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What will travel guidebooks look like in a post-pandemic world?

Two authorities on travel, Rick Steves and Lonely Planet, explain how their guidebook businesses were impacted by the pandemic, and what's next.
TODAY Illustration / Lonely Planet / Rick Steves
/ Source: TODAY

There’s one thing that’s certain about travel as we head into summer: It’s undergone significant change.

COVID-19-related restrictions and requirements, safety precautions, attractions and businesses adapting to a pandemic world … there’s a lot to know. While there are many, many guidebooks out there for many, many destinations, how are they useful for consumers in a travel industry that’s constantly evolving?

Below, TODAY takes a dive into the guidebook business — how it was impacted by the pandemic, how guidebooks are put together and what you need to know if you’re thinking about taking a summer trip, particularly an international one.

An emphasis on road trips during the pandemic

There has been a noticeable shift in how readers consume travel books since the pandemic began. NPD BookScan, which tracks U.S. sales in the book industry, reported an approximate 25% drop in sales for travel books in the first quarter of 2021 compared to the first quarter of 2020, as Piers Pickard, publisher and vice president of print for Lonely Planet, noted in an email to TODAY.

Those who have shown interest in his brand's guidebooks, he added, have gravitated toward titles focusing on outdoor experiences closer to home.

“Our bestsellers are no longer guides to Japan, Costa Rica or Italy. Now we’re selling books on national parks, road tripping, hiking and cycling,” he explained.

Rick Steves, the author, TV host and tour operator who specializes in European travel, was honest in assessing how the pandemic affected his guidebook business, which he said enjoyed its best sales year ever in 2019 but has slumped in the past year.

“Nobody wants to buy a guidebook to Barcelona right now. And it's the road tripping around the United States books that are doing good,” he told TODAY over Zoom.

Keep in mind that the information in guidebooks currently on the market may not be entirely up to date, for obvious reasons. Still, Pickard said a recent guidebook is a worthwhile resource to have.

“The inspirational content within our guidebooks does not age, nor do the deep dives into the history and culture of each place,” said Pickard, who’s based in the U.K. “Guidebooks remain a rich source of travel inspiration and they’re a brilliant tool for sparking wanderlust and helping you plan how to get from A to B via C on that next trip.”

Of course, as Steves pointed out, some flexibility will be required.

“Anybody traveling independently needs a guidebook. If I was going to Europe next month — I could, I’m not going to, but I could — I would use a guidebook. But I would know the guidebook was from before COVID, and it's the only thing that's available now,” he said in the late-May interview. “I would be flexible in understanding that things will have changed, and I will just roll with the punches and try to supplement that with online stuff that's more accurate right now.”

Some background on how Steves puts together his guidebooks: He has a team of co-authors and researchers with whom he works on approximately 50 titles covering Europe. New editions of the top sellers — think big cities like London, Paris and Rome — are released annually, while other books are updated every two or three years.

In the case of the most popular titles, “we aspire to visit every place in every book every year. That's our goal,” Steves said. “And we don't phone it in. We don't do it online. We — and that means me or my co-authors or our researchers — physically go to these towns and check every restaurant, check every hotel, check all the sites, check the train stations, check the bus schedules. And it's just, that's our passion. We just love it.”

Before the pandemic, Steves was spending 100 days a year in Europe, working on his guidebooks, tours and TV show.Rick Steves

Similarly, the writers with Lonely Planet fact-check “every single place” mentioned in guidebooks before they are published, according to Pickard.

Pickard said Lonely Planet, a company that covers every continent, typically researches a destination around nine months before its corresponding guidebook is published. Prior to the pandemic, approximately 140 guidebooks (or 35% of the total in the brand’s wide-ranging series) received updates annually.

What’s next for guidebooks

The next wave of guidebooks from Lonely Planet and Rick Steves won’t arrive for months, if not longer. Pickard said updated versions of Lonely Planet’s top 100 bestsellers will be published between September of this year and April 2022, followed by another 100 books before the end of 2022.

“We’re checking every single place listed to make sure it’s still open post-pandemic,” he said. “But we’re also working on the next generation of guidebooks for 2022 because the world keeps moving, even through a pandemic. We’ll feature a more diverse range of local voices in our books. We’ll focus more on immersive experiences (activities that involve meeting people and doing things) than just sights. We’ll add actionable ideas for making your vacation more sustainable and more fun.”

We’ll focus more on immersive experiences (activities that involve meeting people and doing things) than just sights.

Piers Pickard

Pickard noted that Lonely Planet’s new guidebooks this year will contain a COVID-19 update in the front that will encourage people to check for the latest information with venues and accommodation providers.

Steves is taking the long view with his series of Europe guidebooks — he and his team are planning to research new editions in spring 2022, with the goal of releasing them around Christmastime of that year. He doesn’t believe it would be productive for his team to dive deep into the titles before then.

“I don't think you could go anytime in 2021 and research and know what it's going to be because there's another winter of no tourism coming up. I need to know who's standing in the spring of 2022. That's when I'm ready to go invest in my research,” he said.

“I don't care what anybody promises. There is no way to have a guidebook available that you'd buy in a store that was researched after COVID in 2022 because it takes a year to do the research, get it all edited and then get it distributed and sold in the retail outlets,” he added. “So what you're going to have is guidebooks that were updated during COVID, which I think is worse than no guidebook update at all.”

So, what should you know if you’re planning a trip right now?

Whether you’re looking at a domestic or international getaway — and whether you’re vaccinated or not — the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recommendations on its website for before, during and after travel. The CDC does not recommend traveling internationally if you haven’t been fully vaccinated. Regardless of vaccination status, however, you will need proof of a negative COVID-19 test or recent recovery from COVID-19 before returning to the U.S. from an international trip.

For travel recommendations and advisories for specific foreign countries, you can consult the CDC and U.S. Department of State websites. Those hoping to travel to Europe might be disappointed to find that both advise against traveling to the continent. Having said that, the European Union in May moved toward allowing visitors who are fully vaccinated.

Pickard noted that in the past month or so Lonely Planet has seen an uptick in sales for guidebooks for countries such as Greece, where U.S. residents are exempt from a mandatory quarantine if they provide an acceptable form of certification of their health condition, such as a vaccination certificate or negative COVID-19 test result, and Iceland, where U.S. citizens are permitted to enter if they are fully vaccinated. (At last check, one of Steves’ top-selling books on Amazon was his Iceland guidebook.)

It's a good idea to check websites for U.S. embassies and the EU to learn all the requirements and restrictions for countries.

Safety, obviously, will be a priority no matter where you go, and there are tools online that can help you stay informed. To give three examples, beyond the aforementioned websites: Google Flights displays pertinent advisories and restrictions when searching for flights; Skyscanner has a live map containing similar information; and Tripadvisor offers a “travel safe” resource that allows users to search for hotels that are taking added precautions and to message business owners directly.

Pickard said, “People will see differences passing through an airport and being on a plane aimed at keeping everyone safe. Destinations and hosts realise that safety is a key concern and are taking extra steps to visibly reassure. And of course people should follow government guidance about where they go and how they behave in destinations.”

Pickard also emphasized the need to book travel and attractions in advance and to have the ability to be flexible.

“Travel insurance will not generally cover COVID-related cancellation, so the emphasis is on being able to change your plans penalty-free,” he added. “If you’re nervous, use a travel agent and insist on being able to cancel and rebook without penalty.”

When I go to Paris, I want my cheeks kissed. ... I want to go to the pubs in Ireland and clink glasses with people who really believe that strangers are just friends who have yet to meet.

Rick Steves

If you’re on the fence about a European vacation, Steves, who hopes to relaunch his tours in early 2022, makes a compelling argument for putting off a trip to the continent for a while longer.

“I’m not going to travel until it’s safe to travel. In fact, I’m not going to travel until it’s convenient to travel. … Europe is not open until Europe is open — all of Europe,” he said.

“As I like to say when I’m giving talks and so on, when I go to Paris, I want my cheeks kissed,” he added. “When I go to Rome, I want to pack into the piazza with a gelato and do the passeggiata with all the generations in the street as they do that wonderful stroll in the evening as the sun's going down on the pedestrian-only boulevards. I want to go to the pubs in Ireland and clink glasses with people who really believe that strangers are just friends who have yet to meet.

“That's the fun of travel. You know, the mark of a good traveler is how many people do they meet.”

There are ways to help satisfy your wanderlust (without the hassle or the literal baggage) from the comfort of your own home. Steves has been hosting Monday night travel parties on Zoom, which you can watch on his website. He also has a new public television special, “Europe Awaits,” airing June 7. (He and his production crew are working on footage for his program “Rick Steves’ Europe” that was shot before the pandemic; he’s not planning to shoot new material until 2022.)

Lonely Planet offers many articles and videos for both domestic and international locations.

You always have the option of picking up a guidebook from your local bookstore and daydreaming, too.

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