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.
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.
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.