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Choosing a Guidebook

Half Your Trip Depends on What You Take With You

Half your trip depends upon your choice of a guidebook. Choose right and it will be like traveling with the best friend you ever had. Choose wrong and you’ll go home with a nagging feeling that your trip could have been much, much better.

Fortunately, choosing which guidebook is the one for you is easy. Here are the basic rules:

First and most important, buy a book, not a series. Books are written by individuals, not by companies, and books in any series can be very, very different. At the same time, all series have their unique strengths. If you’re going to Europe to eat, Michelin is the standard. If you’re looking for noodles in Ayutthaya, Lonely Planet is the place to start. But strong in one area can easily mean weak in another area that’s important to you. Look for balance. Which brings us to the next point:

Know yourself. You can’t pick right unless you know what you want. Are you out to explore a region’s history or to lounge on the beach? Spend some time looking at the things that matter to you, comparing from book to book.

Look up the place you’re going in several different books. Of course you don’t know which is accurate, but if two books say one thing and the third another, well, maybe number three is a problem. This also gives you a chance to look at the writer’s style—is this somebody you want with you on your trip? Check for the vital facts: How do you get from the airport to town without hassle? A random check of books on Belgium showed that only one included this basic bit of information. If it’s missing, that’s a good indication that other things you need to know are missing as well. This simple test can save you a $50 taxi ride.

Look for purple prose. Many guidebook writers copy huge chunks straight from tourist office brochures. If they talk about the sunset over the beach or the colorful costumes of the locals, drop it.

No books are up to date. With a few exceptions (like those of Rick Steves) a new guidebook is a year old before you ever see it because it takes that long to research and publish. By the time you go, half the restaurants listed have gone bust and all the hotels have raised their prices. Choose a book with a good selection. Some very popular guides only list a few places to stay in big cities; guess what your chance is of getting a spot.

Do not blindly trust your book. If something in your trip is make or break, don’t rely on any one source. Before you leave home, go online, make some phone calls, do whatever you have to do to get the very latest information. (A little homework would have gotten me more than two hours in the Prado on my last trip.) If it matters to you, check again.

What Guidebooks Tell Us

Our 1910 guidebook tells us that a horse from Brussels’ Gare du Nord to the old town will cost FF1. Dinner should cost FF6. We find no horses outside the station and dinner costs FF1,400. But we’re very happy with the guidebook anyway.

A guidebook that was outdated before the Titanic sank lays a transparency of the past on top of the modern. Where that McDonald’s is now, there used to be the town’s most fashionable millinery. That square choked with buses used to be a mansion. There’s no better way to get to know a place than looking at it through time, and an old guidebook is the best way to feel that time.

Japan was bombed into oblivion after my Japanese guidebook was published. Europe has been destroyed twice since my Belgium book left the shop. But the descriptions still hold true to a surprising degree. There are places so treasured, so lovingly protected or rebuilt, you can’t tell that the last century ever happened. Seeing what history has decided to keep is as much of an insight into a culture as seeing what a place has lost.

The author of a 1921 Baedecker can assume references to both The Aeneid and Das Rheingold make sense. An old guide bridges the gap between your world and your grandparents’. What did they know that we don’t?

But finally, the best thing about old guides is that they make you slow down and really look. We can go to Paris for a long weekend, but before the jet age, it took ten days just to get from New York to Calais. Knowing they had time, travelers looked for depth of detail you don’t see any more. A 2001 guide to Canterbury Cathedral has two pages; my 1914 guide has 13.

If you’re looking for history, for perspective, an old guide is what you need. To find one, try, which lists the wares of over 6,000 book dealers. They start at around $50. Get one and let it show you another way of seeing.

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