Whether you're planning an adventurous month-long European exploration, or just a weekend getaway, a good travel guide can be your ticket to the best vacation possible. A tremendous amount of research goes into most travel guides, and many authors give their personal recommendations and cautions in addition to just providing information.
The best travel guides provide not only information about regional areas and famous locations to be seen, but also ratings of facilities, descriptions of prices and quality, and specific directions to help you navigate to where you're going. Information on museums, historical places, and tourist attractions are particularly useful in foreign countries, where you may not be able to read local signs or booklets. When it comes to restaurants and hotels, every traveler has a different taste and budget, so a good travel guide can spare you lots of time in looking around and comparing costs and amenities. Here are a few that deserve a look:
A series originally created by Tony and Maureen Wheeler, Lonely Planet provides some of the most useful travel guides. Their guides are regularly updated by a large number of contributors, and they cover general history as well as detailed information about places to visit. The 'Getting There and Away' section comes in very handy for dealing with border crossings. Lonely Planet guides are particularly geared toward travelers who need to keep their budget in mind, and contributors often hunt out the tastiest bargains. There are guides for most European countries, as well as China, India, and Asia.
These guides are put together by young people and students, and claim to be the best-selling international guides for where to go and what to do. The Let's Go guides are usually eared toward a younger crowd looking for the scoop on not only what to see and do during the day, but also what kind of nightlife will be happening to keep them hopping on their trip. Let's Go Europe was created by a group of Harvard students nearly 40 years ago, and now there are Let's Go USA guides available for those who want to do their exploring stateside.
Michelin makes some of the best travel maps available, and their green guides are good companions to partner with the detailed maps. They also offer great small-sized pocket guides for many major European cities, so you can carry them easily as a handy reference. If your goal is to explore a country or city by car or on foot, then your best bet for a great trip is to have a Michelin map or guide in your glove compartment or your pocket.
Bradt publishes travel guides to lead you through all the corners of the world, from Antarctica to Zaire, including many countries that have no other travel guides available for them. Hilary and George Bradt wrote the first Bradt travel guide while floating down the Amazon river on a barge. When they returned to Boston, they began working on the Bradt travel guide for England while continuing to travel and lead tours. The company's emphasis gradually evolved into exploring broad-based guides to new and unusual destinations, and has now expanded into hiking, rail, and wildlife guides.
This is a good name to know when traveling to foreign countries. A good pocket-sized phrasebook can really help get you out of a muddle and perhaps keep you out of jail in a country where you know little of the native language. You may not have much trouble finding a hotel or restaurant without a guidebook, but once you get where you're going, it helps to know at least a few words of the local language. Berlitz is the world leader in language learning for travelers, and their phrasebooks and mini travel guides easily slip into a back pocket or purse. To take full advantage of Berlitz offerings, you can even enroll in a class before you go, if there is a language center located near you.
Remember that most guides are updated only once a year, and some even less frequently, so you may miss something wonderful if you rely only on the guide to steer your vacation. Check the publication date of a guide before you choose it and use it. To get the most out of travel guides, use them only for basic orientation and to learn about the major cities or attractions you want to visit. But once you get to your destination, put the travel guide down and do some exploring on your own to discover gems that might not be listed in the guide. You can even find reasonably priced lodging and restaurants and local hot spots that may not be mentioned in the travel guide. Just because it isn't mentioned in the book doesn't mean it isn't worth checking out. Do some exploring on your own, and let the guide be just that―a guide―and put your own stamp of individuality on your trip.