A Guide to Travel Guidebooks

By Stephen Bugno

Photo credit: Jay Bergesen
Photo credit: Jay Bergesen

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:

Lonely Planet

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.

Rough Guides

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.

Moon

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.

Rick Steves’

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.

Let’s Go

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

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.

Blue Guide

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.

The Others

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.

8 thoughts on “A Guide to Travel Guidebooks”

  1. Wow! Just saw this on the Matador U forum and am glad I did. This was super informative and really great. I've always been overwhelmed by guidebooks (so I wind up using none) but this definitely helped me understand them more to choose the right one. Thanks so much for sharing!

  2. I don’t know if I agree with your assessment of the Bradt guides. I was a Peace Corps volunteer in Ukraine and the Bradt guide was easily the best book available. While it isn’t as good as a LP for info about travel logistics (times and prices), it was much more comprehensive in content. There are literally dozens of towns, cities, and locations in the Bradt guide not found in any other book. And I don’t think it’s aimed at rich people. I thought the recommendations in the Ukraine Guide were decent for most budgets (though outdated today, many years later). But recommendations about where to sleep and eat aren’t the book’s strengths. Bradt seems to hire writers that have substantial living and working experience in the countries they’re writing about. The Ukraine guide authored had lived in the country a number of years and had outstanding recommendations for things to see and do. He even included suggested trekking routes f or the Carpathians and Crimea that proved to be great. His descriptions of and insights into Ukrainian society are also unmatched in other travel books. I’ve looked closely at the Kyrgyzstan guide, and it looks great, too.

    In essence, I guess I’d change your view of an “Ideal User” to “someone that will spend a significant amount of time in the country they’ll be visiting, who wants to understand what’s going on around them, and who wants descriptions of basically every place they could hope to visit (without lots of detailed info about transport and lodging).”

  3. This is a great resource! I love how you summed each description up at the end with the “ideal user”. My favorites have always been the Let’s Go books, combined with the RG and LP guides. 🙂
    .-= Nancy´s last blog ..Kungaroo featured on MatadorPulse =-.

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  5. As a Bradt author I also have to disagree with your assessment of Bradt Guides. Yes, I may be a bit biased but I worked pretty darned hard at getting all the travel logistics and timetables as accurate as possible — in fact I even decided to try driving a motorcycle around Bangladesh for the hell of it. I can’t speak for all the other guides in the series but I know my research has, in some cases, been triple checked and suited for all budgets. Of course, given the lack of tourism infrastructure in places like Africa and Bangladesh, you may have no other choice but to hire a vehicle and a guide to get you somewhere you really want to see.

    I’d say that James’ assessment of our series is bang on. If you’re an LP traveller, then you’ll definitely find most of what you need in the LP guides — places that are filled with travellers who are blowing through countries on short time schedules. But I wrote a guide that’s for the long-term staying guest in Bangladesh, the kind of traveller that has the time to appreciate the country and its treasures in a far deeper way than one who would spend just two weeks.

  6. What an informative article. Thanks for writing it. I’ve only ever used the Lonely Planet guides and until recently have found them extremely user friendly and helpful. However, I have been a little disappointed with the LP Peru guide. I bought the most recent version before I moved down here to Lima and find it is slightly outdated. Although of course we are given the “gringo price” everywhere we go, but even after bartering, the prices we are given in taxis, hotels, museums, bus fares, etc. (some of which are fixed prices) are slightly higher than the most recent version of LP. Peru is an ever developing and changing country, but I’ve been to a few places that LP has neglected that are really more worthwhile visiting (in my humble opinion) than places they did include. And I have definitely experienced ending up at a hostel where all of the LP users stay…not here but in other countries.
    Although I think I would probably use LP again if I didn’t know much about the place I was going, I’m glad to have a few more options to check out at the bookstore. Nice Piece.
    .-= Daniella´s last blog ..Grizzly Bears in Lima =-.

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