One of the big debates before I go on a trip is always which guidebook to buy. It has however become a discussion on whether I even need a guidebook. I think thats a pretty normal progression when you travel a lot because carrying around those bricks of guidebooks is heavy and therefore expensive.
That said, I do have a few points of advice. Now its up to you to choose your own preferences, but remember, I'm usually always right*.
- Never, ever, ever, buy the digital version of a guidebook. All of my friends, including me, have wasted a lot of money on downloadable guidebooks. I don't know what we were thinking, that would be walking around Bangkok with our iPad's, flipping through pages to find information on the Royal Palace? Guess what that doesn't happen. Whipping out your expensive tech in a crowded city is a bad idea wherever you are. More relevant though is that those digital guides are unmanageable. You can't mark the pages, you can't leave it on the side of your table while you have a beer in the stifling heat/freezing cold, you can't stuff a better map inside the pages. Unusable. Don't do it!
- I have a love hate relationship with Lonely Planet guidebooks. I think they are poorly organized - I felt like I had to rewire my brain to understand them, their maps are terrible - oversimplified, or insufficient (really, both are terrible things for a map to be), and though they try, their recommendations are really for a 24 year old backpacker who sometimes wants to splurge with the parent's money and eat at a nice restaurant. Don't even get me started on their Burma/Myanmar Book. However, you do need to use them because they are the best generalist ones on the market. Many places have great additions. My overwhelming favourite was Nancy Chandler's maps of Bangkok and Chang Mai. If you are in Thaliand, visiting either city, go buy them. So how to read a Lonely Planet Guidebook? Read the very front and the very back. Find a couple of fall back places for dinner and places to stay, and then go online and maximize TripAdvisor.com.
- Ahhh TripAdvisor.com, I have so drunk your tasty, sometimes confusing, but nonetheless accurately flavored kool-aid. Frankly, no website got as much use during this trip than Trip Advisor. It is not a panacea - no travel website is because people have different tastes, cultural preferences etc. With that in mind though, you can learn to navigate the difference in tastes of "Joe from Florida who has 1 review" and "Carla from Italy with a million reviews". I'll let you guess who you should listen to. No it has nothing to do with where they are from, it really only has to do with how many reviews they have. No place will have perfect reviews unless they are brand new. The magic is finding places that meet your budget, tastes, preferences which have a more than 100 reviews, over 50% of which are 5 stars, and the rest are in a nice little even cascade down to 1 star. Stay away from extremes (even extremes of good - something dodgy is going on there). Most importantly, don't exhaust and depress yourself reading 50 reviews. Scan the best ones, read at least 2 or 3 of the other "star" levels, and make a choice. Pay. Then go!
That is it for general wisdom from yours truly on which guidebooks to use. At some point no matter how expensive and lovely your book is it will look like someone stuck it into a poorly functioning washing machine and has dried the remains on a laundry line in the sun. Its okay though, because you'll only be using for language tips and food names, and after a few days you'll realize you can just rip those pages out and go.
* Just ask my brother. :)