Travel Tips: My Favourite Guidebooks

I love guidebooks. I rarely leave the library without two or three (or sometimes 10 or 20) in my bag. When we were first married, my husband was a bit puzzled by the wide variety of guidebooks that passed through our house. He would look at my stack of reading material with a perplexed expression and ask, “Do you really want to go to Ethiopia?” Fortunately he’s learned over the years and the sight of me perusing a copy of Lonely Planet’s Nunavut guidebook no longer makes him worried that he’s going to need a new parka. My usual stash of library guidebooks tends to fall into three categories; A) Places we’re planning to visit soon, B) Places I plan to visit someday but don’t know when, and C) Places I just find interesting, AKA Everywhere Else.

But not all guidebooks are created equal. There is a guide for every style and budget of travel and everyone has their own personal favourite. Over the years my tastes have changed a bit and I’ve moved from a preference for budget, backpacker style books to more mainstream, family friendly guides. But these three have remained amongst my top choices.

1) Rick Steves

When my brother and I were planning our first trip to Europe in 1995, I had no clue what to bring. We were planning to visit six countries in three weeks and nothing seemed to work for this trip. Guides that included all of Europe had huge sections on countries we weren’t even seeing. Individual country books seemed like overkill when all we planned to do was spend three days in the capitol and move on. Then at an outdoors store my brother asked me what I thought about a book called “2 to 22 days in Europe”. My first thought was “well, that’s a stupid name.” But as I read the book, I realized it was completely different from all the others. It focused on the highlights of each country and was designed for travellers who only had two or three weeks and wanted to see the best that the continent had to offer. Instead of huge lists of every possible sight you could see in a city, his guidebook said, “If you have one day, see this. If you have two, add this. For three days, try this or this”, etc. And his books were filled with practical bits of advice that could only be gathered by someone who had actually been there. For example, instead of just stating that to get to Palace X you should take the metro line A, his books would tell you that when you take metro line A you need to pay close attention to the final destination of the train because the line splits just before the palace and if you get on the wrong one you could find yourself in a commuter suburb instead of your intended destination. Seems like obvious info to include in a guidebook, but you’d be amazed at how many don’t bother.

In the years since my first trip, Rick Steves has changed the name of his guidebooks and his line of DVD’s, books and travel accessories has expanded enormously, to the point where his guides have equal shelf space with the other series. Steves has covered the same destinations in Europe for over 20 years now, and a lot of his favourite places have definitely moved from “off the beaten track” to “trampled under the tourist hordes” over the years.  In some ways I feel like I’ve “outgrown” his books, since a lot of his advice is for novice travellers and his guides focus on the first or second time visitor, but there is still a lot I can learn from his books and when I’m planning a trip, the first thing I check is whether there’s a Rick Steve’s guide available.

Pros: Extremely user friendly, up to date, accurate information, I really like the overall tone and style of his writing.

Cons: Some people may not like the tone and style of his writing, better suited to short and first time trips. Only covers Europe.

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2) Lonely Planet

This is the mothership of all guidebook series. If it exists, Lonely Planet has written a guidebook on it. I don’t know how many English speaking travellers actually make it to North Korea, Eritrea or Antarctica in any given year, but rest assured, Lonely Planet has written a guide to help them on their way. Like Rick Steves, Lonely Planet has expanded over the years and their empire includes huge numbers of coffee table books, specialized guidebooks, lists of top travel experiences, etc, but at the core is still their encyclopedic standard guidebooks for any country you may care to visit. Need to find a happening club in Dakar? A cosy hostel bed in North Ronaldsay, Scotland? A vegetarian restaurant in Dayton, Ohio? Lonely Planet has someone on that. And, with a few occasional exceptions, I’ve found their information to be amazingly accurate and up to date. Their guidebooks are detailed and unbiased, but in some ways I have found that to be one of their weaknesses. When planning a trip, I find that a listing of every single attraction in any given town can be a bit overwhelming. Think of your own hometown. There are probably sights that every tourist flocks to that you know is a giant waste of time. I also find the books to be a bit hard to follow. They will steadfastly go around a country from one province to another despite the fact that two popular tourist areas are adjoining each other but in different provinces. For example, to look up the Rockies, I’d have to be constantly flipping back and forth between the BC and Alberta chapters instead of grouping the sights in the region together.

Pros: Covers everywhere, accurate and detailed, unbiased information

Cons: Can be too large and overwhelming, sometimes hard to follow.

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3) Fodor’s

Fodor’s is a recent favourite of mine. When I first started travelling, I found the more mainstream guides to be pretty useless. They had no mention of the hostels or restaurants that were within my price range, and I was much more interested in finding a place to buy cheap groceries than designer shoes. But as my family has grown and my tolerance for discomfort has lessened, these books have started to grow on me. Fodor’s in particular really has seemed to up it’s game lately, with colourful, clear and informative guides for a lot of the places that I’ve been visiting recently. Their advice is family friendly and their maps are great. There are still weaknesses. For example, the hotels marked as “Top Family Picks” tend to be the most expensive ones in town. Yeah, right, for $600 a night the Four Seasons had better treat my kids like royalty. How about a family friendly hotel an average family can actually afford? But overall, they are a great resource for most destinations.

Pros: Colourful, clear, easy to use, good coverage of popular destinations

Cons: Heavy to carry, a bit light on budget options, doesn’t cover more obscure destinations.

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There are a lot of other options. Eyewitness guides are filled with beautiful illustrations and diagrams, but I find them more useful for pre-trip research than on the ground info. Frommer’s is very similar to Fodor’s; I just happen to like the layout of Fodor’s more. Rough Guides are widespread and detailed; in some areas they give Lonely Planet a run for the money. There are many smaller guidebooks lines and some of them are fantastic for certain destinations. I’m glad that I have the library as an option for all of these and only have to make the choice of which guidebooks to actually purchase to bring along with me after having the chance to read all the others. And of course the library is always a good place to find a good guidebook for keeping my husband guessing about where we’re going next!

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