I’m going to start this by saying I’m already a dedicated user of some of the best travel guidebooks out there. When researching for trips, I gravitate towards Rough Guides, Fodor’s, and Rick Steves. And I mean that somewhat literally—I once drove two hours to meet-and-greet Rick Steves himself at a pro-marijuana legalization rally in Maine because that’s as close as I could get. No one can say I’m not driven! They can, however, say something along the lines of “You must stay at least 50 yards away from Mr. Steves and any member of his family.” Whatever, time well spent.
I love using guidebooks to plan because they’re a great way to have all the necessary information about a destination in one place. They keep practical advice handy (opening times of attractions, maps, addresses and websites, etc.), inspire you with photos, give you a little bit of your destination’s historical background, and blatantly show off how well-traveled you are to the guy who comes over to install your new satellite dish. Money well spent.
However, even the best travel guidebooks traditionally lack the one thing I want more material on: the destination’s culture and local customs. I’m all about sightseeing, don’t get me wrong, but somewhere in there I want to know more about the culture and customs of the country I’m visiting. Not only is that more interesting than a list of museums, it’s also much more useful to visitors who want to get the whole picture before venturing into a foreign land. (Do I think of every trip I take like an Indiana Jones quest? Absolutely.)
Back in March, the minds behind Culture Smart! guidebooks (who I had never heard of until that point) asked if they could send me a copy of Culture Smart! Chile for my upcoming trip to—you guessed it—Chile to see how I liked it. Before I even received it I was hooked on their philosophy. And that’s how I came to love Culture Smart! guidebooks—the best travel guidebooks in my opinion.
Note: Yes, I was provided with a copy of Culture Smart! Chile for free but all opinions are my own. I wouldn’t have gone through the work of writing this post if I didn’t fully love and believe these were the best travel guidebooks! As you were…
THE BEST TRAVEL GUIDEBOOKS
Culture Smart! Is a line of guidebooks coming to us from Kuperard, an independent, London-based publishing house. They launched in 2003 with just a couple of destinations and now offer the best travel guidebooks for almost 100 destinations worldwide, from Afghanistan to Zambia. Their slogan is “Culture Smart! guides begin where other travel books end.” And that is so, so true.
- local customs and traditions
- history, religion, and politics
- dos, don’ts, and taboos
- spoken and unspoken communication
- eating and drinking customs
- and so many more practical travel tips so you can be fully prepared for your first time in a new country. Or at least as prepared as you can be in a country that serves poop-themed entrees out of a toilet for lunch. I’m looking at you, Taiwan.
BEST TRAVEL GUIDEBOOKS FOR THE AUTHORS
Culture Smart! handpicks all of their authors based on their individual knowledge, experience, passion for and familiarity with a particular country’s culture. They utilize individuals who have lived, studied, and taught extensively in their respective countries, but who are foreigners themselves. This way, they can still observe a destination’s customs and culture with an objective eye… because they probably still haven’t gotten used to the smell of stinky tofu. I’m still looking at you, Taiwan.
Their authors are academics, adventurers, businessmen and women, and frequent travelers of the area in question. Through Culture Smart! guidebooks they provide an account that is both deeply researched and simply relayed. In other words, I trust their interpretations completely.
BEST TRAVEL GUIDEBOOKS FOR THE CHAPTERS
While other popular travel guides focus on attractions, things to see and do, popular places to eat, etc., Culture Smart! offers the best travel guidebooks with chapters like:
- Land and People | Focusing on local climate and geography, a brief history of the country, important facets of local life
- Values and Attitudes | A country’s traditional family life, gender relations, religion, attitudes towards foreigners (ahem, good to know), humor, timekeeping (in other words, how many weird looks I’m going to get when I show up to a place “on time”)
- Customs and Traditions | Important holidays and festivals
- The People at Home | What work and daily life is like for a country’s residents (#siesta), how they’re brought up, traditional education, military service, etc.
- Time Out | Eating and drinking customs, entertainment, outdoor activities, money issues (answering the question “Do I need to tip?” for instance)
- Travel, Health, Safety | Concentrating on transportation options, how people typically get around the country, important driving tips you need to know, health and safety considerations
- Communicating | Language and typical greetings and customs, telephone and internet things to consider
- And so many others | Each Culture Smart! guide has its own chapters based on what you need to know for visiting each country specifically
- And in the case of Culture Smart! Germany | A good section on beer types, proper drinking protocol, beer language to know, and all the different kinds of places you can drink beer in Germany. The best travel guidebooks come with tips for getting tipsy, obviously.
As mentioned, each Culture Smart! guide varies based on the intended destination and what’s most important for that country. Like in the case of Germany, it includes a section on proper Autobahn etiquette which COULD NOT BE MORE IMPORTANT. If you’ve ever been on the Autobahn, you feel me. It just may save your life—I, and the pants I have peed in, cannot stress this enough.
In Culture Smart! Turkey they offer a section on Turkish Hammam tips and a description of popular food items (Get in my belly, simit!), Culture Smart! Mexico includes a section on their incredible bus travel, and the chapter on eating and drinking in Culture Smart! Italy is a must-read before heading over to the big beautiful boot. You don’t want to get publicly shamed for ordering the wrong thing at the wrong time of day–trust me, the girl known in some circles as the blight on the landscape of Italian culinary tradition. And these are just a few examples.
BEST TRAVEL GUIDEBOOKS FOR THE PROOF
But how accurate is the information in Culture Smart! guides? I wondered the same thing before I first traveled with one. Then, all during my week in Chile, I found myself shouting, “OMG! That’s just like I read in my book!” Really, I’m a delight to travel with.
There were concrete reinforcements of behavior I saw everywhere like: “Outside the main centers Chileans drive slowly, tend to respect speed limits, and stop at pedestrian crossings. They also like honking with contempt at anybody who tries to break the rules.” And there were fair warnings that proved true like: “Chile has not developed a strong coffee culture. Coffee is typically made with instant coffee granules.” And it was in my Santiago Airbnb that I learned about this foreign concept known as “instant coffee.”
Culture Smart! guides are the best travel guidebooks to read before a trip, but reading them again afterwards is a great way to help explain some of the intricacies you noticed on your latest trip. Like how the section in Culture Smart! Germany on “Jaywalking” helped explain why I’m always the ONLY person crossing the street when the light is red, even if there isn’t a vehicle in sight. And that’s just one of the many examples (….of Ashley making things awkward for everyone).
A LITTLE EXPERIMENT
In an increased effort to see proof of Culture Smart!’s accuracy, I also read Culture Smart! USA. ‘Tis time for the true test! And you know what? I learned so much! Initially I set out to simply compare how the writers generalized life in the United States for foreign readers to our own beliefs as Americans. Not only were the writers like 98% spot-on (I mean, does anybody really ask for lite maple syrup with their pancakes? I didn’t think so.), I also learned a good amount about myself and our own culture that I didn’t even realize was “American.”
For instance, the section on Rising to the Occasion referencing how Americans “ceremonialize” everything. The book talks about how we go all-in for even the most mundane of holidays like Valentine’s Day and Halloween, but also everyday “events” like kindergarten graduation ceremonies, youth participation trophies, and how even the coin toss at the Superbowl gets its own grand “show.” I. Am. Dying. 😂
One of my favorite aspects of traveling internationally is hearing how people in other countries view the United States and us Americans. I always get asked questions like “Why is the American flag everywhere?” and “Why don’t you have a fence around your house?” And this book answers those questions. Also, everything you need to know about fast food.
BEST TRAVEL GUIDEBOOKS FOR THE SPECS
As far as Culture Smart! guides go, I feel they’re some of the best travel guidebooks because of how easily you can actually travel with them. They’re what Mars, Incorporated would call Fun Size – perfectly portable and proportional for packing. But also, stupendous for stocking stuffing! If you’re looking for the perfect unique, thoughtful, and meaningful stocking stuffers, pick up a Culture Smart! guide or two.
At just over 150 pages, Culture Smart! guidebooks are clear and concise without a lot of the bulk that often requires me to leave my more complex guidebooks at home. I’m looking at you, 875-page Rough Guide to Mexico.
CULTURE SMART! GUIDES | MY INITIAL CONCERNS
I’m not going to say I wasn’t a little skeptical when it came to Culture Smart! guides. Before I opened one for the first time, I was afraid it would be too generalizing. Like, how can you describe the behavior and attitudes of all of a country’s people in just a few pages? There’s just no way.
Well, the same way you get a general view of a culture’s behavior and attitude after visiting for just a short time.
When traveling, chances are pretty high you’re not interacting with every single person on every single day of the year in every circumstance. Instead, you’re getting an overview of a destination. And Culture Smart! translates that perfectly. Everything I’ve read in the Culture Smart! guides perfectly matches up with my real-life experiences. So, I’m convinced it’s possible.
Page 9 of Culture Smart! USA, when referencing the challenges of generalizing a country as huge and diverse as the United States, says, “Generalization is unavoidable. The rule of thumb is: be informed about cultural norms, but be flexible in applying this knowledge.”
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