A Cheap Broad’s Travel Tips: A Slightly Snarky Guide to Guidebooks

“What’s a good guidebook?” or “What guidebook do you use?” After 30-some-odd years of traveling, both by myself and with others, there isn’t any one guidebook that will suit every person’s needs. Make a trip to the bookstore and head to the travel section. Pick up a few different guidebooks and leaf through them, read the text, check out their recommendations for hotels and restaurants – are these the kinds of establishments that would appeal to you, or are you looking for something more casual/more formal? Is this the kind of information you would find useful? Can you find the help you need in the table of contents, or is this just a pretty picture book?

And a caveat: guidebooks are written during the year before publication. By the time the 2012 Travel Guide to Paradise comes out, a recommended cafe may have closed or been sold. Charming innkeepers pass on and their kids don’t want to continue the business. And the writer’s experience may not match your experience. But that’s part of travel – if we wanted safe, predictable lives, we’d stay home.

Rick Steves wrote a book called Europe Through the Back Door, with the philosophy that that we can’t experience the real Europe if we blindly follow the endorsements of travel agents and established guidebooks. Steves recommends low-cost hostels, picnicking, and sleeping on overnight trains so that you awake in a new city, ready to hit the ground running. His guidebooks include do-it-yourself kamikaze museum tours that guide you directly to the most famous artworks in the shortest amount of time (helpfully including explanations of chosen paintings and sculptures). Maps are hand-drawn.

Steves started out with great intentions, but nowadays those back-door locations he lists are flooded with people carrying Europe Through the Back Door. His original ideas are still very valid, but you’ll have to find your own back door. If that seems like too much trouble, you can always book a Rick Steves tour and carry Rick Steves travel gear.

In 1957 Arthur Frommer published Europe on 5 Dollars a Day. His idea predated Rick Steves – that the more money you spend on vacation, the more you will be separated from an authentic experience, and he explained how to travel enjoyably for little money. Over the years, 5 Dollars became 10 and 20 and 50, until eventually the series was sold and the money part glossed over. Though Frommer is still a consultant, the ultra-cheap lodging and cafes have vanished from the books.

Currently the Frommer guides focus on mid- to upper-level hotels and restaurants, along with concise basic information (transportation, banking, emergency contacts) as well as well-written descriptions of sights and attractions. Maps are professionally printed but often in very small fonts with pale lettering. (which is to say, they’re hard to read).

Arthur Frommer himself still writes a travel blog with focus on bargains, to be found on the Frommer’s website.

Fodor’s Travel Guides bear a striking resemblance in style, target audience, and recommendations as Frommer’s, only with prettier photos.

DK Eyewitness Travel, “The guides that show you what others only tell you,” are very attractive and colorful books, printed on glossy paper, with 3-D diagrams of castles and cathedrals, architectural details, and color photos of just about anything you might want to see at your destination. The series is quite beautiful and would make a nice small coffee table book. But the books give short shrift to practical travel information like train times and bus routes; there are a very few pages in the back devoted to lodging and restaurants.

The glossy paper is hard to write on (if you’re the kind of traveler who makes notes in their guidebook). And the books are heavy. The DK Florida guide is 1.4 pounds, but the guide to India weighs in at 2.4 pounds and 824 pages! If you’re driving from place to place that’s not too bad, but if you’re going to be walking any length of time, you’ll be wishing you’d picked a lighter guidebook. Personally, I’d leave this at home to thumb through when I got back.

Michelin is famous for their red guide listing restaurants (including those that have earned the “Michelin star”) and hotels, but they also publish a green guide. The books are illustrated with plenty of color photographs and maps.The hotel and restaurant listings lean toward the expensive. Michelin falls down on practical information – basic details about attractions such as opening hours & admission is only listed for the most famous sights. There is no information about public transportation; it is assumed you’ll be driving to La Casa de la Mansion – on Michelin tires, of course.

Lonely Planet began as a guidebook for backpackers and students, but has since switched gears to a more mainstream audience. Books feature detailed and comprehensive listings, including “itinerary builders,” a chart listing popular sights combined with recommended restaurants, entertainment, shopping, etc. near those sights – presumably so the tourist doesn’t have to wander near the Museum of Toadflax, hoping to find a good place to buy some shoelaces and see a play as long as he’s in the neighborhood. There are minimal photos.

Insight Guides are beautifully formatted and photographed books with a strong emphasis on history, culture, and understanding, rather than on what hours the castle is open or where to sleep or eat. These books would be great to read before visiting an exotic location, or to look at upon return, but not much help if you’re looking for a hotel. And, like the DK series, the books are heavy.

Let’s Go, “The Student Travel Guide,” is written by and for students and backpackers. With a heavy emphasis on hostels, cheap eats, and which bar has cheap beer, this is not everyone’s guidebook. But because Let’s Go assumes the traveler may be hitchhiking or taking local bus service, it does include information about out-of-the-way sights located far from towns or freeways. The flip side of that coin is that the details are often vague, misleading, or altogether inaccurate. (This isn’t just my opinion – having been deceived by Let’s Go about the distance and difficulty of a hike to Tintern Abbey – but that of Bill Bryson, who called it Let’s Go Get Another Guidebook after a similar experience on the Isle of Capri.)

If a paper-and-ink guidebook seems quaint and antiquated, many of these travel series have downloadable apps or are available in Kindle and Nook versions. And the internet is chockablock with travel websites. But with all the information out there for consumption, there’s little regulation or oversight. Your own good sense and double- and triple-checking is always in order when making travel plans and arrangements. Don’t let the fear of what ifs and the unknown deter you from planning your next vacation.

Barbara Rice is a native Igonian. Upon discovering the Beatles at age 9, she picked up an atlas and figured out how far England was and how long it would take to get there (5,371 miles, 12 hours). Though gainfully employed, she regards work as a necessary evil to finance vacations. In her spare time she looks up cheap airfares and daydreams about her next trip. She never did meet Sir Paul, but she knows where his office is.

A News Cafe, founded in Shasta County by Redding, CA journalist Doni Greenberg, is the place for people craving local Northern California news, commentary, food, arts and entertainment. Views and opinions expressed are not necessarily those of anewscafe.com.

Barbara Rice

Barbara Rice is anewscafe.com's administrative assistant. She grew up in Igo listening to the devil's music, hearing tales of WWII, and reading James Thurber and Mad Magazine while dreaming of travel to exotic lands. She graduated from Shasta High School, Shasta College, and San Francisco State University. After too many blistering Sacramento Valley summers, she's traded it all for the ocean breezes of Humboldt County. She's been told she's a bad influence and that makes her very happy. She tweets, travels, and spoils cats. There's a dance in the old dame yet.

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