Travel Tip Tuesday: Travel Guide Books Decoded Part I

A quick glance down the travel book aisle at Barnes and Noble is enough to make a bright-eyed globe trotter toss in his passport and run for cover. The market is inundated with guide books promising would-be buyers the best accommodations, the most recently updated dining options, the highest user reviews or the most preciously overlooked treasures.

They fail to mention however their unidentifiable table of symbols, their microscopic maps or the fact that they can easily double as a free weight add-on in the Olympic World’s Strongest Man contest.


For this week’s edition of Travel Tip Tuesday I’ve been asked to recommend some of my favorite guide books and explain the selection process I use before a trip. So, welcome to Part I of Travel Guide Books Decoded.

It’s been said no one is a good kisser, but rather it is the combination of two individuals that make something great. In some ways the same can be said for a guide book. Oh, I definitely have my favorites and there are a few I avoid at all costs, but whether a guide book is good or bad depends on your needs.

Ask yourself the following questions before selecting a guide book.

– What do you want? Do you want budget travel hotel and restaurant listings? Do you want guides for museums,  architecture or shopping? Do you want to learn more about the country’s history or culture?

– Are you looking for a guide book that will help you determine when to travel, provide weather information, visa details or important numbers?

– Do you want a all-in-one guide book with full-color maps, photos and listings for an entire country or would you rather have the focus on a specific region?

Now that you know what to look for here is a quick breakdown of some of the more popular guide books on the market today.

I bought my first Let’s Go book in 2000 when I moved to Paris and have loved the series since. It offers background without reading like a history lesson, is easy to read and their recommendations have never failed me because they market to budget travelers. Keep in mind, though that these folks aren’t photographers. There are little, if no, pictures in the guides I own.

LP is famous for its vast coverage, compact size and inexpensive price. They have a ton of information on lesser-known locals, interesting historical and cultural facts and have good budget travel recommendations. However, their somewhat-recent scandal puts me off, and I’ll be darn sure the author has visited the country before I rely on them again.

The Eyewitness Guides are jammed-packed with pictures, full-color maps and 3-D drawings of important geological and architectural sights.  They are great for visual learners, quick references and can serve as a lasting reminder of your favorite places.

What about you? Do you judge a guide book by its cover? What criteria do you use? What are some of your favorites? Be sure to come back next week for more reviews and to see which guide book I trusted for honeymoon trip to Belize.

Until next time … Buon Viaggio!

* Special thanks to my bleeding heart bleeding espresso buddy for her insight and research on some of the guide books mentioned in this series. Grazie mille, Michelle!

16 Responses
  1. Ugh, DK!! Lovely to look at, TERRIBLE to try to use. I had one in Vienna once and vowed never again. But they are fun to look at once you’re back home.

    I love Rough Guides — they provide good historical and cultural background and a good level of detail. I think they’re well organized, but that may be because I’ve used them so long and am so familiar with their layouts.

    And, might I say, the restaurant guide in the France Rough Guide of 2004 led me to my husband in the winebar where he worked!! That will make ANYone a fan.

    Thanks for a fun topic!
    I’d say Rough Guides deserve a special kind of romance award, wouldn’t you? That is a great story! Glad you enjoyed the post.

  2. I’m with Rough Guides too and the green michelin series.

    Hadn’t heard about the Lonely Planet scandal. I wonder how much of that goes on?
    Apparently it goes on more than we’d like it to. There was a lot said about it immediately following the scandal. For that reason I like to compare listings and look for information online. If I see one listing over and over, I trust it.

  3. The thin DK eyewitness Top Ten Guides are more a lot user friendly.

    Since I love history I like the DK guides better than Frommers or Lonely Planet. I don’t use guides for hotels, restaurants etc. I do that research online/word of mouth. I need guides for information on the art/history/culture.

    Time Out Guides are great for navigating big cities like New York, London, Paris. etc.
    I’ve seen those thin DK Guides, but never really “explored” them. I love the Michelin Guides for history, as well. Like you, I do a LOT of research online. The more you know, right??

  4. I had no idea about the Lonely Planet scandal. I’ve used their guides numerous times and have never found major inaccuracies. Their India guidebook is excellent. But I guess it would be difficult for one person to visit all the hotels and sites they mention. I used to use the Let’s Go series when I was a poor student traveller. but have gone off them now. I agree with Ragazza: Time Out makes great city guides.
    Thanks for the info on Time Out. I haven’t used them yet. I’ll always be a poor student traveler at heart…

  5. Thank you very much for this.

    I will look at Let’s Go or Lonely because it is a bit of history as well as good but reasonably price food I am looking for.

    I associate DK with kids books, as my boys bring those home from the library all the time.
    Ha. Now that you mention it, I saw DK books at my library back home, too. Glad you liked the post. I’ll list a few more next week!

  6. Great info! And you are right- there are several million available for each area. I like Frommer’s. And I dig the city walk cards.

    And one of my favorite lesser known options is a book called *Romantic Paris*. Love. that. book.

    Oh, and I must disagree. I am a good kisser 😉
    There are dozens of “other” books on the major cities and areas such as Rome and Paris. Anything you’d want to do is available. There ar books on Hiking Trails, Dining only, etc. etc … those are often good additions, too! And as for your, uhm … argument. Go girl! 🙂

  7. I like Cadogan guides, although they are not generalist guides. The writers have to live in the country to write the books. There’s your opp, Cherye! I found the town where I live through Cadogan Tuscany/Umbria.
    Oooh, sounds good to me. Grazie for the tip, Judith!

  8. I’ve enjoyed Avant Guides, they’re relatively new, maybe five years old. And I also like the TOP 10 guides, they’re small and good for when you’re on shorter trip.
    Thanks for the new leads, Geggie. I’ll have to check out Avant, too!

  9. j

    For Europe I have always used the Rick Steve’s guidebooks. He does a travel show on PBS and what I especially like about them is he seems to have the same travel style as I.

    …funny, I always thought I was a good kisser.
    Ha! Ok, J. I won’t argue with you!! And it is a good idea to find a guide with the same travel style! Glad you found one.

  10. Ragazza’s right on Time Out for cities. When i first moved to Paris in 2004, I forked over 20-something euros for their Paris Eating and Drinking Guide. It proved worth every penny! The editors were spot on with their restaurant coverage, and the book (and indexes) were organized so as to be so easy to use.

    I work in a bookstore now, and overheard someone this weekend grumbling about the 23-euro price of Pudlo Paris (another restaurant guide), saying, “That’s a lot to spend just to know where to eat!” I started to interrupt and say “A lot cheaper than an 80-euro meal gone bad!” but thought that might be obnoxious. If you’re going to be somewhere any length of time those books pay for themselves!

    I also love Cadogan . . .sigh, really I’m just a travel guide kinda gal.
    I’m just hearing all about Cadogan and definitely ready to try them out! Thanks.

  11. Vanessa

    Hmmm maybe that’s why the tram inspectors always rush to check my ticket, thinking i am some tourist. I read in the lonely planet that it’s FREE, had me scratching my head thinking when has the tram here (only been running for 3 years) EVER been free??!!

    I actually do like the lonely planet and the rough guides though as they provide a good mix of factual info, history, background contexts etc.

    History books I usually get to read before i go but am more interested in reading them AFTER seeing places.

    I find the internet interesting to read about places/ info in general but a pain in the ass to book stuff (takes SO LONG) – would rather look at the recomm in guide books and make a simple phone call. I do use trip advisor ( to check places out though.

    When i lived in London I did a lot of travelling and I never spent a single cent on travel books. Always got them out of the local library for free and returned them after the trip. I’d usually get one guide for the basics and listings, another history book and maybe also a quick guide or CDs to the language/ phrases. Now if only they had LIBRARIES in Sicily!!!
    He he … a library would be nice! And I agree – Tripadvisor is great!

  12. if you can get me out of B&N without a travel guide in hand, it is a feat of ingenuity! my trip planning involves several guides purchased (like rick steves says…if you are gonna spend several thou on a journey, why not drop 20USD on a guide to help you). i love rick steves but i usually rip his guide apart, removing what i don’t want & adding ripped out portions from several others…all to keep the backpack as light as possible. on my last few trips i had parts of eileen barish’s lodging in monasteries, DK’s top tens, frommers, let’s go, alastair sawday’s special places to stay, & downloaded notes from tripadvisor, articles ripped from magazines. i can only wish that our local library would have a travel book with a date in this decade!!
    Ha. That is funny. I usually browse that many and then select one to buy! LOL

  13. I never know which guide books to use, but have used the DK thin ones, and find them very useful. Not for hotels or restaurants though. We always stay in Holiday rentals, and just discover restaurants, when we are there. They also have useful maps in them, so on the whole not bad.

    Maybe if I was big into travel, I would use one of the others, will come back to you for hints!! 🙂
    Oh girl, I *love* having restaurant recs. That is the best part of travel!!

  14. My favorites are LP and Rick Steves (for Europe only). I usually get both of those for any place I’m visiting, & sometimes tear out only the sections I’ll need for a given trip. I like looking at DK guides, and have several, but never travel with them. They must use lead-based paper, it’s so friggin’ heavy… And honestly, more & more these days I’m turning to them thar interwebs to find stuff which I would have looked only to books in the past.
    I use the Internet a great deal, as well. I haven’t ever gotten into Rick Steves, but to be fair I don’t think I’ve given them a good chance.

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