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’m not sure about digital guidebooks! It depends on the set up – I think I’d prefer an app to reading a traditional book on a Kindle (though I’ve never used one). I use a guidebook by flipping back and forth, marking pages, highlighting things, putting in bookmarks…I just don’t think I’d get quite the same experience electronically, though I know the functionality to do a lot of that is probably there, it’s just not quite the same.

    I’ve downloaded the Lonely Planet PDFs but I find even they don’t work for me so well, even printed – I still prefer the book form.

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    • Once you get used to it the highlighting, bookmarking and note taking feature on the Kindle is really useful. It’s just an adjustment after a lifetime of paper books.

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  2. I definitely think so, not only are they more convenient but the information is more to update as well.

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  3. I love my Kindle guidebooks too (except the maps). Generally I try not to use the guidebook, and ask people for advice instead.

    But sometimes a hostel is full, or you end up somewhere you weren’t planning on being in the middle of the night, and in those situations the guidebook can be a lifesaver.

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    • I use the guidebook for planning but don’t really use it much when we’re in a place either. I agree it’s good to have for emergency situations.

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  4. I wonder what iPad apps are good for travel, particularly around Europe? Not all iPhone apps work on iPad, and vice versa. And there’s a plethora of apps available…makes it difficult to suss out the truly good ones (that are free, preferably).

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    • I reckon getting a guidebook app for free is probably not going to work out too well. It costs an enormous amount of money to research destination information and then develop an app to display it. You really couldn’t recoup the costs even if you advertised on every page. Not saying it’s impossible to find a free guidebook app that is good, but I reckon it’d be very unlikely. Probably best to stump up a few bucks.

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      • I agree that it’s best to pay for a good app. We got a load of US city LP apps when they were free for a special offer but usually I think they sell for $6 and it’s worth it. I haven’t found any decent free apps.

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  5. Youre right. You do lose cred when you use an LP, but I think they’re an excellent tool and many peopled themselves a disservice by not having one. Having said that, I’ve used the books, PDFs and apps and find the apps to be the worst. They are such a terrible experience that in my view it really is better to just go with nothing. As for PDFs, I find them to be very useful for maps (although a little tedious), poorly formatted for iPhone (two pages to a page meaning lots of zooming), but generally worth the positive of having no big book!

    If they figured out a better way to make apps (I worked for last year and theirs are a good example) I’d buy those.

    Still, nothing beats a good old book in my view and if you have the space, I reckon it’s tops.

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    • I agree the apps need improvement although we do find them useful. We have a variety of LP apps and the most recent ones are definitely better. I like the maps – you can click on a restaurant or sight listing and it shows you where it is located on the map.

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  6. I definitely think it’s a great improvement while travelling, but that won’t stop me from buying the books. Because before traveling and after, to remember, i love to go trhough my books. And I’m a book lover and I love my “travel shelf”.
    Plus the books can live for centuries… not sure about your kindle and files!

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    • I used to be attached to my bookshelf too but as we travel permanently digital books just make more sense for us.

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    • The Kindle books are more detailed than the apps, but if you are just going to one city for a few days then the app is fine. If you are exploring a country for longer then the book.

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  7. I am with Eric on this one!! I enjoy reading guidebooks – for fun! There is nothing like having it in your hand to read. I just finished a book on Britain and I don’t even have a trip planned. While having access to the information is great, I think there is something our brain does differently when the book is in our hands. Seems like a better overall experience. So while the information is good and easy to access, I just don’t see myself converting over to digital guidebooks any time soon.

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    • I love reading guidebooks too but I really don’t think the Kindle is a lesser experience than a physical book. I actually find it much easier to read as I can hold it easily with one hand – great for reading in bed! I know most people aren’t going to give up books anytime soon though.

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  8. I am a fellow guidebook addict. I worked for 3 years at an awesome travel bookstore in Downtown Chicago, where I spent much of my downtime reading the books we had there. Even now, I read guidebooks like most people read novels. just last week I ordered Lonely Planet Eastern Europe. Do I have a trip actively planned to Eastern Europe. Well, no, but how am I supposed to know what I’ll want to do when I do finally start planning that trip.

    I’m sure the digital ones will grow on me, that seems to be the way they are all headed, but I doubt I’ll ever get the same excitement of getting that new guidebook physically in my hands.

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    • One thing about the Kindle that’s a bit sad is that we now have no need to go in bookshops. I still get excited when I buy a new guidebook to my Kindle though, and the free samples are a great way of getting overviews of countries without actually purchasing.

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  9. In your article you talk about “converting” PDF to read on your Kindle. You can just “move” them onto the Kindle using the cable as USB connection to your PC (sorry MAC!). This also means you avoid any Amazon charges for the uploading the PDF. The reading quality still depends though on the quality of the original PDF.

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    • That’s true – good point. I usually email the PDFs to my Kindle email address and it gets delivered in a few minutes, as it’s easier for me than faffing around with a cable. For some files it does convert them, but you are right I don’t think it actually changes anything for a PDF.

      Also, we never get charged for personal documents as we’ve set our Kindle account to only send them to us via wifi and not 3G.

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