A Short Guide to Guidebooks

The thing about guidebooks is that you never know which ones are the best ones for you… each line has its own strengths and weaknesses, and of course people want different things from a guidebook so one that appeals to backpackers will likely not appeal to someone interested in a more luxurious experience.

So here is a little run-down on the big names, and my opinion on what they generally offer:

Lonely Planet: The granddaddy of the guidebook.  Some are really written for hardcore, pennies-a-day backpackers, while others are much more mainstream. Occasionally you’ll get one that is spectacularly out of date, which is why I always check on Amazon to see when it was published and what others think about it: the reviews there are generally in agreement, so I think its a good gauge. Also for some remote locations, this is pretty much the only book you’re gonna get.

Rough Guides: UK sensibilities with a budget eye. I love these books. Generally they have a good balance of cheap hostels and nicer hotels, and the accomodations they specifically recommend are in my experience pretty nice. Info on attractions and transportation are generally correct and the on-point. Overall, the Rough Guide point of view is closer to my own than Lonely Planet is, so more of these are on my bookshelf.

Time Out: These books are in a way geared towards locals as much as visitors, pointing you towards some lesser known but interesting restaurants, bars, etc. They do some very timely editions called “shortlist” which are very good — for instance the London 2010 Shortlist will tell you all sorts of things going on this year… which is great if you really want to find out what will be on at the museums or the theatre. They’re usually pretty small and excellent for carrying around. Too bad they don’t come for more cities.

Rick Steves: Have to admit, I love to hate Rick Steves. The reasons are numerous and I won’t bore you with them here, but the sad awful truth? These books are good. Real good. Thoughtful hotel listings, solid info on restaurants, useful tips about how to schedule your day and excellent local insider knowledge so you can get off the tourist path (only to run into others carrying his books).

Eyewitness Guides: These books are great for one thing: knowing what heck the place looks like. They are packed full of pictures, and maps that help get a sense of the neighborhoods and areas where you will be exploring, but that’s about it. The listings in the back are horribly terse and the pricing info is so vague as to be utterly useless. Oh, they also show you what the buses, police cars and money looks like, which if you’re a travel geek like me you’ll find quite fascinating.

Frommers & Fodors: I recently got a Frommer’s book for an upcoming trip to Sydney and now I remember why I rarely buy them. Its like the fast food of guidebooks. Bullet points, star ratings, tiny blurbs about different attractions and restaurants, and that’s about it. There is not much of an editorial voice, and nothing in the way of background or history… there is just not much there there.

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