The Complete Guide To: Travel Guides

So, you've decided on your destination, but how do you choose between all the guidebooks? And, with the net, do you really need one? Charlotte Hindle reports
Click to follow
The Independent Travel


"Every four seconds, we sell a travel guidebook somewhere in the world," says David Watchus of AA Publishing. "For us, it's every five seconds," says Briony Grogan of Lonely Planet. These sales figures show that millions of travellers feel they need a guidebook - even though it is increasingly possible to get the information you require online and for free. The reason: to be a good traveller you need to have good travel information. As well as providing recommendations on what to see, where to stay and how to find the long-distance bus station, a decent guidebook should also enable you to travel more sensitively, with an understanding of the local culture, environment and economy. Even so, why can't you just download all this information from the internet and either absorb it before you travel or stuff your backpack with pages of notes? An avid user of Rough Guides, Sally Dryden recently returned from China: "I do look at the free travel information on the web, but I don't trust it. I'm never sure who writes the stuff, how old it is, whether it is properly researched or just 'advertorial'. A well-respected brand of guidebook is like a Kitemark. You expect certain standards and quality control."

Many of today's successful travel-guidebook publishers have spent years building up trust in the marketplace, and their loyal fans often refer to their books as travel "bibles". This has led one travel publisher, Bryn Thomas of Trailblazer, to say: "The biggest mistake readers make is to follow their guidebook doggedly, only doing what is says. Where's the adventure in that?" He continues: "Guidebooks should come with a health warning - 'Use this information intelligently and sparingly'."


Try this: how many travel-guidebook publishers can you name in 20 seconds, in alphabetical order? Did you get beyond Bradt, Cadogan and Dorling Kindersley, to Time Out, Ulysses and Vacation Work? The number of guidebook publishers competing for your business can be overwhelming. So, how to choose which one to buy?

There are four main factors to bear in mind. First, publication date. A good guidebook is an up-to-date guidebook, so check the cover or front or back pages for a date to get a rough guide (if you will forgive the phrase) of how old the information is.

Second, tone and coverage. Buy a guidebook that is written for the way you like to travel, and that has information on the things you're interested in.

Third, maps. The best guidebooks link the text easily to the maps, which should be accurate, easy to use and always have a scale.

Finally, the balance of background versus practical information. While a cultural traveller planning a fortnight of immersion in archaeological Athens will appreciate the wealth of historical information in the Blue Guide, backpackers en route to the islands need only a few pages of practical advice.

Of course, all brands have a certain set of values and target different markets. For instance, Let's Go is for youngsters on a budget; Dorling Kindersley has the middle market well targeted; and Hedonist's Guides appeal to stylish city-breakers. Ultimately, you need to choose the right guidebook for your particular trip or holiday. This often means pick'n'mixing brands, because the guidebook you need for backpacking through Central America will be different from the one you'll take on a European weekend break.

Loyalty is also a major factor in choice of travel guidebook. If you have a good experience with a particular publisher, you start to trust them (sometimes, of course, the opposite can occur...). You grow used to the style and format of the books, so can find the information quickly and easily. Very soon, you may not want to risk using a guidebook from another publisher. This is one reason why many larger publishers offer a range of series to cater for all the different ways their readers may want to travel.


Many guidebook publishers would prefer to update personally their Siberia publication in the middle of winter than answer this question with complete transparency. This is because travel information is alarmingly perishable (hotel prices or train timetables researched today can be out of date tomorrow), and the economics of production can mean that not every single location is visited for every edition. No one is more acutely aware of this than the publisher.

Let's have a look at what needs to be done when producing a guidebook. Take a 400-page book on Paris, for example, that needs to be updated. If you hire two authors, it might take around four months to research and write. After the manuscripts are delivered, it could take another three months to edit the text, draw the maps, choose the photos and layout the book. Then printing, shipping and distribution to bookshops might take another two to three months. In all, it could be 10 months from the start of research to the new edition hitting the bookshelves - where it will then typically be current for two or three years. If the Paris guide was a first edition, it could take twice as long to research and write, making the information in it up to 14 months old.

Of course, there are ways of speeding up the research process. One way is to hire more authors to work on a title, which is why you often see teams of eight or 10 authors working on the 1,000-page tomes to Europe or India. Another way is to put more editors, cartographers and designers on the title once it is in-house, but publishing is a fragile business; if you throw too many bodies at one book, the economics don't work.


Travel publishers often choke on this question, too. Research would take too long and cost too much for authors to stay or eat everywhere they recommend. However, authors of reputable travel guidebooks do inspect every hostel, B&B and hotel that they write about: they check out the rooms, the facilities, the staff, the prices, the ambience and location. Often authors will get access to all the information they need by saying something like, "I've got family coming to town and I need to find a place for them to stay, could I see your single, double and dorm rooms, please?"

Ditto for restaurants, cafés and bars. Authors will eat and drink in as many places as possible, but for the others they'll visit (usually at meal-times, to see the popularity of the joint), check out the menus, talk to the management, listen to what the locals say, and get a feel of the ambience. In addition, many guidebook publishers receive letters from readers recommending places to eat and stay, and, once checked out, these views are also taken into consideration.

If you are surprised by this answer, don't forget one thing. Authors are experts on their region and already know a lot about the places they need to research from previous visits or by reputation.


Travel guidebooks have become powerful in the world of marketing, as well as travel. A good write-up in one of the best-selling guidebooks can turn a struggling restaurant or empty hotel into a successful business. In other words, a positive review can worth a lot of money: the publishers know this, the authors know this, and so does the hospitality industry. However, you don't want a guidebook full of recommendations that have been bought - you want the author's honest, experienced and independent opinion.

Independence is the key ingredient to useful travel information. All the big travel guidebook publishers know this and Lonely Planet has gone as far as to print a disclaimer in the front of every book saying that it "does not accept payment in exchange for listing or endorsing any place of business", and that the writers "do not accept discounts or payments in exchange for positive coverage". Even so, you can still encounter confusion on the ground; in one street in Hue in Vietnam, two neighbouring and competing restaurants each apparently have a deaf-mute proprietor; following a rave review in a guidebook, an adjacent restaurateur is believed to imitate the disability.

Most guidebook authors research anonymously to avoid receiving special treatment or extra services that could affect their write-up. "Our authors visit hotels and restaurants incognito," says Bryn Thomas of Trailblazers, "and we have no direct contact with the people who run these places other than as a member of the general public."

However, it isn't always that easy. Fees for guidebook authors need to be high enough for them to be able to afford to pay their way and not be tempted to take the odd "freebie". And, in order to research quickly and accurately, it sometimes makes more sense for an author to reveal what they are doing rather than pretend to be an everyday traveller.


"All guidebook writers feel the strain of packing so much research into a relatively short trip," says Hilary Bradt, publisher of Bradt Travel Guides. Guidebook research is a seven-day-a-week, 15-hour-a-day job: you research from dawn until dusk, then you start on the nightlife. Researching bars, restaurants and clubs may sound glamorous but you rarely relax or have a drink in one, as opposed to simply noting down prices, because you don't have the time or the money. More often, however, you're researching more mundane venues such as train stations, internet cafés, launderettes, banks, tourist offices, post offices or banks, noting down timetables, costs, opening hours, telephone numbers and e-mail addresses. On top of this, you're either drawing or updating maps, walking the streets to estimate the scale, checking street names and marking all the places on the map that you want to mention in the text.

Janice Booth, author of Bradt's guide to Rwanda, says that her most enduring memory of researching the book was, "pacing out the streets for the town plan with a compass in my hand, and testing hotel beds without being able to get into any of them even though I was so tired".

When you have collected all the material, you can start writing. Because the information is perishable and your deadline (probably) looming, you work more 15-hour days to submit your work on time and to length. Then the process starts all over again. Full-time guidebook authors often burn out after five years of working hard for paltry rewards.


Most travel-guidebook publishers have details on their websites about how to become an author. Requirements are fairly similar - you usually need to give details of your experience and expertise, send in examples of your published work, and if you look promising you will be asked to complete a writing task. These days, the big boys of publishing rarely take on new authors without prior writing experience, but some of the smaller ones still do. Also, you probably have a greater chance of being successful if you are willing to work on updates and are flexible about where you go, rather than proposing a new book on a particular subject or destination which, for any number of reasons, the publisher may not want.


The ethics of travel publishing are tricky. On the one hand, guidebooks make everything accessible and create well-worn routes slavishly followed by guidebook readers. On the other, they give travellers information about the history and culture of a country so that they can be more sensitive and culturally aware when they travel. Guidebook publishers also argue that they've made a lot of lives in a lot of the world's poorest countries a lot better: tourism creates jobs, and guidebook readers often contribute directly to the local economy by staying or eating in family-run restaurants or hotels.

A big concern today, however, is global warming, and travel publishers are taking this issue seriously. Mark Ellingham, founder of the Rough Guides, says: "I feel it's incumbent upon us, in the industry, to point out that flights are bad news for the climate." He goes on to say: "A return trip for two people from London to New York will account for the same emissions as an average household's gas and electricity consumption for a year."

To back up these views, the Rough Guide website features a new Climate Change Calculator ( where you can offset the damage caused by your flights. Lonely Planet also takes this issue seriously: its website features a similar calculator. The company insists that all staff and author travel is "climate neutral".


These days, travel information is delivered in so many ways: via the internet (some of the largest sites are from the guidebook publishers themselves); CD-roms; mobile phones; MP3 players via podcasting. However, despite this deluge of information for technology-enabled travellers, the old-fashioned printed guidebook is far from on its last legs. Louise Brown, 34, who has recently returned from six months in South America, says: "My guidebook was my travelling companion, a friendly laminated face. I felt secure when I had it with me, I made notes on its pages and, now I'm home, it has pride of place on my bookshelf: a trophy of my travels."

Tom Slough, 29, who is going travelling for a year, takes a more practical approach: "My guidebook doesn't need batteries, or recharging, and I won't need to make a claim on my travel insurance if it gets lost - I'll just buy another one."

It is the intimacy of a book that we miss with technology. Sean McGovern, 45, who has just returned from a three-week camping trip with his girlfriend (now ex-girlfriend), admits: "Reading my guidebook was much more exciting than spending time with Jane."