Travels in Europe: Guidebooks


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This is the first in a series of posts about how travel, reading, writing and communicating intersected during my recent five month backpacking trip through Europe. I’ll start each post with questions about the topic. Please share your own ideas and experiences in the comments section below.

Topic One: Guidebooks

Questions: How easy or difficult is it to make a guidebook selection before embarking on a trip? Do you always stick to one publisher? Or read and review several titles? What content and style features matter most? Do you read your guidebook before take off, once you’ve reached 15,000 feet, or fly solo with no guides at all? What’s your preference — buy or borrow? If you’re someone (like me) who tends to develop an emotional attachment to certain books, does this carryover into your guidebook purchases? Do you save guidebooks from special trips? Do you donate them or discard them as you go?

My Experience: Ten years ago, two friends and I used Lonely Planet’s Western Europe On a Shoestring (2nd edition, 1995) to navigate eight countries in five weeks. We highlighted, dog-leafed and scribbled notes in the margins while taking turns lugging around our 1,423-page travel bible. That was it.

Second time around, it was more complicated. Or easier. Depending on how you look at it. The Internet served as my primary planning resource this time (did it even exist in 1996?), providing access to more travel information than I knew what to do with. As my departure date drew near, I shifted my focus offline, and began the all important guidebook selection process.

After several browsing sessions at the library and local bookstores, I decided that my first investment would be Rick Steves Europe Through the Back Door. This guidebook/handbook hybrid turned out to be the perfect little pre-trip primer, chock full of travel tips and itinerary ideas specific to Europe. Since I was going to be traveling with a friend for part of the journey, I passed the book on to her when I was finished. We then decided that we’d each buy one of the latest and largest Europe guidebooks: she bought the Let’s Go Europe 2006 and I turned to LP again, this time purchasing Europe on a Shoestring, 2005.

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For the first month of my trip I was solo in Spain and Portugal, but I didn’t invest in a separate Iberian guidebook — it would have been too much additional weight, and frankly, more information than I had time to digest. Travelers know the routine: find a balance between being prepared and being open to the unknown. I was careful to allow ample time to absorb my surroundings, and not always the chapter about it.

After meeting up with my traveling partner, we had LP and Let’s Go at our daily disposal. Train trips between cities were opportunities to read, research and compare notes. This tag-team approach worked well, because one guidebook (or the other) usually tended to have deeper coverage of a certain city. We often booked a hostel found in one book and then ate all our meals in the same city at suggested restaurants we got from the other guide.

At a bookstore in Amsterdam, I decided to buy Rick Steves Best of Eastern Europe 2006 to supplement what we already had. We were headed to Warsaw, Krakow, Prague, Budapest, Ljubljana and Dubrovnik, and we felt that the heavier history and guided walking tour sections that his book provides would be valuable to us.

It was a wise investment, but a heavy one too, and by the time we reached Prague, we decided to unload our mega-guidebooks. We tore out the pages for the remaining countries we would be visiting, and left the rest on a table in our dorm room, confident that other travelers would be able to salvage valuable remains from our battered travel-worn books.

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Although writing articles was not a primary focus during my trip, I now recognize several missed opportunities that I discarded along with my guidebook in that Prague hostel:

1) Easy Reference: As I now work on stories from my travels, I grumble that I don’t have fast access to names of certain restaurants, bookstores and Internet cafes that I learned about from my guidebook. Although I returned from my trip with several chapters torn from the LP book, they’re currently scattered among several bags full of brochures and photos that desperately need sorting.

2) Research Notes: Instead of lugging the entire LP book with me to Europe in the first place, I could have handpicked certain sections, photocopied them, and then used the reverse side for note taking while visiting those locations. This is a strategy that Don George suggests in Travel Writing and I think it is an excellent idea, especially for shorter trips.

3) Spontaneity: Malta. Montenegro. Greece. These were all places that I had hoped to visit but knew there was little chance of fitting them in. So I discarded these chapters in Prague. If I had changed my mind and headed for one of these places at the last minute, I would have probably been just fine. But a budget traveler benefits greatly from having free info available at a moments notice. Lack of a guidebook might not keep me from visiting a place, but it could make the journey more difficult…and more expensive.

Each of the guidebooks I used helped me save money and time. What I valued above all was the detailed logistical data — where to eat, sleep and do laundry. Once I had my bearings in a city, I would often leave the guidebook behind while wandering, but on initial arrival, guidebooks rarely failed to connect me to comfortable and affordable budget options.

Unfortunately, all I’ve got now is a collection of assorted Lonely Planet and Rick Steves country chapters, as well as paper-clipped language guides for Italy, Spain, Portugal and Germany. (Yes, I ripped up my phrasebook too!) As a self-proclaimed possessive book lover, I was less-than-thrilled to part ways with these books. I had hoped to bring (or ship) them home intact so they could join the shelf where my 1996 pre-Euro guidebook still sits. But five weeks is a lot longer than five months…and my backpack often felt more like a traveling library than a temporary clothes closet.

My guidebooks served me well, but had to be left behind. Travelers will choose to do different things with their guides depending on the length of the journey and how comfortable they feel moving through a region. On a shorter trip through fewer countries, I’m sure my guidebook would have made it back. As a writer, I’ve resolved to make sure that’s exactly what happens next time.