Guidebooks can feel a little anachronistic in our age of social media, TripAdvisor, and customized search engines. However, I’m fully in the camp of thinking that a guidebook is one of the best investments you can make ahead of a trip. Allow me to try my best to convince you.
Guidebook as a planning tool
Good guidebooks are going to serve a few purposes when you’re planning a trip. By the time you know which guidebook you want, you probably have a rough idea of some activities or sites you’re interested in – unless you just threw a dart at a board, you probably had some inkling of why you decided to go to Spain or France or Senegal. Guidebooks help to fill in all the gaps.
Let’s pretend you’re planning a trip to Paris. You probably know that you want to visit the Louvre and the Eiffel Tower and Versailles. The first thing a guidebook will do is help you maximize your experience of each of those sites. Should you get a timed entry pass in advance? Should you buy the city museum pass? What’s the best way to get to Versailles from the city center? A guidebook is going to give you concrete, trustworthy answers to these types of questions.
Next, how are you going to fill the time between those few headline experiences? Guidebooks are great for surfacing all the smaller museums, interesting sites, and neighborhoods that might go unnoticed. Especially in major destinations, internet resources can be incredibly slanted by search engine optimization and folks gaming the system. A reputable guidebook company filters that noise and points you to authentic experiences.
There are also times when the wisdom of crowds outweighs the curated experience of a guidebook. For example, when it comes to picking hotels, a guidebook researcher has (at best) briefly visited the hotel and taken a look at a room or two. A rating on Booking.com will reflect hundreds or thousands of stays. Reviews on these sites can surface things that aren’t obvious to a researcher – maybe the hotel is really noisy on weekends, or has problematic wifi. The same can be true for things like restaurant recommendations – a guidebook can give you a sense of the type of cuisine and the atmosphere, but isn’t going to have much to say about seasonal menu options.
Guidebook as your tour guide
Most guidebooks include tours for major sites and walking tours of cities. These can be invaluable – guidebook researchers know the constraints facing a typical tourist, and can help you maximize your time. Museums can be overwhelming, and we sometimes feel the need to pretend to be interested in each and every item on display. A guidebook can take you to the highlights, weaving a consistent narrative throughout.
Walking tours are great introductions to cities. Hiring a guide is always my preferred route, but a good written guide in a book can be almost as good.
Traveling with your Guidebook
First off, paper is still king when it comes to guidebooks. I pity the folks trying to use an iPad or a Kindle for this type of reading – you want to be able to stick postits in the book, highlight things, quickly jump around, or pass the book to a stranger to get some help finding a location.
Treat your guidebook as a consumable object. I’ve become a big fan of slicing out relevant portions of a guidebook ahead of a trip. If I’ve got a 1000 page guide to France, but I’m only going to be in Paris, I’ll rip that section out and re-staple it. There’s no need to haul around all that bulk. A beaten, torn, dog-eared guidebook is a sign of a good trip.
I’d also encourage you to become a guidebook loyalist. Each of the major companies has its own tone, voice and focus. By becoming a loyalist, you learn how to better interpret their guidance. In Europe (no surprise here) I’m a big fan of the Rick Steves books. They really excel with their walking tours, though the maps can sometimes have a bit too much of an artistic interpretation. Further afield, your options can be a bit more limited – Lonely Planet covers most of the planet, though in many places their books can be relatively limited in terms of depth. If you’re going off the grid, it can be worth looking for specialist one-off guides.
Lastly, keep a close eye on the publication dates when ordering a guidebook. On sites like Amazon, it’s easy to accidentally order a previous edition guidebook. If you look carefully in the listing, you should be able to determine when it was published. All the guidebook companies are scrambling to update their books to account for changes from COVID – check the websites of guidebook publishers to see if there are books in the pipeline for your target destination. That said, there’s still a ton of value in a guidebook, even if it’s a couple years out of date. Just be sure to do a quick web search to be sure hours and opening days have changed.
There’s also a special charm in picking up older guidebooks at used bookstores and bringing those on trips – I’ve got some lovey early 20th century guides to Italy which make for fun compare-and-contrast exercise when traveling.