25 chapters, 100,000 words, 120 illustrations
 Table of Contents
On $25 a Day or Less
Art of Travel - European and World Backpacking

Chapter 11

Guidebooks, Other Information Sources,
and Emergency Thinking

Guidebooks  Other Information Sources  Emergency Thinking  Instincts  Help  Limits  Tips


I'VE ENCOUNTERED SEVERAL backpackers who proclaimed it pathetic how lemming tourists clutch their stupid books, obeying dicta from probably drunken and surely crazed writers. Their ideal was to float from place to place, traveling on circumstance and happenstance only.

I usually have a guidebook because it efficiently provides information, saves time and money, and allows me to travel lighter upon the environment. I also prefer not to be cold, hungry, lost, and/or in jail. Most travelers agree with my view and carry some kind of guidebook.

Don't fall into a "guidebook says" routine, though. Use your guidebook as a tool--don't let it dictate everything you do. Many of my best travel times have been in places ignored or trashed by guidebooks, probably because I allowed spontaneity to be my guide.

Let's Go

Snappily written by Harvard genius darlings on their summer tours, these annually-updated guidebooks pack a great deal of budget backpacker information in a well-designed format. Begun in 1961 with a student pamphlet to Europe, Let's Go now produces twenty guidebooks, including Let's Go: Europe; Let's Go: Mexico; Let's Go: France; Let's Go: Italy; Let's Go: Spain and Portugal; Let's Go: California; Let's Go: Thailand; etc. Distributed by St. Martin's Press, New York. letsgo.com

Lonely Planet

These 140 guidebooks are the leader among backpackers in developing countries. Their Travel Survival Kit and Shoestring series books are all packed with great value in the same practical format, which includes many maps, recommendations, and out-of-the-way places. They are usually written by two, three, or four writers who compile information as they travel. While most Lonely Planet guidebooks are updated about every three years, their new Europe edition is expected to be updated yearly to compete for that market. Originally all Australian, some are now produced in California. Distributed in the U.S. by Lonely Planet, Oakland, California. lonelyplanet.com

Rough Guides

This series of 100 British guides strongly competes with Lonely Planet. Titles range from Amsterdam to Nepal to World Music (see bibliography), with full text of some online at hotwired.com/rough. Published by Rough Guides, London, and distributed worldwide by Penguin. roughguides.com

Moon Handbooks

This California-produced series of fifty guides competes with Lonely Planet and Rough Guides. I'll attest that an afternoon of armchair traveling with Moon's South Pacific Handbook is pleasant indeed. Distributed by Moon Handbooks, Chico, California. moon.com

John Muir Publications

Publishes Europe Through the Back Door, Asia Through the Back Door, Gypsying After Forty, and the tenth edition of The People's Guide to Mexico. Distributed by John Muir Publications, Sante Fe, New Mexico.


Arthur Frommer, who forty years ago wrote Europe on $5 a Day, now oversees this series of several dozen guides, including the current Europe from $50 a Day. While Frommer's aren't much used by bread-level backpackers like myself, these guides are well positioned for those who want to travel independently and inexpensively, but who wouldn't be caught dead "backpacking." Published by Simon and Schuster, New York.  frommers.com


Begun by the German Karl Baedeker in 1829, worldwide popularity made baedeker a synonym for guidebook. (Some rare book dealers specialize in Baedekers.) Today these outstanding guides are beautifully color illustrated, have excellent maps and site information, and are conveniently-sized.

Baedeker guides focus on the educational experience of travel. As for the where-to-stay, where-to-eat, and where-to-get-a-zipper-repaired banalities, they typically only list addresses for upscale hotels in the back. Distributed in the U.K. by the Automobile Association, Basingstoke, Hampshire, and in the U.S. by Prentice Hall Travel, New York.

Blue Guides

These scholar-written guidebooks have been heavy with detailed site information since 1918. Blue Guides' Greece is the classic for those with serious interest in classical antiquity. Another interesting title in the series of fifty is Literary Britain and Ireland. Distributed by A & C Black, London, and W.W. Norton, New York.

South American Handbook

First printed in 1923, the $40 South American Handbook is revised yearly. Much information is supplied by readers sending updates, and some is always a few years out of date, but "the Handbook" (as it is universally known by South American travelers) more than compensates with 1500 thin pages of small print in a surprisingly compact format. Published by Trade and Travel Publications, Bath, England, and in the U.S. by Passport Books, Lincolnwood, Illinois.

Cadogan Guides

This British series of fifty travel guides is filled with color photographs and cultural insights. Cadogan's City Guides are pocket-sized and especially good for European cities. Distributed in the U.S. by The Globe Pequot Press, Old Saybrook, Connecticut.

Insight Guides

Contain beautiful photographs and interesting writing by a variety of journalists who know their subject. Insight Guides are best read before your journey to get a feel for the people, culture, and landscape. They also have an overview of practical information in the back. I have nine of Insight's 180 titles on my bookshelf. Distributed in the U.S. by Houghton Mifflin, New York.

Site Guidebooks

Provide detailed information on archaeological sites, museums, cathedrals, etc. If you are so fortunate to visit Palenque, the Pyramids, Angor Wat, or Alcatraz, I highly recommend budgeting $10 for a good picture guidebook (usually available in English and on-site) to read and compare as you wander. These books can really make the rock come alive.


Author running spell check
Photo: I see...

Handbook for Spain 

Compiled during a four-year stay beginning in 1830 and finely polished over the next ten, the great guidebook literary achievement may be Richard Ford's Handbook For Spain, and Readers at Home. Describing the Country and Cities, the Natives and their Manners; the Antiquities, Religion, Legends, Fine Arts, Literature, Sports, and Gastronomy: with notices on Spanish History. (London: John Murray, 1845) 

This 1064-page, two-volume classic is treasured by consummate traveler and travel writer Jan Morris, and Aldous Huxley reviews in The Open Road, "It is delightful to read on the spot the impressions and opinions of tourists who visited a hundred years ago, in the vehicles and with the aesthetic prejudices of the period....The voyage ceases to be a mere tour through space; you travel through time and thought as well."

Gay Guidebooks

Ferrari Publications produces gay- and lesbian-friendly guidebooks, which list hotels, restaurants, bookstores, bars, meeting places, telephone help lines, etc. They also contain articles about gay life in various countries. Books include Ferrari's for Women, Ferrari's for Men, Ferrari's Travel Planner, and Inn Places. These books are updated annually and, according to Ferrari, are "very accurate." Available from bookstores and: Ferrari Publications, P.O. Box 37887, Phoenix, AZ 85069. Tel. 602-863-2408.

The Spartacus International Gay Guide lists bars, clubs, discos, baths, beaches, hotels, campgrounds, cafés, restaurants, bookstores, etc. of interest to gay men. Written in English, German, French, Spanish, and Italian. Available from bookstores and: Bruno Gmünder Verlag, P.O. Box 11 07 29, D 10837 Berlin, Germany. Tel. 49 30-254-98-200

Michelin Green Tourist Guides

These guides for car travelers have good site information and superb maps. (The French are renowned mapmakers--perhaps from long association with marching Germans?) Distributed in the U.S. by Michelin Travel Publications, Greenville, South Carolina.

Michelin Red Guides

The Red Guides are for connoisseurs of fine living. Michelin's famous inspectors rate notable restaurants according to the following three stars. The occasional chef reportedly takes a demotion much too hard.

* * * Exceptional cuisine, worth a special journey. Superb food, fine wines, faultless service, elegant surroundings. One will pay accordingly!
* * Excellent cooking, worth a detour. Specialties and wines of first class quality. This will be reflected in the price.
* A very good restaurant in its category. The star indicates a good place to stop on your  journey.


French Backpacker Guidebooks

For every city they list a couple of the cheapest hotels and hostels, a few museums, cathedrals, major sites, etc., followed by page upon page of restaurant reviews.1

Other Information Sources

Tourist Offices

Most European villages big enough for a stoplight have some kind of tourist office. Indeed many large European cities have a tourist office at the airport, one (sometimes two) in each of the main train stations, and several more in the city center.

The tourist office almost always has free or cheap maps and dozens of pamphlets detailing the inestimable glories of their city. As soon as you get to the front of the line the clerk presents a thoughtfully-selected pile.

When my turn comes I usually first ask what cultural events are happening around town. Then I ask about a local English language newspaper that lists the week's or month's happenings. Lastly I inquire about the cheapest possible accommodation. Hostels and campgrounds are usually clearly marked on the map and circled by the clerk. I'm well on my way if I leave the tourist office at least thinking I know which way to begin going.

Many tourist offices offer an accommodation-finding service for free or a few dollars. Note there is often a separate, longer line for this. The clerk makes the calls and finds a room, then directs you there.

City Orientation

1. The highest spot in town is usually high on my agenda. Having a look from up there aids future navigation. You will also feel more at home, more relaxed, and have more empathy for the city.

2. I keep a small compass in my pocket for navigating large cities. With a map and compass I only need one street sign and two seconds to determine directions. A compass is especially useful when coming up from the netherworld of a subway.

3. The best travel, wherever you are, is simply checking out the local scene. What could be easier?


Travelers don't have to go without news from back home and around the world. The International Herald Tribune is widely distributed in Europe, somewhat less so in Asia. A compilation of the Washington Post and the New York Times, it was begun in Paris in 1887 for the American expatriate community in Europe. It's always a treat to relax at a café with a copy of the IHT.

Enjoying the view with the IHT in VeniceThe Wall Street Journal has European and Asian editions, and USA Today is also widely available. The Miami Herald International Edition is the pre-eminent American newspaper in Central and South America.

The English newspapers The Guardian and The Times differ from American papers in that their reporters interject more of themselves into articles than is customary in the U.S. This may take the form of opinion or humor. Both are acclaimed for in-depth reportage.

Belizean newspapers, on the other hand, make no pretense at objective reporting. Depending on political affiliation, one paper may report a thoughtful speech of the highest statesmanship, while another proclaims it a pack of stuttered lies by a thieving scoundrel.

Many major cities around the world have a daily or weekly English newspaper for English-speaking communities. I especially enjoy these because they provide an intimate view of what's going on politically, economically, and culturally.

The above newspapers are usually available at some newsstands in the downtown area of a major city, although in some far-out countries you many need to visit a major tourist hotel, and then they may be a few days old.

Students Cafés

An often overlooked source of information and camaraderie is student cafés near universities. These are among the best places to find conversation, as patrons are often open to meeting new people, are likely to have some skill in English, and are not always students.

Internet Relay Chat (IRC)

The IRC allows you to chat (via typing) in real-time with people from all over the world among thousands of channels. These range from the infamous "hottub" channel (where everyone pretends to be in the same hot tub) to country-chat channels for every country from Afghanistan to Ireland to Zambia. If you mention you are planning a visit, you may be hit with a wealth of advice and recommendations. Some travelers have even scored invitations through chats on the IRC.

I understood its power while chatting one sunny Texas afternoon with a fellow in Sweden. He ended our conversation with, "Well, I have to say goodbye now, my wife wants me to shovel some snow!"

Samuel Johnson Guatemala Reading List

Emergency Thinking


Decision Making

Watch your step!Common examples of poor decision-making are:

Often the one in trouble has made a series of bad decisions to reach the present situation. Thus it becomes crucial that this streak is stopped, and right decisions made. This could be the difference between life and death.

Sit for five minutes and consider the best course of action. Don't act rashly or hastily, especially if that's what you've been doing. If, due to the late-return-hike scenario, your foot has given way to shadow resulting in forceful collision between skull and stone, don't immediately stagger to your feet, wipe away the blood, and carry on as if nothing has happened. You might not get a second chance.

The earlier you recognize you are in trouble, or heading into trouble, the better. Self-deception and denial of reality are two of the biggest troublemakers.


The mind has a way of processing information unperceived by the conscious self, hence it often comes up with ideas you may interpret as intuition or a hunch, or see through a dream, omen, or other communication. Sometimes these ideas come all at once, sometimes you must build them. Don't ignore them.

Eyes, ears, and instincts are the traveler's most important allies.


If you're sharp enough to see it, there's a lot of help and direction out there.


Travel conditions will not always be favorable just because you want them to be. New Zealand park rangers tell of backpackers marching off on arduous, high-mountain treks with sandals on their feet and t-shirts in their packs. In New Zealand even summer weather can become extreme, and these backpackers have neither the gear nor the experience to cope. Several die from falls or exposure every summer.

While I was on New Zealand's South Island an American backpacker was heroically rescued from her sea kayak when a storm blew in. Her two equally inexperienced women friends raced into the pounding surf to pull her from the water. While they had been cautioned to head for shore at the first sign of a storm, they thought they could go on a little further.

I spent three days climbing and exploring Mount Olympus in Greece before stopping two hundred yards shy of the summit. The last bit seemed too difficult to safely climb with my shoes, skills, and somewhat shaky physical condition. My English travel buddy, however, zoomed to the top. While he was gone I witnessed two separate climbers nearly fall to their deaths, both just catching themselves at the last instant.2

Upon returning the Englishman said there was a plaque on top memorializing an American backpacker who had fallen a few years before. When I returned to the hostel at the base of the mountain the owner said an American dies up there almost every year, and when I left for the summit he had wondered if I would be the one that year.

Author on Mount Olympus Know your limits, know there are limits, and step back to enjoy another day if you reach yours.
Photo: Author high enough at 9000 feet (2750 meters).

Hydraulic Currents and General Lessons

Travelers' Tips

There is what you know; there is what you don't know. Then there is the great majority of what there is--which is what you don't know you don't know. To minimize risk and enhance experience while traveling the most important thing is to actively and creatively use whatever you've got to work with.


By far the best place to get information is hostels. There you can find out everything you need to know, including what and where is good to see and do, tips on work, getting lifts, etc. Pete the Meat, England


The CIA World Factbook (odci.gov) represents billions of dollars of information and maps you can download on every country and geographic area on Earth. D.B., Everett, Washington

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1. I bet you think I'm kidding. back

2. The first was a boot-clod, knapsack-carrying, full-bearded German who was impressively hopping, goat-like, from rock to rock down from the summit. The last gave way and he slid on his ass about fifteen feet. The second was a tall Swiss out for a Sunday stroll. As I clung to the side of Olympus as tightly as possible, he stopped to chat, forgot where he was, stepped back off the inches-wide trail, and just barely regained his balance with frantic arm swinging as scree tumbled away for a several hundred foot drop. I also recall a Greek lady in medium heels blowing by in a charge for the top. back