Travel guides have come a long way from Baedeker. Packed with GPS information, interactive features and online updates, the new breed of guidebook is more essential than ever, whether for a quick getaway or the trip of a lifetime.

Picture perfect
Helping travelers get the most out of every dollar—and turning every traveler into a “temporary local”—is Rick Steves, whose empire now includes maps, DVDs and travel bags as well as guidebooks, a feature-packed website and television, radio and podcast programs. His nerdy cheerfulness makes for a nice traveling companion in his new Snapshot guides, excerpted from his full-sized guides to locations all over Europe, from Rick Steves’ Snapshot Stockholm to Rick Steves’ Snapshot Scotland. Full of the expertise, intelligence and flavor of his programs, these handy compact guides provide “a tour guide in your pocket,” with advice on “Planning Your Time” and “Orientation” followed by tips on getting around, finding affordable restaurants and comfortable budget hotels, brief background and history on landmarks and sights, essential phrases and other “practicalities” for approaching the city or region. Steves’ advice is always useful and can be refreshingly quirky, too, from dealing with the “Steely Marisa” at Trattoria Gianni in Vernazza, Italy, with its “super scenic” rooms but strict check-in time, to touring the Erotic Art Museum in Berlin, apparently worth a stop for its historically significant exhibit on a pioneer of sex education in the 1950s. Small black-and-white photos and charming hand-drawn maps round out solid information for budget travelers that ensures an easy, less expensive yet meaningful travel experience.

Ready to go
Not lighter in weight, but certainly lighter in spirit, the new Lonely Planet Discover guides are a carnival of colors in an eye-catching design, making it easier than ever to just hop a plane and go. Each Discover guide—about half the length of Lonely Planet’s groundbreaking country guides—begins with a “Top 25 Experiences” section and a variety of expert itineraries. The Thailand guide features a “jet-setter” jaunt, while Discover Japan has a five-day “just the highlights” trip from Tokyo to Kyoto, perfect for first-time visitors. Color-coded sections on each country’s major regions feature full-color maps, insider tips and a “Things to Know Before You Go” section that includes trip planning inspiration from websites, books, music and movies (a nice touch). “The Best . . .” sections feature the unbeatable experiences you should have before you leave, and “If You Like . . .” sidebars offer excellent alternatives to the tourist traps, like four less-visited but beautiful temples beyond Nanzen-ji in Kyoto. Travelers who need in-depth cultural information and lots of listings will want to stick to the classic Lonely Planet guides, but those looking for a speedy, fun and memorable immersion into another country—whether Australia, Ireland or Italy—will find these guidebooks are just the ticket.

First things first
Living up to their subtitle, “Everything you need to know before you go,” the recently relaunched Rough Guide First-Time series is an essential planning tool for first-time travelers anywhere in the world. The scrappy tone and youthful zest of Rough Guides are aimed toward the young backpacker, but the thoroughly researched tips and advice will prove indispensible for adventurers of any age. Each guide includes an introduction to the basics, from budgeting, inoculations and packing to what to do when you land, plus enough political and cultural context to help ease culture shock. For example, the Rough Guide First-Time Asia weighs in on “special tourist pricing” and suggests steering clear of big cities during elections as well as Muslim countries during Ramadan, as visitors “might not get the hospitality they were hoping for” when people are fasting all day for a month. While they are not sightseeing guides per se, the guides do contain a “Things Not to Miss” color photo section with sights, attractions and suggested itineraries and route maps, but the best feature remains the been-there tips (if you have big feet, bring extra shoes to Asia as you won’t be able to buy them in stores) and hard-won advice contributed by readers. The guides also offer assorted tips on topics likes adventuring with children, gay and lesbian travel, finding a job with a work visa, couch-surfing, avoiding Dengue Fever, treating Delhi Belly and the pitfalls of romance while traveling in pairs. “You better pray you meet twins going in the same direction,” the authors write, “because your friend isn’t going to want to hang around while you fall in love.”

New perspectives
Moon Travel Guides was founded in Berkeley, California, in the early 1970s as a collective of world travelers and writers, and this scruffy independent spirit is still evident in their Spotlight guides. Each lightweight and inexpensive book features a city or region pulled from their more extensive Handbooks or Outdoors guides, without the introductory information or index. The paper feels recycled, and the black-and-white layout and pictures are a bit drab, but they offer just the right combination of practical advice and intellectual viewpoint, with each book reflecting the distinctive voice of its individual writers. Guides such as Moon Spotlight Havana cover the basics from history, climate and sights to transportation, accommodations, eating, entertainment, recreation and safety. From Ljubljana to Angkor Wat, travelers looking for an uncommon experience full of political and cultural awareness will find a friend in these guides.

On the road
Those confident enough to get behind the wheel, rather than toting a backpack, will love Back Roads, the car travel guides in DK’s lavishly illustrated Eyewitness Travel series. Travelers who long to escape the crowds for some little village or hamlet or cove will adore these mapped itineraries for three-to-four-day road trips through Spain, France, Italy, Great Britain and Ireland. The expertly designed journeys blend just the right amount of adventure, company and cultural submersion. Venture into the medieval villages, waterfalls and ancient mountain range of the nearly undiscovered area of MatarraƱa with Back Roads Spain; take a drive along the rugged and dramatic coast of Brittany; enjoy a meandering journey through the hills and valleys of Chianti, Italy; take a trip into the remote abbeys, hilltop castles and charming villages of the British Cotswolds; or amble at your leisure through Ireland’s Glens of Antrim. Each guide features multiple itineraries for each country and includes historical and cultural highlights of the area, suggested detours including wine and walking tours, antiquing and shopping, and highly edited suggestions for hotels, B&Bs, cafes and country inns in all price ranges. The pull-out maps, detailed directions and websites, phone numbers and postal codes that can be plugged into a GPS or smart phone are worth the cost of the guide alone. This series is a must for any traveler looking for a different approach to these familiar vacation destinations.

In living color
Travelers looking for reliable information and expert advice in a traditional format will appreciate Frommer’s guides to countries and cities around the world. Updated every year, the guides feature fast facts and in-depth historical and cultural information about each city, region or country, along with the A-Z of planning a trip—and now the guides have gone full-color! Suggested itineraries, transportation advice and tips on health and safety, gay and lesbian travel and travel with children are included, as well as detailed listings for cultural attractions, nightlife, shopping, accommodations and restaurants in all price ranges, complete with directions, hours, nearby public transportation and insider reviews. The city guides, like Frommer’s Paris, include nifty sightseeing categories like “The Best Splurge Hotels,” “Most Unforgettable Dining Experiences” and “Paris After Dark.” Mini-sightseeing itineraries of one, two or three days in each city are perfect for those on a layover or strapped for time. Color photos, foldout maps, a brief phrase guide, index and resources including websites make these guides well worth their weight in checked luggage.

Deanna Larson writes from Nashville.

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