Along with shopping for sunglasses, a garment bag, and clothes that don't wrinkle, part of getting ready to travel is to buy a guidebook. And in terms of tips on hotels and restaurants that give you good value for your dollar or the sightseeing attractions more worthy of your time, the $10 or so that a guidebook costs can be the most helpful purchase you make.
But making a decision among the assortment of titles in the travel section of the local bookstore can be more of a challenge than trekking through the Himalayas. The guidebooks on the market today are, like travelers themselves, a diverse lot. Some are written for the college student with a backpack, a youth-hostel card, and an adventuresome spirit; others are geared toward the affluent, more conservative traveler who hopes to find a French restaurant and a Hilton on the South Pole.
What guidebook will best serve your travel needs depends on what kind of vacation you want and what your personal tastes and financial resources are. In some cases, more than one guidebook may be worth purchasing, perhaps one that concentrates on places to stay and eat and another that focuses on history and sightseeing.
As for how to use a guidebook, some good advice comes from Robert Fisher, a former editor-in-chief of the Fodor's guidebook series who is now publisher of his own series, the Fisher Annotated Travel Guides. ''Guidebooks should be used for planning, but not necessarily for consulting at every turn,'' he says. ''People who plan the bare bones of a trip have the most fun. That means making a list of restaurants to try, but not sticking to it for every meal. You should always leave room for serendipity on a trip - that's half the fun.''
The following is a personal evaluation of some of the major guidebook series currently available.
Baedeker Guides to Europe (Prentice-Hall): The grandfather of all guidebook series is the one started by Karl Baedeker back in 1844, when vacation travel itself was a relatively new idea. The Baedeker guides have recently been packaged into attractive red soft-cover editions with plenty of color-photo illustrations and maps, including a fold-out road map of the country attached to the back flyleaf.
The information they give is mainly encyclopedic and historical. At the front you find a lengthy introductory chapter outlining the history, climate, geography, and cultural aspects of the country. Then comes a brief synopsis of each of the major towns and regions of the country, including a list of a few hotels and restaurants which gives just the names and addresses.
The chief problem with the Baedeker guides is that they are dull, even tedious, to read. The objective, impersonal text is loaded with dates and lists, but does nothing to convey the excitement of travel or why a certain medieval village in Germany is any different from your hometown.
Michelin Tourist Guides (Michelin Tyre Company): While the Baedekers tend toward the objective, the Michelin guides use their famous one-to-three-star rating system to evaluate everything from restaurants to the quality of the view from the south tower of Notre Dame (three stars). The slim green guides are for sightseeing; the red ones are for hotels and restaurants. Each is geared for the traveler who demands high standards in both creature comforts and cultural pursuits.
Slim enough to slip into a pocket or handbag, they are well organized, with plenty of maps and useful information, and concisely written. Even if you don't always agree with the star rating system (and at times it seems absurd that even waterfalls come under its dictum), it usually does serve to keep a region's most scenic or historic attractions from being overlooked.
Blue Guides (W. W. Norton): If history, archaeology, architecture, and art are your primary interests in traveling, then you shouldn't leave home without a Blue Guide. The chief characteristic of the Blue Guides is that, as far as the above-mentioned topics are concerned, they are scholarly and thorough. In the ''Blue Guide to Greece,'' perhaps one of the most respected guidebooks ever written, there are carefully detailed sections on most aspects of ancient Greek civilization.
What you won't find in the Blue Guides, all of which cover European countries or regions, is much information on hotels, restaurants, recreation, and shopping.
American Express Pocket Guides (Simon & Schuster): This is a new series of guides to cities and regions in the United States and Europe. As the name suggests, they are small enough to tuck into your pocket. Although small, the guides are packed with useful, well-written information, covering all the major travel concerns, such as hotels and restaurants, sightseeing, shopping, night life, and practical advice. There are also sections on the local food, history, art, and other cultural subjects. An especially handy feature of the guides is that they include suggested walks, outlining routes that allow for neighborhood exploration as well as taking you past the well-known sites.
Fodor's Modern Guides (Fodor's Modern Guides Inc.): This is perhaps the most wide-ranging series, one that covers nearly every area of the world that travelers frequent. It is also wide-ranging in the sense that each guide tries to touch on most questions that travelers are likely to ask. The result is that Fodor's is a very general series, useful if you want a basic overview rather than in-depth information on any one subject.
The main body of each guide focuses on region-by-region geographic description, sightseeing tips, hotels and restaurants (from luxury to budget), shopping, entertainment, recreation, and just about anything else that concerns most travelers. The writing, which is done by a committee of travel writers living in the area concerned, is in the impersonal, homogenized style of most guidebooks, but is concise and readable. For those who want more detailed information on economy travel, Fodor's also has a budget series to some of the destinations covered by the general guides.
Fisher Annotated Travel Guides (Fisher Travel Guides): Traditionally guidebooks have aimed for the objective and anonymous approach, but the new Fisher guides, each one written by a different author, have broken with tradition on both counts. The result is that each guide, while consistent in format and coverage, has a distinct, personal style that provides enjoyable reading along with the facts. Like the Michelin guides, the Fishers use a star rating system (in this case, one to five) for hotels, restaurants, and points of interest. Also, like the Michelin guides, they are clearly geared for the experienced middle-to-upper-income traveler more interested in quality than saving money.
Particularly useful for travelers who don't have much time in a city such as Paris or London, where the sightseeing possibilities are endless, is the inclusion of suggested one-day, two-day, and three-day itineraries. Another feature I like - the editor's annotations found along the margins, comments written in script that provide useful or anecdotal tidbits supplementing the text.
Fielding's Guides (William Morrow): This series is organized in a different way from most. Rather than consisting of editions on different countries or regions, most Fielding's guides are focused on aspects of travel. For example, ''Fielding's Europe'' concentrates almost entirely on hotels and restaurants, while ''Fielding's Guide to Sightseeing in Europe'' concentrates more on cultural matters. The guides in this series that I find especially worthwhile are the ones based on topics that other series don't give much coverage to, such as ''Fielding's Worldwide Guide to Cruises.''
Arthur Frommer's Guides (Simon & Schuster): These are the classic guides to low-cost travel, beloved of budget-minded travelers ever since those long-lost days in the 1950s and '60s of ''Europe on $5 a day.'' Maybe the reason is that Frommer treats budget travel as a fun, even preferable way to go rather than as a necessary evil. As he points out in the introduction to his guide to Europe, it is the low-cost pensions and bed-and-breakfast places that provide some of the best contact with the local people and culture. The magic amount is now $20 or $25, but these guides still provide ample suggestions of cheap but clean places to stay and eat, and useful tips on sightseeing tours and entertainment.
Let's Go (Harvard Student Agencies): Let's Go is a series of guides to Europe and the US geared toward the college-age traveler on a tight budget. This, then, is the guidebook series with the most detailed information on youth hostels, student discounts, bus travel, inexpensive restaurants and clubs catering to a youthful crowd, college-dorm accommodations, and other vacation concerns of the young and young at heart. The text is lively and sprinkled with plenty of handy addresses and telephone numbers, maps, and details on special events and festivals.