If you’re planning a trip, or living in China, chances are you own a Lonely Planet guidebook. In the past, using LP showed the world you were young and crazy, and would rather stick toothpicks in your eyes than hit up the main tourists spots with all the other blue-hairs. (Or as others saw you: stoner punks who trashed obscure tropical beaches looking for the best banana pancakes.)

But nowadays it is just as common to see an old couple, or a family of six, holding a Lonely Planet guidebook as it is to see a young backpacker. In my years of traveling around China I’ve seen people clutching it in their sweaty hands at the top of mountains, and primed polished fingernails searching through the hundreds of pages to find the certain little write-up to share with their tour group. (Here’s a hint people: Just tear the pages you need out and leave the book back at the hostel. No sense adding 100 pounds to your day unnecessarily.)

The latest edition of Lonely Planet China hit the shelves this summer, a fact you might not have noticed if you actually live in China. That’s because despite the plethora of stores selling LP guides, the China one is hard to come by. LP’s official stance is that Taiwan is not part of the motherland, and so the book is effectively “banned.” I searched all over Beijing to no avail, but one bookstore clerk told me you could buy it in Shanghai but you had to ask for it by name as it was hidden behind the counter. How cloak and dagger!

So, is the newest edition (the 12th) worth the hassle of trying to get it? Should you even bother? Let’s take a closer look and compare the two.


Remember the blue-hairs I mentioned before? Well, LP is clearly beginning to market to them. The most noticeable difference in the new edition is the use of bigger fonts, and a small splash of color (blue) throughout. This makes the whole thing a lot more readable. They’ve also added icons throughout (like a little stick person sleeping at the accommodation section and a fork and knife at the restaurant part) which also improves the ability to find things quicker. There are even little money icons next to the hotel and food places so you can quickly see the price differences between them.

All of the changes, especially the blue color, really do make it much easier, but it also slightly cheapens it in my eyes. Like, the teeny tiny black and white print made it a little grittier before, and suddenly I feel like I’m walking around with a copy of Fodor’s or heaven forbid Frommer’s.

Winner: The 12th edition. It might make me feel old, but the readability is much improved.

Chinese Characters

The first thing I noticed when I cracked open my new LP China was to recheck the cover a few time. This was Lonely Planet China, right? Well, where the hell did all the Chinese go?! Previously, the characters for every province and city were all over the place: on the intro page for each province, on the top of each map, and every map key. That has gone bye-bye. Now it is all just crisp clean English.

I can’t even begin to understand this change. Why, in all places, would they take away the characters on the map key? To save space? To make the book look neater? Oh sure, you can still find the name of each place in Chinese under the listing within each chapter, (and the hotels still have the address in pinyin and characters) but the handy dandy, all-in-one English/Hanzi name spot is gone. Not happy.

Winner: 11th edition. As anyone who has traveled in China knows, you can never have too many characters. More is always better.


And one further word on maps. I know, I know, maps are the Achilles heel of LP, with them becoming obsolete almost immediately upon printing (yes people, China does change that fast. Also, LP does tend to make a lot of mistakes in that department.) But I’m a map person, and I don’t feel settled unless I know the layout of a city. I’m also cheap and don’t want to spend 10 kuai on some silly oversized map for every town I go to. So I use the LP maps, and I use them often.

The maps in the new edition seem quite nice. The clearer font and the blue color definitely add a little sparkle. (The lakes are actually blue now, not just dull grey!) The change I don’t like is the new map layout. Before, the maps were grouped together at the beginning of every city and town. Now they are more spread out throughout the section.

For instance, in the last edition the maps to Beijing were on pages 122-129. Easy peasy. In the new edition they are spread all over the place. It starts on pages 44-45, then you have to flip to page 48-49 for the next, then 66, and the final map is on page 74. Not a big deal, but kind of annoying, especially if you are planning on walking a long distance and your route cover 2 or 3 of the maps. You could get carpel tunnel from flipping the pages back and forth.

Winner: A begrudging win to the 12th edition. I might not like the new page disbursement, but the new maps are easier to read.

Attractions, Restaurants and Hotels

The actual listing and information in the book hasn’t changed much. In fact, for many of the attractions the wording is identical from the last edition. But the practical information, such as price and hours, has been updated. There are of course new listings under the restaurant, entertainment and hotel sections reflecting the constant business changes.

The thing that bothered me was the hotels. LP used to be the budget traveler book, but that is clearly changing in this edition. Oh sure, they still list hostels, but the amount of high-end hotels they have added is a little staggering. And not just added, but flaunting. You know how LP always has the ‘our pick’ which was the coziest/cleanest/most fun hostel? Well, the ‘our pick’ (which has now changed to ‘top choice’) tends to be crazy expensive hotels. For instance in Hong Kong the ‘top choice’ hotels range from HK$1500-6800 ($192-$872). Yikes!

I tend not to use LP for hostels anyway. I find sites like hostelbookers.com to be much more up to date and reliable. But I’m disappointed in this change, which is more than just an “update” change, but clearly a new company policy.

Winner: 11th edition since most of the information is the same, and I’m angry about the high end hotels.

Other Information

All the other things seem pretty much standard to your lonely planet book. The history section, the travel resources, the language pages and the A-Z directory all seem the same as in the past. There are some nice new features–like photo-heavy full-color sections of top experiences and places–which is nice, but the old edition had that too, just different places.

Winner: Draw. It’s basically the same information in both editions, presented in a very similar way.

And the Winner is…

So, which is better, the new edition or the old one? Clearly the winner is … does it even matter? I mean really, it’s a travel book, not some great work of literature in which the earlier editions are worth more. Things change, and you should get the new book so you can be just that much more prepared. Let’s face it, traveling in China is tough, even if you are an old grizzled expat with fluency in Mandarin as well as 12 different dialects. So why make it harder on yourself? Just get the new edition already!

Have you used the new Lonely Planet? If so, we’d love to hear what you think about some of the travel guide’s new features in the comments below.


  1. good review, Becky. taking out most of the characters was dumb – they should’ve added *more*, with accompanying pinyin.

    but frankly the guide books are irrelevant now. i’d rather use my smartphone, buy a local 3G SIM, and then use a selection of social, maps, reviews, and LBS apps to find my way around and pick out good restaurants, etc. it also weighs a lot less!

    only long-distance coach info is something that might be missing in this scenrio.

    • Thanks Steven! I think your right, that soon guidebooks will one day go the way of the payphone, but for now I’m sticking with them. I have a piece of junk phone and an ipod touch that works great…when there is wifi. So I’ll be bringing the book with me for a while longer yet!

  2. Are the LP people getting kickbacks for their recommendations?

    Your point about the hotels v hostels is very much on-point. And there are at least two other hostel websites that are pretty good. I’ve had good luck with hostels.com.

    I’ve managed my way around China thus far with my wits, various websites, and help from Chinese and western friends.

    • We own a B&B on Hainan Island and hve been listed in LP since the 2009 edition. The first time we were listed, we had no idea who wrote about us. We suddenly started getting a lot of bookings. Finally, I asked my guests how they heard about us and they said Lonely Planet. I was shocked. How can you be in LP and not know it??!!!
      We looked in the back and my husband recognized the writer and it was confirmed when we found his name in our guest book. He had left his emailaddress so I wrote him a profusely grateful thank you letter. He returned in 2010 to gather fresh info for the 2011 edition but at the very start he said he could not take any free accomodations because then he could write whatever he wanted.

    • Actually, we’ve been running the ad (just an Amazon ad, no direct affiliation with LP) for several months now. So, not sure if it’s coincidence. I chose the ad, and I published Becky’s review — but they were not directly connected, no.

      • Yeah, I swear I have nothing to do with LP, and even asked Ryan if there was a conflict of interest before suggesting this article.

        I’m just an avid LP user and was shocked by some of the new changes in the book. I looked around online but didn’t see any good reviews of the new books that wasn’t just the same old typical complaints. So I decided to write it myself!

  3. Great review Becky. I’ve got a 2002 (9th edition) and a 1988 (2nd edition) LP China guide, so definitely time I “upgrade”.

    The 2nd edition was a pickup from an old ESL teacher apartment I inherited. It’s interesting to flip through and see how things have changed. Even the back cover text shows its age: “Now that China is open to independent travellers, solo travel is becoming easier by the day and the scope for adventure is enormous…”

  4. in the important category distinctions of “traveler” vs. “tourist”, travelers learned long ago, that if a place made it as lonely planet listing, it was over, as a desirable place to go… 🙂

    • Semantics really. 🙂 It’s a bit like saying that once a song hits Top 40, it’s no longer “good music”. Repetition (for songs) and crowds (for popular destinations) may be annoying, but they don’t necessarily affect the quality of the thing. I’ve been to an empty Great Wall and I’ve been to a busy Great Wall — in both situations I felt the wall itself (even in its much-restored glory) was awesome.

  5. Oh, come on Gregorylent that is ridiculous. So, you won’t go to any of the historical sites or best hostels in China because they are in Lonely Planet?

    Good break down Becky! From me this is a big compliment because I am her husband and all I usually do is pick on her grammar mistakes and give her grief. I guess I should stop that since she is the one who expertly wields the guidebook, speaks Mandarin and generally gets us from place to place.

  6. So Lonely Planet pay you for an ad several months before their new China Guide is out, and then when it is, and you give a grest review, you deny a connection. Yeah, right. Nothing against you or LP – they remain the bible – but it doesn’t fit with their creed of “no money was received in return for reviews in LP guides”.
    Seems that myth has been busted, dude, and you’ll also take cash dollar for endorsements. What’s the deal here man it’s a point discussed long into the night at Sanlitun. Defend your actions sir! WTF is going on with unbiased reporting on LL? Is it dead or are you compromised given the highest dollar bid? It’s ok, you have wife & kid to support but come clean cuz this is a cred deal man.

    • I’ll swear on a stack of bibles that the article was my idea (which I pitched to Ryan) and that I have no connection whatsoever with LP. I originally wrote it up to use on my blog, but my readers aren’t so big on traveling and I saw the LL ‘call for contributors’ so I thought this blog was a more appropriate outlet.

      And let’s be honest my review isn’t that great. Personally I prefer the older edition to the newer one, but the updated information trumps the things I don’t like so yeah, ultimately I recommend it, but it is not a glowing review by any means.

      I know we don’t know each other so maybe my explanation won’t satisfy you, but it’s the truth.

      • Don’t bother Becky, Baz is a troll. Either that, or just too slow to realize that LP would never pay for an ad that is an affiliate link to Amazon, and not to their shop.

  7. @Ryan. Thanks for your moderated courtesy of referring to one of your readers as a “troll” and “slow” because I wrote what I saw and have a different viewpoint from you. You’re the one name calling man.

    Look, I’m sure this Becky didn’t receive any money from LP. But you published her review on your website which has been promoting the very same book. It’s a fact. Your review, as a result, is compromised and cannot be 100% regarded as influence free. Also a fact.

    If you don’t like being called out about it, change your editorial policy so it doesn’t clash with your advertising. But there’s no reason to go name calling your readers because they disagree with you.

    • Baz, apologies if I offended you, I guess I just have a different viewpoint from you on what constitutes “troll” and “slow” behavior. When someone attacks both myself and a contributor (writing for free, just for the sake of sharing their thoughts and knowledge) as being somehow unethical for running a mixed review about a major travel product that happens to also be advertised on the site, I can only see that as troll-like behavior — ie. behavior intended to inflame a conversation for the sake of getting a rise out of the people involved.

      It’s either that or you honestly believe that Lonely Planet paid me, after I clearly explained in a separate reply that they had not, for linking to the book’s Amazon page with an affiliate link. You don’t have a different viewpoint, you have an erroneous one. Defending it with “what could be” crap about editorial bias is garbage. This is a blog, if you want unbiased reporting, stick to major media (and best of luck with that). This blog is just opinions. It can be as damn-well biased as it pleases.

      Your review, as a result, is compromised and cannot be 100% regarded as influence free

      And if we were pulling for a Pulitzer, you might have a point. It was a review. On a blog. Seriously, how can you feel so entitled to a cynical-free Internet? Becky’s review is as unbiased as it possibly could be, but I don’t encourage anyone to read it as such. It’s on the Internet, and unless you know Becky, why would you trust anything she says?

      Furthermore, you seem to believe that publications of any sort have editorial policies of not running reviews of advertisers’ products. It’s up to the publisher to maintain a division between the two departments and assure that one does not affect the other — and the readers (through their continued readership/subscriptions) to gauge if they’re doing so. So even assuming we are shooting for unbiased reporting/reviewing, which I make no claims to be, we have not overstepped that rather wide-spread and fundamental concept of publishing. Becky’s review was fair, based solely on her opinions (I had no part in it, other than uploading the pictures and removing a few commas — hell, it was written even before she pitched it to me), and Lonely Planet had absolutely zero to do with it being either written or published.

      If you don’t like being called out about it, change your editorial policy so it doesn’t clash with your advertising. But there’s no reason to go name calling your readers because they disagree with you.

      That pretty much nails what gets my back up about your comments. I’m not calling a reader names, I’m calling a commenter’s comments what they are. If you don’t like being called out about it, either change your commenting policy so it doesn’t come off as trollish or slow, or stop commenting. As an alternative, please feel free to discontinue your readership and apply for a full refund.

  8. @Ryan: You got some attitude problem there man. Anyway you can forget me both reading your biased blog (your term) anymore and having anything good to say about it. You think you can diss your readers for having a different perspective – that leads to fascism boy. Count me out of your biased circle of blogging.

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  10. I remember taking the train to Xi’An from Shijiazhuang (on the Beijing -> Xi’An line) in November 2002. I had an omnibus copy of the Lord of Rings that kept wandering off and getting forgotten when I got up and went places like the bathroom. People whose English couldn’t have been much better than my “I can say nihao” Chinese kept running after me to return my lonelyplanet.

    I didn’t actually get a Lonely Planet until after I’d already been living in China for awhile and I’ve been really disappointed in it just about every time I’ve picked it up and used it in China.

    Unfortunately, while it mostly sucks for China, it consistently sucks and it sucks less than most of the other China guidebooks I’ve picked up.

  11. The 11th book got me all around china and while I agree with the reviewer about using Hostelworld or Hostelbookers for accomodation to a certain point the 11th edition of th book was EXTREMELY handy for Hostels and was bang on the money for 99% of the time.

    The 12th edition of the book annoyed the hell out of me. The first look I got at it was when I was staying in the Giggling Tree guest house in Yanghou which is easily one of the nicest places I’ve ever stayed in one of the most picturesque locations. They went from being the “our Pick” in my edition to not being in the new one at all which I found shocking especially when, in its place, was that bloody Motel 168 chain that you find all over China which should only be used as a last resort due to having no personality and in some cases not even taking foreign guests.

    The maps in the new one are clearly better but I only ever really use them trying to navigate from the train station to the hostel (so not much) and as was stated before, more characters is better than less. Some food translations would be handy too because we had to buy a seperate phrase book just to show that we wanted Pork, Beef or Chicken.

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