- The Washington Times - Friday, May 4, 2007


Arthur Frommer first saw Europe in 1953 from the window of a military transport plane.

He had been drafted and was headed to a U.S. base in Germany.

Whenever he had a weekend’s leave or a three-day pass during his tour of duty, he hopped a train to Paris or hitched a ride to England on an Air Force flight. Eventually he wrote a guide to Europe for GIs and had 5,000 copies printed. They sold out at 50 cents each, and when his Army stint was over, he rewrote the book for civilians, self-publishing “Europe on 5 Dollars a Day” in 1957.

“It struck a chord and became an immediate best-seller,” he recalls.

On the 50th anniversary of the book’s publication, Mr. Frommer, 77, is still being credited with helping change leisure travel by showing average Americans that they could afford a trip to Europe. Though the dollars-a-day series finally is ending this year after selling millions of copies, the Frommer brand remains strong; a new series from Mr. Frommer’s daughter, Pauline, is carrying on the tradition.

More important, the original Frommer approach — a combination of wide-eyed wonder and seeking the best value for your money — has become so standard that it’s hard to remember how radical it seemed in the days before discount flights and backpacks.

“If you go back to the 1950s, most people who traveled were wealthy,” says Pat Carrier, owner of the Globe Corner Bookstore in Cambridge, Mass. “If they went to Europe, it was a once-in-a-lifetime kind of trip. Today, my kids think they should be in a foreign country as part of their every-year experience. Arthur did for travel what Consumer Reports did for everything else.”

Anne Sutherland, a professor at the University of California at Riverside who studies tourism as a global phenomenon, used “Europe on 5 Dollars a Day” on a six-month trip in 1965. “When I read the title, I said, ‘I can do Europe on $5 a day? I’m going,’ ” she says, “and I really did live on $5 a day. For my generation, that really made a difference. Without that guidebook, we couldn’t have known we could do it.”

Bertram Gordon, a professor at Mills College in Oakland, Calif., recalls sitting in a cafe in the mid-1970s in Paris, where “it looked like every third person passing by was carrying a Frommer’s.” Mr. Gordon, who teaches a course on the history of European travel, notes that many factors contributed to Frommer’s success, including the affluence of post-World War II America, adventurous baby boomers, and the rise and ease of jet travel.

“Frommer was catching a wave,” Mr. Gordon says. “This is not to take anything away from him, but when his books started coming out, there was an audience.” That wave continues today. Americans “look upon the entire world as a possibility for their next vacation,” Mr. Frommer says in an interview. “You go to a party nowadays, and people say, ‘Shall I go to Miami or London? Shall I go to San Francisco or Shanghai?’ The whole emphasis has become international travel, which was not the case 50 years ago.”

In the 1950s, “you traveled to Europe with a steamer trunk,” he says. “You were told by the entire travel industry that the only way to go to Europe was first-class, that this was a war-torn continent coming out of World War II, that it literally wasn’t safe to stay anywhere other than first-class hotels.”

Budget travel, Mr. Frommer still insists, “is a preferable method of travel because it leads to a more authentic experience. You meet people imbued with intellectual curiosity — teachers, students, artists, normal people, people from all over the world — who want to have a genuine experience rather than an experience whose aim is to make you physically comfortable and let you enjoy the pretentiousness of flaunting your wallet.”

In the 1960s, when inflation forced him to change the title of the book to “Europe on 5 and 10 Dollars a Day,” Mr. Frommer says “it was as if someone had plunged a knife into my head.” Thanks to the weak dollar, the final editions were titled “Europe From $95 a Day.”

“The dollar-a-day concept doesn’t make sense when it costs $100 a day if you’re lucky to find a hotel room,” says Michael Spring, Frommer’s publisher at Wiley Publishing Inc.

Mr. Carrier, the Globe Corner Bookstore owner, credits Mr. Spring with greatly improving the Frommer’s guides in the past 10 years. Mr. Carrier says they remain especially useful for food and accommodations. He says the Frommer’s “brand is diminished today in terms of its reach across all age groups. I don’t think anyone could have anticipated 15 years ago that Lonely Planet would explode the way it did.” Lonely Planet books are geared to backpackers and younger, more adventurous travelers.

Frommer’s still publishes comprehensive guides to many destinations but is trying to broaden its appeal. Last year the brand introduced MTV Travel Guides, geared to trendy twentysomethings; Frommer’s Day by Day guides to help time-pressed travelers pare down their options; and Pauline Frommer’s Travel Guides for adult budget travelers, emphasizing alternative accommodations and offbeat experiences such as volunteer vacations.

“Pauline Frommer’s New York City” won the 2006 Best Travel Guide award from the North American Travel Journalists Association.

Miss Frommer began traveling with her father and mother, Hope, in 1965, when she was 4 months old. “They used to joke that the book should be called ‘Europe on Five Diapers a Day,’ ” she says.

Her father still rails against gourmet meals, five-star hotels, private jets and other trappings of luxury travel, and she shares his tastes.

He says approvingly that his daughter recently booked round-trip summer tickets to England for herself, her husband and two daughters on Virgin Atlantic for $595 each. “She saved close to $1,000 for her family,” he says. “I never fly first-class. It’s an incredible waste of money.”

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