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Travel Guidebook Reviews
How to choose the best guidebook series

Choosing a guidebook series these days requires perusing travel guidebook reviews, just because there is so much choice. 

Not just printed guidebooks, mind you, but Kindle and other e-books as well.

I use them to plan my journey, because all the information is available in a single place. But I then go to the web to double-check practical things - has a visa requirement changed, is a border crossing open, what time does a hostel close...

They're practical because all the information is gathered in a single place, and you can compare notes with other travelers who may have a different guide.

How to choose? I check out the best travel guidebook reviews. Each series has a different stlyle, ad different voice. They also cover different destinations - some specialize in Latin America, others a Africa-centric; some focus on cities and regions, others have broad guides that cover entire continents.

Here's what I look for in a travel guidebook

  • publication date: the more recent the better (unless I'm only looking for history and culture)
  • author: I prefer a single author rather than a group effort but it's my personal choice - the voice of the guidebook seems more personal and more authentic this way
  • specificity: I like my guidebook to be as focused as possible - there's no point in taking an Asia guide if I'm only going to Laos and Cambodia
  • target audience: I prefer guidebooks for women but these are scarce so I tend to choose those for independent travelers
  • age group and income: are you a gap-year traveler or a retiree? It'll make a difference in your choice of guidebook - the same goes for budget and how much money you can spend on your journey
  • special features: lists, maps and the like - each guidebook series has its specialty
  • cost: this may be a factor if your money is tight
  • weight: and this may be as well if you plan to travel light

There are plenty of great reviews out there so I'll just sketch out the main travel guide series ones and keep adding to the list as I come across new ones.

None of these are particularly aimed at women, although many do have a section on women's travel or on lesbian travel - and sometimes quite a large section. Doesn't matter though - you'll find everything you need to travel in these books!

Lonely Planet Guides

Travel Guidebook Reviews: Lonely Planet

This is the grandaddy of guidebooks for backpackers, and there are few corners of the world - big or small - they don't cover, sometimes in excruciating detail.

Most Lonely Planet guides cover a specific place - continent, country, route, city. If you're a first-time traveler and headed overland across Africa, the LP Africa Travel Guide is a great place to start. If your trip is less ambitious geographically, you can drill down to a region with East Africa, or even further to a country with LP Kenya  or, why not, a city with a downloadable chapter on Nairobi. LP also has great phrasebooks and specialty guides (for example on different national foods). I also find their Volunteer: A Traveller's Guide to Making a Difference to be excellent, along with a number of other themed guides.

An LP advantage is their excellent hand-drawn maps which are a great help in getting around new towns. LP is also aimed at the real budget traveler, although these days it acknowledges that even the most budget-conscious backpacker may occasionally splurge, so there are some upmarket listings. All around useful and user-friendly, not to mention fun.

Rough Guides

Travel Guidebook Reviews: Rough Guides

Of equal stature for the backpacking woman - at least in my opinion - is the Rough Guide series, possibly Lonely Planet's main competitor. I find them to be of similar high quality - sometimes I get the RG, sometimes the LP, it depends on the country. You'll have to leaf through the tomes in person - it'll be hard to make your choice if you're trying to get an idea from the web. What might be a deciding factor is the destination - they don't all cover the exact same ground - as well as publication date. The Rough Guides may have a bit less practical information about times and places and prices, but they make up for that in depth. Still, I can find it difficult to tell the difference between the two series. The paper is thinner (so more information in the same space), the maps aren't as good, the writing is often better...

Like LP, Rough Guides go beyond travel and explore music, culture and many other specialty guides. Although it's a matter of personal preference, I might have a tiny soft spot for Rough Guides - there's something friendly and aware about them.

Bradt Guides

Travel Guidebook Reviews: Bradt Guides

Bradt Guides are among my favorites - they were publishing entire books on offbeat destinations when the others provided barely a page or two.

They tend to have that 'single voice' that shines through rather than the committee sound of some of the LP series (although others say you get more and better information when you have several authors). Most importantly they often cover emerging destinations rather than the pack holiday beat.

I've used no-frills no-nonsense Bradt Guides for Eritrea, Ethiopia, Nigeria and Uganda. I've found information there I couldn't find anywhere else. They're for the caring and daring traveler, for whom traveling sustainably is important. I like the series so much I conducted an interview with Hilary Bradt for Women on the Road. 

Unfortunately, they do go out of date so check when they were published - they have a smaller range and stable of writers than LP or RG and don't get updated as often.

Frommer's Guides

Travel Guidebook Reviews: Frommer's

Funny, I used to think Frommer's Guides were for stuffy middle-aged polyester travelers. True, they tend to cover food and lodging that is more expensive than the average backpacker could afford, even though when I travel I do like to 'upgrade' once in a while. Well, I was wrong about them. They're absolutely fab! They are more for families than for backpackers but that doesn't make them any less useful.

I've used their guides to Switzerland and Panama and keep going back to them. For some reason they seem more accurate and complete than their companions and I have yet to go wrong with a listing.

Speaking of lists they have the best beaches, top 10 museums, scenic drives, restaurants... If you're already somewhere  and need a quick reference guide to what's best in the area, these practical guides will come in quite handy.

Bob Fowke's Guides

Travel Guidebook Reviews: Bob Fowke's Guides

Now here's a little series of e-guidebooks that was utterly unexpected: Bob Fowke's Guides for History Travellers. I say little because there are only four books - Spain, France, Greece and Turkey - and unexpected because of the joyful approach they take to history.

Please don't moan: this isn't history for the stuffy, although it's absolutely accurate. These books are filled with humor and tidbits, gossip and ideas for the traveler who is keen on understanding a bit of why a certain place is the way it is.

I must say I came to look at Toledo differently when I found out Nationalists chased by Republicans during the Civil War retreated into the Alcazar and were forced to eat rats during the siege, and was surprised to find out bullfighting had existed under the Romans and plenty of other juicy facts. I was brought up in Spain and I learned a lot from reading this short e-book - and I had great fun doing it. Now I'm off to read the other three.

Insight Guides

Travel Guidebook Reviews: Insight Guides

The first time I set eyes on one of the Insight Guides I couldn't put it down. They stand out by their extraordinary photography - not just great shots but outstanding printing (not surprising since the series was started by a graphic designer). This is the full-color guide for travelers who want to know about a place's history, culture and art. Who want 'insight', in other words.

That's not to say they don't contain plenty of practical information - it's all at the end so you're getting two books in one, one about the country, and the other on how to travel there. The practical information, though, is limited and in my opinion won't quite be enough for practical planning. I'd recommend Insight Guides as the perfect background research tool if you want an in-depth understanding of a country. This is a heavier book than the others, because of the glossy paper and stronger cover so if you're thinking of taking it with you, consider some of their more compact editions - they have several. Enjoy!

Michelin Green Guides

Travel Guidebook Reviews: The Green Guides

Published by the renowned Michelin, The Green Guides mostly used to cover France but have branched out into Europe and North America (with a few titles beyond). Its specialty is the A-Z structure, with each region or city listed alphabetically (some people find this a hindrance rather than a benefit, especially if they don't know an area).

They are good on history and on directions, guiding you easily to the best sights, but in truth - at least for the European guides - they're road-based and not too useful if you're using public transport.

What I particularly like is the breakdown into several itineraries you can choose from depending on how long you have. It also has a rating system for sights - must-see, should-see, could-see... but then, what would we expect from the people who give restaurants their stars?

Approach Guides

Travel Guidebook Reviews: Approach Guides

Approach Guides are guidebooks with a twist. First, they're only available as downloads, so they're greener than traditional guidebooks. And second, they're specialized, focusing on the culture and history of a place rather than top ten sights. You might think this could be boring, but not at all.

Did you know the Silk Road was largely responsible for the survival of Buddhism? That Asian trade historically depended on the monsoons? That Angkor Wat is as much tomb as it is temple?

These and other exquisite details make these the guidebooks for those who want to understand what they're seeing and know the story behind the sight. They're also easy to read, with a clean layout and well-organized. Use them to understand history, but also to plan a destination around a particular interest, like mosaics or churches.

Footprint Guides

Travel Guidebook Reviews: Footprint Guides

The Footprint travel guides get rave reviews from Michael Palin onwards, so I bought a recent one for a trip to Vietnam, a country I hadn't been to - just wanted to try the series.

There's a lot that's good. It has excellent listings for hotels and restaurants, as well as things to do - exhaustive and thorough. It is particularly good on transportation, which helps with planning.

It has also managed the magical feat of publishing a hardcover book that is lighter than a paperback - well done! Its boxes delve more deeply into topics of particular interest and that's nice too. This was also the most recent of all the guidebooks available.

However, I would have liked better descriptions of the regions as well as some great itineraries, but the lack of these doesn't in any way diminish one of the longer-standing series. Far more pluses than minuses but a little more description and emotion would go a long way...

And there are more...
I can't cover them all right now but you could also travel in the company of Cadogan Guides, Moon Guides... I'll try to eventually get to all of them. And if you're a mega-planner who likes to have it all laid out before you go, why settle for one when you can carry two or three?

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