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.

One for the Road: Make the Most of Your Time on Earth

There are books that suggest what you should see before you die. And others that offer up vacation ideas that will enrich your life. Rough Guides takes a different approach with their just released mega list of 1000 Ultimate Travel Experiences. Their challenge to each of us — Make the Most of Your Time on Earth. Simple, right? They label these 1,000 activities as must-do, but with an invitation than I find much more appealing than “Hurry up and visit all these touristy locations before you croak!”

This massive Rough Guide to the World includes all 625 experiences previously released in the 25 Ultimate Experience mini-guides (which we reviewed when we interviewed Rough Guide founder Mark Ellingham in May), plus an additional 375 new experiences. From punting on the river Cam in Cambridge to voyaging into the unknown of Antarctica, Rough Guides presents travelers with adventures that appeal to all types. The book is loaded with inspirational photographs and descriptions. It’s meant to be thumbed through again and again — for daydreaming sessions when stuck at home, or as a prompt to get going with actual travel planning. This fantastic collection is a must have for anyone who experiences frequent bouts of wanderlust. Just one flip through the 600-color pages will leave you motivated to get moving…somewhere! Do you need more proof that no shortage of possibilities exists!?!

Reminder: Talking Travel with Mark Ellingham Contest Ends Wednesday

Looking for something to read on this holiday afternoon? In case you missed it last week, here’s a reminder to check out Gadling’s interview with Rough Guides founder Mark Ellingham. The popular publishing company is celebrating its 25th anniversary this month, and has created a limited-run series of experience travel guides to commemorate the milestone event.

We’ve got one free copy of the entire set of Rough Guides 25 to give away! Head over to Talking Travel with Mark Ellingham to find out more about these books and how you might be able to score this precious set. The contest ends on Wednesday, May 30th at 8:00 PM. Good luck!

Talking Travel with Rough Guides Founder Mark Ellingham

Mark Ellingham and Martin Dunford met in Greece back in the early 1980’s, and soon found themselves collaborating on a guide book to the country. Rough Guides was thus born, and 25 years later the successful publishing company continues to innovate and create helpful tools that enrich the travel experience.

To commemorate their 25th anniversary, Rough Guides has produced a set of 25 compact experience guides, which will be officially released in the US on May 25. Mark was kind enough to take some time to answer our questions on a variety of topics, including the milestone birthday, future projects, and his own travel experiences.

And, as promised yesterday, as a part of the celebration, one lucky Gadling reader will win a complete set of the 25 anniversary guides. Enjoy Mark’s interview and we’ll get to the contest details at the end.

Your very first book, The Rough Guide to Greece, was published for the 11th time in 2006 – and you remain a co-author. Do you have any idea how many times you have traveled to the country since that first trip?

I’ve stopped counting, but I get neurotic if I don’t get to Greece every year or two. Despite many visits, there are still a fair number of islands I’ve not yet visited. And the pleasures of Greece don’t pale. Few things beat the travel romance of sitting on the habourfront, sipping a Greek coffee, waiting for a ferry come in to dock and transport you off to some new island – with all its promise.

What was it about Greece that initially drew you to that country over any other back in 1981?

I first went to Greece when I was sixteen and fell in love with the place. It was my first experience of the Mediterranean so that played a large part: the coast, the light, the relaxed pace of life, the people. I even like Greek food. And of course the whole country is redolent with history, which provides an intellectual curiosity alongside the sybaritic pleasures.

Can you share a few words about some of your other early travel experiences, both before and after university? Or do you recall the very first “trip” you ever took?

When I was a kid, in the 1960s and early 1970s, British people didn’t travel a whole lot – and my family didn’t have much money to do so. My first trip abroad was to Normandy, in France, aged ten. That seemed pretty exotic. In those days there was very little “globalization” of products, and I’d not seen things like mussels before, or even yogurt. I had a few holidays in Ireland as a kid, too, which I loved. Then when I was sixteen I bought an InterRail European rail pass with some friends and we headed off to Paris, Rome, Florence and on to Greece. That was fantastic – a revelation. I had itchy feet from that time onwards and dashed off to Greece each summer at university.

And where do you travel these days? Rough Guides encourages travelers to “fly less and stay longer.” What are some favorite destinations located relatively close to your home that you like to visit?

I spend part of every summer in a small, quirky hotel on the Pembrokeshire coast, in Wales, called the Druistone. If it doesn’t rain (and that’s a big “if” in Wales!) it is the most beautiful place in the world – a huge beach, wonderful cliff walks, good food and company at the hotel. I have some good friends in Spain, so go there often, too: I tried out the train to Barcelona at Christmas, which was a nice way to travel.

Congratulations on Rough Guides milestone anniversary. How did the concept for the “Ultimate Experiences” series come about?

Thanks. We wanted to do something fun and distinctive to celebrate 25 years – and we didn’t want to do another regular guide series – so we thought let’s just put out some ideas – get all our authors to join in an contribute. They’re books to browse and inspire, and – since each highlights 25 ultimate experiences in a country or region – to argue with, about whether we have the right selections.

Could you walk us through some of what happens behind the scenes to make decisions for a special series like this?

The initial decicison was pretty easy to take, and right at the outset we decided to call them “25s” and put them out in full color and in pocket format. But it took a fair bit of discussion before we hammered out the design, and then we had to consult quite widely in the book trade to see what price shops wanted them to be, and how they could be best marketed. Oh – and the editorial side was a vast amount of work. My colleagues Martin Dunford and Kate Berens co-opted pretty much the whole of our editorial and design team at various points, and probably half our authors were involved in selecting and writing up the experiences.

There are so many possible travel experiences to choose from – what process was used to narrow things down to only 25 for each book?

We trusted the authors of our main guidebooks for individual countries and regions. The themed books – Wonders of the World, Wildlife, Ethical Travel – took a bit more debate. We all chipped in ideas and Martin and Kate decided on the final selections. I think they got it pretty much right: the picks include the very best experiences and places, but the books are all peppered with more surprising and offbeat ideas, which keeps them fun to read.

The books really pop with enthusiasm — how did you decide on the compact and colorful design?

We were trying to create a series that was half book, half magazine – fun to browse, but also something you’d want to keep. Maybe leave in the bathroom for future reading!

Can you tell us a little bit more about the forthcoming Rough Guide to the World, that’s due out in the fall? Will it include all the experiences from the anniversary series? And what additional content will it contain?

The new book will include all the 25s experiences – which makes 625 – plus another 375 to bring us up to 1000. So it’s another major undertaking. It does mean we’ll be able to include a lot of selections that for one reason or another didn’t make it into the small books. The World book will be both more complete and quirkier.

I understand that music is a passion of yours, and that you are hard at work on a massive third edition of The Rough Guide to World Music. When will that be out and just how large will it be?

We’re doing the book in three volumes, this time, and have just published the first, covering Africa and the Middle East. We’re now in the midst of the second volume, which ranges through Europe, Asia and the Pacific. Then next year we’ll tackle the Americas and the Caribbean. All in all, I think it will weigh in at about 2000 pages and a million words, and will have contributions from around 25 people. It’s a bit of a nightmare but is the book I’m most proud of publishing!

I also read that you never learned to drive. Does this mean that you are always automatic DJ on road trips?

Yes – I’m a pretty good DJ. But when I’m traveling, I tend to use local transport as much as possible. I like getting around on local buses and trains and of course those Greek ferries. I like walking, too!

Rough Guides began in travel publishing, but has blossomed into a diversified information company with reference guides that cover all kinds of topical and timely issues. Moving forward, how will Rough Guides continue to distinguish itself from other guidebook companies also moving in this direction?

We’ll try and stay ahead of the game! Our first success outside travel was a guide to the Internet – destination everyone needed to master. And since then we’ve done a whole range of music and film and computer and popular culture books. We’ve turned our hand to science recently, with books on the brain and genes, and a guide to Climate Change, that was recently shortlisted for the Science Book of the Year Award.

And with an increasing amount of content available online, how will new technologies impact Rough Guides? Are podscrolls, podcasts and downloadable material the Rough Guides of the future, or will there always be a need to provide travelers with books?

Books are very handy and I think they’ll be with us for some time. But travel guidebooks will be the first things to migrate once there is a really good (and cheap) electronic reader. We produce all our books as PDFs before sending them to the printers, and they are ready to roll on a reader, with all their weblinks live so you can go straight to explore a hotel or restaurant website, or see who is playing at a local festival. I do think that’s the future. And it is getting quite close!

Absolutely. But even as all these new technologies revolutionize the way we read, it’s hard to beat the experience of casually browsing the shelves from time to time, especially while traveling. Can you tell us about one or two of your favorite new or used bookstores that you like to visit, either at home or that you’ve come across in your travels?

The best bookshop in the world is Daunts on Marylebone High Street in London. This was a purpose built Victorian bookshop and it has a lantern roof and gallery, with natural light for reading. It has a fantastic travel section, with books of all kinds – guides, travel books, novels, art books – all arranged by country. My favorite secondhand bookshop is Serendipity in Berkeley, California, which is a treasure house of twentieth century fiction.

Thanks Mark! We look forward to more great travel books and innovative reference information from Rough Guides in the years to come.

Individual Rough Guides 25 books retail for $5.99 each.

Okay, now to the contest — We have ONE copy of the complete set of Rough Guides 25 to give away to ONE lucky Gadling reader! Just leave a comment below and our magical system will automatically select a single random winner — but make sure you use a valid email address, as we’ll have to contact you to get your mailing address. For official rules, please click here. Comments and contest will close one week from today, May 30 at 8:00 PM.

One for the Road Review: Rough Guides 25

The nice folks at Rough Guides sent me a few titles from their about-to-be-released Rough Guides 25 series. The collection of 25 “Ultimate Experiences” travel books will be officially released in the US on Friday, to commemorate the company’s 25th anniversary. I’ve got a sneak peek at the books today, and an interview with founder Mark Ellingham coming up tomorrow — which will feature a chance for one lucky Gadling reader to win a complete set of the 25 anniversary guides! Here’s the scoop on this special limited-edition set:

Just a few moments spent flipping through these bite-size books had me hankering for a sudden journey real bad. These little guys are bursting with colorful photos and graphics of adventures that scream “Try Me!” Each mini-guide suggests 25 ultimate travel experiences for a particular region or theme. There are destination guides for places like India, Spain, Canada and China, and thematic guides like Adventure Travel, World Food and Ethical Travel.
While thumbing through my copy of 25: Europe, I discovered that despite my extended travels around the continent, I’ve only completed three of Rough Guides suggested ultimate experiences for European travels — portrait viewing at the Prado, bargain shopping in Krakow and exploring Sintra’s magical castle. There are several others that I’ve “sort-of” done, and readers will probably notice the same — enhanced or modified versions of trips previously taken. For example, I’ve been to the Louvre before, but never in the evening, as RG editors suggest. So now gazing at art after dark has been added to my ever-growing list of reasons to return to Europe.

I was bummed, however, not to find mention of two of my favorite European cities, Budapest and Ljubljana, in the Europe guide. But later on I found both incorporated nicely into 25: Places to Stay, which highlights unique accommodations around the world. Buda’s Hotel Gellert and Ljubljana’s Celica Hostel are both featured. (These cities might also be mentioned in the 25: Eastern Europe edition. In my interview with Mark Ellingham tomorrow you can learn more about how Rough Guides narrowed down which experiences to include in the books.)

In all, the complete set of 25 books features 625 travel experiences, a collection that is sure to offer ideas that appeal to every type of traveler. These suggestions go beyond the typical “top” travel experiences. Most have a unique twist to them — the point is not just to visit a certain city or landmark, but to experience it through a specific lens, be that time of year, hour of day or some other special element. Often the experiences are linked to seasonal festivals, cuisines, sporting events or outdoor activities. For example, try visiting the Colosseum in winter, instead of during the hot crowded summer. Or visit Sydney specifically to experience Mardi Gras, which takes place every March.

The books themselves are 80 glossy pages, lightweight and soft-bound. The flexible inside front cover folds out with a map that pinpoints each of the 25 experiences featured in the book. And the inside back cover folds out with a “Taking the Next Step” section that lists logistics and links to aid trip planning. Each of the 25 experiences gets its own two-page spread with fantastically fun photos and a “Need to Know” section. There is a bonus “Miscellany” section too, containing a random smattering of additional trip ideas like “The Top Five Bird Sanctuaries in New Zealand” or the “Five Best Dive Sites in Australia.”

Rough Guides has created a clever commemoration to their 25 successful years. And with this special anniversary series they have gathered together enough classic experiences to easily keep folks well stocked with travel ideas for at least another 25!

Check back tomorrow morning for Gadling’s interview with Mark Ellingham, Rough Guides founder; and news on how you can win a complete set of these anniversary guides.