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Got it! Thank you! Podcast: Arthur Frommer on a Half-Century of Travel

The founder of Frommer's Guides talks travel with author and daughter Pauline Frommer.
Author, editor and guidebook pioneer Arthur Frommer sits down for a Q&A with fellow travel writer Pauline Frommer. From Arthur's early days as a G.I. in Europe trying to make the most of his wages, to his sly techniques for getting inside a hotel room, the two Frommers reveal how much about travel has changed in the 50 years since "Europe on 5 Dollars a Day" was first published. Along with other stories from his traveling history, Arthur offers insight into what makes a successful trip, as well as what it takes to be a successful travel writer.

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Top Tips from This Podcast

See transcript below for links to more information.

  • Spending Less: Get a different experience by spending less money, live off the economy and with European locals.
  • Prepare Yourself: Read up about the local history and culture before visiting. This will give you a clearer perspective of your surroundings when you arrive.


Announcer: Welcome to the travel podcast. For information on planning your trip to any one of thousands of destinations, please visit
Pauline Frommer: This is Pauline Frommer and I have the pleasure today of talking with my father Arthur Frommer. This time I'm doing it on podcast. I probably call my father about twice a day to read out sentences to him and get his critiques on my writing. But today we're here to celebrate his writing, and the fiftieth anniversary of Europe on Five Dollars a Day. So welcome, dad, to the broadcast.
Arthur Frommer: Thank you for having me, thank you.
Pauline: So just for the listeners who don't know, how did Europe on Five Dollars a Day come about?
Arthur: It came about by sheer accident. I never set out to be a travel writer. I am a lawyer by profession; I had graduated from the Yale University Law School and planned to embark upon the arduous practice of law when I was drafted into the army. It was the time of the Korean War but to my surprise I was sent to Europe rather than Korea and I couldn't believe my good luck.
Pauline: And that's because you studied Russian, correct?
Arthur: That's one of the reasons why. Instead of being sent in an infantry attachment to Korea I was sent to Europe and placed in US army intelligence because of my linguistic abilities.

In addition to working very hard for the US Army in Europe, I also traveled. I took advantage, of every weekend, every three-day pass that I could obtain, every leave that I could take, and I traveled. And I traveled unlike my fellow GIs who stayed in the barracks on the weekends. They, as I could see, were frightened.
Pauline: What were they frightened of?
Arthur: They were frightened of the newness and the novelty of Europe. People still regarded Europe as a war-torn continent just getting out from under the wreckage and ruins of World War II. The entire travel industry was telling you that unless you had a lot of money you should not travel to Europe, unless you could afford first class and deluxe hotels, and that it was not safe to go to Europe. You couldn't put yourself into a modest establishment or eat anything other than a top meal or you might be poisoned by it.
Pauline: Because of the water and the infrastructure being damaged during World War II?
Arthur: That's right this was still a place where cities lay in ruins. I for a time was stationed near Munich and Munich had considerable areas destroyed by Allied bombing during World War II and I would come back from each one of these breathtaking trips in which my eyes were opened to the wonders of Europe to see my fellow GIs all staying put in the bowling alleys and the..
Pauline: Playing checkers every night.
Arthur: Yeah, playing checkers or using the photography labs to develop their photos of the barracks. And I sat down and in the last several weeks of my army stay I wrote a little guidebook for my fellow GIs called The GIs Guide to Traveling in Europe. It was an attempt to shake them up and introduce them to the wonders of Europe that I had experienced.

I brought out the GIs Guide, which I published myself. I borrowed money from my mother and a few sergeants in my unit and had the book printed in a little print shop in Oberammegau, Germany, which is near where I was stationed at the end of my stay, because after having served at Berlin and elsewhere I was sent to the US Army Intelligence School and taught a class in covert intelligence at that time.

But I published the book, I got on a plane, I was discharged from the army, I embarked on the practice of law with a large New York City law firm and then got a telex that the book had virtually sold out the first afternoon that it had been placed on sale at the PDXs all across Europe.
Pauline: Wow!
Arthur: And I saw that I had stumbled by sheer accident upon this avid desire of my fellow GIs to travel, and in the back of my mind an idea started emerging that maybe I should do the same thing for civilians. During my first vacation, my month long vacation from my law firm, I returned to Europe for a month, and in thirty days I went running around to all the major capitals of Europe, doing the research and taking the notes that I had not taken for the GIs guide.
Pauline: Which you did from memory?
Arthur: Which I did all from memory. I wrote a little book which I entitled Europe on Five Dollars a Day. Because I'd had no experience in taking books to a publisher it never occurred to me that you took a book to a publisher. I thought you wrote a book, you took it to a printer.


You printed it and then you arranged for someone to distribute it, and that's what I did with Europe on Five Dollars a Day, purely as a lark, purely as a hobby activity, purely because I believed that Americans should grasp how simple it was to visit Europe.

I saw that you didn't have to travel by ship and be carrying a Stanley steamer trunk with you full of all sorts of clothes. You didn't have to stay in expensive first class hotels. I realized that you had a better experience of Europe if you lived modestly. Let me also say that one of the days when it occurred to me to write a guidebook on Europe was during my last weeks in the army. I was in Paris on a weekend, and I was sitting at a sidewalk Cafe nursing a glass of wine, and I saw a sightseeing bus of Americans passing before me.
Pauline: Right.
Arthur: And I realized that if I'd had any money that I would not be at this sidewalk cafe, I would have been in the bus, with those other Americans, their noses pressed against the glass looking out at the sights and the sounds of Europe, and I realized that the reason I was enjoying myself so much at this cafe, the reason I was enjoying the experience of Europe was precisely because I didn't have any money, because I was forced to live off the economy and live with private families and live in the basements of various...
Pauline: And ask people for recommendations of where to go and talk with people.
Arthur: And eat at local restaurants and the like. It was this experience that lead to Europe on Five Dollars a Day, and Europe on Five Dollars a Day in its first edition was almost like a lawyer's brief. It argued the case for just getting up and going, no matter how little money you had saved up, go. Experience Europe, live modestly. Take a room without a private bath, enabling you to spend very, very little money, to get a room at that time for about a dollar fifty a night. Buy a meal that costs fifty cents that is served to you in a local workingman's restaurant.

I wrote Europe on Five Dollars a Day all the while continuing to practice law and again, the same thing happened overnight. It sold out, it became a massive best seller, and in its subsequent editions it began to set records. There was a time when I believe that it was said that one out of every ten Americans going to Europe carried a copy of Europe on Five Dollars a Day with them. And after juggling the book with the practice of law, I was working at that time for a very fine New York City law firm, the law firm that was joined for a time by Adlai Stevenson, the Democratic presidential nominee who...
Pauline: Who you sat near, right?
Arthur: I had an office just next door to his.
Pauline: Really?
Arthur: I was enjoying the practice of law. It was a very vital and exiting practice. I was in litigation and yet this little book that I had done was becoming a monster. It also lead me to start publishing other books. I decided that I should also publish a book called Mexico on Five Dollars a Day, which was the second of the books.
Pauline: Sure.
Arthur: I had grown to know a young man named John Wilcock, who was an editor of the Village Voice. A very well-known and excellent writer, who was desperate to travel to Mexico and write a guidebook, and I funded his trip there and published "Mexico on Five Dollars a Day." Then I published "New York on Five Dollars a Day, " and then "The Caribbean on Five and Ten Dollars a Day."

Then, as amazing as it would seem, the cost of traveling in Japan was so low that John and I decided that he would go back to Japan and write a book called "Japan on Five Dollars a Day." We began publishing that, and I was juggling a little publishing company from my living room at that time, while practicing law.
Pauline: Right. My mother was involved at that point. She was an actress, so all her actress friends would help pack the boxes and ship out the books. Correct?
Arthur: We placed an ad in the book review section of the New York Times. A one-column ad, which drew 1500 orders the first week. And all these starving actors had gathered in our living room to help us address the labels and put the books in the envelopes and then drag them to the post office. It was very much a do it yourself activity, and it remained that way for the first ten or 15 years of the book.

I continued publishing the "Five Dollar a Day" line, as I called it, the "Five Dollar a Day" books until we reached 58 titles, and then it got too big for me. I realize that I had to bring in a larger publishing company to take it over, and I took the books to Simon and Schuster.
Pauline: For how many years did you personally update "Europe on Five Dollars a Day"?
Arthur: For at least 25 years. Every year I went back to Europe...
Pauline: With me, a lot of the time!
Arthur: With you, on many of these trips. When we first did the first revised edition of "Europe on Five Dollars a Day, " it wasn't the first revised edition, let's say it was the third, you were four months old. We had no alternative but to carry you, in a little pack of some sort, with us on our trip to Europe.
Pauline: And this was before diapers?
Arthur: It was before Pampers.
Pauline: Before Pampers, before disposable diapers, I should say.
Arthur: It was not as easy as it has subsequently become to travel with an infant.
Pauline: So, what would a day in your life as a travel writer have been like then? What did it consist of?
Arthur: It consisted of getting up at six A.M., and just striking out at random into the heart of the city and wandering, and walking, and talking to people. I very quickly realized that the established tourist offices of the city were of no use to me whatsoever; that they all followed the course of least resistance; that they recommended to me the popular places to which everyone went.

They were actually ashamed of their guesthouses, the bed and breakfast houses. They didn't want to recommend that type of facility. They wanted people to stay in standard hotels, in rooms with private baths, and to eat in famous restaurants. You didn't get complaints that way.
Pauline: I guess not, yes.
Arthur: But I discovered that they really had nothing that I needed to have in the book, and I simply, from morning until night, the hardest work of my life, walked up and down the streets of the major European capitals, looking into windows, talking with people, asking questions of them. Saying to them "When you wanted to have a nice meal out, where did you go to eat? What was the restaurant...?"
Pauline: Right, not where the tourists should go, but where you...
Arthur: No, but where you ate.
Pauline: Right.
Arthur: And "When you had a relative who was coming to Frankfurt or who was coming to Zurich to meet you, where did you put them up? What hotels did you use?"

I also developed a standard line that I would put to hotels that would enable me to get in there, in and out real fast to look at rooms. I would say that my wife was at the railroad station and I was looking for a room for the two of us. "Could I see a couple of sample rooms?"
Pauline: Right, which is important because they knew you weren't writing it up. People often assume hotels know we're there. I don't ever tell them who I am.
Arthur: That you're writing in a guidebook.
Pauline: No.
Arthur: I learned that if you went into a hotel and told them you were a travel writer, that then you couldn't get out of there. Then you had to sit there the entire afternoon and see every room in the hotel. And you had to sit down and have a drink with the owner and talk about his life. I just didn't have the time to do that.

Or else, I would go in there and I would say, "My parents are coming to visit me next week, here in London. Can I just see one or two of your sample rooms?" And in that way, I could get to 20 or 30 hotels in the course of a day, and get a good picture of which were decent and which really give value for the money.
Pauline: Right. So, beyond the fact that the American dollar is tremendously weak nowadays, against the euro and the pound, I mean when you wrote "Europe on Five Dollars a Day, "I think it was two dollars to the pound?"
Arthur: Well, every currency in Europe was weak in respect to the dollar. The dollar was king, and the American tourist was the dominant element in tourism. All of Europe was knocking itself out to cater to Americans.
Pauline: So, there's a difference in the currency. But what else are the major differences in travel today? Not only to Europe, but to most places in the world?
Arthur: Well, the major difference, apart from the weakness of the dollar, is the fact that travel has become a mass volume industry, and that when you travel, you are sometimes in competition with your fellow Americans to see the attractions that have brought you to a particular country, or to eat in a particular restaurant. It's harder today.

I looked, the other day, at some home movies that I had taken of some of our earlier trips. In those days, when you walked in the Piazza della Signoria in Florence, it was empty!
Pauline: Wow!
Arthur: There were one or two tourists walking around. When you walked into the Piazza San Marco in Venice there were two or three tourists; you were there by yourself!
Pauline: But you don't want to give up on those destinations. What should travelers do?
Arthur: You don't, but it's become important to prepare yourself for travel. It's never been more important to travel to destinations when the crowds are not there; to travel in off-season periods is rule number one. If you want to go see Venice as it should be seen, you cannot go there during eight months of the year, because Venice is just gridlocked with crowds and with people. You've got to go to Venice after November one and before March one, and then you can experience the Venice that is the Venice, the Venice that you've come to see.
Pauline: Right.
Arthur: I think I once told you of a stop that my wife and I made in the Louvre in Paris, during the month of January. We had a stopover in Paris, and at nine A.M. in the morning, in the middle of January, I went running into the Louvre and saw that we were the first visitors that day. I walked to the floor in which the Mona Lisa was hung and stood all by myself a foot or two in front of the Mona Lisa!
Pauline: Wow! That never happens!
Arthur: That cannot be approached within 20 yards during the high season.
Pauline: Without a lot of elbowing.
Arthur: Without a lot of elbowing. Without being jammed in like a sardine in a can, as you are today, let's say, in the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican, in Rome.
Pauline: So, what other advance preparation, besides going in the off-season, is important for travelers, would you say?
Arthur: Well, today, on the other hand, you have a lot of tools that are available to you that were not available then. And of course, the Internet is chief among them. If you really know how to use the Internet, you can ferret out the occasional bargains; you can ferret out, especially, the airfare bargains that airlines offer periodically, secretly, and quietly. Bargains like the ones that you've taken advantage of.
Pauline: Yes. I found one just accidentally: August, New York to London, $590 including all taxes, all fees. It was through Expedia of all places. I called Expedia to find out how the heck I got this deal, and it took a week and a half for somebody to get back to me. They finally came back with the answer that it was a fluke.

Arthur: They don't know why the airlines...
Pauline: They don't know how I got this great deal!
Arthur: Well, in actual fact, because of the historical experience, the airlines know that a particular date in August is going to be a quiet date, and without telling anybody they reduce the price.
Pauline: Well, just on a few seats...
Arthur: You bought four tickets for $595 a piece.
Pauline: On Virgin Atlantic.
Arthur: In August, when other people are paying $800, $900 and even $1000 for the same seat.
Pauline: I was very lucky. But you always talked to me about reading in advance of a trip. What are the important books?
Arthur: That's the key. That's the key to it. I soon discovered that Europe brings to you only what you bring to it.
Pauline: And all destinations, not just Europe?
Arthur: And all destinations, not just Europe. You prepare yourself for travel through widespread reading.

You don't simply show up in a Buddhist country without first reading about the development of Buddhism, the theories of Buddhism, the rituals of Buddhism. If you prepare yourself in that fashion, when you go to Thailand, you understand the strange rituals that you are encountering at every turn. You understand why the young monks are out there with their begging bowls at 9:00AM in the morning. You understand what is happening in the temples where you see people prostrating themselves, or putting gold leaf on the statue of the Buddha.

When you go to Europe, nowadays, much of the experience of Europe is centered on cathedrals. And when you go to every city of any size in Europe you see a cathedral or you see a major church. If you don't...
Pauline: So what can you do to prepare yourself for that?
Arthur: You read about the evolution of the gothic cathedral. Why they were built as they were? What was the purpose of the design? What is the role that different portions of the cathedral play? What variations of design where brought about by subsequent generations? If you read about that before you arrive, then visiting a cathedral becomes an exciting venture. It becomes something you understand. It is not the excruciating bore that it is to most Americans, who think that they've seen one, they've seen them all.
Pauline: Right.
Arthur: You enjoy a foreign destination when you know something of its history, when you know something of its background. And you can acquire that only by spending time in a public library prior to your trip.
Pauline: And you're not just talking about travel guidebooks, you're talking about beyond...
Arthur: Oh, especially about non travel guidebooks. I'm not talking about the guidebooks that give you restaurant and hotel tips. I'm talking about the cultural studies, the historical studies that prepare you for what you are about to encounter. Even to various prosaic destinations in the United States.

If you are traveling to Memphis, Tennessee, you should read some articles and some books about Memphis, Tennessee. You should learn something about the history of the Mississippi River that passes through Memphis, Tennessee, so that when you go to that famous island in the middle of the Mississippi at Memphis, you will understand the role that it's played over the centuries. You will understand the buildings that you find on them, the role that it plays in the life of Memphis, Tennessee.

Advance reading in the culture and history of a destination is the key to successful and rewarding travel. You enjoy travel when you know in advance something of the history of what you're encountering.
Pauline: One last question you and I both get all the time: I want to be a travel writer. How do I do it? I mean, you fell into it kind of by accident. What tools does a travel writer need?
Arthur: Pauline, it's the easiest task in the world today. The person who is genuinely talented as a travel writer can easily have that talent recognized, can get accepted, and can get a job. It's a profession where talented people are not disregarded.

If you have the talent to be a travel writer, you simply sit down and you write. You write an article about some portion of your local community. You write about something upfront and close to you that you understand. You write it up, and you mail it in to newspapers, to magazines, or to guidebook publishers.

Those manuscripts are read. In all the time that I've been associated with travel guidebooks, in the time that I was editing a major national magazine on travel, I read everything that came in. And you can immediately tell in the opening paragraph whether a writer had talent as a travel writer.
Pauline: But I guess the thing is, it's not about the traveling; it's about the writing. Correct? You have to work on your writing to be a travel writer.
Arthur: It's about the writing steps and it's about that particular knack-the love that you may have in explaining destinations and facilities to other people.

We all have friends who at a drop of a hat will give us all sorts of advice of where to eat in the community where we live. What are the shows that are playing that we have to see? Those are the perfect travel writers. Those are the people who also write good travel guides.

And I have never seen a talented travel writer whose talents went unrecognized. If you are a good travel writer, you simply sit down and start writing about what you know about your own local community. Some aspect of site seeing...
Pauline: Or you take a trip somewhere, and you sell it to a newspaper, so you can get printed.
Arthur: Or you take a trip anywhere, even if it's a place 20 miles down the road. And you send it to a newspaper. It gets printed eventually. If you are talented it is recognized, it's seen, and people reach out to grab you.

At the Frommer Travel Books, we sometimes have difficulty finding sufficient travel writers to perform the books that we need to publish.
Pauline: That's true. Well, I think it goes a little beyond travel. I mean, when you're looking for a guidebook writer, you need someone who has a good breadth of knowledge. You need someone who knows something about history, about cuisine, about nightclubbing. You want somebody who either knows those things, or has the facility for learning them very quickly.
Arthur: And who also loves imparting that knowledge to another person.
Pauline: Right.
Arthur: And that is the key to becoming a... Everybody who wants to be a travel writer can become a travel writer.
Pauline: I know that you are very idealistic about being a travel writer and about traveling. After 50 years of doing this, what is it that you hope that your life's work will impart to people?
Arthur: I hope that the Frommer Travel Guides, that everything that I've published in travel brings about a realization that travel is not a mere recreation. It is not a bit of trivia. It is an important learning experience that impacts the mind in a way that no other activity is quite capable of doing, even the activity of wide spread reading.

There is nothing like travel to bring you an understanding of what is happening in the world culturally, politically, socially. You can read all the books in the world about what's going on in China, and yet nothing equals the experience of yourself going to China, and seeing it, and experiencing with its own eyes.

Now, too many elements in journalism, maybe of the newspapers regard travel as simply a recreation, as a totally mindless activity, as a bit of trivia. And of course a great many members of the public regard travel as an opportunity simply to veg out. Most people regard a good vacation as a vacation spent on a beach where you lie down and you rid your mind of all thoughts, and you enjoy a completely mindless interlude in your life.

That's not the kind of travel that we in the Frommer Travel Guides have advocated over the years. We regard travel as a serious activity on an equal with any other as an activity requiring specialized knowledge, requiring background, requiring apprenticeship, and an activity worthy of talented people.
Pauline: OK.
Arthur: Many times travel on a newspaper is assigned to the assistant sports editor who takes it over. I hope that the Frommer Travel Guides, in particular, will convey the thought that travel is important.
Pauline: Well, thank you dad. And that's been our podcast for this afternoon. Thank you so much for joining us.

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