W(h)ither the Travel Guide?

A Selection of Travel Guides

W(h)ither the Travel Guide?

A Selection of Travel Guides

W(h)ither the Travel Guide?
New books dissected over email.
Sept. 8 1999 11:13 AM

A Selection of Travel Guides

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Careful, Jodi—reading your evocative description of the Maxwell Street Market, I could sense your inner travel writer clamoring to run free. But the guidebook might be extinct before you have a chance to bring your gifts to the tourist masses. Accurate contact information (Web sites, phone numbers), it seems, is only a stopgap measure in the battle against obsolescence. If you’ve got to get online anyway, what’s to stop the reader from eliminating the middle man by using an online content site? Very little, when you’re visiting an American metropolis.

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Even if the city guide is endangered, I have high hopes for the real wonder of the species, the regional guide. A book that can point you from the bus station to a reliable place to eat and sleep in a remote Indian village, day after day, is amazing. And the sympathetic voice of a paperback travel companion, even one as chatty as Frommer’s, can be quite a balm on those lonely train rides when no one else in your compartment speaks your language.

But which guides do I like specifically? I find myself agreeing with the Access Guide most often. And I love their "celebrity" picks: Frommer’s may be the Cronkite of travel guides, but only Access has Walter himself telling you where to nosh on the Upper West Side (Zabar’s). Fodor’s solidity and unapologetic stodginess warm my heart, but its Compass American book can’t make up in literary savvy what it lacks in maps and practical information. The Lonely Planet earns its keep, particularly with its clear, compact maps. It’s also let me in on some secret, out-of-the-way neighborhoods that other guides neglect—the borough of Brooklyn, for example.

But without a large, unwieldy fold-out map, the Lonely Planet will likely be overlooked by the new "tourist chic" elite. I love that the drive for tourist-free fun is coming full circle, pushing hipsters back on the beaten path. In these retro-crazed times, even the loathed Ugly American is getting another chance to be hot. Solitude is all well and good, but no one comes to New York to get off the beaten path. Besides, tourists are fun—even more likely than New Yorkers to say something shocking, enlightening, or both. And you may as well learn to love them. No matter when you visit, it’s impossible to separate the Sistine Chapel or the Statue of Liberty from their attendant tourist hordes, unless you have friends in the Vatican (or on the masthead of Talk magazine).

You’re spot-on, by the way, about the thrill of putting one over on the "experts," as I’m sure any of the regular contributors to Slate’s Fray would happily tell you. Still, I find your architectural critique unduly harsh. The question of 19 or 14 pages of guidebook coverage is splitting hairs—passing off either as a comprehensive guide to Loop architecture is sacrilege. Ideally, a guidebook should give you just enough information to get you in the door, and then suggest a good text on Chicago architecture if you’re still interested.

But not even recommendations are sacred anymore. Another pet peeve of mine is the blatant self- and cross-promotion that plague these sections. Most guides contain a list of "recommended" films and books, including travel guides. Brands like Frommer’s and Fodor’s, who produce multiple New York titles, invariably recommend several or all of their other guides. Credibility is the bread and butter of a travel guide; why would one sabotage it with such naked self-interest? It’s corporate "synergy" at its ugliest: Only a sap gives away an honest opinion when there’s a buck to be made passing someone on to a corporate partner.

On a lighter note, do you have any favorite travel writing banalities yet? Given what little I’d seen and heard about New York on TV and in magazines, newspapers, and movies before I came, I expected a bland expanse of people and places largely indistinguishable from one other. Imagine my surprise when Citytripping, a locally produced guide to New York youth culture, informed me that I was entering "a city of contrasts." Access refined this to "a city of dynamic contrasts." Then Fodor’s floored me with the revelation that New York wasn’t a city at all, but a "mosaic of grand contradictions." And you, Jodi? Are you taking care to "rub elbows with locals and tourists alike?" And what percentage of your guidebooks warn you that Chicago, despite its abundant contrasts, just might be "your kinda town?"

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This week, Jodi Kantor and Andrew Nieland test out travel guidebooks published byFodor's,Frommer's,Lonely Planet, andAccess Guides. Jodi Kantor is a Slate associate editor. She lives in New York City and is visiting Chicago. Andrew Nieland is a free-lance writer who recently moved to New York City. He has researched guidebooks on London, Germany, and India for Let's Go.