Pauline Frommer, daughter of guidebook legend Arthur Frommer, sits down with us to talk about the family business, her own line of guidebooks, budget travel tips, and her worst travel experience ever.
Nomadic Matt: Many kids choice the opposite of their parent’s interest but you embraced your father’s love of travel. Is there one moment in your life where you thought travel is all you wanted to do?
Pauline Frommer: I’m not sure it’s true that children usually go in the opposite direction of their parents. I’m probably in the majority following in my parents’ footsteps. I started traveling with them when I was 4 months old, and have spent several months a year on the road ever since, so this nomadic lifestyle seems very normal to me.
But neither of my parents ever thought “travel is all (they) wanted to do” and neither do I. We enjoy travel and hope we’re doing some good with our lives by promoting cross-cultural understanding through travel (and also by ferreting great travel bargains, enabling a broader demographic to travel). But I have many, many other interests in my life, which inform my travel writing and editing.
What is it like working with your father?
My father is a brilliant writer and thinker, and I learn something new from him every day. He’s still incredibly productive, writing two syndicated columns a week, countless blogs for Frommers.com and appearing with me each Sunday on the radio. I feel very lucky to have had him as a teacher (and he really has taught me a lot over the years). We do have our disagreements from time to time, and that can get sticky—especially when we’re live on the radio!—but I think, in general, we have a very close, healthy relationship. And he’s a great grandfather for my kids.
I saw you speak at the Boston Travel Show 3 years ago about your own line of guidebooks. How are your books different than the main line of Frommer’s guides?
The regular Frommer guides are meant to be of use to people in all spending brackets. My guides are strictly for budget travelers, but unlike other guides targeting cheapskates (and I’d count myself a proud cheapskate) my books aren’t necessarily for the backpacker crowd. I felt there were a lot of other guides covering that market but very, very few for the working guy (or gal), who still has wanderlust but may not have the stomach for sharing a room with 10 other people anymore and may only have a limited time to travel (meaning they REALLY have to find good deals on fast forms of transportation). Being a mother myself, the books also speak very directly to the needs of traveling families.
And we have a very interesting section in each of the books called “The Other” (as in “The Other Paris” or “The Other Maui”) which guides readers towards experiences they might try that allow them to engage more directly with the local culture. These might be “pirate dinner parties” in San Francisco (where local home chefs show off their skills at dinner parties for other foodies), road bowling in Ireland (just like it sounds like, a game that takes place over miles of country roads), sitting in on classes at dealer’s schools in Vegas (and learning how exactly they rook you), or volunteering part of your vacation with a shelter that helps stray dogs and cats on Isla de Las Mujeres, Mexico. These are just a fraction of the unusual experiences we alert our readers to.
A final difference: we spend much more time than any other mainstream guidebook series exploring alternate accommodation. In preparing the guides, we don’t only visit hotels and then tell about rental companies and other options. We also visit dozens of apartments and agencies so we can say with authority which are the best. We bunk at monasteries, convents, farms, yurts, rentable horse and covered wagons in Ireland, you name it. There are so many interesting and affordable lodgings and only a fraction of them are being written about by the mainstream media.
“Spend Less, See More”—that’s the tagline of my books, but it fits. I think when you spend less you’re likely to have more interesting, authentic travel experiences. You’ll be eating where the locals eat, partying where they party. And as importantly, you’ll be supporting local industry and traveling in a more green fashion—staying at Mom and Pop guesthouses, eating at beloved local restaurants, taking public transportation, etc.
What is your overall travel philosophy? As someone who makes guidebooks, how do you view the rise of online guides? Is it a good or bad thing?
As the first editor of Frommers.com, I pioneered the online guides. And it’s clear to me that we’re moving towards a paperless media. That’s why Frommers is putting its content into all sorts of forms, from the internet to phone apps to pop ups in GPS Systems to iTunes audio guides. My only hope is that readers understand there’s a difference between guides that are created by journalists and ones that are thrown onto the internet as marketing ploys by PR firms. It’s important that you go with a name you can trust, one that’s presenting the information in an impartial, rigorously researched fashion.
Most of my readers are long term travelers. What advice would you give to backpackers and round the world travelers?
Read! And I’m not talking about guidebooks. I’m a firm believer that an informed traveler, one who reads up on the history of the place they’re visiting, its culture, its current political situation, its art scene, etc will get more out of the journey, and as importantly, know what to look out for. They’ll have more likelihood of getting off the beaten track and seeing what the culture really is like.
What is your worst travel experience?
I once had to do an article on a guided tour, which meant I had to TAKE a guided tour (for two days). I felt like I was in some weird kind of prison, having to see Italy through the glass of a big bus, rather than on the streets. And having to listen to a TERRIBLE guide drone on and on, giving very little insight into what we were seeing. On that tour, I overheard a woman turning to her husband and gushing “Isn’t Italy beautiful! Don’t you just long to come back.” Her husband replied with a shrug “Eh. I’ve seen better”. And I thought to myself, well, if his only experience of Italy consisted of listing to this bore rattling on and on, eating in the lousy tourist restaurants big enough to handle 40 bus passengers all at once, and sitting on a bus for hours every day…well, yeah, he probably had seen better.
Now I don’t want to diss all tours. I’ve taken some great afternoon walking tours, and there are some tour companies that don’t give you this type of pre-fab experience. You just have to do your research to make sure you’re with a better type of tour company. Or travel like I tend to—independently!
Photo credit: 1