Tony Wheeler has spent half a century traversing the globe but still carries a guidebook. Naturally, it’s his own.
“Just a couple days ago in Brazil, I went to Iguazu Falls,” Wheeler, 76, said during a recent video call from a hotel guest room in New York City. “I went across to Argentina and had the Lonely Planet guidebook. It said to take the walk close to the river level because everybody heads to the top one. You know, the guidebook got it right.”
Wheeler and his wife, Maureen, founded Lonely Planet guidebooks 50 years ago. In 1972, the newly married couple bought a ratty old car in London and drove east, across Europe, and then farther east, to Turkey, Iran and Afghanistan, where they sold their vehicle. In Australia, their final stop, one adventure ended and another began.
Their first publication, “Across Asia on the Cheap,” spawned more than 150 million guidebooks covering 221 countries. It also heralded a new generation of travelers who were young, adventurous and scrappy. Like true rebels, they ventured where few parents had gone before.
“These were books for people in their 20s with no money,” he said. “If their parents had gone to Europe, they were going to Asia. If they were in Europe, they were going down to Spain and across to Morocco. Instead of escaping the States to Mexico, they’d go down to South America. Their horizons were getting larger, wider.”
In 2011, the Wheelers, who split their time between London and Melbourne, Australia, sold their publishing company. Red Ventures, which also owns the Points Guy, took over in 2020. Although they are no longer actively involved in the series and have upgraded their travel style, they still embody the spirit of the “backpacker’s bible.”
The day after Tony returned from South America, he shared some of the lessons he has learned from his 50 spins around the Lonely Planet.
1. Always carry on
Mishaps happen to even the most seasoned traveler, and you just have to roll with it.
During his recent trip in Brazil, the airline repeatedly canceled his flight to New York. He spent four hours standing in line at the airport counter trying to sort it out. “You can fly across the Atlantic in the Concorde in that amount of time and have a meal, as well,” he said dryly.
Also this year, an incident in France forced the railway to shut down its entire line. Then a torrential rainstorm hit. “I was standing around on a platform with rain pouring down for four hours,” he said.
Wheeler gamely acknowledged that a traveler’s best material often comes from plans that went awry.
“People like to hear the bad stuff,” he said. “No one wants to hear that my flight left on time, my seat was the one I wanted, I liked the meal and my baggage turned up.”
Speaking of lost luggage, he avoids it by limiting himself to carry-on. He said an opera singer friend would have significantly reduced her stress level had she followed suit. On her flight from Munich to his London home, the airline lost her bags. Several days later, a delivery man drove up in a vehicle packed with hundreds of pieces of luggage waiting to be reunited with their owners.
2. Travel for the people, not the politics
Of all the travel guides, Wheeler said Burma caused them the most angst. At the time, people were urged to boycott the country to avoid indirectly aiding the brutal military regime. After several research trips, the couple decided to publish the book in 1979, but encouraged travelers to support local businesses and not government-owned ones.
“The locals really wanted the tourists, and it wasn’t just for the money,” Wheeler said. “It was for the communication with the outside world.”
Wheeler is similarly conflicted by Iran. “The government’s awful, but the people are wonderful,” he said. To illustrate this point, he described the heartwarming interactions he repeatedly experienced in restaurants. Diners would notice that he was eating alone and spoke English and would invite him to join them at their table.
“How often does that happen in a restaurant in England or America?” he said. “In Iran, that does happen and I think it’s kind of amazing.”
The eighth edition of “Lonely Planet Iran” is scheduled for released next December, an update to the 2017 version.
3. Trust your research and instincts
On the subject of crime, Wheeler has been fortunate: He has been a victim only once, when he was mugged in Bogotá, Colombia. He said travelers should thoroughly research a destination but also trust their instincts.
“Things are not always as unsafe as you fear they are,” he said. “Once you get to a place and are out in the streets, you will feel if it is okay or not.”
On a family trip in Guatemala City, the Wheelers set out at night in search of food. The streets were empty and unnerving. But the next morning, they discovered an entirely different city - vibrant, lively, safe.
Wheeler has ventured to more than 170 countries, including many that have faced conflict, such as Syria, Libya and Yemen. He does not take safety lightly. He is intrigued by Nigeria - “It’s the center for movies in Africa and has a lot of entrepreneurial activity” - but is cautious about visiting Africa’s most populous nation because of safety concerns. Many foreign offices, including the State Department, advise travelers against visiting Nigeria.
“You start with the idea that it’s not going to be totally safe,” he said, “but I’d like to see it one day.”
4. Explore ‘two streets over’ from main drag
For countless travelers, Lonely Planet opened the door to unknown or undiscovered places, but some critics say the books worked too well and have led to overcrowding. Wheeler’s solution to overtourism is actually a Lonely Planet tenet. He recommends always going “two streets over” from the main drag for sightseeing as well as shopping, dining and lodging.
“Everyone is in St. Mark’s Square,” he said of Venice. “There are other parts of the city you can go to and find churches that are not crowded with tourists.”
Another option: Skip the popular destination for a lesser-visited city, such as Ravenna, which he described as the opposite of Venice. “It almost felt like it was undertouristed,” he said.
5. Choose a train over plane
This year, Wheeler has traveled by train in a dozen countries. He said his best train experience was on Amtrak’s Coast Starlight train from Seattle to San Francisco.
“It was a nice train, and there was quite a lot of conversation at the tables in the bar,” he said. “It was what train travel is supposed to be.”
When possible, he chooses more eco-friendly modes of travel. For a return trip from Lugano, Switzerland, he took the slower but greener route home: train from Zurich to Paris, then Eurostar to London. In Uruguay and Paraguay, he relied on trains and buses, which have vastly improved since his last overland adventures.
“My bus travel years in South America was a long time ago,” he said. “It felt dangerous all the time, the buses were uncomfortable and the bus stations were not good places to be.”
This time around, the bus station in Montevideo, Uruguay, was modern and had a great breakfast spot. The buses were comfortable and safe. The seats came with belts that people actually wore. There was a toilet onboard.
“It was definitely a real change from 40 years ago,” he said.
6. ‘A 50-year mistake’
The company’s name did not stem from a romantic notion about connecting travelers or making the world a less forlorn place, but instead from a 1971 documentary film called “Mad Dogs and Englishmen.”
Over too much red wine at a Chilean restaurant in Sydney, the Wheelers discussed the film’s song “Space Captain” and the opening lines sung by Joe Cocker: “Once I was traveling across the sky; this lovely planet caught my eye.”
Smitten with the lyrics, Tony suggested calling the series “Lonely Planet.” Maureen agreed, but pointed out the misheard word. “It’s been a 50-year mistake,” he said.