Everything you always wanted to know about travel guidebooks by a professional travel writer who spent a decade writing them
It is one of your closest travel allies, your pocket-sized friend with all the answers and the best insider's advice—and I felt this way even before I started writing the things.
Your guidebook is the one item in your pack that can tell you which bus will go to the castle outside town, which hidden bistro has the best local food, and which hotels accept Visa or give discounts to families.
It can provide the background on that fresco in the cathedral, instructions for using the local subway, and exact prices for triple rooms and prix-fixe menus to help you watch that travel dollar. It will direct you to the best shopping, the hottest discos, and the museums most worth your time and money.
People who travel without guidebooks usually regret it and end up buying one on the road (which, with the exception of any locally-produced guides, will be imported and hence far more expensive).
With so many series and specialty books, the travel shelf can be a confusing place; it's hard to tell which book may be right for you.
Make sure you choose a guidebook that fits your personality, budget, and travel style.
Guides that cover, say, all of Europe are great for planning and for whirlwind vacations, but for more focused trips you may also want a country, regional, or city guide.
Leaf through many; buy the guides you like.
Blue Guides (www.blueguides.com)
Companion Guides (www.companionguides.com)
Footprint - www.footprinttravelguides.com)
Karen Brown's (www.karenbrown.com)
Knopf Guides (www.randomhouse.com)
Let's Go (www.letsgo.com)
Lonely Planet (www.lonelyplanet.com)
Michelin Green Guides [sights] (www.michelintravel.com)
Michelin Red Guides [hotels/restos] (www.michelintravel.com)
Moon Handbooks (www.moon.com)
National Geographic (www.nationalgeographic.com)
Rick Steves (www.ricksteves.com)
Rough Guides (www.roughguides.com)
Time Out (www.timeout.com)You can find most travel guides at Barnes & Nobles (www.bn.com).
Each of the many travel guidebook series out there caters to a specific audience:
- Middle-class adults and families (Frommer's, Cadogan, Rick Steves, Moon Handbooks, Footprint),
- Students and backpackers (Let's Go, Lonely Planet shoestring series),
- Adult budget travelers (Pauline Frommer's guides, Rough Guides, Time Out, Lonely Planet Handbooks),
- Upscale travelers (Fodor's, Eyewitness).
Some focus on the sightseeing, art, and history (Michelin Green Guides, Blue Guides, Companion Guides, Insight). Others focus on hotels and/or restaurants (Michelin famous Red Guides, Karen Brown's B&B and Inns guides—though, since KB now charges the hotels she lists for placement on her Web site, the series can no longer be considered true travel guides but rather an advertising venue for a carefully selected clutch of hotels).
Others focus on a style or means of travel: driving tours (Frommer's, Passport); walking tours (the "Memorable Walks" series from Frommer's, [ City ] Walks from Henry Holt); or shopping (Frommer's Born to Shop).
This provide the perfect combo of solid travel philosophy, good guidance on where to spend your precious vacation days, and the background and cultural context to make all those sights and museums come to life.
The main rule when shopping around for one of these handy dandy travel companions is: do not skimp.
Buy two or three.
Get books that balance each other out. One may have great hotels and restaurants, another is packed with background and historical info for sightseeing, a third has all sorts of fun recommendations for things to see and do beyond the touristy stuff.
One mistake I see many people making in the bookstores—and I hang around the travel section an unhealthy amount —is buying a guide based on the cover price.
Chances are, you're banking a trip worth several thousand dollars and a lot of happiness on the information in two or three books, so you want to get the best advice possible.
Don't even look at the price when choosing a guide. I'll tell you right now: the most expensive books are the $29.95 visually oriented books on glossy paper with lots of pictures.
Most hover around $15 to $20—that's peanuts to your vacation expense account.
Two or three high-quality guides are the best vacation investment you can make, and they will pay for themselves a hundred times over.
One of my favorite letters from a reader thanked me for saving them $450 in plane fares and car rental fees just with the advice in the planning chapter.
Keep in mind that guidebooks take around six months or longer to research and write, plus another six months to go through the editorial, printing, and distribution to your local book store processes.
That means the information in those pages is probably at least a year old.
In the interim, things will have changed somewhat.
Restaurants do sometimes close down, hotels always raise their prices, the tourist office may have decided to move across town, some great new museum may have opened, and ferry schedules will undoubtedly have changed.
Furthermore, since the book stays on the shelf for at minimum one year (often two years, sometimes even three), that means the info in the copy you pick up may be getting very old indeed.
The copyright date printed on the page with all that fine print near the very front of the book (in British-published books, sometimes it's at the back), is a good guide, but it only tells you which year (in rare cases down to the month) the book actually hit the store shelves.
So cut your guide a little bit of slack when its info proves a little stale, and please stop insisting to hotel owners that they are somehow law-bound to charge the rates printed in your dog-eared 1996 edition of Let's Go (hoteliers complain about this to me all the time).
In the end, even if all prices are $2 to $20 higher than the book states, for the most part they'll still be relatively on the mark.
The budget hotels will still be the cheapest, and the luxury ones will be the splurges. Though, again, sometimes a run-down one-star flophouse will, between the research phase and the time you buy the book, have acquired new owners and been renovated into a mid-scale three-star inn.
I solve this problem by making one last run to the bookstore travel section just before leaving on a trip, hoping to find a brand-new edition of each of the books I've already bought for my trip (happens more often than you'd think).
If there is a new one, I bite the bullet, spend the extra $20, buy the new edition and toss the old one—even if I had bought that older edition just a few weeks before.
Remember, this is an investment in a tool that has the potential to save you hundreds of dollars on your trip. Twenty bucks is chicken scratch.
I always get several guides to each destination, then ruthlessly rip them up and staple together related sections—say, every book's chapter on Paris—to make my own Frankensteinian guide to each city. This is what I stick in my daypack to carry around town, rather than lugging about a stack of massive books.
When I leave town, I either keep the sections as souvenirs, pass them along to a new arrival, or toss them onto the exchange bookshelf at the hotel.
Share the love, baby. Share the love.
People always ask me what guides I travel with. That's irrelevant (though to be fair, I will tell you in a moment).
You should always pick the guide that best suits your own tastes, travel needs, and interests.
I'm a fan a family-run restaurants, modest little hotels with funky charm, history and art and cultural context, and getting to know the locals wherever I go. (I also ain't rich, so that dovetails nicely with my personal travel philosophy.) These tastes inform my choice of guidebooks.
Though as a journalist I've covered more than my share of upscale restaurants and five-star hotels, they really aren't my cup of tea (nor are they in my price range), so for personal trips I don't ever bother with, say, a Fodor's or an Access guide.
At the same time, I'm not a fan of hostels, nor of hanging out with students bent solely on partying their way through Europe, so I've no use for Let's Go and its ilk.
There's nothing wrong with the student-oriented guides in of themselves—or the students for that matter; I'm just talking about the type who'd rather stay back at the hostel's pub getting drunk and hooking up with fellow travelers than head out to explore some residential neighborhood. I'm just saying the books aren't for me.
I know I promised to list my faves—but I cannot stress enough the importance of buying the guide that's best for you. Remember: I travel for a living, so I have a fairly good grounding in the basics, and that also informs my own choices (as do my personal tastes, budget, etc).
That said, here are the books I tend to buy first when planning my own trips, more or less in order of preference (though, remember, I usually buy several). "H&R" stands for "hotels and restaurants."
- Footprint - British series; the best at giving all the niggly practical details, loads of cultural and historical background, a strong undercurrent of encouraging sustainable and responsible tourism, and a refreshingly different selection of H&R that has very little overlap with those mentioned in all the other guides.
- Rough Guides - Another British series, much better known than Footprint, with a keen focus on background and history. The H&R listings are pretty good, and tend toward the inexpensive-but-good end along with a few worthy splurges.
- Moon Handbooks - A bit like an American version of Rough Guides. Only problem: they don't do Europe. (Also, years can go by between updates).
- DK/Eyewitness - Glossy books loaded with photographs, street maps, and cut-away plans of cathedrals and museums. Descriptions are cursory at best; H&R listings are pretty weak (mostly mid- to upscale, and just the most famous places). I use all those pictures to help plan trips, but don't usually take these heavy books with me. (Disclaimer: I've written three of these things, and contributed to the current editions of the Rome and Italy books.)
- National Geographic - Gorgeous, glossy books with (as you'd expect) first-rate photography and truly insightful text. Lots of brilliant sidebar boxes and essays on cultural asides and history, good sightseeing info, fine self-guided walks, lame H&R (mostly the same, tired, famous high-end places everyone else lists). One drawback: the info can sometimes be shockingly out of date (I've read bits that I either knew, or soon discovered, to be years out of date—in one case, by more than a decade).
- Blue Guides - Like bringing along your own dry, boring, but infinitely knowledgeable professor of art and history. Encyclopedic, dreadfully dull, and absolutely necessary for us culture geeks. Lately, they've tried to add H&R and such, but they aren't doing it well.
For some destinations, certain kinds of trips, or when a title is particularly well-done, my personal second tier of choices include:
- Cadogan - Fantastic quality, and charmingly written. My only (tiny) quibble is that the hotels and restaurants tend toward the middle to upper end (and excellent choices at that), where I prefer middle to lower. That's it—and it's thoroughly a personal taste matter. Otherwise: superb travel guidebooks.
- Time Out - Especially good for big cities where I'll be spending more than a few days. Team-written, often by local experts in each field—the city paper's food critic will write up the restaurants, a history professor will cover the sights, etc. Best guidebooks for finding the hottest and latest in H&R, shops, and nightlife. Nice, breezily sophisticated style (think: alternative/events newspaper). Only problem: All they really do is cities. Also, they smell funny. (I have no idea why, but it'strue.)
- Frommer's - The most in-depth coverage of H&R of any general guidebook, a wearisome amount of detail (though perhaps I only say that because it was once my job to collect it!), and a target audience of middle-aged, middle class folks for whom comfort takes precedence over price or character (most H&R are mid- to upscale). Also, covers all the most important destinations, sights, and practical info. Could do with more cultural context (I'm guilty of trying to cram as much of that as I can in the Frommer's books I've written).
A nice development was their new Pauline Frommer's Guides series (to which I contributed some on the Italy title—yeah, I know; this section is full of disclaimers. Also, I need to point out that Pauline is a personal friend). These new books aim to add more character to the Frommer's formula, and the end result is a cross between Rick Steves and traditional Frommer's, with a bit more emphasis on alternative accommodations. However, the publisher has put these books on hold for now, and new editions have not come out for a few years.
Still, the award-winning Pauline Frommer's London remains the single best guidebook to London available on the bookshelf. And I'm not just saying that because the author, Jason Cochran, is a good friend and former collegaue. On a recent trip to London, I brought six London guidebooks; we ended up fighting with my in-laws each day on who was going to get to carry the Pauline Frommer's book since it was so much more useful than any of the others.
- Lonely Planet - Probably the world's most popular guidebook series at the moment, but about to take a big fall. Originally, LP was focused on the budget market and designed for backpackers who wanted an overview of absolutely everything they needed to know to travel a particular country. It offered good coverage of all the travel basics, but little in the way of in-depth reading or understanding. Info was cursory at best, with particularly light-weight coverage of sights and culture. Sadly, in 2004 they made two major missteps. First, they redesigned most of the books to appeal to a more mid-scale audience (now, regular LP are middle priced for middle aged travelers with middle class incomes; LP's "Shoestring" series still serves the budget backpacker crowd). Second and more important, a business decision forced out almost all their best writers in order to hire more inexpensive updaters. Quality will doubtless soon suffer. With such popularity, they often suffer from the same crowd mentality as do Rick Steves and Let's Go.
- Companion Guides - Brilliant, old-fashioned, literary guides that are almost like getting a crash college course in art, history, and local culture from some charmingly erudite professor (like a Blue Guide, but with loads more character and not as encyclopedic). However, I often don't have the time to take their leisurely, day-long walks through each neighborhood, which is how they organize all the information. Also, the latest editions (after a long out-of-print hiatus) have, for some bizarre reason, been printed on thick, heavy paper stock in a large trim size when what you rally want out of a travel book—especially one designed to be carried around on every walk—is something as small and light as you can make it.
One final note: the author of any book can make a world of difference . For example, you'll notice Frommer's falls into my second tier of choices for my own travels, while Rough Guides and National Geographic are among my first choices.
However, on a recent trip to Hong Kong, I discovered that the Frommer's Hong Kong was far superior and more up-to-date than either the Rough Guide, Nat. Geo. book, or Lonely Planet I also had with me.
(This realization also came as a relief to me, since the Frommer's book happens to be written by yet a friend of mine and I knew I'd have to tell her what I thought of it—but even if Beth weren't a buddy, I'd still heartily recommend her book over any of the others.)
- Except on rare occasions, since 2005 I no longer write print travel guides; just my websites.
- Even when I did write guidebooks, I never received a single penny in royalties on any of my books—"royalties" are the percentage of each sale that an author would normally receive in most parts of the publishing industry; however, that is not how most guidebook publishers operate these days.
What I mean to say is that I neither have, nor have ever had, a vested interest in anyone buying these things.
However, I did work hard on them, and thought they were pretty good, and it was nice to see folks carrying them around.
Also, I should point out that the information on this very page once got me fired from my first, and main, guidebook writing gig.
I used to write a lot of Frommer's guidebooks, until the editorial director noticed that, on thsi page, I placed their guides under my personal second tier of books that I use. They complained that I was calling them a "second tier series." Not at all, I pointed out. Frommer's is a first-tier series—one of the best out there. They simply are not aimed at my kind of traveler. I am not the intended audience. I, personally, prefer mom-and-pop B&Bs, cheap locals' trattorie, and smaller towns over four-star hotels, fancier restaurants, and larger cities and popular tourist destinations. While Frommer's books do provide some of that first kind of travel information, they tend to favor the latter kind. Hence they are not my first choice. I favor books that focus more on off-beat travel, with more background and history and local flavor.
Well, they say in journalism if you are angering the powers that be, you must be doing something right, so I guess I have that going for me.