Look past the book
Repeat after me: A guidebook is not a religious text. And again: A guidebook is not the inspired word of the travel god.
That might almost be all that needs to be said about travel guidebooks but as you may be wanting to read a little more and newspaper editors don't really like large expanses of blank newsprint, here's a fuller version.
Very few of us venture overseas without at least one guidebook in our luggage. Indeed, if you look around an airport departure lounge some people seem to travel with their guidebooks welded to one hand.
Today, more travellers are downloading travel guides into their smart phones or researching and downloading destination information from the internet. However, guidebooks still sell in their millions and the selection of titles seems to be expanding.
There are some very good reasons why guidebooks are considered so essential (and consequently why there are so many for sale). A good guidebook can give you illuminating historical and cultural information about your destination, help you find somewhere for dinner and provide you with a wealth of useful practical advice, especially in the event of travel emergencies.
However, guidebooks do have some weaknesses. So, before we look at some of the main travel publications here are few thoughts to keep in mind:
1) Guidebooks, even "new editions" will contain a great deal of out-of-date information even from the day they hit the shelves. There can be a considerable time-lag from the time a book researcher in the country concerned visits a hotel and a restaurant to their review appearing in a book. Guidebooks for less frequently visited destinations may not be updated annually so even the newest edition could be several years out of date. However, information on history, (with the exception of more recent events), culture, religion and so on will not change as significantly.
(This is one of the strengths of some online travel guides – they can be more up-to-date, especially review sites such as tripadvisor.com)
2) Guidebooks are not always accurate. I have lost count of the times when expert local guides have pointed out errors in the guidebooks written about their own countries. I have also almost stopped counting the number of occasions when travellers will argue this point: "But it says in the guidebook ..." Even guidebook sections on history can have glaring errors and sadly these can often stay uncorrected for years. Increasingly, these days, even local tourist promotion offices lift entire sections (in countries with lax copyright laws at least) or borrow from guidebooks so it is not unknown for them to reprint the same mistakes.
Sometimes less scrupulous or less experienced local guides have been known to expand their repertoire by using guidebooks so some errors can be in circulation for years, especially if they are then repeated by travel writers, travel show presenters and bloggers.
3) Travel guide researchers cannot visit every hotel, restaurant or cafe in their designated country or region. Just because a hotel or other facility is not mentioned it doesn't mean it's not good, or serve delicious food or have great service. I met a guesthouse owner in Sri Lanka's hill country who pleaded with me to choose his guest house even though it wasn't listed in my guidebook.
He was the only one in this small town who hadn't been visited by the researcher and as a result he was almost going out of business. I took a gamble and went with him. His family ran an immaculate, friendly, small hotel with delicious food and superb views, all provided at a very reasonable rate.
Conversely, one of the few times I have been horribly sick in India was after visiting a restaurant highly recommended in a guidebook. Reviews on internet sites such as tripadvisor.com should be treated with the same caution – many hotels or guesthouses now actively encourage guests to write a review for tripadvisor, which can skew ratings as can the plentiful array of nutters who will write a hotel off entirely because of a misplaced cake of soap.
4) Nothing beats local knowledge.
I still get incredibly frustrated watching tour group members visiting, for example, archaeological sites, who have their noses in their guide books while an expert local guide is standing beside them.
Once, in Libya, we were lucky enough to be taken around the ruins of a Greek city with a local guide who had spent decades working with the very archaeologists who had excavated the site.
One of the beautiful marble statues in the site museum had been found by our guide; his wife referred to it as his mistress as she reckoned her husband had spent more time with the statue as he painstakingly unearthed it than he had with her!
However, one of our group chose instead to explore the site with only his guidebook. Not only did he miss so much detail that was not in his book, he missed the benefit of decades of carefully amassed knowledge and, almost as importantly, the pleasure of interacting with a local.
Choosing a guidebook
Yes, there are publications other than Lonely Planet out there!
Lonely Planet is a global phenomenon and in some ways justifiably so. It has one of the most comprehensive selections of destinations, right down to region and city level. It is not free from inaccuracies but is reasonably reliable and widely available.
However, the downside is that almost every other traveller you will meet will also be armed with a copy.
This means that highly recommended reasonably priced guest houses and restaurants are likely to be swamped by fellow LP devotees.
The irony is that anything promoted as "off the beaten track" or "a best-kept secret" sure won't be by the time you get there.
Among the dozens of other guidebook publishers are Rough Guides, Eyewitness Travel, Insight Guides, Bradt and Odyssey, Frommer's and Let's Go.
Guidebooks, partly because of their size and also the number of colour plates, can be very expensive, so choose your guidebook carefully.
Here are some tips:
1) Some guidebooks are slanted towards a certain age of traveller or those on different budgets. Rough Guides, for example, is favoured by backpackers. Frommer's is for travellers on more generous budgets. Let's Go is a long-established favourite among younger travellers, especially Americans, and again, Frommer's is probably aimed more at older readers.
2) Different series have varying styles. Look for a guidebook that is on your wavelength. If you want in-depth, serious history a Bradt guide, for example, might be more suitable than Rough Guide.
One way of seeing if a guidebook's recommendations might match your taste is to sample a publication's edition on New Zealand or another country you know well. If the general impression of hotels, restaurants and so on differs markedly to yours then maybe you need a different publication. Keep in mind that each guidebook will be written by different writers. However, each publisher usually has a consistent style).
3) Book size – if you're trying to travel light, one of those massive weighty whole continent guides may not be a good idea. However, there are options – if, after having paid out for one of these very expensive books you can bear the thought – slice up the book as you travel and discard sections as you go. Some publishers, such as Lonely Planet, also offer the option of being able to pay to download certain sections of a guidebook. Two series I use sometimes, Eyewitness and Insight, seem to be disproportionately heavy.
I almost never take these away with me but use only for reference at home.
A few series to consider
Bradt – excellent for more in-depth information on history and local sights. Each guide is written by the one author. The emphasis is on text rather than colour photos. There are basic but adequate maps of archaeological sites, historic city quarters and so on.
Odyssey – another excellent choice if you like lots of meaty information. They have more colour plates than Bradt but sometimes fewer maps.
Insight Guides – beautiful to look at and crammed with colour photos. As with the two guides above, hotel and restaurant reviews are brief and not especially comprehensive. This is not necessarily a disadvantage, as many people don't want to pay for pages and pages on cafes, bars and so on that they might not ever need and that are the most likely sections to be out of date.
Eyewitness Travel – the luscious, temptress of the guidebook world. These books lure one in with full colour on every page and their trademark three-dimensional maps of monuments, archaeological sites and historic city quarters. However, all this eye candy is at the expense of detailed explanations and all but the most basic information. Hotel, restaurant information is more comprehensive but there tends to be more of an emphasis on top-end establishments. This book is perfect if you don't want to be deluged by too much detail but in some ways is a better souvenir of a destination than a practical guide while you are there.
Lonely Planet – the one guide to rule them all. Still. Plenty of maps, diagrams, more text than photos and painstakingly detailed (if not always accurate) practical information. Possibly the best guide for first-time travellers. Just remember sometimes to put it down and do some exploring on your own.
Finally, as with all these guides, don't believe everything you read. Apart from this, of course.
The Timaru Herald