Josh Noel
Chicago Tribune

Few things are as elemental to travel as guidebooks. Whether for a weekend in Washington or three months of exploring Australia, Fodor’s, Frommer’s, Lonely Planet and Moon tell us what to see and where to eat.

But they’re also an albatross. Consider that trip to Australia: Do you really need to drag 1,100 pages with every step? All that weight and bulk become a nuisance, especially when your world is on your back.

Fortunately, 2012 is shaping up as the year when travel guidebooks make a big leap into the electronic realm.

Frommer’s recently started releasing e-books that also are accessible as smart phone apps, including electronic versions of Alaska, California, Costa Rica, France, Great Britain, Japan and Spain guides. At $9.99, they’re cheaper than the paper versions, lighter, fit in your pocket and contain all the same information. They also have map and photo features.

It also has been a big year or so for Lonely Planet. The world’s largest manufacturer of travel guides has matched all its paper books with e-book versions — both new and old — which it will continue to do going forward.

In April it launched an app series of country guides, also retailing for $9.99 each, that are condensed versions of those thousand-page books but add features based on a device’s functionality. So far it has released guides to Australia, Costa Rica, England, France, Ireland, Italy and Spain in app form (companies start with the same destinations because those are the places their readers most often go). In June, Lonely Planet also launched regional guides in app form, such as Florence & Tuscany.

Lonely Planet has been in the business of city guide apps for three years, but whittling the country guides to sizes that wouldn’t dominate a device’s memory took time, said Jeremy Kreitler, Lonely Planet’s vice president of mobile technology. Most of the country guides are between 200 and 400 megabytes — large but hardly unwieldy on a 32-gigabyte phone.

“It was a struggle to get to that,” he said. “It’s the amount of information, particularly the amount of mapping.”

But, on the road, those maps offer clear upgrades to what’s in paper form. Travelers can zoom in and out of the maps, find locations relative to where they want to be and use links to make phone calls.

Lonely Planet plans eventually to have corresponding apps for every guide book it publishes and to be able to bundle apps with sales of paper and e-books; Kreitler said neither the iTunes music store nor Google’s online Play store allow for such bundling at the moment.

Despite these fertile months in the e-travel book industry, Kreitler said, it will only become increasingly interactive. Travel guide apps could evolve to include the latest hotel prices, recommendations on what to do based on the current weather and reservations for whatever train you’re rushing to.

I checked out a few of Lonely Planet’s country apps, and though not quite replacements when planning trips — books remain more thorough and easier to browse — on the road, apps are ideal. Even with all that geography covered, they are well-stocked, intuitive and easy to operate when moving between categories (sleeping, eating) or regions and neighborhoods.

As important, the information is stored on the device, meaning a Wi-Fi connection or cell signal is not necessary for access.

Even the mapping function can work without incurring data charges, Kreitler said. And, of course, those apps don’t weigh an ounce.