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Recommended guidebooks for travel to Amalfi—from a guy who used to write them

Look, I love my website as much as the next bloke, but when I travel somewhere I also like to have a couple of excellent paper guidebooks with me.

It's good to get perspective from multiple sources, discover the hidden treasures other authors have turned up (great B&Bs, favorite cafes), and learn some background on sights some sources may not cover.

Plus, print guidebooks don't come with data roaming fees and batteries to recharge.

 

Tips

How to pick the right guidebook

Make sure you choose a guidebook that fits your personality, budget, and travel style.

Guides that cover, say, all of Europe are great for planning and for whirlwind vacations, but for more focused trips you may also want a country, regional, or city guide.

Leaf through many; buy the guides you like.

Who each guidebook series is for

Each of the many travel guidebook series out there caters to a specific audience:

Some focus on the sightseeing, art, and history (Michelin Green GuideBlue GuidesCompanion GuidesInsight, National Geographic). Others focus on hotels and/or restaurants (Michelin famous Red Guides).

Some series go for glossy presentation and lots of pictures and diagrams—but often at the expense of practical information (EyewitnessKnopfNational Geographic).

Others focus on a style or means of travel: driving toursfamily travelwalking tours and trails, the outdoors, etc.

Best guidebooks for first-timer travelers

For first-time travelers-or for those traveling for the first time to a new destination—I recommend a one-two punch of Rick Steves and Rough Guides.

This provide the perfect combo of solid travel philosophy, good guidance on where to spend your precious vacation days, and the background and cultural context to make all those sights and museums come to life.

Don't skimp on your guidebooks

The main rule when shopping around for one of these handy dandy travel companions is: do not skimp.

Buy two or three.

Get books that balance each other out. One may have great hotels and restaurants, another is packed with background and historical info for sightseeing, a third has all sorts of fun recommendations for things to see and do beyond the touristy stuff.

Ignore the price tag

One mistake I see many people making in the bookstores—and I hang around the travel section an unhealthy amount —is buying a guide based on the cover price.

Chances are, you're banking a trip worth several thousand dollars and a lot of happiness on the information in two or three books, so you want to get the best advice possible.

Don't even look at the price when choosing a guide. I'll tell you right now: the most expensive books are the $30, visually oriented books on glossy paper with lots of pictures.

Most hover around $15 to $25—that's peanuts to your vacation expense account.

Two or three high-quality guides are the best vacation investment you can make, and they will pay for themselves a hundred times over.

One of my favorite letters from a reader thanked me for saving them $450 in plane fares and car rental fees just with the advice in the book's planning chapter.

Check that publication date (then cut some slack)

Keep in mind that guidebooks take around six months or longer to research and write, plus another six months to go through the editorial, printing, and distribution to your local book store processes.

That means the information in those pages is probably at least a year old.

In the interim, things will have changed somewhat.

Restaurants do sometimes close down, hotels always raise their prices, the tourist office may have decided to move across town, some great new museum may have opened, and bus schedules will undoubtedly have changed.

Furthermore, since the book stays on the shelf for at minimum one year (often two years, sometimes even three), that means the info in the copy you pick up may be getting very old indeed.

The copyright date printed on the page with all that fine print near the very front of the book (in British-published books, sometimes it's at the back), is a good guide, but it only tells you which year (in rare cases down to the month) the book actually hit the store shelves. Keep in mind that the book ha to be researched, written, edited, and printed before that, so all the information is likely at least several months old even when the book is brand-new.

So cut your guide a little bit of slack when its info proves a little stale, and please stop insisting to hotel owners that they are somehow law-bound to charge the rates printed in your dog-eared 1996 edition of Let's Go (hoteliers complain about this to me all the time).

In the end, even if all prices are $2 to $20 higher than the book states, for the most part they'll still be relatively on the mark.

The budget hotels will still be the cheapest, and the luxury ones will be the splurges. Though, again, sometimes a run-down one-star flophouse will, between the research phase and the time you buy the book, have acquired new owners and been renovated into a mid-scale three-star inn. These things happen.

I solve this problem by making one last run to the bookstore travel section just before leaving on a trip, hoping to find a brand-new edition of each of the books I've already bought for my trip (happens more often than you'd think).

If there is a new one, I bite the bullet, spend the extra $20, buy the new edition and toss the old one—even if I had bought that older edition just a few weeks before.

Remember, this is an investment in a tool that has the potential to save you hundreds of dollars on your trip. Twenty bucks is chicken scratch.

Pointers & pet peeves

People always ask me what guides I travel with. That's irrelevant (though, to be fair, I listed some faves up above).

You should always pick the guide that best suits your own tastes, travel needs, and interests.

I'm a fan a family-run restaurants and bistros, modest little hotels and B&Bs with funky charm, learning all about the history and art and cultural context, and getting to know the locals wherever I go. (I also ain't rich, so that dovetails nicely with my personal travel philosophy.) These tastes inform my choice of guidebooks.

Though as a journalist I've covered more than my share of upscale restaurants and five-star hotels, they really aren't my cup of tea (nor are they in my price range), so for personal trips I don't ever bother with, say, a Fodor's guide.

At the same time, I'm not a fan of hostels, nor of hanging out with students bent solely on partying their way through Europe, so I have little personal use for Let's Go and its ilk.

There's nothing wrong with the student-oriented guides in of themselves—or the students for that matter. I'm just not interested in partying with the ones who'd rather stay back at the hostel's pub getting drunk and hooking up with fellow travelers than head out to explore some residential neighborhood. I'm just saying the books aren't for me. 

Pick the guidebooks that are right for you.

Disclaimers

Yes, I used to be a full-time guidebook author. However, no longer.

  1. Except on rare occasions, since 2005 I no longer write print travel guides; just my websites.
  2. Even when I did write guidebooks, I never received a single penny in royalties on any of my books—"royalties" are the percentage of each sale that an author would normally receive in most parts of the publishing industry; however, that is not how most guidebook publishers operate these days.

What I mean to say is that I neither have, nor have ever had, a vested interest in anyone buying these things.

However, I did work hard on them, and thought they were pretty good, and it was nice to see folks carrying them around.

I am also friends with Arthur and Pauline Frommer, the publishers of those guidebooks (and Jason Cochran, their Web editor). I also know Rick Steves. I have written Frommer's, DK/Eyewitness, For Dummies, and Idiot's guides, and have friends who have written for just about every other major travel guide series as well. (We're a small tribe, travel writers.)

There. That should take care of most of the disclaimers. 

 

General tips of similar interest

Get a great guidebooks or three (I happened to write or contribute to all of these above) (Photo © Reid Bramblett)

Everything you always wanted to know about travel guidebooks by a professional travel writer who spent two decades writing them