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Meet the 'First Lady of Travel:' Pauline Frommer

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First Lady is a title bestowed upon the wives of the chief executives of nations and states — First Lady Michelle Obama, former First Lady of France Carla Bruni, former Illinois First Lady Patti Blagojevich, etc.

But in the case of “The First Lady of Travel” Pauline Frommer, the title has nothing to do with the accomplishments of her spouse and everything to do with her own accomplishments in the travel industry — a field long dominated at the highest levels by men.

Frommer, of course, is a very recognizable name in travel. Pauline Frommer’s father is Arthur Frommer, whose guidebooks have been an indispensable aide to travelers for generations.

“I started traveling with my father when I was four months old,” Frommer told me during an interview at the recent Chicago Travel & Adventure Show. “We’d go to Europe every summer to update the book, “Europe on $5 a Day,” then 10 [dollars], then 15 and 20. And I did a lot of writing, I was the editor of the newspaper at my school and things like that.”

Acting out

Pauline Frommer, however, did not initially plan to follow in her father’s footsteps.

“I was an actor for about a decade,” she noted. “I toured the country with “Les Miserables” and did a lot of regional theater shows.”

The advent of the Internet at the end of the 20th century changed her career trajectory.

“My father was brought in by our publisher to create Frommers.com,” she recalled. “Nobody really knew what they were doing, so an actor got to be the first head of it. I realized I really enjoyed the writing and editing more than I was enjoying the acting.”

Her success in getting Frommers.com off the ground led to a gig as the travel editor for MSNBC.com for two years.

“Then the publishers of the Frommer’s guides, Wiley, asked me to come back and create the Pauline Frommer guides,” she said.

The Pauline Frommer “Spend Less See More” guidebooks built on the legacy of her father’s early budget-conscious guides, but featured her own unique voice.

“I truly believe that often when you spend less you get to see more,” Frommer said. “Something like, not stay in the multi-national chain hotel, but instead rent a room in someone’s house. You’re going to get to know locals, be in a local community. … Usually, you can eat less expensively. You’re eating where the locals are.”

Radio days

Frommer also has been a frequent guest on many network news programs and now hosts a weekly radio show with her father.

“We’re heard in every state but Alaska,” she pointed out. “We just were bought by Clear Channel, which I’m hoping means bigger and better things for the show because they are such a massive company, owning so many stations. That’s been very exciting.”

The discussion between the two Frommers often is quite lively and she joked that she thinks listeners often tune in just to hear them argue.

“He and I often disagree on air,” she said. “The first time when we did, he said to me during the commercial break, ‘Pauline, when you say I’m wrong it means 50 years of my life meant nothing.’ But then people started calling in about how much they loved our disagreements.”

She said her father is “enough of a showman” to understand that their different viewpoints added value to the show.

“Sometimes I think he goads me on purpose,” she laughed. “But I think it’s fun for people because it shows the differences between the generations. … I very much like adventurous travel and I think he’s more conservative. He gets very nervous about what I will do with my children. We went to Belize and I took the older one rappelling and we rappelled down a 600-foot cliff — and his hair stood on end.”

Traveling with kids

Frommer has two daughters and is married to physical therapist Mahlon Stewart. Whereas her father once famously said he had one word for traveling with children — “Don’t” — Pauline Frommer strongly believes in the value of kids’ travel.

“Most of us work full-time and the kids are in school full-time, so if we didn’t vacation together, we wouldn’t be together,” she said. “I think that’s the main thing my father overlooks when we have arguments about why you should travel with your children. The second excellent reason is there’s no better education for them. They get to see the things they’re studying in school, but more importantly, they get to see that the way we live is in many ways very different than in other parts of the world and in many ways there are many commonalities. People everywhere have the same basic needs and want to be friendly.”

Weight doesn’t stay in Vegas

Frommer also writes “Traveling Light with Pauline Frommer,” a regular feature on the Weight Watchers website. It developed out of her experience spending two-and-a-half months in Las Vegas doing research.

“When I wrote my guide to Las Vegas, I ended up gaining about 25 pounds,” she noted. “That’s the thing about travel writing — you have to eat so much. I was trying all the buffets and it’s very hard to do that without gaining weight.”

She lost weight using the Weight Watchers program and the company asked her to become a regular contributor to their website.

“I write pieces for them on how to stay fit on the road,” Frommer said. “That’s been a lot of fun.”
Frommer shared some of her top travel tips during a presentation at the Chicago Travel & Adventure Show and we’ll share some of those with you in an upcoming article.

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