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56 Years Later: Europe on 5 Dollars a Day

A few weeks ago, news surfaced that Google, the owner of Frommer’s guidebooks, would no longer produce the guides in print form. This prompted a round of soul-seeking and even mourning here at over the fate of the book that launched it all, Arthur Frommer’s “Europe on 5 Dollars a Day,” even among folks too young to have used or even seen a copy of the book.

Luckily, more recent reports indicate that we can call off the funeral — turns out that Google ended up selling the whole show back to Arthur Frommer himself, who will continue to publish the print guides. These events naturally make you wonder about the larger issue of “Whither print media?” in an increasingly digital world — but the reminder of Frommer’s first-ever guide also raises another overarching question:

Europe for five dollars a day, seriously?!?

What Was Five Bucks Worth in 1957?

Frommer originally wrote his book to share with fellow American GI’s in Europe; they loved it, and a career, company and travel legend were born. Reading Frommer’s book today, which you can purchase in a modern reproduction (I got one for $10.99, a good deal for a book today, yet still a 400 percent markup from Frommer’s original $2.50 cover cost), most readers will be gobsmacked by his accounting of prices.

Open to any random page in Frommer’s 1957 book, and you’ll see decent lodging for less than $2. If that isn’t surprising enough, the meals are outrageously inexpensive. In London, Frommer found roast veal, stuffing, carrots and potatoes for 42 cents; when he went upscale at the Strand chophouse, he paid $1.04 for roast sirloin of beef with Yorkshire pudding and vegetables.

According to the Dollar Times Inflation Calculator, “$5.00 in 1957 had the same buying power as $41.59 in 2013,” thanks to an annual inflation rate of 3.86 percent. So if you were to follow Frommer’s advice and go to every hotel and restaurant he visited in 1957, could you do it for under $42? It is hard to imagine.

There are two reasons for this. First, the growth of travel and tourism to Europe — and travel and tourism in general — seems to have resulted in a much greater rate of inflation in hotels and better restaurants than for some commodities. Second, the dollar is not so strong overseas as it was in 1957, no question.

But even so, at a Wawa in central New Jersey you can get a hearty sandwich for $5, and at nearby Hoagie Haven, a full-sized, falling-out-of-the-wrapper hoagie for $8 – $10. This would put you well on the way toward keeping your meal costs for the day to under, say, $15 — not even half of the $41.59 target. Sure, finding a hotel for the remaining $26.59 would be hard, but not impossible if you were sharing expenses with a companion. You could at least get close — in a fleabag hotel outside Atlantic City, maybe.

So could you do Europe on $41.59/day today? I started to trace Frommer’s steps a bit by doing a heap of Web searches, looking for pricing — as well as whether Frommer’s 1957 haunts even still exist. Then I came across Dick Davis’s Europe on 5 Dollars a Day: Then and Now, in which the author followed Frommer’s path through the same 11 cities in eight countries, and reported on what he found.

Davis is no ironic hipster trying to find the lost 50’s; he actually used Frommer’s original book for a tour of Europe back in 1963. So when Davis says Then and Now, he means it — he did it then, and did it again now (in 2012).

He is no guidebook-carrying ancient mariner, either, as witnessed by his solid digital photos and frequent mentions of Internet cafes and connections. The fact that Davis’s book is available in Kindle format only is its own modern irony — but no point getting sidetracked over the medium, let’s stick with the message.

Europe on 5 Dollars an Hour

Davis’s witty Then and Now book follows Frommer’s footsteps and to some extent his format alike, sharing specific hotels, restaurants, meals and most importantly prices from his 2012 reprise. The verdict: As Davis notes very early in the book, “If I were truly on a 5 Dollar a Day budget, I’d still be at the airport.”

Davis shared some observations from his trip below, wherein he guesses that you could probably do Europe on $100 a day today — so more like $5 an hour.

Q: What inspired you to follow the original Frommer’s path several years later?

A: The short answer is that I like the adventure of travel. What urged me on to reprise “Europe on 5 Dollars a Day” was the simplicity [as well as my] surprise that Frommer’s Europe was only eight countries and 11 cities. The maps outlined the journey, and having traveled across Mexico by bus, I thought, Europe by train, what fun — go see what has changed or remained the same in 50 years since I first stepped off the Holland American Line’s New Amsterdam in South Hampton, England, in 1963.

I wasn’t disappointed! I chased down hotels, hostels and restaurants mentioned in “Europe on 5 Dollars a Day,” many of which I had stayed at or dined in back in 1963. The big help was Google. Names change, but addresses are the same. In Copenhagen I really wanted a Danish open-faced sandwich from Oskar Davidsen’s, but I found an empty corner, the building gone and walls graffitized!

Q: Were there any particular surprises?

A: Davidsen’s was a surprise … the best sandwich shop gone!

The biggest surprise in London was that Haddon Hall, where I shared a room with a bath down the hall in 1963, is now a boutique hotel, as are virtually all the once economical, inexpensive rooming houses near the British Museum. One hotel is now a luxury condo … I found it by address, but the hotel — no sign of it!

Everything changes, some for the better. Virtually all hotels have private baths today, even youth hostels, which is now a misnomer — I don’t think many are restricted to age anymore. Some things are worse — graffiti is a plague. Metros are simple, modern, better than BART where I live (Bay Area Rapid Transit).

Q: What about prices?

A: Actually that was fun, really fun; now prices in the U.S. or Europe are basically on par. Some cities more so, others less, depending on quality, and certainly not the 1960’s bargains. And it’s a double change; as prices in Europe have gone up, so has quality, and also the dollar has declined. In a very general sense, I just divide or multiply by 10. If a meal 50 years ago was $1, I would think, hmm, what does $10 purchase? Hotels: a $5 room in 1960 might be $50 today … but really, rooms have inflated more than dining out in my experience and memory.

The fun was to go into a hotel and say, “My guidebook says your rooms are $1.70.” No one believed me! “Oh, yes, here it is,” and I’d get out “Europe on 5 Dollars a Day” and show them the rate and the comments. Often the reply was, “Can I copy that?” “Sure.” I didn’t get a discount, but there was chatter and disbelief and comments and talk about history, and so on.

I really missed out on one opportunity in Vienna at Hotel Austria as the owner’s short hours conflicted with my museum visits. In the guidebook, Hotel Austria offered a discount to anyone who showed up with the book, and the same family still owns the hotel, so I really wanted to show up with the book in hand and speak with the owner. The receptionist laughed, but didn’t have authority to honor the old guide.

Q: Your book is titled Then and Now; if Frommer could do this for $5 a day in 1957, what might be a realistic amount today? If not in Europe, can it be done elsewhere?

A: Maybe, if it were not a reprise, I might consider the “how to” approach: “How to see Europe and have the time of your life on a budget of under $100 a Day,” which I think is possible — but it would require a companion, and splitting hotel costs and grocery shopping … love bread and cheese!

I did Mexico for $80 a day and that could have been less if I were younger and more spartan. I went modest. One of the reasons Mexico is inexpensive [for travelers] is that there are so many festivals, processions, celebrations, just go … and you can’t avoid a cultural opportunity.

Q: Do you think this type of travel is preferable and realistic today, or have modern times left the guidebook behind?

A: I think Frommer’s Guides, or my reprise, are for the spirited adventure traveler, and I really don’t understand why so many sign up for comprehensive tours and group it across Europe. Maybe [it makes sense in] China, where language might be a problem, but in Europe, English is the universal language to our benefit, and when I’m stuck, I ask and someone is eager to practice their English. Of course I give the local language a try too, but often that’s short lived! The other person has a better command of English than I do of whichever language we’re speaking.

I just got back from reprising much of my own trip to Portugal and Extremadura, Spain, in 1963, when there were no four-lane roads and tourists were as common away from Lisbon as moon men. Today, tourism has taken over the central towns and cities. … Restaurants and too many tourist shops are making historic centers more Epcot than real. The language you hear is often not the language of the country you’re visiting.

That in my opinion means a guidebook, with some history and independent travel, is more valuable, more exciting, more educational than joining a tour. The individual can start early, more at will, see secondary sites that the tours skip. In Lisbon, the crowds entering Hieronymus Monastery and St. George’s Castle last week seemed more like they were trying to buy tickets for a rock concert. But I was virtually alone in the Gulbenkian Museum, which is a marvel, one man’s collection, as varied as William Randolph Hearst’s.

So I think guidebooks are very important, but not now as well used since touring has become an alternative. Funny — in the 1960’s only the rich toured, while all others did it with a book. Now it’s reversed. Inexpensive travel is often the tour, and the wealthy often skip tours, but might engage guides.

The Lingering Value of Print Guidebooks

It is worth noting that Davis’s Kindle reprise costs $2.99 on — only 44 cents more than Frommer’s original book — whereas Frommer’s own current Europe guidebook lists at $24.99. As Davis said, multiply by 10! Unless you have a smartphone, yeesh — these are confounding times for readers and publishers alike.

Worldwide access to affordable and reliable Internet connections is still elusive. In more remote or developing destinations, this is due to infrastructure issues — hotels are not all wired, and big data pipes and wireless towers are still rare. But even in the most wired, tourist-choked locations, international roaming and data fees are simply prohibitively expensive, even for the most well-off travelers.

Until that changes, folks will purchase and pack print guides, and someone will keep printing them for us to buy.

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