Some travelers swear by guidebooks while others throw caution to the wind and head out without one. Our personal experience has shown that traveling with a guidebook is invaluable. If you're really traveling independently, you'll need a guidebook that tells you how to survive, not just where the fun stuff is. A good guide book will provide maps, transportation suggestions, accommodation options, and food recommendations. While other travelers are a great resource when you're on the road, having a guidebook will actually help you make more independent and informed decisions.
Still, it's important to remember that not all guidebooks are created equal. Some cater to independent travelers, and some cater to tour groups, and then some cater to budget travelers while others cater to the filthy rich. Also, it's not always easy to tell the difference. All guidebooks will have an overview of tourist sites, a few maps, some history, and some hotels. The difference is in the other stuff, which is actually the important stuff.
You want a guidebook that tells you how to get around with public transportation (even if you don't plan to use it). You'll want to know where to find inexpensive but good food. Where do you go if you get hurt? A good guidebook will also tell you that. Most importantly, you want honest reviews of hotels and other places instead of reviews of companies that have paid to be included in the guidebook. If you're traveling on a tight budget, you may want a guide book designed specifically for those on a "shoestring budget". These books provide budget saving advice and have a more comprehensive list of hostels and budget hotels. They also offer detailed information on traveling by public transportation and free entertainment in the cities you visit.
It is also important to get a recently published guidebook. Prices and quality change, and businesses go away and new ones take their place. This is particularly true in some countries that are experiencing rapid and ongoing development. We were once in China looking for a restaurant that was recommended, and when we got to the address, the entire block had been wiped clean and a new skyscraper was under construction in its place. Most guidebook publishers release new versions every few years, sometimes more often. Make sure you look at the date of the publication before you buy it, and pick up a copy that is no more than a year or two old.
We do not endorse or have any business deals with any of the following publishers. All of the following descriptions are from our personal experiences.
Lonely Planet has become the most popular guidebook publisher amongst "backpackers" and independent travelers with a budget-travel mindset. The books are usually excellent, and include the information that you want and need (how to get around on public transport, honest reviews of cheap hotels and restaurants, emergency information, etc.). Lonely Planet was started by travelers who blazed new trails on their own before any guidebooks existed for those places. In recent years, the company has branched out into more upscale markets, much to the backlash and complaint of the traditional budget "backpacker". They even have a TV show now. The "Thorntree" forums on their website are a very popular source for information. Despite the popularity, many travelers complain that once a hotel is included in a Lonely Planet guide, it gains a monopoly and then prices go up while quality goes down. Because of this, and their recent upscale growth, many travelers now choose an alternative guidebook. On the whole, the books remain of good quality, and we recommend them. Just be aware of the aforementioned pitfalls if you purchase one.
Rough Guide and Let's Go are two publishers of guidebooks that cater to budget-conscious independent travelers. Both are very thorough. Like the Lonely Planet books, they will tell you the information that you need to survive instead of just the history and glamour of the tourist sites. They also offer a different perspective on hotels and hostels. Because these books do not have the extreme popularity of Lonely Planet, the hotel recommendations are less likely to be fully booked. We highly recommend both of these books.
Eyewitness Travel Guides are full of photos and colorful maps. If you're taking an all inclusive tour, then this is the book to get. But if you need to know how to get around and where to eat and sleep, get a different book. National Geographic Traveler publishes guidebooks of a similar nature: beautiful with interesting information, but not always practical.
Both Frommer's and Fodor's are top selling and popular publishers of travel guide books. They are very thorough in their research, offering many reviews and options, while generally catering to middle to upper class travelers. Often, information about cheaper hotels, public transportation, or cheap restaurants is not included. However, accurate and honest reviews of higher-end accommodations and other amenities are. If your budget is not low, or you wish to travel in a more luxurious style than by bus and hostel, then these may be the books for you.