YOU'VE HEARD it before--Europe is overrated. The Eiffel Tower? It's rusty. The canals of Venice? They smell like sewers. The Pope? He makes mistakes. The illusions went stale when London Bridge went to Arizona. But if you're incorrigably romantic or naturally obstinate, or even if you just have some money to burn, you may still want to see for yourself. For thousands like you and millions of your dollars, 1974 will be your Year of Europe.
The first piece of good advice you will get from "veterans" is that no one needs a guidebook--it's much more fun to find your own little restaurants, to discover your own delightful little hostels, to drift where the wind blows you. But such spontaneity leaves many a bit insecure, and the prospect of eating-what-the-people-eat may reinforce the queasiness. So give in. Buy a guidebook.
Let's Go: Europe bills itself as "the student guide to Europe," but with each successive summer it threatens to displace Arthur Frommer's Europe on Five and Ten Dollars a Day as the bible of the entire under-$1000-a-tour set. Frommer's ideas of nutrition have always been questionable--he recommends subsistence diets of french fries and mayonnaise, one reason why rancid bathroom stalls all over Western Europe bear the graffiti "Arthur Frommer ate here." Worse, the sheer popularity of his book is discouraging: Long lines of students form each morning at quiet "hideaways" Frommer recommends, each tired traveler trying to make his worn yellow paperback edition as inconspicuous as possible. The whole packing-for-summer-camp attitude is even more objectionable. Frommer has a word of advice on everything from luggage to changes of underwear.
Next to Frommer's lists of toiletries and dreamy ramblings on the romance of the continent, Let's Go's suggestions seem distinctly more practical. The HSA product forgoes the obvious, goes easy on the exotic descriptions, and offers sound advice for travelers interested in work, study and drugs. In each city, Let's Go lists important phone numbers, including the U.S. Consulate's, and the location of American Express offices--the best places to exchange currencies. It even recommends readings to brush up your language barrier.
Above all, Let's Go's thoroughness is what makes it superior to its competitors. It lists more hotels and restaurants in more cities on both sides of the Iron Curtain, places Frommer or your Eurail Pass could never take you. The researchers are students, and, like Frommer, they make their share of mistakes. But they try harder to orient the American in a strange city, to give him alternatives to the tourist traps, to offer a guidebook that won't be dead weight in Europe.
Even if you decide to skip the mysterious USSR in 1974, or to pass up the bistros of Bulgaria this time around, Let's Go will be a useful companion as you get insulted in the more traditional stops on a European tour. Its different attitude is reflected even on its cover, and Let's Go's hitchhiking hand should be more popular among Europeans this summer than Arthur Frommer's prominent American dollar signs.
One last piece of advice Let's Go can't give you: Buy your guidebook here. Like so many other essentials, it will cost you more over there.