HOW TO CHOOSE A GUIDEBOOK FOR YOUR NEXT VACATION
In 1957, when I published my first guidebook -- called "Europe on $5 a Day" -- the space allotted to travel in the average bookstore consisted of about 2 feet of a single shelf. There was my book; there was the guide to Europe from that luxury-loving competitor Temple Fielding; there were one or two titles apiece from two other fledgling series; and the most numerous travel books were single-country guides by a then-popular, now-all-but-unknown author, the late Sydney Clark.
To say that a colossal explosion of travel titles has occurred since then is to use pathetically mild language. Today, the travel section of larger bookstores contains as many different guidebooks as the titles on all subjects carried by some smaller stores. We have 1,000-plus guidebooks, duplicates upon duplicates, dealing with every continent, country and major city of the world. And because most of the big destinations are spoken for, the newer guidebooks even deal with parts of different countries (like Scotland, Tuscany or Provence), with individual members of island chains (like Maui) or with secondary cities (like Memphis, Tenn., or Cincinnati). Will neighborhoods be next? Are you ready for "Frommer's Guide to the Upper West Side of Manhattan"?
The remarkable expansion of titles reflects some fairly self-evident developments: the vast increase in travel, the growing importance of travel to our lives. We have become the first generation in human history to go to other continents as casually as we once boarded a trolley to the next town. At parties, people wonder aloud whether they should vacation in Florida or Australia, on the Oregon coast or on the beaches of Tahiti. And travel books are consulted for the answer.
But beyond those fairly obvious reasons is a growing belief by experienced travelers in the real importance of having a good guide for their next trip. The vast bulk of all Americans travel independently, in urgent need of guides. Even if they buy a "package" of airfare and accommodations, they still travel on their own, away from groups and escorts. They sightsee as they determine, go to restaurants or theaters of their choosing. And they have learned that guidebooks can be immensely helpful in making such choices. Though you'll have to excuse my self-interest in saying so, I am mystified when I hear of a person departing for a trip to anywhere -- even the most mundane American city -- without having first obtained a guidebook of expert advice. How often have you emerged from a disappointing out-of-town restaurant or suffered a lackluster hotel without regretting that you had not first obtained a guidebook?
How, then, do you find the best of the guidebooks from the dizzying array in the bookstore's travel section?
* Get references. Seek out the same word-of-mouth recommendations that you'd rely upon for other important steps in your life. Call knowledgeable friends or acquaintances who have been to the destination, and ask them to name the titles or series that worked best for them on a recent trip
* Check the copyright. The fierce competition among travel guides and the need to have up-to-date information require that the best titles be published annually or biannually. If the title has languished on the shelves for a longer time without being updated and replaced, you might have some reason to be concerned
* Probe the credentials of the author. Scan the bios on the back or inside covers. Is he or she an expert of long standing on the destination? Has he or she a record as a much-published journalist? Or is he or she an inexperienced student making his or her first trip to the city or country in question?
* Search for a congenial guide. From the preface, introduction or cover blurbs, ascertain its intentions. For whom is it written? For backpackers? For baby boomers? For the broad middle? For vegetarians? For status seekers? Choose the guides written for the kind of person you happen to be.
Chosen properly, a good travel guide can make a difference during some of the most important times of your life, when you turn your back on standard routines, confine your physical needs to the size of a suitcase and set out on the great adventure in life that travel represents.
© 2003 by Arthur Frommer
Distributed by King Features Syndicate