Travel Guidebooks

Travel guidebooks—which ones are best?

You’re starting to plan your upcoming vacation to Europe and find yourself looking at several different guidebooks. You notice that Rick Steves, Fodors and Frommers all provide guidebooks of your chosen destination, but which one should you buy? Which book would provide the most helpful information as you are travelling?

Throughout my travels I’ve used a lot of different guidebooks. I’ve found that purchasing two different travel guidebooks for a given location is valuable, because no one author or travel service provides everything. I describe my non-existent “perfect guidebook” below, and my likes and dislikes of each travel book (using as my reference hard copies rather than ebook versions).

My perfect travel guidebook would contain the following:

  • Lots of practical information. By “practical” I mean: How do I get around? For example, in a country like Croatia, understanding the ferry system is critical and complicated—the ferry websites are a nightmare. What should I know to avoid mistakes and how do I make my time efficient? Can I drive myself? Road conditions? What is the location like? Assume I’m a first-time visitor—what should I be prepared for? What do I need to know before I board the plane—what do you wish you knew before you went? Tell me the best tips for “bypassing the crowds.”
  • Get me out of the city. If it’s a guidebook on the UK, don’t spend half the book telling me about London.
  • Sites. Why should I go there? What does it look like? How do I get there? What are opening hours? Key historical or other interesting facts? Tell me about interesting “less discovered” spots that most tours bypass.
  • Hotels. A few pros and cons about listed hotels are helpful, especially related to cleanliness, location and availability of car parking.
  • Food. Don’t spend too much time on food. I can figure that out, and most of the time I will worry more about location convenience to where I am staying or going than special cuisine.
  • Language. I’ve never understood why most guidebooks insist on trying to teach me complicated phrases, the answers to which I wouldn’t understand anyway. Give me a few basic words, numbers 1-10, and a few common food items so I can figure out a menu, politely greet and thank people and purchase entry tickets in their own language.

Here are some of the more common travel guides and my thoughts about each:

Pros: DK Eyewitness Travel provides a very comprehensive review of a country or region. Great color pictures of locations. Excellent graphical depictions and explanations of key sites. I love the regional maps and references to locations. Whenever possible, I like to combine an Eyewitness book with another book that provides more detailed practical info.

Cons: Due to high quality printing, books are heavy to carry. Practical information (see my thoughts above) is limited.

Pros: Fodor’s is a pretty good compromise between DK Eyewitness’ comprehensiveness and the practical information of Rick Steves’. Good hotel information and recommendations. Decent restaurant recommendations.

Cons: Limited historical information for historical sites.

Pros: Rick Steves offers lightweight “newsprint” type of paper, so books are light and easy to carry. Good recommended walking tours and hand-drawn maps of sites, pointing out interesting features. Good practical information for sites listed. Always notes the local “Tourist Information” offices for further information upon arrival.

Cons: Not comprehensive. Information only covers locations Rick feels are important. If a town or site is not on Rick’s itinerary, then forget about it. For example, we found his book on Spain quite limited. Spain is a large country, with many interesting small towns and sites that are completely bypassed in Rick’s book.

Pros: Lonely Planet is also lightweight. I like the recommended travel itineraries for 1, 2 or 3 weeks, which help identify and prioritize key sites. Good hotel/hostel information. Good transportation information. Pretty good site historical and practical information about locations.

Cons: Few, if any pictures. Maps are small and less user-friendly.

Frommers has improved over the years. In the past, I was disappointed by the lack of pictures and specifics about many locations.

Pros: “Star system” for rating sites, helping to prioritize must-see locations.

Cons: Not comprehensive, some locations left out of the books.