I’ll be the first to point out this irony: I started EuroCheapo, a budget travel website, back in 2001, and yet I still love traveling around Europe with a guidebook.
Furthermore, I’m conveying this information to you — on a website.
Ironies aside, I believe that when it comes to trip guidance, there’s room for everything. Websites, like the one you’re reading right now, are a fabulous platform for trip planning. You can “get educated” about the logistics, find the best deals (especially for hotels!), and plan it all out.
Furthermore, once you’re traveling, the online research doesn’t stop. I whip out my phone constantly in Paris, for example, researching how to use the bus to get to the Louvre, or the location of the nearest wine store.
(In fact, I use my phone for on-the-ground research even more now, thanks to the use of my French phone, with a locally purchased SIM card. It’s practically free to use! Don’t know what I’m talking about? Read this guide to using SIM Cards.)
However, when I’m actually walking through the Louvre, or looking to take a self-guided neighborhood walking tour, I still pull out an actual guidebook.
Related: Our favorite guidebooks to Paris
Some might consider this preference old fashioned, anachronistic, archaic… and possibly it is! But let me explain. Here are 10 reasons why I still pack a guidebook when traveling to Europe.
1. They’re a tiny investment in an expensive trip.
Once you add it all up, your big trip to Europe is most likely going to be a major expense. Two people flying to Italy for a two-week trip from the United States can easily spend $7,500 once you add up flights, hotels, meals, transportation and basic sightseeing. (We’ve got lots of tips to help you lower that number, but still. This isn’t an uncommon trip budget.)
Most guidebooks will cost about $20-25 (and will be highly discounted on Amazon). In the grand scheme of things, this is a very small expense for guidance that stays by your side and that can drastically improve the quality of your trip.
Even if you only get one memorable meal recommendation out of it or it helps keep you from getting lost and wasting time — it’s worth it.
2. They’re nice to read before you leave home.
Most people have months to plan a vacation in Europe. They decide which country to visit, book the flights, and then enter a period of delicious anticipation. This is, of course, when we hope you’ll find us and let us help with logistics, hotel recommendations and cost-saving advice!
But it’s also a great time to dive into a guidebook and get a feel for your destinations. Many of these books contain a good deal of history about the countries and cities you’ll be visiting. Start learning now and it will all make more sense once you’re on the ground. The best guidebooks provide context for your trip.
3. It’s something to do on the plane.
If you think a guidebook is fun to read while you’re still home in Atlanta, they’re really fun to pull out of the seat-back pocket in front of you on your flight over. It’s a special kind of anticipation. You know you’re not really going to sleep on the plane, they’ve started serving drinks, you don’t have an internet connection… It’s the perfect time to open your guidebook.
4. They might not be cool, but they’re practical.
If you buy a reputable and up-to-date guidebook, at the very least, you’ll learn how to get into town from the airport and have a good basic understanding of how the city works.
A few years ago I was working on our hotel reviews in Rome, when I ran into a younger travel blogger who wouldn’t ever be caught carrying around a paper guidebook. We started talking and he told me that he had just Tweeted to his followers asking for advice on the best way to get from where we staying to the Trastevere neighborhood.
And guess what? Nobody had Tweeted back yet. Guidebooks might not be cool — but they’re very practical.
5. They give dining recommendations.
Let’s go back to our “two weeks in Italy” example. That’s a lot of logistics to plan… but it’s also a lot of meal slots to fill. Now I love wandering the backstreets of a European city letting my nose guide me to dinner. But let’s face it, this can be very time consuming, and you can wind up dining in some real clunkers.
Of course, EuroCheapo has affordable dining recommendations (like these for Paris and Rome), and TripAdvisor has an endless list of recommendations… ditto Yelp. But I still find it helpful to check out restaurants recommended by guidebooks. Again, even if you get one or two good dinner suggestions, it’s helpful.
6. They’re good for walking tours.
Aside from recommendations, I find the self-guided walking tours in many of the books to be very helpful. A shout-out to the Rick Steves’ series here, which I’ve found to have great neighborhood and museum walking tours.
At their best, these walking tours will help put the neighborhoods in historical context — and they allow you to start and stop whenever you please. There’s no need to join a group. The same goes for guidance in museums. If you’re short on time and don’t feel like springing for an audioguide, a guidebook can lead you to the most important works.
7. No roaming charges.
Imagine… you can just open a book in the streets of Berlin and get advice about what to see in the Pergamon Museum. This sure beats firing up your phone, finding a phone network, and coming home to $380 in foreign roaming charges.
(Of course, this isn’t a concern if you purchased the aforementioned SIM Card.)
8. You can’t break a book.
Guidebooks are flexible. You can dog-ear important pages. You can highlight favorites. Rip things out! Make origami out of maps if you’re bored on a train. They don’t complain.
Phones, laptops and tablets are not nearly as forgiving. They don’t like beaches. They really don’t like hotel toilets. And they really crack up when dropped on a sidewalk in Lisbon. Just sayin’.
9. It’s easy to read in direct sunlight.
Let me take you to an experience I had in Athens one bright summer day when I was exploring the Ancient Agora. I was having fun running around with my guidebook, reliving the high jinks of the days of Antiquity, when I ran into a honeymooning American couple who were also visiting the Agora guided by their iPad.
The information must have been compelling, because they were working very hard to keep reading it — in the harshest, hottest, direct sunlight. They were struggling because the screen just wasn’t bright enough and they had to keep searching for shade. (Now, truth be told — it didn’t ruin their trip, or their new marriage, but still! This stress could have been averted with a paper version.)
10. They can be left behind.
And finally, let us not overlook the fact that these inexpensive guidebooks can be left behind if necessary. You’re probably going to be flying home heavier than you arrived (in terms of luggage… well, most likely in terms of everything…). Space will be needed in your luggage.
That trusted guidebook weighs about a pound and is about the size of a brick. And it only cost $20. It can be left in London.
Do you travel with a guidebook?
What do you think? Do you still travel with a guidebook? Have a favorite? Share with us in the comments section below!