NEW YORK — This year the legendary travel guidebook writer Arthur Frommer celebrates 60 years since the publication of his 1957 book, “Europe on $5 a Day.” Frommer began writing about travel while serving in the U.S. Army in Europe in the 1950s. When his book of travel advice for American soldiers sold out, he launched what became one of the travel industry’s best-known brands.
Frommer’s philosophy — stay in inns and budget hotels, sightsee on your own, eat in small cafes instead of fancy restaurants — had a huge impact on the way Americans traveled in the mid- to late 20th century. His message of authentic bargain travel encouraged average people — not just the wealthy — to vacation abroad. There was a time when you couldn’t go to a tourist attraction in Europe without encountering Americans clutching Frommer’s books. It didn’t hurt that his books hit the market as the rise of jet travel made getting to Europe easier.
But as the cost of travel increased over the decades, the titles changed too. The “$5 a Day” edition became $10 a day, $20 a day and so on. The series ended in 2007 with “$95 a Day” guides. By then, Arthur’s daughter Pauline had joined the family business, and the brand continued. There are now 101 Frommer’s guides available to destinations around the world.
Today, though, Frommer’s is one of many sources of travel information in a crowded field, competing not just with free online advice but also with other best-selling travel guidebooks like Rick Steves and Lonely Planet. Still, Frommer’s brand has survived in the digital world, with ebooks, a Frommers.com website and podcasts of a weekly radio show that Arthur and Pauline do live from New York.
Arthur Frommer, 87, recently shared his story with The Associated Press.
Q. How did the Frommer’s brand begin?
A: I was drafted into the Army at the time of the Korean War. But luckily enough and to my great surprise, instead of being sent to fight in Korea, I was sent to Europe because I had certain linguistic abilities.
… And while in the army overseas, I was always struck by the fact that my fellow GIs did not travel. They were scared to travel. They were worried about how you would pay for various items. What currency would you use, where would you live at night, and I decided to do a guidebook. And in my last three weeks in the Army, I wrote a little book called ‘The GI’s Guide to Traveling in Europe,’ which was circulated to the various PXs in Europe on the day that I left Germany and returned home. … And immediately I got a cable from Europe that the book had sold out overnight.
Q. You returned to New York to practice law but decided to write another guidebook for civilians. How did you do it?
A. During a one-month vacation, I returned to Europe and I went running to 15 different European cities, getting up at 5 a.m. in the morning, hitting the streets, going from one guesthouse to another, from one low-cost restaurant to another, and I then wrote a book called “Europe on $5 a Day.” I printed 5,000 copies of the book, the book went on sale and again it sold out.
Q. What was the impact of your books?
A. In the 1950s most Americans had been taught that foreign travel was a once-in-a-lifetime experience, especially travel to Europe. They were taught that they were going to a war-torn country where it was risky to stay in any hotel other than a five-star hotel. It was risky to go into anything but a top-notch restaurant. … And I knew that all these warnings were a lot of nonsense. … I told them that every five-star hotel was identical to every other five-star hotel. … I taught them to sightsee on their own two feet. I told them to use public transportation. … I think we were pioneers in also suggesting that a different type of American should travel, that you didn’t have to be well-heeled, you could be a person who just graduated from college.
Q. Do you ever fly first-class?
A. I fly economy class and I try to experience the same form of travel, the same experience that the average American and the average citizen of the world encounters.
Q. What’s your favorite destination?
A. The one spot I could return to over and over again for the rest of my life is the city of Paris. It’s Paris, France, that to my mind excels in virtually every major area of human thought in terms of art, in music, in cuisine, in political discourse. I love going to Paris and I am horrified over the fact that tourism by Americans to Paris has fallen by as much as 30 percent in the year that has just passed because of a fear of terrorism. I am continuing to travel. I will not permit some deranged terrorist from deciding where I should or should not go.