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.