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.


audiodrumm

@ Lynn: I'm an American who has lived in Continental Europe for some time now as a college student. Unfortunately, there's no getting around many of the fees and, more importantly the exchange rates. Living in the UK right now on dollars is very expensive. As for the fees, the best option is to check with various banks and compare rates. Some have better than others but in the end, you'll never get the exact exchange rate. My advice would be to find some job where you could earn money in pounds to take some burden off of your US-based funds.

Great Q&A, btw! I throughly enjoyed it!

Sarah

I think these are generally good questions and answers, but I wanted to respond to this exchange:

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.

I frankly found this response to be both useless and condescending. The traveler has clearly narrowed his choices down to these four destinations for a reason, and (in my opinion) Frommer should have done him the courtesy of helping him choose among them rather than dismissing them all in favor of his own "indispensable" list.

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Kerry

If you enjoyed the Q & A there is a great interview with Arthur on Rick Steve's podcast from a few months ago.

Guenevere

I am very disappointed that Mr. Fommer did not address the first part of my question that asked for exmaples of the best and worst places for a woman to travel alone. (I noticed that at least one other reader asked about ideas for solo women travelers.) The only place he addressed the issue at all was to answer simply "no" to whether a woman can travel to Iraq and find a safe, decent place to stay. I am also disappinted that some of his answers seemed, well... curt.

Matt

Regarding the "international fees" question, the phrasing was rather unclear. If that poster talking about avoiding international fees associated with credit card and bank transactions, I have a few tips:

1. The Visa/MC network charges a fee of about 1% for international transactions using US credit cards. Card issuers typically tack on another 2%, meaning a 3% fee of the transaction value every time you use your US credit card abroad. Some credit cards however, offer a 0% foreign exchange fee, meaning they actually pay the Visa/MC fee for you. You may find the following website helpful in determining fees the credit card and banks may try to hit you with:

http://www.flyerguide.com/wiki/index.php/Credit/Debit/ATM_Cards_and_Foreign_Exchange

The BMW Worldpoints Visa comes to mind as a 0% forex fee card if you really love BMW, but your best bet is to go with any card from CapitalOne, as all offer 0% foreign exchange fees. The NoHassle CashBack card I got from them even offers 1.25% cashback on purchases, which adds up when you're studying abroad for a semester in Madrid and the dollar is so weak against the euro.

2. Research your bank's website beforehand to see if they have ATM's in your country. Mine, Citibank, does and they charge no fee for withdrawing from international Citibank ATM's. Also, based on personal experience my friends who use Bank of America at home have withdrawn money using their BoA ATM cards at Barclay's ATMs and have not been charged fees by either bank for some reason. Try it out and see, as this policy isn't even written and may change at any time.

I actually opened my citibank account specifically for my Madrid study abroad and transfer funds in via online ACH to withdraw at Citi ATM's fee-free and bank ATM's generally offer the best currency exchange rates you can get.

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mikey

I agree with Sarah's comment. I thoroughly enjoyed every question except that one. The OP may have been to all of the "indispensable" places already. Frommer could have answered the question, rather than creating a different one and answering that.

Otherwise, a wonderful Q&A.

the government

ok, you guys, make up your mind. Do you want me to try to keep illegal immigrants out of our country, or don't you?

Jonathan

One yea vote here for Mr. Frommer's concise style, and another kudos for his willingness to answer the kinds of meta-discourse questions that were posted. I think the best way to find further information on specific destinations would be to take his advice and read up on the places being visited.

Stan

I have personally observed at JFK and Miami International Airports the unfriendly, personally challenging attitude of the Customs and Immigration people with foreign visitors, compared with the friendly, welcoming geetings of analogous people at Internatinal airports in Chile, Peru, Argentina, UK, Germany, etc. Many visitors have a visa, showing prior US State Dept. screening & approval,while others do not necessitate an antagonistic approach. The drug dogs have already screened the luggage. We NEED their tourist money.

yossarian

Decent read. I wouldn't like to nitpick, but I thought his dismissal of the Pampalona bull run in favor of the Rio carnival was rather high handed. I don't see how one can be more hedonistic than the other. In my experience, travel is best when you set off with no expectations at all. Too much preparation is bad, I would suggest to improvise on the road. Also, I haven't read much travel writing but there are a few who try too hard to construe their experiences as life changing, Bill Bryson being one, and that IMHO can detract from the whole experience.

I'm glad he brought up the issue of difficulty in obtaining visas. Forget about travelling for pleasure (or to expand the self as Frommer condescendingly puts it), it happens all the time to legitimate professionals from non VWP countries. I was denied a visa to attend the Society for Neuroscience annual meeting as recently as last week.

Anya

Probably unlike most commenters, I came here from his blog and this is the first Freakonomics feature I've read. I'm a huge fan of Arthur Frommer and his open eyes... it's so important for an "elder statesman" to be this vocally openminded. Based on his gee-whiz attitude towards a lot of technology (in several cases he has implied that he was surprised or impressed by one tech thing or another that to me feels totally run of the mill), in my youthful prejudice I wouldn't guess he would be so progressive and vocal politically. But he is consistently vocal and thoughtful about human rights issues, from his travel advisories about Myanmar to his recent condemnation of the Ft. Lauderdale mayor's anti-gay comments to his general comments on ethical travel. Really glad to see him here.

Teresa K

Re: the couple of posts and Mr. Frommer's comments about the "cold discourtesy", etc that foreign visitors find upon entering the US...as opposed to what? I travel abroad (almost always to Europe) at least twice a year and cannot recall a single instance where the passport control officer in London/Rome/Paris/Amsterdam/wherever offered a smile, a welcome to , or a hello/goodbye/happy travels. Similarly, only once in memory did the US counterpart welcome me back home.

On the one hand, these people are very busy and have a very monotonous job. I can appreciate that and also the fact that probably they get people through the lines much faster by forsaking pleasantries. On the other hand, would it really kill them to smile or spend 0.45 seconds to say welcome?

On a side note, I totally agree with Mr. Frommer's advice to read up beforehand. I just got back from Italy where I was fortunate to be part of a guided tour of Roman ruins in a town in the Marche region called Urbisaglia (Urbs Salvia in Roman days). The tour included an aquaduct built in Augustus' time. One of the members of the group wondered when that was. I knew when Augustus "reigned" because I was nearly finished with Anthony Everitt's book.

I would also recommend watching movies that were filmed in the place of interest, particularly if they are in the country's language. It's wonderful to have a feel for the layout of the place you're going to, and usually you can also pick up a few words along the way (assuming your movie has English subtitles).

PS To those of you who read the "Are economists incapable of cognitive dissonance?" blog, yes, I am an economist.

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Mike

Regarding credit card foriegn exchange surcharges, It looks like Capital One is one of the few US companies that do not charge such a fee.
Try googleing "Credit Card foreign exchange fees" and follow the "www.cardratings.com" hit

John

I do not accept that tourism in Myanmar/Burma is a "negative":on the contrary,it has done a good job in improving various aspects of Myanmar.ASSK was not totally dismissive of tourism and I contend that her stance has been, and remains, a tactical error on her part,or more probably,on the part of her supporters in the West.The Junta's 'take of the tourism cake'is small beer by most standards and the majority of the income goes to local people,families and privately owned companies.All countries have a tax regime and this is obligatory for the most part.
This country is very complex,diverse and not one that Western politicians can get their heads around that easily...but they sure sound off about it.
Now...we can hope that matters are moving forward but there may well be more pain out there before some form of 'equilibrium' is found...

Nicholas Molnar

I enjoyed reading your story about the Modern Madrid, which I visited last in May (including the Reina Sofia Museum. Your comments about the Franco regime is rather lopsided, to say the least.Franco saved Spain and Western Europe from Communism, and started to modernize (on his own way) the backward, poor, agricultural country. It was an excellent opportunity and perfect poverty (before) to build a satellite country. This is why he sent more than 2000 "advisors" there, including Konev, Zhukov and Gorev, all marshals later in the SU. You may not be aware that before the victory of Franco,the Soviet managed to move the entire Spanish Treasury to Moscow, never to be returned. The second move of Franco, which deserves respect, that he was intelligent enough to select Juan Carlos as his successor, who slowly transformed Spain to a thriving democratic country. About the new law of Zapatero: there were almost the same number of people killed by the Republicans than the Nationalists.

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Steve Koehler

HI Arthur,

Could you please tell us the name of the Canadian tour company that specalizes in Australia and New Zealad, that you've mentioned on your radio show a couple times.

Thanks very much

Bob Silver

I was disappointed in the information in the Florence section of the Italy guide. If you are going to put dates on the guides e.g.2007 or 2006 the guides should be updated. We would have liked to know that certain constructions had not been finished. It prevented our seeing some interesting sites. Another problem we had had to do with public transportation. There are four small bus lines- the A,B,C,D lines, that circle inner Florence and can get you to all the major sights. Had we known we would have bought a three day pass. The rest of the information was good and we thank the frommer organization for the tip on the visit to Fiesole. It was a fun side trip.

Mary C Fischer

I enjoyed the questions and answers very much. Two specific comments: Our treatment of foreigners coming (or attempting to come ) for a visit to the US is truly a scandal. It has little or nothing to do with "security" but a lot to do with irrational fear and "little bureaucrats" with too much power and too little understanding. I am a US citizen who has lived abroad for over 10 years and the rude mistrustful attitude of our "protectors" also extends to me! Welcome home! Right....
As for women who want to travel alone in the Mid-East, suggest looking at Kuwait, Dubai or perhaps Oman. Be sure to take Mr Frommer's advice and read up on the culture and expected behavior. Could save a lot of grief!

Kathy Everett

Last Oct. my husband and I, on a tip from an old newpaper article by A. Frommer, went to China for a 13-day tour with China Focus. We want to thank you wholeheartedly for suggesting that tour company. We loved it all: the tour, the guides, seeing all we did, etc. Thanks.

Dolores Prince

I am going on a cruise to the Black Sea. Ports Varna, Constanta and Odessa, Alexandria, Hiafa and Cyprus. My question is, "can I use American Money in these ports?

Thank yOU