“Growing up, I couldn’t wait to get out of Dodge,” Beth Reiber says. “I got the travel bug at 16, after being chosen as one of a dozen U.S. Girl Scouts to spend one month in Sweden, where, to my delight, I learned scouting was co-ed.”
With degrees in German and journalism, Beth Reiber has worked for a Kansas newspaper, sold freelance travel articles to U.S. newspapers while living abroad in Germany, and edited a Tokyo travel magazine. She has visited nearly 50 countries, contributed to more than 55 publications and websites, and written nine guidebooks, including Frommer’s guides to Japan for more than 30 years. Her latest is Frommer’s EasyGuide to Tokyo, Kyoto, and Western Honshu.
Beth also runs her own site — TravelReiber — and she was kind enough to answer some of our travel questions below.
TA: How many years have you been traveling and what got you hooked?
Beth: I’ve been traveling more years than I care to remember. After studying two years in Germany, one year as an undergrad in German and then returning for another year to write my journalism thesis, I returned to Germany because of — what else?– love. Against the advice of my graduate advisor (who called me an idealist fool), I became a travel writer, mostly hitchhiking around Europe, typing up my articles on a manual typewriter (seriously!), developing my own black-and-white photos or slides and mailing it all off to newspapers across the United States.
That was followed by two years driving my beat-up Datsun wherever I could, from Canada to Colorado to the Yucatan. Then I found out about press trips! One of those took me to Tokyo, where I ended up staying for a year to edit a travel magazine. That’s when Frommer’s contacted me to write their first guide to Japan. I never expected to become an expert on Japan. Most of what happens in our lives depends on being at the right place at the right time. Being a risk taker doesn’t hurt.
TA: Do you specialize in a particular type of travel?
Beth: I’ve written travel in all kinds of mediums — from newspapers in my early years, to magazines, websites, guidebooks, and blogs. Guidebooks take up an inordinate amount of time. I’m hoping to return to what I did at the beginning of my career — more articles, which can sometimes be as creative as short stories.
TA: What is the best vacation you’ve ever taken?
Beth: To Europe for one month, just after my divorce when my sons were still in grade school. I was working for part of it (I wrote about Germany and Austria for Frommer’s on $$ a day), but I also believed the trip would cement our new family of three. We visited zoos in every city we visited, stayed with friends, walked through markets, played cards in our hotel room, saw museums and historic squares. They, too, loved every minute of it. Although we took other trips after that, this first one was the most important. They are now in their twenties, and they love to travel, too.
TA: What’s one place you’ve always wanted to visit?
Beth: I get asked that all the time and my answer is always the place I haven’t yet visited! In the past couple of years I visited Cuba and Portugal, which were high on my list. Next year I hope to go to Washington DC — I can’t believe I haven’t been there!
TA: What’s one thing you ALWAYS pack when you travel?
Beth: My journal: I’m lost without it. I’ve been keeping journals since I was 12 years old.
TA: If you could only give a traveler one piece of advice, what would it be?
Beth: Traveling can be scary, especially if your destination is a place you’ve never been before. My mantra is always “people more stupid than you have been there and survived; you can too.”
TA: What is the best piece of travel advice you’ve ever been given?
Beth: Use public transportation. There’s no better way to mix with locals than taking one of the public vans in Jamaica or Togo, the train in India, or the Tuk-tuk in Thailand. I’ve rented a car only twice –once in Ireland many years ago, and this year in Cozumel as the designated driver with some friends.
TA: What are the best places to travel solo and why?
Beth: Again, there is probably no safer place to travel than Japan. Every time I go, I travel alone (who in their right mind would want to travel with a guidebook writer, visiting dozens of hotels, restaurants, museums, attractions, bars, etc., every day?).
TA: Is there something you think most travelers worry too much about?
Beth: Safety. We mostly hear only bad news, making some destinations seem much scarier than they really are. I have friends in other countries who are afraid to visit the U.S. because of gun violence. After the 2011 earthquake, tsunami and radiation in the Tohoku region, some people told me they were afraid to visit Japan. But seriously, you can fall off a ladder at home and die. Fear should not keep people from seeing the world. I always tell people that if my plane crashes, do not feel sorry for me. I died doing what I love most.
TA: Which country has surprisingly good food?
Beth: Japan has some of the best food in the world. For a long time, few people traveled to Japan, but in the past 30-some years I’ve seen the number of international tourists jump from only 2 million a year to almost 30 million. So while Japan is no longer the mystery it once was, few people realize the diversity in Japanese food. Every region has its specialty, whether it’s hairy crab in Hokkaido or pig’s feet simmered in soy sauce and sake in Okinawa. Even bento boxes that you can get at train stations are wonderful for the local specialties they contain.
TA: What’s something that other tourists do when traveling that drives you crazy and why?
Beth: Taking photos and selfies. Sometimes I just want to yank their phones away and ask them to actually look at what they are photographing. Sometimes I take photos of all the people lined up taking photos. On a trip to Dominica in September, I tripped wading across a stream, dropping my camera into the water. Then my phone died. So I resorted to the way I used to travel — looking around, taking notes, and recording scenes in my memory.
TA: Which underrated destination deserves to be more famous?
Beth: Porto. I went to Portugal this year with my friend, and as soon as we arrived in Porto, I knew it was the town for me. It’s dramatic, with steep hills, medieval houses, gorgeous architecture, the Doro River, and port! I walked around mesmerized. Every direction you looked, it was beautiful. To me, it rates as one of the great cities of Europe, right up there with Paris, Budapest, and Vienna.