Interview: Pauline Frommer


Pauline Frommer
Pauline Frommer, daughter of American Travel writing legend Arthur Frommer, has built a successful career in her own right and last year began releasing her own line of guidebooks, which have been highly acclaimed for her “Spend less, see more,” approach. She was kind enough to grant Written Road a candid interview.

See articles, podcasts, and her list of guides at: www.frommers.com/pauline/

Nicholas Gill: I imagine you did quite a bit of traveling in your youth. I think I read somewhere you began at 4 months old?! What was it like growing up the daughter of one of the world’s most well known travel writers?
Pauline Frommer: Yup, I started traveling with my parents at the tender age of 4 months, and continued to do so throughout my childhood. We went to Europe for several months each year to update Europe on $5 a Day (and then $10 and so on). I don’t think I ever really registered my father’s fame growing up. It might have been different had his face been known. But for the most part, we traveled unrecognized, staying at the budget properties that were in the books, eating in inexpensive restaurants, going to museums and doing the shopping for the school year ahead (back then, when the dollar was stronger, it was cheaper to get clothes in Europe often than it was in the US). We had friends across Europe, many of whom I called Uncle or Aunt (I was close to my “Uncles” Marvin and Guido for many years), which kept the entire experience…I guess the word would be, grounded. It didn’t seem like an unusual way to grow up, at the time, but now I’m very grateful for the education it afforded me. I ended up a history major in college, I think, because I so loved learning the stories about the places we were visiting. And I have unshakeable feelings of deja vu wherever I go in Europe. I also learned a bit about the running of hotels and tour operation, as my father wore both of those hats, at different stages in his career. I think having witnessed how difficult it is to smoothly run a hotel or put together air/hotel packages has helped me in my own travel writing.

NG: Is there any other travel writing, other work in the travel publishing world that you find inspiring?
PF: Reading the travel writing of both Mark Twain and Edith Wharton is inspiring. My father is a brilliant writer, and I always learn so much
when I read his columns and guidebooks. He has a knack for getting directly to the point that I envy. I feel very lucky to have worked with both Reid Bramblett and Jason Cochran over the years. I consider them to be two of the finest travel writers working today, and it’s been an honor and an education to edit their work (on the Pauline Frommer Guides and before that at Frommers.com and MSNBC.com).

NG: Who were your biggest influences?
PF: Ugh, I feel like such a Pollyanna answering this way, but my parents were probably my biggest influence. They both have always been very political, and taught me that actions have consequences; they resonate in the larger world. I think that’s why I’ve spent my career only writing about affordable travel. Perhaps I’m a bit of a Puritan but I find this obsession in the travel industry with such issues as thread counts on sheets, obscenely expensive meals and other luxuries to be beside the point at best and ugly at worst. We should be traveling to experience other cultures, learn what people around the world are thinking, see the great sights, try new things, expand our minds, represent our country honorably. Yes, it’s fun to try really terrific food when traveling, or attend the theater, or even get a massage. But when travel is ONLY about pampering yourself…well, it becomes a much shallower experience. There are also ethical issues in how one spends money. How can I justify buying a First Class Air ticket when that money could be put to so much better use? I can’t, so I don’t. My father always says that you enjoy travel more and meet a better class of people, when you travel cheaply, and I totally agree.
So, I guess this all speaks to the fact that while I try to write in a colorful, interesting way (and edit the authors I work with to do so, as well), my main goal is to be of service to travelers, especially budget-oriented adults. Only 24% of Americans have passports. I personally think that may be one of the reasons we’ve elected many of the people we have in recent years (they’re expert in playing on our xenophobia and isolationism). I’m hoping to reach that other 76% with these books. I know that a lot of middle aged American don’t travel far because they’re beyond the stage in life when they want to be sharing a hostel room with 10 other people, and don’t know other ways to approach budget travel. These books are meant to illustrate how you can enjoy the kind of adult amenities you have at home, but still get out and see the world. I’m doing my darndest to try and fill them with every trick out there for saving money. And fill them with the wonder of travel, because really, there’s no other activity like and no better way to educate yourself.

NG: Was it difficult to begin your career in travel writing with the
Frommer’s name?
PF: No. My father allowed me to serve a very long apprenticeship, of sorts, working for him. When I was in college and in my early 20’s I did research work for him and honed my reporting and writing skills that way.

NG: It seems to me like writing and editing could have been in your head from a very young age? Did you ever consider another career? If so, how did you end up with this one?
PF: I worked on the school paper in high school and kept a journal on and off for years, but for most of my 20’s I was an actress. I toured the country with Les Miserables, served as the voice for a lot of books on tape, and played at many of the union regional theaters around the US. In between jobs, and sometimes from the road, I’d work with my father, doing research and helping to update the book the New World of Travel. In the late 90’s, we were brought on board to create Frommers.com. The web was very new at that time, and I was Frommers.com founding editor, probably because no-one knew at the time how important the web would grow to be. So I was able to learn editing on the job, worked with a number of wonderful editors, designers and writers. While I was there we won a People’s Choice Webby Award for the site (I guess you can tell that I’m still proud of that award) and I realized at that time, that travel writing and editing was more of my calling than acting.

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NG: How are your line of books different that that of your fathers? How are they similar?
PF: In their focus on affordable travel they’re very similar to my father’s original books, the Dollar a Day series. They differ, first off, in their approach to accommodations. Because of the high cost of hotels nowadays, there’s a greater emphasis in my books on alternative accommodations such as private B&B’s (where a local rents just one room of their apartment), condo and apartment rentals, monastery and convent stays, agriturismo, etc.

We also have a very innovative section of the books called the “Other” (as in “The Other Honolulu“, “The Other New York City“, etc.). These sections introduce readers to experiences that will allow them to meet locals and interact with them in meaningful ways. That might mean spending a day volunteering with scientists studying endangered sea turtles in Hawaii; visiting a Russian nightclub in Brooklyn, where you’ll watch a glitzy, Old World show and be the only person in the room not speaking Russian; learning to be a gondolier for a day in Venice or how to cook the perfect Bolognese sauce in Bologna; attending a “Cafe Philos” in Paris where you argue deep philosophical questions (in English) with locals; going to a magician’s karaoke night in Vegas, where the magicians practice their new tricks on one another (really fun). Finally, because the internet has transformed the way we book travel, these books contain extensive data on how to use the internet more effectively when planning a trip. By the way, these books are the new Frommer’s budget series. They’ll be replacing the Dollar a Day guides.

NG: How do you approach writing a new guidebook or updating one? What do you look for in sights, attractions, hotels, restaurants, etc?
PF: Balance is key. It’s a jigsaw puzzle with a large book to make sure
That each aspect of travel–attractions, hotels, restaurants and the rest–gets enough space. The page count for guidebooks is set before they’re written so achieving that balance, making sure that one section doesn’t crowd out another, can be tricky. And as I’ve said ad nauseum, I’m trying to include every trick in the book for saving money. I’m trying to find the very best cheap restaurants, the homiest cheap hotels, the best passes for sightseeing, etc. I’m also trying to give our readers a picture of the authentic life of the destination (just as important as saving money).

NG: What do you look for when hiring writers for your books?
PF: I’m looking for folks who don’t think they’re missing out by traveling cheaply. Who respect this form of travel and see its value.
I’m looking for Renaissance people who know enough about culture, history, cuisine, nightlife, transportation, architecture, shopping and art history to do an effective job. It’s actually very difficult to find these folks. Many writers do very well writing up restaurants, but because they’ve never studied, say art history, they don’t have the tools necessary to discuss museums. Or they’re brilliant on the museums, but totally baffled when it comes to nightlife and shopping. And guidebook writers have to be extraordinarily organized. When they’re doing their research, they need to keep careful notes on all aspects of what they’re seeing (prices, which credit cards are accepted, decor, manner of the front desk clerk, what have you) and then be able to recall these things effectively, after they’ve visited their 40th hotel. I’ve taken to photographing hotel rooms and restaurants on my cell phone and then recording my thoughts into the phone, as well, when I’m out in the field, so I can better remember the details(and my first impulses upon visiting the place) when I’m writing. Because guidebooks contain so much information, organizational skills are key.

NG: How are new forms of media helping travel writing evolve? For example, I know you have been doing more and more podcasts and have been in charge of several major sites such as Frommers.com and the MSNBC.com travel section. What should writers be on the lookout for? Where is the future of travel writing going?
PF: I’m assuming that some day all books will be on screens rather than paper. Hopefully these screens will be kinder on the eyes than the current ones. I’ve found that writing for the internet forces you to be much more economical with your language than in a book, because people simply get too tired reading things on a screen. Hopefully that will improve with newer technology.
As for the future of travel writing: I’m a bit worried about it. I worry that people are getting too much of their information from travel opinion sites, such as TripAdvisor, and turning less and less to the pros. This is dangerous for travelers as it means they’re following the advice of people who are airing their opinions on the only hotel they’ve gone to and a handful of restaurants (as opposed to a guidebook writer who’s researched them all and can better compare one to the next); and there’s a lot of buzz marketing on these forums, disguising itself as impartial opinion. It’s dangerous for travel writers as it may cut down on the number of outlets out there publishing the work of professionals. To me, it’s akin to the destruction of the careers of a number of TV writers when reality shows became big.

NG: Do you have any advice for young, blossoming travel writers out there? What is the best way to begin a career in travel writing?
PF: Write. And then write some more. You really need to hone your research and writing skills. Too many people think travel writing is about being a good traveler and it’s not. It’s about being an accomplished writer, who can create vivid word pictures when describing destinations; and who has the journalistic chops to do intense research quickly and effectively. You must also read widely, partially to improve your writing, but also to immerse yourself in the politics, the history, the culture, etc. of the places you want to visit. It’s a big mistake to go on a trip blind and then assume you can do a professional job writing about what you’re seeing. Advance research, in many ways, is as important as anything you’ll see when traveling, when it comes to travel writing.
As for beginning a career, that can be difficult as you need to be published to get published. So start out by approaching the smaller publications in your area with ideas for stories. You may have to accept lousy money at first so you can build up a portfolio of clippings that you can then show the editors of the national publications. As I said earlier, it’s REALLY hard for us to find talented writers, who can stick to deadlines, and who have the ability to put their own personal spin on a piece (rather than aping what other writers or the tourist board have already said). So, if you stick to it, and are talented, you’ll be welcomed into the travel writing community with open arms. But finding work as an unknown writer will be difficult at first.

NG: Do you have any new books, publications, or anything else we should
Look out for?
PF: Thanks for asking! In the next couple of months, the following books are coming out: Pauline Frommer’s Costa Rica, Pauline Frommer’s Orlando, Pauline Frommer’s Alaska, Pauline Frommer’s Ireland and Pauline Frommer’s Washington, DC.

NG: And last, what’s the one item that you cannot travel without?
PF: A good book, to read on the plane and in the airport.