The Golden Rule of travel guidebooks

Since my first European backpacking tour in 2013, I’ve used my trusty Rick Steves’ guidebooks to collect and organise information for my trips. Preparing with a guidebook is like reading the hard copy of a book before going to the movie-version in the cinema; it gives you your first, imaginative taste of what the true experience will be like.

That being said, guidebooks include the word “guide” for a reason. I have been led astray by guidebook information multiple times, and have since created a golden rule: do not regard guidebooks as travel Bibles, but more as rough outlines for your journey. Below are several reasons why…

Prices change

If I had a dollar for every time I arrived at a “free” museum only to find it cost loads to get in, I’d be able to pay my entry to said museums.

Prices fluctuate year-to-year (and even season-to-season), so double check your itinerary via Google beforehand.

Experiences are relative to your tastes

Ricks Steves is noticeably a “museum guy.” He loves history and art. I am noticeably not a museum lover. So no matter how incredible he makes the local Museum of Modern Art sound, remember that if you rushed through the Louvre or the British Museum, you’ll most likely dislike this too.

Guidebooks are not above commission

Likewise, use your best judgement when it comes to restaurants. Don’t assume Rick Steves has eaten at and loved every restaurant in his guides, and do assume he receives commission anytime the page reads “just show this book” to get a discount.

While commission is part of the industry, you can usually find better food with a little patience and a detour off the main tourist drag.

General information isn’t always up-to-date or relevant

Similar to pricing, opening hours and other company details can change year-to-year and season-to-season. Once, we actually found our way through Copenhagen to the Danish Resistance Museum only to find that it had burned down shortly after the guidebook was published.

Check your facts before you go. Or, if you prefer to live dangerously, have a laugh at your miserable luck along the way.

Writers are not impartial

Each guidebook generally has a rating system to rank sights, restaurants, etc. While helpful, don’t count things out solely based on their ratings. Where Rick Steves gives a museum or a castle tour ΔΔΔ (his highest mark), I’ve frequently rated them a Δ after hours of tedious tours and sore feet.

While Rick Steves’ opinion is valuable, yours is too, and it will simply not line up with his 100% of the time.

You may forget to look up & experience your surroundings

The fun of travel comes from getting lost and wandering through a new city. Countless times I’ve found myself buried in a guidebook, trying to follow every detail of a self-guided walk to avoid missing anything. But, with your head in the pages, stressed about reading every piece of information, you miss out on simply enjoying your surroundings and soaking in a new culture.

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