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The best of online guidebooks

SmarterTravel

When you’ve just pulled into an unfamiliar city and want nothing more than a reliable recommendation for an affordable and clean place to stay, there’s no beating a guidebook.

But more and more guidebook companies offer some or all of their guidebook content on the Web, and this wealth of information makes online travel planning unbeatable. Best of all, you can often find additional information—from feature articles and travel news to podcasts and guidebook updates—alongside the guidebook information.

Plus, browsing guidebook content online gives you a sense of which series most closely fits your travel style and budget, so that when you do find yourself in an unfamiliar city with just one guidebook, it’s more likely to be the right one for you.

Here’s a review of what you can expect to find on the websites of guidebook publishers large and small:

Lonely Planet

With over 500 titles, Lonely Planet has long been a standard for backpackers, budget travelers, and people seeking off-the-beaten-path destinations.

Online, you’ll find much, but not all, of the information provided in the guidebooks. However, you’ll also find Web-specific content including blogs, podcasts, feature articles, and travel classifieds. Plus, there’s the Thorn Tree Forum, where readers swap destination information, and Bluelists, the sometimes quirky best-of lists (How to conquer your fears in New Zealand, Things to do in Alaska when you’re seasick) written by members of the Lonely Planet online community.

The new Pick and Mix option allows you to choose only the chapters of a particular guidebook you want, then purchase and download them in a PDF format. So far, you can pick and mix Lonely Planet titles for Central and South America, Mexico, and the Caribbean, as well as phrase books and walking guides.

Favorite feature: The Pick and Mix function, which allows you to buy exactly the information you want, and nothing else. Though it would be even better if Lonely Planet gave you the option of having your chapter selections bound into a little book to make the information easier to take on the road.

Fodor’s

Fodor’s started in the 1930s as a European-focused guidebook series aimed at providing travelers with cultural contexts and up-to-date practical information in addition to basic listings. Today, the company continues to provide suggestions to discerning travelers with its over 300 titles.

Fodor’s posts some of its guidebook content online, and mixes it in with traveler forums and community ratings for hotels, restaurants, and sights. Guidebook updates are also available on Fodors.com.

Other online-specific content includes a travel newswire and articles such as the Top Chef Travels series, in which famous chefs offer destination-specific eating suggestions for a variety of budgets.

Favorite feature: Being able to read the expert reviews from the guidebook alongside user reviews, since you get a great balance of opinions.

Frommer’s

Of the major guides, Frommer’s most specifically aims to provide useful content across traveler types and budgets. With 300 book titles, it tackles a significant number of popular and lesser-known destinations.

Best of all, Frommer’s puts all its guidebook content online. So when you browse the list of accommodations in London, you can be sure you’re seeing everything, not just a partial selection.

Frommer’s makes its online guides extra useful by including current travel deals and message-board discussions related to the destination. Frommers.com also has feature articles and a blog maintained by none other than Arthur Frommer himself.

Favorite feature: Comprehensive guidebook information online, which is a rarity among the major guidebook publishers.

Rough Guides

Geared towards independent travelers looking for cultural understanding and good value, the Rough Guides roster of books covers 200 destinations.

Online, you can find much of the same content you’ll find in the Rough Guide books. The online layout, which requires you to scroll to the bottom of a page to find the bulk of the links you’re looking for, is less than ideal, but once you find it, the information proves useful, if not comprehensive.

Roughguides.com offers an impressive array of travel-related technologies, including podscrolls (guidebook content for your iPod), downloadable phrase books and digital maps, and e-books. It also has podcasts, feature articles, photo galleries, and its own online community with message boards.

Favorite feature: The many ways to download content to devices you can take with you on your travels.

Time Out

What started out as a London weekly events magazine has grown into an urban empire, with 66 city Time Out guidebooks and Time Out magazines for select metropoles as well.

Online, you’ll find guidebook listings for cities as varied as Amsterdam, Mumbai, and Sydney. According to Time Out, the printed guides are generally an extended version of what you’ll find online, though there is the occasional exception. For cities with their own Time Out magazine, you’ll also find regularly updated events listings and feature articles.

Favorite feature: Access to both travel guide content and current activity listings saves a step when you’re planning things to do.

Let’s Go

Known primarily as the guidebook written for and by students, Let’s Go‘s 50 titles are written and updated during the summer vacation by Harvard University students.

Online, you’ll find only a fraction of the information available in the guidebooks, but Letsgo.com does provide some planning basics, community discussion and photo forums, suggested itineraries, and even podtours, or downloadable city tours, for some cities.

You can also find feature articles, general travel tips, and first-time trip advice that can be especially useful for young travelers.

Favorite feature: Podtours for cities like Barcelona offer a great way to familiarize yourself with a place without needing to carry a guidebook along and advertise yourself as a tourist.

In Your Pocket

In Your Pocket may be its name, but you’ll find this guidebook series on your computer as well. This relative newcomer to the guidebook game focuses on Central and Eastern Europe. Its guides offer a young, pop-culture-savvy look at 50 cities.

Online, In Your Pocket allows you to download and print both full guides and “Instant Guides,” an abridged version of the guidebook with neighborhood, transportation, accommodations, eating, drinking, and activity information.

Favorite feature: The Instant Guides, since they offer a dense and tidy alternative to printing out and lugging around unwieldy reams of loose paper.

Avant Guide

Avant Guide touts itself as an “insider’s guide to progressive culture,” and covers 13 destinations, including Chicago, Rome, Shanghai, and, unexpectedly for a series banking on being hip, Disney World and Orlando.

At Avantguide.com, you can find guidebook information for select cities, including Las Vegas, New York City, and San Francisco. On the Avantguide website, the information is broken down into browsable sections like “Eat” and “Sleep.” There’s also a way to get the whole guidebook in the print format, online. Wowio, a site dedicated to downloadable books, offers select guidebooks in their entirety for free.

Favorite feature: The free downloadable version. Even if you don’t print it out, it’s kind of cool to have an entire guidebook at your keyboard fingertips.

Not all guidebooks offer up parts of their content online. Try to read Access, Culture Smart!, DK Eyewitness Travel Guides, Footprint, and Michelin Green Guides, for instance, and you’ll only find some variation of a short summary and a link to purchase online. Moon Travel Guides offers small bits of its guidebook content, and Rick Steves offer travel tips and online extras, but not much true guidebook content.

Online access to guidebook content makes planning easier and way more fun. But, until Wi-Fi is ubiquitous and you can just pull out your iPhone anywhere in the world and browse online guides as you’re coming into a new city, guidebooks still have an on-the-road advantage. They’re portable, they’re bound, and since the listings tend to cater to a particular travel style and offer a point of view, they’re invaluable for avoiding the worst and staying within budget.

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