Travel Guide Books: Get Beneath the Surface

I’m looking at my bookshelf now, there’s a collection of travel guide books that chart my adventures past and hopefully a few to come. My two most well used tomes, India and Southeast Asia on a shoestring, sit there like true veterans; edges dark through thumbing, sweat and humidity, covers peeling, binding split. Southeast Asia on a shoestring was even repaired somewhere in Cambodia with a small tube of super-glue, tattered post-its limply mark pages long used.

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I might be sounding a bit sentimental, but these lumps of paper and ink became a part of me. Dragged around, read on all-night bus journeys; a witness and starting point for my adventures.

Travel guide books; don't get lost
Travel guide books; know where to find dinner!
- author chowing down in Hanoi

A good guide book is a great place to start your adventure travel, to get excited about it. I buy mine months before deciding to go, it builds motivation and makes me feel I’m on my way.

Everyone’s got an opinion as to which guide they think is best. The quality of guides within each brand will vary between destinations, depending on different authors and editors.

Berlitz Pocket Guides

I’m leafing through a copy of the Berlitz Tunisia Pocket Guide and I like its down-to-earth, no nonsense approach. For a small travel guide, it packs in a fair amount of punch. Photographs are plentiful but a bit on the small side, but that’s to be expected in guide this size. Unfortunately their maps are not brilliant and lack detail to be really useful.

Berlitz guides cover major cities, countries and regions but don’t have the range to compete with big players. However, the main body of the guide is written in prose form with key destinations and points of interest highlighted in bold throughout the text. This approach makes for an uninterrupted, engaging read, rather than the more segmented, reference style of layout Lonely Planet tend to go for.

A brief history section helps you get your historical bearings and colour coded chapters makes finding key information fairly easy. It is rather light on accommodation listings which are split into their own section to the back of the guide. A practical travel tips chapter is a useful addition with country specific advice.

In my view, Berlitz's range of compact travel guide books are informative and very readable. But you may need a helping hand from their competition if heading off for extended periods of adventure travel.

Lonely Planet

Covering by far the most countries, Lonely Planet is the established stalwart of the travel guide industry. Conceived in the 1970’s by Tony and Maureen Wheeler, it was purchased by the BBC in 2007.

For me they have a level detail, clarity of layout and familiarity I’ve come to love. Lonely Planet is no longer solely aimed at a core clientele of backpackers and now look to cover and cater to a wider spectrum of travellers, from budget to the high-end.

Their multiple-country additions such as Southeast on a shoestring do suffer from a lack of information, but I think that is to be expected when summarising 11 separate countries in one volume! Consequently, what I found great about this particular guide was that it forced you to do more in-country research to fill in the gaps; talking to locals, buying small regional travel guides and maps. They’re great as an overview but need to be supplemented with more info as you go.

Lonely Planet’s history and culture sections are thoroughly researched and provide a great basic grounding in the essentials. As a starting point I use their suggested itineraries, then flesh out broader trips around them. Of all guide books on the market their maps are probably the best; clear and concise.

Rough Guide

Travelling through India, a friend of mine had a Rough Guide and I had the Lonely Planet equivalent. It was great as a comparison, although I found the Rough Guide layout difficult to follow and slightly disorientating. As you would expect both travel guide books covered very similar material in terms of destinations, activities, accommodation; the basics.

Much like their main competition, Rough Guide offers a whole suite of titles ranging from multi-country compendiums, single country guides, city guides and ebooks. Sharp writing with a witty turn of phrase, Rough Guide consistently produce readable and reliable guides.

When it comes down to it, you’ll probably find that Rough Guide and Lonely Planet match each other step for step in most cases. I suggest when considering a guide, compare both side by side; consider which format and writing style appeals to you more. Select the one you feel most comfortable with, since it is something you’ll be reading and relying upon most days.

Foot Print

Foot Print has been around since 1924 and consistently put together thoughtful travel guide books that are worth considering. They have a reputation for producing excellent multi-country guides such as the South America Handbook, now in its 86th edition! I haven’t had the chance to visit South America yet, but when that time comes I’ll be seriously considering this legendary guide as a companion.

The only real draw back with Foot Print is their small range of titles compared to their competitors.

Let’s Go

I can honestly say I never used a Let’s Go guide, which are researched and written by students at Harvard University. They are updated annually, so can be relied upon to have up-to-date info for the budget conscious traveller. Accommodation wise, they have a reputation for not having the range of budget options the big players have.

Their core destinations of Europe are slowly being extended to include more exotic locales such as the Middle East.

Never feel travel guide books are the ultimate source of adventure travel knowledge; the final word. In my experience, a travel guide is a great starting point, but don’t let it be your one and only source of information.

Do some research and be happy with your choice as it will be your constant companion on the road. Happy reading.

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