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Travel 101–Guidebooks

May 14, 2010

Having a great guidebook by your side not only makes travel easier and less stressful, but it helps you direct your time and money so that you know exactly what you want to see and do, when you want to do it, and how.  With the right guidebook you won’t find yourself roaming city streets and frustrated that you’ve blown over $50 in one day.  They also are immensely helpful in avoiding tourist traps and knowing what are the top cultural and historical picks of a city, as well as getting information on hotels and hostels, dining options, traveling on a budget, music, art history, nightlife, and more.  They are the key to having you be your OWN tour guide, completely capable, knowledgeable, and able to navigate the city on your own.

You still don’t want to be too reliant on guidebooks though, especially because since they are not updated often enough due to publishing costs, their information can become dated pretty fast.  You would never want to take your guidebook’s word that a museum is open from 9am-6pm, for example.  Bearing that in mind, guidebooks are still the best way to get the information necessary to plan out your trip.

Each guidebook has its strengths and weaknesses, so choose one according to your specific needs (such as finding the top restaurants, or traveling for cheap), or if you have the money, buy more than one guidebook to make sure you have everything covered.  There are also online guidebooks and planning sites that can be just as good as paper-backs (except, you have to print out pages and bring them with you on your trip, which can be a hassle.)

There are endless publications and sources out there, but here are some of my favorites:

TRADITIONAL GUIDEBOOKS:

Blue Guides

This series is ideal for the traveler who cares more about understanding what he/she is seeing than about being handed hundreds of tips on dining and hotels.  They are a favorite of professors and scholars who want to deepen their cultural understanding of a city or country, particularly in terms of  art, history, and architecture.  Instead of seeing Blue Guides as a travel how-to, it’s better to view them as books that will take away your need to join a tour group when you are exploring cultural and historical attractions.

Fodor’s

This is my personal favorite.  I was glued to my copy when I did study abroad in London last summer and had in on me 24/7.  They’re just good–good format, good content, and good advice.  Articles are written by locals, so you know you are getting the best information.  They get at the heart of the city and are perfect for dining advice, finding the hidden gems of a city, avoiding tourist traps, shopping, nightlife fun, arts and entertainment, and more.  My London guidebook was organized by neighborhood so that I could plan out my outings in a way that made sense and make the most of my time.  The books also come with really helpful maps and give important information that guidebooks often forget to include, such as dress codes at local pubs.

Frommer’s

These books offer solid advice on sightseeing, dining, hotels, and traveling on a budget.  If you want to give a guidebook to someone as a pre-departure present, this is a safe pick because it handles everything well and in a straight-forward manner.  This series tends to be a favorite with older travelers and parents who are traveling with their kids.

Let’s Go

This was the other travel guide I used when I did study abroad in London (I only used 2 guidebooks), and I highly recommend it, especially if you are a younger traveler.  This series is written by Harvard students and provides the freshest take on cities that you can find.  They are the perfect guidebooks for younger travelers who want to travel on a low budget, are looking for deals in hotels and hostels, and are looking for the coolest sightseeing attractions or want to know more about the best bars, pubs, and nightlife a city has to offer.  If you’re in your twenties, this guidebook is for you.

Lonely Planet

The practicality of this series gives it an edge–they consistently offer handy advice on budget travel and give a well-rounded summary of the basic facts, history, and other information relevant to your destination.  They also differ from the pack because while they provide great basic information and simple maps, they also include fun facts and unique details, like the best cafes for coffee, or top local music venues that won’t break the bank.

These guidebooks are also HUGE (not so practical to carry around all day, unfortunately), but this can be a major plus, depending on what you are looking for in a guidebook.  If you want the most comprehensive book out there and never want to run out of sights to see and things to do, then Lonely Planet is what you want.  This is a favorite of students who go away for 6 months to a year for study abroad and really only want to deal with one guidebook.

Rough Guides

Rough Guides is similar to Lonely Planet guides because they are written by people from all over the world who can add perspective to a travel book and really give you the most crucial and interesting information, making them a favorite of history buffs.  They cover over 200 destinations around the world, and they print guides for countries, regions and cities, continents (Europe, Asia, Africa, etc.), and even funkier interest guides, such as ones on Ultimate Adventures and Climate Change.  They are the fastest growing series, and there is even a Rough Guide to… series on TV.

The books have an easy to read, enthusiastic style and are great for historical and cultural background (tradition, art, music, you name it).  They strike a good tone and are great for sightseeing advice, but they are not your go-to source for the practical nitty-gritty, such as hotel planning, hostels, and dining options.

PERSONALIZED GUIDEBOOKS:

Offbeat Guides

This site is amazing–you can personalize your OWN travel guide and get it as a PDF, or even as a real color-printed book!  So cool.  The site takes you through a 5-step process where you name your destination city (there are over 30,000 choices), what city you live in, your name (so that it is printed on the book), your travel dates, and where you are staying (this is optional).  Then voila!  A guide is prepared just for YOU using the most up-to-date travel information available on the web (store-bought guidebooks can’t beat that).

I played around with making a London guidebook and was given over 200 pages of information.  That’s a lot!  You can customize the guidebook and only include information you want, though.  Simply select and deselect topics of interest (Districts, Do, Learn, Buy, Eat, Drink, etc.), so that your travel guide is truly what you want, without the unnecessesary extras.  You can also add your own chapters, which is useful if you want to include something personal, like driving directions to an attraction, or restaurant recommendations from a friend.  Another cool feature?  The travel guide automatically pulls up local maps, festivals, and events taking place during your stay, as well as information on exchange rates, key phrases in the city’s language, weather forecasts, and more.

You can download a PDF to print out for $9.95, and the book is $24.95, which includes shipping.  A sweet deal?  When you buy your personalized guidebook in book form for the $24.95 cost, you get the PDF as well, for free.

Happy reading, and happy traveling!

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