I was trying to squeeze the necessities for a two-week vacation into an 18-inch carry-on bag and it wasn't working. The problem, however, wasn't my laudably limited travel wardrobe, but about 10 pounds of guidebooks and brochures that I was planning to drag along with me to Scandinavia.
Something had to give, and it wasn't going to be my globe-trotting, all-occasion, royal-blue sneakers.
Despite my good intentions to cross-check budget tips six times a day in every guidebook ever written, I knew from experience that I'd never look at more than one on my trip. So I started taking inventory.
Would I really need a 4-year-old edition of "This Week in Stockholm"? It certainly wouldn't have current prices--the local tourist offices are usually the best source of that information. Out it went.
Likewise a similar 10-page pamphlet on Helsinki that I seemed to have packed because of one fact-filled sentence. I just noted what I wanted to remember in the margin of the guidebook I ended up taking along.
The books that most consistently give me all the information I want in logical, quick bites are Frommer's budget travel guides, the Lonely Planet series and the Let's Go guides--in changing order of preference depending on destination. Since I couldn't find any of those guides focusing on Scandinavia, I decided to try another, "The Real Guide," on this trip.
Whittling down a heavy luggage load not only helps reduce tourist elbow and airport check-in lines, it can also pay off for travelers who are realistic about the amount of information they'll need--or want--to have along on any trip. Sure, good guidebooks are invaluable traveling companions, but at about $14.95 a copy they're an increasingly significant expense. They might even cost you excess baggage charges, as well, when you weigh-in for your flight.
Just be sure you do your guidebook shopping before you get to the airport. You'll pay more there--or abroad--than in your neighborhood bookshop.
Now, how do you make sure that your one guidebook is the wisest purchase?
The most useful guides, and thus the best value, offer succinct critiques of everything visitors might want to know about restaurants, hotels and entertainment, but also about any place where you might squander time as well as money. Is that old fort worth a day or an hour? How about the harbor cruise?
Costs can be generalized as low, medium and high, but these terms must be defined or the book is useless.
A good guidebook--like a good guide--drops in interesting trivia and leavens history with humor. It also provides a glossary of essentials, especially abroad: where to most economically change money or make a phone call home. Addresses for services such as airlines are helpful, too, because these can be maddeningly hard to find in foreign phone books.
I also like to know whether there's an unseemly part of town where I'm apt to have my purse picked.
Maps obviously help give a quick fix on things, and though locally produced road maps usually are best, the American Express pocket city guides and the Access guides are handy if you're going somewhere covered in either series.
Now if I can just make room in my overnight bag for the new material I'll inevitably accumulate during my trip, I'll be all set.