My first big trip was in 2000 when I left my home university (LSU) to study abroad for a year at Swansea University in the UK. The British university had an incredibly long spring break (a month), which was the time that all of the study abroad students picked to go around Europe. One of the recurring debates before we all scattered around Europe, was which travel book (if any) to use. We were all extreme budget travelers, so the group was really broken into three camps: no guidebook, Lonely Planet, and Rough Guide.
I was in the Lonely Planet camp, as I’d already purchased copy of Lonely Planet Western Europe while I was in the states. However, in my over one month of travels, I many times went outside the bounds of Western Europe and either used no guidebook or a Rough Guide. Below I discuss the pros and cons of different travel guidebook options.
The travel guidebook industry has continued its expansion from my first trip. There are numerous guidebooks available. However, the most popular amongst the budget travel guidebooks are still Lonely Planet and Rough Guide. For travelers willing to part with a little more cash while they’re abroad, I think Fodors is more popular; I haven’t used their guides much.
If you’re going to be a lifelong traveler, and you decide you prefer traveling with a guidebook, I recommend choosing one brand and sticking with it. Each brand lays out their information in a consistent manner, so if you’ve already traveled using a few Lonely Planet books, it won’t take any time to figure out where things are in your next Lonely Planet book.
I purchase a Lonely Planet book (if one exists for the region), on any substantial trip I take. If I’m visiting a very large city in a region that doesn’t have many popular destinations (e.g. Illinois or Austria), I usually buy a city Lonely Planet guide. Otherwise, I buy the book for the country or region. For countries with a vast number of travel destinations (e.g. the US), a country guide will be a massive tomb with very little information about every destination, so if possible it’s better to buy the guidebook for the individual states you plan to see.
I always try to go with Lonely Planet for my trips, because I know where things are in the book, because I’m used to their style of maps, and because I think the history and culture sections are usually pretty well written. Lonely Planet was initially aimed at the extreme budget backpack traveler. However, the books have expanded over the years to include low-budget and mid-budget food and accommodations as well. If you’re looking for over-the-top luxury vacations, pick a different guide.
Rouge Guides travel books are my second choice; like the Lonely Planet books they include quite a lot of information for the budget traveler.
There are a few situations where a guidebook is not necessary or not desired.
If you’re just traveling to a city for business and have no desire to leave your conference hotel to see a few sites in between meetings, a guidebook will be a waste of money. Also if you only plan on seeing the one or two really popular sites in the city (e.g. the Eiffel tower or Big Ben), you can likely find those sites without a guidebook.
If you’re the adventurous type, you might find a thrill in riding a train from one city to the next without knowing where you’re going to sleep when you get there. I’ve traveled this way in the past, but the older I get, the more I like to know I won’t have to stay up all nite or sleep in a train station because all of the cheap hostels were full.
There are a few things to consider if you try this route. First, unless you’re a history wizard, you probably don’t know all of the sites in any large city you’ll be visiting. So unless you only plan on attending the most touristy sites, you’re going to need to find out other sites from somewhere. I think staying in a youth hostel is the best place for this. Most youth hostels have a few city guidebooks that you can browse (but then you’d be cheating and using a guidebook). More interesting is to chat with the people hanging out in the hostel. Almost all hostels have an open area with beat up couches or tables were people rest in between seeing the sites. Unlike a hotel where people pretty much keep to themselves, in youth hostels it is common for folks to chat about the sites they’ve visited. Some of the most interesting sites I’ve seen (e.g. the Catacombs in Paris and the Tenement Museum in NYC) were recommended to me by other travelers rather than from a guidebook.
###Official Visitors Guides In the US, many cities and states provide free travel information. Even foreign countries (e.g. Iceland) provide extensive travel guides that you can download, print out, or request a mailed hard-copy. Typically missing from these free guides are opinions. The sites, restaurants, and accommodations are listed but not really reviewed. However, for less traveled destinations like St. Louis or the Civil War Battlegrounds, the free information might be all you’re going to find and is certainly useful.
Increasingly travelers are posting organized travel information online that matches or exceeds the quality of the book published travel guides like Lonely Planet. In fact, many of these free online guides are written by travel writers that have worked (or still work) for the major travel books.
Although these free independently-produced guidebooks are limited to a few destinations. It is likely that the number of such free guidebooks will continue to increase as more travelers join the self-publishing trend. For more, check out this great blog-post on the trend towards independently-produced guidebooks as well as this similar blog post on the future of Indie travel guides.
Current independent guidebooks that I know of are:
Also, there are ongoing efforts to create a world wide Wiki-based travel guide. But the city and state wiki articles are currently hit-or-miss. In general there is currently little information on wiki travel that isn’t already available in the free visitor information guides that cities provide. And the articles generally lack opinion or commentary.