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May 1, 2007

Reviewing the Germany guidebooks

There are nearly a dozen guidebooks to Germany, and over the three-plus years I’ve lived here, I’ve traveled with almost all of them. Only a few are worth your travel dollars. Here are my top five. (Vagabonders will do best with the first three.)

Rick Steves’ Germany & Austria 2006

The Rundown: Minus the Austria section, Rick Steves’s guide to Germany is half the size of any of the other leading Germany guidebooks – and that’s a good thing. Steves sticks to what he considers Germany’s top destinations and covers them better than anyone else. If you’ll be traveling for the first time in Germany or for less than a month, he’s your man.

Maps: The fun hand-drawn maps in Steves’ guidebooks also set them apart from competitors. But beware: they’re easier to read and help you focus your time, but they’re not comprehensive, or in perfect scale. Though they’re sufficient for navigating his routes, if you’re hunting for something off the Rick Steves grid, you’ll need better maps.

Highlights: By focusing on Germany’s best sights, Steves helps independent travelers make the most out of shorter trips. Having lived here for awhile now, I’ve seen just about everything he covers and a lot more – and I can’t argue with his picks. Steves also gets top points for updating his books every year.

Complaints: More than with any of the other guidebooks, it’s easy to become dependent on Rick Steves’s. He’s almost too good. Restaurants, hotels, sight-seeing tips – he’s rarely off. Kinda takes the adventure out of things, though. So, if you travel with this one, make a point to get off the Rick Steves trail every now and then, even if it hurts. I’m sure he’d agree.

Lonely Planet Germany

The Rundown: “Best for curious and independent-minded travelers”, says the Wall Street Journal, Lonely Planet’s country guide to Germany competes with “The Rough Guide to Germany” for best book for Germany-bound vagabonders. It’s a tight race. Their coverage is nearly identical, and they split evenly their other selling points. I check both before heading out to see which seems to have the best info for my destination; and it goes back and forth about 50/50. Which one you should go with depends on which of the following highlights you value most.

Highlights: “Lonely Planet Germany” is the most comprehensive guide to the country, and the one best written for travelers on a budget. Or maybe that’s the Rough Guide. Anyway, LP’s maps are better than the Rough Guide’s, as is the organization of its lodging and restaurant sections.

Complaints: “Lonely Planet Germany” isn’t updated every year. Not too much changes between editions. But if you’d ever hiked half-way up a mountain to a pension that was closed just the year before, you’d complain about that, too.

The Rough Guide to Germany

The Rundown: Lonely Planet’s strongest competitor in the independent travelers’ guidebook market, “The Rough Guide to Germany” is thorough and smart – and probably earns a few readers for not being (the ubiquitous) Lonely Planet.

The Highlights: The Rough Guide is better organized and more aesthetic than “Lonely Planet Germany”, making it (generally) easier to use. Also, the tone of the writing is a more subdued, giving the Rough Guide’s sidebars on culture and history a marginally more authoritative feel.

Complaints: Like Lonely Planet, the Rough Guide isn’t updated every year. (Actually, the latest edition in this series came out in 2004.) And while the Rough Guide lists more restaurant recommendations than LP Germany, not all of their picks turn up on the maps – and those maps are often pages away from the listing themselves, demanding unnecessary flipping.

Fodor’s Germany

The Rundown: Trimmer than either of the independent travelers’ guides, Fodor’s caters to folks with a little more money to spend; hence the heftier sections on shopping.

The Highlights: Fodor’s sticks to authors who live in the places they cover; a unique and serious advantage over the other books. Their coverage of Heidelberg, where I live, is spot on – and leagues above anyone else’s. If that’s true of other places, it’s worth browsing for restaurant and lodging tips, even if only for comparison with your base guide. “Fodor’s Germany” is updated annually.

Complaints: “Fodor’s Germany” is less comprehensive and more superficial than Lonely Planet and the Rough Guide, so it shouldn’t be your go-to book. Don’t count on it for maps, either – they’re spare, and a little too busy.

Frommer’s Germany

The Rundown: Another contender for the well-heeled traveler’s ear, Frommer’s gives the best culture coverage of the upmarket Germany guides.

The Highlights: Since Frommer’s tends towards higher-end travel coverage, it includes better listings for luxury experiences than the independent guides. If you’re hoping to squeeze in an exceptional meal, or a stay in some obscure but expensive castle, give Frommer’s a quick look.

Complaints: Bad maps, blah layout and mildly irritating red type-face highlights, to start. Plus the tone is cheesy. “Frommer’s Germany” loses points, too, for being the only book on this list to include advertising.

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