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Getting a good read on travel books
By Kregg P. J. Jorgenson 
Posted October 5, 2006

   One of the best and least costly investments you can make for your European vacation is in a reliable guidebook, especially if the travel tips, recommendations and hints in it can save you time, money and aggravation.

  Let’s face it, there is no way for you to be aware of everything you want or need to know about a place, its people, language, customs, history, highlights, low lights and in-betweens without some proper pre-trip planning and a reasonable amount of research.

  So what’s reasonable? That depends on you and what you want out of your trip but you can’t go wrong with something that offers good basic information while tossing in enough useful local words and phrases to be helpful as well.   

  That’s where the travel guidebooks come into play or at least the good ones do. Thanks to the intrepid travel writers who boldly and at times dumbly went where no one has gone before (that is, if you’ll excuse the millions of people who live and work there where ever the ‘there’ is) we benefit from their wanderings and writings.

  We reap not only from their wonder and discoveries, their joys and epiphanies but also from their mistakes, failings and social faux pas as well. Tales of bad eateries, really bad hotels, or frustrating experiences and encounters tell us what to look out for and to avoid. Good travel books do that and more. Better still, they tell you where and how you can have a better trip for whatever kind of trip you plan on taking- whether you’re the first time visitor, experienced and oh-so-fortunate frequent traveler, or a dyed in the ‘is that organic wool?’ free range trekker.  

   Today, three of the front runners in this travel marketing race for your vacation dollars come from perennial favorites: Frommers, Rick Steves, and Lonely Planet.

   Frommers’ is the oldest of the notable group and stems from Yale Law School graduate and former military veteran, Arthur Frommer who first introduced most Americans to budget European travel in the 1950s.

   Beginning with a well received self-published travel guide for other GIs stationed in Europe he went on to widespread commercial success with his best seller, ‘Europe on $5 a Day.’

   Further expansion and success allowed him to eventually sell his business to pursue other interests while remaining on as a budget travel consultant. Frommers is presently part of the prestigious 200-year old John Wiley and Sons Publishing Company that has published such American authors as Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, and Edgar Allen Poe.

  Wiley has also published the works of famed European writers Hans Christian Andersen, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Charles Dickens and Victor Hugo.

   And probably because none of the above writers ever turned out a decent travel guide Wiley set its sights on the Frommers line…

  Okay, maybe not.

  Maybe more than likely the minds at Wiley understood a successful and popular format when they saw it. Today, thanks to authors Darwin Porter and Danforth Prince, Frommers remains one of the most informative and reliable budget travel guide book series and forms a good foundation for any vacation. 

  Although, why they haven’t done a Poe Man’s Guide to Travel, A Dickens of a Time, or Hugo Girl! is beyond me. Maybe they just couldn’t Barrett?


  The Pacific Northwest’s favorite European traveler (and seemingly everybody’s too, for that matter) Rick Steves is another self-publishing travel guide success story. Beginning in 1980 with his book, Europe Through The Back Door the affable and avid travel writer and personality went on to score a hit with his PBS series, Travels in Europe with Rick Steves and later Rick Steves’ Europe.

  His popular books published by Avalon Travel Publishing turns out the less slick or glossy but more practical travel books designed for an American audience who wish to be ‘temporary locals’ on their European vacations.

   Steves’ primary appeal to his loyal following seems to be that he offers not just good and comfortable tips and hints about traveling in Europe but offers it up with enough goodwill and exuberance that celebrates the joy of traveling. It doesn’t hurt that he tosses in a certain amount of humor too, something sorely missing in the travel genre.

   While some find his format a little too saccharine or mainstream touristy for their tastes I’ve always found it be refreshing and entertaining. The guy knows Europe or at the least the kind of Europe most Americans want to see and he’s not condescending or pretentious about his travels.

   Also, while some guidebooks provide much too small and intricate street maps Steves provides larger easy to follow hand-drawn maps that give the user the feel of a treasure map in your search for a few cultural gems.

   You can’t go wrong with guidebook from Rick Steves nor can you miss by adopting some of the enthusiasm he conveys for traveling in Europe. Add his books into your travel plans as well and if you’re ever in Edmonds, Washington stop by his store. It’s worth a look.

    Lonely Planet began in 1973 on a kitchen table with a stapled book entitled, Across Asia on the Cheap, by British travelers, Maureen and Tony Wheeler.

   Today, the once shoe string budget travel publisher is now one of the recognized leaders in the travel guidebook business as well as one of the favorites of the serious backpacking crowd and the more adventurous travelers. What qualifies as serious or adventurous? Well, the Lonely Planet guidebook on Indonesia on my shelf tells of the dangers of running into a Komodo dragon that ‘can snap your legs as fast as they’ll cut through a goat’s throat.’ The book cautioned of other dangers including treading on poisonous snakes and relates a cautionary tale about an elderly European who wandered off alone in Komodo territory and was never found.

   Having spent some time in the backcountry and bush in Southeast Asia I always felt that information like this is nice to know.

   Okay, maybe not nice but certainly helpful. “Let’s see…Ah! Here it is! Big dark snake (check), 18 to 21 feet in length (check), flair hood and swaying (check), angry yellow eyes (check). King Cobra. Don’t cuddle or pet.”

  That’s not really in their book but their cautionary advice is a welcome find given the nature of some of the na´ve tourists I’ve seen visiting some countries. I know because I was once one myself, still am occasionally.

    “Hi, is the Queen home?”

   Over the decades the Wheelers have been joined by over 150 authors from 20 countries and operate with a large support staff in the United Kingdom, Australia and the US.

   To date Lonely Planet has produced over 600 titles in English with guidebooks published in French, Italian, Spanish, Korean and Japanese.

  Guidebooks are updated with feedback they receiver from travelers offering more valuable insight and travel suggestions. Lonely Planet accepts no endorsements or advertising in their guidebooks and their web-site touts that their ‘authors do not accept kickbacks, payment or favors in return for positive reviews.’

    These top three publishers turn out good advice on the people, countries, and cultures they visit and report on. In addition they offer sensible information and advice on how to get there, how to get around once you’re there, and where to sleep, eat, drink, complete with maps and honest comments about the services you’ll find.

   So before you book your trip, book your books because if the journey begins with the first step then the good travel guides will keep you from stumbling out of the starting blocks.

   And finally, here’s a helpful parting environmental note. In your wanderings around parts of Germany, Switzerland, Italy and Southern France if you’re threatened by something that hisses loudly at you and makes small forward jerking motions with its head it might not be a snotty waiter, it could be a poisonous snake.

  That’s right, a poisonous snake. Actually, it is a Vipera Aspis Aspis, to be more precise. It’s a moderately sized snake with dark brown zigzag patterns on its back that likes warm rocks and settings.

   Also, in Germany and Switzerland if the Vipera Aspis Aspis bites you try not to scream and frighten it.

   It’s an endangered species.




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