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Picture a train station full of friendly strangers, all in transit, all from somewhere else: the penny-pinching backpackers, the well-fed old couple, the lone wolf with the graduate degree in art history
And now realize: This is not a train station. This is the travel guidebook shelf of your local bookstore, if it's any good, and every guidebook series represents another way of seeing the world.
It would be nice to say that the number of perspectives out there is multiplying, but for the most part, it's not. Instead, traffic is mostly steady in the station, with the usual suspects prevailing.
The last year, however, saw many leading guidebook publishers tweak their designs, stretch their series to cover more destinations, add more accessory publications (especially maps) to their product lines and often say more about traveling with children. Many publishers are putting the information on their websites (and updating it too) or hosting online discussions such as Lonely Planet's Thorn Tree, Rough Guides' Travel Journals or Let's Go's Forums, where travelers can trade notes.
Some companies, including Michelin, Frommer's and Fodor's, offer guidebook texts in digital form, so you can carry the information on a PDA. (But the trends in digital travel books aren't easy to read; Lonely Planet doesn't do PDA downloads of its books and has stopped offering online updates to its titles.)
Now, some faces in the crowd from that train station:
Lonely Planet (lonelyplanet.com), Australia-bred and more than 30 years old, is the dominant player in the game. It has grown from an Asia tip sheet to an independent travel institution with about 700 titles in print. Along the way, LP has edged away from a strictly frugal focus and now includes pricier cities and more upper-middle-class lodgings and restaurants. For 2004, the company has looked more closely at the American Southwest (first editions on Austin, Texas, and Santa Fe/Taos, N.M.) and redesigned its guides, including more tips on how to maximize a short vacation. The new Australia guidebook, for instance, offers tips on doing Sydney in two days, four days or a week, along with tailored trips for travelers interested in such subjects as wine or sports.
Moon guides (moon.com), born the same year as Lonely Planet with the same Asian bent, is another well-regarded series, its volumes typically rich with contextual information about destinations. By the reckoning of Susan Hickman, co-owner at Distant Lands bookshop and travel store in Pasadena ( 310-3200, distantlands.com), Moon is the strongest of all publishers when it comes to Mexico.
Rick Steves (ricksteves.com), the Washington state-based seeker of "back door" cultural revelations, remains a dogged documenter of backpackers' possibilities.
Then there are the guides that lead with their visuals. Two of those are the DK Eyewitness (dk.com) and Knopf (www.randomhouse.com/knopf/travel/guides.html) brands, both printed on glossy paper, both heavy to carry but teeming with photos, graphics and maps.
Other guidebooks count on specialized content to stand out. England-based Blue Guides (www.wwnorton.com/subject/travel.htm) has been edging toward the mainstream market with flashier graphics and increased lodging and dining content, but its real strengths are art, history and architecture. The Time Out series (timeout.com), which covers more than 30 cities worldwide, began its life as a London nightlife publication and retains a youthful, after-dark emphasis.
Footprint handbooks (foot printbooks.com), also based in England, has been built around the enduring success of the South American Handbook, dominant in its area for 80 years. But these days, Footprint guides adeptly cover cities from Turin, Italy, to Hong Kong.
The "culturally minded" Cadogan series (cadoganguides.com) — from England, again — covers about 80 cities and countries in Europe, Asia, Africa and South America, but it doesn't bother with North America.
Michelin green guides (www.viamichelin.com) are good for overall information for upscale travelers. They have good maps and judgments on where to spend time, especially in Europe, but not much hotel or restaurant information. For that, you have to buy Michelin's red guides.
Rough Guides (roughguides.com), which have edged from the low end of travelers' budgets to the middle, are strong on cultural and historical background. Frommer's (frommers.com) and Fodor's (fodors.com) are solid middle-of-the-road series, often appealing to older travelers.
Access city guides (accessguides.com), which made a splash more than a decade ago when they premiered with a clear and colorful graphic approach, continue in the same vein.
Let's Go guides (www.letsgo.com), born in 1960 as a student venture and still written by Harvard students, remain a lively source and recently relaunched with a more cultural approach.
Bradt guides (www.bradt-travelguides.com) take aim at some of the tourism industry's least-traveled paths, such as Ethiopia, the Cape Verde islands off Africa's eastern coast and Rwanda. Coming this year: first editions on Albania and Armenia.
Sue Patrick, bookseller at Traveler's Bookcase in Los Angeles ( 655-0575, travel books.com), has noticed a stir of interest in the fledgling StyleCity series from Thames & Hudson (www.thameshudson.co.uk). They're paperbacks, a sort of guidebook-coffee table hybrid. She puts those books in the same emergent category as the design-driven, color-drenched Hip Hotels series written by Herbert Ypma for W.W. Norton (wwnorton.com).
In approaching any of these titles, pay attention to publication dates as a clue to how old the information may be. Some books are updated yearly, some every other year and some every three years; some publishers aren't in a hurry to make that information clear.
Also, remember that guidebook writers are usually paid peanuts, a practice that often leads them to take freebies from hotels and restaurants. Maybe this will influence what they write, maybe not. Many publishers say they don't exchange positive mentions for discounts but do take the discounts.
Christopher Reynolds writes the Travel section's monthly Books to Go column.