If your ratio of guidebooks in possession to actual trips taken is…
- Greater than 2: You might be running the risk of being a perpetual travel-planner-never-goer (or you’re a head-in-the-clouds dreamer, like me).
- Less than ½: You may be a woefully under-informed backpacker (or you’re just really street-smart).
- Exactly 1: Congratulations! You’re an anomaly and would make a wonderful candidate for psychological inquiry.
Just kidding. About all of it, really.
But selecting a guidebook can be a real chore, can’t it? There are so many different types out there. How do you determine which one works best for you?
I’ve found that the answer lies in something the fashionistas have been telling us all along: It’s all about style.You have to find something that jives with your personal preference.
I present to you, maybe for the first time ever, a guidebook style breakdown of the major players via tri-spectrum infographic. That’s right, folks: summarizing travel guidebooks couldn’t be relegated to mere two-dimensional spectral analysis. I had to turn the damn thing into a triangle. Stick around afterwards for a short summary of each guidebook.
Lonely Planet: Ahh, the prolific standard of travel guidebooks. Its brand has become synonymous with the product, much in the same way Kleenex has become synonymous with booger-wiping and emergency toilet paper. But you won’t want to wipe your ass with Lonely Planet, because hygiene is pretty far down its list of utility: it excels at thorough, descriptive information and maps, breaks with the usually rigid guidebook-style writing, and references to extra content (like the LP user forums). On top of that, LP is smart about text/page layout (2-columns, anyone?) and is cartophile-friendly with its abundance of clean maps. Oh, and their inside covers actually have useful travel info (converters, common phrases, etc.) instead of the usual self-referencing found in other guidebooks (“Hey! Look! We have more guidebooks!”).
Rough Guides: Immediately, I’m drawn to the branding of this book: its namesake beckons you to throw the book against a wall. And really, this is a book thatexpects to be thrashed. In a way, it feels a little like a phonebook, and it’s chock-full of information like one, too—incredibly useful for the make-things-up-as-you-go indie traveler, but maybe there’s less allure here for the average backpacker. Still, I’d be lying if I said that the intro section wasn’t exceptionally compelling: strong combinations of photography and text presented in top-10 style lists had all of my neurons firing towards the book’s destination (I won’t say where, because I don’t want you to go there before I do). And once you have that initial spark towards a place, do you need anything more than what Rough Guides promises?
Eyewitness Travel: Do you remember reading Eyewitness books as a kid? They were the super-informative encyclopedias on specific subjects, and their trademark was bombarding each page spread with a clustercuss of photos and easy-to-read captions.Eyewitness applies the same strategy to its travel books, which I happen to love. +20 Nostalgia Factor! It’s less focused on getting you hostel or restaurant recommendations (it has a short section in the back for reference info like this). Instead, it presents summaries of different cities/regions via the aforementioned bombardment, guaranteed to keep you skimming pages long after the train reaches the station. It’s just a damn interesting read, and gives a great education into each place’s highlights and history.
Fodor’s In Full Color: Go ahead and try to ruin the fold-out map in the back. I’ll wait. No? Exactly. A self-proclaimed cartophile like me is quickly drawn to Fodor’s attention-to-detail on one of the most valuable tools a traveler can have: a good map. From the aesthetics standpoint, reading the colorful Fodor’s is like jumping into a pile of Skittles®. Its average page layout is a smart blend of photos, anecdotes, narrative, and logistics and was the most versatile presentation of all other guidebooks in the roundup. The opening pages of the book are dedicated to user-submitted tips (http://fodors.com/community), reinforcing the idea that Fodor’s continues to listen to its audience.
Frommer’s: There are a few things that Frommer’s does very well, but first the hurdles: there’s a star-rating system on major sites/attractions, but the ratings seem trite when considered with the fact that there were fewer than two dozen photos in the entire book I reviewed: should we just take them at their word and go to the higher-rated spots with higher expectations? Still, Frommer’s does a good job of taking a lot of information (read: a lot of information) and paring it down into digestible bits. It differentiates information in the same text block (consistent styling across phone numbers, addresses, headers, etc.), and I think it’s safe to say that there are more insider tips in Frommer’s books than there are anywhere else this side of the internet.
Rick Steves’ Guidebooks: Rick has done much in terms of introducing people to the joys of travel, perhaps to the same degree Sister Wendy left her mark on the joys of art history. Rick’s guidebooks give a glimpse into his amicable personality, and perhaps this is his greatest appeal: by providing information through 1st- & 2nd-person perspective, using Rick’s guidebook is more like reading a friendly letter or journal excerpts. His hand-drawn maps perpetuate the simplistic, arts-and-crafts style narrative. What’s more is how famous this guy is: I’ve gone to dozens of places around Europe independent of a guidebook, and a shop owner or restaurant waiter will drop his name like he’s a long-time friend. And the truth is? He is a long-time friend of many of these people. (Side note: many locations offer Rick Steves discounts if you bring your guidebook with you.) Additionally, his guidebooks are remarkably well-balanced and offer the most “personality” out of every other guidebook.
National Geographic Traveler: “Oh, no big deal. We’re just pulling on over a century’s worth of photographs and journalistic information for each destination we feature, that’s all.” By comparison, the amount of information available to NatGeo makes the sources for all other guidebooks seem “cute.” At least, one would think so. But NatGeo’s intent isn’t to beat its readers over the head with arbitrary information on 19th-century agrarian socities. Instead, it thoughtfully combines anecdote with photograph and history with travel tips. In fact, it echoes Fodor’s and Eyewitness in its breadth and depth, providing enough for the curious grown-up history dorks (me!) and the glutton looking for thoughtful restaurant recommendations (me again!). You’ll read about and see a place in equal portions—never too much, and always the good stuff.
Granted, each brand of guidebook likely has sub-series or mini-versions of their flagship guidebook format—Fodor’s, for instance, has a slightly different format for their “Not-in-Full-Color” versions, so you’ll have to make your own decisions when shopping for a guidebook.
What about you? Do you have any favorite guidebooks? Is there a brand out there that you’d like to see featured on Sparkpunk?