I like a good guide book. I like something I can read on the plane, on the bus or wandering around the streets without having to worry about it being stolen, damaged, forced to shut down during take-off or the cause of horrendous roaming fees. But not all guide books are the same.
A lot comes down to the author. Some are far more knowledgeable, some research more meticulously, others have the skill of bringing a place to life through their writing, and a worryingly high percentage of them just don’t do the job very well at all.
But while the author is the key thing, the brand does count as well. Outlook, format, editorial standards, update frequency and mapping matter – and when the authors are equal, the brand affects which one to choose. Flicking through the guide books in my collection, I can see the strengths and weaknesses in most series. Here’s what I reckon to them – feel free to share your thoughts by leaving a comment below…
I’ve far more Lonely Planet guidebooks that I have of any other brand. If it’s a guide to a country I’m after, LP will usually be first choice. But despite what the publishers might like to believe, Lonely Planet’s strength isn’t depth of research.
I often find that the numbers don’t add up. For example, the sixth edition of thebook boasts “Four authors; 133 days of in-country research.” To me, 133 days isn’t enough for a country of that size – it’s enough to get the basics, but not to hunt down the treasures that aren’t immediately obvious or get an idea of what’s really happening in the cities
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I also notice that a lot of Lonely Planet’s writers hop around the globe, tackling a new part of the world every time. So the Westernsection of the Australia book won’t necessarily be written by the person who knows Western Australia best – it’ll be the person who did or Queensland last time and fancies heading west. This isn’t always a bad thing – it’s far better that someone goes in fresh and researches it meticulously than someone who knows it like the back of their hand gets lazy and assumes the reader does too.
Where Lonely Planet wins is on format and layout. Simply put, the books are easy to read and work well as a guide. You don’t want to read a guide cover to cover – you want to dip in and find the information you need. And, crucially, the Lonely Planet books make that very easy.
Some people criticise LP for focusing too strongly on the budget end of the market. I’m not so sure – it feels about right to me (but then again, my interest in Michelin-starred dining and £300-plus a night hotels is minimal).
Lonely Planet Encounter
An offshoot of the main Lonely Planet books, the Encounter series does pocket-sized city guides. The individual area maps are great – possibly the best of any guidebook brand – and the focus on places to hang out, bars and restaurants is a winner. But the detail on the main tourist sites is feeble, and hotel information virtually non-existent. Then again, the Encounter guides aren’t pretending to be good at that sort of thing.
I also prefer my maps to be irremovable from the book. The big pull-out overall city map at the back inevitably gets lost once you’ve detached it.
I can never quite place why, but I always find Rough Guides rather frustrating. They usually feel like they’re written by someone who knows the area better than their Lonely Planet counterparts, but they also feel a lot harder to read. The chunks of text are bigger, and having one column per page rather than two (two columns is possibly Lonely Planet’s greatest trick) makes it something you have to read through rather than glance at for the required information. It’s almost certainly because I’m more accustomed to the Lonely Planet format, but I find Rough Guides harder work.
I want to like Bradt guides. I admire the fact that Bradt will often commission full guides to countries that are usually only given a spot in broader regional guide by other companies. The history, cultural and environmental detail is often superb, and the writers clearly know the places they’re writing about.
But the strengths are also the glaring weaknesses. I often feel that having someone who knows the country well and spends a lot of time there takes precedence over having someone who can actually write, research and convey the country to people who don’t know it.
The books frequently lean too heavily towards the writers’ whims – you’ll get pages and pages of scientific waffle about mangroves and native birds in the Seychelles, and virtually nothing about where to go for a drink in Taipei.
The books are seriously ugly too – new fonts, breaking the reams of text up and maps that don’t look like they’ve been drawn in pencil on the back of a beer mat wouldn’t go amiss. The authors need heavier editorial hands on the shoulder and constant reminders that most readers will have never been there before.
In short, the Bradt guides are often full of noble intention, but largely hopeless as actual guides.
Take everything I said about Bradt, and multiply it by 50.
You know how when a film has ‘3D’ in the title, everything aside from the graphics is likely to be crap? Well, if the book says DK Eyewitness on it, you can generally make the same assumption.
The DK Eyewitness guides have an obsession with breaking everything down into little chunks and spraying pictures all over the place. Sure, a few pictures is great, but when the DK Eyewitness Guide towastes space with pictures of motorway signs and train conductors – just so you know what they look like – it starts getting incredibly pointless.
It feels patronising, and becomes utterly clogged down in random photos when you just want the information. Listings of hotels, restaurants and cafés are pretty impressive – bars less so – but they seem to just list everything rather than discerningly picking out the best.
The major problem, however, is that the guides are often translations from another language, which makes them horrible to read and gets the focus wrong. What a German visitor to Hamburg wants is very different to what a British visitor desires. I can see that the DK Eyewitness books might work for some people – simpletons, perhaps – but I hate them.
If you like your guides to skim the surface, and read like they’ve been written by someone who’s never even been to the town before, Thomas Cook’s guidebooks are the ones for you. For everyone else, avoid – they’re rubbish. They feel like they’ve been cobbled together from other books, tourist office info and whatever can be found on the web.
Time Out guides are unquestionably the best for cities. The level is detail is superb, and the focus is firmly on what’s happening and where to go out rather than an obvious list of tourist sights. I find myself trusting the restaurant, bar and hotel reviews implicitly, and feel that the authors have really gone and dug out interesting places rather than trotting out the same old trail that the other guide books – particularly Lonely Planet – tend to fall back on.
The major problem with the Time Out books is that they virtually ignore the budget end of the market. If you’re staying in hostels and looking for dirt cheap eats, the Time Out guides make for a frustrating read.
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