'Let's Go' Travel Guides On The Road At 50

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Fifty years ago, a scrappy new travel publication aimed at budget-conscious students offered this guarantee: a trip from Europe to Asia for only four cents. That was the cost of the ferry ride across the Bosporus Strait dividing the East and West in Turkey. The guide was called Let's Go: The Student Guide to Europe, founded by 18-year-old Harvard undergrad Oliver Koppell. Since then, millions of backpackers have toted the guides to destinations around the globe. Guest host Ari Shapiro speaks to Koppell and Charlotte Alter, one of the publication's current student editors.

ARI SHAPIRO, host:

Fifty years ago, a scrappy new travel publication aimed at budget-conscious students offer this guarantee: a trip from Europe to Asia for only four cents. That was the cost of the ferry ride across the Bosporus Strait in Turkey. The travel guide was called "Let's Go: The Student Guide to Europe." It was founded by 18-year-old Harvard undergraduate Oliver Koppell.

Since then, millions of backpackers have toted the guides around the globe, and today Oliver Koppell is a councilmember for New York City's 11th District in the Bronx. He joins us from our New York bureau. Welcome.

Mr. OLIVER KOPPELL (Councilmember, 11th District, New York City): Thank you, and thank you for your interest in "Let's Go." Of course, I'm very proud of it.

SHAPIRO: And the "Let's Go" guides have been written and researched all these years by Harvard undergraduates. So, also joining us now from New York is one of the current managing editors of the guide, Charlotte Alter. Hi, Charlotte.

Ms. CHARLOTTE ALTER (Managing Editor, "Let's Go"): Hi. Thanks for having me.

SHAPIRO: So, Mr. Koppell, when you started these guides 50 years ago, what was your goal?

Mr. KOPPELL: Well, our initial goal was to provide students and other young people with the tools that they needed to have a successful and particularly, an inexpensive visit to Europe. This was in the early '60s, and Europe was still sort of unchartered territory for many people. The real travel boom only started maybe 10 years before "Let's Go." And so things that are much more familiar to people today and more comfortable were at that point kind of challenging.

You know, we had a student who went over to Europe, who visited hotels, who visited clubs, who visited attractions and put together, you know, a basic series of recommendations for people to use. And of course now it's so much expanded and it covers so many countries. It's a, you know, a huge oak tree. We had the acorn.

SHAPIRO: And, Charlotte, I understand you spent the summer after your freshman year researching the travel guide to Greece. You're now a sophomore. Tell me about one of the most surprising adventures you had in your work in Greece.

Ms. ALTER: Well, actually, I think my most unexpected adventure was I found myself crashing a Greek wedding in the mountains of Niceros, which is an island near Turkey. Through some travel planning mishaps - I, like, missed some buses and missed some connections and ended up driving across the island with a fellow traveler. And he was going to this wedding in this village and I kind of crashed with him and ended up having a lot of food spilled on my head, because they carry all the feast for the wedding on these big tabletops that they kind of hoist over their heads as they're serving people. And, of course, they tripped and, of course, the one person that they spilled all over was the person who was not invited to the wedding.

SHAPIRO: Is it essentially a vacation working on these guides? What's the experience like?

Ms. ALTER: No. It's definitely not a vacation. Because while you are in these, like, beautiful, exotic surroundings, you're not relaxed because you have work to do there. You need to be constantly on. There's a lot of footwork, there's a lot of talking to people. You can't just kind of relax in your hotel and do nothing.

SHAPIRO: You have to visit five hotels a day, have six lunches, visit 12 museums.

Ms. ALTER: Exactly, exactly. And so that's not really the typical vacation experience. On the other hand, what's great about "Let's Go" is you get paid for doing something that's real, that matters. And, you know, if you mess up and if you miss an island or you miss three or four hotels, that matters because it means that those listings aren't going to get into the guide and that travelers are going to have a less fulfilling experience.

SHAPIRO: Mr. Koppell, you're no longer a student, but when you travel abroad do you still take the "Let's Go" guides with you?

Mr. KOPPELL: Actually I do. I always buy "Let's Go." And the fact is that it's useful not only for students, it's useful, I think, for everybody. They have listings in the "Let's Go"s that I've used that are kind of the high end listings for students and sort of the low end listings for middle-class people like me.

So that when we went to Ireland a few years ago, we liked staying in bed and breakfasts, and I got all my bed and breakfasts from "Let's Go."

SHAPIRO: What's it like to hear about this thing that you created as an 18-year-old at Harvard now creating dozens of guides, employing more than 100 Harvard students each year? It's really become an empire.

Mr. KOPPELL: Yeah, it has. In fact, it's not only an opportunity for young people to get to travel and to write about their travel experiences, but it's an employment opportunity. And over the years, thousands of students have earned significant income. And that was one of our ideas actually, because the guide is put out...

SHAPIRO: Better than washing dishes in the dining hall.

Mr. KOPPELL: Absolutely. When I started...

Ms. ALTER: Definitely.

Mr. KOPPELL: ...at Harvard, I was on the dorm crew, which meant I cleaned the bathrooms. And when I...

SHAPIRO: So, you decided to go to Europe instead.

Mr. KOPPELL: ...when I transitioned to the travel area, that was a very welcome change.

SHAPIRO: I'm sure. Charlotte, when you were admitted to Harvard, did you know that you wanted to get involved with the "Let's Go" guides?

Ms. ALTER: Yeah, I did, actually. I was lucky enough to take a year off actually before going to Harvard. And I did a lot of traveling over that year and I actually used "Let's Go" guides. And so that was really exciting to then come to school and be able to work for them. Also, my mother, 30 years ago, also worked for "Let's Go."

SHAPIRO: Wow. Which guide did she write?

Ms. ALTER: She worked for the "Road Tripping America" guide and she covered the American South. So, that's something that she remembers fondly. That was back in the day when you could bring your boyfriend with you.

Mr. KOPPELL: One of my greatest regrets is that my son, who went to Harvard, wasn't interested in working on "Let's Go."

SHAPIRO: You're kidding me.

Mr. KOPPELL: That's right. I couldn't get him to do it.

SHAPIRO: No way.

Ms. ALTER: You know what though?

Mr. KOPPELL: He was more interested in the Kennedy Institute of Politics.

SHAPIRO: Well, congratulations to you both on the 50th anniversary of "Let's Go."

Mr. KOPPELL: Thank you so much.

Ms. ALTER: Thanks a lot.

Mr. KOPPELL: Thanks for your interest.

SHAPIRO: Oliver Koppell is the founder of the "Let's Go" travel guides, and Charlotte Alter is a writer, researcher and managing editor. They both joined us from our New York bureau. And Happy New Year to you both.

Mr. KOPPELL: Thank you, and to you.

Ms. ALTER: Yeah, you too, Ari.

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