TRAVELERS have never had it so good - information-wise, that is. Faster than you can say round-trip ticket, guidebook publishers are expanding their selections and using the Internet and fax services to enhance their book products.
Good, old-fashioned demand is responsible for this push to please consumers, who are traveling more than ever. In 1994, Americans took 1.13 billion domestic and international trips - up 7 percent from 1993 and 49 percent from 1984, reports the Travel Industry Association of America.
"Travel used to be confined to a relatively small, relatively affluent, relatively educated group of people who had very similar interests, and you didn't really need more than two or three, maybe four guide series," says Mark Lamphier, a longtime buyer for The Globe Corner travel bookstores in Boston.
Now, Mr. Lamphier says, that's just not the case. "The range of people traveling is much broader. There are many more tours for them to take, air fares are cheaper than they were, and people are more demanding, too. The market for everything else has gotten much more specialized, and travel books are no different."
Not only are guidebooks covering a wider range of destinations and more activities once there - like biking, hiking, and fishing - but several have a new look as well.
In the past two years, two publishers - Alfred A. Knopf and Dorling Kindersly - have launched hefty, full-color encyclopedic guides for a handful of United States and foreign cities.
The Knopf Guides and the Eyewitness Guides each bring pages of historical and sightseeing information together with maps, photographs, and illustrations, and aim to be used before, during, and after a trip or for armchair travel. The consumer pays for this longevity in the above-average prices of each: the Knopf Guides run $23 to $25; the Eyewitness Guides cost between $22.95 and $29.95.
Both series are beautifully illustrated, Knopf's a bit more so, but as far as usefulness on a trip goes, Eyewitness is the better choice. "Eyewitness: Rome" (1993, 432 pp., $24.95), for instance, is well-organized, well-indexed (a must for any travel guide), and includes a list of hotels and restaurants that is tailored for big and small budgets.
The strength of "The Knopf Guide to Rome" (1994, 555 pp., $25) lies less in its "practical information" section, but more in its value as a thorough reference work with extensive information on cultural and art history, and lesser-known tidbits like the flora and fauna of the city.
And both Rome guides suffer from a common guidebook problem: Some of their information is already out of date.
How the guides will affect the competition remains to be seen, but early indicators, like Macmillan Travel's inclusion this year of color in some of the Frommer's guides, suggest that publishers may be getting out their palettes.
Competition for color is not the only factor influencing new guidebooks; so is "outdated attitudes" - one reason a group of University of California students started "The Berkeley Guides" three years ago.
Positioned as a competitor to the globally best-selling "Let's Go" travel guides - published by St. Martin's Press, and researched and edited by Harvard University students - The Berkeley Guides, published by Fodor's, are also for the low-budget traveler.
But a comparison of "Let's Go: The Budget Guide to Italy 1995" (1995, 638 pp., $16.99) and The Berkeley Guides' "Italy: On the Loose 1995" (1994, 532 pp., $16.95) reveals that the Harvard publication is often hard to beat for its diligent annual updating. While both books include a good rundown of practical information, the 1995 Berkeley Guide, for example, did not mention a recently added, convenient express train from the airport outside Rome to the city's main train station. The Let's Go guide did.
The writing was also better in the Let's Go book; Berkeley Guides' use of "funky" as a descriptive (sometimes twice on the same page) grew tiresome.
Facts by fax
Technology and timeliness are also affecting today's travel information. Utilizing the fax machine, two industry veterans - Fodor's and Fielding's - are helping travelers get up-to-date facts.
"Fodor's Worldview Travel Update" (call: 800-799-9609) allows customers to select from a list of 21 cultural and sightseeing categories, updated monthly, for 156 US and foreign cities. The cost, not including fax charges, is $9.95 for the first city and $6.95 for each additional city.
Fodor's descriptions of cultural events are very timely. The restaurant reviews are good, but meal costs aren't included; neither are hotel listings.
"Fielding's Citifax" (800-635-9777), however, provides neatly organized hotel and restaurant listings and good reviews, including costs. The service offers three other categories for entertainment and sights, but information is only updated quarterly. Fielding's has 29 American cities to choose from but only Paris and London overseas. For each destination, at least two categories at $4.95 a piece must be ordered.