Decades after co-founding a publishing company that sparked 150 million guidebooks covering 221 countries, Tony Wheeler is still a backpacker at heart.
Wheeler and his wife, Maureen, created Lonely Planet 50 years ago, after the newlyweds embarked on a road trip from London to Turkey, Iran and Afghanistan, ending when they sold their car and headed to Australia.
The name derives from a misheard lyric in Joe Cocker’s track, Space Captain: ‘Once I was traveling across the sky; this lovely planet caught my eye.’
‘It’s been a 50-year mistake,’ Wheeler told the Washington Post.
Their earliest guidebooks were intended for young globetrotters, described as Wheeler as ‘people in their 20s with no money,’ who were eager to explore formerly untouched places.
In 2011, the couple – who divide their time between London and Melbourne – sold the publishing company, but remain passionate travelers. Here, Wheeler shares some lessons from his 50 trips around the globe.
Tony Wheeler co-founded Lonely Planet with his wife, Maureen, 50 years ago
The first guides were intended for young travelers looking to explore more obscure places (pictured: the town of Brisighella in Emilia Romagna, Italy)
In 2011, the couple sold the company, but continue to travel and remain backpackers at heart (pictured: hot air balloons carry tourists over Myanmar)
Dealing with mishaps
Setbacks happen to even the most experienced traveler, and Wheeler says you just have to roll with the punches.
During a recent trip to Brazil, the airline repeatedly canceled his flight to New York, forcing the entrepreneur to spend four hours in line at the airport counter.
Also this year, an incident in France forced the railway to shut down its entire line – leaving him stranded in torrential rain.
It is important to remember that people only like to hear the bad stories.
‘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,’ Wheeler said.
Wheeler says travelers need to be flexible and able to roll with setbacks as they occur
He encourages people to pack light, opting for carry-on bags rather than luggage that needs to be checked
Wheeler avoids the possibility of lost luggage by limiting himself to carry-ons that are kept close to his person rather than loaded onto the plane.
He shared an anecdote about a friend whose bags were lost on a flight from Munich to his London home. Several days later, her bag showed up – in a vehicle packed with hundreds of pieces of misplaced luggage.
In 2022, some 26 million pieces of luggage were lost, delayed or damaged worldwide. That’s nearly eight bags in every thousand.
However, in the first half of 2023, the number of mishandled pieces of luggage was down to 5.7 million, according to SITA, a multinational IT company that services the air transport industry.
‘The trend started to sharply improve from May to the end of July 2023, with fewer bags being misplaced despite strong growth in passenger numbers going into the summer,’ the company said in a statement.
The travel entrepreneur advises people to be mindful of the political climate of their dream destinations (pictured: interior windows of Nasir-Al Mulk, a mosque in Shiraz, Iran)
He says the guide for Burma was the most difficult to write. It was published in 1979, encouraging people to support local businesses to avoid aiding the military regime (pictured: ancient temples in Bagan, Mandalay Region)
Wheeler encourages people to be mindful of the political climate in countries they hope to visit – but says that places they’re warned off visiting can often make for very rewarding trips.
Of all the travel guides, Burma was the most difficult. At the time, people were urged to boycott the country to avoid indirectly aiding the military regime.
After several research trips, the Wheelers elected to publish the book in 1979, but encouraged potential visitors to support local businesses rather than 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.’
Decades later, this has not changed. Burma is under a Level 4 travel advisory according to the U.S. Department of State.
People are strongly encouraged not to travel to the country due to ongoing civil unrest following the February 2021 military coup.
Of Iran, Wheeler said: ‘The government’s awful, but the people are wonderful,’ mentioning how diners would notice him eating alone and invite him to their tables.
‘How often does that happen in a restaurant in England or America?’ he asked.
Iran is similarly under a Level 4 travel advisory due to frequent kidnaps and arrests of U.S. citizens. The Department has determined that at least one U.S. national is currently wrongfully detained.
Wheeler remains curious about Nigeria, but is cautious about visiting due to concerns about crime and safety (pictured: the city of Lagos)
Of Iran, the entrepreneur says: ‘The government’s awful, but the people are wonderful’ (pictured: Imam Square)
Wheeler is lucky to have only been a victim of crime once, when he was mugged in Bogotá, Colombia.
While you’ll never go wrong with thoroughly researching a destination, Wheeler encourages people to trust their gut once they’re on the ground.
‘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.’
Conditions can change in an instant – during a trip to Guatemala City, the Wheelers were unnerved by the empty streets at night. In daylight, they felt much safer.
Wheeler has visited more than 170 countries, including many that have faced civil unrest, like Syria and Yemen.
He is fascinated by Nigeria, but is cautious about visiting the populous nation of over 220 million due to safety concerns.
The State Department discourages travel there due to ongoing threats of terrorism and kidnapping, among others.
Wheeler says people can’t go wrong by doing research about their destinations beforehand, but should also trust their gut (pictured: the Zuma Rock in Nigeria)
He recommends going ‘two streets over’ from popular lodging and dining destinations to avoid overcrowding (pictured: a seaside resort between Ravenna and Rimini, Italy)
Critics of Lonely Planet say the books have led to overcrowding in once-obscure destinations.
Wheeler’s solution? He recommends always going ‘two streets over’ from the main spots for sightseeing, shopping, dining and lodging.
Of Venice, he said: ‘Everyone is in St. Mark’s Square. There are other parts of the city you can go to and find churches that are not crowded with tourists.’
Wheeler also recommends choosing lesser-visited cities like Ravenna, the former capital of the Western Roman Empire that feels almost ‘undertouristed.’
Wheeler encourages people to consider alternate modes of travel like trains and buses (pictured: a sunset off Bar Beach in Victoria Island, Lagos, Nigeria)
He is particularly fond of Amtrak and speaks highly of a route from Seattle to San Francisco (pictured: a Surfliner passenger train runs on track along the California Coast)
Embrace other modes of travel
The entrepreneur has traveled by train in a dozen countries just this year, attributing his best experience to Amtrak’s Coast Starlight train route 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 opts for more eco-friendly modes of travel, like rails and buses.
For a return trip from Lugano, Switzerland, he took the 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 explained. ‘It felt dangerous all the time, the buses were uncomfortable and the bus stations were not good places to be.’
This time, the bus station in Montevideo, Uruguay, was updated and boasted a tasty breakfast spot. The buses felt safe. There was even a toilet onboard.
‘It was definitely a real change from 40 years ago,’ Wheeler said.
The publishing empire has grown since its founding a half-century ago. It is currently owned by Red Ventures, the American media company that also operates CNET.
Lonely Planet also has a website with budgeting tips, an email newsletter, and the option to book tours and activities.