One way or another I've travelled to a lot of places and bought a lot of travel guide books - some excellent, some duff. I've tried to set out below how I now approach buying a guide. I hope this helps others.
Guides divide roughly into two kinds - those that give detailed information on accommodation and transport, and those (eg Berlitz guides) which concentrate on sights and history and give little or no information on hotels etc. I am concentrating on the former kind, where the market is dominated by three series - Lonely Planet, the Rough Guides and Footprint. The three used to cover different sectors of the market, with Lonely Planet concentrating on budget options and the Rough Guides also covering more up-market choices. But this distinction has been eroded over the years so that it is usually possible now eg to find out about luxury hotels from Lonely Planet guides. This means that the three tend to offer the same kind of information. This is:
- History and culture. Expect a section on the history of the country you are planning to visit, cultural does and don'ts, often a brief introduction to the language (though this will not substitute for a good phrasebook), and sometimes (especially with Rough Guides) an introduction to the country's music and live arts.
- Practical travel information. This will cover hotels, hostels and guest houses of varying prices and degrees of comfort, and places to eat. It will also cover how to get around the country (buses, trains etc) and within cities.
- Sights, including entrance fees and opening hours.
The three major publishers tend however to present this information in quite different ways. Which one you prefer is entirely a matter of personal preference. It's best to have a look at any books in the respective series you can lay your hands on to see how you feel about their indexing systems, style of writing and so on. People get passionate about these things!
If you are not too bothered about the layout then I suggest you base your purchasing decision on:
- Maps, especially ones which will tell you how to get to your hotel. These are really useful, and their quantity varies a lot from guidebook to guidebook. Flick through the different options to see how many are included.
- Date of publication. Information is much more useful if it is fresh! Check publication dates either in the bookshop (usually to be found in the first couple of pages) or on-line.
- Coverage. Check that your guide book actually covers where you want to go! It's surprising how many of them leave out whole areas of a country, or (if they cover a region) whole countries. (Publishers seem to have particular difficulty agreeing on what "Europe" includes.)
- Weight. Some guides are printed on finer paper than others. Remember that you are going to have to carry this thing around with you.
- And of course price. The main publishers watch each others and prices tend to be similar - but not always.
Good luck and happy travelling!