Guidebooks: To Read or Not to Read…?

I’ve had to set aside the two novels was reading to make way for 2 other books I have to read for ‘research.’

In preparation for my upcoming trip to Europe, I have temporarily forsaken George R.R. Martin and David Mitchell to learn a thing or two from the Frommers – Arthur, Hope in Frommer’s France 2008 and Pauline Frommer’s Italy (1st edition – 2006).

Up first is the elder Frommers’ France 2008 which I got on sale (since it’s already 2011, but I’m hoping things haven’t changed that much in France in the last 3 years).  Frommer’s France 2008 is actually written by Darwin Porter and Danforth Prince who divided the book into 22 sections.  The first few chapters are devoted to the essentials of planning a trip to France, including the hows, whats, whens, whys, and wheres, a top 10 “Best of France” list and suggested itineraries for short and long stays.  There is also a brief lesson on the evolution of art and architecture in France and how to tell te difference between one artistic/architectural period from another (useful to know when spending the day in a museum or in an architectural wonder – or just to show off to your friends by telling them that, no, in fact, the French did not contribute that much during the Renaissance…).

The book then starts off with Paris followed by 16 chapters devoted to different regions in France such as Normandy, Brittany, The Loire Valley, all the way down to Provence, the French Riviera, and so on.

Like most guidebooks, it contains information on accommodations, restaurants, modes of transportation and road conditions, famous sites and landmarks, shopping, night life, tours and other activities.  It also shares some of France’s do’s and don’ts, and gives useful tidbits of information to make tourists feel more comfortable in their new environment and to look less like the guidebook-toting, picture-taking fools that they are.

Unfortunately, I will only be going to certain regions in France, so I have carefully marked the sections of the book relevant to my itinerary.  Frommer’s France is proving to be quite useful in terms of describing the physical layout of the different cities for orienting oneself and in presenting the different options of getting around.  The book also gives helpful tips on how to save time and money by availing of city passes such as metro/bus/railway passes and museum passes.

The section on where to eat and where to stay is also helpful because it lists down establishments based on affordability, categorizing them as ‘very expensive,’ ‘expensive,’ ‘moderate,’ and ‘inexpensive.’  It also goes on to tell you if a place is considered a unique “find” or if it is a shameless tourist trap.

Though Frommer’s listed restaurants and hotels according to affordability for people on a tight budget, it made no mention of very cheap living quarters such as youth hostels, campsites, and cheap eats such as boulangeries and neighborhood restaurants patronized by locals.

In a way I felt that Frommer’s is assuming that since I’m reading their book, I’m probably going to France, and if I’m going to France, I can probably afford it.  It’s an assumption I find a bit unfair since I actually prepared (read:  saved) for over a year to make this trip.  Though the book did warn me in the beginning that:

France is a very expensive destination.

Like all things, there are pros and cons of reading a guidebook before visiting a particular place.  Guidebooks are designed to help travelers visiting a place for the first time – to give them helpful advice on how to get there and what to do when they get there.  Guidebooks also highlight important things about the city and give tourists a heads up on what not to miss.

Though guidebooks may be good for helping travelers make the most of their stay given a short period of time or a limited budget, guidebooks can also limit the things a traveler can see or do in a city.  Writers of guidebooks usually highlight the things a city is famous for but sometimes exclude less dazzling, albeit important parts of a city’s history.  In telling travelers what to do and what to see in a city, guidebooks discourage them from actually exploring and thinking for themselves.

Of course reducing a city/country to its famous sites and activities can’t be avoided when writing guidebooks – one can only include so much in a book meant to be carried around in a backpack while walking around a city (which makes me wonder why guidebooks are always so thick given their purpose…).

Having read most of the parts of France 2008 relevant for my trip, I can say that I learned a lot of things about France I never really knew before.  Some of the things I learned are useful for my trip, some of them not, but still nice to know.

All in all, I think travelers should take time to read guidebooks before visiting a city/country, just to familiarize themselves with the place and to help them get their bearings upon arrival.   But in the end, guidebook suggestions are just that – suggestions, and travelers should carefully pick and choose which ones to ignore and which ones to follow, and to discover things on their own.

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13 thoughts on “Guidebooks: To Read or Not to Read…?

    • Yes, actually there are more than 30 UNESCO sites in France and about 40+ in Italy…

      Really? I haven’t read any of his stuff yet but I have a few of his books. I think my most memorable France/Paris work of recent history is Ernest Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast – one of my favorite books.

  1. I’ve never been a guidebook reader. I’m far too “fly by the seat of my pants” for that. Instead, I just emerge from wherever I’m staying in the morning, pick a direction, and start walking until I get bored, then try to find my way back.

    But I can definitely see that there’s a value to reading the guidebooks and I do know that I often miss a lot (can you believe that I’ve been to Egypt but never seen the pyramids?). I’d say that a healthy mix of guidebooks and spontaneity is the best way to truly absorb a new place.

    Anyhoos, great review and certainly a lot to think about!

    • Thanks for the kind words! Yeah, it’s really hard to decide whether reading guidebooks are actually beneficial. I mean they have a lot of suggestions as to what to see and which things to do and I guess the suggestions for people who have a very limited time abroad is pretty good. But again, they kind of tell you what’s good and what’s not good and don’t let readers decide for themselves. Though the guidebooks do say that you should explore on your own and “get lost.”

      One good thing about guidebooks that I find helpful is tips on how to travel within the city…like how to buy metro/bus/train tickets and how to use them, to save you time and money and help you not hold up lines. Those kinds of information are pretty useful. But yes, I think readers should consider the guidebook suggestions…do the things they agree with, but also make sure to discover things on their own.

  2. You should look for podcasts on travel. I’ve listened to a Rick Steves podcast before. They were pretty helpful, and I could do other things while I listened. Maybe there are some from the locals or something..

    Well it looks like you got your work cut out for you with all the UNESCO Heritage Sites. Be Safe!

    • Thanks! Hey, podcasts sound like a good idea! I never thought about it before. I will definitely go look for some. Yeah, the preparation is kinda stressing me out…but in a good way since I’m doing it for a trip 🙂

  3. Love that you mention A Moveable Feast – on of my all time favourites (along with Pippi Longstocking)… And what about Down and Out in Paris and London?

    Hope your preparations don’t stress you out too much..have a fantastic trip 🙂

    • I’m actually tempted to read other guidebooks by other “writers” such as The Lonely Planet, Fodor’s, Down and Out…just to compare, but just reading one guidebook is enough to stress me out, let alone several. lol. Honestly it’s a bit stressful, only because I get paranoid about the little things like how to get from the airport to the hotel..how and where to buy the metro/bus/train tickets; how to insert the tickets into the turnstiles….little unimportant things like that. Also, the more options I’m given, the harder it is for me to decide what to do. It’s actually the little things that stress me out.

      But yeah, thanks for the encouragement and I do hope that in spite of my paranoia I do have a fantastic time lol.

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