By Stephen Bugno
With a multitude of guidebook publishers, choosing the best guidebook for your next trip can be challenging. Which guidebook should you take? Well, it all depends on your personality, how you travel, your budget, and where you’re traveling.
Entering your favorite bookstore or even a quick search on amazon.com reveals more travel guidebooks than you thought existed: Lonely Planet, Rough Guides, Foder’s, Frommer’s, Rick Steves’, Let’s Go, Blue Guides, Bradt, the list goes on. Sometimes it’s as simple as letting the most frequently updated version of the particular country win. But it can get more complicated than that. Here I’ll sum up the best guidebooks:
The biggest travel guidebook publisher, Lonely Planet has a quarter of the market sales and has been bought out by BBC. Around since 1973, they are tried and true, offering an enormous title selection, from Bolivia to East Timor. But bigger isn’t always better. Tony Wheeler’s once budget-only series has now turned into a guide-for-all. One of the few complaints I hear is that because of the enormous popularity of these books, its users often wind up at the all the same places by night’s end. Ideal user: independent, worldwide traveler.
The biggest competition to Lonely Planet, Rough Guides came onto the travel scene in 1982. Also a guide for all budgets (but definitely puts an emphasis on the lower-budget end) RG has fewer titles than LP and has less of an emphasis on the logistics of travel, but overall more background information and are a great companion to traveling in all parts of the globe. The RG city titles, from Chicago to Cape Town, are especially good. Ideal user: budget, independent worldwide traveler or adventurous expat.
A U.S. series, as opposed to the Australian L.P. and the British R.G., Moon are packed in the same way detailed practical travel information and substantial background research. Moon’s authors are more than travel experts—they are politically and culturally minded, informative, adventurous, and inspiring. They write their entire book, as opposed to many authors being contracted to write certain sections. Moon covers North and South America especially well; however, they are expanding into Europe and Asia. Ideal user: an independent traveler or foreigner living abroad in North, Central or South America.
America’s European travel guru offers guides to nearly all of Europe, with new titles stretching eastward every year (now including Istanbul). He will be the first to admit his books are not sufficient if you want to explore all parts of France. He recommends carrying an additional guidebook for that. What he does though, is gives you fantastic recommendations for all budgets for the particular destinations he finds most interesting. His books are impeccably accurate, updated every year, focusing on mom and pop establishments with more local color. His overall philosophy is that spending less money will keep you closer to the culture you traveled so far to experience. Ideal user: family or couple traveling to Europe with limited time and a keen interest in the culture.
Originally tailored towards student backpackers spending the summer on a European whirlwind, Let’s Go has expanded. Although primarily low-budget focused, they do offer some mid-range choices and give good nightlife recommendations. Titles have expanded beyond Europe and now include a few destinations in Southeast Asia and Latin America. Ideal user: young traveler going to Europe ready to party.
Bradt guidebooks are fine if you’ve got a substantial budget, a Land Rover, and a local guide. But they lack a lot of the practical information for traveling around by public transportation and finding cheap accommodation. They are reliable guides overall and cover many off-the-beaten track destinations. Bradt guides may be your only choice for many African countries. Ideal user: A well-funded, middle-aged adventurer or aid worker going to a developing country.
First published in 1918, these are more a cultural guide than a travel guide. They are great reference books that focus on art, history, and architecture; and include great diagrams, maps, and plans. Most titles cover European regions, cities and countries but include some worldwide titles. Ideal user: history buffs looking for detailed background information on art and architecture; not necessarily even a traveler.
Frommer’s and Fodor’s
Once the king of Budget travel, Arthur Frommer sold his name. Now Frommer’s caters to the middle to upper class traveler. Nevertheless, they are reliable guidebooks updated frequently with practical information and advice similar to Fodor’s.
DK Eyewitness and Insight Discovery
These books might be good for the coffee table. They have nice diagrams, are fun and interesting to look at, but are heavy in weight and lack lots of important transportation and accommodation information that you will need while traveling. Best to leave them at home.
Whatever you do, don’t take an out-of-date guidebook (Or you may choose to deliberately not take a guidebook). Make the $20 investment for a $3000 trip.
Stephen Bugno has been traveling and living abroad for the better part of ten years. He authored the Nomad’s Guide to Uzbekistan and his bookshelf is stocked with mostly Moon and Rough Guides. He edits the Gomad Nomad Travel Mag.