Interview With Lonely Planet Editor-at-Large Emily Wolman
–For those who prefer to listen to the podcast, the audio version can be found here.
Taylor: This is the us city traveler podcast with taylor goldblatt session number 1 and today it is my great pleasure to introduce Emily Wolman, the editor at large for lonely planet. She was previously Lonely Planet’s Associate Publisher, heading up a team of commissioning editors that created Lonely Planet’s guidebooks for North and Latin America, and a few titles in Asia as well. She has been featured on Fox News, CBS, The Weather Channel, and the Chicago Tribune among other prominent news outlets.
Lonely Planet is the largest travel guide book publisher in the world, founded in 1973 by Tony and Maureen Wheeler. Today they have nearly 400 staff members, an award-winning website, a magazine Lonely Planet Traveller, and a portfolio of ebooks and mobile apps. They have well over a million Facebook fans and Twitter followers each and published over 100 million books with over 500 titles in 9 languages. They have truly revolutionized the way the world travels. And in this episode we will learn more about the history of Lonely Planet and we will also find out about some of Emily’s favorite destinations and restaurants, budget travel advice, and some of her best tips for first time Europe visitors. We will get into all that and more – right here.
Taylor: Hi Emily, it’s a great pleasure to have you on the show.
Emily: Thank you, Taylor. It is a pleasure to be here.
Taylor: Well I’d like to start by asking about the history of Lonely Planet. So how exactly did Lonely Planet get its name?
Emily: Well back in the early 1970’s Lonely Planet founders Tony and Maureen Wheeler were listening to a Joe Cocker song – it’s called “Space Captain.” It starts out with these lyrics like “once while traveling across the sky, this lovely planet crossed my eye.” And they misheard lovely planet and thought it was lonely planet and they loved it so it stuck.
Taylor: Nice! And the founder Tony Wheeler’s first book was called “Across Asia On The Cheap.” So can you tell us a little bit about the first few guidebooks and how they have evolved over the years?
Emily: Sure! Well across Asia On The Cheap came as a result of Tony and Maureen’s honeymoon, which was the trip of a lifetime. I twas back in 1972 and they traveled overland, across Europe and across Asia. And it was a challenging time to travel because there wasn’t much information out there, a travel guide didn’t really exist there. So when they came back, friends encouraged them to document it and share all of this information. And so they sat down at their dining room table and wrote this book. And within a week of that they sold 1500 copies and Lonely Planet was born. And their next trip, which I believe was about two years later, was titled Southeast Asia on a Shoestring, which then led to books on Africa, Australia, Napal, India, and as you mentioned before, now we are the world’s number one guidebook publisher. We cover just about every destination on the planet. And we have different series, not just the budget shoestring traveler, we also have city series, and pocket titles for those looking for just the highlights of each city, and ss you mentioned, we have eBooks, apps, web content, so the company has grown exponentially since 1972.
Taylor: Right and for those who want to learn more about Lonely Planet’s history, the founder’s have a book out called “Once While Traveling, The Lonely Planet Story.”
So Emily I have to ask, what’s your favorite place to travel? In America?
Emily: That’s a difficult question! I say every place I haven’t been yet has the potential to be my favorite destination. I just don’t know yet because I haven’t been there. I haven’t been to Africa but it is on my list. I lived in Paris for a year and it was a great place, I love Paris. I had a really interesting trip this year, I went to Romania and Bulgaria and I went to Transylvania and it was such a fascinating trip, I say anywhere that offers a rich culture and history, and of course has incredible food, would be a favorite for me. As far as in the United States, I really like to get off of the beaten track a little bit, I like National Parks, many that are lesser known, like Yosemite and Yellow Stone. Some of the smaller national parks like North Cascade National Park in the Pacific Northwest, Glacier National Park up in Montana, they have smaller visitation numbers and so you really feel like you are just out there in the wilderness by your self and there are some incredible experiences to be had here at national parks in the USA.
Taylor: Right because in places like Yellowstone, sometimes you are even in traffic inside the national park!
Emily: That’s right! Zion introduced a traffic system where they do not allow cars in the park and they have a shuttle system and hiking and cars to help minimize the impact on the park and reduce traffic. But yes, some of the parks get so busy that you spend half of the time in your car.
Taylor: Do you have any recommendations and tips for budget travelers?
Emily: I could talk about that for hours but budget travel can be hard for sure. I say some of the things to do would be to start planning way in advance. There are last minute deals to be had for sure but it’s a risk and if you do not get one of them you could end up paying quite a bit more for a trip than you would have. So planning in advance, booking a trip early and how you book can also help. You can go online and bid for travel, you can bid for airfare, rental cars, and websites like Priceline.com are great resources for bidding and naming your own price for certain aspects of your trip. Budget airlines are out there and sometimes if you look those aggregate sites like Expedia, they don’t list some of the airlines so it is helpful to go directly to SouthWest.com or Allegiant and go directly to their sites and you can find airfares, for domestic travel anyway.
A great resource a lot of people do instead of staying at hotels to help save money on accommodations, is to rent a vacation home or apartment on sites like Airbnb.com or Brbo.com are wonderful resources for finding properties all over the world. It can be anything from a bedroom in a home to a seven bedroom villa in Italy or anything in-between. It can help you save money because not only do you have access to a kitchen so you can save money on dining but some of those properties have access to cars so you don’t have to rent them or yeah it just tends to be less expensive than staying in hotels. Those are just some tips off the top of my head.
Taylor: And do you have any other general travel tips that you would like to share?
The only thing I can say is just travel and get out there and see the world. I think that’s one thing to make the trip the experience of a lifetime is to -planning is always helpful- but opening yourself up to the spontaneity of being on the road and being in a new culture and environment and just seeing what happens. If you meet someone on the street who suggests you trying a new restaurant , if you meet another traveler who is going somewhere other than where you are going – just go with it and see where the world takes you.
Taylor: Right. And with the holiday season just around the corner, what are some of the best USA destinations to spend the holidays?
Emily: That’s a great question, I think American’s around the holidays tend to visit family so that is the destination right there. Wherever your family is is probably where you are going. But if you plan on taking a vacation around the holidays and spending some time away from your family, then for me personally, I am from New York so I am a little biased but I would say New York around the holidays. It’s just magical, it’s cold, it’s chilly, you have to bundle up and everyone’s just excited. The energy on the decorations are just lovely and there’s the cliche Rockefeller Center and the windows in Saks Fifth Avenue and Bloomingdales are wonderful and it’s just a lovely time of year to be in New York. And there also are surprisingly good deals in New York City to be had around the holidays.
And another place on the far other side of the country, in fact as far as you can go, is Hawaii around the holidays. It can be a busy time of year to go to Hawaii around the holidays, it’s a big family destination and with kids on break, a lot of families do go across the Pacific Ocean to Hawaii but there are a lot of remote, private corners of the island to discover and it’s also a lovely time. If you don’t want to spend the holidays freezing in New City, then you can spend them on the beach in Hawaii.
Taylor: Right. And I’d like ot point out that Lonely Planet does have a Christmas article on NYC and it’s called the five do’s and dont’s and so I’ll link to that in the show notes.
I did some research and found out that only about 40% of Americans have a passport – with Mississippi being the lowest at just 18% of the state having a passport and Connecticut being the highest at 56% having a passport. So why do you think it is that such few Americans choose to travel abroad?
Emily: It is surprising and actually the statistic of 40% sounds higher than what I’ve heard. I thought it was more like 25-30% so maybe it’s changed and more people have been traveling overseas lately but…
Taylor: I read that since 2002, it’s gone up about 40% so it is going up quite a bit.
Emily: Oh okay, but the reason for that… we wonder the same thign and I’ve actually looked into it quite a bit. There’s serval things and I think that one is that the United States is enormous and it’s just a huge destination and we as American families tend to spread out so a lot of times when people travel, as I mentioned before, their going to visit their families and often times that’s in the US borders and also I think it’s because American’s tend to get shorter vacation time from work than other cultures, 2 weeks maybe 3 weeks, so there isn’t a lot of time for the glorious long European or African vacations. So people in the US are more inclined to take shorter trips or stay closer to home. And I think culturally, it’s a bit different here, in Australia, New Zealand, in Europe there’s more of a culture of travel experiences throughout the world and people in Australia, when they go to Europe they don’t just go for two weeks, they will go for two months, they will go for a year. They will travel all around the world before they go back home. And there’s just more of a travel culture there than here in the US so I think there are a few reasons why that few Americans have passports. But as we just said, things are starting to change and more Americans will be getting passports soon.
Taylor: Right. And which destination do you recommend for people who are visiting the Eastern hemisphere for the first time? Where would you go first?
Emily: Well when I visited the Eastern Hemisphere for the first time, I went to Thailand and I was terrified because I don’t speak Thai and everyone that goes there gets violently ill, you can’t drink their water and all these things. And I did get sick actually. That was my own fault. I brushed my teeth with the tap water and I was told not to. But anyway, regardless, I actually think Thailand is a great gateway to Asia for people who haven’t been to that part of the world yet because it is quite visited. There are a lot of beaten passes you might say. So there are a lot of beaten passes you might say, so there are a lot of ways to access the culture and destinations that might not be as intimidating as say a trip to China. Which is incredible but it is quite a bit different in terms of navigating and Europe first timers, in any destination, whether it be to Asia or anywhere else in the world where they speak a foreign language. My first recommendation would be to learn a few phrases in that language. You can learn to say “hello, thank you, excuse me, where is,” in just about any language. And the rest of it you don’t really have to know the language to get around, it’s amazing how you get what you need when you are making faces and hand gestures and so I think Thailand would be a great place to start.
Taylor: Okay. Do you have any tips for first time Europe visitors?
Emily: Well again I would say that the language barrier can be intimidating for first time Europe visitor, for Americans in particular because we don’t do like Europeans do and grow up learning to speak several different languages, unless we learn another language in school. So we don’t have the advantage of being multilingual as foreigners. I say jus trying to learn a few key phrases before you go over is what you need to do.Get a guidebook, do some research online for sure.Have as much information as you can and just as I said before, be open to whatever happens, wherever your journey takes you is going to be amazing. Don’t be intimidated, Europe overall is a safe destination and to really penetrate the place I think to rent a car is a great thing to do, it can be a little nerve-wracking trying to drive around with the little road signs that you can’t understand but if you have a navigator, if you have a travel partner with you who can help you navigate. Maybe you have a GPS, taking a road trip around Europe can offer you so many more opportunities than say takin the train or flying between destinations.
Taylor: And a lot of people will even choose to just take a taxi when they are in a large city just because they do not want to learn how to drive the, figure everything out, you know it can be hard to do stuff like that in a large city but and the thing about being in another country is that a lot of times you have to drive on the left side of the road.and many people are afraid of that.
Emily: Yes, I think driving on the left side of the road can be challenging for the first time, which they do in England and Australia and some other countries so it takes some time and a little bit of getting used to but if you are a confident driver in the US, it doesn’t take long to become a confident driver there.
Taylor: Alright well it’s great to see you, thank you very much. And I invite everyone to stop by their local bookstore to pick up Lonely Planet’s latest book “1000 Ultimate Adventures” which features a collection of 1000 ideas, places and activities to inspire adventure. Features include some of the best undiscovered US Parks, the world’s craziest caves, best rafting rivers, most action packed jungles and iconic European Adventures.