A Guide to Travel Guides
In May of 2001 I left the North American continent for the first time, a three week trip to India with 23 other Georgia university faculty. It was overwhelming but fabulous, and I've travelled quite a bit since then. Driving, flying, with friends, alone ... Which guide book will suit you best is very much a question of personal temperment. These are observations from my use of some of them.
- AAA Guide Books
If you're an AAA member, don't overlook their guidebooks to individual states and regions. These aren't fantastic books, but they're free and not bad. They give a passable overview of the region, what sites are like, what they cost, and a basic history of the region. They're okay for hotels, but they'll never list anything unusual or super-cheap. Their taste in restaurants is fairly mundane and relatively expensive. The maps in the books are pretty limited, but if you're an AAA member you get free and excellent maps as well. So - best for the sites.
Mostly printed on newsprint, very cheap paper. I hate the feel of it. Not good if you want to choose your own itinerary, because they prescribe routes through areas or neighbourhoods and only tell you about sites in that context.
Heavier concentration than usual on where to eat and sleep than most, and at that expects you to be pretty affluent.
- Eye Witness Travel Guides (Dorling Kindersley)
Eye Witness books are better than any other travel guides at letting you know what things look like. They're fantastic for that. One thing I dislike is that they tell you if a site cost money - but not how much, and they make no attempt to list hours. I'm also not a fan of their hotel or restaurant listings.
- Lonely Planet
For the "hip," poor traveller. Lists cheap restaurants as well as expensive ones, and mixes listings for youth hostels in with the hotels. Definitely the best if you're looking for cheap places to stay. Goes off the beaten track some. Good at local history and customs. My problem with Lonely Planet is that they have too much attitude for their own good, and they claim authority in areas they aren't actually authoritative in (ie. "You must do this while in a bar in San Francisco," inviting you to make a fool of yourself).
If you're travelling Michelin, you're A) going by car, B) well off, and C) probably on the European continent - although I'm basing this on a book about the province of Quebec. It also seems that despite being made by a tire company about driving vacations, their maps are crap. They give one map relatively small and undetailed map for a huge region, and then refer back to it for the next 100 pages without ever giving detail maps of specific towns, areas, or drives.
They have four price ranges for both hotels and restaurants: the bottom tier would generally have been considered "cheap," and the medium one "reasonable." The other two were out of my range: I don't think I ever saw that cheapest rating for hotels, and rarely for restaurants. But then, they are the source of the much coveted Michelin Stars.
Their listings for places and things to do seems to be pretty good.
- Rick Steves' Guides
Rick Steves sticks to Europe, and I understand he has a TV show and all. I can only comment on the guidebooks I've seen. Both the 2006 Istanbul and Rome guides have a section in them called "Other Guidebooks" that says "For most travelers, this book is all you need. But when you consider the improvements they'll make in your $3,000 vacation, $25 or $35 for extra maps and books is money well spent." He also adds "Eyewitness is fun for its great, easy-to-grasp graphics and photos, and it's just right for people who want only factoids. But the Eyewitness books are relatively skimpy on content and they weigh a ton." Which is a reasonably accurate assessment. He won major points with me for saying that other guidebooks are worth the investment - but I can't find this comment in the 2009 "Rome" guide.
He's a bit prescriptive, he's a bit of a dick, but his presentation style is easy-going and he knows what he's talking about. He tends to concentrate heavily on what he sees as "the good stuff" and leave out the lesser sights: this is, like so many choices, both a good thing and a bad thing. Excellent detail on the stuff he covers, but you'll never find the small sites because he doesn't list them.
The 2009 Rome guide was an order of magnitude better than the same Rough Guide for restaurants, but the 2010 Istanbul guide was only fairly good for restaurants.
After taking both his guide and the Rough Guide with me to Prague and finding that Rick Steves doesn't mention the Veletržní palác AT ALL, I'll never use his guides again: the Veletržní is, in my opinion, one of the best art galleries in the world.
- Rough Guides
My personal favourite (by a small margin). The Mini-Rough Guides have been good too. They strike the balance (for me anyway) between the more traditional guides like Fodor's and the overly "hip" Lonely Planet. They list cheap restaurants and hotels with the expensive ones, and they go easy on the attitude. Or perhaps I should say that I like their attitude better than Lonely Planet's, because the Rough Guide definitely sports some. Good at local history and customs. Descriptions of sites are usually extensive and mostly accurate. Not many pictures, although they've put a few more in got to what I'd call "enough."