How To Read A Guidebook

Near the registration desk at Jakarta’s most famous youth hostel, Wisma Delina, I watched with growing disbelief an exchange between the owner and an angry backpacker.

“A room,” the owner said, “costs 13,500 rupiah per person.”

“No it doesn’t,” insisted the backpacker, fervently jabbing at a listing in his well-thumbed guidebook, “it says right here that it costs 12,000.”

A traveler who expects a guidebook to dictate pricing policy to the hotel industry is in for a shock. As the guidebook market has become more competitive, publishers have been going to greater lengths than ever to convince readers of their thoroughness, accuracy, and authority. But you can’t forget that a guidebook is intended to be just that – a guide.

“I’m glad I’m in the book,” the owner told me later, when the influx of shelter-seeking backpackers and tapered off. “But I have that same argument 10 times a day. People don’t seem to accept that I set my prices – the guidebook doesn’t.”

He’s right. And it’s not just prices; some travelers take a listing the guidebook to be the word of God – and then become incensed when the book’s wrong.

“A traveler standing on street corner, shifting his eyes between a guidebook and the empty spot where he expects to see something the book describes,” said Berkeley screenwriter Natalie Cooper, “has a deer in the headlights vacuousness that I think is incredibly funny.”

As a guidebook writer I know that all guides, even the great ones, have their inaccuracies. A typo can put museum on the wrong side of town. An off the beaten path site or attraction that appears in a book may be teaming with tourists a couple of months later.

A good write-up in a popular guidebook sometimes results in a price hike. And a cheap bus from A to B go out of business or be taken over by thieving greedheads by the time you ask for your ticket.

But it shouldn’t stop you in your tracks.

Rolling With The Punches
Rolling with the punches is the key to enjoying yourself on the road. Even the best guidebook can’t prepare you for everything you encounter. Even if it could it would take away much of the delight of traveling. When I’m on the road I expect surprises – in fact that’s one of the main reasons I enjoy traveling.

Sometimes the surprises books bring are even pleasant. “The super shuttle,” writes Tony Wheeler in Lonely Planet’s San Francisco City guide, “costs 11 dollars.” Well, my driver charged me $10 for the drive and if anyone thinks I argued with her and pointed in my guidebook they’re nuts.

Travelers can get the most out of their guidebook by carefully selecting a guide that suites their needs.

“One of the quickest ways to see if the book’s right for you,” said Bill Dalton, who founded the Moon handbook series in 1973, “is to look at the index and the table of contents together; play them against each other and from those to you can surmise the breadth and scope of the book.

That’s key. Before you do that though, you’ve got to decide just how much information you want. When researching in Russia, I used the excellent Blue Guide to Moscow and St. Petersburg for architectural and historical information. But for just visiting the city, I’d probably want less detailed history and culture and more general and practical information.

Watch out for books that loaded down with features you don’t need. When I went to Costa Rica for two-week vacation all I wanted was bare bones practical information on how to get to the nearest beach. But on a recent trip to Munich I looked for something to give me a broad range of information like history, culture, architecture and entertainment.

Getting at What You Need
My colleague, Tom Brosnahan, author of Lonely Planet’s Guatemala, Belize and Yucatan guidebook, stresses information accessibility.

“A good guidebook is a knowledgeable, insightful, well informed friend who’s been to the place before you and is helping you get through it,” said Brosnahan, who suggests that you read some paragraphs and see if you can get all with the author’s “voice”. Does it sound friendly” Pithy” Florid”

That’s very important. Peter Moore, who writes about travel on the Internet and speaks about it on radio, said: “choosing a guidebook to accompany you on your travels is as personal a decision as buying a new pair shoes or a new coat. If you’re not comfortable with it, you’re going to have a terrible time.”

“Wherever possible,” said Fred Hornbruch, owner of Philias Fogg’s Travel Books in Palo Alto, “I compare the information of an area I’m familiar with to see if the author covers it as accurately and completely as I want.”

That’s not a bad strategy. When I plan a trip to place or region where I’ve been before, I loiter in book shops looking at every guide they have, looking up off the beaten path places I remember. The book that has the most of them listed – and described well – usually comes home with me.

Some key points:

Prices change. Prices, if listed, are there as a guide to costs at the time of research. They’re not intended to be accurate forever, or even spot on when you by the book. What they are, though, are generally accurate representations of price ratios relative to each other. If you notice that the prices you encounter are, say, 5 to 10% higher than those quoted in the book, it’s a pretty safe bet they’ll be similarly higher elsewhere in the country. But a hotel that’s 10% cheaper than its neighbor will likely retain that price advantage.

Things change. Good places go bad, bad places go broke. As a traveler, your instincts are what you should be following; use the guidebook to hone them.

Get what you need, not what’s prettiest. Check the proportion of color photos to text to see if what are looking at is primarily a picture book with text or text complemented by pictures. Three pages of photos to one of text is a distinctly leaning to a coffee table book!

Do your homework. Even if you have a loyalty to a particular guidebook series, check the competition is well. All publishers have a couple of books that they’d just as soon forget about – books that aren’t quite up to the series standard for one reason or another. It’s your responsibility to find the best book for your trip. You may find that you want to buy more than one book to cover all of your interests.

And when you do find a mistake or a piece of dated information, perhaps you’ll find it some consolation that, while it may have annoyed you for a minute, we’ll be getting mail about it for the rest of our lives.