Europe on $5 a day, more than a half-century later

June 15, 2012

In 1957, Arthur Frommer published a groundbreaking guidebook called “Europe on Five Dollars a Day.” Today, that tome seems as quaint as the 10-cent pay phone call. More than a half-century after its appearance, travel budgeteer Doug Mack attempted to follow Frommer’s trail of dollar signs through 11 cities in eight countries — inflation duly noted. He relates his challenges and adventures in the book “Europe on 5 Wrong Turns a Day” (Perigee Trade Paperback Original, April 3). From his home in Minneapolis, Mack recently spoke by phone with Travel staffer Andrea Sachs. Some edited excerpts from their conversation, free of charge:

What’s the back story to your book?

A few years ago, I was at a book festival in downtown Minneapolis with my mom, and we were looking at a table of secondhand books. I found one called “Europe on Five Dollars a Day” that I thought was particularly absurd and hilarious. I bought it for 10 cents, initially out of ironic hilarity, a cheap conversation piece. I showed it to my mom, who thought that I’d bought it for her because she had used that guidebook in 1957. She also mentioned that she had all the letters that she and my father had exchanged while she was on that trip. I hadn’t heard about the book or the letters before.


(Perigee / Penguin Group)

How did the idea of your book take shape?

At first I was interested in the personal history, but as I started to look at my mother’s letters and the book, I got really intrigued by the broader social history of tourism — how things had changed, how they hadn’t changed. I wondered if I could go back to Europe with these materials and see how far I could get.

Did you use Frommer’s book to plan your trips [two weeks in 2008 and six weeks in 2009]?

I tried to use the guidebook as much as possible. Obviously, things like the train tables are going to be out of date. I wasn’t going to take a ship across, as he recommended. I made some concessions to modernity. But for the most part, that was my primary planning manual in terms of day-to-day activities and where I was going to stay, what I was going to do and where I was going to eat. When I got lost, I would rely on serendipity to be my guide.

How did people react to the book?

I usually got looks of confusion or incredulity. But there were times when I showed the book and someone said, “Oh, I remember this.” A prime example was at the Hotel Texas in Rome. The clerk’s eyes lit up. He pulled out a brochure from that era with quotes from all kinds of publications. The quotes from “Europe on Five Dollars a Day” talked about what a magnificent, grand place this was, yet still very affordable. Now the hotel is an example of deteriorated grandeur. It’s a shadow of its former self. But the clerk was more than happy to reminisce about the past.

Could you find anything close to $5 (about $37 today)?

There was a hostel in Vienna that Frommer describes as a fourth-class category. You can read between the lines. The gist of it is: If you’re really desperate, this is the place of last resort. I stayed at that same hostel and it was still affordable. I think it was about 25 euros [about $31] a day. The conditions were about the same, too. It was sort of miserable.

You admit to being a jaded traveler. Did any cities fill you with the same childlike wonder your mother described in her letters?

My arrival in Florence. Going through the Tuscan countryside was this mind-blowing experience of seeing old Italy. It felt like a theme park but better, because all the stereotypes were true. There were Vespa drivers, groves of olive trees and rolling hills. It was as if everything had been contrived for me by the tourist board.

Have any cities vastly changed since 1957?

Frommer says that Zurich is a really affordable city and a great place for a frugal traveler. I was never so nervous about my bank account as I was in Zurich. You couldn’t even breathe the air without it costing $10. The other one was Venice. To me, Venice represents everything that’s wrong with tourism. Most of the restaurants in my guidebook were really bad. Arriving in Venice at sunrise was another one of those magical experiences, but after a couple of hours, I was kind of over it.

Which country offers the best value?

Spain. I spent about 100 euros [about $125] a day.

Were most of the places in the guidebook still operating?

The places that were still around tended to be the ones that were the big, exaggerated versions of the culture, like the big beer halls in Munich. The biggest beer hall in Munich is called the Hofbrauhaus. You can still go there and drink your beer and dance the polka. In an interesting twist, Frommer says to go to the Hofbrauhaus and also the beer hall across the street. Well, that one is now a Hard Rock Cafe.

What about hotels?

For the most part, the hotels were still around. In some cases, they’d gone very, very upscale. They would have been far outside my price range.

If you wrote the book today, what amount would you stick in the title?

Maybe $120, $130.

Are you considering a follow-up?

Once you’ve gotten into old guidebooks, it’s hard to stop buying them. I would really love to go to Cuba with a pre-Castro guidebook.

Where is the venerable guidebook now?

It’s finally sitting on my coffee table in my apartment. My goal was to have an interesting conversation piece for my coffee table, and that’s the purpose it’s serving right now.

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