By Travel columnist
updated 6/3/2005 2:39:00 PM ET 2005-06-03T18:39:00

One of the most important purchases you’ll make when you head to Europe this summer is a guidebook.

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A good guidebook can be a blessing. A bad guidebook can create problem after problem. A good guidebook is honest, well-researched and accurate. A bad guidebook is a result of lazy writers and editors who simply reprint previously researched entries without quality and fact-checking.

Some guidebooks on the market today are little more than glossy brochures that are wonderful for planning where to travel and what sights may be worth seeing, but are better left at home since, their travel value is not worth their weight.

There are guidebooks that focus on the cheapest student lodging and dining spots. Some cater to affordable travel experiences. Others concentrate only on the most expensive city-center hotels and restaurants that will drain a wallet dry.

It is a question of trust. Here are guidebook series travelers can trust. These books save time, provide insight and are packed with trip-enhancing details.

The best guidebooks for travelers going through Europe planning an affordable and comfortable vacation are the Michelin Red and Green Guides and Rick Steves’ guides. These guides have been well-researched and provide excellent information travelers can trust.

The only problem with hotels, pensions and B&Bs detailed in the Rick Steves’ series is the zealous legions of Rick Steves fans who seem to fill these places. From Paris to Sorrento and Rome to Madrid, troops of tourists have their breakfast of coffee or tea with toast and jelly intently reading their Rick Steves’ guides. However, breakfast at your hotel can turn into a great time for fellow travelers to compare notes and help each other make the most of time in town.

Suffice it to say, if you want to stay with the locals, you won’t find them in these Rick Steves’ accommodations. Normally, the top hotels listed by Rick Steves are middle-of-the-road favorites providing good and affordable lodging. Read the descriptions carefully — they are normally very accurate.

The overview of sights presented by Rick Steves is as good as I have read in years. His neighborhood walks are always fun and informative. His museum guides, complete with commentary about historic sculpture and storied artworks are wonderful and add another dimension to sometimes stodgy, hard-to-comprehend museums.

At the other end of the scale are the Michelin guides. These famous guidebooks are packed the best and most expensive lodging and dining that Europe has to offer. If any traveler finds dining experiences one of the most important factors in a vacation, the cryptic Red Guides are a must.

These guidebooks are packed with listings. There are plenty of symbols designating facilities but there are no descriptions. There is also all the basic information one needs to make a reservation — phone number, fax number, address, price range, facilities, opening dates and every so often, a special comment.

No property or restaurant can find its way into the Michelin Red Guides without passing the strict Michelin excellence gauntlet. Every establishment noted in these guides is good.

That said, anyone searching for reasonably affordable accommodations should scour the least expensive hotels and restaurants in the Michelin guide and select from those properties and eateries. Travelers will not be let down by the comfort or level of service at even the most humble of any Michelin-recommended restaurants or lodges. Plus, these hotels have a far better chance of being packed with Europeans rather than other American tourists.

For sightseeing, the Michelin Green Guides provide by far the best simplified descriptions of major sites at cities throughout Europe. The guidebooks allow travelers to aim their sightseeing at the most important museums, regions and buildings, and also includes a basic description of each sight. The Green Guides are also packed with maps to help tourists make their way through cities as large as London, Paris or Berlin and as tiny as Les Baux, Lucca and Segovia.

These guidebooks are the most consistent standbys when it comes to traveling in Europe. Pick the best accommodations and restaurants from Rick Steves and the least expensive of Michelin Red Guides and a traveler searching for good values will seldom go wrong or be blindsided.

Before leaving for Europe, purchase Michelin maps at many bookstores in the United States, Canada and throughout Europe. These road and city maps are excellent and a must-have if planning on traveling through Europe by a rental car.

And remember, if you’re planning a ski or snowboard vacation, buy my guidebooks — Ski Snowboard America and Canada or Ski Snowboard Europe.

May you travel well. May you travel affordably.

Charles Leocha is nationally-recognized expert on saving money and the publisher of Tripso. He is also the Boston-based author of "SkiSnowboard America & Canada." E-mail him or visit his Web site. Want to sound off about one of his columns? Try visiting Leocha's forum.


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