Which guidebook



David Whitley looks at the bricks of information we pack in our bags, and tries to work out which are the best bets for a big trip




Despite so much information being online these days, a good guide book is invaluable whilst on the road. You don’t have to use it as a bible – a mistake that many people make – but it does tend to be multi-purpose. For a start, it is (or at least should be) a great introduction to the history and culture of the place you’re travelling in. It’s also good for ideas of what you want to do, plus accommodation and eating options. Then there’s navigation – it’s incredibly useful to have a map already in hand when you arrive at a destination rather than wandering around lost.



But which guidebooks should you take? If you’re away for a long time, you’ll probably have to ration them a bit otherwise the weight of carrying five or six in the bag is going to be a killer. It’s always possible to buy and ditch as you go, but some people (ie. me) like to keep the books as mementos and are loathe to discard them.



Therefore you’ll need to get the balance between detail and breadth right. As a general rule, I find multi-country guides (ie. South East Asia or South America) spread themselves too thinly to be great on any particular country, city or area. If you’re only going to Thailand, buy the book for Thailand. But it might not be practical to carry individual books on Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia, Malaysia and Singapore.




The who and the when


Quality of book – even within the same brand – can vary dramatically from author to author as well. Some do an excellent job, some cut corners. It’s worth doing a web search for the author’s name and the area to find other things they’ve written about it.



Another important thing is how up-to-date the book is. Information dates very quickly, and the research is often done a year before publication. All else being equal, a 2011 guide book from a brand you’re usually not as keen on is likely to be more helpful than a 2009 book from your usual favourite.




Brand by brand review


Of the main guide book brands, each has its own qualities and quirks. An awful lot depends on what you want from the book – is it usability, quality and depth or research or background and cultural immersion? But, in brief, this is what I think of the main brands.




Lonely Planet


Often very formulaic, and a perhaps unfair reputation for out-of-date information (this is only because people carrying around 2008 books expect everything to be the same three years later). The formula is the weakness and strength simultaneously – LPs are arguably the best guides for quick reference. The structure is strong, the maps amongst the best if not perfect, and it’s generally easy to find the information you need.




Lonely Planet Encounter


These small guides are generally aimed at people going for a quick city break. The maps are really good, if not always covering as many areas as you’d like, but the books are poor on accommodation and detail for the major attractions. They’re brill as a pocket overview and good on bars and restaurants, but not aimed at people on big trips.



For travellers to Asia, small company Travelfish has superb app quality and coverage. You can also try out their lite versions for free




Rough Guides


The main competition for Lonely Planet in terms of scope and audience, Rough Guides are stronger on history and culture, but can be more of a read than a reference material. Apparently a big design change is imminent – which may aid the usability in future.






Reputedly the best for South America – although I’ll admit I’ve never used one so I can’t really comment any further.






They only cover limited destinations, but the Moon guides do a good job on those they do cover. They’re good at finding oddities that other books gloss over and putting the neck on the line by picking out the best spots rather than just listing loads with equal weight. Maps are excellent, but poorly bound so the pages come loose. Which, needless to say, is very annoying.






The Frommer’s guides are brilliant for suggesting itineraries, walking routes and the like. The key strength is prioritisation – a star system suggests which things to do, places to eat and places to stay are better than others rather than chickening out and making you read between the lines. The detail in the shopping section is particularly immense if you’re into that sort of thing.




Time Out


For cities, Time Out’s guides stand head and shoulders over the rest. The authors genuinely know their stuff, picking out local haunts, trends and cultural options that other guides don’t seem to be able to get near. The maps are good, but the only quibble would be a tendency to concentrate on higher end options and neglect the budget traveller.






Generally very good all-rounders, the Insight Smart guides (mostly for cities) do well in breaking things up by theme and interest rather than geographical areas. The full country guides are superb on history and background, but can fall into the same big chunks of text trap that befalls the Rough Guides.




DK Eyewitness


They’re often translated from the original language and thus concentrate on weird things that perhaps  aren’t of interest to the English speaking-market. Infuriating over-concentration on pointless photos and difficult to find your way around. They seem like they’re aimed at simpletons.




Thomas Cook


I could write reams here, but it’s easier to just say: “Shop elsewhere.”






The Bradt guides go where others fear to tread – often covering parts of the planet that other guide book series don’t go near. There’s a big emphasis on history and culture, and they make for excellent pre-trip reading. Usability is poor, however – the maps are shocking and the presentation makes for a big wordy trudge. The content often leans wildly towards the author’s individual interests – and they’re often written by people with a passion and connection for the place rather than neutral outsiders who are perhaps stronger writers and researchers.





The Odyssey Guides aren’t that well known, and cover some rather odd spots across the planet. Like the Bradt guides, they’re especially dependent on the skill, dedication and abilities of the author. They vary from other guide book series in that they’re designed to be read before the trip, rather than used as a continual reference during the trip.

To blog or not to blog


David Whitley wonders whether the modern day travel diary is worth keeping

When friends (or people that I once met and mystifyingly haven’t blocked on Facebook yet), go off travelling, there is one thing I see time and time again. “We’re off!” they will cry with unnervingly overzealous enthusiasm and an unnecessary exclamation mark. “And you can keep up with our adventures on our new blog.”

What then happens is that you get about three weeks of dedication to keeping said blog maintained, often with exceptionally tedious recollections of events that are interesting only to the writer and his or her mother. Then there’s silence. And four months later comes the follow up. “Oh no, has it really been four months? Sorry! I guess we’ve been having too much fun!!!” It’ll then descend into a cursory re-cap, spilling exclamation marks around as if there’s a barrel-full of them that has to be used before the world can have another ration. And then there will be a couple of months of silence again.

I understand why people decide they’re going to blog about their travels, and everyone has a slightly different reason. Some are under the deluded impression that they can make money from their blog and that said money will fund their travels. If this is you, give it up now – nobody makes a good income from a travel blog. If they did, everyone would be doing it and the world would come crashing down because everyone’s travelling and writing about it rather than doing real work.

Others blog to keep people at home in touch with what they’re doing. A noble aim, but flawed, as no-one will read the blog beyond the first three posts unless it’s really good. The folks would much prefer a phone call or personal e-mail. The third reason is that people use blogs in a way that their ancestors used diaries in the old days. Blogging regularly about your travels is a way of recording the moments and thoughts for the future. The blog is something you can look back on to bring the memories back. It’s subtly different to a diary – it’s for the world to see rather than just yourself, so you may hold certain information back – but the basic premise is similar.



To me, this third reason is the most valid one for keeping a blog on the road. But you have to be the right sort of person to do it. It’s something that takes a fair bit of dedication, regularly pulling yourself aside from what’s going on to sit in an internet café or hammer away at the laptop. It’s something that suits people with a more reflective nature, or who enjoy the craft of writing it. That’s not everyone, and there’s one key question you should ask yourself before setting up a blog to chart your travels. That is: “Am I doing this because I want to or because I feel I ought to?”

If the latter, forget about it – go out there and enjoy yourself. The memories will still be there in years to come, and you’d probably never look back at what you’ve written anyway.

*Photo courtesy of Mark Eveleigh

By David Whitley

Planning vs spontaneity



David Whitley tries to work out when to plot ahead and when to go with the flow whilst travelling 

Being on towards the OCD end of the anal scale, I tend to like to know what I’m doing before it happens. I’ll usually have all my flights and hotels booked before I leave, and most tours and activities too. I write up itineraries that are generally readable only to me, so full they are with booking reference numbers and airport codes. This is partly because I’m travelling for work, of course, but it also tends to happen when I’m travelling for pleasure as well. I do like a good plan. Give me a couple of days that have nothing pencilled in, and I’ll try and fill them with something.

This, to some (OK, many) people, makes me an absolute nightmare to travel with. Strange concepts such as ‘relaxing’ or ‘milling about’ or ‘making it up as we go along’ scare me. In my experience, making it up as you go along tends to lead to doing absolutely nothing and then regretting it later. This sort of travel also seems ideally suited to people whose idea of a good holiday is sleeping in until one or two in the afternoon as if they’re half man, half lion.

However, I do have to concede that many of the best memories and experiences come from going with the flow and tackling what the world throws in your way. There’s a hell of a lot to be said for “why not?” – it’s an excellent principle to live by. If you can’t think of one compelling argument not to do something, then go do it and see what happens.

I also concede that some of the most enjoyable days I’ve had are ones where I’ve essentially put the guide book down and just wandered aimlessly, poking my nose into whatever I encounter.



But advocates of such laissez-faire approaches tend to forget one thing – for every time you strike gold this way, you’ll probably strike mediocrity another five. It works rather like the idea of going out to a bar on your own, talking to strangers and getting some rent-a-friends for a thoroughly excellent night out. Occasionally it works, and when it does, it’s brilliant. More often than not, however, you’ll just look like a loser.

But it is in the evenings that I feel the spontaneous approach does work best. This is when you’re not as hampered by museum opening hours and tour departure times. Going to see or do something specific during the day requires at least a bit of research and working out of logistics. In the evening, it’s a lot easier to roll with it. There will only be one Museum of Magic Beans; there are scores of bars and restaurants. It’s actually rather enjoyable to not aim for any in particular, but wander around until you find one you like the look of or one where something interesting is happening.

It’s very much horses for courses, but I’d suggest that the big switch over from careful planning to spontaneous exploration should come with the first beer of the day. Because, as we all know, beer doesn’t half endow people with excellent, previously unconsidered ideas...






Kids on a RTW



I'm not entirely sure what I was expecting when I wandered into the headmaster's office at my son's London primary and told him I planned to take my spawn travelling for a year.

But it certainly wasn't a big smile and the off-the-cuff observation, “That sounds like a great idea! He'll learn much more doing that than he would do staying here!”

One of the things that can leave families planning a RTW trip tied up in knots – yes, even more than the question of what to do with the house – is what to do about school.

The legalities are, in fact, remarkably uncomplicated. In the UK, it is legal to homeschool your children, and there is no compulsion to follow the National Curriculum.

All Local Education Authorities have homeschooling coordinators and most large primary schools will have a homeschooling coordinator on the staff.

The key thing that is required (not by law but by common practice) is that parents show their children will be getting a good, well-rounded education as they travel.

Which is, most of us find, easy enough to provide, at least for children who are not in the throes of exams.


A visit to a turtle sanctuary is a hands-on lesson in biology and ecology; rock-climbing and learning to surf make excellent PE; scrambling inside a pyramid is, of course, a history lesson; while activities from currency exchange to haggling to calculating a bill, including taxes, can make good practical maths.

One great panacea for nervous parents, or those with nervous grandparents to convince? Make a list of the school subjects your children learn at school and break down what they will learn on each subject as you travel. The answers will reassure.

The prospect of teaching is one thing that scares many parents silly, despite the fact that most of us have successfully helped our children learn to walk, talk, brush their teeth and use the toilet inter alia.

Most travelling families land up in one of four teaching – or learning -- styles, which I'll call School, Home School, World School and Unschool.


In a schooly approach, parents follow the children's curriculum schedule for the year and endeavour to replicate the school content and experience as they travel. At the opposite extreme, unschooling families allow the children to lead their own learning, following their own interests exclusively and writing and reading as much or as little as they'd like.

Most parents, in my experience, end up somewhere between these two extremes, whether that's building their own curriculum and following that at levels tailored to their different children, an approach I'll call Home School, or letting their children learn from what they discover as they travel but adding in consolidation activities or occasional compulsory elements, such as maths, an approach I'll call World School.

Best of all? With specialists in subjects from music to maths now teaching over Skype, and kids classes, from silver-smithing to yoga, available the world over, it doesn't even have to be parents who do the teaching all the time.

Which is all to the good. Since a RTW is supposed to be a holiday, after all.



Train trips around the world


‘THE GHAN’ – Named after the Afghan cameleers who blazed the trail across one of the most dauntingly inhospitable deserts in the world, The Ghan is the stuff of genuine Outback legend. The journey from Adelaide to Darwin provided time for me to come to terms with the incredible immensity of this island continent as the landscape changed from the dust-hazed ochres of the Red Centre to the rioting lushness of the Northern Territory’s ‘Top End’.

 ‘EASTERN & ORIENTAL’ – The exotic sister of the Orient Express connects Singapore and Bangkok along 1,262 miles of what have been called velvet rails. We left Singapore to cross the Malay highlands at night and woke to some of the most dramatic paddyfield landscapes in South East Asia. Side trips take in Penang – Pearl of the Orient – and the prisoner of war cemetery at Bridge on the River Kwai. A unique experience among luxury trains is the wonderful open-air observation carriage…thoughtfully tagged onto the cocktail lounge at the end of the 700m long train.

‘SUMATRA EXPRESS’ – Few people realize that Sumatra had its own ‘Death Railway’. More than 10,000 prisoners of war and Sumatran slave labourers died building the Japanese railway through one of the world’s most impenetrable jungles. I began my 15-day journey through Sumatra in a train that spluttered and coughed noisily as it climbed up away from the mangroves of the coast. The steaming forest stretched onward for several hours, broken only by a few small towns where people waved as we rattled through. After a ten-hour journey that first day we were only an hour late on arrival. Jam Karet (which translates literally as ‘rubber time’) is an Indonesian concept that’s worth keeping in mind if you intend to travel by train through Sumatra.

‘MARRAKECH EXPRESS’ – Made famous by an old 70s hippy ditty The Marrakech Express is still the best way to arrive in Morocco’s gilded city. You board the overnight train at the grungy portside station in Tangier and by dawn are already rolling through a desert landscape of palms, camels and marabout shrines. The track climbs imperceptibly towards the foothills of the great Atlas Mountains to ease to a halt finally in Marrakech’s French-built Ville Nouvelle. Take a horse and carriage from here to arrive in real old-time style in the Djemaa el Fna marketplace.

‘LUNATIC EXPRESS’ – Far fallen from grace as the luxury train that it once was this is still an evocative way to make the journey between Nairobi and Mombasa. The dilapidated old train is the remnant of a highly eccentric colonial ambition to create a rail network – connecting the Swahili Coast with Kampala - that would be the pride of the British Empire. The train passes through Tsavo National Park during the night. It was here that the famous man-eating Lions of Tsavo further highlighted the folly that was to go down in history as the Lunatic Express.

‘TRAIN TO THE CLOUDS’ – The appropriately named ‘Tren a las Nubes’ covers a 300mile roundtrip across Salta province, northern Argentina, in an incredible sequence of 50 bridges and tunnels that climb to a height of 4,220metres. Although it was built to serve the mines it is now a tourist train and is periodically out of service. Such was the case when I arrived in Salta province…luckily I was on assignment with a Land Rover expedition and we were able to drive much of the route (and higher still to become, for a short while, the highest – and sickest - motorists in the Americas).

‘INDIAN PACIFIC’ – Western Australia’s Indian Pacific is less famous than her intrepid Outback sister The Ghan but there are highlights to a Trans-Australian rail trip between Perth and Sydney that are not to be found elsewhere in the world. A sign at the entrance to Cook – ‘Queen City of the Nullarbor’ – boasts that the hamlet has a population of ‘4 people, 40 dingoes and 4 million flies’. Kalgoorlie with its red light district and ‘skimpy’ bars (where the barmaids are scantily clad in French negligée) still brings to mind wild Klondike gold-camps. After pretty Port Augusta the Indian Pacific graces a series of Outback towns (Broken Hill et al) with its presence before it finally descends out of the beautiful Blue Mountains to the suddenly overwhelmingly crowded eastern seaboard.

‘MAHARAJAS’ EXPRESS’ – Temporarily off the rails, the Maharajas’ Express has been described as the most luxurious train in the world. It is a rolling palace that takes 8 days to travel between Mumbai and Delhi, encompassing most of the princely wealth of Rajasthan. To atone for this most sumptuous of rail journeys I made the return journey back through Rajasthan by economy second-class sleeper service. 20 million people travel on Indian Railways each day and it’s been said that the pulse of the country hammers to the beat of steel wheels on these forty thousand miles of track.

‘REUNIFICATION EXPRESS’ – Vietnam stretches more than a thousand miles in an elongated S-shape up the shore of the South China Sea. Any trip here is likely to include long hours travelling. The country has some of the best long distance sleeper-buses in the world but there’s no substitute for an opportunity to sample the little roving community that spends its life perpetually travelling between Saigon and Hanoi. Long distance trains the world over are famously hospitable places but in friendly Vietnam the spirit of unification is naturally taken to new extremes.

‘TRANS-SIBERIAN RAILWAY’ – It´ll take eight days for you to complete the 9289km journey from Moscow to Vladivostok on the Trans-Siberian Railway – and what´s likely to get to you isn´t cabin fever, it´s the time warp. The train crosses seven time zones, which means that you´ll find yourself in a confusion of having dinner for morning tea and going to bed somewhere around lunch time. I did a variation on this epic journey: the Trans-Mongolian, which meant that somewhere in Siberia my train turned “down” and headed through Mongolia to Ulan Bataar. A highlight of the journey: my train was packed with traders, and whenever the train stopped in Siberia, the whole town would be gathered on the platform and a frantic market would take place over the 10 minutes the train was at the station. [by Narina Exelby]