What's the best travel book series?
August 17, 2004 4:11 PM   Subscribe

What is the best travel book series? You know -- Frommer's, Rough Guide, Fodor's, Lonely Planet, etc. I'm finally getting of my duff and going somwhere (Costa Rica) and I want a reliable guide book to take with me. Something that I will actually find quite useful and not rip it into shreds out of pure frustration.
posted by beatnik808 to Writing & Language (28 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I've had good experiences with Rough Guides. There aren't as many pretty pictures as in Fodors, but there's lots of practical information that has generally steered me right.
posted by muckster at 4:16 PM on August 17, 2004

I like Footprint. But stay as far away from Let's Go as you possibly can. I got the Paris one as a secondary book & everything in it was wrong or out of date.
posted by dame at 4:20 PM on August 17, 2004

The consensus among travellers I met during my recent jaunt was that Rough Guide was good (perhaps "best") for Europe, and Lonely Planet was good for Mexico/Latin America.

A British guy I met had an interesting perspective: "I carry a Rough Guide because I know that everyone else I meet will have Lonely Planet if I want to check that."
posted by rushmc at 4:50 PM on August 17, 2004

Rough Guide and LP are generally for a younger crowd (more hostels, more off-the-beaten-path attractions), while Fordor's and Frommer's seems to aim older.
posted by falconred at 4:54 PM on August 17, 2004

I also like Rough Guide and Lonely Planet and found Let's Go nearly useless. It's been my experience that Lonely Planet is a bit more readable when planning a trip, but the Rough Guide has better maps and on the spot information while you're actually on the trip. The quality (and frequency of updates) does vary a bit from country to country in either one, though. I've never actually bought a Fodor's or Frommer's; they always seemed long on pretty pictures and short on worthwhile information.
posted by m-bandy at 4:56 PM on August 17, 2004

Hmm: I guess I'm alone (so far) in finding Lonely Planet and Rough Guide quite useless. Almost everywhere I've gone, I've found that Time Out is the best.

It depends, I suspect, on what you want to use the guide for. I've found that LP and RG are great if you show up in a place with no idea where you're going to stay, or if you're travelling over a huge area (e.g., 'Europe') and need info for lots of different countries. But Time Out gives you, a) actually very good little essays on recent history and cultural context for the country where you're travelling; b) extremely up-to-date and savvy reviews of restaurants and nightlife; and c) a fair dose of wry English humor. So, you can assess your own needs, but I tend to find Time Out the most useful, especially on very metropolitan trips (Paris, Tokyo, Istanbul, Budapest).

(If there's a reason Let's Go is pretty useless, it's because it's all written by undergraduates at Harvard and writing for it is kind of a junket).
posted by josh at 5:26 PM on August 17, 2004

The only time I used a Frommer's was on a jaunt to Toronto, and we literally wound up throwing it out a cab window in a fury after the "short walk from the train station" to a restaurant "open late on weekends" turned out to be a 2-mile trek through the suburbs (on foot!) only to find that it had closed an hour earlier. So I'd avoid those bastards like the plague if I were you.

I've always been a little suprised by the anti-Let's Go responses, though (I've seen it panned elsewhere recently too) -- I used it almost exclusively when I lived in England and I found it quite useful. That was in '89-'90, though -- maybe their standards have slipped considerably? (Plus I was in college at the time, too -- their target audience, I guess.)
posted by scody at 5:28 PM on August 17, 2004

On my recent trip around India, "Lonely Planeteers" were very impressed by my
Footprint guidebook. Unfortunately they don't do a guide to Costa Rica. Take a
Rough Guide and just compare it with everybody elses Lonely Planet.
posted by DelusionsofGrandeur at 5:34 PM on August 17, 2004

I used the Rough Guide to Costa Rica when I went there in 1996 and thought it was pretty useful. At some level, you can always take both and stow one in your bag the whole time, or pick whichever one has a more current edition. Depending why you're going to CR, there are a bunch of specialized books that are also pretty good on stuff like surfing, ecotourism, birdwatching etc.
posted by jessamyn at 5:35 PM on August 17, 2004

Link worked when I previewed it.

posted by DelusionsofGrandeur at 5:36 PM on August 17, 2004

I can't speak for how Let's Go is for 'adventure travel', but I prefer them for visiting metropolitan areas, because they assume the type of travel that I like - cheap and non-touristy. I don't want to know what the best French cuisine in Chicago is, I want to know where the record stores are and where to get a $4 bean burrito. I hate guidebooks where the maps stop at the borders of the downtown core. And the Let's Go little 30-page fold out map guides are ideal for a long weekend in a strange city.

That said, when planning a trip I usually hit the Rough Guides website because they actually have useful information.
posted by Gortuk at 6:00 PM on August 17, 2004

After a recent long trip with a friend, I picked up one of her habits: I buy more than one guidebook, cut out the stuff I'm interested in, collate it, and staple everything together in groups according to my intended schedule. Everything else gets recycled.

...this way I only end up carrying what I actually need to carry, and it's organized by when I'll need it.
posted by aramaic at 6:06 PM on August 17, 2004

Uh, Footprint does do a Costa Rica guide (can't make link work, but it isn't hard to find). And I would like to reiterate that they do kick ass.
posted by dame at 6:36 PM on August 17, 2004

I really really like Rough Guides; they're informative and down-to-earth and useful and candid. I've had good luck with some Frommer's guides, though they seem to vary wildly. (For instance, I think the Frommer's South Florida guide is the best one around, and beats Rough Guide hands down.)

The Open Road guidebook to Turkey is great, the one for Vietnam is pretty crummy IMHO. Haven't used any others.

Blue Guides and Insight Guides can be useful in planning your trip, but I wouldn't bring them along with you unless you have unlimited space and won't be carrying your luggage. They've got lots of information and lots of pretty pictures, respectively.

If you're going to Europe, I also like Rick Steves' guidebooks, used in tandem with a good directory-style guidebook like the Rough Guides. His "Mona Winks" book of self-guided walking tours through the biggest 20 or so museums in Europe is invaluable.

Let's Go seems to be long on attitude and short on actual information.

Short answer? Go to the biggest local bookstore, grab a bunch of guidebooks, head for their couch, and start comparing them. See which ones seem to fit your travel style. See which ones offer which bits of information, and what they emphasize. Best of luck.
posted by Vidiot at 8:38 PM on August 17, 2004

When I was travelling through China, I met one of those Harvard undergrads doing a write-up for Let's Go. We went to a Sichuanese restaurant. He couldn't read much Chinese, so he got the wife of the owner of one of the backpacker hotels to help him translate the maps. Then he ended up in bed with her.

After a couple of days, he had to book it out of there, because he thought the owner was starting to catch on. He was also majorly stressed out because he was significantly behind deadline. I left him on his own so he could half-ass the description of several different restaurants across town, while I went back to my hotel room and had explosive diarrhea from the Sichuanese food. I remember positioning the small black and white TV in view from the toliet so that I could watch the 2000 Euro Cup while my lower intestine explosively expelled all of its contents.

True story.
posted by alidarbac at 9:39 PM on August 17, 2004

I do the rip and staple also. When I went to greece I removed most of the sections regarding parts of the country I really had no plans of visiting. If I ended up deciding to it's not hard to get other books. The only downside of the rip method is that you can't trade books. When I went from greece to jordan, for example, I had to trade fiction books for jordan travel books -- no one wanted my personal travel book on greece.

A nice online service would let you create your own books like this, giving you a PDF you could take somewhere to get printed and bound. Only needs to last as long as the trip. I did something a little like this once that let you make your own jazz fakebooks by taking a little of this and that from the dozen or so available books. I'd love to show it to you but, well, it sort of got closed down. The publishers, bmg, etc, were not at all interested in developing such a thing either, despite how popular it was.
I'd definitely pay something per year to be able to view content from travel books, customize it into something usable (even if it's just on the section or chapter level and not on the page-by-page level)
posted by RustyBrooks at 9:45 PM on August 17, 2004

I used to use LP during my travels years ago. They are not as good as they once were -- the new Korea one for example is a piece of Tourist Board crap -- and having met a few of the writers over the years, I place very little credence in them. By contrast, the Moon guide (man I hate linking to Amazon) for Korea is superb.

But you're not asking about Korea.

In general, I used to try to carry two guides, and try and triangulate actual useful information out of the two. Nothing, though, can replace actually talking to other travellers about where they've been and what was good. I'm out of date, and not familiar with some of the newer imprints, but I'd probably go with LP and one other...
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 10:08 PM on August 17, 2004

i'm a big fan of the access guides (published by harper collins) and also choose rough guide and lonely planet.

i think it's important to pick up a guide that was recently published. i didn't realize that the lonely planet guide that i picked up for paris was published in 2000. while it might have been my luck, a number of the restaurants we decided to seek out had long gone.
posted by heather at 10:09 PM on August 17, 2004

Actually, heather's comment (and no offense, this is just me sounding off again) brings up one of the things I hate most about guidebooks, which led to me using them the way I do these days : hordes of (for example) Lonely Planeteers trooping from hotel to restaurant to whatever, in lockstep, guides in hand. It makes it easier to avoid them [/travel snob], but it's so senseless when someone is asking passersby where to find X Cafe, mentioned in the LP, when Y, Z and Q Cafes are right there in front of their noses, and if not as good or better, then at least convenient.

I tend to use the guides for general info only, and recommend others do the same. Specific recommendations are more often than not wrong or outdated or simply lifted from other sources of information (including old editions) by the writer, the object of the recommendation remaining sight unseen. I know how these guidebooks writers work, and even the best of them do not visit a very significant proportion of the lodging and food places that make their book. Which makes the stream of Lonely Planeteers tramping in some kind of Backpacker Death March to those Recommended Businesses all the more unfortunate and risible.

One of the great things about budget travel is the balancing act between comfort and adventure, and depending too much on a guidebook for specifics can push that balance all out of wack, I reckon.

For what it's worth. I'm not attacking anyone's travel style, just sayin'...
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 11:32 PM on August 17, 2004

Indeed. Usually I've seen other travelers carry a mix of guidebooks, but when I went to Vietnam a few years ago, almost every traveler I ran into had the Lonely Planet guide. Which was fine, if not to my taste -- I found the layout to be cramped, the information to be a bit basic, and the design to be something of a pain. People kept asking to borrow my Rough Guide and were attempting to triangulate with it.

What was most depressing was seeing a sign outside a cafe that proudly proclaimed that it was in the Lonely Planet guidebook, which said that its banana pancakes were good. So of course there was a horde of backpackers outside, all waiting for their banana pancakes, and completely ignoring the maybe twenty other cafes in the same street, most of which served real Vietnamese food.

Just following your nose may not be enough, because a guidebook can certainly point you in some right directions. But your trips will be much more enjoyable once you start to develop that radar that tells you when to put the book away, fly by the seat of your pants, and find some truly unique experiences.
posted by Vidiot at 12:49 AM on August 18, 2004

Here you go. A head-to-head comparison of the top three guidebooks to Costa Rica from costa-rica-guide.com, which looks like a great web site. It has a whole section with reviews on books about Costa Rica, by category, so if you are interested in something in particular (backpacking? budget travel? adventure trips?) you can browse those books and see what the site authors have to say about them.
posted by taz at 1:05 AM on August 18, 2004

Stavros & Vidiot [Obligatory *hahaha* at Rick Steves ;-)] are totally on the money. There is no more depressing travelling sight than a 'Recommended by Lonely Planet' sign or a whole pack of LP-toting weenies outside a bar or food place.

Some of the best advice will be gleaned from your fellow travellers but try & avoid the 'you must do blah-blah'-types who are more interested in recounting how brilliant their travels are than actually giving solid advice. That tends to come from the older more relaxed guys who actually have a sense of adventure.

Basically, every guide book will suck. There's the fustration of relying on something as you're new to an area/country and then finding out that it isn't that reliable as you discover better places to stay, visit etc. It's a good idea to find out the most popular guides to a country & go for one of the others - you'll nearly always have access to the most popular one anyway.

Another good way of sussing out which publisher you'll like is to check out their guide to your country - especially the sections on your local area/city or somewhere you know really well. I always have a good laugh at the LP Britain guide & the aforementioned Rick Steves' cracks me up for what he leaves out...
posted by i_cola at 3:09 AM on August 18, 2004

ok. so i'm a weenie -- what can i say, i was lured by the thougth of fish and chips in paris. for the most part, the majority of our disappointment was the disappearence of listed internet cafes. it really isn't pretty when i can't have my online fix. the internet, it's on computers now.

you also might think about polling friends and asking them to poke friends of friends. we found a fabulous small b&b in amsterdam and rented our apartment in paris through recomendations of friends and friends of friends. fwiw, i have a great collection of info for amsterdam and paris.
posted by heather at 6:48 AM on August 18, 2004

Please, whichever book you choose, don't walk around with it in your hand or (heaven forbid) open. That just marks you as the mark of all marks.
Try to learn a bit of the language, it'll make for a much better trip than all the guidebooks in the world.
Having said all this, Rough Guide's alright.
posted by signal at 7:50 AM on August 18, 2004

Following on from signal's advice, you might want to cover your book with some plain sturdy wrapper. You may not be bothered about being a weenie [ ;-) ] but an extra wrapper will protect the book - which will get a lot of abuse from being shoved in & out of your bag - and may help you from being spotted as a target by any touts.
posted by i_cola at 8:27 AM on August 18, 2004

Following on from i_cola's follow up, I wrapped my Lonely Planet Israel & Jordan in duct tape, which protects it and makes it look vaguely dangerous.
Don't let youself be a slave to your guidebook, you'll end up getting a generic, gringo-trail pre-chewed experience. Try to talk to the locals, its always better to ask people for a good restaurant than just look it up in the book. You'll experience more of the culture and maybe make some friends.
By all means get a guidebook, just stick your nose out of it once in a while.
posted by signal at 8:35 AM on August 18, 2004

this is an old post, but i thought i would add that i've always found the time out city guides as a supplement to whichever main travel book you choose.

not available for every city, tho.
posted by elsar at 12:47 PM on August 18, 2004

I'm late to the party, but I wanted to second the Moon Handbooks (Moon book on Costa Rica). I used one in Cuba, and loved it. It was constantly accurate, had information for all ranges of traveling (budget to superb), and had answers to most of those "what if..." and "can I..." type questions. It was a big book, but worth every ounce. I've been happy with every Lonely Planet I've used except for Eastern Europe. The others I've used include France, UK, Cuba, Havana (not the same book as Cuba), and Germany.

I know the question is on Costa Rica, but don't forget Rick Steve's. He's been a good companion for both me and my mother as travelers throughout Europe, and he always comes along with me. Also on the Europe trips the Michelin Green Guides come out.

Like others, I've given up on Fodor's and Frommers. Inaccurate, white-washed experiences geared for older travelers looking for a sterile experience. Written for those who wanted to live by the guidebook.
posted by whatzit at 8:18 PM on August 31, 2004

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