Recommend a European travel guide!
August 17, 2008 8:20 PM   Subscribe

Please give me your recommendations for a European travelguide for the clueless traveler.

I have decided that in September I will head for a 4-6 week graduation solo-trip to Europe. If it's at all relevant, I'll be traveling out of Toronto. So far, the only planning that has gone into this is that I have a passport. I still need to decide when to leave, which flight to take, where to go, where I'll stay, etc etc etc. The real catch is that I am a complete travel virgin, having never even been on an airplane before.

What several people have mentioned to me is that to help with planning and navigating around when I get there, I should pick up a travelguide. So what I am looking for is suggestions as to which guide should be my holy bible for this trip. Is there one out there that will help me out with choosing destinations, providing maps, etc all in a single book? Am I looking at getting a few just to cover my bases? Are there any other all-inclusive resources that you would recommend instead?

Thanks in advance!
posted by sah to Travel & Transportation (19 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
For my family's first trip to Europe, twenty-odd years ago, we used Let's Go Europe. It's still in print, and seems like it ought to provide a comprehensive starting point.

Top tip if you're cycling or walking long distances with this 1000-page book: cut it in half, and put half in each of your paniers or side pockets of your bag.

Since they, we've mostly used Lonely Planet.

You might also consider WikiTravel as an introductory resource to help you choose destinations.

A few tips from a veteran European traveler:

1. Don't try to do too many countries and cities. You'll have other trips to Europe, so less is more. Better to see four to six countries in-depth than 15 in haste.

2. Use the train system. Also make use of the many cheap flights.

3. If you're heading to Eastern Europe, be sure to review the entry requirements. Some may require you to be holding a visa. As a noobie traveler, I'd recommend you stick with countries in the EU. You probably want to hold to the beaten path.

4. If I were planning your trip for you, I'd do a vague loop that went something like: Paris - Barcelona - Nice - Rome - Venice - Athens - Greek Isles - Berlin - Amsterdam. Obviously hit smaller towns along the way, or whatever floats your boat, but those would be the main cities I'd plan to pass through. If that seems like too much to cover, then cut out Greece.

5. Book your first few nights and last few nights well ahead of time. I'm something of a compulsive accommodation booker, but it's nice to know where you're going to land on the first nights, and where you're going to leave from at the end of your trip.

6. Bring a compass, and learn how to read it. It looks slightly dorky, but you're going to emerge from a lot of underground subways with no idea which way to go. The compass it the fastest way to get your bearings.

7. Learn at least 25 essential words in the language of every country you visit.

8. When booking your flight to Europe, use SeatGuru and try to get a bulkhead or exit row seat. Your body will thank you for it.
posted by dbarefoot at 8:34 PM on August 17, 2008

If I had to choose one, I'd choose the Lonely Planet Europe. If I could take one or two others, I'd pick up a Guide du Routard for the place(s) I wanted to go; if you read French well, they're very useful and better researched than the typical English-language guide to Europe. I would avoid the Let's Go series, since it tends to be written by and for college students who don't necessarily know the host country well.
posted by brianogilvie at 8:54 PM on August 17, 2008

If it were me, I'd stick to a single region. which could mean no more than a country or two in the western part of Europe, or four or five in parts of Eastern Europe. I'd try to hit a nice mix of villages and cities. I'd try agrotourism - there are nice places in Maramures, for example, that cost under $15 a night, and it's a part of the world which will disappear soon. My attitude is, the Louvre and the British Museum aren't going anywhere anytime soon.

The advice above is great, with the exception of #3. If you're an American or a Canadian, there are few visa requirements anymore. As far as I know, Russia and Belarus are the only countries which require one. Even holdouts like Ukraine have abandoned this necessity, and I entered Serbia last year without one, despite the antagonism they have for America.
posted by Dee Xtrovert at 8:57 PM on August 17, 2008

A good friend tells me that Rick Steves has never steered him wrong.
posted by metahawk at 8:57 PM on August 17, 2008

On my first trip round Europe, Let's Go Europe was my best friend. They focus on real budget travel and cool, off-beat stuff to see and do (as well as providing well-written background info on the usual sights), whereas in my opinion it seems Lonely Planet has lost sight on that a bit. LP will list a couple of hostels in a particular destination, as well as tons of expensive places that backpackers really dont care to know about.
If you are backpacking, you dont want to tote around a 5 kilo book filled with mostly useless information. So I say get Let's Go and you might want to tear out sections on the countries you know you wont be visiting. That's what I do.

Make a TENTATIVE plan and count on totally screwing it up, because I guarantee that by travelling solo, you will meet lots of interesting travellers like yourself, and if they ask if you'd like to catch a night train with them to Prague- DO IT!

One other thing you may want to consider is couchsurfing ( I used to do this a lot, and Ive still got very good friends in places who I met by doing this. Its a great way to see a city the way a local does and gain some real insight beyond the guided tours. And its free!!!! I always contact a woman or a couple, and take them out for dinner or a beer, and Ive never had a problem.

Let us know if you have other specific questions, we'll be glad to help.

Bon Voyage!
posted by osloheart at 9:51 PM on August 17, 2008

Best answer: You really want Rick Steves Best of Europe guide. My experience is that the other travel guides tend to try to cover too much and lean too heavily to providing generic information. The Rick Steves books are personal, opinionated and focused. They tell you things to see - and and what specifically is interesting about the palce. They include shorter lists of recommended hotels and restaurants - and why the places are good - instead of long lists of every hotel in an area. They often include handwritten maps and walking tours of the cities. The Rick Steves books are aimed at independent travelers who are trying to get good value for the dollar. Picking up a Rick Steves book is like having a friend advise you on what to do, as opposed to reading a huge list of items you need to sort through by yourself.

You're going to be there WAY too long to stay in one area. 4-6 weeks is long enough to see a LOT of Europe. Don't miss the opportunity. Also, make sure to build at least one rest day, where you lay around and relax, per week. You'll burn out if you don't build in rest days.

Here are some sample itineraries from Rick Steves for trips of 3 weeks to 2 months in Europe. The whole site is a great resource for European travel information.

I agree that you should limit what you see to at least some degree. I'd recommend staying in every location at least two nights. Packing, heading to the train station schlepping bags, etc. gets old. Stay in major cities (London, Paris, Rome, etc.) at least 4 nights. We went to six locations in a little more than three weeks, and I wouldn't schedule anything more aggressive than that. I think seven to eight cities in four weeks is a good number (with day trips always a possibility).
posted by cnc at 10:50 PM on August 17, 2008

I owe Rick Steves a debt of gratitude for all of the great trips I've taken with his guidebooks.
posted by 26.2 at 10:56 PM on August 17, 2008

Which guide should be my holy bible for this trip?

I suggest the following rather intense process if you're going to just bring one book.

1. Choose three or four very different European places you may be interested in visiting - no need to nail them down or anything, just a thought exercise. Do this before you start looking at books. Let's say, for the sake of argument, that you choose:
• a big, very-touristed city (Amsterdam, Berlin, Rome)
• a smaller city non-Europeans might skip on a trip like yours (Bruges, Bologna, Porto)
• a natural/rural/agricultural area (Britain's Lake District, Champagne, the Dolomites)
• a more-famous place in Eastern Europe (Budapest, Kraków); while you may not get this far, it's probably changed a lot in the last few years and can be a good way to "date" the information by looking in each book you choose to compare!

2. Head to the best-stocked library, travel bookstore, or megabookstore you can get to. Pick up all the huge multicountry books and go find a table or a spot to sit. Be sure to choose books that cover roughly the same area; not really fair to compare a "Western Europe" book to a "Europe plus Turkey, Morocco, Moscow, and St Petersburg" one.

3. Now you're ready to judge which book has the best chance of helping you.

• Look for the publication date. Remember that all the information in the most recent book was gathered at least a few months ago, perhaps over a year ago. Certain places (wide swathes of Eastern Europe, the Balkans, and anywhere rural) may have especially outdated or inaccurate information as authors may not have visited before, or visited in a long time. And is this a first edition or a thirtieth edition?

• Look at maps.
*For cities: Do they include metro lines? Are streets labeled in English, the local language, or both? Is it roughly drawn or satellite-map accurate? Compass roses, legends, arrows pointing off the maps explaining where things off the map are? Walking tours, neighborhood shading, markets/ATMs/post offices/etc labeled with individual symbols, on a legend, or not at all?
*For smaller and more rural places: are there geographical landmarks like mountains and streams? Topographical features? Are distances listed by travel time or by mileage? Is there advice about transport connections to larger places other than "a bus comes through the village a few times a day on the way to..." if there's a bus stop symbol on the map?
*For famous cultural sites, are there floor/site plans and recommended itineraries?

• Look at information about restaurants/lodgings in the four places you've chosen. Are the same places recommended? Are they reviewed the same as far as amenities and price are concerned? How much contact info is provided: a website, an e-mail address or just a local phone number?

• Look at the language sections: do you have alphabetical lists of phrases, or contextualized sections ("talking about food", "numbers", "basic greetings")? Can you look at the list and within two seconds find waht you need, or are you hunting and coming up short?

• Think about the background of the more cultural places you're going. For Chartres and its amazing cathedral, for example, do you want a floor plan, an in-depth tour, and a lot of history, or just the basic who/what/where for the parts most people visit? Will the guidebook be the only source of information on the site available, or will locally-produced guides be better? That is: do you need a guided tour of the Louvre when there's one for free, in English, in much better detail at the museum itself? How much context do you want or need? Would you pay an official/non-shady guide for a tour in the truly-amazing places, or are you a lone-ranger/free-agent type who prefers to wander at will?

• Lastly: do any of the books actually contain all of your places, in sufficient detail for a few days' visit in each? Can you justify its purchase if you're not going to use 90% of it? If you can't find one book that meets your needs, don't fret! There are plenty of pocket-sized books (here's an example for Paris) that are great for more-visited, more-famous places, and they all usually have at least a few pages on out-of-town excursions (Versailles for Paris, perhaps). Why tote the history of Montenegro with you while you're looking for a bar in Copenhagen?

4. Now, Bible in hand, go home and fact-check. Head to customer-review websites like TripAdvisor or Chowhound for a few hostels or restaurants, respectively, you're interested in.


- Seat 61 for all your trainish needs.
- Berlin is pretty much the best place ever, and cheaper than any other big city its size on the continent.
- September is a good time to go pretty much everywhere - kids back in school, people back at work, better weather, the beginning of the arts and football seasons.

Hope this helps! Europe is not Mars; I lived in Latvia last year and have traveled a lot over there, and even in the most isolated, least English-speaking places, I found what I needed - and when I didn't, I adapted or changed my plans and made it work. Feel free to MeFi mail with more questions!
posted by mdonley at 12:39 AM on August 18, 2008

My question some time ago might be useful to you if you plan on travelling with trains/Eurailing. Most of the European countries I've been to (Spain, France, Czech rep., Austria, Netherlands, Nordic countries, Italy, Greece etc.) have good to acceptable standard train systems, especially Germany and the N. European trains, which are excellent. I used Wikitravel a lot beforehand, and I've heard good things about Lonely Planet guides.

Are you going alone or with friends? That might make a lot of difference in the places you choose to visit. I went on a similar trip (high school grad) this summer to the one you're planning, so just Mefi mail me if you want more information!
posted by monocot at 2:35 AM on August 18, 2008

Should have read the question carefully! You're going alone, I see.
posted by monocot at 2:36 AM on August 18, 2008

Best answer: Just got back from our first trip to Europe, 3 weeks across six countries. As far as books go, my best friend did me the huge favor of gifting me with Rick Steve's Best of Europe, not just for the recommendations on where to travel, but more importantly, on how to travel. I also found his French, Italian and German phrasebook invaluable since those languages pretty much cover most of the continent. Aside from books, Rick Steve's website is also very helpful. (Can you tell I'm a fan?)

But my single best piece of advice for you is to find people to connect with while you're there. Find friends, family, friends of friends, friends of family, friends of friends of friends, etc. Reach out to people on websites or forums that you frequent (hello mefites!) that might be willing to meet up for lunch or maybe show you around their town for an hour or two. And once you're there, make friends with as many people as you can. All of the best moments of our trip (and there were many!) were due to the wonderful people we met and visited with, regardless of where we went or what were were doing.
posted by platinum at 3:43 AM on August 18, 2008

Seconding or whatever Rick Steve's, Especially for France. He rights for *budget* travelers, though, not specifically for *young, budget* travelers, so you might supplement him with a Lonely Planet ersumthin. (I'm not a big fan of Let's Go for some reason. The only not-so-good Rick Steve's book I've had was the Portugal one.)

Seconding what everyone else said about not pushing yourself to go to too many places, and not doing too much planning in advance.
posted by whatzit at 3:50 AM on August 18, 2008

Rick Steves is a genius. His books have pointed wife and me to B and B's that made the trip much more interesting than some sterile, impersonal hotel and never failed us. His walking tours are really full and well-planned. Everyone recommending Rick Steves here is spot on.
posted by Mayor Curley at 4:05 AM on August 18, 2008

You might want to narrow down your interests first. If all you want to see is the typical tourist sites like the Eiffel tower, Colisseum, Reichstag then Fodor's or any of the popular books will do it for you. OTOH, if you want to see art museums, or WW2 monuments, or breweries, or go on tours of car manufacturers, or see unique local festivals then those books may not help you too much.

Personally the major tourist attractions don't do much for me than watching "Highlights of Europe" on TV. I would rather go to places where the locals outnumber the tourists. The best general travel guide are the DK Eyewitness Travel Guides. Rough Guides are decent.
posted by JJ86 at 5:53 AM on August 18, 2008

One perhaps unintended consequence of which guidebook you choose is, of course, meeting other people who are using that same guidebook.

It sounds obvious but, for example, only Americans use the Rick Steves guides. So, whenever we we've been in some town and were suddenly surrounded by Americans we'd look at each other and say "This must be in the Rick Steves guide." Sure enough, you could spot them clutching their guidebooks. I was prepared to be prejudiced against them but they are, in fact, quite good.

Lonely Planet publishes the same guides in different languages so the same issue is not there. Let's Go are definitely budget guides. They are written by college students - all Harvard students actually. The Rough Guides are also good as a complement to Lonely Planet.

I'd take mdonley's advice of going to a large bookstore, picking a city (say, Paris) and comparing various travel guides to see which one seems to "fit" better with the kind of traveling you expect to do. Don't be afraid to pack more than one.
posted by vacapinta at 5:55 AM on August 18, 2008 [1 favorite]

I would suggest watching as many Sam Brown Passport to Europe shows as possible.

Wish my wife and I had seen them before our European honeymoon - so many little out of the way things to see!
posted by mincus at 7:44 AM on August 18, 2008

Check out this book: The Rough Guide to First Time Europe. Lots of handy tips in there. When I went to Spain last fall, it was my first big trip that I did alone, and it had a lot of great advice for me. (Such as, to bring a 'fake' wallet with you so that you have something to hand over should you find yourself in a sticky situation where someone is demanding your money. [stock it with a few Euros and some old library cards or whatever.] I never had to use it but I felt much better just knowing I had it with me.)
posted by inatizzy at 8:37 AM on August 18, 2008

I just favorited vacapinta.

If you don't have that herd mentality, subscribe to Nota Bene. It's the best.
posted by Zambrano at 10:10 AM on August 18, 2008

When my friend and I did a whirlwind trip about Europe 2 years ago we split the difference: she had Lets Go Europe and I had Lonely Planet's Europe on a Shoestring. The shared a lot of information, but her was better for maps, and how to get from one destination to another, two pretty important factors when looking for a travel book.

Also, if you're backpacking, weight matters. Do not bring multiple books if you don't absolutely have to. We got to the point where we tore out the pages of each country we had visited after we left because our packs were too heavy.

As for picking places to go, why don't you wait a week or so and then post another AskMe with specifics on types of things you're most interested in (museums, modern art, architecture, food, etc.) if you give enough details about things you think you're most attracted to, you'll probably get a lot of useful (if overwhelming) responses.
posted by nerdcore at 4:21 PM on August 18, 2008

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