Why Use a Guidebook? (Look for some thoughts on this later.)
There are lots of guidebooks on the market (more every day!), and many people become attached to one line of these books, with a particular format. I began traveling before any one line covered almost everywhere in the world, so, as an independent traveler, I had to use any book I could find for planning and then for reference on the road. This means I have found it easy to adapt to any format, and, beyond that, I can make pretty good comparisons. I should note that my emphasis is on seeing and learning as much as I can, but usually on a pretty tight budget where possible. So, here are a few of my conclusions in the form of personal reviews:
- Footprint Handbooks - I first encountered this as the South American Handbook, in 1972, in Venezuela. I was living in Trinidad, and had no access to any travel information for South America, so I was delighted to find a copy of this book in a bookstore in Caracas. It was COMPLETE! Furthermore, it was updated EVERY YEAR! I knew, because I went to South America every chance I got, so I became a regular customer in the Caracas bookstore. The book covered all of Latin America, including Mexico and Central America, too, and I used it later in the '80s for more Latin American travel. In 1993 I was browsing in a bookstore in Bangkok, and found a book with the same format for Southeast Asia. I was already traveling with a Lonely Planet guidebook, but I bought the new Handbook, and thus was able to compare information. I came to the conclusion then that whenever I could find a Handbook by a publisher which appeared to have the same format, I would give it a try. The series has gone from one publisher to another, but the contents are about the most complete I've found - for most areas - see below. I've used it for all of Latin America, including Cuba, many times, and also for Southeast Asia, Tunisia, and India. The South American Handbook has been published and updated annually since something like 1928! At one point it was Trade and Travel Publications, but Footprint Handbooks is the current publisher and it is located in England.
- Lonely Planet - My first encounter with Lonely Planet was for Africa, in 1983, and was I glad to find it! There wasn't much on the market for Africa in those days, and it was an excellent resource. Since then, I think I have a collection of well over 50 or 60 Lonely Planet guides I've used, and if no one else has done it, probably you can find a Lonely Planet book for anywhere you are going. (It's getting harder to say that, as everyone is going everywhere these days.) I would especially recommend it for China, Russia, and other spots that are usually thought of as remote, difficult, or inaccessible, thus expensive. If there is an economical way to go, Lonely Planet has probably found someone to write about it who knows the area. I have three minor complaints: They aren't updated frequently enough, it can be hard to find information, so you need a good system of marking stuff you want to get back to (Interesting bits get inserted by writers and then they aren't indexed.), and they are printed on rather heavy paper, so can be quite inconvenient to carry if you are going to several destinations (and you don't always know you can find them when you have arrived). Lonely Planet comes out of Australia, and the Aussies are great travelers!
- Moon Travel Handbooks - This is far and away the best guidebook for the South Pacific, and also for Indonesia, and for selected areas they cover in the USA. I haven't used it for other Asian destinations, but I intend to try it. It is so complete for the Pacific that no one else can even compete, as far as I am concerned. I have had to use others when I couldn't lay my hands on a Moon Travel Handbook.
- Let's Go - I have five of these on my shelf, four for European destinations, and one for China (because I couldn't get the Lonely Planet). They are good, but not as satisfying as the three above, as far as I am concerned. They only go to major cities or sights, so I am always frustrated by them. There isn't much interesting reading for leisure hours, and they list fewer accomodations than others, too.
- The Berkeley Guides: The Budget Traveler's Handbook - I think this was an attempt to match the Let's Go Publications, but after I gave it one try in 1995 for Great Britain and Ireland, I haven't used it again. Too many others were there ahead of them.
- Rough Guides (Penguin Books) - I've only used two, for Scandinavia and Boston, so am not really qualified to compare. They seem good, have a good reputation, but have not been readily accessible in the bookstores where I seem to be. They have a British background.
- Back Door Travel (Rick Steves) - The only ones I've read are Asia Through the Back Door, and Europe Through the Back Door, (I found them in used bookstores) and I recommend them for the travel philosophy alone. Very valuable. I think Rick Steves has a radio or TV show now.
- Time Out (Penguin Books) - I've only used one on Barcelona, and it was excellent! I'd try another if I could find them conveniently. (They are available online now.)
- Insight Guides - I arrived in Sri Lanka without a guide, and someone in the hotel had left the Insight Guide for Sri Lanka, so I gave the porter a tip, and used it, since I had nothing else. The pictures are wonderful, but useful content is minimal. As it happened, I connected with a wonderful taxi driver who served as a guide, and knew budget accomodations, which solved the main problem. Sri Lanka is one of my favorite and most positive travel memories.
- Miscellaneous Guides - These aren't series books, but serve special needs.
Odyssey Illustrated Guide to Bhutan, by Francoise Pommaret - highly recommended on this site, and it was the only one available when I went to Bhutan.