Old-fashioned handbooks take you further than you think.
All readers are armchair travelers. Books take us places we’ve never been and often have no chance of visiting. Moreover, they can enhance our actual travel. I’ve written before about how travel writing, or just books set in places we are visiting, can add new dimensions to the experience.
But there is also a more pedestrian genre that helps you with your trip: the travel guide. In an age of TripAdvisor and Yelp, these guides might be viewed as obsolete as, well, print. Who needs hotel and restaurant tips that are often out of date from the moment the booklet rolls off the presses? Who wants a map of an historic district when your phone tells you how to get where you want to go?
Guidebooks still have a role to play, however. They are, for one thing, curated. Some publisher has selected a writer to maintain the authoritativeness of a series, and that writer, and his or her editor, will carefully vet the entries. Skilled readers of TripAdvisor are able to discern the preponderance of user-generated content to find a truly good hotel or restaurant, but a good guidebook can save you the trouble, or at least provide you some affirmation.
When I was living in Paris, I once made some minor contributions to a Paris guidebook from Nelles Guides, a German publisher that produced editions in English and German. The editors had a comprehensive outline for what they wanted to cover or update and assigned contributions accordingly. Each was meticulously researched and edited, and most of the information remains valid to this day.
Likewise, I still have Michelin Green Guides from that time for various countries in Europe that will reliably tell me, with its star ratings, when a city or a sight is “worth a journey,” “worth a detour,” or just “interesting.” The Blue Guides, which trace their ancestry to the legendary Baedekers, the original travel guides, keep an emphasis on art, architecture, and archaeology, with a dash of practical information thrown in.
There are things to see and do, in fact, that pre-date the Internet and the latest breathless commentary from TripAdvisor. There are monuments, churches, scenic byways, palaces, and quaint historic towns that you may find via a Google search — or may not.
Suppose you nonetheless find yourself at one of these precious historical sites — say, the Duomo in Florence. You can read up on it while you’re there with a few taps on your phone. You can take a photo. And when you get home, you can show your friends the places you’ve been (or, hey, post it simultaneously on Instagram).
Hopefully, you will also take the time to look at the place, absorb its history, bask in its beauty. I once interviewed a travel expert for a story, and he bemoaned how bad it was when tourists focused more on taking photos — with real cameras back then — than on actually looking at things.
It’s gotten worse, he said, with smartphones, because people now stand amid the majesty of the Duomo and read their phones instead of looking around them. Read up on the sights on the plane or train, and then just look when you’re there!
I’ve traveled a lot and continue to travel regularly. If I’m going to a new place, I’ll buy a travel guide (Fodor’s, Lonely Planet, Moon, and others all have reliable series). It helps me get oriented. If it steers me to one good restaurant or museum, it’s paid for itself. Usually, it points out much more.
I’ll buy travel guides to places I want to go — whether it’s somewhere I’ve been to, like Spain, or someplace I’ve never visited, like Hawaii or Oaxaca — to weigh how much priority to give to that trip. Unlike our backpacking days as students, travel has gotten too expensive and time too precious to trust to serendipity in making these plans.
For my first trip ever to Charleston over Christmas, I got Fodor’s slim Charleston, which supplemented the clippings I’d collected over the years on restaurants, wine bars, and the Times’ 36 Hours series, and helped me plan a short trip.
I have Fodor’s Essential Spain and Essential Portugal, where we originally intended to spend the holidays. Essential Hawaii and Essential Greece beckon from my shelves. But so do Lonely Planet’s Mexico and Moon’s Florida Gulf Coast. I may never get (back) to all these places, but having the guides on hand makes me feel like the world is my oyster.