Frommer's Guide to Great Trips

It's the mental journey, he says, not the physical one, that makes the vacation

FORTY years ago, Arthur Frommer decided to write a little travel guidebook for his fellow GIs stationed in Europe. So the graduate of Yale Law School traveled around, took notes, and came out with "The GI's Guide to Travel in Europe."

The book was received so enthusiastically that he followed up with a civilian version called "Europe on $5 a Day." That book catapulted Mr. Frommer into travel writing and publishing, where he has been ever since.

Most people recognize his name from his books - Frommer's Budget Travel Guides. "We are now up to 142 guidebooks published annually," Frommer says proudly.

The Frommer name is almost Biblical in the travel industry. "The books have a longtime reputation and receive very positive national response," says Glenn Freeman, a travel industry consultant in the San Francisco area. With their do-it-yourself flavor, they "encourage people to get out more and mingle," he adds.

Frommer was in Boston recently to talk about trends, his philosophy on travel, and his company's latest endeavors, including a new series on city walking tours. (No, he doesn't write all the books himself.)

"I keep telling myself that I'm getting tired of travel," he says. On the other hand, if he stopped, "I would feel absolutely miserable." He keeps up a "ridiculous travel schedule," he says, being somewhere different every week, though he tries to be home on weekends.

The "budget" label on his guides may be misunderstood, he says. "The purpose of keeping your costs low was so that you could forget about such expenditures when you went to a particular country and concentrate on the reason why you went."

Another reason for his going the budget route was that it automatically meant that he avoided touristy places and thereby got to experience more of the "realities of the destination."

But not all his readers saw it that way. "A few years ago," he says, "it suddenly dawned on me that many of my readers were eating in modest restaurants and staying in `alternative' lodgings, but that they were spending their days just as senselessly as the rich tourists were....

"If all you do when you travel is look at some dead, physical structure or sight that you could as easily read about or see in a picture book, then the trip is not worth the fatigue and the expense of travel."

Frommer staunchly supports "meaningful" travel; he wants people to exercise their minds.

"Travel means exposing yourself to new lifestyles, to new philosophies," he says, "even juxtaposing your most cherished ideals to those that are perhaps diametrically opposed to what you believe in - being shaken up, being made to review your assumptions."

Frommer calls this philosophy "alternative" travel. Although such travel will always be a minority in the industry, it is a growing segment, he says.

"None of the large, major travel companies have yet involved themselves in it," he says. But whenever someone creates a small tour operation to take people to visit the Berber tribes in the Atlas Mountains of Morocco, for example, "like magic, the departure fills up with people." There are hundreds of tiny companies designing trips with a theme or purpose, maybe a volunteer vacation where travelers do environmental research or help with some local cause, for example.

In addition to alternative travel, he sees other trends: More cost-consciousness; more outdoorsy and even "health related" tours as well as "spas," which are booming. Seniors are traveling to a much greater extent than ever before, Frommer says.

Some other trends are disappointments to him: short vacations, motor-coach tour. He crusades against the "inhuman amount of vacation time that the average American enjoys," compared with the five weeks a year that is "an absolute bare minimum" in Western Europe. And while bus tours are convenient, he says, they don't let travelers see much of their destination.

A great vacation, Frommer says, is one that "introduces you to something unfamiliar - either a different lifestyle, a different political viewpoint, a different theological viewpoint." Frommer sometimes goes to resorts or centers that focus on a theory or way of life in which he does not believe - yoga, for example - "simply for the purpose of confronting it.... I find it a great intellectual adventure." And during the cold war, he considered it an incentive to visit "anti-American" countries, just to "s ee ourselves through others' eyes."

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