I love to travel, but I love to plan travel almost as much. I love reading about places I’m going, arranging destinations by location and daily budget, making a packing list, buying stamps, sorting pictures afterwards, all that jazz. Each destination requires a different type of planning, and I consider anything eligible for planning; if I leave the ten mile radius around my apartment, you can bet I’ve got a plan. (Sometimes even within ten miles. It’s a problem.) Familiar locations, like Boston or Chicago, require frequent weather checks (one never knows) and a long list of favorites I can’t miss, whether those be people, activities, or restaurants. If I’m headed to my aunt and uncle’s beach house, I check the stock online at the local yarn shop, plan my reading list carefully, and polish off the binoculars (and life list, which is an actual thing I own).
It’s been a while since I’ve been anywhere new, though, and I’m starting to get antsy. However slowly my vacation days seem to be accruing, I am already planning on how to spend them. I was considering somewhere warm and sunny to counteract the Mid-Atlantic winter – Greece was at the top of my list, until the economy started to collapse in on itself (and the rest of Europe). Cambodia’s been in the back of my mind for a while, since a friend recently
threatened almost had the opportunity to move there, but that’s a hike, and not a cheap one. I also have to leave some vacation days in the kitty for my cousin’s wedding this summer.
While I consider, I’ve been checking piles of travel books out of the library to browse, and I have some recommendations. Like planning, the kind of travel guide you need varies considerably with your travel style (are you backpacking, or is somebody else paying?), the type and number of destinations (a city, a scenic farm or seaside resort, or a grand tour?), your familiarity with the destination (the area of the world, the frequency of visitors to the destination, whether you’ve ever been before and speaking the language), and other factors specific to the traveler’s preference (if you prefer adventure travel or spas, museums or birding or both; if you’re traveling alone, with a partner or friend, or a family; and so on). Caveat: I am not a widely experienced traveler, so I am FAR from an expert; these reviews come from my limited but direct personal experience.
Touring a country? I was enamored with the colorful Lonely Planet “Discover” series upon first finding them, and I think they’re great for armchair travel. They’re glossy and thick, with opinionated lists from staffers and guides, and they’re trying to be one-stop shopping by providing translation and currency information on the inside covers. They’re so big and so full of editorial information, however, that they’re not great for most travel, more suited to preparation than toting around in your day bag. If you want a picture-heavy guide, go for DK Eyewitness Travel guides, especially in Europe and the Americas. They’re lighter and have more factual information. My go-to guides are typically from the Rough Guide series, which I’ve found to give really helpful and practical planning advice, details on local culture (festivals, markets, etc.) and have information on adventure travel that’s at my level – which is, I like some outdoorsy stuff, but I’m no backpacker or snowboarder. I think Lonely Planet goes into more depth on museums and theater, but since most travel guides cover these topics and it’s the sort of research I do before leaving, I don’t find this to be critically missing from Rough Guides.
Visiting a city? I love the Frommer’s “Day-by-Day” guides, mostly serving major European and North American cities, which lay out basic 1/2/3 day itineraries, special interest tours, and include glossy city maps. I like these because the pocket sized guides are light and portable, I find the organization of the guides pretty intuitive, and they include a lot of information for outdoor activities, including walking tours. Walking in a city is one of my favorite things to do – you get, I think, a better feel of the city if you can walk around and see not only the highlights but everything else. Their Amsterdam guide had a great walking tour of the Jordaan and waterbike tour of the canals, and their Chicago guide has a good architecture walk of the Gold Coast.
On a budget? If you’re on a strict budget, or trying to pull of a complicated itinerary of hitting a lot of places on one journey, Let’s Go can be perfect. They focus on student travelers and cater to that budget, but I’ve pulled some fabulous restaurant suggestions out of Let’s Go guides, including an amazing basement Thai restaurant in London.
New traveler? If you’re going to Europe, Rick Steves is the name you’re looking for. He produces volumes of travel information – guides and public television specials especially – including a “Europe through the backdoor” guide for beginners. If you’re not going to Europe, I am lame and cannot assist.
Rick Steves is also good, in my parent’s opinion, for family travel and European tours (road tripping through Andalucia, or rail travel in Benelux, as examples). If you’re traveling solo and enjoy outdoorsy activities, Moon Guides are excellent, but I suggest supplementing them with another guide book as they don’t seem to be published/updated as thoroughly. (That being said, if you’re interesting in improvising and don’t care much about background information, Moon Guides may be the way to go.)
Road tripping? I’ve had great success with the “AAA+” method of travel when hitting the road, and not just because the stops mentioned offer discounts to members. Factors like traffic and weather can really influence car travel, and it’s good to have a vetted list of reasonable hotels and restaurants if you can’t rely on making reservations well in advance. What’s the plus in AAA+ travel? If you’re taking a destination road trip, get a guide specific to the destination to enhance AAA‘s dry, factual approach to travel. I’ve used this method for lots of road trips from Chicago – a AAA guide to get to Mammoth Cave, Cooperstown or Duluth, and then a specific guide to the destination maximizes your enjoyment of the whole travel experience. Don’t get stuck on a parkway in Connecticut looking for a hotel. Trust me.
Overall, I’ve found most public libraries have a great if not perfectly updated collection of travel guides. Check out a few guides on the same region and find your preference – you may decide you have a Frommer’s budget for hotels after all, want a Michelin guide to splurge on restaurants, or want to supplement a glossy Cagodan country guide with a Lonely Planet Encounter city series. Once you’ve figured out how you want to travel, the right books will basically pick you.