The Value of Travel Guide Books
Travel guidebooks are a thing that many people no longer seem to value like they once did. It might seem weird to bother investing in a guidebook when there is so much travel information available for free online, but have you considered who is paying for the information you get?
Because if you’re not paying, someone is, and that someone probably does not have your best interests at heart. Think about it. The sites and organizations that you will see promoted are the ones that paid for promotion. The businesses that either don’t need to pay for promotion in that way, or are a nonprofits (such as historical sites), won’t be there anyway. So what you are going to find out about are the most commercial, expensive, tourist oriented things to do. You are going to pay, and you probably are not going to have the best experience.
Guidebooks do make some of their money, especially now, by running tour groups. But when you buy one of their books, the information is all in one place, and far more valuable than the +/-$20.00 US you pay for it since the information has been developed over years and is based on the experiences of writers and researchers who are paid by the travel company, not by the people who are selling whatever it is.
If you have a bad experience while traveling, there’s a good chance you will never go back to the place again, but you will always remember the name of the guide book that steered you wrong, and the guide book companies know that.
Most of them also include self-guided tours, which frankly, I love. You can also get audio versions, but I actually enjoy struggling with the maps and stopping and reading about the site while I’m there. I just do. I get a sense of discovery that way that I don’t get from a tour guide. Anyway, with a guide book, you can do your own thing…read it all right there or mark it for later and read it over drinks or with dinner.
I also like the consistency. I tend to use the same series over and over, so I know the general layout of the book and where to find the information I need.
I always get the most recent edition of the book available. To skimp on a small purchase like that when you about to take a trip makes no sense. Yes, even then you might find the prices are slightly outdated, but at least you will have a ball park. If the price has gone up a litte, that’s to be expected. You just need to estimate anyway, and if you’re traveling to another country, you have to plan around fluctuations in currency exhcange rates anyway.
Here is a handy guide for when to use guidebooks and when to use the Internet:
Arriving and departing the country
Guide Book: AIRPORT GROUND TRAVEL, Safety overview, currency and ATM information
Usually you can get cash on your ATM in the airport, but you need to know. Some countries have limited ATM’s that take foreign cards, in my experience, Israel and Japan are tricky. You need to know if there is a visa feel and whether you can use a credit card or need certain currencies. For example, in Vietnam I needed US dollars. My friend had British pounds, and they didn’t work.
One of the biggest rip-offs that can happen at the airport are with taxis, especially if you come late at night. Make sure you know which are the official, regulated (and fairly priced but still may be expensive) taxis, and if there is good mass transit, how to take it, and how late it runs. Sometimes just having a hotel shuttle is better.
Airport arrivals are bad places to look confused because too many people are waiting to rip you off, but it some countries, the official services look just as sketchy. If you do get confused, talk to clearly uniformed staff only.
Internet: Booking flights.
Guide book: the local laws for buying a phone card and where to go. In some places, buying them in the airport is fine, some places they are a rip off in the airport. Some countries have a waiting period before a foreigner can buy a card, so you may be stuck unexpectedly if you don’t check. You can also find out about wifi availability. It’s important to check the cost of the out-of-country charges on your phone against the cost of a local card. Remember, you can still contact your family through data, especially if you have an iPhone. In some second or third world countries, you may need a local phone number to call people because that’s how they roll. The good news is that your phone charges for your whole trip will be less than one day’s foreign service on many American phones.
Internet: You can use the Internet for other stuff once you get your data straight with your guide book’s help. I can’t imagine trying to figure this out on the Internet because everything will either be unreliable or the cell phone companies will share expensive plans to try to rip your off.
Remember locals do not always have the best information because they may have had their cell phone plan for years.
Guide book: Guide books usually have an interesting range of hotels including some that you will never see advertised or see signs for. Depending on what part of the world you are in, there are a lot of good options such as hostels, family hotels, and rented rooms in homes that are better than hotels, especially big chain hotels. On the other hand, if you are in a really inexpensive country, this is the time to try a four or five star. Also, having the direct phone number to the hotel can mean cheaper rooms than online.
Guide books will also give you the best descriptions of the different neighborhoods to help you narrow down your online search and the location of the nearest subway stop to the hotel…the hotel’s promotional materials may lie, um, “exaggerate”.
Internet: Cross reference the big hotel sites with the information in your guide book. Some really tiny places (such as campsites in Wadi Rum in Jordan) only use the booking site.
Day to day activities
Guide book: unbiased recommendations, best information on deals, schedules, etc. Closing days can be random or weird depending on the time of day or holidays, so you need to plan if you want to see everything. The guide book will also tell you if there is a way to book your ticket online and if you need to. Many countries/cities have a discount card; the guide book will tell you which one is the real one (there may be knock offs). The guide book will also tell you how to use the public transport system, what kind of ticket to get, etc. Subways are usually easier to deal with than busses, at least to start, especially in a non-English speaking country. Also find out from the guidebook how the taxis are supposed to work so you don’t get ripped off there. Usually in first-world cities, you rarely if ever will need a taxi. If you want to get a tour guide or take a group tour, the book will give you reliable contacts. Remember, the guides want to keep their good standing with the guide book company, so it pays to go with them…sometimes literally as you can get a small discount for showing the book (especially with Rick Steves).
The guide book will also have walking tours, reading guides, and usually guides to what is important and what is “missable”. If you want tours or special activities, the guidebook will tell you who is safe and reasonably priced. Some (Rick Steve) have companion audio guides if that’s your preference.
Internet: Double check prices or times if there’s anything you’re worried about, but make sure the information you get online is up to date. Keep in mind that in the second or third world online information can be woefully inadequate. Many places use Facebook as their primary website (still may be incorrect). When in doubt, talk to the hotel staff, call, or ask the hotel staff to call if language is an issue.
After all that, you still may get the wrong info. Calm down, you will be ok. The idea is to try to avoid wasting time. If I get stuck, I usually will head in to the desk of the first hotel I find.
Hints to Traveling with a Travel Guide:
All of guides have Kindle versions except for DK. Obviously it’s better to have the electronic version.
You can use the Kindle app on your phone, but in my experience, running it constantly, especially if you’re also running Google maps, can run your phone battery down quickly. I find a Kindle about the same weight as a battery pack. You decide.
Extra hint: Try asking the staff to charge your phone when you’re in a bar or restaurant: you’ll find out from the first time you try it if they think it’s weird. I used to do this all the time in the Middle East…the electronics stores would even do this for you while you shopped…but on a country to country basis, I don’t know.
If you bring your own cord, you might even be able to plug it in to any TV screens they have around (yes, I’ve done this too).
Probably the more First World the country is, the less they will want to do this because they’ll be worried about theft.
Life Hack: Buy guide books for your home town or state. Keep them on your Kindle or Phone: they are great for finding all kinds of cool things to do, places to go, etc. that you never knew about! Also you won’t look like an idiot the next time someone asks you for hotel reservation.
Don’t you hate that? You never stay in a hotel where you live!
Links to Web Sites
Remember, non of the companies discussed here are going to give you all of the travel information you need for free because they are in business to sell this information, but you can trust the information they do share.
I don’t trust the information that I see on forums because I’ve so much that is just plain wrong, and also you never know if it’s out of date.
Most of these sites also have information about responsible tourism as do the books.
It’s important that you don’t get involved in what you don’t understand and make sure that any help you do try to give does actually help. Go through organizations: helping people on the street can result in your being cheated or harassed and possibly contribute to hidden abuses and child labor.
It’s important that you know and pay fair prices (not rip-off high prices) so that your tourism doesn’t disrupt the local economy. Guide books give you this information.
Rick Steves’ website has great information along with support for teachers.
Information from Lonely Planet is here.
If you have never traveled internationally before, start with Europe Through the Back Door. I don’t know of anything better even if you aren’t going to Europe. You will just have to figure out how the information applies to where ever you are going.
Rick Steves started his company decades ago because he liked to go to Europe A LOT. He started out by trying to figure out how to make money each winter to go in the summer, and his company grew from there.
Rick Steves is all about traveling simply, lightly, and locally. If you’re on the younger side, you are going to need supplemental information when it comes to the guide books, but Steves will explain the concepts he learned as a college kid.
I took my daughter to Europe alone when she was 8, and we had a great time on about $100 a day for the two of us. And that included sleeping.
The more you travel like a European, the more Europeans you will get to know.
I recommend this book if you are going to Europe and don’t know your history and art. It’s actually a fun, accessible read even if you aren’t going to Europe if you want to know more about the subject.
I really want this one so I can go through and mark the ones I’ve seen. Because that’s what I do.
If you use Rick Steve’s travel guides, he includes museum tours because many of them are so big…you’ll just get lost and won’t see what you want to see…and I’m sure this book overlaps.
The book below is sort of a heavy duty paperback with beautiful full color prints and layouts. This book is excellent for armchair traveling and would make a lovely gift.
Rick Steves also has done a long running show for PBS, and they are easy to find at the library or on streaming services.
In the Northwest US, Rick Steves is known as “Uncle Rick.” He’s your slightly nerdy yet cool uncle who has been everywhere.
If you are not American, be warned, Rick Steves’ market is Americans, and you might be confused. Americans do everything and say everything differently, and he explains things from that point of view.
Rick Steves only does Europe…and Turkey and Israel. His books are very opinionated, and he doesn’t include things he thinks aren’t worth seeing. The evening events he recommends can tend toward the hokey; however, he is good with the cultural stuff, so he’s a good guide for what to do during the day.
He was a music teacher before he became a travel guru, so he is also good with music, theater, opera, etc.
As he’s gotten older, he lists fewer hostels, which are really good in Europe. I prefer hostels for traveling with children because usually there is a playground WITH OTHER CHILDREN. They come with parents, which gives you someone to talk to. Also hostels always have shared kitchens, so it’s easy to keep food on hand and eat out maybe once a day. An added benefit is that hostels are usually filled with a variety of people, and the kitchen and dining room are excellent places to get to know them. Because you’re usually sleeping in a dorm with lots of beds, there are usually a lot of social spaces in hostels, which gives you even more chance to get to know people.
Also he’s not much of a shopper. He will direct you some good places for nice souvenirs, but that’s it.
Usually, I get the Rick Steves if there is one for the trip I’m taking, and back it up with a Lonely Planet.
Lonely Planet is my favorite for international destinations if there is no Rick Steves.
Lonely Planet gives all kinds of options for what to do (including for specialized lifestyles), and it also gives you good ideas for reading and movie watching before you go.
Lonely Planet gives better advice for what to do in the evening.
Rough Guides are more for the college age set. They get the job done, but I’ve never been a big fan because I was already a mom when I really started traveling.
If you are over 25, you probably will be happier with a Lonely Planet.
They have a lot of random guides to non travel things, such as books, that I do like.
Here are a couple that are in print right now.
Lonely Planets are not produced in the United States, so I find them a bit confusing for use in the United States. Sorry, I can only do metric outside of the U.S. It doesn’t register inside.
So if you’re American, I recommend Frommer’s.
If you’re not American, Frommer’s might confuse you a little.
The little city guides are good if you are going on a work trip and will only have a little time to site see. Usually they are organized around neighborhoods, so you can head out to one area and cover it in an afternoon or evening.
They will usually focus on restaurants, activities, sites, bars, and shopping and skip things like transportation and sleeping. If you have a book like this, the assumption is either that you have a bigger guide already or that the bigger issues have been covered by work or friends.
The DK Guides are fun to read at home, and they give you a nice orientation with pictures, but they are too heavy to carry around, the print on the informational pages is too small. To me, they are more for planning and armchair traveling.
They STILL don’t come in a Kindle edition. I check these out of the library and flip through them for fun; that’s it.
Cover Photo Credit