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About travel guides

Travel guides. I love them. When I'm travelling, which is more often than I should and less often than I'd like to, they are invaluable. As the name implies, one's guidebook serves the purpose that a native person did for those redoubtable Victorian lady travellers (who went stomping off into the wilderness with only their cunning, their highly sharpened hatpins, and a small army of sherpas to protect them).

Advantages of guidebooks

There's nothing in any guidebook that you couldn't find out for yourself, given enough time, money and risk to life and limb. Guidebooks just help you cut to the chase. If you only have two weeks on holiday, you don't want to waste the first ten days eating in dodgy restaurants, sleeping in bug infested beds, and seeing dull museums when you could be enjoying yourself. Guidebooks get you to the good stuff quickly.

Veteran traveller John Gregory has this to say about the subject: "I've encountered several backpackers who proclaimed it pathetic how lemming tourists clutch their stupid books, obeying dicta from probably drunken and surely crazed writers. Their ideal was to float from place to place, traveling on circumstance and happenstance only. I usually have a guidebook because it efficiently provides information, saves time and money, and allows me to travel lighter upon the environment. I also prefer not to be cold, hungry, lost, and/or in jail. Most travelers agree with my view and carry some kind of guidebook."

Guidebooks can also save you time even before you leave, as they usually contain suggested itineraries that can help with planning. A good way to see a country is to book an open jaw ticket (the kind that lets you fly into one airport and fly back from another). Your guidebook can not only inform you where the airports are, but help you decide on your route between the two.

Guidebooks also contain concise histories of the place you're going to, together with a recommended list of movies to see and books to read that are set in that country. Many even have a short 'useful phrases' section that can be a real help, even if you only read it on the plane on the way. A good guidebook thoroughly read constitutes a crash course in understanding the culture of the foreign place and help you understand and enjoy your visit more.

Disadvantages of guidebooks

Having said that, guidebooks do have a few drawbacks. For one thing, if your guidebook is recommending a particular hostel or sunsoaked beach, you can bet your last tube of sunscreen that everyone else using that guidebook is going to be making a beeline there too. This isn't such a big deal in some places, but in other places, such as Australia and Asia, things might get to the stage where you keep seeing the same faces. If that happens to you, close your guidebook for a while and play it by ear.

The second thing with guidebooks is that they have a short but vivid life, like a butterfly. By the time your guidebook hits the shelf in the bookstore, the information in it is already two or more years out of date, depending on how often the publisher updates. That hotel described as a hidden gem could have changed management and now be in the hands of crazed Mafia drug lords or Swiss people. I once spent a couple of hours searching Prague backstreets in the rain for a particularly highly recommended bar. Turned out it had closed two years before. So guidebooks are good, but they're not gospel.

The third problem with guidebooks is that some people use them as checklists. They feel that if they go to Amsterdam and haven't been to every sight listed for the city, that their trip is a failure and a waste of time. This is not the case. Museums and memorials and traditional tourist 'sights' can be wonderful. If they weren't interesting, they probably wouldn't be on the well-trodden tourist path. But travel is not a test and seeing the guidebook-prescribed sights is not supposed to be a requirement, it's supposed to be fun. So, if you're in Rome and the thought of the Vatican bores you rigid (and frankly, I do think it's a massive and massively dull group of buildings with all the atmosphere of a public toilet and only the occasional good painting to save you from dying of boredom), then don't go. Head to the market or a dancehall or the beach or the park instead. You'll meet more locals if you do your own thing, and probably have more fun too. I think you'll find that when you look back on your travels, it's the people you meet and the experiences you have that you remember.

The final thing that bugs me about guidebooks is that they are bloody heavy. As the Spanish proverb says, even a straw weighs heavy on a long journey. And like I said, guidebooks go out of date fast. So don't be afraid to photocopy relevant bits or even cut them out with a razor. Carrying only a few sheets of paper as you trundle around Bangkok will be a lot easier on your spine than bringing the entire tome. Strip out the irrelevant bits too. Do you really need the publisher's information or the picture credits? I also remove the whole introduction to the country section at the beginning, as I don't need visa or suggested immunization information once I have actually arrived.

Guidebook publishers

Lonely Planet
These guides are Australian in origin. A huge range, each of which features thorough research, oodles of excellent maps and tons of detail makes these guides one of the best options in terms of being the most efficient support system, especially for solo travel. I've used these a lot and think that they are the best, particularly for Asian and developing countries. The only downside, if you can call it a downside, is that they pack so much in, that they aren't quite as into the culture/history or as enjoyable a read as, say, a Rough Guide or a Footprint or Moon Handbook. But I do think they're the best guidebooks available at the moment. And they're not paying me to say so.

Rough Guides
These guides are British in origin and are some of the best guides available. Rough Guides contain solid research, and lots of detailed listings and information, so between Rough Guides and Lonely Planet books, there isn't really a whole hell of a lot to choose. Personally, I think that they are the best for European destinations, and for any destination if you are as interested in culture and enrichment as you are in the party circuit. They also publish guides to travelling (Gap Year Guide, First Time Asia, First Time Europe, etc) which are brilliant. If you are a first time traveller, pick up a copy of their First Time guides, you won't regret it. They also publish loads of guides to non-travel subjects that are well worth reading. The downside to Rough Guides is that their maps aren't as good as the ones in Lonely Planet books. I remember swearing at the maps in the Italy edition out of sheer frustration, and it wasn't even my first day in Rome. So, yeah, for what it's worth, I think they're a little behind on the cartography, and a tiny little bit ahead on the instructional/cultural stuff.

Information packed guides with an expanding range, this publisher is catching up on Lonely Planet and Rough Guides as a major contender in the travel guide market. Personally, I found them a little difficult to use -- their layout's not very intuitive and there are no budget notes to help you figure out how much money you'll need for a trip. But lots of people swear by them, especially their South American Handbook which is an acknowledged classic.

Moon Handbooks
Compared to Lonely Planet and Rough Guides, Moon have a small range, but they do publish high quality guidebooks and their Indonesian Handbook, for example, is legendary. Good for travellers who want to totally immerse themselves in the culture and traditions of another country.

Let's Go
Famous (or infamous) for being written by students, these guides are what you most often see American backpackers clutching. Good for people on a tight budget and those without a lot of time. Not so hot on cultural information or for those who intend to explore a country in depth.

If you like to travel in style, these are the guides for you. Aimed more at mature, well-heeled travellers than at backpackers and budget travellers.

Rick Steves
Like Frommer's but more laid back. Full of sound advice.

Cadogan Guides
This British range of travel guides is notable for high quality photography and cultural coverage. They are excellent pre-trip reading. They also do a range devoted to cities in Europe, and special interest guides such as for those planning to live abroad in the long term, to travel with children, or to buy property abroad.

Insight Guides
More an introduction to a country than a serious guidebook, but still definitely worth a look for the quality photography and insightful writing.

Blue Guides
These high quality guides have been in production since the Edwardian era. My comments on Insight Guides apply: better for inspiration than for practical use, although I'm told that they are the most informative guides on the market, and if you have a serious interest in, say, Greek archaeological sites, the Greek Blue Guide is the one to buy.

How to choose the best guidebook for you

You'll use your guidebook at least three times a day, maybe more. So choose carefully. The easiest way to select the one that'll suit you best, is to go to a good bookstore and browse. (You can always buy online or secondhand later, if you like.)

The first thing to consider is your budget. If you are going to be on a tight budget, choose from Rough Guides, Lonely Planet, Moon, or Footprint guidebooks. If you are blessed with a little more spending money, choose from any of those and Rick Steves, Frommer's and Cadogan's.

Next, of the ones that pass the budget test, give them an once-over. Take down the guidebook to where you live as published by a selection of publishers. In each guidebook, read and compare the entry for your location. You will easily be able to tell which book's style appeals to you. And if they have made noticeable errors in the section on your home town, you probably won't want to trust that series with your trip to Ulan Bator.

Last but not least, check the publication date. An out of date guidebook is a false economy as it will not be much help.

A word of warning: once you have purchased your guidebook, read the thing! This applies especially to the immunization information and personal safety sections, but also to the more mundane nuts and bolts of getting around. For example, I once was in Florence, where you have to use prepaid tickets on the public transportation. I was trying to get a bus back to my hostel late at night after a long and tiring day, so I had to roam all over town for ages looking for a place to buy a ticket. Eventually I snagged one in a seedy bar. The next day over coffee, the public transportation section of my guidebook happened to catch my eye: 'After 9pm, you can buy tickets on board the bus.' D'oh!

About fanlistings

A fanlisting is simply a place for all fans of a particular subject to come together and build the biggest listing of people from all around the world who are fans of that subject. To my mind, it's a great excuse to build a little tribute site. :) There are over 50,000 fanlistings in existence and the number is growing all the time. Some are simple fanlistings and some are part of a much bigger website. Find out more about the fanlistings phenomenon at the Fanlistings Network.

About this site

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The fanlisting was originally opened by Giselle, who kindly allowed me to adopt it in August 2005. My name is Tehomet. If you have any questions or comments, drop me a line. To see what other projects I am interested in, go to my domain. Thank you for visiting.