By Rick Steves
I am amazed by the many otherwise smart people who base the trip of a lifetime on a borrowed copy of a three-year-old guidebook. The money they save in the bookstore is wasted the first day of their trip, searching for hotels and restaurants long since closed. Guidebooks are $25 tools for $4,000 experiences. As a writer — and user — of guidebooks, I am a big believer in their worth. When I visit somewhere as a rank beginner, I equip myself with a good, up-to-date guidebook. I travel like an old pro, not because I’m a super traveler, but because I have reliable information and I use it.
With a good guidebook, you can come into Paris for your first time, go anywhere in town for less than $2 on the subway, enjoy a memorable bistro lunch for $20, and pay $150 for a double room in a friendly hotel on a pedestrian-only street a few blocks from the Eiffel Tower — so French that when you step outside in the morning, you feel you must have been a poodle in a previous life.
Before buying any guidebook, check the publication date. If it’s last year’s edition, find out when the new version is due out. Most guidebooks get an update every two or three years. Only a handful of titles (including my most popular books) are actually updated in person each year. The rule of thumb: If the year is not printed on the cover, the guidebook is not updated annually. When I’m choosing between guidebooks for a certain destination, the publication date (often on the copyright page) is usually the deciding factor.
Every guidebook series has an area of specialization: Some are great for hotels, but fall down on restaurants. Other series can’t be beat for history and culture. Some guidebooks (like mine) are more opinionated and selective, choosing only the most worthwhile destinations in each country and covering them in depth. Others seek to cover every possible destination you might find yourself in.
Rick Steves: What makes my guidebooks different from the competition? With the help of my research partners, I update my guidebooks lovingly and in person — many of them annually. In order to experience the same Europe that most of my readers do, I insist on doing my research in the peak tourist season — from April through September. And I’m stubbornly selective, writing about fewer destinations than other guidebooks. For example, Italy has dozens of hill towns, but my Italy book zooms in on the handful that are truly worth the trip. I base my depth of coverage on a place’s worthiness, rather than its population or fame.
When I travel in Europe and beyond — to areas I don’t cover in my books — I routinely use guidebooks from these publishers, and find them helpful.
Lonely Planet: The worldwide standard for a solid guidebook, Lonely Planet covers most countries in Europe, Asia, Africa, and the Americas. The Lonely Planet series offers comprehensive, no-nonsense facts, low- and mid-budget listings, and helpful on-the-ground travel tips.
Rough Guides: This British series is written by Europeans who understand the contemporary social scene better than most American writers. While the Rough Guides’ hotel listings can be skimpy and uninspired, the historical and sightseeing information tends to offer greater depth than others.
Let’s Go: Designed for young train travelers on tight budgets, Let’s Go books are written and updated by Harvard students — making them refreshingly youthful and opinionated. Let’s Go has retained its super-low-budget approach, is the best resource for shoestring travelers, and offers the best coverage on hosteling and the alternative nightlife scene.
Frommer’s Guides: The granddaddy of travel publishing, Arthur Frommer, has reinvented his series to be leaner and more focused on the budget traveler. These books are especially well attuned to the needs of older travelers, but some readers may feel like they’re being handled with unnecessary kid gloves.
Eyewitness Travel: These gorgeous visual guides offer appealing color photos and illustrations (like cutaway cross-sections of important castles and churches). They are great for trip planning and visual learners, but the written information is scant — I don’t travel with them.
Michelin Green Guides: From a French publisher, these famous, tall, green books are packed with color maps and photos, as well as small but encyclopedic chapters on history, lifestyles, art, culture, and customs. Recent editions also list hotels and restaurants. The prominence of a listed place on a Green Guide map is determined by its importance to the traveler, rather than its population. This means that a cute, visit-worthy village (such as Rothenburg, Germany) appears bolder than a big, dull city (like Dortmund). The Michelin Red Guides are the hotel and restaurant connoisseur’s bibles.
Blue Guides: Known for a dry and scholarly approach, these guides are ideal if you want a deep dive into history, art, architecture, and culture. With the Blue Guide to Greece, I had all the information I needed about every sight and never needed to hire a guide. Scholarly types actually find a faint but endearing personality hiding between the sheets of their Blue Guides.
Cadogan Guides: Readable and thought provoking, Cadogan (rhymes with “toboggan”) guides are similar to Blue Guides but more accessible to the typical traveler. They’re good pre-trip reading. If you’re traveling alone and want to understand tomorrow’s sightseeing, Cadogan gives you something productive to do in bed.
Time Out: With titles on many European cities (and several British regions), these guidebooks cover sights, entertainment, eating, and sleeping with an insider’s savvy. Written with the British market in mind, they have a hard-hitting, youthful edge and assume readers are looking for the trendy scene.
Ebooks or Hard Copy?
Many guidebook series, including most of my titles, are available as ebooks. While I still consider myself a paper guy, I can see the advantages of going digital. You can effortlessly carry multiple ebooks without adding weight to your bag (great for long, multi-destination trips), and you can buy books on the go (convenient for spur-of-the-moment detours). Someday ebooks may offer more benefits than traditional paper books — including content customized to cover precisely the destinations you want and maps linked to GPS technology so you’ll never get lost. But for now, ebooks have limitations. It can be difficult to find the information you’re looking for; flipping from page to page is awkward; and maps — often designed to run across two pages — don’t always appear correctly.
While currently just a small fraction of guidebook sales are electronic, ebooks are here to stay. But until the perfect digital solution arrives, I believe the most practical guidebook format remains good ol’ paper.