How often does a traveler get to pick the mind of the great travel authority of the world? It’s a once-in-a-lifetime chance, so when I landed an interview with Arthur Frommer (of Europe on $5 a day fame) I carefully compiled a list of questions. For the most part though, they went unasked – Mr. Frommer is such a born storyteller that I spent most our hour together simply listening. Certainly not a bad thing! We got started after a brief tutorial in how to correctly pronounce Louisville – he wanted to have it right for his presentation at the Rocketstar travel show the next day at Freedom Hall.
Frommer offers great hope for anyone worried about aging. Despite a little hearing aid that he needed to twiddle with, he was full of vigor and announced that he doesn’t feel any different now than he did in his 50s. Perhaps his full work life and passion for travel contribute? He blogs daily, records a weekly radio show and writes a syndicated newspaper column, all while his travel guidebook empire continues to grow.
I did have the chance to ask what mistakes – if – any he still makes after all these years of travel. Being that he’s human after all, he confessed that of course he makes mistakes. “Like an idiot,” he laughed, “I succumbed to the lure of walking onto an escorted motorcoach for a half-day tour in Istanbul. It killed the experience – we [he and his wife] were barred from the life of the city by glass and steel,” he said. “The next day we took public transportation. It was a profound experience – revealing and fascinating to mingle with the people of the city.”
When I asked how people with limited vacation time can make the best use of their travel time if not on a tour he replied, “Better to spend your four lousy hours walking up and down the streets taking it in!” (Interestingly this same sentiment was echoed by Anthony Bourdain in slightly less refined language at his talk later that night.)
We talked for a bit about the ever-rising of cost of travel to Europe. He still considers it the greatest place to visit, but had some suggestion for travelers seeking “the next Europe.” “China,” he answered without hesitation. “The language barrier is wild.” This was presented as a good thing. He told a story of navigating the subway – no English in sight – and simply choosing the line that ‘felt like the right direction.’ It turned out to be right, but I had the sense that even were it not he’d have chalked it up to adventure. He urged me to schedule a trip to China. If not China then Central America – “it’s still exciting,” he said, and Panama has not yet been destroyed by tourism.
He spoke passionately about his objections to sites like TripAdvisor and Yelp and the like. “Sites with user reviews are sowing the germs of their own undoing,” he argued. His objection? A person who spends one night in a city, eats one meal and stays in one hotel, cannot hope to provide the kind of in-depth and well-considered evaluation that a resident or long-term visitor like those writing for his guidebooks can. Moreover, there’s no way for the reader to discern what’s real and what’s fake – reviews planted by the business itself. Not surprisingly, he urges travelers to consult a guidebook for the most reliable information.
Frommer’s newest book, “Ask Arthur Frommer” crams an encyclopedia’s worth of his lifetime of budget travel smarts between two covers. It reads just as if he were talking with you and offers wealth of wisdom for those of us who must watch our dollars and euros when traveling.