Budget travel guru books a return trip
At 83, the man who popularised holidays on a shoestring is back, and raring to go. By John Daly
The news that Arthur Frommer has retaken control of his iconic guidebook company must surely have brought an inner smile to many veteran travellers. At 83, the man often called "the godfather of budget travel", is once again entering the crowded guidebook market with plans to publish dozens of new titles – all of which will continue to bear his name.
"Later in 2013 we plan to publish up to 40 new titles, all of them containing recommendations from many of the best travel writers in the world," he announced. Having sold his company for more than $20m to Google just a year ago, Frommer last month brought it back for an undisclosed sum, saying: "This is a very happy time for me."
Despite the massive rise in traffic to websites such as TripAdvisor and Expedia, he believes that "expert and well-researched information curated by passionate writers still has a huge value".
Frommer, who writes a number of syndicated columns as well as maintaining a regular blog on Frommer.com, will be joined in the new company by his daughter Pauline, an established guidebook editor.
"Many a journey has suffered from people's lack of desire to look beyond the main sights, to venture down that deserted street to where the real people live," he said of his guiding ethos to look beyond the High Street into the more interesting backstreets of the world.
A personal mantra of 'less is more' guided the young Frommer in his global travels. "The more you spend, the less you enjoy," he said. "First- class hotels wall the traveller off from real life."
Making a conscious effort to find budget lodgings everywhere, from bed and breakfasts to apartment exchanges to hostels, rewards the adventurous with a greater in-depth experience, he believes.
Like Roy Keane, Frommer lives by the 'fail to prepare, prepare to fail' motto. "Travellers don't delve deeply enough into their destinations, wandering as utter novices unable to understand the sights brought to their attention. A few night's advance reading at their local library is the key to a successful trip."
Voting Paris his favourite city in the world – "it never fails to re-energise me" – Frommer's keen eye continues to unearth new destinations. Commenting on his daughter Pauline's recent trip to Taiwan, he noted that "people would broadly smile at her, even hug her on occasion, the moment they learned she was an American".
Despite the political tensions in the region, Taiwan's low cost is another factor in its appeal. "Prices are surprisingly moderate, the equivalent of one dollar for a bowl of pork liver soup, and two dollars for an astonishing oyster omelette, one of the best dishes she has ever had," he added.
Having served with the US army in Germany, Arthur Frommer wrote his first guidebook in 1955 for his fellow soldiers, entitled The GI's Guide to Travelling In Europe. The book sold in unexpectedly large numbers, and encouraged the fledgling travel guru to publish a second guide. In 1957, Frommer published Europe On $5 A Day, the book that would change the way millions of people saw the world.
A perusal of the London section of the 60-year-old guide makes for interesting reading in 2013, with decent hotel beds near Piccadilly for $2 back then, and a lunch of roast veal, stuffing, carrots and potatoes for just 42 cents. Even a swanky dinner was ridiculously cheap, just $1.04 for roast sirloin of beef with Yorkshire pudding and vegetables.
Having qualified as a litigation lawyer, Frommer initially mixed a career in the courtroom with a burgeoning reputation as a travel writer. During much of the 1960s, he travelled constantly, bringing out guides to New York, San Francisco, Mexico, the Caribbean and South America.
By the 1970s, Frommer was the name on every budget traveller's lips – especially those Americans wanting to 'do Europe' at a price they couldn't afford to pass up. "This year 350,000 Americans, one out of five who travel to Europe, will go with Arthur Frommer," writer Nora Ephron observed in a New York Times feature. "They will eat with Arthur Frommer and, as something of a witticism has it, sleep with Arthur Frommer."
Selling millions of copies of his guides every year, Frommer was at the vanguard of a new age of travel – abetted by other visionaries like Freddie Laker, whose low-cost trans- Atlantic airfares opened up America and Europe to a generation keen to sample travel adventures over the distant horizon. For those keen to venture down that unexplored lane or hidden plaza, the Frommer guide became a constant companion to their passport.