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Arthur Frommer's world

The leading travel authority is still trotting the globe at 80, and yes, he still likes doing it on a budget.

July 12, 2009|Susan Spano

NEW YORK CITY — He is America's premier authority on travel. From the self-published "Europe on $5 a Day" in 1957, he grew an empire that has included travel guides, a magazine, newspaper columns, a radio show and a blog.

Now 80, Arthur Frommer could slow down -- but he won't. He recently published "Ask Arthur Frommer," an encyclopedic approach to travel questions, and he blogs daily at Frommers.com.

He grew up in Jefferson City, Mo., until the family moved to New York, where Frommer still lives. He got his law degree from Yale, then was drafted. We recently talked about how he became the dean of travel and what comes next:

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Do you have fond memories of Jefferson City?

I grew up there during the height of the Depression and went to a public school where some kids arrived without shoes.

When my father got a job in New York and we had to move, I thought my life had ended. What human being would want to live anywhere but Jefferson City? I thought.

The day after we arrived, I took the subway to Times Square and tried to get a job at the Herald Tribune. Instead, I got hired as an office boy at Newsweek. I went to Erasmus High in Brooklyn and was the editor of the school paper. When [it] came out, I put copies on everybody's desk at Newsweek.

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After you finished school, why did you get into travel instead of becoming a lawyer?

I got drafted and went to Germany, which is where I stumbled upon what seemed to me an intense desire people were feeling to travel. I wrote and borrowed money to publish a little guidebook for GIs about how to tour a dozen European cities. It sold out immediately.

The funny thing was, I wrote it entirely from memory, after I got back from traveling. I didn't have phone numbers and addresses so I wrote things like walk uphill from the square and turn left to get to a place where GIs can sleep for 50 cents.

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How did "Europe on $5 a Day" come about?

After the Army, I was a clerk for a big New York law firm, but I spent my vacations traveling and doing research. Every summer I'd run back to Europe for a month and hit the streets. I got a publisher . . . and a distributor. I put out 5,000 copies, and as soon as they went on sale, they disappeared.

I did it all while I was still working at the law firm. But when I got up to 58 titles I hired writers who, like me, regarded travel as a serious learning activity.

The best guidebooks are written by people who are walking encyclopedias on the cities where they live.

Around 1965, I sold the whole series to Simon & Schuster, but I remained editor in chief.

The books are now published by Wiley -- 340 titles covering all price levels, not just budget travel, though my daughter Pauline has her own line of guidebooks for budget travelers ["Pauline Frommer's Travel Guides: Spend Less and See More"].

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What role do you play in the Frommer guidebooks now?

I write a blog for Frommers.com. Besides that, my job [as series consultant] is to indoctrinate writers about how to provide high-quality service information, always with a regard for the finances of readers.

There are now shelves and shelves of guidebooks. It's dizzying. But many fail to take into account that the average couple has a per capita income of $43,000. That is why I don't think you can ever be sufficiently frugal.

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Are you still a budget traveler?

I have always felt that the less you spend, the more you enjoy. The moment you put yourself in a first-class hotel you become walled-off from life, in a world devoted to creature comforts. High-end hotels offer the imaginary experience of living like an aristocrat. But when you go to sleep, you no longer know whether you're in a one-star or a five-star hotel. Big rooms and amenities are all sheer nonsense. Go to a guesthouse. It's much more fun.

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Have you ever stayed in a five-star hotel?

Sure. I once stayed at a super-deluxe place in South Beach, Miami, with Philippe Starck decor and $400 rooms. It was so cold I felt like I was living in a refrigerator, and there were no decent lights. I cringe whenever I hear the words "boutique hotel." Any Courtyard by Marriott is better.

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What's your favorite place in the world?

Paris. Whenever I go back, I feel rejuvenated.

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Are there any places you stay away from?

Yes, some countries have dictators so repellent that I don't want to go there. I will never visit Burma [Myanmar] or Libya, for instance. But I am all in favor of traveling to Cuba. Our embargo is farcical.

I have found that I can't be consistent in these matters. At any rate, it should be a personal decision.

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What about China?

China is an indispensable place to go. You have to see the explosion that is taking place there, the incredible things the Chinese are creating for themselves.

Not so long ago, the Bund in Shanghai was surrounded by farmland. Now it's a financial district rivaling the one in New York.

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Tell me about your latest book.

I wanted it to be like an encyclopedia, treating every issue in travel. I think I covered them all. But it may be the last travel book I write.

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Why?

I want to do a political book on liberalism, in the form of Socratic dialogues.

I'll still do my radio show [the "Travel Show," Sundays, syndicated by WOR-AM, New York] column and blog. I can't live without travel.--

susan.spano@latimes.com

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