If you’ve read any of my books, or the website, you’d know I’m a big fan of professionally written guidebooks. In the process I describe in Traveling With Evernote, I mash up the content from traditional guidebooks along with apps, and online digital content, to create what I think is the ultimate travel guide. It’s a guide a 100% tailored to the very best of how I like to travel.

As such, it’s one of my guilty pleasures to go into a bookstore like Kinokuniya (international), Maruzen (Japan), and Eslite in Taiwan and browse through the hundreds of different titles you can find in their travel section. You’ll find all kinds of specialty travel books on everything from local night markets or bed and breakfast accommodations, to other unique ways of traveling (like cycling), that you will not find anywhere else. I’ve found gems of books like The Islands of Taiwan using this method. You’ll also notice that, especially in Asia, they have a very different (and highly visual) style of creating travel guides. If you haven’t been to one of these stores, it will change the way you see travel guides, and you’re in for a real treat!

In this article, I want to look at the more traditional guide books you’d find in western countries.

One thing that’s worth understanding is how each guidebook or travel brand has its own ‘personality’. Today I want to share with you an extract from one of the travel books I enjoyed reading “How To Travel Practically Anywhere” by Susan Stellin.

The extract is about how to choose a guide book, and it describes what I found to be a very interesting topic: the ‘personalities’ of the different brands of guidebooks. Most people will find they have an affinity with some guidebook ‘personalities’ more than others. This may change over time.

I want to give a special thanks to Houghton Harcourt Publishing Company Limited for their permission to reprint the extract from the book. The extract is reprinted in its originally published form, I hope you enjoy it:


Choosing a Guidebook: Which Series Fits Your Style-And Budget

One of the first places most people turn to when they’re planning a trip is the travel section of their local bookstore, where you can always find plenty of customers leaning against the shelves, paging through books about places they may never go. (I’m certainly guilty of being one of those loiterers.) This can be a pleasant way to kill time while a friend is searching for a present in the cookbook section, but if you’re in the market for a guidebook, the number of choices can be daunting. Going to London? You’d better find a place to sit down. I once counted seventy-three guidebooks just about London in my local bookstore-and that’s not including guides covering the rest of the United Kingdom.


What’s new

With people traveling more-and to more places-it’s not surprising that more guidebooks are being published. But people are also traveling differently, so guidebooks have started to reflect some of those trends. For instance, with travelers taking more short trips, publishers have created more mini guides that focus on one city. Among the options: Dorling Kindersley’s Top 10 series, Fodor’s City Packs, Frommer’s Portable Guides, Lonely Planet’s Best of books, Insight’s City Guides, and Rough Guides’ Directions series. These pocket guides are smaller and lighter than their country cousins-and cheaper, too-but they generally maintain the writing style of the brand.

Travel publishers are also selling more specialty guides, either targeting a specific segment of the population-such as families, women, gay travelers, or people who won’t leave home without their pets-or a certain type of trip, from camping, hiking, or biking getaways to spa vacations and road trips. Guidebooks also tend to have more of a “best of” focus these days, so you’ll often find a list of must-see attractions at the beginning of a book, as well as books about the best spas worldwide, the best cruise vacations, or the best hotels.


Deciding which guide to buy

So what’s the best guidebook? There’s no one-guide-fits-all answer to that question, but here are some tips on choosing a series that’s right for you, which will probably vary from trip to trip. Much as publishers insist that their customers are loyal to a particular brand, I’ve snooped around lots of home bookshelves and found a wide range of travel titles sharing shelf space. (By the way, if you live in a big city, there may be a travel bookstore nearby, where you can often get more personal advice from the staff.)

Look at the publication date. Guidebooks aren’t always updated yearly, so before you head to the register, check the publication date. It’s usually on the page with the copyright information, at either the front or the back of the book, though some publishers make this detail difficult to find. If the book was printed two years ago, the research was done at least three years ago, so that “undiscovered bistro” the writer mentions may be a shoe store by now. In general, guidebooks don’t improve with age.

Get to know the writer. It’s important to read not only about the author’s qualifications (the author should get bonus points for having lived in the destination and for understanding the language and culture) but also enough of the text to see whether the author’s tone is a good match. Some guidebooks are completely devoid of opinion, whereas others aren’t shy about saying that a certain hotel or restaurant is overrated, and occasionally, the author’s judgments get in the way. As a well-traveled friend once said, “Sometimes the writer will just irritate you to no end and you think, ‘I have to get a different guide, because I can’t have this person with me on vacation.’”

Read about a place you’ve been. If you haven’t been to the place you’re planning to visit, it can be tough to tell whether the guidebooks you’re considering recommend restaurants or hotels you’d like. One solution: Check other books in the series about destinations you know pretty well. If one raves about a resort you think is a dud and the other highlights a hole-in-the-wall bistro you love, you know which guide to buy.

Check the prices. No, not the prices of the books-the prices listed inside. You may be seduced by the color photographs and the glossy paper in a well-designed guidebook, but if all the hotels and restaurants it recommends are beyond your budget and there’s no information about public transportation, you may need to rethink your choice.

Look at the maps. Besides your guidebook, no doubt you’ll also take along a fold-out map of the city you’re visiting, but you probably won’t buy a map for every city you pass through and certainly not for every one-horse town. There are also times when it’s easier or more discreet to consult a map in a guidebook rather than a document the size of a coffee table. All good reasons to check out a guidebook’s maps: how many there are, how well they’re labeled, and whether you need a magnifying glass to read the street names.

Don’t be afraid to stray. Just because you’ve always bought the same guidebook series doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to be a customer for life. People change, and sometimes so do travel guides. Some brands that were previously known as backpacker favorites have been broadening their focus to appeal to kids now grown up and staying at nice hotels; others have updated their look with more photos or a different layout. Shop around; you may discover a new series you like.


A Guide to the Top Travel Guides

Here’s an overview of the major travel guidebooks and where you can find them on line. Some publishers offer free information from their books on the Web and have lively message boards where you can trade tips with other travelers; other publishers simply give basic information about their guides. (Frommer’s and Lonely Planet tend to have the most robust Web sites.) Many publishers also sell their books on the Web, so if the pickings are slim at your local bookstore, do your browsing and buying on line.

Access Guides (accessguides.com). Access Guides cover mostly U.S. cities and are !mown for their annotated maps. Numbers on each neighborhood map correspond to color-coded listings highlighting hotels, restaurants, stores, and attractions in the area, which makes it easy to get around a city and find places to visit, eat, or shop.

Bradt Guides (bradtguides.com). A British guidebook series started in the 1970s, Bradt specializes in destinations that are off the beaten path, like Antarctica, Croatia, the Falkland Islands, the Maldives, Rwanda, and even Iraq. Most of the company’s roughly one hundred guides emphasize history and a culturally sensitive style of travel, but Bradt approaches more well-trodden places with a twist; for instance, its Eccentric America guide explores offbeat events and places across the United States.

DK Eyewitness Travel Guides (dk.com). DK’s tag line (“The guides that show you what others only tell you”) accurately describes what you’ll find inside: lots of color photographs, illustrations, and maps. So rather than simply describing a museum with four paragraphs of text, DK guides include a drawing of the floor plan, with callouts pointing to photos of major works of art. Although these guides are heavier than average and don’t have as much practical information, they’re great for sightseeing-especially DK’s Top 10 city guides.

Fodor’s (fodors.com). Fodor’s got its start in 1936, when Eugene Fodor wrote his first guide to Europe, On the Continent-The Entertaining Travel Annual. Covering destinations around the world, the company now publishes more than four hundred titles, including its flagship Gold Guides and a newer See It series of city guides, with color, glossy paper, and photos (a departure from Fodor’s traditional text-on-newsprint approach). Fodor’s ·was once considered more high end than Frommer’s, but both series now offer comparable guides for middle-of-the-road travelers: people traveling on their own but not necessarily to Tibet.

Footprint Travel Guides (footprintbooks.com). Footprint guides tend to appeal to the same types of travelers who buy Lonely Planet or Rough Guides, though one reason to opt for the lesser-known Footprint books is that you won’t cross paths with as many fellow readers during your travels. The British company publishes more than eighty guidebooks to cities and countries all over the world, with an emphasis on covering the history and culture of destinations in Africa, Asia, Australia, Europe, and Latin America.

Frommer’s (frommers.com). Arthur Frommer published his first guidebook, Europe on $5 a Day, in 1957, and the company still publishes a series in that same budget-minded vein-though now it’s more like Italy from $90 a Day. Frommer’s more than three hundred guidebooks cover mostly well-traveled cities and countries around the world, as well as niches like traveling with kids and driving tours. Frommer’s guides are comprehensive and easy to use but not as adventurous as some of the younger brands.

Insiders’ Guides (insiders.com). These guidebooks cover more than sixty regional destinations in the United States, offering a local, or “insider’s,” perspective on each area. The series skips big cities in favor of places that provide an escape from urban life-the Outer Banks of North Carolina, the Olympic Peninsula in Washington, and Cape Cod Nantucket in Massachusetts-and the writing style matches the leisurely pace of life in the areas described.

Insight Guides (insightguides.com). Insight bills its books as “visual guides”, and there’s no doubt that its guides are among the most beautiful not he market, with glossy, high-quality paper and color photographs on practically every page. That means these books are heavier than most other travel guides; they also focus more on sightseeing, culture, and shopping than on practical topics like where to eat or where to stay.

Let’s Go (letsgo.com). The Let’s Go series was started in 1960 by a group of students at Harvard University, and its forty-five guidebooks are still written by Harvard students, with an emphasis on budget travel. Let”s Go covers destinations all over the world but focuses mostly on the countries college students tend to explore, as opposed to places that are really off the beaten path. The series got a makeover in 2003, with a new design and more information about politics and culture.

Lonely Planet (lonelyplanet.com). A bestseller among backpackers and independent travelers, Lonely Planet guidebooks still follow the same philosophy of exploration embraced by Maureen and Tony Wheeler in the early 1970s when they wrote the first On a Shoestring guide. With more than 6so guidebooks covering nearly every corner of the globe, the company has expanded beyond its early emphasis on longer trips with a series of city guides for shorter jaunts. Its books now cover a wider price range of accommodations and restaurants, an attempt to hang on to readers who have grown up and have more money to spend on travel.

Michelin (viamichelin.com). The french publisher specializes in European destinations, and its star rating system is considered the gold standard in Europe. Michelin”s Green Guides focus on what to do and see at your destination (a few also list hotels and restaurants); the Red Guides recommend where to eat and where to stay. Although the Red Guides are written in the language of the country covered,there’s an introduction in English, and symbols next to each listing are easy to decipher.

Moon Handbooks (moon.com). Moon has been publishing guidebooks for more than thirty years but has gained a following lately among independent, budget-minded travelers. The company specialises in the Americas and Asia and also publishes the more compact Moon Metro guides to cities in Canada, Europe, and the United States. Moon tends to allow more personality and opinion in its writing style, making it less dry than you might find in other guides.

Rick Steves (ricksteves.com). Rick Steves started his travel empire with the publication of Europe through the Back Door in 1980 and has since published more than thirty guidebooks, covering mostly cities and countries in Europe. Rick takes a somewhat casual approach to travel, and his books are particularly popular among those visiting Europe for the first time. He tends to focus on the highlights of each country, leaving out Jess touristy cities and towns.

Rough Guides (roughguides.com). Rough Guides generally appeal to the same travelers who like Lonely Planet but are written with more of a British sensibility and arguably more information about politics, history, and culture. The series was founded in 1982 by Mark Ellingham, who wrote his first book about his travels around Greece after college and now covers more than two hundred destinations worldwide. Although the name might suggest “roughing it,” the company now aims for a broader demographic than its original backpacker focus.

Time Out (timeout.com). Perhaps better known for its weekly magazines covering cities like New York and London, Time Out began publishing travel guidebooks in 1990 and now sells more than sixty guides to urban destinations all over the world. Its colorful books have Jots of photos, a breezy writing style, and better coverage of where to eat, drink, shop, and find entertainment than in many other guides, albeit with mostly younger travelers in mind.

Zagat Surveys (zagatcom). New Yorkers Nina and Tim Zagat published their first restaurant guide in 1979 and now have books covering more than seventy cities and regions around the world. The guides are based on surveys in each market of restaurant goers, who rate each establishment’s food, service, and decor. Zagat also publishes guides to hotels, resorts, and spas and offers access to its restaurant reviews on line; a subscription costs $25 per year or $5 for one month.


About How to Travel Practically Anywhere

Author of How to Travel Practically Anywhere, Susan Stellin, is a reporter and frequent contributor to The New York Times, the International Herald Tribune, Arthur Frommer’s Budget Travel, and Travel + Leisure.

Even though this book (and others like it) was published some time ago, it still includes timeless tips and practical advice for the traveler. Where specific websites and services described in that book have changed, the kinds of websites and services will typically be the same. As a traveler, one of the key skills you’ll develop is the ability to be flexible, and adapt things to your own needs.

I tend to think of guidebooks and ‘how to travel’ books as being like cookbooks. Not everything in the cookbook is going to be of interest, or use. However, if the person who wrote it was an expert, there will usually be a recipe or two that makes the whole purchase worthwhile. And that’s one of the reasons I still love a good guidebook.



Excerpt from HOW TO TRAVEL PRACTICALLY ANYWHERE by Susan Stellin Copyright (c) 2006 by Susan Stellin. Used by permission of Houghton Harcourt Publishing Company Limited. 
All rights reserved.