Most useful guidebooks

This item appears on page 43 of the October 2009 issue.

ITN asked, “When you’re planning for a trip, which guidebook publisher do you look to for information and why?” Several responses were printed last month. If you have something to add, 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). Along with naming the guidebook and publisher, include approximately when you took the corresponding trip and where. ITN does not cover destinations in the United States.

My husband, John, and I have traveled to seven continents and more than 200 countries (per the Travelers’ Century Club list) over 40 years. Our philosophy is the more trips we do as independent travelers, the more trips we can take. We have traveled with tour companies, too, of course. Reading before a trip is essential to a rewarding experience, so the selection of travel books is very important to us.

Since we are retired and have always been budget travelers (as long as it is comfortable), our travel costs mesh best with the Frommer’s guides. Their ratings for sights and the recommendations on lodgings match our expectations well.

A bit of advice — go to the restaurants next door to ones listed in the guide. It seems that restaurants once touted in Frommer’s go down in quality and up in price, so restaurants nearby may be a better deal because they must compete with the one in the book.

Unfortunately, Frommer’s books concentrate on the more populous cities and commonly traveled sites. Because we like to go to the less-traveled places, Lonely Planet guidebooks are excellent for us when no Frommer’s is available. Their descriptions of main towns and main sights are generally accurate.

We frequent the rooms listed in Lonely Planet as mid-range; these have always satisfied with their cleanliness and comfort, even if they are sometimes stark.

One drawback in Lonely Planet — several marvelous museums get short shrift in their books.

Another drawback is they provide information on many small towns instead of concentrating on the more notable sights. This probably is good for backpackers who travel modest distances each day, but it is not valuable for us.

For planning and executing trips in Europe, the best guidebooks, by far, are the Michelin Green Guides. Their ratings of “worth a trip,” “worth a detour” and “interesting” are right on. The principal sights are marked on maps, and driving tours are suggested. The descriptions of museums and the most important items in their collections are marvelous.

Frequently, we have used Fodor’s books for higher-end vacations. Sometimes the writers appear to be truly snooty, but they do include considerable information on places of interest.

For a trip to the Azores in April ’09, we used Bradt and Globetrotter’s “Travel Pack” guides, both of which we have used before. The Bradt guide has excellent touring information, especially if you’re driving. The Globetrotter has beautiful pictures so you can get a sense of what you will be seeing.

We always carry torn-out pages or copies of relevant pages of several books while on a trip. Our practice and advice is to buy at least three travel books for any tour. Guidebooks are definitely the cheapest part of the trip and add immeasurably to great traveling.

Linda Huetinck
Alhambra, CA

I am partial to anything by Arthur Frommer. The main attraction, for me, are his lists: ‘If you have one day, then do this’ and ‘If you have two days, do everything from Day One plus the following,’ etc. This feature certainly highlights the most important sights in each location, making sure you don’t inadvertently overlook a really great jewel. Well, almost. What I want to see might not be what you want to see.

I do feel he factors in way too much time for sitting in cafés and having coffee or wine, but I suppose he’s trying to appeal to everyone’s pace.

His hotel suggestions cover a broad spectrum, so you can make a choice in keeping with your budget.

And, yes, I do take the guidebook along — this one and one from the DK Eyewitness series.

Gail Sirna
Rochester, MI

People travel for different reasons and require different guidebooks to fulfill those desires.

Hands down, the Blue Guides (not to be confused with the “Green Guides” or “Red Guides” published by a different company, Michelin) are the best guidebooks on the market, for us. Of all the guidebooks available, they have the most comprehensive and reliable coverage of history, art, architecture, music and culture. We find them indispensable. That said, we could never begin researching our travel plans from Blue Guides because they are just too extensive; I end up wanting everything.

Wherever possible, we also seek out the wonderful Companion Guides series, but they often are out of print and difficult to find and cover areas of Western Europe only. The writing is tops, however, and, unlike the Blue Guides (which can sound a tad dull after a while), the Companion Guides make for good reading.

We used Michelin Green Guides in France and liked the content but not the alphabetical arrangement. I simply don’t think alphabetically but geographically.

Blue Guides, Companion Guides and Michelins (except on rare occasions) are not helpful for hotels, restaurants, hiking and local transportation and are not intended to be. They must be supplemented by a more generalist guide.

Our strategy used to be to initially browse the Frommer’s Complete guides for general, quick overviews. They at least cover the high points, give a fair overview of an area, suggest itineraries and include both “finds” and “overrated” categories for hotels and restaurants.

Fodor’s is simply too shallow to bother with. Anyone can find a Four Seasons hotel, and I don’t need Fodor’s to tell me where to spend a lot of money.

I like the photographs and sketches in the DK Eyewitness Travel Guides and Knopf Guides but would never take one on a trip. The glossy paper is simply too heavy to carry. Besides, the hotel and restaurant recommendations are high-end, mainstream and obvious.

I have tried to warm up to the Rick Steves books because I like his encouraging “can do” philosophy. Steves fits a needed niche, but his books are for quick tours of high points (lots of high-energy racing). They’re more idiosyncratic than Frommer’s but still have a “best of” mentality.

What I object to with Frommer’s, Fodor’s, Eyewitness and Steves’ is that they filter heavily. Steves is a great spokesperson for the travel industry, but I became turned off when he said that Thessaloniki has nothing to offer and one should just move on through. Really? I don’t think so!

In more recent years, we have gradually shifted our initial research along the path of more adventuresome guidebooks, from Let’s Go to Lonely Planet to Rough Guide. In the old days, our rule of thumb was when Frommer’s and Let’s Go selected the same hotel or restaurant, pounce. Today, Rough Guides are our generally preferred basic planning tool, supplemented, of course, by Blue Guides.

(In addition to reading up on history, art and architecture, we like to read fiction about the country we visit and also view films — films produced by the country, films set in that country and/or documentaries. Before we went to Sicily in 1988, I read “The Leopard” by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa and watched the film.)

Both Lonely Planet and The Rough Guide are geared for the independent traveler, and both are helpful for getting in and out of an area and getting around in a city. Each also gives a range of accommodation options, with LP’s seemingly on the lower end (more hostels, train station region) than RG’s.

Both try for interesting, more indigenous restaurants, with RG getting our preferential nod. Both include credible historical background but are skimpy on fine arts performances — something that can be picked up on the Internet. RG has more and better maps, but both give good coverage to clubs and cautions.

As an experiment, in 1997 we used the Rough Guide for Moscow and Lonely Planet for St. Petersburg. The RG was so vastly superior to LP that I wrote to the LP publishers; a representative agreed that it was not a good product. But, and this is key, it all depends on the author, not necessarily the publisher.

Tom Brosnahan’s LP guide to Turkey is the best thing going for that country (added to the Blue Guides); I used it in 1993, 1995, 1999 and 2005. And Lonely Planet is the only guide that does a credible job on Western Europe, Russia and India as whole entities.

For South America, we have high regard for the Footprint guides. We used the Footprint guide to Peru in August-September ’08 and found it excellent and now are in the process of transferring from Rough Guide to Footprint wherever possible. I purchased the “Footprints South America”; most individual guidebooks show only how to get into a country, but this one shows how to get OUT of a country and into another.

Sandra Molyneaux
Columbus, OH

We have found that people tend to be passionate about their guidebook choices, and the particular type of travel one does plays a huge role in guidebook selection. My husband, Clyde, and I travel independently, planning our trips extensively and using as many sources as we can get our hands on to create our own itineraries.

Prior to each trip, we work with a local agent at our destination who arranges for us domestic flights, hotels and a car and driver. We really can’t abide guide-speak and would rather poke about on our own, so guidebooks with good site information are essential. We try to find the things that interest us and avoid missing anything essential. We prefer the joy of discovery on our own, though, and if we miss something, so be it.

For our last three trips to India (2004-2007), we primarily used Lonely Planet’s “North India” and “South India” guidebooks and Footprint – Travel Guides’ “India” for information on hotels and nearby restaurants.

Some travelers find the format of Footprint guides annoying, with the hotel/restaurant/bank/transport information grouped together at the end of each subsection, but, once you know where to find it, there is some information in Footprint not found in Lonely Planet.

When it comes to information on specific sights, we prefer Footprint. We’ve never found our “India” Footprint guide to have misinformation, though it does have plenty of typos. Lonely Planet has sometimes been just plain wrong, but information does change.

For the South, the Blue Guides’ “Southern India” is fabulous for architectural information.

For photos and visuals, the DK Eyewitness “India” guide is superb. These photos are also useful on the road; you can point to a picture and ask on the street, “Where?”

Maps are always tricky (inaccurate) in guidebooks. They tend to show the larger roads and leave out all the side roads and alleys, making it look quite different from reality. Here, Eyewitness’ walking-tour drawings are quite interesting: they actually show all the buildings you’ll encounter as you walk. (The walking tours occasionally listed in Fodor guides sometimes include a site found in no other books, but the accompanying maps are impossible.)

We buy duplicate, inexpensive, used copies of all of the books we need, one for reference and one to cut up since we take only the relevant sections. However, I do pack two complete books — Lonely Planet’s “Healthy Travel: Asia and India” and “The Pocket Doctor: A Passport to Healthy Travel” by Stephen Bezruchka (Mountaineers Books) — both excellent resources when you can’t bring your own physician with you.

Bottom line — with guidebooks, there is no “one size fits all.”

Jane B. Holt
Hinesburg, VT

I use a variety of guidebooks, depending on the length and type of trip planned: independent travel or group tour. These are my favorites.

DK Eyewitness Travel Guides — I love their city guides and take them along when staying in one city for a week or longer. The illustrations and museum schematics are wonderful. DK Eyewitness Top Ten Travel Guides, each with the top 10 choices of what to do, are also good for city stays as they are city-specific.

Bradt Travel Guides — These usually cover off-the-beaten-path destinations. You can always borrow someone’s Lonely Planet or Footprint guide while on tour, but it is the rare person who carries a Bradt guide. Usually, they make interesting reading, as they do not follow a formula/recipe but reflect the personality of the author.

Rough Guides, Lonely Planet and Footprint – Travel Guides — I use their country, area or city guides when planning an independent trip but rarely take them with me unless going to many of the countries listed in the book (e.g., Lonely Planet’s “West Africa”).

Blue Guides — These are excellent for diligent, intensive museum-going travel in places like London, Rome, Florence, Berlin, etc. Unfortunately, they do not update their titles that often.

Insight Guides — I find them wonderful for pre- and post-trip background reading, but they’re printed on such high-quality paper, they are usually too heavy to take along.

I generally stay away from buying guides to whole countries (e.g., Lonely Planet’s “India”), preferring in-depth city guides (Lonely Planet’s “Delhi”) or area guides (“Northern India”).

If I’m going on a tour and need just the highlight information on various cities, I use the public library and photocopy the necessary pages. If I have an older edition of a book and don’t mind cannibalizing it, I just rip out and restaple the pertinent sections and take those along.

I once had my guidebooks stolen at the beginning of a trip, as they were in the unlocked, outside pocket of a carry-on, and that taught me to keep the books in the locked section of my luggage.

Esther Perica
Arlington Heights, IL

For trip preparation, I enjoy reading an Insight Guide, if there’s a relatively recent one for my destination. These guides provide more background information than other guidebook series, and their discussions of destinations help me decide how to design my own itinerary or select from group tour itineraries.

The photographs are fine, however Insight Guides are too bulky and heavy to carry on a trip, plus they’re poor on practical details — where to eat and sleep, how to get from point A to point B, etc.

More often than not, I carry a Lonely Planet (unless the corresponding Bradt Travel Guide or Rough Guide is much more current) for two reasons: they’re compact (well, most of them are), and their maps of cities and towns are unmatched. Even if there’s an occasional error in the maps, Lonely Planet guidebooks include city and town maps that I often can’t find anywhere else.

Stan Bach
Washington, DC

My wife, Karin, who does all our independent travel planning, research and bookings, uses several guidebooks, depending on the area we are planning to travel in. However, for Europe she always uses Rick Steves’ books to get facts and details on transportation, museum openings, where to get various tickets, etc.

His books are very up-to-date and easy to follow and give you travel details like no other writer does.

She does not use his books on deciding where to go, where to stay or which museums to visit. These are decisions which, after extensive research, we make independently.

Wolfgang Kutter
Laguna Woods, CA

My husband, Dick, and I have used many guidebooks over the years, but we always end up using Rick Steves’ as the final word. The information has always proved accurate and in some cases goes beyond the call of duty.

As an example, we arrived in Montreux, Switzerland, by train in 2008 and wanted to visit the Château de Chillon but had no idea how to get to there, so we whipped out the Steves book and there on page 219 was the heading “Getting to Château de Chillon” with detailed instructions. It even told how much the fare would be and how to purchase tickets on the bus.

Using the Rick Steves’ guidebooks to select a place to stay has also proved successful and we’ve never been disappointed. In fact, in some cases we have been so well served that the selection has made our trip. (This was the case in Vienna when we stayed at Pension Aviano, as suggested in “Rick Steves’ Germany/Austria 2007.”)

So even though we do use other guidebooks for research, such as the DK Eyewitness Travel Guide series and occasionally Lonely Planet, we always pack the Rick Steves books in our day bags.

Colette Clark
Vallejo, CA

I love the Arthur Frommer guidebooks. I began using them in 1965 when I took a trip to Japan with “Japan on $5 a Day.” I followed many of the suggestions and had a marvelous time.

I also loved, in 2003 and 2006, Frommer’s “Road Atlas Ireland” and his one for Britain (used again in July ’09). When we rent a car, I navigate while my husband drives, and these maps are very extensive, even showing all the minor unmarked roads.

Occasionally, I purchase another guidebook besides Frommer’s and read them both, but Frommer’s is always the one I get the most out of and end up using while I travel.

I read the guidebooks extensively before I go and also take them with me. I still have them all; they are wonderful reminders of my trips because they are underlined and marked up with all of the places we visited.

Judi Purcell
Pensacola Beach, FL

In case you were wondering, the travel guide mentioned and used most often by those who wrote in was Lonely Planet, with a significant lead. Tied for second was DK Eyewitness Travel Guides and Fodor’s. And not so close behind but in a 3-way tie were Frommer’s, The Rough Guide and Rick Steves’.