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Travel Guides May Not Live Up to Their Promises

June 12, 1988|KEN FRANCKLING | Franckling is a reporter for United Press International

Colorful travel guides shelved in bookstores and libraries seem to reach out and tap you on the shoulder if you're thirsting for a vacation. Come to Canada, they say. Come to France. Come to the Caribbean. Come to Japan. Come to New York. Come to Denmark.

So you consider the options and the health of your wallet, make your reservations and go. But when you get there, does the destination match what the book promised?

Consider the case of Nancy Wilson and her husband, Bill Vesey, Washington-area professionals who recently decided to take an island vacation. They picked up the 1987 edition of "Fodor's Travel Guide to the Caribbean" and mulled the many options.

'Get Around Cheap'

"We decided on Grenada, partly because of the information that the guide had," Wilson said. "It was expensive to get there, but the guide said taxes were low to non-existent, and you could get around cheap and easily by flagging down buses."

The greatest enticement, she said, was that the hotel they chose was listed as having units right on the beach, tennis courts and an indoor gym. The Fodor's guidebook also cautioned that most places on the tiny isle didn't take credit cards, so that it was best to take traveler's checks.

"The guide was wrong on every item," Wilson said. "We got down there and found that nobody wanted the traveler's checks but would take plastic.

Prices Are Higher

"There was a 20% value-added tax on everything, cab fares were twice the book's estimate, and you couldn't get a bus unless you walked a few miles and waited at a designated stop.

"The hotel had no units on the beach, no gym, not a single tennis court. We made decisions on what turned out to be bad information. It was obvious that the tour guide people hadn't been on the island since before the 1983 U.S. invasion."

When Wilson got home, she said she saw the 1988 edition of the guidebook in a bookstore. She thumbed through and found the same faulty Grenada information as the 1987 book she had used.

The veracity of travel bibles is a touchy subject these days, given the boom in travel popularity and changing tastes. The March issue of Conde Naste's Traveler magazine, for example, took to task the prestigious Michelin guide to Europe's hotels and restaurants, which has a rating system that has been known to make or break establishments.

The magazine found that the Michelin guide is valuable for finding acceptable places to eat or sleep, but has missed the revolution in cooking.

New York-based Fodor's publishes 140 travel guides a year. The Caribbean guidebook is one of its best sellers.

Michael Spring, Fodor's editorial director, said it is virtually impossible for a guidebook to remain up to date. He said buyers should double-check listings, particularly for prices, when making reservations.

"The book goes to press for a year, and the day you print it, it's out of date," Spring said. "Things do change, and the guides are only as good as your travel writers.

"A sophisticated traveler will know when using a guide that it provides general background, but for the absolutely latest information, the wise traveler will call ahead."

Fodor's is putting a caveat in its books, starting with the 1989 editions which will appear in August, that says much the same thing.

Changes Are Promised

Spring had no explanation for the array of shortcomings in the guidebook about Grenada guide, but said changes are being implemented "to make sure that kind of a situation never happens again."

The company, taken over last year by Random House, has begun a three-year project to redesign and update every one of its travel guides.

"Our 1989 books will be the first completely done under the new ownership. Our staff has completely changed, and there is a commitment to accuracy," Spring said.

"We're hiring food critics in every major city in the world, who are not writing secondhand. Writers have to fill out forms on every hotel and restaurant, so there will be no way a place can be included without a personal visit."

Through the Grenada experience, Wilson says she learned a lesson about guidebooks in general.

"Be much more aware that anything could be outdated, and take it with a grain of salt," she said. "If you want to make sure it is accurate, you should call the facility."

She also had a suggestion for the people who put travel guides together: "Tell me the date you last visited a place. Don't make me think your information is fresh when it obviously is six or seven years old. With that caveat, I can attempt to get updated information on my own."

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