With the growing popularity of guidebooks over the past fifteen years, it would be difficult to find a region on earth that is not covered by a travel guide today. A travel guide is an essential tool for traveling on a budget. The guide you choose can make all the difference to your trip. There are a variety of excellent travel guides written by several different companies, including Moon, Lets Go Lonely Planet and Rough Guides. Virtually every traveler backpacking in a foreign country has used a travel guide in one way or another, whether they took their own or borrowed somebody else's for a moment or two.
Most guides follow the same general format. Regardless of the country they are discussing, travel guides begin by giving you the statistics and background information on the particular country. Then they go on to tell you how to pack, what to pack, etc., for that country and then provide city-by-city information on sleeping, eating, sight-seeing and transportation. Where travel guides really differ is how the main information is organized (and how organized it is), what maps they include (and how detailed they are) and what the writers deem to be important enough to tell you. Some guides go into great detail about the historical features and exhibits of a country while others tell you about every dance club available. Different publishers also tend to be stronger in discussing particular areas of the world.
Make sure your travel guide is as current as possible. The world is changing very fast. A guidebook that is only one year old may contain plenty of incorrect and out-dated information -- quite possibly enough to cause you considerable grief and lead to many problems while traveling. Phone numbers, opening/closing hours and other important information changes often enough to make year-old guides barely worth their weight in paper. Rather than borrow or buy an older and probably out-dated guide, spend the money on a current edition and save yourself the headaches.
Consider how many regions your travel guide covers. Some guides include many countries, yet you may only be going to one or two of them. If you will be traveling in only one country, purchase a guide that focuses on that country alone. You will find much more detailed information that is more relevant to you. If you are traveling in several countries, and purchase a multi-country guide, rip out the countries that you won't be going to. This may seem excessive, but every pound (and every square inch) counts when carried on your back.
If you choose the most popular travel guide, expect to meet (and compete with) many other travelers who are carrying the same guide, an important issue in the prime traveling season. Imagine every traveler taking the advice of their guide on what to see and where to stay. The more popular the guide is that you choose, the more people there will be at the hostels and restaurants that the guide recommends, most likely all with the same guide in their hand. Try to make some decisions without using your guide to get away from other travelers. If you are traveling with a companion or two, it may be a good idea to each take a different guide for the variety of maps, information and resources each will list.
No matter which guide you choose to take with you, sit down and read the introduction and essentials at the front of the guide before you leave. There is plenty of useful information found here for you to absorb. You will find hints on what to pack for the country you are going to, information on the history, politics and culture, as well as other useful tips to help prepare for your trip. Assuming that your guide has plenty of maps (and it should), look at the maps and get a feel for the countries you will be visiting. All of this pre-travel reading will help you get a better understanding of your destination.
Don't assume that everything you read in a guidebook is fact. The researchers and writers of these books have biases, personal opinions and ideas that may or may not coincide with your own. Check out The Truth About Guidebooks and find out how some of them are really written. You may never look at your guide book the same way again!