“Confirm Purchase.” “Place Order.” “Buy Tickets.”
No matter how you say it, booking a trip to a new destination is one of the best feelings in the world. A whole new place is open to you. It’s an opportunity to explore and discover new aspects of yourself and this beautiful planet we call home.
But what do you do when you have just booked a trip to a destination you know literally nothing about? Maybe it was due to a flight deal or on a whim – maybe it was a long thought-out decision to take a risk and journey into the complete unknown. No matter your motivation, now that you’ve booked a ticket, you’ve got to plan the trip.
Until recently, I was a pretty ardent anti-guidebook trip planner. Everyone asked me for advice on how I plan my trips. Usually, I use a combination of Google, travel blogs, Trip Advisor, and some on-the-ground research with maps, pamphlets, and – when I’m lucky enough to stay at a hotel – a polite inquisition of the concierge and doormen to learn where to go and what to do.
Now, I’m a guidebook convert. I’ve cracked the pages on a few, planned a trip with one, and I can honestly say that you should start planning your trip with a guidebook. It will reduce your need to sift through the generally high amount of garbage on the internet in search of the best recommendations. Seriously: guidebooks are great!
If you’re not convinced, I’m here to help. In this post, I’ll cover what a guidebook is, why to use one, how to use a guidebook (step-by-step), the most popular guidebooks, and different guidebook formats. I’ve also got a couple bonuses at the bottom (including a free guidebook) if you stick around for that.
What’s A Travel Guidebook and Why to Use One
What exactly is a travel guidebook? In short, it’s a book whose purpose is to inform you about a destination in great detail.
Like every book has a purpose – to entertain, to educate, to inspire – a travel guidebook should teach you about the relevant activities, experiences, and resources to plan a trip in the destination that guidebook covers.
A good travel guidebook is up-to-date, detailed, and trustworthy. When you flip it open to start planning your trip or confirm a detail you previously read, you should be able to trust that the information is accurate.
So why use a travel guidebook? Even more importantly: why pay for a guidebook when there’s a whole internet of information available about any destination you could dream of visiting?
A good travel guidebook should be not only accurate but also curated to give you the best recommendations for that destination.
That’s a big reason almost every guidebook company uses expert travel writers (who are usually also expert travelers) to do all the research and make the decisions about what’s included in a guidebook. A guidebook is not the yellow pages or Google – it shouldn’t include everything, but rather should recommend how to make the most of your precious vacation days.
Basically, a guidebook should do a better job of helping you plan your trip than Google (the whole knowledge of the entire internet, not vetted or guaranteed), travel blogs (one person’s semi-professional opinion), Trip Advisor (many non-professional opinions), or any local advice (though technically local advice is the second best source of accurate, relevant information for trip planning.
Funnily enough, nobody ever teaches us how to use a travel guidebook, which means many travelers – even ones like me who travel all the time – feel embarrassed and skip using them all together. Let’s dive into how I use travel guidebooks to plan my trips, and I’ll teach you how too.
How to Use a Travel Guidebook: A Step-by-Step Process
The first time you grab a guidebook, it’s easy to get overwhelmed. Leafing through the pages, you’ll soon find that travel guidebooks are incredibly dense with information. If you get lost in the guidebook, how can you ever avoid getting lost on your trip?
Luckily, I found a pretty fail-proof (and fool-proof) system for using travel guidebooks. It’s a six-step process that takes you from the cover down to the exact details you’ll use to plan your itinerary.
Step 1. Choose the Right Guidebook
In the world of guidebooks, it can matter a lot which one you choose.
I don’t necessarily mean which company/brand of guidebook – though you can tell in this post I have a clear preference for Lonely Planet. Instead, I mean that it’s important to choose the right level of guidebook for your destination.
For example, in the above photo, you can see there’s a California (state) guidebook, as well as Northern California (region) and Coastal California (region) guidebooks. You can also find city guidebooks (like Seattle, pictured below), subcontinent/region guidebooks (like Southern Africa, pictured below), country guidebooks (i.e. U.S.A. or Jordan), and continent guidebooks (i.e. Europe or the Middle East).
As you decide which guidebook to choose, it’s important to think about which “level” it is. In the list below, I’ve ordered the “levels” from widest range to most granular:
- Subcontinent/Region or Multi-Country
- In-State Region
If you buy a guidebook that’s too far “down” the list – aka, too specific –, it won’t have all the information you need (like buying a New York City guidebook when you plan to travel the whole Eastern U.S.). If you buy one that’s too far “up” the list, it won’t have enough detail to really help you plan (like buying the Africa guidebook when you want to travel only in Kenya).
You need to find the sweet spot for exactly what information you need – and what information you don’t. In my trip to the California Redwoods, I started using the Lonely Planet California guidebook but switched to the Northern California guidebook for more detail about the specific part of California I was traveling in.
Step 2. Get Acquainted with the Destination
At the start of every guidebook – as early as the inside cover, but certainly within the first few pages – you’ll encounter a crash course in that destination. You’ll often find a table of contents and icons, a map breaking down regions or neighborhoods, and sometimes even instructions on “how to use this book.” Lonely Planet has this last kind of section in their books, which serves as a guide to your guidebook – and makes it a lot easier the first time you use one.
Even if you know the general destination well but aren’t familiar with certain areas, you should start in the front of every guidebook to get acquainted with it. While you can jump around the guidebook like a “choose your own adventure” after the introduction, a guidebook is still a book – and you should start at the beginning.
Step 3. Understand How the Travel Guidebook is Organized
Most guidebooks take advantage of as much of the page as possible – including the edges of each page. Here, you’ll get a sense of the different sections the guidebook is organized into.
In the above photo of the Lonely Planet Seattle guidebook, you can see white pages with red or blue on part of each page edge. These colors correspond to various information – just like in Step 2 (above). You can quickly flip through sections using these colored ‘tabs’ since they note when one section ends and another begins.
Step 4. Read the Region or Neighborhood Section(s) You’re Interested in Visiting
At the beginning of each region section, you’ll typically find a page or two giving you an overview of that region. It might tell you about the weather, must-see spots or must-try restaurants, and other highlights.
These two pages pack a real punch, and get you oriented to a region or area quickly – it helps to start here so you get a good sense of whether you want to visit that region (in a country/region guidebook) or neighborhood (in a city guidebook).
For example, in the above photo from the Lonely Planet Scotland guidebook, you can see a table of contents, recommendations for where to stay and eat in the region, an enticing blurb about why the Southern Highlands & Islands are worth visiting, the typical weather each month, a map, and highlights on that map.
Step 5. Review Relevant Subsections: Cities, Dining, Sleeping, etc.
Within each section, you can dive deeper, learning about cities and towns, and what to do in each of them.
In Lonely Planet guidebooks, each city or town is typically broken up into subsections like “Sights & Activities,” “Sleeping,” “Eating,” and “Information.” For other attractions like parks and areas, they may or may not have additional subsections.
From these subsections, you can identify exactly what you want to do, see, and eat, and where you want to sleep. You can start to plan your itinerary by piecing each of your choices together.
Step 6. Mark Sections/Pages with Sticky Notes for Quick Access
After you’ve perused any sections you’re traveling to, grab some sticky notes and stick them in your guidebook on pages you’re interested in. You can even turn them 45º and point the corner of the sticky right at the section you want to mark. This will make it easier to flip open to a specific section to see that one restaurant you want to try in Bucharest, that particular spot to see the best view of Paris, or the emergency number in Greece.
I typically leave my stickies in a guidebook after each trip, so I can also reference where I’ve been if someone asks me for a recommendation.
You might wonder: should you use a highlighter in your guidebooks? I’ve seen other travelers do this, but personally, I don’t. I find that the highlighter marks distract me from the rest of the page, and I often overlook details I want to see. That’s just me though!
Which are the Most Popular Travel Guidebooks?
If you’ve ever been in a bookstore… because yes, those still exist… head over to the travel section. Be prepared: you’re about to be overwhelmed.
You’ll see very quickly that there are dozens of guidebook publishers. The most common are:
And there are many, many others including National Geographic Traveler, Brandt, Moon, Michelin Green Guides, DK Eyewitness, Horizon, Time Out, and Let’s Go.
Rick Steves has a great comparison of some of the more popular guidebook companies on his website; it’s hard to argue with the fact that Lonely Planet is the biggest guidebook publisher in the world. I also have some great relationships with Lonely Planet and believe they genuinely work to be the best travel guidebooks on the market. (I certainly know that when I write for them, I try to write the best, most accurate info possible!)
Different Travel Guidebook Formats
Traditionally, travel guidebooks were hardcover or paperback books you packed and brought with you on your trip. You all know me: you know I love to travel light! How dare I recommend a heavy book to add to your already stuffed bag?!
Guidebooks now come in other formats too. You can find smaller, shorter guidebooks that serve as compliments to their longer versions. One example is Lonely Planet’s Pocket Athens, which you can buy instead of their Greece guidebook if you’re only visiting Athens.
You can also buy ebook versions of travel guidebooks — the lightest packing possible if you already travel with a Kindle/iPad anyway! Let’s be real: there is no need to pack the 992-page Lonely Planet’s The World guidebook. If you’re traveling all over the world, you won’t have space for that! Instead, you can buy the Kindle version on Amazon and have all that info at your fingertips via an iPad mini.
(Note: The World is actually not a guidebook in the same sense as others in this post. It’s much more concise, but it’s also the longest Lonely Planet guidebook I could find, so I’m using it as an example!)
In short, you can choose the type of guidebook format that’s right for you. Hardcover, paperback, ebook; it’s your choice!