The Best Travel Guidebook Series
Every time I go to a bookstore there seems to be a new series of travel guides on the shelves. As record numbers of people travel abroad, more and more publishers are jumping on the bandwagon to cash in on the growing travel industry. Nevertheless, finding a guidebook that suits your needs and whose style and suggestions you like is not easy.
Despite the plethora of travel guides available, I have found no one single travel guide that meets all my travel needs and interests. Some books provide in-depth cultural and historical information with great essays and photographs but have few recommendations for lodging, dining, and transportation. Others emphasize practical travel information but provide little background on culture and history. The best travel guide is ultimately the one you put together yourself from a variety of sources, based on your personal interests and travel preferences. I recommend getting a general guide that tells you how to get around and where to stay, and another guide that specializes in your main travel interest, such as art, history, trekking, kayaking, etc.
How to choose a guide that is right for you
In recent years, there have emerged a few new trends in travel guides as publishers aim their guidebooks at travelers who have less time but are willing to spend more money. As a result, there are now a growing number of guidebook series that have decided that less is more: they provide a more selective approach to their destinations. Such guidebooks often include suggested itineraries for vacations from one to three weeks, geared toward visitors with less time on their hands. Instead of exhaustive listings of sights, accommodation and restaurants, these guides offer fewer choices, only providing the top listings or "best of class" in the respective categories.
To get an idea of the types of travel guides that are available, go to a bookstore and browse the travel section. Read the introductory paragraphs of different travel guides to find out if you like the author’s voice and style. Look at the listings of hotels, restaurants, and sights. Are you overwhelmed by the number of suggestions, or would you rather have more listings? Are the selections suitable for your budget?
Do you like the size and layout of the travel guide? Some guides are printed in two columns and have a tiny font to cram a lot of information in one page, making it difficult to navigate through the pages and quickly find important information.
Do you prefer a well-illustrated guide with plenty of photos? Does the guide have plenty of detailed maps to help you get around? Does the guidebook contain information that is important to you such as an introduction to the local food, culture, customs, history, and festivals? All these are important considerations.
Ask yourself what your primary travel interests are and look for a guide that provides the information you need. Do you like background information on history and cultural sights, or would you rather prefer a guide that focuses on nightlife and entertainment? If you are interested in the outdoors, make sure your guide provides detailed information about hiking, treks, safaris and ecotourism. If you are looking for a special interest travel guide such as hiking, trekking, canoeing, bicycling or cultural guides, keep in mind that these guides don't sell as many copies as general travel guides, and they are not updated as regularly. But aside from this disadvantage, such travel guides are an indispensable companion for travelers who want to get more in-depth information about their main area of interest.
Also, keep in mind that regional and special interest guides are often available locally in English. This is always a great option in English-speaking countries. When I was in India last year, I bought several hiking and trekking guides for the Himalayas, written and published by knowledgeable local authors. If you speak the language of your travel destination, you can always count on finding informative guidebooks in the local language.
If you only visit one region of a country or just a major city you should look for a regional or city guide instead of buying a travel guide for the whole country. These guides provide much more in-depth information, as they specialize in one area. These guides also usually have a smaller format, making it easy to carry them in your pocket.
Below I have listed some of my favorite travel guidebook series. —Contributing Living Abroad Editor Volker Poelzl
Moon Handbooks, (Avalon Travel Publishing)
Avalon specializes in regional and country guidebooks in the Americas, Asia, and the Pacific, with hundreds of titles called Moon Travel Guides. The well-established guidebook series has recently changed its format to fit the needs of today's travelers who have less time. Instead of extensive listings mostly for globe-trotting budget travelers, the new Moon Handbooks now provide fewer but more selective listings for a variety of budgets. The guides also provide suggested itineraries, based on available time and highlight must-see destinations at the beginning of each chapter. Due to the wide format, the books are more easily readable than other guides. The main attractions are also marked with a special icon and sidebars and boxes highlight special information, making the Moon Handbooks one of the most user-friendly guides in terms of visual appeal and organization.
In addition, Moon has a rich and developing Living Abroad guidebook series.
Last but not least, Avalon publishes Rick Steves' excellent and practical series of guidebooks, largely covering Europe.
Downside: Could not come up with anything significant, as the quality is uniformly excellent.
DK Eyewitness Travel Guides (DK Publishing).
One of my favorite guidebook series when it comes to illustrated information about cultural sites and attractions. The annually updated guides are illustrated with numerous photographs, and well-drawn illustrations of major sites allow readers to immediately grasp a destination’s layout and visit its main attractions simply by looking at the illustrations. I used the guide in India, and was surprised to find a lot of useful information about art, culture, food, and architecture, even for remote areas.
Downside: Due to the full-color pages and thick paper, the guide is quite heavy, especially since it is not designed as an all-inclusive guide. Travelers still need to carry another guidebook to learn about nuts-and-bolts travel information such as transportation and lodging.
Lonely Planet is no doubt among the world's best-selling travel guides, and for a good reason. The guidebooks make it easy for travelers to deal with the daily challenges independent travelers face every day: how to get around, where to stay, where to eat, etc. But the guidebooks lack in-depth information about cultural destinations. If you like cultural or natural attractions, you will still need another guidebook that specializes in that area. On the other hand, most Lonely Planet country guides are still the best choice for long-term travelers, who need exhaustive listings and information about the places they are about to visit. Lonely Planet books are one of the few travel guide series that are still geared toward globetrotters.
Downside: Due to the vast popularity and faithful following, Lonely Planet has inadvertently helped to create a "Lonely Planet Trail" in the countries covered by their guides.
Rough Guides, www.roughguides.com.
This is another popular guidebook series with a huge following. The Rough Guides devote more space to the description of various attractions and destinations. Their style is more narrative than other guidebooks, and while you get more information from a Lonely Planet guide of the same volume, I am informed with a better sense of place and culture from the Rough Guide series. The guides also provide great practical travel tips about transportation, safety, and all the other travel essentials.
Downside: Sometimes not specific enough and lacking key details about some key essentials, such as places to stay and eat.
Insight Guides, www.insightguides.com.
Although not updated as often as other travel guides, the Insight Guides are just that: replete with essays that provide valuable insights into most aspects of a country, its people, culture, history and attractions. The well illustrated guides provide a rich photographic journey through the various countries, and readers get a colorful and diverse impression before traveling there. The Insight guides focus instead on providing a country portrait with well-researched and thoughtful essays.
Downside: The books do not have as much practical travel information and tips as other guides, and the selection of lodging and dining is limited.
Bradt Travel Guides, a U.K. publisher of travel guides, specializes in guidebooks to offbeat and less traveled destinations around the world. Among the titles are wildlife guides, backpacking and trekking guides, and regional guidebooks covering areas of special interest. The guides do not have exhaustive listings, but instead provide a small but well-chosen selection of listings. The full-page format without columns makes the Bradt Guides easy to read and navigate through.
Downside: The guidebooks are not updated as often as other travel guides, and I have found some of the information to be outdated.
Time Out City Guides are a series of guidebooks to over 24 countries, providing you with a hip view of all you need to know about a growing selection of world cities. The books are intended for short-term visitors on a city tour, although the large amount of listings can make it difficult to prioritize what to do and see. Still this series is among the best city guides available for travelers today, and if you plan on a city vacation, find out if Time Out publishes a guide for your destination. Of course, Time Out magazines are available for many major cities, such as New York, worldwide.
Downside: The focus on what is hip at a destination sometimes makes the coverage a bit more superficial.
Knopf Guides (A division of Random House).
This is a series of illustrated guidebooks with 27 titles to popular cities, regions and countries. There are lots of photos and illustrations, but the guides have a somewhat confusing and convoluted format. The books cover primarily the best-known sites and destinations and include suggested itineraries. The target audience is short-term travelers interested in the most important tourist sites of the featured destinations.
Downside: The Knopf guides are a handy illustrated companion, but practical travel information is limited.
Footprint Handbooks is a U.K. publisher of travel guides, with eighty different guidebooks. But the new generation of guides shows an improved new format, providing less but more selective information to appeal to today's travelers with less time on their hand. A few of their guides still follow their traditional mission of providing as much information as possible for those budget travelers with lots of time and little money.
Other Book Series of Interest to Travelers:
Travelers’ Tales (Travelers' Tales Inc.), travelerstales.com.
This series is a nice complement to conventional travel guides. Each book is a collection of travel stories and essays about one country, providing insights and experiences from a variety of travel writers, some of them well-known authors.
The Traveller's History Series (Interlink Books), www.interlinkbooks.com.
Available for 33 countries and cities, the Traveller's History series is designed for travelers who want more historical background on the country they are visiting than can be found in a tour guide. Each volume offers a complete and authoritative history of the country from the earliest times up to the present day, in a lightweight, portable format. They are a great companion for history buffs and travelers looking for more extensive background information.
A Traveler's Literary Companion (Whereabouts Press), whereaboutspress.com.
This series explores the culture, history and traditions of over a dozen countries through a collection of writing by well-known local authors. The books contain 20-30 different short stories and are a great way to get a sense of the flavor and color of a destination before you travel and provide entertaining and enlightening reading during your trip.