By September 24, 2008 0 Comments Read More →

Becoming a Road Scholar

 Rick Steves  Open Road  Lonely Planet  Frommers  Fodors 

I’m getting ready for a big trip. Being a librarian, and a bookworm, this requires the checkout of a few travel guides. Last night my fiancee became mildly upset when one of the stacks of these books fell over and nearly killed her. “Do we really need this many books for one vacation?”

I smiled, batting my eyelashes furiously (and knowing I had an equivalent number of books still on hold) . “You can’t really depend on just one book. They’re all written from different points of view,” I said, as I finished clearing the pile from her legs and began to help her out. I even managed to restrain myself from sorting the books… just yet. “I’m just want to make sure our vacation is perfect.” I think she bought it.

I’ll admit it. I’m a sucker for travel books. Browsing through them is almost as good as a vacation. Well maybe that’s an exaggeration, but I like to look through them and dream about a kind of magical, trouble-free trip where I travel from sight to sight seamlessly, staying at all the hotels and eating at all the restaurants I can’t afford. As a librarian, it makes me mildly ill when I see people who seem satisfied with one out-of-date DVD and won’t even look at the books as they “plan” their vacations.  I hope they’re on guided tours, otherwise they are going to make a lot of mistakes and miss many of the less obvious treasures.

Planning a trip well requires understanding the strengths and weaknesses of the various travel guides. DK and Fodor’s “see-it” line have great pictures (that can be very useful when you are trying to decide whether to walk out of your way to see a “great” piece of art or when trying to recognize which building is the one you’re hunting for) but the trade-off is that they have less space for information about the sights. Fodor’s and Frommer’s are good on the sights, but if you’re a budget traveler, you’ll find you can’t afford most of the hotels and restaurants they recommend. Let’s Go or Rough Guide serve best for young travelers looking for nightlife, outdoor adventures, and cheap places to eat and sleep. Rick Steves’ guides and the Unofficial line are some of the best for providing practical hints at how to navigate complicated sights and the rare travel books that actually admit occasionally that a sight is overrated or a museum is dull. Access guides have a more geographical organization than others. The Top 10, 25 Best, Time Out, and Essential series are all convenient to carry but focus mostly on the highlights, while other series, such as Lonely Planet, have more depth on history, architecture, and culture that some travelers crave. These are just a few of the differences between the various series.

Getting the most out of a trip depends on knowing what is NOT included in the book you choose and knowing when to be a little skeptical about a particular point of view. It requires using books in combination. For some especially important trips, I’ve even made photocopies of particular sections, knowing that I didn’t need the whole book (you can also toss the photocopies as you get past particular destination and lighten your load).

As I reorganized the fallen stack later, it occurred to me that this might make a great topic for a monthly book group meeting, particularly if your group has plenty of travelers. You might even want to assign different brands to your various readers to make sure you cover a wide swath. You could also do this in conjunction with the reading of a book set in a particular locale.

Here are a few questions to get you started in your evaluation:

  • What price range do the restaurants and hotels recommended in your book tend to fall in? Are there adequate options for true budget travelers?
  • Is your book well illustrated?
  • Imagine that you were trying a few common travel tasks: taking a day trip from a city you’re visiting, navigating from the airport to your hotel (without an expensive taxi), or selecting the location for an evening out and buying tickets in advance. Does your guide include enough information to complete the task?
  • Imagine that you only have a short time to view a large sight like a museum. Does your guide provide practical advice about the museum’s highlights and how to navigate them?
  • What information does your guide include to help you understand the history and culture of the place you are visiting?
  • Does your guide include any self-navigated walking tours?
  • If you have books about the same location, compare the prices for various sights, major hotels, and restaurants. Compare the hours that the sights are supposed to be opened. Compare the recommended itineraries and the sights marked as the very best. Are there significant variations between the books? Do you see any trends in these variations?
  • Have you ever tried to use a travel book which turned out to be widely inaccurate?
  • What kind of people wrote the book you chose? Were their backgrounds described?
  • Does your book include many opinions or recommendations, or is every sight presented neutrally?
  • How do the maps in the books compare?
  • What are the best features of the book you evaluated? What features are unique?

 Now if I can just get my fiancee to watch the stack of DVDs I checked out. I’ll be back next week with more about the trip itself!

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About the Author:

Neil Hollands is an Adult Services Librarian at Williamsburg Regional Library in Virginia, where he specializes in readers’ advisory and collection development. He is the author of Read On . . . Fantasy Fiction (2007) and Fellowship in a Ring: a Guide for Science Fiction and Fantasy Book Groups (2009).

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