One of the enduring wonders of these inflated, devalued times is the appearance each spring of Arthur Frommer's "Europe on $15 a Day." You'd think the 1980-81 edition would be skinnier than the Moose, Wyo., phone book, travel costs being what they are in Europe, but Mr. Frommers has somehow filled up 725 pages, advising the faithful how to do 17 major cities from London to Athens on that paltry per diem.
You may also think that Arthur Frommer, a busy executive who runs a big wholesale tour agency and manages hostels in Amsterdam and Curacao in addition to overseeing a travel-book publishing division with 42 titles this year, no longer has the time or interest to continue writing and researching the $15 -a-day guidebook.
"I'm the only person who writes the book," said Mr. Frommer, bristling only slightly at a question he's obviously heard before. "I write it at home, every night and every weekend for six months."
"He writes it and edits it himself and then it goes straight to the printers without anyone else touching it," put in Paul Pasmantier, head of the Frommer book division, when the three of us met recently in Mr. Frommer's Madison Avenue office.
Mr. Frommer noted that in the preface to the 1980-81 guide he has acknowledged the efforts of his associate, Nickolaus Lorey, an indefatigable Austrian. "Nick does the initial research memorandum and comments on every factual assertion -- and he does so with Germanic precision," Mr. Frommer said. For the first time this year the book carries a cover line crediting Mr. Frommer's wife, Hope Arthur, an actress, who has forever provided readers with candid tips on cultural and shopping matters (while her husband concentrated on bed and board).
What thrifty traveler since 1957, the year the first Frommer guide was published, has not gone abroad without feeling the sheltering presence of Arthur and Hope, the Nick and Nora Charles of guidebook writing? I first, packed along the Frommer guide, then "Europe on $5 a Day," in 1966, and within a few days of landing in Luxembourg -- on Icelandic, of course -- I was already talking in the cadence and chatty assertiveness of the Frommer style.
"Where is hope taking us today?" my touring companion and I would ask each other, referring to the section of each city chapter where Miss Arthur takes over in her own words under such headings as "Hope in Stockholm" of "Sightseeing with Hope" or "Hope's Paris." Then as now, Hope also wrote the "Packing of Save Money" chapter. She knows all the tricks I've never mastered.
"It was simply a division of labor," said Mr. Frommer explaining how he and his wife arrived at their work formula. "In the beginning we'd walk the streets together and while I went in to check on a small hotel or pension, she'd wait on the sidewalk doing nothing. It was male chauvinism in action. Finally she got fed up and we decided to split up each morning -- she'd do the museums and shops , I'd cover the lodgings."
Mr. Frommer is an attorney who got into the Baedeker business when he served with the US Army in Europe and wrote a small book, "The GI's Guide to Traveling in Europe." Army Intelligence and a yen for travel were the right ingredients for the confidential, slightly undercover approach Mr. Frommer used in the first leads you up a narrow, nondescript street to an unheard-of $10 hotel room with a concierge who speaks perfect English?
In encouraging his readers to contribute their own findings, Mr. Frommer has spawned a generation of undercover travelers. Each chapter contains their verbatim discoveries, in agate type, of cheap and offbeat hotels, restaurants, shops, and tours, information the author calls "the lifeblood of the book." This may make his job a bit easier, but it hasn't stopped him from doing his field work; he has not grown too prosperous to prowl the sidestreets in search of a good, cheap cafe or, occasionally, to stay in one of his pension selections.
"I was in Madrid recently with a couple of business executives, and I said 'Let's go to one of my places for dinner.' I took them to the Restaurant Valencia, at No. 44 Avenida Jose Antonio, a little upstairs place you could't find on your own. The check was $11 for three, and the two executives haven't stopped talking about it. Yet it was what we in the book call a 'Splurge' meal, one that costs a little more than your $15-a-day limit permits."
To stay within the Frommer formula, a couplem may speed $30 in all -- $15 on the room and $1.50 each for breakfast, $2.50 for lunch, $3.50 for dinner. If the $15 room comes with breakfast, as it does in England and Holland, you get another $1.50 to spend on dinner. This is no feat in low-cost countries like Portugal, Greece, and Spain, but, said Mr. Frommer, "We had to squeeze to make the plan work in Switzerland."
Next year Arthur Frommer will title his book "Europe on $15 and $20 a day," and soon after that it will go to $20. "I had to agonize when we went from $5 to $10," he said. There was something special and magical about that figure 5. We're still, I think, the best-selling guidebook -- 200,000 copies a year -- and same."