Travel guidebooks: Choosing the one that’s just right

My Cuba travel companions and I accomplished the ultimate travel guidebook experiment during the first week of our travels. We each decided to bring a different Cuba guide with us to test which guidebook reigned supreme (kind of like the Iron Chef: Cuba). I was never a good science student, so I apologize for the rudimentary experiment form that follows…

To identify the guidebook that provides the most comprehensive and useful information for travelers to Cuba.

Participants and their respective materials (guidebooks):
Lora – Lonely Planet Cuba by Brendan Sainsbury
Frank – Frommer’s Guide to Cuba by Susan Boobbyer
Peter – The Rough Guide to Cuba by Matthew Norman & Fiona McAuslan
Brenda – Moon Handbook Cuba by Christopher P. Baker


1. Carry each book with us every day while sightseeing in Havana for one week in April 2009. (I unfortunately didn’t bring my Moon Handbook with me to Cuba, but have since browsed through it carefully. The other three we humped everywhere. Only the Havana sections were thoroughly utilized, as well as general tips for other destinations such as Trinidad.)
2. Identify travel guidebook components and assessment criteria.
3. Use assessment criteria to rank the usefulness and/or accuracy of the guidebook components.

Before the trip, most participants’ top guidebook choice was Lonely Planet. Personally, I permanently dissed Lonely Planet when I was writing for Viva Travel Guides in Colombia last year and found out that LP’s Colombia guidebook writer, Thomas Kohnstamm, researched his book (with LP’s consent) from the States. Despite these sentiments, I suspected we would likely discover that, while LP’s information would be quite useful, it would also be the most used guidebook in Cuba, thereby making it an overexposed travel resource.
What follows is our assessment of the important guidebook components.

  • Author: There’s really no doubt about the most experienced Cuba author in the bunch. Moon’s Christopher P. Baker has been traveling to Cuba for nearly 20 years — once by motorcycle. And he’s met Fidel Castro. (Read my “Talking Travel” post with him HERE).
  • Country overview and history: Lonely Planet always does a fantastic job with the informational section to country guides, and this one is full of well-written, helpful history and facts.
  • Suggested itineraries: LP’s Brendan Sainsbury also puts together some really original trip ideas like “Roads less traveled” and “Bird-watchers dream.” However, the one problem with these is their length. Sainsbury has several trips of up to two months, but tourist visas expire after 30 days.
  • Maps: Lonely Planet, hands down. Their maps are not only accurate but extremely handy.
  • Accurate information: Moon Handbooks is chock full of accurate and insightful info. Spot-on addresses, up-to-date phone numbers, and exact hours of operation are all there.
  • Size: Frommer’s Cuba is the lightest and most travel friendly. It’s not realistic to carry around a hunking travel guide like the Rough Guide to Cuba or Moon Cuba.
  • Cuba-specific issues we encountered: The casas particulares information in all of the books just aren’t useful — the reason being that casas, with their two-guestroom per night limit, can easily become full.
  • Online tools and information: Moon Cuba has the richest online resource, with information drawn from Baker’s guidebook as well as a cool blog updated by Baker himself. Be aware, however, that Internet is expensive in Cuba (US$8 per hour). Do your research ahead of time, and leave your time there for travel.

Based on Christopher P. Baker’s wealth of experience in Cuba, Moon is a sure thing. Sainsbury’s Lonely Planet Cuba is also a rich and trusty companion. Frommer’s Cuba, though the most recently updated (in January 2009), provided the most basic travel and destination info. We didn’t use the Rough Guide to Cuba at all; it was unjustifiably heavy and difficult to follow.

I think it’s worth mentioning that too many people carry the Lonely Planet guidebook around — not just in Cuba but around the world. In Cuba, it’s the only one I saw in at least five different languages (the content is the same). While useful, Lonely Planet is suffering from a unfortunate hipster effect: the same restaurants, hotels, and sights are becoming overrun by “budget backpackers,” and travelers are relying too heavily on LP-specific travel tips and suggestions.

Cuba is a really easy place to travel without a guidebook, but few tourists are willing to trust themselves and explore the place emptyhanded.

Please keep in mind that this experiment was based purely on our experience using Cuba guidebooks in Cuba and that our collective experience using these guidebooks should be taken as lightly or seriously as you deem worthy.