The Magazine


Europe on Five Dollars a Day

Nov 16, 1998, Vol. 4, No. 10 • By BRIAN MURRAY
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In 1936, Eugene Fodor published On the Continent, the first book-length travel guide to bear his name. Subtitled "the entertaining travel annual," On the Continent covered Europe from Portugal to Turkey, offering neither pictures nor maps, just relaxed advice and lively prose.

The book remains a delight to read, a charming look at decorum and diversion in a world now largely gone. In Holland, we learn, courtesy "demands that men should greet each other by raising their hats." In Sweden, a gentleman "always walks on the lady's left." In Spain, foreigners are urged not to be "too enterprising with the exquisitely graceful and alluring daughters of Spain," for "there may be a stiletto lurking in the background." And for that "vast mass of people who are in need of real change but must watch the cost," On the Continent offered this emphatic advice: "Jugoslavia." Here, notes the guidebook (quoting George Bernard Shaw), "the people are everything you imagine yourself to be, and are not. They are hospitable, good humored, and very good looking. Every town is a picture and every girl a movie star."

Of course, nowadays -- thirty years after the jumbo jet -- world tourism is not what it used to be. For ever-growing numbers of Americans, Europe isn't a romantically far-flung locale; it's where you go to conduct business or to spend your junior year abroad. During summer's high season, the continent is lined with tourists from the Costa del Sol to the Amalfi Coast. "We are," as Arthur Frommer proclaims, "the first generation in human history to be able to travel to other continents as easily as we once took a trolley to the next town."

Frommer himself entered the travel-handbook market in the mid-1950s with Europe on Five Dollars a Day -- in its way, one of the most influential books of the postwar years. Hugely popular and widely imitated, Frommer's first tourbooks helped convince a new generation of honeymooners and holiday-makers that they needn't settle for Yellowstone or Niagara Falls when -- for relatively little more -- they could cross the ocean and tour the world. And as tourism boomed, so did the guidebook industry. In 1996, the New York Times estimated the domestic market for such publications at $ 200 million a year.

Of course, in some ways, guidebooks to Europe haven't changed all that much since the dawning of the jet age. They still list the same grand sights and many of the same hotels. But the current versions are glossier than they used to be, bigger as a rule, and over-packed with advice. The Complete Idiot's Travel Guide to Planning Your Trip to Europe is, for example, as hefty as the Boston Yellow Pages, and could double as a dumbbell for those wishing to work their biceps while strolling the Champs Elysees. But then, in the Information Age, less is rarely taken to be more.

Fodor's On the Continent assumed a certain resourcefulness in its readers, urging them to drop their tourbooks occasionally, allowing "chance and the mood of the moment to direct you." The aptly named Idiot's Guide, however, promises a "nobrainer" approach, and "easy to follow advice that guides you every step of the way." Its author, Reid Bramblett, even supplies detailed itineraries covering virtually every hour of a two-or three-week stay. Bramblett is a self-described "advance man" who, while "cris-crossing the continent" pen in hand, has "already made mistakes -- and learned from them -- so that you don't have to." "Heck," he crows, "I'll even help you pack!"

Bramblett has already endured what he calls the greatest "culture shock" facing Americans visiting Europe -- the bathroom. "It all starts in your first cheap pension," he warns, "when you discover that the only bathroom is down the hall, coed, and shared by everyone on the floor." There's more: European hoteliers can be pretty miserly when it comes to filling the hot water tank; and, as Bramblett warns, "hot water may be available only once a day and not on demand." The shrewd Yank thus asks -- presumably in a booming voice -- "When hot water?" as soon as he checks in.