A skeptic’s guide to travel guide books

I use guide books when I travel, but always selectively and with skepticism.  Why am I a skeptic?  Because many guide books are inaccurate and poorly updated.  Here’s a perfect example: for the past 18 years I’ve worked at the same museum, and throughout those 18 years customers have steadily approached our staff looking confused or angry, guide book in hand.  I know just what will happen next: the customer will open the guide and read a wildly inaccurate paragraph about the museum’s collection.  I’ve almost memorized this paragraph because it’s remained the same for the past 18 years.  The museum has contacted the guide book publisher with corrected information many times, and yet they continue to publish edition after edition with the same misleading description.

Given the probable inaccuracies in travel guides,  I recommend using them for their most helpful content: maps, walking tours and background information for your destination.  If you follow one piece of advice here let it be this: you don’t need to bring the entire guide book.  Since I live in a city with great libraries, I like to check out multiple guide books, photocopy the sections I want, and then return the books for the next traveling cheapskate to use.  It’s also quite acceptable (but more expensive) to buy travel guides and rip out the sections you need.  Once you’ve left your travel destination and moved on to the next town, toss the photocopies/ripped out pages into the nearest recycling bin.  Or perhaps a hybrid approach could work: bring one main guide book and photocopies from a few supplementary books.

A long browse in your local library or bookstore will give you an idea of the type of book that meets your needs.  Here’s my two cents about the usefulness of various travel publications:

Rick Steves Europe: these are the most up to date guidebooks available.  The books have practical information you need—like how to buy a ticket at the train station and the location of public restrooms.  The walking tours and museum guides are excellent.  Rick Steves has a great travel philosophy of traveling lower budget and visiting less-touristy destinations.  Ironically, the popularity of his books have transformed many formerly low budget and un-touristy European towns into pricey, crowded tourist-magnets.  (Seriously, if you ever want to feel like a lemming running off a cliff, walk around Florence with your trusty blue Rick Steves in hand).  I would ignore all Rick Steves restaurant recommendations, though he does give good advice about street food.  Also, there a plenty of wonderful places Rick Steves doesn’t cover.  For example, I’m currently planning a trip to Romania, which doesn’t exist in the Rick Steves travel world, not even on his website.  (I kind of feel like I graduated from toilet training whenever I travel someplace RS doesn’t cover).

Lonely Planet/ Let’s Go/ Rough Guides: all good resources for budget travelers, with an focus on students and hosteling.   The accommodation and restaurant recommendations are decent, though the books aren’t reliably updated.  I appreciate these guide’s focus on sustainable travel and emphasis on respecting local culture.

Blue Guides/National Geographic/Michelin Green Guides: excellent resources for cultural travelers.  Blue Guides in particular tend to be scholarly with wonderful information on architecture.  All three of the guides reliably cover off the beaten track destinations, however they don’t have much to offer in terms of practical information.

DK Eyewitness Travel Guides: do you like pictures?  These books have fantastic pictures.  DK books have wonderful, easy to read page layouts of sites, and wonderful cultural coverage. Regrettably, these guides are by far the heaviest on the market—therefore they are strictly in the category of “photocopy sections and return to the library.”  Information on practical matters almost non-existent.

Fodors/Frommers: chronically out of date guides for people who apparently live to do nothing but shop and stay at expensive hotels while traveling.  Avoid.

As a general rule of thumb, region specific guides are more helpful than country guides.  Guide to France?  Okay.  Guide to Normandy?  Better.  Guide books dedicated to a single city are a great choice for larger destinations.  Guides targeting special interests, like a foodie’s guide to eating local, are often quite helpful.  When it comes to guide books, what’s important to me is the mix–because when I’m tracking down that local cheese from a shop near a Romanesque church in a small French village, I’m going to need to know where to sleep, how to buy a bus ticket, and where to use to the bathroom.

How do you use travel guides?

bookandmap

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26 comments

  1. So, obviously I’m an RS junkie, but I do agree with you on his specific restaurant recommendations. Although I do think his restaurant guidance in general (don’t eat in places with menus in 12 languages, avoid restaurants around tourist sites, find a place with local clientele and the menu written on a chalkboard) is helpful.

    When we went to Iceland (a non-RS destination), I used the Lonely Planet guide and thought it was decent at best. I’m not sure if I’ve had too much of the RS kool-aid, but I absolutely hated the layout. For that trip, we relied mostly on Trip Advisor and recommendations from our B&B host.

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    1. You’re right Erin–the RS guidance on restaurants is legit, if not his actual choices. Mostly I eat street food anyway. Lucky you going to Iceland! I haven’t been there yet, but when I’m ready to go I’ll hit you up for some recs.

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      1. We flew IcelandAir from DC and stayed in Reykjavik for 2 days before going on to London, so it was only a quick stopover. I want to go back and explore further because every photo I’ve ever seen of the country is absolutely stunning!

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  2. We love the DK series. Theyre heavy.
    We use our iPad and scan stuff.

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    1. Those DK books are awesome–esp. when they do the diagrams of buildings showing the design elements and arts are located. I still don’t own a scanner, but that sounds like a handy method.

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  3. * I used to tear out pages from LP and RG or photocopy or print things from books and magazines. * We often rent cars and travel out from a central spot or around a circuit. The best thing to have on that type of trip is a decent map, and a willingness to ask people on the street for directions and recommendations.
    * Lately, I’ve done research online, printed some pages, made lists of recommended restaurants and carried my iPad. I’ve found enough wifi to locate and book accommodations – even in Peru in 2009 – though one place we stayed was horrid.
    * I’d never heard of Rick Steves! Must check him out.
    * We usually travel in the off season, so rarely book in advance.

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    1. I admire your boldness in not booking in advance. I travel off season too, but I’m so OCD I’ve got to know exactly where I’m going to be sleeping.

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  4. Great article. I used to make my own travel guide and discard the pages as I went along as you recommend. These days, I just take a couple guides on my Kindle. I agree about the Rick Steves guidebooks. Ignore the restaurants. He also typically picks hotels near train stations, areas which, as a single woman traveling alone, I tend to avoid at night. There are so many guidebooks and travel websites these days that a lot of outdated information is repeated. I think bad information gets copied and reworded without checking the accuracy.

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    1. Thanks Marie. So with the Kindle do you use the highlighting and bookmarking function? I really want to use the Kindle for traveling, but I have a strong need to make notes and highlight text.

      I often stay by the train station, but it’s true these can be sketchy areas. I’m not traveling alone so that helps.

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      1. I admit I am lazy and don’t bookmark on the Kindle, I just flip through the pages. 🙂 Some guides are now selling Kindle versions of just a section of a larger book. They can be okay, depending on what you need. I purchased a short Rick Steves’ book that covered a walking tour for a specific part of Istanbul but I can’t really read the map on the Kindle. I also bought a 3-Day Guide to Istanbul. It is okay but doesn’t have a lot of content. It includes numerous links to web pages but I don’t have a data plan for my Kindle so they won’t help much while I am traveling.

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  5. I definitely am with you on feeling I graduated potty training when I go somewhere out of Rick’s realm: that’s how I felt when living in Bologna last semester which is completely neglected in his Italy book. Great advice on the guidebooks!

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    1. Oh man–you were living in Bologna???!!! If I lived there I’d be so fat–the food is sensational!

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      1. I know! It’s all so incredible and fresh there, but people stay so thin because the city is so walkable.

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  6. Oh wow, I love this post! I have a number of DK travel guides, and they’re really heavy, so it was great to learn that (fairly) reliable alternatives exist, each with different strengths. The last bit about choosing region-specific guides actually made me do a double-take, like, ‘I’ve thought of that before–but never so concisely!’ (If that makes sense???) Thank you!

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    1. Thank you so much Katie, I’m glad I could help!

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  7. Absolutely true. I have heard about people who got completely lost in cities when relying solely on a guide-book. However they are realy nice to orientate. I always check things online and like to get info from more recent blog posts and review, because you know they are at least up to date. However, a guidebook is easy when you don’t have easy internet access and perhaps some of the prices or collections have changed, but the basic idea remains.

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    1. Very smart of you to check things online–I like recent blog post too, but of course I’m biased ; )

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  8. Reblogged this on BGK Globe.

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  9. Thanks for this handy comparison/summary! I haven’t used travel guides in years – the internet is my travel planner and will (almost) always be up-to-date. With that being said, I would consider using travel guides more often if there were more pictures in it. Is there any guide book with practical information AND nice, quality photos accompanying each section/entry?

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    1. Thanks for reading, ifollowislands. BTW I love your site–you make me want to go to Crete right this second!

      I haven’t found a guide that has both quality pictures and practical information unfortunately. If you ever discover one, please give me a shout.

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      1. Oh, thanks so much for this lovely comment – made my day! Crete is a real stunner and hopefully I can go back soon. I’ll keep my eyes peeled and let you know, but so far I’ve found good quality travel blogs to be the best source. Someone should make a book out them 😉

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  10. I use your blog to formulate my travel philosophy and would use your recommendations if I went to the places you write about. I don’t even have to photo copy it. Thanks for the advice.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Sound advice! I’m more of a tear-out-the-pages kind of guy, though on longer trips I have chucked the guidebooks altogether.

    I don’t use Rick Steves’s guides but I have read his latest book and actually blogged recently about one of my own disagreements with him over the value of travel in improving one’s country. Drop by bosmosis.wordpress if you have the incliniation. Cheers!

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  12. I always thought Fodors/Frommers seemed pretty elitist, glad it isn’t just me! Great tip on the photocopying just the portions you actually need – especially helpful if you’re trying to travel light!

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    1. What Fodors/Frommers thinks is budget travel is kind of crazy–like a 150 euro room is supposed to be the budget option?!?!?!

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