Sunday, October 10, 2004

New York Times on Travel Guidebooks

Morning Sun

New York Times

August 22, 2004


A Guidebook for Every Taste


PLANNING a trip involves many difficult decisions, but near the top of my list is standing in a bookstore trying to choose from a daunting lineup of guidebooks, a purchase that brands the owner as much as an army duffel bag or a Louis Vuitton suitcase.

Fifteen or 20 years ago, the choice was simpler. Backpackers and budget travelers hit the road with Let's Go, Rough Guides or Lonely Planet. Those taking a break from a job or enjoying retirement packed Fodor's or Frommer's, less adventurous but good for nuts and bolts like museum hours and restaurant addresses. Art and culture connoisseurs carried a Blue Guide, and high fliers relied on Michelin Guides to steer them to Europe's notable hotels and chefs.

To some degree, those characterizations still hold true. But as the budget guides have broadened their focus to retain readers now older and earning a decent salary, and the mainstream guides have tried to become more hip, the lines have blurred. Plus, established publishers have started new books aimed at a wider range of travelers taking different types of trips, and there are the niche guidebooks to consider: titles for hikers, bikers, women, families, gay travelers and people who won't leave home without their pets.

With all these choices, it may be time to branch out from a favorite series and experiment.

Publishers scaled back new projects in response to a decline in travel after 2001, but with Americans again packing their bags, travelers can expect to see more titles. One trend that's catching on, partly in response to post-Sept. 11 travel patterns, are mini-guides designed for short trips to a single city.

Hitting Highlights, in Color

The British publisher Dorling Kindersley started its Top 10 series in 2001, shorter versions of its DK Eyewitness Guides, which are known for glossy pages and color photographs. Now available for 40 cities, in the United States and abroad, the Top 10 books (about $10) choose 10 attractions as the best to see or do, plus give additional lists like the top 10 Belgian beers in the Brussels book.

Fodor's introduced a similar "See It" series this spring, now available for 12 cities. The See It guides, which start at $22.95, are nearly 400 pages, compared with 150 to 200 pages for the Top 10 books, but Fodor's also sells a smaller City Pack guide ($11.95) to a city's top 25 sights, plus a foldout map. Both series feature lots of color and pictures.

Michael Spring, publisher of Frommer's Travel Guides, said that although color guidebooks were more difficult to update frequently, Frommer's also planned to add more photos and color to its books. He said Frommer's and other publishers were also moving toward more lists highlighting what travelers shouldn't miss. A chapter at the beginning of most Frommer's guidebooks showcases the "best of" a destination. For example, Frommer's Italy 2005 guide ($22.99) offers its take on the best museums, ruins, cathedrals, restaurants and romantic getaways, like a visit to the hilltop town of Todi, south of Florence.

"What people want is information that will take them where their neighbors haven't been," he said. The Frommer's Portable Guides are among the most compact available; I bought one for $10.99 for Rio de Janeiro last year and found it covered the basics I needed for a three-day visit.

Lonely Planet has also tried to broaden its line to reach a wider audience, in part by introducing a shorter "Best of " series of city pocket guides ($11.99 to $14.99) and another "Road Trip" series ($10) focused on weekend road trips, which complement its core lineup of country and regional guides, and its "On a Shoestring" series ($23.99 to $33.99), still popular with the backpacker set. "Historically, Lonely Planet had been primarily about long-haul travel," said Robin Goldberg, vice president for marketing and business development for Lonely Planet Publications. "But that's typically not a traveler when they're in their 30's in the middle of their career and have a week to travel."

Ms. Goldberg said Lonely Planet was adding more color, as well as insights from insiders. "I think people are looking for ways to pull out what they want quickly," she said.

Not to miss the boat, the Rough Guides introduced a new Directions pocket series ($10.99) in June, with more color and photos than its other guidebooks. It, too, is designed for shorter trips. Geoff Colquitt, the company's director of marketing for North America, said the smaller guides still have a writing style "on the edgy side."

Sorting the Choices

So which guidebook should you choose? One guide definitely does not fit all: paper quality, the book's weight, the writing style, the size of the type, the number of photos, the quality of the maps and even page layout are all personal preferences - which often vary depending on the trip's length, the destination and who else is traveling.

"Customers always ask, 'What's the best book?' " said Lee Azus, owner of Get Lost Travel Books, a travel bookstore in San Francisco. "And I say: 'Who are you? What do you like to do?' "

For example, Mr. Azus said that if someone asks what's a good guidebook for Cuba, he steers them toward the Moon Handbooks, another series aimed at more adventurous travelers. Moon specializes in the Americas and Asia. I just bought Moon's Alaska guidebook ($19.95) - my first foray into the series - and found it had a good mix of history, opinion, and nuts and bolts listings.

In a similar genre, Mr. Azus said he took a Footprint Guide on a trip to Laos, and though he likes Lonely Planet and Rough Guides, he said he was glad he had the Footprint Guide ($19.95) because the listings aren't as well known. Otherwise, he recommended looking at a place you know well and comparing different series' entries for that destination; if one book recommends a restaurant you know is mediocre, it's likely the series doesn't match your tastes.

Also, look at the copyright date on any book you're considering; newer is definitely better.

David Garber, travel buyer for Barnes & Noble, said that among the series selling well at Barnes & Noble are the Rick Steves guides, which focus on Europe. "He tries to give you the best value for your budget, and his books are very opinionated," Mr. Garber said. Lonely Planet still seems to be "the guidebook of choice for solo travelers," he said, though the Moon Handbooks are selling well for domestic travel, while Frommer's and Fodor's "are still pretty big as far as mainstream guidebooks are concerned." The DK Eyewitness Guides are also popular with Barnes & Noble customers, in part for their photos and cultural information.

There are dozens of other series; the ones mentioned here barely scratch the surface. Get Lost Travel Books has helpful descriptions of more than 25 series at www.getlost

My advice: don't be a slave to the same series you've always bought - or to what the book recommends. Sometimes, the best restaurants, cafes or hotels are the ones you stumble across on a side street. So let serendipity - and your own judgment - be your primary guide.

New York Times on Travel Guidebooks

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