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Getaways: Traveling Light and on the Cheap

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mar21homespunweb.jpgBy Linda Zavoral

RISMEDIA, March 21, 2008-(MCT)-We should have known better than to recommend an upscale restaurant to Pauline Frommer-she of the “spend less, see more” philosophy-even if it did showcase fresh California ingredients. After all, this is the daughter of Arthur, the man who revolutionized budget travel with his “Europe on 5 Dollars a Day.” Pauline writes her own line of guidebooks for a new generation-a generation that’s as comfortable in a hostel as a Hilton, as intent on finding a great cybercafe as a French cafe.

We caught up with Frommer, well-worn backpack slung over a shoulder, at the Bay Area Travel Show in Santa Clara, Calif.-hen followed up via e-mail about topics ranging from underrated destinations to packing light. This is an edited version of our conversations.

And the meal? “I’ve had better at those high prices.” Ouch. Next time she wants a good value meal in Silicon Valley, we’re sending her to our favorite Indian buffet.

Q Do you usually travel with just a backpack?

A I carry my day-to-day stuff in a small backpack. My clothes go in my carry-on suitcase (with wheels). I NEVER check luggage–too iffy and time-consuming nowadays. This summer my family of four (husband and two daughters, ages 4 and 8) went across the United Kingdom for two weeks with just three carry-on bags, my backpack and a camera bag.

Q This is Silicon Valley, so I have to ask you about your electronic gear. What gadgets do you travel with?

A My MAC laptop, my Treo, my Garmin (GPS), a digital tape recorder (sometimes) and my chargers.

Q There are lots of opinionated travel websites. How is your guidebook advice different? Better?

A While I think the immediacy of the opinion sites is useful-no guidebook could warn a reader that there’s construction going on across the street from Hotel X right now-the advice you get from those sites has to be taken with many, many grains of salt.

Here’s why: When you’re looking at a good guidebook you’re taking the advice of an author who has seen all the options in a certain destination and therefore can compare and contrast. I spent the month of October in Hawaii, and while on Maui, I stayed in a different hotel every night.

When you’re reading a traveler’s opinion of a hotel, whether it be good or bad, it’s lacking in perspective. That traveler might think the hotel they chose is the best there is, but they wouldn’t know that the hotel up the street had rooms twice the size and at half the price.

And that’s if the review you’re reading was written by an actual traveler. There’s a very popular and effective new form of advertising out there called “buzz marketing.”

Q Talk about “buzz marketing.”

A The idea is not to put out traditional advertisements but to use subtler means, such as posting “opinions” on websites, to create a buzz for the hotel, restaurant or attraction that is your client.

The opinion websites say that they weed out these types of comments, but unless their staffers are psychic I don’t see how they can catch them all (or even the majority of them). It’s quite simple to set up multiple e-mail addresses and post opinions, and I know it happens.

On another trip to Hawaii, I was on the Big Island and I visited a small B&B. It was an OK place-the owner was quite charming-but the rooms were smaller, pricier and a bit shoddier than those found in neighboring B&B’s. You can imagine my surprise when the owner told me, quite proudly, that hers was the top-ranked B&B on the Big Island on TripAdvisor.com. I asked her how that happened and she told me she had gotten a negative review, so she wrote to all of her former clients and asked them to post raves. They did so and-voila!-she moved up to No. 1.

Guidebook writers are paid by their publishers, not the hotels, restaurants, etc. they visit. Our only client is the public. If we start putting out reviews that are not trustworthy, we lose our audience.

Q The euro. The pound. The exchange rate. Arrrgh. What are you telling tourists who want to travel to Europe and Great Britain this year?

A I’m telling them to go, but to look at alternatives to the way they’ve traveled in the past. While we do cover hotels, we expend a lot of energy on researching vacation rentals, private B&B’s (where you stay in someone’s apartment), religious retreat houses, agriturismo and farm stays, military hotels, dorm stays, you name it.

Q Just how much can you save staying in alternative lodgings?

A The savings can be stupendous. In London right now, it will cost you between 60 pounds and 110 pounds per night ($120-$220) to get the most basic accommodations. But we found home-stay organizations that will rent you a private room, with private bath, in a local’s apartment for as little as 22 pounds ($44) a night. We even found one company that rents out Virginia Woolf’s childhood home for less than you’d pay at most hotels.

The great things about these options, beyond the cost savings, is that they usually take you out of the tourist ghettos, where most hotels are, and place you in the neighborhoods where locals live. So you get a much richer picture of life in the destination you’re visiting.

Q What are some other ways to save in Europe?

A Pick a less expensive area for the country you’re interested in visiting. So Sicily rather than Tuscany, say, or Wales rather than the Lake Country in the U.K.

Q Which off-the-beaten-track destinations do you like for 2008?

A To seasoned travelers, I recommend Molokai in Hawaii, the national parks of Alaska (of these stupendous parks, only Denali gets anywhere near the visitation it should), Apulia in Italy, Krakow (Poland), Nicaragua, Nova Scotia, Jordan, Tasmania.

Q What do you think Americans tend to waste money on when traveling?

A They assume they need a rental car. In many parts of the world, public transportation and walking are the way to go.

They assume that “you get what you pay for” and therefore pick hotels outside their price ranges. The truth is, most travelers spend very little time where they’re lodging, so someplace clean and convenient is usually just fine. And often the only difference between a pricey hotel and a cheap one is the grandness of the lobby and slightly more space in the guest rooms.

Q In a year and a half, you’ve published 10 guidebooks on Europe and the Americas. Anything new for 2008?

A “Pauline Frommer’s Ireland” will be out later this year, as will new guides to Cancun and the Yucatan Peninsula, San Francisco and Spain. We’re also hard at work updating the first four guides in our series: New York City, Italy, Hawaii and London.

Q Does the whole Frommer clan-from your father to your children-ever travel together? Any advice on group travel?

A I travel with my father a lot to speaking engagements, but other than that we don’t travel together. My greatest piece of advice for group travel is to split up periodically. Too much togetherness can unravel a group.

© 2008, San Jose Mercury News (San Jose, Calif.).
Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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