ve had many on the train when someone’s enthusiatically piped “oh, I’ve read that…”

    You’re focus is on the convenience for travellers and people alike and you make very good points that are hard to disagree with! It’s nice to read a post about this debate that isn’t totally dogmatic for once :)

    Reply ↓

    • I agree that many people get caught up in the romantic notion of books. I was a huge book fan too, but now the huge benefits of the Kindle outweigh that notion for me.

      The Kindle can also be a conversation starter as many people are still curious about them.

      Reply ↓

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