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So many travel guides...which ones to buy?


With a mountain of choices facing you, selecting an ideal reference for your vacation can be daunting. Here are some best bets.


So many travel guides. . . which ones to buy?

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Choose article section... How many travel guides do you need? Have online guides made travel books obsolete? How leading travel guide series compare The best travel guides on the Web

With a mountain of choices facing you, selecting an ideal reference for your vacation can be daunting. Here are some best bets.

By Risa Weinreb

Amazon.com's online bookstore lists a staggering 32,000 travel guides and books on topics ranging from the commonplace (London), to the exotic (Surfing Australia), to the boldly arcane (Roadside Geology of Washington). More, in this case, isn't necessarily merrier.

How much you enjoy your vacation may hinge on the recommendations in the references you select. So, with thousands of guides competing for your attention, which ones should you buy?

•Area guides make up the broadest category of guidebooks. These deal comprehensively with large geographical regions, like Scandinavia or Iberia; whole continents; or even vaster territories, like Latin America or the South Pacific.

If you plan to visit more than one country, an area guide is a sensible choice. Despite its size (sometimes two or three inches thick) and weight (often a pound or more), an area guide can spare you from having to lug several smaller travel books. A good area guide should contain sufficient practical information and more than enough recommendations for sights, hotels, restaurants, and shopping to keep you enjoyably occupied at each destination on your itinerary.

•Country guides are somewhat slimmer and more focused. They're your best bets if you plan to travel within one nation. As you journey from, say, Trieste to Sicily, a single volume on Italy will offer detailed information on what to see and do en route and in each city. A country guide to Italy should contain more extensive information—on cities, sights, lodging, eateries, shops, day trips, and so forth—than the chapter on Italy in an area guide to Europe.

•Beware any city guide that's part of the same series as a country guide. Such volumes may be clones—not cousins. Say you're bound for France, where you'll do some touring in the countryside, but you plan to spend most of your time in Paris, and you're partial to Fodor's guides. Purchasing both Fodor's France and Fodor's Paris may seem logical. Unfortunately, much of the text is duplicated. For this and other series, be sure to compare texts and authors to ensure that you're not buying the same information twice.

•Then there are pocket guides, such as those in the Berlitz series. You won't find much in the way of hotel and restaurant recommendations in these svelte volumes, but you can't beat their portability. And for sightseeing, shopping, and practical information, they pack a decent amount of facts.

•Specialized guides deal with a single subject or theme. Some, like the Michelin Green Guide and Baedeker's series, specialize in tourist attractions. Others, like the Zagat restaurants guide and the Michelin Red Guides, are limited to eateries. A specialized guide may cover a specific form of locomotion: cycling, say, or hiking, or touring by rail. The Rough Guides and the Let's Go series concentrate on youth-oriented budget travel—although titles in either series should also appeal to cost-conscious wayfarers of all ages who seek to rent a bicycle or find the coolest funk-reggae clubs in town.

Specialized guides may have a surprisingly narrow focus—limited, for example, to country inns, antique hunting, or warehouse outlets. For London and Great Britain, guides are available on bed and breakfast facilities, gardens, haunted houses, Shakespeare-related attractions, mystery-lover landmarks, churches, castles and great houses, and on and on. Specialized guides to New York City number in the hundreds.

How many travel guides do you need?

There is no "best" guidebook. The best one for you depends on personal taste and the advice you seek. You might want hotel and restaurant recommendations, plus illustrated essays that convey a destination's history and culture. Or perhaps a book geared to a special interest, such as family travel or cycling, would better suit your needs.

Consider investing in at least two guides, if only for their varying perspectives—especially on hotels and restaurants. It's not unusual for author A to rave about a hotel or restaurant, while author B pans it and author C condemns it. Getting a second opinion is a form of vacation pleasure insurance.

Guidebooks offer a wide variety of mix-and-match possibilities. You might team a general volume strong on hotel and restaurant recommendations (titles in the Fodor's and Frommer's series are examples) with a guide that specializes in culture, history, and attractions (such as the Lonely Planet, Moon, or Michelin Green Guide series titles). Or select one of the above and a book that features evocative photos and commentaries (among them titles in the Insight Compact Guides, Knopf Guides, National Geographic Destinations, and Dorling Kindersley Eyewitness Travel Guides series). You can also pair a general guide that touches on all topics with a specialty guide containing more complete information on your specific interest.

Have online guides made travel books obsolete?

Now that much information offered by travel guide series can be found on the Web, will paper guides eventually disappear? Don't bet on it. Sure, you can print out restaurant reviews from the Internet, but a guidebook supplies restaurant addresses, hours, and cuisine descriptions on the spot. And a bound book with a good index is easier to tote and use than loose sheets of paper.

Travel guidebooks are usually more complete and better organized than their electronic counterparts. So far, one of the ostensible virtues of online travel information—that it can be continuously updated for accuracy—remains more theoretical than real. While there's no technological reason why travel guide Web sites can't offer timely news of renovated hotels or peregrinating chefs, doing so is simply too expensive.

Personal digital assistants—miniature computers that fit into the palm of your hand—are making inroads, however. Last April, Lonely Planet introduced CitySync—digital city guides developed for use with Palm or Handspring PDAs. Barely larger than a deck of cards, these devices are eminently portable. With CitySync guides loaded, you can speedily search through hundreds of hotel and restaurant reviews, descriptions of major sights, and shopping and entertainment options, all pinpointed on scrollable street maps.

CitySync guides are now available for 20 cities—including New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, London, Paris, and Hong Kong. Download them at www.citysync.com for $19.99 per city. You can also purchase them at bookstores and other retailers on CD-ROM; the tab for four cities is $49.99. Register your purchase online and get a fifth city free.

But don't expect digital sources to sound the death knell for paper guides. Traditional reading material may no longer be the only game in town, but in many situations—and travel is one of them—a book is often best.

For more information on choosing the right map for your trip, see "Navigating on vacation: New tools for plotting the best routes when you're on the road," A Medical Economics Web Exclusive!

The author is a freelance writer specializing in travel subjects.

How leading travel guide series compare

To give them a raison d'etre, travel guide series tend to differ conceptually, even when competing titles cover the same destination. Some volumes offer a verbal feast; others are rich in color photos and may contain fold-out maps.

•Fodor's ( www.fodors.com/books ). Are you seeking a moderately priced hotel on the Ile St-Louis in Paris, or wondering whether the Musée Matisse is open on Tuesdays? Your lifeline to the right answers: Fodor's Gold Guides, which impart all the travel whats, whens, and wheres with concision and accuracy. Most Fodor's guides are updated annually.

What's best: For logical, easy-to-read organization and layout, Fodor's guides shine. Descriptions and recommendations of hotels and restaurants are on target, if terse. The use of dollar signs ($ to $$$$) conveys relative pricing for accommodations (although exact rates aren't quoted). Suggestions for "A Good Walk" provide a valuable focus for city sightseeing.

The downside: The writing is stolid and lacks personality—a bit of a yawner. Graphics symbols can be confusing, and their keys are sometimes elusive. It took me 15 minutes to discover that a duck icon meant "good for kids."

•Frommer's (www.frommers.com/bookstore ). Everything you want to know about a destination—from seat-belt laws to value-added-tax refunds—is included in these encyclopedic guides, which shower attention on hotel and dining recommendations. Major destination guides are updated annually.

What's best: "The Best of" section near the front of each title points you to a destination's highlights, from the showiest chateaux of the Loire Valley to the tastiest dim sum in San Francisco's Chinatown. Descriptions of hotels and restaurants are much more detailed than those in Fodor's guides and are written with the chatty expertise you'd expect of a well-traveled friend. (Full disclosure: I'm the author of a Frommer's guide.)

The downside: Layouts are cluttered, but still comprehensible.

•Eyewitness Travel Guides (usstore.dk.com ). The hand's-down winner of the guidebook beauty contest, with hundreds of gorgeous photos artfully arrayed throughout each volume.

What's best: Sumptuous pictures and attractive layouts induce immediate wanderlust. Even the history chapters—usually dullsville in travel tomes—sparkle with lush illustrations. (Everyone from Catherine de Medicis to Josephine Baker enlivens the volume on France.) Dazzling 3-D aerial views and cutaway diagrams help the navigationally challenged negotiate towns and museums. The "Survival Guide" offers helpful practicalities, such as how to use a phone card in a pay phone abroad.

The downside: Eyewitness guides are awfully thin. Hotel and restaurant descriptions, as well as other useful information, verge on anorexic.

•Lonely Planet (www.lonelyplanet.com/prop ). These guides are highly recommended for off-the-beaten-path locales in Asia, Africa, and other places not frequented by American tourists. While the books are revised only every two to three years, online updates to selected titles can be downloaded from the publisher's Web site every six months. Shoestring guides (for budget travel), phrasebooks, and guides to wildlife, cycling, food, and other subjects are also published under the Lonely Planet colophon.

What's best: Lonely Planet titles provide an excellent sense of place, with detailed background on the customs, etiquette, history, religion, art, and politics of each locale. Maps are a strong point; the books often have the only coherent street schemes and routes available for some places—downtown Pushkar in central India, say. The writing is appealingly sassy.

The downside: Hotel and restaurant reviews are few and undetailed, and because the books aren't updated yearly, even that scant information may be outdated. Treatises on local geology and history, on the other hand, are often mind-numbing.

•The Rough Guides ( www.travel.roughguides.com ). If you're young and on a budget, you're ripe for traveling with a Rough Guide title.

What's best: The Rough Guide series presents thorough information about a destination's history, culture, and politics—a major reason why I prefer its titles to those in the Let's Go series ( www.letsgo.com). Especially helpful are the nitty-gritty explanations on how to get around by train and ferry. Night owls will also appreciate the extensive listings of hot clubs and bars.

The downside: Write-ups of hotels and restaurants are especially measly (10 words or fewer) and all boil down to the same thing: "Simple place but good value." To be fair, el cheapo accommodations tend to be similar, but budget eateries may vary considerably in quality.

•Rick Steves' Travel Guidebook Library ( www.ricksteves.com ). The host of the popular TV series, Travels in Europe with Rick Steves, which appears on PBS stations and the cable Travel Channel, Steves wins fans with his unabashedly opinionated style. Geared to the thrifty, this series encompasses 11 annually updated titles, all focused on Europe.

What's best: The iconoclastic writing in these slim volumes stands in refreshing contrast to the often soporific travel guide prose found in other series. Steves' guides take you in hand, suggesting ideal itineraries for stays of three to 21 days. There are lots of insider tips, such as which entrance line at the Eiffel Tower moves the fastest.

The downside: Hotel and restaurant recommendations are limited. The index is sketchy—you have to thumb through the entire volume to find the Louvre.

The best travel guides on the Web

A growing number of guidebook series are making the leap into cyberspace—some more successfully than others. The best ones:

•www.fodors.com . You'll find lots of super stuff here, including guidebook facts and recommendations, breaking travel news, and bulletins about airfare bargains. Search for hotel accommodations by location, price, and amenities (health club, pool, restaurant, etc.). In my favorite section, "Rants & Raves," real-life travelers review hotels and restaurants—warts and all.

• www.frommers.com . This site—Arthur Frommer's Budget Travel Online—reads like the electronic version of the magazine Arthur Frommer's Budget Travel for Cost-Conscious Travelers. It offers a daily newsletter with the latest bargains, and articles on how to go practically anywhere—cheaply. The site offers a wealth of information from the printed series, too. Hotel recommendations are searchable by price; suggested eateries by price, neighborhood, and even cuisine type.

•www.lonelyplanet.com . Grabby graphics and brash copy make it clear this is a Web site with an attitude. Although it offers in-depth information about history and culture, practical information is missing—such as addresses or the hours during which attractions are visitable. Don't look for hotel and restaurant recommendations, either. The site's bulletin board, "Thorn Tree," offers zingy remarks on topics unlikely to be covered elsewhere. Recent postings had information on travel to Cuba and where to get your legs waxed in India.

•travel.roughguides.com . The Rough Guides site posts the complete content of all travel guides in the series and tries to update the information regularly. Finding stuff is a cinch. Highlights include a busy chat room and an informative section called "Spotlight," which irreverently focuses on different cities, countries, and regions. The article on Dublin, for instance, is titled "Cobwebbed Corpses and Guinness Galore," and the one on Finland is called "The Art of Power Undressing."

• www.zagat.com . If your paramount question when you travel is What's for dinner? Zagat is the site for you. It offers reader reviews of restaurants at 32 American destinations, as well as London, Paris, Tokyo, Toronto, and Vancouver. You can browse restaurants by neighborhood, cuisine, ratings, and more. A free membership on the site allows you to submit your own reviews (and reap revenge for that overpriced wine list).


Risa Weinreb. So many travel guides...which ones to buy?. Medical Economics 2001;5:79.

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