Arthur Frommer Will Again Publish Guidebooks

Arthur FrommerLast week, I wrote a lengthy tribute to guidebooks and the sad news that Frommer’s guidebooks would cease publication, and many readers here and on Twitter shared in my grief. Well, it’s time to remove the black armbands, because Arthur and his trusty guides are back! Don’t place your orders just yet; there’s still a lot up in the air, but the key news is that Arthur Frommer has reacquired his name brand from Google and confirmed to the Associated Press that he will resume publishing print, e-book and web content under the Frommer’s name. Google has retained all of the original Frommer’s content for its own Google+ and Zagat products, so Frommer will need to create all new content and find a new publisher for future books. Skift News has speculated on a few possibilities, as well as provided more details on the Frommer’s-to-Google migration. Long live Arthur Frommer, we look forward to what’s to come next.

Fear not, guidebook lovers; print isn’t dead.

[Photo credit: Darien Library on Flickr]

A Personal Lament To The Death Of Guidebooks

Death of guidebooks - Frommer's bookshelfIt was with a heavy heart that I read the news last week that Frommer’s guidebooks will cease to be printed. The guidebooks were purchased by Google last summer, and as of this year, the entire future list of titles will not be released. With the takeover of digital apps, social media, and user-generated content, we knew this was coming, but it still feels like the end of an era. It’s become fashionable for any traveler (especially for writers, including our own bloggers) to be dismissive of the printed guidebook, claiming they get all their tips “from locals on the road” or via social networks, possibly demurring to an occasional read of Lonely Planet. Let’s dispense with the tired traveler vs. tourist argument; we can all benefit from practical info for navigating a new place, and no matter how “local” you go, there’s nothing wrong with visiting the museums and attractions for which a destination is known. Even as an active member of the “new media,” I mourn the death of guidebooks like that of a friend.

The greatest gift of the digital age to the traveler is online trip planning. I’d never want to go back to the days of travel agents and phone reservations. I’ve spent hours on the Internet booking flights, reading hotel reviews and soliciting advice and recommendations from friends, but guidebooks have always been the heart of my pre-travel ritual. Each year, after we had narrowed down the destinations to a few (often places where American Airlines and Marriott coincided, back in the days where work travel generated a fair amount of status, miles and points for free vacations), my husband and I would spend a few hours at a bookstore, poring over the guidebooks for points of interest, relative costs of travel and local events that might happen during our travel dates. Back when I worked at Conde Nast Traveler magazine, my desk was next to the research department, making me feel like a kid in a candy store. Shelf after shelf of guidebooks, atlases and travelogues gave me a keen eye for what features are the most useful in a printed travel companion.In addition to having the most current information, I look for an efficient presentation (while I love travel photography, I don’t care for it in my guidebooks, taking up valuable real estate and showing me things I hope to see myself) with detailed maps, a short phrasebook and menu guide, as well as a point of view in a guidebook. I had always made fun of Rick Steves and his fanny-packed followers, but in Portugal, I discovered his “back door style” is really quite helpful for navigating crowded tourist attractions and distilling fun facts about a museum’s history (look elsewhere for nightlife advice, though). My respect for Mr. Steves solidified with his book “Travel As A Political Act,” particularly due to his advocacy for travel to Muslim countries and the importance of getting a passport. Time Out city guides offer a surprising depth of cultural sidebars in addition to nightlife listings. Occasionally, you might be lucky to stumble upon an indie series like the gorgeously-designed Love Guides to India or Herb Lester‘s guides to the “usual and unusual” in Europe and the U.S., but these were often only discovered once you reached your destination. Lonely Planet was usually a given, having the widest range of places and most annual updates, but my heart belonged to Arthur Frommer.

Frommer’s guides were never the hippest or most inventive, but I liked their no-nonsense and concise layout, stable of local writers and the personality that shown through the pages with “Overrated” tags and honest advice. I loved the history behind the Frommer’s brand, imagining how Arthur’s original “Europe on $5 a Day” changed the way Americans travel and opened up a world of travel daydreaming and practical trip planning. Writer Doug Mack recently published his own book, “Europe on 5 Wrong Turns a Day” using Frommer’s 1963 book as his only guide. Vintage guidebooks are priceless slices of the past, whether it’s a reissued Victorian guide, or a handbook for your trip to the USSR (the later is now one of my prized possessions). In 50 years, what will people learn about how we traveled to Asia from Facebook photo albums and TripAdvisor reviews?

Destination and books chosen, I relished my New York commute armed with guidebooks before the trip. While I hated to ever brandish a guidebook while traveling, I didn’t mind being seen with it on the subway, where people might see me and think, “There’s a girl who’s going places! Literally, to Chile!” I imagined a stranger might strike up a conversation, offering their tips for their aunt’s restaurant in Santiago or their best friend’s guesthouse in Valparaiso (I was evidently envisioning a live version of Twitter). Even now that I do float travel questions over social media, I first try to research via a custom Google search that limits results to my trusted sources, ranging from travel writer friends’ blogs to big media like New York Times’ travel section and, of course, Frommers.com.

During a trip, I’d carry a book in my purse during the day, but I only removed it for surreptitious glimpses of a map if seriously lost. While in a museum, I might allow myself the luxury of reading the book in full public view. In the evenings, I might peruse the book before dinner, not for restaurant recommendations, but for hints on what neighborhoods and streets might yield the most options. My husband has always loathed making reservations, even in our own city, preferring to rely on instinct, menu/curb appeal and highest density of locals. At the end of the night, I liked going back to read more about the places we’d seen, learning about the backstories of a city, and understanding the cultural importance of the names we saw on statues.

Once I moved abroad to Istanbul in 2010 and constantly clutched a smartphone, my guidebook usage slowed, but I never fully gave it up. English books were expensive and travel plans were made much more freely (weekend in Budapest on Friday? Why not, when it’s a two-hour flight?), but I still tried to cobble together some basic info before going to a new country – stuff like: how much to tip, the best way to get to the airport and the going cost of a bottle of local wine. Basically, stuff that could be found in a guidebook. In many eastern European countries, I found the excellent (and free) In Your Pocket guides, produced by expats and natives, with tips on everything from happy hours to hidden Soviet murals. The guides are available in various digital forms, but I always preferred to find a paper copy, easy to roll up in a purse and read cover-to-cover like a magazine. I experimented with various Kindle books and documents and apps to collect the many links and tips I found before a trip, but found a lot of limitations: poor maps, advice from inexperienced travelers, lack of context and real “meaty” content. Especially when I was stuck with a lack of Wi-Fi, a dead battery or a setting where it would be unwise to flash any form of technology, I’d yearn for an old-fashioned book.

After I return home, I can’t say exactly what happens to my guidebooks. I don’t revisit places often, so I tend to pass on books to other travelers, leave them in airplane seat pockets, or recycle them when I have to purge books. I always liked the idea of keeping them on my bookshelf, a visual reminder of where we’d been, like passport stamps in your living room, but my shelf space can’t keep up with my wanderlust. Many travelers like a printed book so they can make notes and annotations in the margins, but I consider a book a sacred space to be left pristine, though my books are accessorized with receipts, ticket stubs and bar napkins. I keep these artifacts in duty-free bags and hotel envelopes, possibly for a scrapbook I will never make, or for future generations to marvel at the fact that we once paid for hotel Wi-Fi.

Now that we’ve reached the end of an era, what’s to come in the next? Now that anyone with an Internet connection can tap into a local network, or crowdsource restaurant recommendations, is Mr. Frommer and his ilk destined to become a relic of travel, like steamer trunks and airplane ashtrays? I’d say that until apps and social media can overcome the limitations of user-generated content, there’s a niche for printed guidebooks, but the choice of print over digital is more visceral. We need guidebooks as long as there are people who love browsing in bookstores, who appreciate a beautiful map, and who don’t give a damn about being a traveler or a tourist, as long as they are going somewhere.

[Photo credit: Gluten Free Mrs. D via Twitter]

A Long Lesson From A Short Walk On The Karakoram Highway

I’ve just come home from a whirlwind week in D.C. and L.A. Both trips were wonderful. In D.C. I had energizing meetings at National Geographic Traveler and hosted an exhilarating onstage conversation with the amazing Alexandra Fuller, author of (among other books) Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight, an extraordinarily evocative and moving memoir of growing up in Rhodesia. In L.A. I gave a talk about Gadling at the Los Angeles Times Travel Show and shared memorable moments with Arthur Frommer, Rick Steves, Andrew McCarthy, and the Times’ terrific travel editor, Catharine Hamm, among many other notables of the travel world. I got back to the Bay Area just in time to emcee the February event in the wonderful new Weekday Wanderlust travel reading series in San Francisco, and then to teach a wanderful travel writing workshop at Book Passage in Corte Madera.

I’m not complaining. I’m grateful beyond words for these opportunities — but now that they’re over, I realize that I’m also exhausted beyond words. (And yes, I know I probably shouldn’t have stayed up until closing time at the rooftop bar of the Standard Hotel in L.A. – but that was research!) And when I survey the Kilimanjaro of emails that need my slogging-up-the-scree responses and the queue of articles lined up like planes at O’Hare awaiting the fuel of my words for take-off – well, if the state of my metaphors is any metaphor for the state of my mind, I’m in big trouble.

At a moment like this, I know just what I need to do: take some deep breaths and transport myself back to an adventure I took three decades ago in northern Pakistan — specifically, to one afternoon on a stretch of the wild, gritty, avalanche-threatened, pothole-punctured Karakoram Highway between Hunza and Gulmit, not far from the Chinese border.

My tour group had been bumping by van along the Karakoram for a few hours when we came to a road-closing avalanche about 15 minutes from Gulmit. Our guide set out to walk to Gulmit to get another van to pick us up, and told us to wait in the van.

We waited, and waited.After a while, waiting for another avalanche or rock slide to sweep us into oblivion seemed pretty silly, so I decided to set out on foot for Gulmit, too. There wasn’t much chance of making a wrong turn — the next intersection was four hours away.

And so I walked, as alone as I have ever been, into an awesomely uncompromising landscape: a rocky, gray-brown world of sere, monumental mountains, boulders looming by the side of the road, and — whenever I stopped to listen — absolute, ear-ringing silence.

As I walked, my footsteps feebly scrunch-scrunch-scrunching into the implacable air, I imagined the traders, missionaries and adventurers who had wandered that same trail before me, and wondered what dreams and doubts had filled their heads.

I thought too about the companionable people back in the van and about the warm food that awaited at the Silk Route Lodge, but most of all I thought about nature and time, about how my life was like one grain of sand on the slopes of one of those mountains.

Scrunch. Scrunch. Scrunch. I imagined straying off the path and scrambling crazily up a scree-slippery peak; I tried to absorb the silence; I strained a handful of pebbles through my fingers.

Scrunch. Scrunch. Scrunch. I considered the clouds, a scraggly tree, a boulder twice as big as me.

Scrunch. Scrunch. Scrunch. I listened to my own breath coming in and going out; I listened to the pounding of my frail and all-too-human heart.

In one sense, nothing much happened: Eventually I reached the warm waiting room at the Silk Route Lodge, and the others arrived by van a half-hour later.

But in another sense, everything had changed: I had seen the strangeness of the world, the rawness and beauty and sheerness of it; the age of the Earth; and our essential solitude — how we are born and die alone. I had seen the smallness of man and the largeness of the human spirit that dares to create and to love.

I had realized just what a precious gift life is, as are the people with whom we share it; and I knew that one day in the future, when life seemed about to avalanche out of control, I would stop and say: “Savor the world one step at a time, just like you did on the Karakoram Highway.”

[Flickr image via Marc van der Chijs]

Suspicious About Hotel Reviews? You Are Not Alone

Hotel reviewsHotel reviews come from a variety of sources. Trusted travel experts, agents and professional organizations may have delivered in the past when travelers chose an unfamiliar hotel so, naturally, people continue to utilize the resources for their future decisions. Others might check in with TripAdvisor or online travel sellers Expedia, Priceline, Travelocity, Orbitz and Hotels.com. Whoever travelers are checking in with, it’s big business with mixed results.

As reported in the Wall Street Journal, the hotel review equation is difficult to navigate. “It’s hard to overstate how important customer reviews are [to hotel sales],” said Douglas Quinby, senior research director at PhoCusWright Inc., a travel-research firm.

Common complaints about online hotel reviews stem from their accuracy. What one guest experiences and reviews turns out to be an entirely different experience for someone else.

Reviews often highlight a stark difference between commonly rated factors like the “value received” and whether a hotel “exceeded expectations” from one stay to another.

Oh, and those reviews that jump off the page as being just too good? Reviews that sound like they were written by a hotel manager looking for business? They might very well be.

In a study of hotel-review websites last year, PhoCusWright decided to remove one small national brand of hotels because the data was suspicious. “The volume of reviews was off the charts and the [rating] scores were off the charts,” said Mr. Quinby. He declined to identify the hotel brand.

Which reviews should you trust? Probably not TripAdvisor.

In February, the United Kingdom Advertising Standards Authority ruled that TripAdvisor’s advertised claim of “trusted advice from real travelers” was misleading, because fake comments could be posted without verification.

TripAdvisor says it has technology to filter reviews, weeding out problems and that customers and hotels themselves are able to police the site for fake or inflated reviews.

But do they?

“When reviews don’t match up with reality, consumers return to the site to post reviews of their own experience,” said Adam Medros, vice president of global product for TripAdvisor in the Wall Street Journal report. Hotel owners sound the alarm either when another hotel is suspected of adding in fake reviews.

“It just works,” said Mr. Medros. “The site wouldn’t have grown as it has without users coming back and saying the information was useful.”

Experts disagree.

Travel-guidebook legend Arthur Frommer told the Journal that he began printing reader letters about hotels in the 60s. After a few years, he realized that hotels were writing him letters about themselves. “I was being gamed,” said Frommer. “Hotels are so dependent on reviews that of course they will generate their own. They would be crazy not to.”

Should You Trust Online Hotel Reviews

Flickr photo by notphilatall

Should travelers boycott Arizona because of gun laws? Frommer leans towards yes

Arthur Frommer, longtime travel book guru, posed a question about Arizona’s “open carry” gun laws. In Arizona, Frommer found out, people can bring loaded guns to political rallies. That’s what happened in Phoenix earlier this week when some of the protesters, who showed up outside the convention center where Barack Obama was speaking, visibly wielded guns–including an assault rifle. Such action is legal in Arizona, something Frommer feels alarmed by.

In Arthur Frommer ONLINE yesterday, he wonders if travelers ought to boycott Arizona in protest of such open carry laws since he thinks a gun law that allows people to bring loaded firearms to political protests violates citizens’ safety. He doesn’t want to travel to such places. As he wrote, if a gun had gone off, mayhem could have happened.

It’s not that Frommer objects to guns–or at least he doesn’t say if he does or doesn’t. He thinks there’s a problem when a person carrying a gun in public does so in a way that puts people in danger.

Last year, I expressed my concern about guns being allowed into US national parks for similar reasons. Of course, others have a different opinion and some expressed those in the comment section. Some comments pointed out issues I that hadn’t thought of. Some state roads and US highways, for example, pass through national parks. If a person is carrying a gun in his or her car and happens to be traveling on such a road, he or she would be in violation of a gun carrying law if guns were not allowed in a national park.

Still, there’s Frommer’s point that if people are allowed to have their guns with them as a means of intimidation, and other people are traveling through such spots, doesn’t that put people not involved in jeopardy? I seem to remember from US history classes that even when the west was wilder there were some places where people who were carrying guns had to leave them outside a town or saloon. Or, maybe that’s just the Hollywood version.

Check out some of these wacky laws, place names and signs from around the world!


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