In the current issue of Budget Travel, Zora O’Neill gives a good rundown on how to choose a travel guidebook. It’s based on advice from some guidebook writers themselves, which is a nice change from the usual fluffy overview.

One key point in there, which is something I always advocate, is spending some time browsing to figure out which book is the best fit for you. It’s not always going to be from the same publisher. Some Lonely Planet guides are stupendous (India, for instance), but some are surprisingly bad (the last edition of Mexico’s Yucatan guide, for instance). Same goes for the other publishers as well–a lot of it depends on the experience and knowledge of the particular author(s) and the freshness of the material.

Which is the next main point–check the copyright date. One you sort of like that came out last month is probably better than one you’re more used to which came out two years ago. Freshness matters, which is reason enough to even check out Fodor’s if you’re not on a shoestring budget. The Let’s Go ones are updated each year as well, but I use the word “updated” loosely in this case. If you want to take the advice of a college kid who has to cover a whole country in one summer, on a barely-enough-to-eat stipend, go for it. But go elsewhere if you want some depth. (Though they do usually get the bar information right–it’s all about priorities.)

If you’re near a newsstand or you subscribe to Transitions Abroad (as you should), check out the new issue for my “Guidebook Smackdown” article. I put a bunch of guides through their paces for a 3-week trip to Argentina.

Iran tourismWe could all use a little peace, love, and understanding it seems–and that’s worth $20 a head in Iran’s book.

The Associated Press is reporting that Iran is offering travel agencies $20 a pop to bring in more U.S. or European tourists and $10 a person for other nationalities. While I’m all for cross-cultural understanding, the cynic in me says this is really just a straight-up marketing expenditure to turn around the fortunes of a battered tourism industry. After all, it’s not easy attracting western tourists when your leader rants like a delirious nutjob, you’ve got mullahs trying hard to build a nuclear bomb, and the women who visit have to wear a head scarf to go out in public. Then there’s that nagging problem of the billboards and paintings describing the U.S. as “the great satan.” That’s a nice welcome when you get off the plane.

But hey, every place has its pros and cons–the cons in Iran are just a bit more bizarre here than in most places. Believe it or not though, Tehran was once part of the famed “hippie trail” for backpackers. In tomorrow’s new issue of Perceptive Travel, there’s a story on the place from Rory MacLean, author of Magic Bus. Get a sneak peek here: Dark Side of the Moon in Iran.

As an independent traveler, I’m wired to be skeptical of organized group tours. The whole idea of being herded around from place to place doesn’t usually work for me. But I understand why some people love to travel that way. You don’t have to spend days researching and planning, you have some built-in companions, and if something goes wrong it’s somebody else’s job to take care of it. If you’re on a short vacation, all of that can be appealing.

Inca trailPlus when you want to go on some kind of adventure activity, you’re going to be a group regardless: white-water rafting, popular hiking trips, jungle treks, etc. But that doesn’t mean you have to set it all up from home, with a company based in your home country. Because if you do, much of what you spend is just covering marketing and overhead.

I don’t want to pick on this company specifically, but here’s a good example. Book an Inca Trail hike through these guys and you pay $565, ground cost only. Apart from knowing that the maximum group size is 24 (high for this hike), there’s little info on the quality of what’s included.

Now go direct to the source in Cusco and try a well-regarded agency such as Peru Treks or Andean Travel Life. They give you a very detailed rundown on what’s included and note that the maximum group size is 16, usually less. The prices for 2007 are $350 to $365 and you know exactly who is actually leading the adventure on the trail. You don’t even need a calculator to learn that the adventure booked from home is $200 more than one booked at the source.

This is just a short 4-day hike, on a trail with lots of competition and strict regulations. Imagine the difference for a week-long Amazon adventure, or a trip to the Galapagos? If you’re flush and it’s worth it to just write a check and be done with it, let ‘er rip. But if you have more time than money, do some digging around. For more info, see this article: Booking Adventure Travel.

Man, I thought we were getting reamed on hotel wi-fi charges by the big hotel chains in the U.S. until I saw the report “London Hotels Most Costly for Wi-Fi Access.”

The survey, carried out by Internet company Webaroo, found that top hotels in the capital charge an average of £19.70 for 24-hour access. The Hilton and Ritz for example charge £20, it said.

German and French hotels are often expensive too. The survey found an average charge of £16.99 per day in Berlin and Munich, and 14.23 pounds in Paris.

The hotel Ritz Bayerischer Hof in Munich was the most expensive of those surveyed, charging £25.87 per day.

Keep in mind as you look at those figures that it’s almost 2 pounds to the dollar right now and the pound is almost 50% higher than the euro. What’s worse is that some of them charge a surcharge if you use up too much bandwidth downloading files like, say, a presentation you have to give the next day.
Holy crap–what are these people smoking? Only a person with a generous expense account would put up with that. And even if somebody else is picking up the tab, that’s just plain wrong.

I say this as I sit at my local bar on a Friday afternoon, drinking a happy hour beer and enjoying the free wi-fi access. I’ll have a few beers here and get something to eat and I’ll still spend less than these hotels’ “guests” do on just their wi-fi access. One more reason to stay out of Western Europe unless money is no object.

(Thanks to HotelChatter for tipping us off to this one.)

Over at About.com’s budget travel section, there’s a 4-page rundown of alternative lodging ideas to consider. There’s an emphasis on pricey Europe, where some creative thinking can pay off handsomely, especially if you are traveling as a family. There are some good links on home exchanges, villa rentals, convents, college dorms, and more.

As the writer Mark Kahler says at the end, the first step is thinking differently about what’s possible. “Many of these suggestions on these pages might be too unusual for you, and some are downright impractical. The point here is to start your creative juices flowing. If a city’s rooms seem a bit too expensive for your budget, look at every possible alternative. You might be surprised to find a place that is both affordable and memorable.”



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