Whenever I travel, I take a guidebook. Sometimes I use it religiously, sometimes I barely glance at a map, but having it provides me with a certain amount of security and predictability.
I use guidebooks to plan my journey, because most of the information is available in a single place and because sometimes, I prefer an actual book-book to an electronic device.
But I then go to the web to double-check practical things - has a visa requirement changed, is a border crossing open, if a restaurant has new opening times...
Last year I wanted to visit Vietnam and was confronted with close to a dozen guidebooks. How do you tell the difference, and which one do you choose? Which are the best travel guidebooks, and aren't they all pretty much the same?
When I looked more closely I discovered each has its own style, audience and voice, and different series cover different destinations. Some specialize in countries, others in regions, and yet others in cities. Some are more cultural and sophisticated, others friendlier and more casual, some for young people and others for the less young, some for independent travel and others for group holidayers and some are more woman-friendly.
It's a jungle out there, so I've put some order into it all and developed these travel guidebook reviews as a bit of a road map.
What do I personally look for in a guidebook? Scroll to the bottom of this page to find out. But first, the guidebooks.
Here are some great travel guidebooks of use to women. The first few are women-specific, and they are followed by the more general guidebooks series, not particularly aimed at women - but at least not offensive.
Beautifully written by Marcia DeSanctis, this is more than a guidebook - it meanders and is part memoir, part women's contemporary history as she tells their stories and dives into a place's inner workings. Of course there's plenty of 'guidebook' here but this is a book you want to actually read, not just highlight (although you'll want to do that too).
I live in France and much of this was a revelation, filled with wonder. If you're heading to France and are getting only one book, this is it.
A different author writes the one for Italy, which I haven't read yet.
Find it on Amazon
This is the only series on this page I haven't tested myself - but since it's one of the few guidebook series for women I could find, I'm including it.
The series is mostly written by one author, Erica Stewart, and covers a number of cities including Prague, London, Paris, Florence and Rome, to name a few.
I would love to be impressed because, you know, women, so I'll eventually buy and test one of these guides. For the time being I can only encourage you to check this out and writers to publish guidebooks specifically for women - because we simply don't have enough.
Find it on Amazon
Bradt Guides are among my favourites - they were publishing entire books on offbeat destinations back when the others provided barely a page or two.
I particularly like them for two reasons:
First, they tend to have a 'single voice' that shines through - regularly updated by the same authors - rather than the 'committee' approach taken by some of the other publishers. (That said, some people prefer more authors and feel this provides a greater breadth of information.)
They focus on places few others write about and are especially strong in Africa and Eastern Europe/former CIS, with entire guides dedicated to countries which barely get a mention in other guides.
In past I've used no-frills no-nonsense Bradt Guides for Eritrea, Ethiopia, Malawi, Mozambique, Nigeria and Uganda, and on a recent trip I used their guides to Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. I like the series so much I did an interview with Hilary Bradt for Women on the Road.
I don't use them too much for planning - they're perfect for on-the-spot guidance.
Find Bradt Guides on Amazon
Unless you've never traveled or have lived under a rock, the LP series should need very little introduction. It's the grandaddy of backpacker guidebooks. LP isn't a guidebook series, it's an empire. LP was once aimed at the real budget traveler, although these days it has gone distinctly upmarket.
Their large tomes are great for first-time travelers, books that cover entire continents like Africa, the Middle East, the Caribbean or even Europe. But then the series drills down to regions (Eastern Europe or Southern Africa), countries, city guides, road maps, phrasebooks and specialist themes like national parks, travel writing or cookbooks. Because of its scope and resources, it can cover more than anyone.
An LP advantage is their excellent hand-drawn maps which are a great help in getting around new towns. Practical and user-friendly, and great for planning the perfect journey.
This is possibly Lonely Planet's main competitor, especially since it switched from a more narrative style of writing to small, bite-sized sections. The two series were once far easier to tell apart.
When confronted with a choice between the two, I'll usually buy the more recent one.
One tiny criticism I have is that the special interest "boxes" are too faint to read easily. On the other hand, the paper is a bit thinner so there's more information in the same space.
Like LP, Rough Guides go beyond travel and explore music (from World Music to Opera), culture and other specialties. 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, maybe a bit less corporate.
Find Rough Guides on Amazon
Funny, I used to think Frommer's Guides were for stuffy 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 referring 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 (which I love) they cover things like 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. This is more travel companion than planner.
Find Frommer's on Amazon
The first time I set eyes on one of the Insight Guides I couldn't put down 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.
The practical information is at the end and limited, and in my opinion won't quite be enough for all your planning needs. Insight Guides are the perfect background research tool for an in-depth understanding of a country. The glossy paper and stronger cover make them heavier than many others so I read these at home before leaving, and take something lighter (or electronic) for the road.
Find Insight Guides on Amazon
Published by the renowned Michelin, The Green Guides (or Michelin guides, as they were once called) used to cover France but have branched out into Europe and North America (with a few titles beyond). Their 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 or flying in.
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? Find on Amazon
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.
Find on Amazon
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... Find on Amazon
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, Marco Polo... 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?
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.
Find Bob Fowke's guides on Amazon
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