Arthur Frommer Answers All Your Travel Questions, and Then Some

Arthur FrommerArthur Frommer

Last week, we solicited your questions for travel pro Arthur Frommer. Thanks for the strong response and thoughtful questions. As for Arthur’s answers, below — well, they are IMHO fantastic. Now I see why his books are so popular. He is opinionated, colorful, informed, passionate, and a few dozen other things. We hope you enjoy.

Q: As the dollar continues to fall against the euro, why aren’t more Europeans traveling to America?

A: Because of the psychological, bureaucratic, and political barriers that we have erected to hinder their travels here. In many of the countries that don’t enjoy our visa-waiver program, it takes three to four months simply to receive an appointment to apply for a visa. Once would-be travelers finally get inside one of our consulates, they are questioned about personal characteristics having nothing to do with security or terrorism, but rather with the possibility that they will overstay their visas and become illegal immigrants. One tour operator handling incoming travel from Poland recently said that half of the people he wishes to send to the U.S. are turned down for visas because they are young, single, without property or homes that they own, etc., and are thus more likely to stay in the U.S. illegally.

When people do travel here, they are treated like criminals upon arrival at customs, or, at best, received with cold discourtesy. The result of all this is that travel to the U.S. has fallen off by close to 20 percent since the year 2000, while most other countries are enjoying a rise of 20 percent or more in their incoming tourism! The decline of our own tourism industry creates a loss of more than $100 billion a year, tens of billions of dollars in tax revenues, and hundreds of thousands of jobs. The administration’s handling of the matter is a scandal. And, by creating the impression among people of the world that we are an arrogant, cold, and unfriendly people, we make ourselves less safe.

Q: How has the falling dollar affected your business, and do you have any tips for dealing with devalued U.S. currency while traveling?

A: It is too early to see impact of the falling dollar on the publishing of guidebooks to euro destinations. As for dealing with a devalued U.S. currency while traveling, we must all begin to travel more modestly, moving at least one category down in our choice of lodgings (like staying in tourist-class hotels rather than first-class hotels), and patronizing modest restaurants.

Q: When you travel these days, do you think it’s better to lie and say you’re Canadian?

A: No.

Q: What is one place you will never go, and why?

A: Myanmar (Burma). Its democratically elected president, the Nobel-prize-winning Aung San Suu Kyi, has asked travelers to stay away. I will not support the thuggish military rulers of that nation with my tourist expenditures. In like manner, I refused to visit the Union of South Africa (or even to mention it in my writings) during the time when apartheid reigned and Nelson Mandela was in prison.

Q: What is the biggest mistake people make when traveling?

A: They fail to prepare themselves by delving deeply into the history and culture of the destination in advance of arriving. They wander as utter novices, unable to understand the sights and institutions brought to their attention. And all the lectured commentaries of their tour guide simply add to the confusion. Advance reading — a few nights at the library — is the key to a successful trip.

Q: In theory, the places (restaurants, clubs, scenic locations, etc.) recommended in travel guides offer the best the country and its people have to offer, within the traveler’s budget. How can these places balance authenticity with the increase of tourists who visit based on the book’s recommendation? How often do you or your staff neglect to mention great places just because you don’t want to see them “spoiled” by foreign visitors?

A: If we were to limit our recommendations to a handful, or commit the mistake (as I once did in an early edition of my first guidebook) of saying that a particular establishment was “the single best value in all of Venice,” then the consequences you’ve imagined would occur, and a flood of tourists would reduce the authenticity of the choice. But a good guidebook recommends thirty or forty widely scattered restaurants, and just as many hotels, and thus spreads its readers among so many places that authenticity isn’t damaged. As for “holding back” a recommendation for our own use, we joke about that happening, but it doesn’t.

Q: What motivated you to write your first travel book? Have you always wanted to become a travel writer?

A: I wrote my first guidebook while serving in the U.S. Army overseas, and had no plan to become a travel writer. I wrote it because of the joy I had experienced in low-cost travel, and my conviction that this was a superior form of vacationing. When I finally returned home from my army service, I joined the law firm of Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison (I am a graduate of the Yale Law School) and practiced law (litigation, courtroom fights) for six years until the books I had published on the side required full-time attention.

Q: What has been your greatest discovery while traveling?

A: The sameness of all people, all over the world. From the mother of a Masai family in Kenya to a young couple in Japan to an Egyptian teacher living on a houseboat, all people have the same basic concerns and deal with the same human problems that we do.

Q: What would you say are the biggest benefits from travel, other than the textbook answers of expanding yourself, seeing new places, etc.?

A: I think the textbook descriptions — “expanding yourself,” especially — are pretty good. Why else do you travel?

Q: What are your thoughts on Xavier De Maistre‘s Voyage Autour de ma Chambre, in which the French writer urged that before we jet off to see the world, we should apply the same curiosity and attentiveness to our immediate surroundings? Do you think our obsession with travel blinds us to local pleasures?

A: I’ve always found that the best travelers are the very same people who are intensely interested in the history and culture of their own home city.

Q: If you could go back in time to be a tourist in any country that you’ve visited since your travels began, which country, and what year, would you pick?

A: I wish I could return to the Venice I first saw in the mid-1950s, where the Piazza San Marco was largely empty except for pigeons, where entrance to every museum was immediate and without lines, where Venetians sat outside their homes and wished you Buon Giorno, and where restaurants frequented mainly by Venetians were broadly available. That city was the loveliest I had ever seen.

Q: How do you select your travel writers? What are the things that make a person good at identifying and describing good travel experiences? In your training, how do you balance the need for consistency with the creativity and innovation of your writers?

A: We have made a point in recent years (in most instances) of choosing trained travel journalists who are themselves residents of the city, island or nation that is the subject of our guides. We feel their judgments will be superior to those of a writer, however skilled, who simply “parachutes in” to a location for the purpose of preparing a guide. We do not attempt to limit their creativity or innovation, and we pride ourselves on the individual personality that animates each guide.

Q: My wife and I would like to take a trip once a year to somewhere outside the U.S., but we are not wealthy. What travel tips do you have that might help decrease costs, etc., so that we could accomplish this goal?

A: Realize first that the less you spend, the more you’ll enjoy. Embark on a conscious effort to use low-cost facilities — rooms with private families, apartments that you exchange with a foreign couple, hostels now accepting people of all ages, greeters’ programs, local restaurants, public transportation — and you will, in my experience, learn that your travels have taken on depth and meaning and are far more rewarding than the more expensive approach taken by others.

Q: Do any of the companies mentioned in your blog pay you in any way?

A: Absolutely not. No company (or person) learns in advance that they will be appearing in my blog, nor do I communicate with them afterwards.

Q: What are some of the lesser-known “bargain” countries to visit these days?

A: Nothing is really “lesser known,” but I enjoy Bali, Croatia, Sicily, Argentina, Mexico (still a bargain for undemanding visitors), Nicaragua, Thailand, China, Vietnam, and Egypt.

Q: How does one find a local guide who is knowledgeable, honest and interesting?

A: Mainly through recommendations from friends, relatives or acquaintances who have traveled to the destination and used the services of a capable guide. The person who devotes time to pestering friends and relatives for information before departing on a trip frequently obtains the names of such contacts. On a recent trip to Stockholm, my wife and I canvassed our friends to see if anyone knew someone in that city, and several did. We phoned these Swedish contacts, invited them to dinner with us, and spent several exciting evenings learning from them about the country and the city. One Swedish couple, sensing the questions I would put to them, arrived at the restaurant with a stack of economic statistics that they had printed up from the Internet!

Q: Would you prefer to go to big events like Carnival in Rio and Running of the Bulls in Pamplona, or to visit these countries during “non peak” travel times?

A: The running of the bulls in Pamplona is of no interest to me (it’s part of a barbaric, drunken ritual), and the only reason to visit Pamplona at all is during a trek to Santiago de Compostela (it’s at the very start of the “Way of St. James”). But Carnival in Rio is something else, and Rio itself can be visited with great pleasure at any time of the year.

Q: Can a woman travel to Samarra, Iraq and find a safe, decent place to stay for a month or two?

A: No.

Q: What’s a good trip for a 70-year-old man with rheumatoid arthritis who wants to see something other than the mid-Atlantic region or New England, where he’s lived and vacationed all his life?

A: Why not visit the exact opposite of the mid-Atlantic and New England, and make a winter trip to Paris (“how’re you gonna keep ’em down on the farm…”). Go-Today.com will send you there during the winter for just $599. Paris is an exhilarating experience, on the frontier of art and cuisine, fashion and literature, theater and opera — an endlessly fascinating tribute to human achievement.

Q: I’m a college student spending a year abroad in London. What’s the best way to avoid those nasty international fees?

A: There’s no legal way to avoid government fees and taxes.

Q: Can you recommend a Web site where I can get good advice on traveling with kids, as well as recommendations for family-friendly hotels and resorts?

A: I’ve been impressed with WeJustGotBack.com.

Q: What tips do you have for falling asleep on an airplane, particularly during a red-eye flight?

A: Eye shades, ear plugs, and those pillows fastened around your neck that keep your chin from dropping forward when you do fall asleep.

Q: What should we do when we get to a place that was recommended by your travel guide and it really didn’t meet expectations? Is there some way to let your travel writers know?

A: We receive a heavy amount of correspondence from our readers, and we cherish and heed their comments. We also pass them on to the authors of each guide.

Q: This summer, I will be in Beijing during the Olympics. Do you have any recommendations as to how to manage the huge crowds and the giant influx of foreigners?

A: I really don’t think those crowds will impinge on your own activities.

Q: I am currently deciding where to go on my next trip. I’ve narrowed it down to four destinations (New Zealand, Hong Kong, Spain, or Argentina) and I was about to start throwing darts at the map until this opportunity presented itself. Any thoughts on the matter?

A: While each of the destinations you name is a fine place to visit, none of them would be on my own list of “indispensables.” What is “indispensable,” exactly? Every American should at some point in their lives go to China, participate in an African safari, and visit ancient Egypt.

Q: Did Frommer’s pay for the prominent product placement in the movie Euro Trip?

A: We certainly didn’t. I received an initial call from the movie’s producers asking if we had any objection to our name being used, and I was also offered the chance to play myself in the film. When I learned that doing so would require hanging around Rome for as many as two weeks in order to utter my two lines of dialogue, I turned down the offer, and a noted British actor was chosen to play me. He was much better looking.


htb

Guenevere: Your "curt" is everyone else's "concise" and "not needlessly wordy." As someone who tends towards "diarrhea of the mouth" myself, I often admire other people's ability to say what they need to say -- and then quit talking!

Allen Smithee

"Its democratically elected president, the Nobel-prize-winning Aung San Suu Kyi, has asked travelers to stay away. I will not support the thuggish military rulers of that nation with my tourist expenditures."

I'm surprised with this political posturing and Frommer's condescending attitude.

Don't people visit Cuba? Or should people stop visiting America because "democratically elected" Dubya's govt. decides to invade Iraq & probably Iran next?

Jack D. Heacock

Fromer's recommendation for a $ (One Dollar Sign)eatery in Rome led us to the most unforgettable event on a month-long sojourn in Italy. Mama Ada's cafe, located on a two-block alley across from Castello Sant Angelo, will top a previous event at the Tour d' Argent in Paris. Mama Ada came to our table with a carafe of homemade white wine, eyed us briefly, then began bringing entries. She read each of us like a book, and each of us marvelled at her intuitive gifts. When we beckoned her for the bill after two hours and an accordian offering, she whipped out her magic marker and wrote the amount on the paper table "cloth." It was half of what we had expected. Thanks Mr. Fromer.

Alexi de Sadesky

Thanks so much for the "indispensables" Mr. Frommer! Your travel books are a great help and now I see why.

Phil

Hooray! My question is the first one answered!

discordian

I think this was the best Q&A yet.
Good questions and honest answers.

Charles

Excellent read, you can tell he is a very caring man from his answers.

AK

Excellent answers. Thanks.

Kris

This is wonderful, fascinating information from one of the most experienced people in the field of travel. I'm very glad that he was able to take time to answer so many questions.

C

This is fantastic, and I agree it's the best Q&A yet. Frommer is a delight, and I've already bookmarked his blog in my own "travel" folder.

DKG

I agree with many above, finest Freakonomics Q&A yet!

DKG

Adam

"And, by creating the impression among people of the world that we are an arrogant, cold, and unfriendly people, we make ourselves less safe."

Maybe a nugget of wisdom for our War On Terror?

chip

I have been a Frommer fan for years. I guess it is too late to ask why he hasn't mentioned Freakonomics on his blog. http://www.frommers.com/blog/

travis bickle

By the way - it hasn't been called the Union of South Africa since 1961 - it is now the Republic.

Michael

It appears I'm in the minority, but I thought this Q&A was one of the least interesting so far on this blog. I've had no experience with Mr. Frommer (a graduate of the Yale Law School)or his books. Does he intertwine his political leanings in his travel books as well?

Colin

I imagine he includes political thoughts when the questions demand such, as a number of these did.

Lynn

Interesting, but I suppose I didn't phrase my question right, I wanted to know more about international credit card debit fees.

Caleb Powers

I think this was a wonderful interview. He is absolutely right that reading and planning add greatly to any trip, and the further you go back, the better. I've begun many a trip into unfamiliar territory by reading the WPA regional guides from the '30s, as well as Mr. Frommer's more recent efforts.

Tammy

As a non-US citizen I can add some comments about travel in the US. I can understand why people from overseas may have stopped coming to the US.

I travelled in the US in November 2001. I was randomly selected to be search three times at each airport I went through. That is: my checked luggage was opened and searched, I was physically frisked at the security screening point (being watched by men with guns) and my hand luggage and I were physically searched at the check in gate before getting on the plane. I don't think I was randomly selected 3 times at 7 airports (21 searches). I assume it was because I had a foreign passport. An Australian one. It was worse for a lovely asian woman I met at one airport, she was randomly selected to be searched too, however she spoke no English at all and was travelling with a 3 or 4 year old child. It is hard to understand why someone is patting you and your child down and emptying your bag in front of you if no one can tell you what is going on. Thankfully the same was happening to me as well, so she at least wasn't alone.

I also travelled in the US in 2004, a bit further away from 9/11. Again I was randomly searched at every point by people with guns (it was only 4 airports that time).

I have not travelled to the US since 2004, but since then I believe that systems have changed and security people take the finger prints of all foreigners coming into the country. I understand the need for security, but there are ways of not making your guests feel like criminals before they have had any sleep after their 14 hour flight.

Smiling would be a start.

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Chuck Smith

Lynn -- The best way to avoid the international credit card debit fees is to not use your credit card. Unfortunately, that's the best way around those exchange-rate fees. I'd advise checking with all your credit card issuers to determine the card or cards you have with the lowest fees and carry those in case of emergency. Make sure to call all the issuers and let them know you're taking the card out of the country so your account doesn't get flagged as fraudulent while you're away, and thus likely hard to reach.

Other than that, sadly, in my experience your best option is to carry cash. The ATM fees, at least in my last out-of-country voyage, were way less than the massive percentage-per-transaction fee my credit card company was charging.