Which guidebook



David Whitley looks at the bricks of information we pack in our bags, and tries to work out which are the best bets for a big trip




Despite so much information being online these days, a good guide book is invaluable whilst on the road. You don’t have to use it as a bible – a mistake that many people make – but it does tend to be multi-purpose. For a start, it is (or at least should be) a great introduction to the history and culture of the place you’re travelling in. It’s also good for ideas of what you want to do, plus accommodation and eating options. Then there’s navigation – it’s incredibly useful to have a map already in hand when you arrive at a destination rather than wandering around lost.



But which guidebooks should you take? If you’re away for a long time, you’ll probably have to ration them a bit otherwise the weight of carrying five or six in the bag is going to be a killer. It’s always possible to buy and ditch as you go, but some people (ie. me) like to keep the books as mementos and are loathe to discard them.



Therefore you’ll need to get the balance between detail and breadth right. As a general rule, I find multi-country guides (ie. South East Asia or South America) spread themselves too thinly to be great on any particular country, city or area. If you’re only going to Thailand, buy the book for Thailand. But it might not be practical to carry individual books on Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia, Malaysia and Singapore.




The who and the when


Quality of book – even within the same brand – can vary dramatically from author to author as well. Some do an excellent job, some cut corners. It’s worth doing a web search for the author’s name and the area to find other things they’ve written about it.



Another important thing is how up-to-date the book is. Information dates very quickly, and the research is often done a year before publication. All else being equal, a 2011 guide book from a brand you’re usually not as keen on is likely to be more helpful than a 2009 book from your usual favourite.




Brand by brand review


Of the main guide book brands, each has its own qualities and quirks. An awful lot depends on what you want from the book – is it usability, quality and depth or research or background and cultural immersion? But, in brief, this is what I think of the main brands.




Lonely Planet


Often very formulaic, and a perhaps unfair reputation for out-of-date information (this is only because people carrying around 2008 books expect everything to be the same three years later). The formula is the weakness and strength simultaneously – LPs are arguably the best guides for quick reference. The structure is strong, the maps amongst the best if not perfect, and it’s generally easy to find the information you need.




Lonely Planet Encounter


These small guides are generally aimed at people going for a quick city break. The maps are really good, if not always covering as many areas as you’d like, but the books are poor on accommodation and detail for the major attractions. They’re brill as a pocket overview and good on bars and restaurants, but not aimed at people on big trips.



For travellers to Asia, small company Travelfish has superb app quality and coverage. You can also try out their lite versions for free




Rough Guides


The main competition for Lonely Planet in terms of scope and audience, Rough Guides are stronger on history and culture, but can be more of a read than a reference material. Apparently a big design change is imminent – which may aid the usability in future.






Reputedly the best for South America – although I’ll admit I’ve never used one so I can’t really comment any further.






They only cover limited destinations, but the Moon guides do a good job on those they do cover. They’re good at finding oddities that other books gloss over and putting the neck on the line by picking out the best spots rather than just listing loads with equal weight. Maps are excellent, but poorly bound so the pages come loose. Which, needless to say, is very annoying.






The Frommer’s guides are brilliant for suggesting itineraries, walking routes and the like. The key strength is prioritisation – a star system suggests which things to do, places to eat and places to stay are better than others rather than chickening out and making you read between the lines. The detail in the shopping section is particularly immense if you’re into that sort of thing.




Time Out


For cities, Time Out’s guides stand head and shoulders over the rest. The authors genuinely know their stuff, picking out local haunts, trends and cultural options that other guides don’t seem to be able to get near. The maps are good, but the only quibble would be a tendency to concentrate on higher end options and neglect the budget traveller.






Generally very good all-rounders, the Insight Smart guides (mostly for cities) do well in breaking things up by theme and interest rather than geographical areas. The full country guides are superb on history and background, but can fall into the same big chunks of text trap that befalls the Rough Guides.




DK Eyewitness


They’re often translated from the original language and thus concentrate on weird things that perhaps  aren’t of interest to the English speaking-market. Infuriating over-concentration on pointless photos and difficult to find your way around. They seem like they’re aimed at simpletons.




Thomas Cook


I could write reams here, but it’s easier to just say: “Shop elsewhere.”






The Bradt guides go where others fear to tread – often covering parts of the planet that other guide book series don’t go near. There’s a big emphasis on history and culture, and they make for excellent pre-trip reading. Usability is poor, however – the maps are shocking and the presentation makes for a big wordy trudge. The content often leans wildly towards the author’s individual interests – and they’re often written by people with a passion and connection for the place rather than neutral outsiders who are perhaps stronger writers and researchers.





The Odyssey Guides aren’t that well known, and cover some rather odd spots across the planet. Like the Bradt guides, they’re especially dependent on the skill, dedication and abilities of the author. They vary from other guide book series in that they’re designed to be read before the trip, rather than used as a continual reference during the trip.

Good guidebooks


David Whitley looks at how to select the right guide book – and find whether the author knows what he or she is talking about

Different guide book brands have different strengths but guide books within the same series can vary wildly in quality. Even books within the same series to neighbouring parts of the world can be infuriatingly inconsistent.

There are a few general rules for picking the right one, however. The first thing to bear in mind is what you want it for. If you’re a free-wheeling type who is happy to take things as they come, then it’s not going to matter all that much – you’re barely going to dip into it. Some people, however, are always clutching the book and referring to it.

For the latter, the more specific a guidebook is, the more useful it is likely to be. If you’re spending a long time in Sydney, for example, a Sydney guide book is going to lead you to more interesting places than an Australia guide book. Similarly, you can’t expect a South East Asia or South America guide book to cover any one place in particularly helpful detail.

I find the way that most people buy guide books astonishing. They pick the brand they know, then get the book that best covers the area they’re going to within that brand’s collection. Even if the only one available is a general guide to the region and another brand has a far more detailed guide to the specific country. This is, almost always, a daft approach.

Another thing to consider is when the information in the book was researched. Nobody ever seems to look at this. Again, they’ll just pick the brand they know. But even if you love Lonely Planet, surely a Frommer’s or a Rough Guide published in 2011 is going to be better than an LP published in 2008? Given that the information is actually researched roughly a year before publication, is it any wonder that you see hordes of idiots wandering around Asia, complaining that their Lonely Planet has got the prices wrong?

Some details – such as prices and bus times – are always likely to change. NEVER take them as gospel in a guide book. You’ll also find that hotels refurbish and restaurants close down – you can’t blame the book for that. But it is often possible to tell whether the author knows what he or she is talking about. Some, it has to be said, get lazy with updating from edition to edition.

The first place to look is online reviews on sites such as Amazon. Star ratings aren’t particularly reliable, as people will often give a zero for bizarre things such as late delivery or not having enough pictures of a particular temple, but it’s a start.

Secondly, have a look at what other books the author has written, and what articles they have written, via a web search. Are they consistently on the same countries? Can they legitimately be regarded as an expert on certain parts of the world, or do they just flit about writing about whatever they get the job for?

Finally, once you’ve actually got the book, you can test it with a few things. Do the sports teams actually play in the stadiums the author says they do, or have they moved to a new home and no-one’s bothered to check? How well is the current music scene covered – do they suggest bands you’ve never heard of but are currently big in the destination, or just list someone who had an international hit twenty years ago?

Then there’s the history. Anyone can do the old history – the formation of the country, what happened in the Second World War etc – but a well-researched guide has detail on what has happened recently. What have been the big changes of the last couple of years? What are the current political hot potatoes?

There’s also a final check to see whether the book you’ve got is a duffer or not. Flick through to see if any bars and restaurants are listed as hidden gems, local favourites or best-kept secrets. If you find a couple, check them out to see if the descriptions hold true, or they’re just one of the least touristy bars/ restaurants in an strip full of touristy bars/ restaurants. If the latter, the author clearly hasn’t bothered to check further afield and has just thought: “This’ll do”.


Can you think of any other signs of a good – or bad – guide book? Share your thoughts by leaving a comment below.


When not to photograph

David Whitley debates whether sometimes we should put the camera down and just enjoy the moment without playing photographer

In any major tourist destination, you’ll end up running what I call the photography gauntlet. I’d hate to think how much time the human race has wasted waiting for other people to take pictures. The etiquette of such situations is a bit of a grey area. When someone is standing at one side of the path, with the photographer at the other, everybody has to stop and stand around like a plum until the snapshot session is finished.

But when does it become OK to think: “Sod this,” and just stride across, probably getting your unwanted head into the photo? Who should be patient – is it the people trying to get the picture or everyone else?

At times, I think we can be too obsessive about taking pictures. Yes, it’s nice to have them as mementos a few years down the line, but nobody ever says their favourite part of the trip was taking photos. Show me someone who says taking loads of photos of the Sydney Opera House was their favourite part of a trip to Australia and I’ll show you a big, fat liar.

Sometimes the desire to capture the moment can prevent us from actually enjoying it. This is particularly true of safaris or whale-watching tours. It’s easy to fall into the trap of looking at everything through a viewfinder. The constant urge to get the right shot stops you watching – getting the elephant into shot becomes more important than watching what it’s doing. Taking photos becomes a task, the whole enterprise measured as a success or failure by how good the resulting pictures are. Put the camera down, and it’s a relief not to have to measure the success of the outing. You can just enjoy it as an observer, watching the nuances and interactions, without the need to obsessively capture scenes.

Slavery to the camera becomes worst on a group tour. The more people in the group, the longer you have to wait while everyone takes a picture of everything. It gets even worse if you’ve got the sort of simpletons in the group who are so insistent that everyone has to be bezzie mates forever that every stop has to be marked by a group photo.

Group photos are awful. No-one really wants to be in them, and the rictus grins have to be maintained for seemingly hours as exactly the same photo is taken with twenty cameras. This is bad enough once, but when it’s done at every stop you just want to run away and hide behind a tree.

There’s nothing wrong with photography as a hobby, and I understand that some people get great pleasure from taking photos. But the rest of us who are doing it because we feel we ought to? Perhaps it’s time to think before we snap.



RTW photography tips

As the Eagles sang: ‘In a New York minute, everything can change.’ You have to react faster in city photography than you do in almost any other area. Alert pros know that you habitually walk down the street with your camera exposure set to F8 if you want to be ready for anything. The city is often a very ‘contrasty’ place of light and shade so more important still you have your finger on the dial so that at an instant’s notice you can be ready to shoot at whatever crops up with balanced exposure. Things are less complex with a point-and-shoot but the start-up time is usually far slower so try not to be caught with your camera switched off and a 5 second delay to get past before you can push the button. More than anywhere else security too is a preoccupation in the city so try not to use expensive looking camera bags and pouches that can just advertise what a great victim you would make.  

Most of the world’s jungles are invariably safer than their corresponding cities and your greatest enemy is likely to be the all-pervading, electronics-rotting humidity of the rainforest. A roll-top canoer’s bag can be the best bet to keep your camera in overnight and carry a good supply of silica gel sachet to soak up any moisture (you can dry them in a frying pan!). A good substitute for silica gel is simple rice: wrap it up in a (dry) bandana and stick it in a zip-lock bag and it will draw the moisture out of your equipment.  

Whether you are trekking in jungle or mountains the biggest problem is maintaining the agility to move around quickly and get into position for shots. At the end of a long, hard trek you can often look back and picture – with invariably haunting clarity – all the missed photo opportunities. I spent years stoically carrying my own kit and refusing to hand anything over to a porter: finally I realised that all I was doing was cheating some impoverished local of a good day’s wages and cheating myself of the opportunity to duck and dive and get my shots.

Few people the days will think that you are stealing their soul but shooting a close-up portrait is certainly a very private and personal thing and should never be done without asking the express permission of people involved. In traditional communities you can break down boundaries very quickly by shooting snapshots of children (or your travelling companions) and then showing them...get a few laughs and before you know it everyone will want their photo taken. Thankfully the wonderful invention of the delete button means that you can keep shooting those rigid passport-type poses until you manage to get a smile and your subject’s natural character is revealed. If you promise to send copies of images to local people you should always do so: bear in mind that, especially for old people in remote communities, this might be the only photograph they have ever had taken.

The overwhelming preoccupation of wildlife photographers the world over used to be how to get the biggest, fastest lens available. If you weren’t forking out USD20,000 on a 800mm telephoto you would never be considered one of the ‘big boys.’ If you are keen on shooting birdlife by all means continue with this outlook but for wildlife in most African parks you no longer need such equipment. It’s not the size that counts, but what you do with it, and even with a 200 or 300mm lens you will often find yourself too close. In most African parks that see regular visitors wildlife is so well habituated to human onlookers that it is frequently more of a pre-occupation how to get far enough back to get that shot of lion showing more of its environment...and less of its teeth.



by Mark Eveleigh

Camera tips


Here are 10 top tips that – whether you are a budding Frans Lanting or just a casual holiday snapper – round-the-world photographers of all levels might want to bear in mind.


1. Invest in the best camera you can afford for your RTW. This is going to be the trip of a lifetime and you will be expecting some fantastic images out of the amazing experiences that lie ahead.


2. Don’t take more photographic paraphernalia than you are prepared to carry. You might want to invest in a full-size pro SLR, a set of lenses, plus a tripod but you have a lot of miles ahead of you. If you begin to get lazy about humping it all around then, no matter how good your kit, it is not going to be shooting many Pullitzers sitting in the hotel room!


3. If you are going for a point-and-shoot consider that a really tough expedition type – water-proof, shock-proof – camera could be a worthwhile investment. I used the Pentax Optio WP as a spare backup video and stills camera for several fairly tough expeditions...and it was still going strong after my precious Nikon fell in a Mexican river.


4. A major advantage of the post-film era is in not having to carry a great pack of spare rolls. However, most travellers at some point run out of juice and space. Take more batteries and memory cards than you think you will need and back them up regularly. Rather than one 16gig card (which might get broken/lost/corrupted) take several smaller cards.


5. A flickr account can be a good way to showcase your images while you are still on the road. A lot of people don’t realise either that for a reasonably small upgrade to Flickr Pro you can upload an unlimited number of hi-res images (list them as private so that only you can see them). A great online backup.


6. Even in this day-and-age few cameras are always infallible in fully-automatic mode. Before you leave home familiarise yourself fully on your camera’s manual settings and try not to let your camera dictate all your shots completely.


7. If you are travelling with serious bulky SLR kit then get a bag that at least does a reasonable job of being surreptitious. A shoulder bag is usually better than a backpack since you can access equipment easier. National Geographic make fantastic canvas shoulder bags (the largest of which is big enough to hold laptop, two bodies, 3 lenses, hard-drive, Dictaphone...) and doesn’t necessarily appear at first glance as if it is loaded with thousands of pounds worth of equipment...especially if you cut off the Nat Geo badge.


8. Use a roll-top canoeist type bag and equipment while one the move over water. (If your RTW has Bangkok as one of the early stopovers take an opportunity to buy the bag – good quality and just a few dollars – at one of the many shops along Khao San Road).


9. A lightweight tripod can be worth its weight in gold if you want to get more artistic. You suddenly realise a world of potential for long-exposure, slow-synch, time-lapse and fast-forward video if you carry even the simplest of tripods.


10. Even if not travelling with a laptop consider investing in a portable harddrive (or iPod with lots of hard-drive space) so that you can backup all your precious images. Losing all those breath-taking shots on month 11 of a year-long trip could take some getting over!




by Mark Eveleigh