The travel sections of major bookstores are overflowing with travel guidebooks tailored to all tastes. Selecting the right guide can make the difference between a successful and a disastrous trip. There are a few simple things to look for, and with a little care, you'll get the guidebook that is right for you.
- Consider the guidebook series. Although every series has its good and bad titles, the approach is generally consistent. Fodor's and Frommer's cater to middle and upper class travelers, while Let's Go, Lonely Planet, and Rough Guides serve those with less money and more time. Avalon Travel puts out the user-friendly Moon Handbooks series plus the popular Rick Steves guides, while TimeOut produces some very detailed city guides. The DK Eyewitness Travel, Insight, and Odyssey Guides series are strong on color photography and cultural information but weak on practical details.
- Flip through the photos. Lavish color photography definitely helps to sell guidebooks but the pictures may be of limited use in planning your trip. A better approach might be to visit your public library and check out a stack of coffee table books to get an idea of where you want to go. You can often obtain free color brochures from tourism promotion offices and travel agencies.
- Know what you want to do. Check the guide's listings of any sporting activities you may wish to pursue. If history, culture, or nature is important to you, make sure the guidebook provides adequate coverage. If you're hoping to get off the beaten tourist track, look to see if the guidebook tells you how. Your travel plans will determine whether you buy a city, single country, or multiple country guide. I often dismember heavy continental guidebooks so I only have to carry the sections I'll actually be using every day.
- Decide whether the format is easy to use. Is the information easily accessible or do you get lost in the detail? Is the layout pleasing and the typeface easy to read? Does the publisher use bold typeface to draw your eye to what is really important? Is there an index? Look for specific itineraries and coded lists of local highlights.
- Examine the maps closely. Does the guide have adequate city and area maps? Many guidebook series including Fodor's, Frommer's, Let's Go, and Rough Guides are surprisingly poor on maps. Lonely Planet guidebooks contain an abundance of maps but the typeface is so small and the map keys so complex you'd be well advised to make enlarged photocopies before leaving home. The maps in Moon Handbooks have a larger typeface and are generally easier to use.
- Compare the accommodations listings in different books. If you're traveling independently, you'll want to know exactly how much your hotel rooms are going to cost. Frommers, Let's Go, Moon, and Lonely Planet all quote exact prices, while Fodor's and Rough Guides rely on broad price ranges, which are less helpful. Make sure your budget category is adequately covered. You should also look at the restaurant listings, although these are less important than the hotels.
- Study the imprint page. This technical page at the very front or back of the book will tell you when the book was published and who owns the copyright. The publication date is important, although you should understand that the information will be a year old before the guide even reaches the bookstore shelves. A guide is only a guide. These days the publisher usually owns the copyright, although the Moon Handbooks series is still author-owned. Author voice is important and Lonely Planet has sacrificed quality by contracting writers for hire to research their guides.
- Disregard the price of the book. A trip to Europe, Asia, or the South Pacific will cost you thousands of dollars, and in comparison, the $20 price of a guidebook is negligible. Buy your guidebook well in advance so you can refer to it during the planning stages. Airports and your destination are the worst places to buy a guidebook.
Planning a trip is half the fun, so surf the web for free information. Be aware, however, that the Internet is no substitute for a printed guidebook, as much of what you'll find online is paid advertising or hobby sites. Neither will tell you the whole story, as a good travel guidebook should. Now that you know what to look for, visit the travel section of your local bookstore to get a feel for the various series. Google Books and some of the publisher websites allow you to browse through travel guidebooks online. After you've done your homework, you'll probably make the right choice and your trip will be a success.