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Often very formulaic, and a perhaps unfair reputation for out-of-date information (this is only because people carrying around 2008 books expect everything to be the same three years later).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.