Sure, travel apps are all the rage these days, but sometimes you just want a solid print travel guide you can carry with you on your adventures abroad. There are lots of good ones out there, but they’re not all created equal. So what should you look for in your guide book of choice? Here are 13 critical inclusions:
1: Neighborhood and citywide maps
While travel guides in the days of yore frequently had fold-outs maps, such things are not only a relic in 2020, they’re impractical. Instead, aim for a travel guide that has both neighborhood and citywide maps that are page-size.
The overarching map will allow you to orient yourself and major neighborhoods within the city. The neighborhood maps will give you more granular detail on landmarks – entertainment venues, cultural sites, transit hubs, and culinary destinations, among others – and tie these into information housed in neighborhood sections throughout the guide.
Ideally, the neighborhood maps will be included both in the front and in neighborhood-specific sections for easy access.
2: Color-coded sections
Looking for a fun activity to do outdoors? Or maybe you’re hungry for lunch and want to find a top-rated restaurant nearby. Instead of digging through pages of material to find the information you’re looking for, find a travel guide that includes color-coded sections that correspond either to neighborhoods or to activities/highlights. This makes it easy to jump to the section you’re looking for.
3: Sections for culture/history, dining, entertainment, and outdoor activities
As noted above, guide books will either organize content by geographic area (neighborhoods, districts, cities) or by attraction (restaurants, museums, and so on). If you’re getting a city-based travel guide, we recommend you stick with the latter – it will be easier for you to find the most important sites and experiences within city limits. These should be clearly marked with color-coded pages and consistent headers.
If, however, your guide book is more regional, then geographic organization is best. However, these sections should still have consistent headers/sections within them that highlight critical information on each area – cultural attractions, outdoor activities, restaurants, hotels, and so on.
4: Directions using easily identifiable landmarks
While many travel guides highlight top landmarks, hotels, restaurants, and sites for you, not all of them do a good job of getting you there. Look for guide books with directions that include easy-to-spot landmarks. As a tourist, you’re unlikely to remember a lot of street names, so recognizable guideposts are critical to finding your way around.
5: Multiple kinds of contact information for major tourist sites, hotels, and restaurants
To ensure you can contact businesses or tourist sites with questions or concerns, look for guidebooks that offer multiple forms of contact information – a phone number, email address, and physical address at a minimum. It’s even better if you can get a business’s social media account info; many platforms, like Facebook, will allow you to contact businesses via their messaging interface.
6: Price ranges (not specific prices)
In some cases, guide books will include specific prices for tickets, transit fares – even restaurant meals. While this might seem extremely helpful as it allows you to budget, prices change fairly frequently. Look instead for travel guides with pricing levels (often noted as $, $$, and $$$) that make it easy for you to determine what’s in your price range. If these levels are included, a key should also make it clear what the price range is in each one (e.g. $ = $5-15).
7: Information on where to withdraw and/or exchange money
Speaking of money, most of us run out of it at some point on our trips – cash, that is. And, depending on where you’re traveling, that could mean the difference between eating and not eating. To be sure you have a way to secure some money while abroad, look for travel guides that note ATMs, banks, or other withdrawal locations in your destination. It’s also helpful to know where you can exchange currency in case you travel across borders.
8: Transportation overview (with multiple options included)
Nobody expects travel guides to have full transit schedules, but they should have a thorough overview of a location’s public transportation options. That means details on train/bus stations and routes, as well as major taxi or ride-share hubs. Price estimates or ranges are also helpful, with information on where to secure tickets or passes.
Additionally, it’s important to know how most visitors get to your destination. Do you have to fly in? Rent a car and drive? Take a boat? These details are critical, so make sure your travel guide includes them.
9: Helpful phrases in the local language with phonetic spelling to help with pronunciation
Travel guides are not phrasebooks, but to be as helpful as possible, they should include some useful phrases in the local language. These phrases should cover the basics (how to ask for directions, where the bathrooms are, etc.) while also including some local-specific phrases. For example, if you’re in Pamplona, Spain, you may want to know where you can run with the bulls. Or, if you’re in Paris, you may want to order snails for lunch.
Also, these phrases should include phonetic spelling to help you with pronunciation.
10: A list of major local holidays and details on what’s open/happening on these days
Few guide books offer this, but it is helpful to have a list of major holidays so you know when the city/country you’re visiting is largely shut down – or when they plan on hosting public events. You may want to avoid these, or you may want to participate. In either case, it’s good to know what to expect when you arrive.
11: Basic weather information for each season (with tips on what clothes to pack)
As part of the general information included in a travel guide, you should be able to find information on the location’s seasonal weather. This won’t be an ironclad forecast, of course, but it will help you plan what clothes and accessories to pack, what outdoor activities to arrange, and where to visit.
12: Notes on sites to avoid – because they’re dangerous, too expensive, or over-crowded
Highlights of definite must-sees are what we usually expect in travel guides, but information on areas/sites to avoid is very helpful, too. Even if you have no interest in planning a visit to these sites, avoidance tips will help you steer clear during transit and leisurely outings.
13: Annually updated information
Always check the publication date of travel guides you’re reviewing. They should be updated at least once annually; if not, the information they include is likely to be dated and possibly unhelpful. At worst, it can cause serious headaches when you’re on the ground in a foreign country.
Also, be sure to check online reviews of travel guides you’re interested in to be sure they have been vetted by other travelers.