While you might not be able to tell a book by its cover, as the saying goes, you can often learn a lot about your fellow travelers simply by the guide books they carry.
Say, for example, you're sitting at an outdoor cafe in Paris, drinking a cafe au lait and munching on one of those scrumptious chocolate-infused croissants, and the couple sitting next to you is leafing through a Frommer;s Guide. Chances are pretty good that they are boomers, staying at a 3- or 4-star hotel, are well-outfitted by L.L. Bean or Banana Republic, soled in Ecco or Mephisto, and carrying credit cards courtesy AmEx.
Stand with the crowds in front of Rome's Colosseum next to a volume of Let's Go, however, and your neighbor will almost certainly be much younger - a member of Gen X perhaps, a jeans and T-shirt kind of a traveler with backpack, tattoos, body piercings, and Nike trainers who is staying in some youth hostel or college dorm.
How's that for generational profiling!
The reason for this ease of "tourist spotting" is that every travel guide on the market today speaks to a different audience, a very specific demographic.
It wasn't always thus. In fact, when our own families first started venturing overseas in the post World War II years, practical help for the traveler was pretty difficult to find.
There were some classic red Baedekers - with maps so detailed that they could be used by invading forces - and a rather weighty and culturally loaded series of Blue Guides. If you were lucky, there might have been a Fodor's or two, the prototype for modern travel guides with the focus firmly fixed on the human side of travel rather than the historical minutiae. (We were surprised to learn that Eugene Fodor actually produced his first guide, On the Continent -The Entertaining Travel Annual, way back in 1936.)
With the return of large numbers of GIs from European service in the 1940s and '50s, a rise in disposable income at home, and a strong dollar overseas, interest in touring Europe suddenly heated up. So did demand for some basic help in getting around.
To fill this void, ex-army hands Temple Fielding and Arthur Frommer jumped into the fray with Fielding's Travel Guide to Europe (1948) and Frommer's Europe on $5 a Day (1957).
It wasn't long, of course, before the sons and daughters of these post-war travel pioneers also wanted to see Europe. And, prompted by cheap charter flights and Eurail passes, they began to do so, in very large numbers. That spurred yet another genre of travel guides aimed squarely at the down-and-dirty budget traveler.
A group of Harvard students began it all in 1960 when they mimeographed a 20-page pamphlet of travel hints and tips for fellow students to be handed out on charter flights. Within a year this project had grown into the full-fledged cost-conscious travel guide Let's Go, that is still the undisputed bible for student travelers.
It was more than a decade before Let's Go was joined at this low-cost end of the travel spectrum by the Lonely Planet and Rough Guides, and then in 1980 by a young Rick Steves and his first book, Europe Through the Back Door.
Today you can find literally dozens of travel guides serving every possible demographic, and it's now up to each of us to decide which series best fits our own personal style or wallet size.
But beware. It's all too easy to be seduced by pretty pictures and a slick presentation when what's really needed are facts, practical advice, trustworthy opinions, and solid, up-to-date recommendations.
Other important things to look for are frequent updating, a good index, and detailed and clear maps.
One more thing: If you happen to spot us in the next few weeks sitting outside a cafe in Amsterdam or Paris, you're going to have a hard time profiling us.
That's because we'll almost certainly have several guide books spread out on the table - a Frommer's for sourcing new hotels, a TimeOut guide for basic city practicalities and off beat restaurants, a Cadogan for self-guided walks, Rick Steves to get us in and out of museums and art galleries as fast as possible, and a Let's Go to take us to the nearest laundromat to wash all those jeans and T-shirts!