The Book Club

A Selection of Travel Guides

Say what you might about travel guides, I’ll always respect a literary form that can be field tested. For the benefit of eavesdroppers, I’ve included a thumbnail sketch of the subjects of our little experiment.

Fodor’s is the gold-plated grandam of the American guidebook scene. No matter how old you are, this is probably the guide your parents use. Frommer’s, like Fodor’s, targets well-to-do, graying travelers, but aspires to youthful hipness with the occasional off-the-cuff, misguided pop-culture references: “Keeping the kids distracted is key [sic] to making sure your stay doesn’t turn into a Calvin and Hobbes cartoon.” If they delight in misusing outdated slang like “jiggy,” this is probably the guide your parents use.

The Insight Guides are “softer,” emphasizing glossy photos and punchy captions over facts like prices and opening hours. Compass America, a Fodor’s associate, is stylistically a synthesis of these two models.

A backpacker favorite, Lonely Planet’s guides advocate a budget-minded, low-impact approach to travel. They’re the only guides we are discussing that didn’t originate in the United States, and are still largely targeted at travelers from Australia and the British Isles: “New Yorkers feel a great affinity to [sic] their subway tokens, akin to what Americans in general feel about their useless one-cent coin …”

The brainchild of information designer Richard Saul Wurman, the Access Guides seek to better the guidebook’s always rocky marriage of maps and text. Though the books are not actually written by Wurman, his name graces the cover and the spine, lending credence to the idea that one need be neither much of a traveler nor much of a writer to be a travel writer.

Testing Ground No. 1: The Statue of Liberty. All the books agreed that this was a worthy site, and they all had the same advice on how best to see it: Get there for the earliest ferry and beat the crowds in the race to Lady Liberty’s crown, where spectacular views of Manhattan await. The guidebooks disagreed on (or simply didn’t mention) when the first ferry actually left, but none quoted a time earlier than 9:15 a.m. But when I arrived at 8:45, a sign informed me that the 8:30 ferry had already left, and that only those lucky souls aboard would be admitted to the crown. Here I learned (or rather, relearned) a valuable travel lesson: Never trust a travel guide. If a guidebook fact is going to make or break your vacation day, you’d better call and double-check it yourself. The disclaimers in the books tell you as much themselves.

Which begs the question: Why do people (myself included) continue to rely on (and delight in) products that so frequently prove unreliable? And how can so many guides to New York (Frommer’s alone has 10 titles) prosper, and inspire fierce brand loyalty, when they all say approximately the same thing? The Statue of Liberty is just the beginning: From Wall Street to the Met, there is almost no disagreement about Manhattan’s worthiest sights.

Testing Ground No. 2: Harlem. I was intrigued to see how the guides covered areas perceived as dangerous by travelers with whom I spoke. Frommer’s warns that uptown Manhattan’s sights are best seen by bus tour. Lonely Planet rails against this ghetto safari mentality, chastising, “If you’re too scared to go on your own, stay in Midtown.” While I agree with LP’s assessment (I visited yesterday, by subway, without incident), the haughty tone is a bit troubling. Have you noticed that travelers are always quick to ridicule other travelers? Budget guides can be particularly harsh: Is this a considered reaction to the economic and environmental damage that higher-end and package tourism can cause, or just knee-jerk irreverence?

Should travel guides educate their readers, or simply pander to their preconceived notions? In the days of Marco Polo (and even the early days of Arthur Frommer), travel guides were written by bona fide experts, and people who bought them were unfamiliar with the places they described. But mass media has made armchair travel experts out of all of us, at least in the cases of such high-profile cities as New York and Chicago: We know, or at least think we know, what these cities are about, and what we want to see when we’re there. In theory, it’s thrilling that people can travel farther from home, and that they know more before they arrive, but is the end result simply longer lines at the Statue of Liberty and the Hard Rock Cafe? Can travel guides still gently educate their readers, or have they merely become handmaidens, shuttling readers from one over-visited landmark to the next?

Jodi, how things are going in Chicago? Are you finding any substantive differences in the way your guides cover the city? Are they at least getting you to the ferries on time?