Most Useful Guidebooks

When you’re planning for a trip, which brand of guidebook do you look to for information and why? Which series has most successfully supplied the information you find most helpful for your type of travel? Do you use the guidebooks of one particular company for the planning stage and yet carry a different publisher’s book while on the trip? Are some book series more reliable for certain parts of the world than others? Along with naming the brand of guidebook and publisher, please include approximately when you took the corresponding trip and where.

ITN asked the above questions a few months ago, and responses are shown below, with more to appear next month. Care to join in? Write to Most Useful Guidebooks, c/o ITN, 2116 28th St., Sacramento, CA 95818, or e-mail (include the address at which you receive ITN). ITN does not cover destinations in the United States.

When I’m preparing for a trip, my first source book is always a DK Eyewitness Travel Guide. The series’ motto is “The guides that show you what others only tell you,” and each book is slick, glossy and filled with color prints. It’s heavy — not a book you would necessarily take in your daypack, but the info given is well worth the price, which can be as much as $30.

Each guide includes the history of the country plus information on the people, indigenous peoples, foods, arts and customs. There are maps plus information on what to see, where to stay and where and what to eat, all in living color.

This is a book to read at home on a cold winter night when you’re planning your next adventure to some warm, sunny and exotic place. It’s definitely a book you will keep on your bookshelf for future reference. I last used a DK guide when planning a trip to Costa Rica with 13-year-old granddaughters in 2009.

Second-best are the Lonely Planet guides, which offer a great selection of hotels, motels, B&Bs and cheap sleeps and eats. These books are great for do-it-yourselfers, independent travelers and those with an adventurous sprit.

Another heavy book, each Lonely Planet has some maps and a few scenic color pictures. I like to take out the pages I need or copy them and leave the rest at home. I last used LP for many trips to Spain and Portugal in 2007 and 2008.

Third is a unique and helpful guide series, “Rick Steves’ Europe Through the Backdoor.” Rick tells it like it is. If he says don’t go there or stay there, then don’t. Rick will lead you by the hand out your hotel door and step by step wherever you want to go.

The Steves books pack easy. They have great detailed hand-drawn maps of cities, villages and on and on. I last used Rick’s books for Spain and Portugal.

Camille Alden
Ridgecrest, CA

When we travel without a tour group, arranging travel by ourselves, we use two series of travel guides.

We use Lonely Planet for the country’s history plus descriptions and locations of sights, restaurants and hotels.

We use DK Eyewitness Travel Guides for the colorful maps and charts. Each is also nicely arranged in sections that make it easy to decide if an area is worth stopping at.

When traveling with a tour group, we use the DK Eyewitness book as a supplement to the tour’s brochures. The DK book also makes a great souvenir and reference after a trip; it’s like hundreds of postcards.

Meinhard & Seija Gerdes
Grayslake, IL

After trying a number of guidebooks over the years as my wife and I traveled to 75 countries, I settled on Fodor’s as the best for planning the trip — sightseeing, lodging and costs. I take it along as a guide to the sights; it tells how to get to them plus open admission costs, open hours, etc.

For major museums, such as those in Rome and London, I like DK Eyewitness Travel Guides, which as floor-by-floor guides are unsurpassed.

Kent Shamblin
Beaver Bay, MN

I am an older, female, solo traveler with a preference for rail transport, and I travel on a budget. I put guidebooks into three categories.

1. How to travel — Here I recommend “The Practical Nomad: How to Travel Around the World” by Edward Hasbrouck; Rick Steves’ “Europe Through the Back Door”; Lonely Planet’s “Read This First” series, and The Rough Guide’s “First Time to…” series. I’ve found all of these useful at various times, and I still reread Hasbrouck’s book.

2. Where to travel — These are the picture guidebooks that I use to help decide where to go. I particularly like Insight Guides, Knopf Guides and Fodor’s “Exploring” series.

3. Logistics — To plan a trip, I use several books but usually take only part of one, or maybe two, with me. While I check Fodor’s “Gold Guides,” Frommer’s, Rough Guide, Rick Steves’ and “Alastair Sawday’s Special Places to Stay” series for hotel and restaurant recommendations, I usually rely most on Lonely Planet, sometimes with the addition of a Footprint travel guide (notably, for “India” in 2001).

I do like Pauline Frommer’s new “Spend Less, See More” series for Paris and London (2008 and 2009 visits), as it includes some less- well-known lodging and sightseeing options, but the series has limited coverage.

While I would always rely on Lonely Planet for East and South Asia, I have found Bradt Travel Guides better for some areas, notably Ukraine (2006), where LP gave only Ukrainian language help while Russian is required in some areas. In 2004 I used the “Trans-Siberian Handbook” by Bryn Thomas in preference to LP as it had a longer pedigree and the binding for the LP book made it hard to use.

For Budapest and Vienna in 2007 and Italy in 2008, I found Fodor’s and Frommer’s maps almost useless, and Fodor’s habit of using the local language for maps and index listings was annoying.

I particularly like the new system where you can buy and download chapters of the Lonely Planet guides online and just print off the pages you want (in a bigger font!).

Kathy Wilhelm
Cary, NC

My wife, Mary, and I travel extensively internationally and I do the planning. We prefer visits of four to six weeks in a location so we can really get to know the place and the people as much as a visitor can do.

Luxury, mid-range and “grass roots” are levels of travel we have tried, but we enjoy “grass roots” most because we’re spending our money as close to “local” as possible plus we can connect more with locals, understand some of the basic issues of the location and have more FUN. We are also very active and enjoy challenges along the way.

The reason I am saying all of this is I think your selection of a guidebook needs first to take into account your “style” of travel. Over the years I have tried almost every major guidebook and some minor ones. Lonely Planet guidebooks are, BY FAR, my favorite. Why do I prefer them?

• I go to the bookstore and glance at the “Highlights” sections of Lonely Planet books on our major destination and make a few notes on “must” highlights. Once we decide on the exact countries we will visit, I then buy my working copies of Lonely Planet.

• Each has a full range of facts, information, sights, transportation and accommodation. With Lonely Planet I can choose any level at any specific location with confidence. I then fill in the holes and confirm the needed details using the Internet.

• Each makes a great companion during the trip. While I may “skinny” down the thick book to just the sections on locations we decide to visit, it facilitates last-minute changes and provides the facts I did not know I needed to know before I needed to know them. (Got that?)

• Lonely Planet fits our style. We can travel independently or in a small group and have enough information to maximize our enjoyment and deal with any needs during the trip.

Just to supplement the information, I review a couple of other guidebooks (my normal is Fodor’s) to see if they have any other great suggestions, making notes as needed.

Kerry Brock
Santa Fe, NM

After deciding where to go, I select three or four places of interest and compare guidebooks’ descriptions of each. Having lesser-known places of interest usually distinguishes the more detailed guide. On any given trip, we look for off-the-beaten-path tips.

Several trips required more than one guidebook, as a single guide did not adequately describe our areas of interest. Lonely Planet, Rough Guide and Moon seem to provide greater in-depth information.

Traveling with only carry-on luggage does not allow hauling a guidebook. Guidebooks for a 31-day trip to India and Nepal weighed a total of three pounds one ounce and totaled 1,865 pages, yet fewer than 200 pages pertained to our travel locations. Occasionally, we have cut out pages and left a guide at home.

For that February ’09 guided trip to India and Nepal we used “The Rough Guide to India” and Lonely Planet’s “Nepal.” For independent travel with a guide to Zimbabwe, Botswana and South Africa in September ’08 we used “Fodor’s South Africa: With the Best Safari Destinations in Namibia & Botswana” and “Insight City Guide Cape Town.” On a guided tour to Antarctica in February ’07 we used “Moon Handbooks Buenos Aires.”

Fred Koehler
Orange, CA

I vote for Rick Steves’ books. In May ’09 my husband, Hy, and I were in France, where there were American tourists all over and 99% were carrying a Steves book, including me.

His books are well organized, and he gives useful tips that help independent travelers plan a trip and also get to a destination once in an area. He tells how to use local transportation, not only within the city limits but into and out of the city.

For sightseeing and finding restaurants and hotels, the individual maps of areas are invaluable. His suggestions for hotels and restaurants range from bottom to middle in price. His books include information on nightlife as well as for families traveling with kids.

He also has two guides for museums in Europe (“Rick Steves’ 2005 Best European City Walks and Museums” and “Rick Steves’ Mona Winks: Self-Guided Tours of Europe’s Top Museums”), describing the highlights.

I can’t imagine planning a trip or traveling without his books.

Marilyn Berger
Miami, FL

Answering this question was easy, for me. My favorites are those in the DK Eyewitness Travel Guide series. I have Dorling Kindersley (DK) books on most of Europe; they have them for countries and for individual cities.

I always consult them when I’m planning a trip or want information. I use them for research and take them with me. They also are good for helping remember some of the details after you return.

The DK books have many maps (country, cities and neighborhoods) with excellent detail. They also explain the places to see and what to do and give transportation information. The pictures are in color, giving you an idea of what you would find interesting, things that otherwise you might have overlooked.

They give good descriptions of several restaurants and hotels in many of the locations, along with price ranges.

I usually travel to Europe once a year, and since I got “hooked” on DK they are the only ones I buy.

Bea Emanuel
Minneapolis, MN

We’ve bought Frommer’s, Fodor’s, National Geographic Traveler and other more esoteric travel guides, but, by far, the ones which gave us the most and best information were the DK Eyewitness Travel Guides, which really do guide you as an eyewitness through their numerous photos in color, their walking tour suggestions, their tips and the lists of hotels, restaurants, must-see landmarks and neighborhoods, entertainment suggestions, etc.

The guidebook for China was too heavy for us to carry around, so I made photocopies of the pages depicting the cities and areas we would be visiting and left them behind as we went along.

We just bought the DK “Paris” guide and, even though we are more than familiar with the city, we learned quite a few details of its history we either never knew or forgot, plus we are now updated on the Métro system and the restaurants we can afford, given the euro/dollar ratio. This one we’ll carry with us.

Micette Klaw
Rio Rancho, NM

I recommend the following series.

Fodor’s — for accommodations and food. I’ve never had a bad recommendation from them, and I’ve used their books in Europe and Mexico.

Rough Guide — for cheeky, dead-on honest reporting about the countries they cover. They have terrific background information plus history and cultural information. Also, they give accurate information about which sites are rip-offs.

Lonely Planet — for general information for out-of-the-way places (e.g., Tunisia).

I avoid Frommer’s and Rick Steves’, finding them too touristy, too mainstream.

Joellyn Ross
Philadelphia, PA

My library of guidebooks consists of 300 titles from at least a dozen different publishers. My preferences depend on what part of the world I will be traveling in.

For Western and Central Europe I prefer using a combination of Michelin “Green Guides” and Fodor’s. The Green Guides offer well-researched, deep background information on each site and useful maps. The Fodor’s guides for these areas are good for identifying centrally located, mid-price hotels and restaurants. They offer ideas for walks, although their maps often lack detail and clarity.

For traveling in the USA I prefer Moon Handbooks.

For every place else in the world (Eastern Europe, the Middle East, Asia, Africa, Middle & South America, Australia, Antarctica and island nations) I take a Lonely Planet. I like the consistency of their format, the excellence of most of their maps and the way the maps in large cities drill down from a general metro area to specific areas and, sometimes, neighborhoods within an area.

I like the dimensions of their books, the color photos of key sites, the fonts they use and the graphical layout.

If you are into snob appeal, there is nothing like pulling out a Baedeker’s (old or new) as you indulge in lunch at an outdoor café and then reading aloud from it to your traveling companion.

Insight Guides, with their rich photography on nice, photo-stock paper, are good for pre- and post-trip reading, but you’ll need a Sherpa if you take them on a trip.

Avoid guidebooks that are more than five inches wide or more than one inch thick; the tallness (length) of the book is of less concern. I find that guides over one inch thick, no matter what their brand, are exceptionally clumsy to use when out on the street.

If you insist on buying monster guidebooks, such as ones that deal with the whole of China, India or Africa, you should be willing to use a razor blade to separate them into sections or countries. Place each section in a zip-lock bag until you use it.

If you can afford it, two guidebooks for the place you are visiting are usually better than one. Three can often be better than two, but four means you are reading too much, seeing too little and not traveling light.

After buying your favorite “brand-name series” guidebook for a destination, shop around on Amazon or at local bookstores for a guide by a writer who has not yet gotten into bed with a big publisher.

Most tourist information booths and some hotels offer free city maps. Upon arrival in a new city, always secure one of these freebies. Often, it will be more detailed than the city map in your guidebook.

When you return home, your guidebooks should not be in mint condition. They should have pen marks where you underlined or circled things plus a multitude of dog-ears or sticky-note tabs and food and beverage stains from the times you read them during a meal or bar stop.

James K. Downs
Longmont, CO