Pauline Frommer on why smart people travel

The daughter of Arthur Frommer talks about why traveling -- especially budget travel -- is smart.

A traveler since she was four months old, Pauline Frommer is the author of award-winning guidebooks, the host of a radio talk show and a columnist for MSN Travel and Weight Watchers. The daughter of Arthur Frommer, she has carved out a niche in the world of budget travel.

We spoke last month about why traveling -- especially budget travel -- is smart. 

Why is it smart to be a traveler?

I think St. Augustine put it best. He said, "The world is a book and those who do not travel read only a page." I don't think you can consider yourself a fully rounded person if you don't get out of your native area and see what the rest of the world has to offer and see how they differ from us culturally, politically, socially, and what we share in common. Here in the United States we live in a democracy, so it's our duty to be informed about what is going on in the rest of the world, so we can elect leaders who have the smarts to forward our interests in a sensible way.

Certain countries of the world I think are necessary to travel to nowadays, such as China. When you go to China you get a vision -- sometimes a scary one -- of what the world may be turning into. You go to downtown Shanghai and it's bursting with skyscrapers and you feel like you should see rocket-ships dashing between them. That's how futuristic it looks. It's important to go to Europe. Much of American culture is derived from European traditions. It's important to go to South America, which is also growing in its influence in the world. It's important to get out of the U.S., but unfortunately only about 25 percent of Americans have passports.

You said in an interview last year that you and your father believe we wouldn't be electing the leaders we do if we were a better-traveled people. Would you expand on that?

I think if we were a better-traveled people we would have more faith in diplomacy. We would realize that people all around the world have the same fundamental needs and issues. We all want to keep our families safe and happy. We all want to have enough food and drinkable water. We live in an era where there's a lot of news coverage, where the fanatics get the majority of it, especially in situations where we have clashing interests with other countries. What's gotten lost is our common humanity in the discourse. When you travel, you recognize that.

Why do so few Americans travel?

I once read a study saying that what Americans fear most when they traveled was not terrorism and it wasn't the cost. They thought the places they traveled to would be not clean. There's a grain of truth in that. We doubt our own ability to cope in areas where the first language isn't English. I've met people who say, "Why should you travel to the rest of the world when you haven't seen all of America?" [But] if you try to see all of America first, you're never going to leave. You should travel within America because you see vast cultural differences, as well as natural wonders. But it's important to see the rest of the world.

Lots of people think they have to travel in a different way abroad, maybe with guides, which of course adds to the cost. There are tourist authorities abroad who help travelers, especially in Europe and Asia. You don't have to shell out for extra help. Every major city will have tours you can take in English. You can pick [walking tours] up on the spot. You get a much more passionate, intimate, often better-informed tour when you go with a walking tour. They're run by people who do it for the love of it.

Why do you advocate budget travel, even for people who can afford luxury?

Budget travel brings you closer to the communities you're there to visit. A multinational hotel will look the same whether you're in Athens or Istanbul or New York City. Many of the big hotels are in areas zoned commercial, which take you far from the real life of many cities. You don't go to the restaurants that locals go to. You don't go to the same bars they do. You're stuck with other tourists. When you stay in little guest houses where there are no TVs in the room, you go down to the common lounge to catch the news. You start talking with other travelers and you make connections. The same in hostels. The real low-cost [options] are staying in people's homes, or staying in monasteries and convents, and getting a close look at a society that you'd never get near to if you weren't staying on the cheap. Renting a house in a community is a very cost-effective way to travel and the best way to get to know people in the community.

What about budget travel outside of accommodations?

One of the best things you can do on any vacation is put aside a day just to get lost and just wander at will, wander away from the top museums. What you see will be as fascinating and as eye-opening. [When you] go to the great destinations, you're there to look at dead cultures. In Asia, in Europe you do want to see the museums, but you also want to see what the culture is like today.

Where have you traveled recently?

I was in Central Mexico. We were in Tlaxcala, which is the smallest state in Mexico. I would guess the only tourism they got in the last three months was me. It's a beautifully-preserved colonial city with fascinating pyramids right outside the city. We also went to Puebla, we went to Mexico City, which I have to say is a wonder. People worry about safety there and there are safety issues, but [you have to be] smart. It's a city that has almost as many museums as Paris, almost as many Art Deco buildings as Miami.

Photo: Pauline Frommer at the Mexican Home Cooking School in Tlaxcala, Mexico, this fall

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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