Evelyn Waugh, writing of that golden age of travel in the early part of the last century, said that the sole requisites of universal travel were only "money, leisure and energy, and no great superabundance even of these". And even during the Great Depression the comparatively extravagantly-valued Pound and Dollar, and depressed prices overseas, enabled someone who might have had to skimp at home to progress like a pasha through foreign lands. This happy circumstance continued even after the war and into the era of mass tourism and came to flower in Arthur Frommer's Europe on $5-a-Day.
Living abroad on $5 was not the amazing part, as the world in those days was still full of people living in colorful surroundings on pennies a day, albeit in flimsy huts and dank hovels, but Frommer showed how middle class Americans could travel in acceptable comfort and safety. How they could see Europe without going hungry or sleeping under bridges.
My first trip to Europe was in 1964, to Spain, encouraged by Frommer’s Spain on $5-a-Day, particularly a comment in the introduction in which he said that he actually thought you could do Spain comfortably on $3-a-day.
Five-Dollar-a-Day Europe, first published in 1957, was, of course, too good to last, and in 1972 Frommer published his revised guide as Europe on $5 and $10-a-Day, but the thrifty traveler’s foot was on a slippery slope and in 1979 it went up to $15, and $20/day in 1981. It hit $50/day in 1996 and continued upward until, in 2007, the series was discontinued after reaching $95-a-Day.
Some of that represented the Dollar’s loss in value to inflation, though most of it does not. Ninety-five Dollars in 2007 was equal to $36.89 in constant 1957 Dollars, so there has been a significant real increase in cost.
Not long ago, Doug Mack discovered the $5-a-Day guide that his mother had used when she had gone to Europe as a young girl and wondered what would happen if he tried to replicate such a trip today. He recounts his trip in Europe on Five Wrong Turns a Day. He made the trip on something like $120/day, which is pretty much in line with the cost progression we see in the Frommer guides.
While I don’t remember what I spent on my trip to Spain I did recently find a pamphlet from Banco Exterior de España, printed in 1962 and telling the visitor what he could expect a Dollar to buy in those days.
If you have tears, prepare to shed them.
For a Dollar you could purchase one of these:
a bottle of Spanish champagne,
six bottles of red wine,
two cinema tickets or one theatre ticket,
a seat at a bull fight,
a pair of sneakers . . .
a pair of sneakers . . .
For five Dollars you could purchase one of these:
a summer coat,
a pair of men’s shoes,
a bottle of the very best brandy,
pay a bill for two at a nightclub,
pay your bill at a good hotel for a day . . .
For ten Dollars you could purchase one of these:
a man’s summer suit,
a lady's dress,
a lady's dress,
hire a car for a day,
pay for a weekend at a summer resort . . .
No backpacker grunge there, no hostel dorms, no dubious street food. The Dollar-bearing traveler in those days swilled champagne in nightclubs and basked at summer resorts while his hired car awaited. At the twenty-Dollar level our thrifty traveler could doubtless be playing chemin-de-fer in evening clothes at the casino.
This world that now seems so preposterous to us was once there for Waugh’s ordinary traveler, who needed only a little time, money and energy, and no great superabundance of those. It was an accessible world that had room for bookish wanderers like Patrick Fermor and Robert Byron and Bruce Chatwin and hundreds or thousands of other young men without resources who just wanted to see the world and never wrote about where they went or what they saw. Remember that Fermor left on his walk across Europe because he couldn't afford to live in England on his four-Pounds-a-month income. In those days young men sometimes went abroad not because they could afford to travel, but because they couldn't afford to stay home. A time when travel, like college, was not absurdly expensive but within the reach of any bright lad who had the spirit to go.