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?