There are many good reasons to use travel guidebooks - yes, actual printed books
by Kara Walsh and Jennifer Mitchell
So you've booked a trip that will bring you closer to completing your travel quest and now you’re on to the fun stuff—the research and planning. Without the right guidance, however, this phase can be paralyzing to even the most experienced planner. With so many travel sites, apps and blogs, it can be hard to know where to begin and when to end your research. Plus, how do you know whose recommendations to trust? What sources offer a perspective in line with your preferences and sensibilities? A travel guidebook is a surprisingly relevant tool in the overwhelming age of digital and can provide a valuable framework and serve as a handy travel companion.
Many people question how travel guidebooks could survive amongst the plethora of travel resources online, and indeed, travel guide sales fell 40% between 2005 and 2011. But then a funny thing happened…sales bottomed out and have been steadily climbing since. In fact, 2017 saw the highest U.S. sales of print travel guides in a decade and we can understand why.
Printed travel guides offer more focus and authority than crowd-sourced review sites. And guides can introduce you to things you wouldn’t have thought to google. You can bring your guide along and disconnect from technology (and not travel in fear of lapsed Wi-Fi or exceeding your allotted data). And to get the best of both worlds, most major guides now have app companions or digital versions for your e-book reader—table stakes in the travel guide game.
After road testing travel guides through more than 50 countries and combing through hundreds of consumer reviews, we’ve put together two important lists of top travel guides: this collection of quintessential travel guidebooks, which are perfect for a first-time visitor, and a separate collection of the most unique travel books for travelers with specific interests or on a repeat visit.
These first-time visitor guides comprehensively cover all of the major tourist sites and provide hotel and restaurant recommendations as well as tourist advice, photos and maps. Most of the brand names will be familiar to you, but we’ll help you discern which are the best for you or for the perfect gift for your wanderluster friend.
The top five bestselling travel books
Lonely Planet - the most popular travel guidebook
As the number one bestseller in the U.S. for more than five years, Lonely Planet is likely a name you’ve heard before. Historically known for guides to off-the-beaten-path destinations and trips on a budget, Lonely Planet has in recent years come under new ownership and now claims to cover 95% of the world with guides for every niche interest and destination. Though some claim the brand has lost its edge, we’re a fan of their hyper-focused interest guides. Also, depending on where you’re traveling, Lonely Planet may be your only option for least visited destinations. Generally speaking, Lonely Planet books are great for low- to mid-budget travelers who want all of the facts about a particular destination and aren’t concerned with heavily curated lists or high-quality photos.
Avalon Travel - 2nd most popular travel guides
Ranking second for largest sales in the U.S. is Avalon Travel, the publisher of Moon and Rick Steve's travel book collections. Though both collections are excellent options, they appeal to very different travelers. The Moon guides are perfect for the relaxed road tripper or outdoor explorer. Whereas Rick Steve’s is aimed at Americans traveling to Europe who are looking for advice from a respected authority figure. Rick Steve’s also offers maps, phrasebooks and tours in various destinations.
DK Eyewitness Travel - 3rd most popular travel guides
Coming in at number three in popularity is DK Eyewitness Travel. Known for their maps and glossy photos, these guides are perfect for those inspired by impressive visuals. The company covers more than 200 destinations and offers more robust guides as well as slimmer Top 10 booklets.
Fodor's vs. Frommer's: which is best for you?
The next two bestsellers are often compared in the longstanding debate over which takes the cake: Fodor’s and Frommer’s. Both are reliable and comprehensive. Fodor's is front-loaded with lots of context on culture, history and things one should know before they begin the actual planning. It then includes itineraries for various time periods. Frommer's is the reverse, kicking off the book with what to do and following it up with context.
Both are available for a variety of destinations, general and specific (e.g., Japan vs. Tokyo), and offer complete, more encyclopedic guides as well as pocket-sized travel books and maps. Fodor's has a reputation for being a bit more upmarket while Frommer's appeals more to families and retired, budget-conscious travelers.
Best travel guides for photos, maps and lists
Ideal for the practical traveler who prefers a lightweight guide with a pull-out map, Marco Polo books are a simple way to get to know a destination. These guides don’t offer comprehensive information about a destination or editorial commentary, but they provide a quick snapshot of things to do in a city.
Available in a variety of sizes and formats, Insight Guides place the emphasis on rich color photography. If you prefer detailed lists to color commentary, Insight Guides may be the right choice for you. In addition to photo-centric travel books, the company also offers tours in each market.
Best travel guides to get off the beaten path
Bradt Travel Guides
If you’re headed to an unusual destination like Eritrea or Malawi, Bradt Travel Guides may be your best (or only) choice. Not only do these books cover a variety of off-the-beaten path destinations, but they also focus on sustainable travel.
Rough Guides was recently acquired by the owner of Insight Guides and Berlitz, and now covers more than 120 destinations. These guides are ideal for backpackers, hostel-stayers and students who are looking for more adventurous travel.
Best travel guides for first-time visitors' fun in the city
Time Out City Guides
Time Out has often been the authority on the hippest places to see when exploring a city. Written for both travelers and locals, the guidebooks have historically had a distinctly witty tone. As the UK-based company opens food markets around the world, the guidebook voice has become noticeably less cheeky than their magazines and is perhaps bidding for a broader audience, making it the perfect guide for those who toe the line between hipster and mainstream.
Not for Tourists
Though not travel books per se, Not for Tourists books are designed for those who have just moved to a city and are looking to explore. These guides focus on places that locals enjoy and are perfect for those who are settling in for a longer stay in a new destination.
Best travel guides for your European vacation
Let’s Go is a series of travel guides written for students by students. But not just any students—Harvard students. They are available in a variety of European cities and are written specifically for budget-minded student travelers. So if you’re planning to study abroad or backpack between semesters, check out Let’s Go.
Michelin Green Guides
As discussed in our blog post about travel quests for foodies, the Michelin Guide is the world’s leading authority on fine dining, awarding restaurants one, two or three stars. The guide was started by the Michelin brothers as a means to encourage French motorists to drive across Europe in search of great food, and therefore require new tires more frequently. The guides have since expanded to cover cities and countries around the world, and the company has started releasing Green Guides, which apply the same three-star rating system to various destinations. The guides offer maps and itineraries for different lengths of stay. Though originally only covering Europe, the company has expanded their Green Guides to cover additional regions.
Did your favorite travel guide make this list? Let us know how any above guides work out for you and check out our companion list of the best travel books and unique travel gifts for the savvy traveler. And as always, share your travel updates on social with the hashtag #NoSmallPlan and make your customized map on nosmallplan.com.
Kara Walsh is the Founder of No Small Plan. Jennifer Mitchell is a blogger, comedian, freelance copywriter and travel enthusiast.
** Please know that while the travel books featured are selected based entirely on editorial opinion, we do participate in Amazon's affiliate program which may result in revenue from products purchased through our links. **