Gimmick Tourism 

Doug Mack's Europe on Five Wrong Turns a Day

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I'M A SUCKER for a gimmicky premise like this: Doug Mack toured eight of the 15 destinations in the travel manual Europe on $5 a Day, first published in 1957, using that vastly outdated tome as his guide. Studiously avoiding modern-day travel tools (AKA the internet), he relied on a combination of Arthur Frommer's legendary book and the letters between his own parents during his mother's late '60s tour.

It's a wasteful, jealous trick to squander precious time and money spent abroad on such folly, and thus the reader expects exactitude in its execution. Mack begins with a two-city trip to Florence and Paris, where he does not immediately impress. As expected, many of the places Frommer listed are closed, but Mack rarely offers any explanation as to what happened to them or what they have become. A truly dedicated executioner of the task would go to the addresses and document what stands there today.

Instead, Mack only goes to the places still in existence, which often leads him to overrated tourist traps (such as a bistro in Paris where a scene for 2003's Something's Gotta Give was filmed, where the contemptuous maître d' assumes he is there because of Diane Keaton and Jack Nicholson, much to Mack's humiliation). Assuming one reads travel literature out of the desire to travel oneself, it's a frustrating experience when the author doesn't do things how you would do them, or in other words, doesn't do them correctly.

As if sensing, however, that the book isn't turning out to be as interesting as he planned, Mack gradually steers his work into more philosophical terrain, injecting some travel history into the conversation—specifically the coming of age of tourism in America. He also touches on the mixed bag of common motives for travel (high on the list: bragging), the pros and cons of crowdsourcing for tips via Facebook and TripAdvisor, the rapport among fellow travelers, and of course, the ultimate point of it all: "Appreciating and understanding that thing—that culture, that place, that food—on your own terms."

Imperfect and rambling as it is, Mack's book somewhat inadvertently captures the essence of budget traveling. The most meaningful and memorable moments are spontaneous, and planning a trip only sets the stage for the unplanned to unfold—a solid, if not revelatory point of view, and Mack's arrival at it inspires just one thing: doing it yourself (better).

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