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The Best Travel Guidebook Series

Travel Guidebooks

As record numbers of people travel abroad post-pandemic in 2023, publishers are again cashing in on the growing travel industry. Still, the variety of guidebooks and publishers has diminished compared to a few years ago due to the tendency toward consolidation, which crosses most industries. Nevertheless, finding a printed guidebook that suits your needs and whose style and suggestions you like is not easy, and more and more of the information you desire can be found online, often catering to smaller niches, or in apps — but usually not in the complete format offered by that brilliant old form of portable technology. Some readers find reading on Kindle or in ebook format acceptable, but that is a largely generational choice. However, lugging many books in limited luggage space makes the electronic format using a device more and more appealing as an alternative.

Although many printed travel guides are still available, we have found few single travel guidebook series that meet all our travel needs and interests. Some books provide in-depth cultural and historical information with excellent essays and photographs but have few lodging, dining, and transportation recommendations. Others emphasize practical travel information but need more background on culture and history. The best travel guide is often combined from print and online sources based on your interests and travel preferences. I recommend getting a general guide that tells you how to get around and where to stay and another guide specializing in your main travel interests, including art, history, trekking, cuisine, kayaking, etc.

How to Choose a Guidebook that is Right for You

In recent years, a few trends in travel guides have emerged as publishers aim their guidebooks at travelers who have less time but are willing to spend more money. As a result, many guidebook series 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. Instead of exhaustive listings of sights, accommodations, 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 available travel guides, go to a bookstore and browse the travel section. Read the introductory paragraphs of different travel guides to determine if you like the author's voice and style. On sites like Amazon, you may often get samples of books for free, which you can review to get a sense of the coverage, often including the table of contents. If you have access to the entire printed book at a bookstore, 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 on one page, making it challenging 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 essential information, such as an introduction to the local food, culture, customs, history, and festivals? All these are important considerations.

Ask yourself your primary travel interests and look for a guide that provides the needed information. Do you like background information on history and cultural sights, or would you prefer a guide focusing on nightlife and entertainment? If you are interested in the outdoors, ensure your guide provides detailed information about hiking, treks, safaris, and ecotourism. If you are looking for a special interest travel guide that covers activities such as hiking, trekking, canoeing, bicycling, or cultural events, remember that these guides sell fewer copies than general travel guides and may receive updates less 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 primary area of interest.

Also, remember that regional and special interest guides are often available locally in English, a great option in English-speaking countries. I bought several hiking and trekking guides for the Himalayas in India, 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 a major city, 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, specializing in one area. These guides also usually have a smaller format, making carrying them in your pocket more feasible.

Finally, many authors have decided to self-publish and distribute their books on regions and countries via Amazon or handle fulfillment themselves. Some are pretty successful, and others use publishing fulfillment services. Some excellent books and ebooks can be found advertised on websites or published on the likes of Amazon.

Below we have listed some of our favorite travel guidebook series.

Moon Travel Guides
The Hachette Book Group includes Moon and 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 and often travel within the United States. 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 particular information, making the Moon Handbooks one of the most user-friendly guides in terms of visual appeal and organization.

Lastly, the Hachette Book Group publishes Rick Steves' series of fine guidebooks, largely covering Europe.

Downside: I could not come up with anything significant, as the quality could be more uniformly excellent. We were sad that Moon stopped their fine series on Living Abroad in countries worldwide. Moon also publishes fewer fine travel guidebooks on countries outside the U.S. than it once did, though its coverage is still vast.

Lonely Planet
Lonely Planet is undoubtedly 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: how to get around, where to stay, where to eat, etc. But the guidebooks need more in-depth information about cultural destinations. If you like cultural or natural attractions, you may need another guidebook specializing in that area of interest. 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 geared toward globetrotters.

Downside: Due to its 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
Rough Guides is another popular guidebook series with a considerable following. The Rough Guides devote more space to describing 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, you will get information 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 lacks critical details about essentials, such as places to stay and eat.

DK Eyewitness Travel Guides (DK Publishing)
It is one of my favorite guidebook series for illustrated information about cultural sites and attractions. The annually updated guides are illustrated with numerous photographs and well-drawn illustrations of major sites, allowing readers to immediately grasp a destination’s layout and visit its main attractions simply by looking at the pictures. I used the guide in India and was surprised to find helpful information about art, culture, food, architecture, and even remote areas.

Downside: Due to the full-color pages and thick paper, the guide is quite heavy, especially since it is designed as something other than an all-inclusive guide. Travelers still need to carry another guidebook to learn about nuts-and-bolts travel information such as transportation and lodging.

Insight Guides
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 giving a country portrait with well-researched and thoughtful essays.

Downside: The books have less practical travel information and tips than 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 provide a small but well-chosen selection of listings. The full-page format without columns makes the Bradt Guides easy to read and navigate.

Downside: The guidebooks are updated less often than other travel guides, and I have found some of the information needing updating.

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