Ah, guidebooks. If there's one subject guaranteed to generate debate, it's which guidebooks are better than others. There's even the argument that taking any kind of guidebook ruins the spontaneity of your trip, but you try telling me that when I've spent hours getting lost in the windy streets of Varanasi without a map...
Most popular guidebooks are available as both printed books and eBooks, though I'm not as enamoured with eBook guidebooks as I hopd I'd be. Here's a quick summary of which guidebooks I like, and why.
There's one company whose books I thoroughly love, and that's Footprint Handbooks. They're no-nonsense tomes, obviously put together by travellers who've actually been travelling, and I can't recommend them enough. If you're travelling to Africa, then Bradt guides are just as excellent, and knock spots off the more touristy publications. However, Footprint and Bradt don't cover every nook and cranny of the planet, in which case Rough Guides are probably the best bet, followed by the ubiquitous Lonely Planet. Talking of Lonely Planet, the maps in their books are absolutely the best I've used, though their recommendations are a little too tourist-oriented for me (though this can be turned to your advantage). If you're starting out on your first trip, however, you'll probably find the hand-holding style useful.
I'm not going to slag off any guidebooks – every publisher has its pros and cons – but I do remember meeting a lot of Let's Go, Frommer's and Fodor readers who were at the end of their tethers with scanty information and lame maps. Enough said.
The other thing to be wary of is buying a book that at first glance appears to be excellent value – one book covering the whole of a continent, for example. At the planning stage these books are excellent, but on the road it's often better to have a few books that specialise in the areas you'll visit. You also want to be careful not to buy too many: books are often the single heaviest item in a backpack, and in the more popular backpacker haunts, you can often buy guidebooks from other travellers.
I love my Kindle, and the first thing I thought when I bought it was how much easier travelling would be with all my guidebooks squeezed into one lightweight eBook reader. Unfortunately, guidebooks and eBook readers aren't the best bedfellows, and even though I'd like to, I can't yet recommend dropping printed guidebooks from the packing list (though I'm sure this will change as eBook readers evolve).
The problem is that eBook readers are perfect for sequential books, like novels, but they're pretty hopeless for books where you need to keep jumping around, like guidebooks or technical reference manuals. Also, most eBook readers are useless at displaying diagrams or maps, and as the most useful part of a guidebook is often the map, this is a serious drawback.
So, for me, packing a Kindle for reading novels on the road is an excellent idea, but it isn't yet a replacement for a decent, paper-based guidebook. I also carry a Macbook Air on my travels, so I tend to buy the PDF versions of guidebooks – as they work well on a laptop screen, are light, and are cheaper than their paper counterparts – but when you're stumbling through the outskirts of a remote town looking for somewhere to sleep, the last thing you want to fish out is a state-of-the-art laptop, so even this isn't perfect. Sometimes, paper is best.
If anyone has any other recommendations for good travel guides, do please sign my Guestbook.