Discriminating readers can learn to detect some of the signs of sloppy guidebook writing. First, check to see who wrote or worked on the guidebook. Has the author written about the place before or does the bio instead tout the writer’s credentials as a songwriter or screenwriter? (I’m not kidding.)
When in doubt, choose the book that has a single byline. A travel guide written by a single author often possesses a distinctive voice that guides-by-committee lack. If you know exactly what you want to do, it’s worthwhile looking for a niche guidebook on a specific topic such as Paddling in Paradise: Sea Kayaking Adventures in Atlantic Canada. Authors of specialized books tend to be passionate and knowledgeable about their chosen pursuits. Alternatively, you can supplement the standard guides with a literary memoir of travel in the region of your interest. Reliable authors include Jonathan Raban, Paul Theroux and even Graham Greene. If you don’t have a clue what has already been written about a destination, check out Travelers’ Tales this California-based publishing house produces outstanding books of collected essays and stories about particular places.
If your primary purpose in buying a travel guide is to find out about hotels and restaurants, always check the publication date. Sometimes it’s buried on the last page. You may be surprised to discover that the “continually revised and updated” guide you’re considering is two or more years out of date. Fortunately, some series such as the Eyewitness Travel Guides, Michelin Green Guides or Fodor’s Guides have begun to provide Web sites so you can confirm information via the Net.
It’s always worth asking other people what books they found most valuable, but remember that the best book for you may not be the best book for someone else. Independent, adventurous types lean to the Lonely Planet series, Moon Handbooks or Rough Guides (no longer as rough as they used to be). Art historians, architecture buffs, photographers and those who want a permanent travel library love the Eyewitness Travel Guides and the photo-rich Insight Guides. For those on a tight schedule, there are the time-honored Frommer’s or Fodor’s guides. “We know that our readers go to Spain, but don’t have time to visit every perched village,” says Karen Cure, editorial director at Fodor’s. “They want to know the two or three worth visiting. They want good choices.” On the other extreme, those who want to go it alone can arm themselves with an Access guide that leads them through every city block with clever color-coded maps.
Sometimes the best choice is actually two choices. Yes, buying multiple guides can seem like an unnecessary expense, but the $30 or so you may pay for a guide is small change compared to the cost of your trip. And different books can provide distinctly different takes on a region.
When educational investment consultant Chris Perl and her husband Hugh spent two weeks traveling through Italy last fall, the Toronto couple used Fodor’s, and Eyewitness Italy guides in tandem. The Fodor’s Gold Guide tipped them off on hotels and restaurants and stops along the way. But they devoured the sights with Eyewitness and its three-dimensional illustrations. “When in Venice on the Grand Canal, we followed along for three pages and knew exactly where we were and exactly what we were seeing,” Chris says. “It was fantastic. We had debated carrying around this 10-lb book. But it was worth every ounce.” Now that’s the way a guidebook should work.
Click here to see our insider’s guide to the guidebooks
From the April/May 2003 issue.