With the rise of travel information available for free or on the internet, I have read other blog posts about skipping the guidebook altogether or about chopping up your book into a Frankenguide. I pimp every travel guide I’ve ever purchased with new information, fold-out color maps from tourist info, business cards from good restaurants and other tips to my future traveling self (pictured is my “improved” London guidebook, with maps of Cambridge and central bus lines and numbers for a reliable taxi service). I’ve even blogged about Lonely Planet’s move to pick-and-mix PDF versions of their books. When I’ve got the time, I research the trips I’m planning fairly extensively on the internet, checking out hotel, hostel or host reviews before requesting accommodation, making sure I’ve got the correct opening times and free days for the sites and museums I’m interested in, figuring out the local transportation options to hit the ground running, comparing my guidebook’s opinion on everything with many, many others — just as any smart consumer should.
And yet, though I consider myself an independent traveler, you’ll never find me on the road without a printed guidebook in hand. A solidly researched guidebook is an essential element of a smoothly functioning trip. Your guidebook never closes, is never located on the other side of town, is rarely surly and always speaks your language. At minimum, it provides piece of mind that you will not sleep on the street or a fleabag motel, go hungry or be unable to find a doctor if you need one. Thankfully, most books provide so much more — walking tours around town, detailed descriptions of museums and their art, historical background for every major site, a list of internet cafes and laundromats, a primer in local food and drink — perks and experiences which ADD VALUE to your vacation, if for no other reason than saving you time seeking them out while at your destination.
If you are an independent traveler, a guidebook is your ally, not your enemy:
+ If you are the type who doesn’t like to plan anything in advance, guidebooks make it possible to land in every destination reasonably informed and ready for action. You are always ready to travel, armed with maps, reviews and suggestions of things to see, places to eat, rooms to sleep — all geared towards your budget.
+ If you are the type who plans every detail in advance, guidebooks provide the jumping-off point for further research. They help ensure, as much as one can, that everything runs smoothly and is tailored towards your standards and interests.
+ If you’re a mix of the two, a guidebook gives you enough leeway to plan what you wish and leave the rest to chance. A guidebook makes it possible, on a whim, to ditch the hot city for the seaside on a beach-weather day. It sorts the charming from the small, suggests routes or agendas allowing you to follow your favorite architect or your palette, helps you cut lines where possible.
Guidebooks are great for those too lazy to do their own internet research — they’ve done it all for you, edited into an easy-to-use, portable format. They are also great for last-minute travelers who don’t have the time to do research; I have books on hand just in case someone invites me somewhere, I decide to head out for the day, or a low-cost carrier has an amazing sale to somewhere I’ve never been. By freeing you from worries about the basics, guidebooks empower you to just get out there and experience a new place.
Further, guidebooks save you real money! A no-budget traveler makes a serious mistake in eschewing the printed budget travel guide to save its retail price.
Rick Steves has built a travel empire on the back of his series of guidebooks, so he’s perhaps not the most impartial judge — but as a frugal traveler, I sincerely agree with his sentiment on the effectiveness of guidebooks as a money-saving tool:
Use a guidebook. Guidebooks are $20 tools for $3,000 experiences. Saving money by not buying one is penny-wise and pound-foolish. An up-to-date guidebook pays for itself on your first day in Europe.
How does a guidebook pay for itself? In my own experience,
+ A guidebook helps make planning and purchasing travel on my own possible. This saves me hundreds or thousands of dollars over paying a travel agent or tour company to do it for me.
+ Guidebooks advise of public transportation options to/from the airport, saving taxi or transfer costs.
+ Guidebooks tell me where to get online cheaply, how to make phone calls inexpensively, where to do my laundry and where to get groceries.
+ Guidebooks go into more than enough detail on just about everything I’m interested in visiting, saving me the additional cost of hiring a guide — either personal ($$) or audio ($).
+ Maps accompanying every city save me from buying city and transport maps.
+ Guidebooks advise where to find quality souvenirs.
+ Guidebooks provide accommodation listings across the spectrum, meaning I am able to fill a last-minute need for a place to sleep for 9-25 euros/night (in a hostel or homestay) rather than 100+ euros/night (in an expensive, yet readily located chain hotel).
+ Guidebooks explain card schemes for museums and transportation and advise which passes are worth purchasing.
+ Guidebooks tell me when it’s possible to walk and how to do so.
+ Guidebooks tell me when I will be admitted for free or reduced price.
+ Guidebooks help navigate me to restaurants or accommodations where my money is well spent.
+ Guidebooks warn me about tourist traps, scams and pickpockets. Guideline prices keep you from being overly ripped off.
+ In crisis, guidebooks explain how to contact the police, cancel or replace your stolen credit cards or where to find the nearest embassy or hospital.
All that said, time is likely your most valuable commodity on a short trip — and nearly everywhere a guidebook saves you money above, it also saves you time. A guidebook will also make clear options for spending more money to save time, allowing you to make an informed decision based on your personal priorities.
Not all guidebooks are equal, not all prices are final
If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you’re likely to be attracted to guides published by Lonely Planet, Rough Guides, Let’s Go! or Rick Steves. If you don’t already have a “favorite” series, head to the library and check out different guides for the same destination (preferably one you know something about) and compare them. Which guide do you find easiest to use? Which has the right balance of information? Whose maps do you like? Whose type can you read clearly? Which one weighs the least, or fits in your bag most easily?
The newest trend is the production of city and regional guides — i.e. London vs. Great Britain. You don’t need them both. Which one is best for you depends on whether you are planning a city (or region-specific) vacation or whether you are hoping to cover as much road as freely as possible. Hauling the comprehensive guide opens up many more possibilities which must be weighed against the sheer bulk of 800 pages in the daypack (and the hand, when you are using it to navigate). This is an example where pick & mix chapters added to another guide might make sense.
If you’re still frightened by the sticker price, it’s fairly easy to avoid paying retail for your guidebook of choice. Check out the post Save Money on Guidebook Purchases for ideas on how to keep your initial outlay at a minimum.
Thanks to Dana for the inspiration.