The frugal travel writer for the New York Times is retiring. In this column, he ponders the definition of "frugal," and he shares the travel lessons he's learned over the years.
Three Things I’ve Learned About Frugal Travel (and the Things I Didn’t Do) By MATT GROSS
Six years ago, I had a regular job, in an office. I was there 9 or 10 hours a day, made a decent living and even found the work occasionally interesting. But I was also bored. More than bored — I was restless. Perhaps like many of you, my readers, I lived for the week or two a year when I could venture out into the world to explore, and in the intervening months at home I’d live vicariously through other people’s tales of adventure.
Eventually, however, I couldn’t take it anymore. I saved up about $5,000 and quit my job to go to Cambodia and Vietnam, where I’d lived almost a decade earlier. My plan was to spend several months researching a novel there, then return and … well, I hadn’t figured that part out yet. Frankly, it didn’t matter to me. But, by a quirk of luck, I began writing for the Travel section and, a year later, I was asked to take over the Frugal Traveler column. The rest, as they say, is history.
And now my tenure is history as well. After four years, I’m handing in my Frugal Traveler badge. But before I do, I wanted to share a few of the things I’ve learned:
1. Frugality Is in the Eye of the Beholder
From the very beginning, this column has struggled with the question, what is “frugal”? When I started out, in the pre-Facebook, pre-Twitter era, this column was pretty narrowly defined: it was a print article about a weekend trip on $500, in a place where $500 would not seem to go far. “Frugal Newport, R.I.” was my first, an unstinting but anxiety-filled 48-hour romp through the posh town of yachts and mansions with my wife, Jean. From there, I toured a world of amusing headlines: “Frugal Palm Beach,” “Frugal Jackson Hole.”
By 2006, when I was planning my first summer-long Frugal Traveler trip – Around the World in 90 Days — the budget had to change. If it stayed the same, I’d end up spending close to $20,000! But what counted as frugal for 90 days in 12 vastly different countries? Rather arbitrarily, we settled on $100 a day — as an upper limit, mind you, not as a goal. Of course, my readers had something to say about that. Here’s a typical comment: “How dare you call yourself the Frugal Traveler? In 1983 my best friend from college and I took off with 6 month round the world plane tickets at $1700 apiece.” (In 2009 dollars, that would be $3,660 to $6,860 .)
Very quickly, I realized that every traveler has a different definition of “frugal travel.” To many, it means youth hostels and supermarket meals — and nothing else. To others, it means seeking out coupons, discounts and freebies. To me, frugal travel has come to mean two things. First, it’s about value. In general, I’m reluctant to spend money, but if something is a truly good value, I’ll open my wallet, whether it’s 50-cent roadside kebabs in Beijing or $88 for the world’s best bed-and-breakfast in Shanghai.
But more important, it’s about realizing that your budget — whether high or low — does not determine the quality of your travel experience. To travel well, you need to pack an open mind, a lot of energy, infinite patience and a willingness to embrace the awkward and unfamiliar. No amount of money in the world can buy those things — because they come free.
2. Anywhere Can Be Frugal
As the Frugal Traveler, I was constantly asked by friends, acquaintances, the news media and strangers to recommend the best frugal destinations. And usually, I’d shrug my shoulders. Sure, countries in the developing world — especially Central America, Southeast Asia and India — are known as the most affordable places to go. But I also found spectacular bargains in places like Venice, Paris and even Dubai.
The fact is, anywhere can be frugal. The strategies for finding bargains and cutting costs are the same whether you’re in Bangkok or San Francisco.
First, prioritize: What’s most important to you: lodging, food, shopping, museums? O.K., put most of your money aside for that, and don’t worry about skimping on the other things.
Then, since you can’t afford five-star treats, think of alternatives that are, at the very least, more interesting. When I visited Rome, the hotels seemed really expensive, and the budget ones looked not so great. Instead, I stayed in a convent I found on MonasteryStays.com; it wasn’t perfect, but it was a new and fascinating experience, and I wouldn’t be averse to trying it again (though at a convent without a curfew).
Likewise, in Barcelona in 2006, I knew I couldn’t afford to eat at El Bulli, often hailed as the greatest restaurant in the world, but I’d heard El Bulli’s chef, Ferran Adria, had a brother who’d opened a tapas bar, Inopia, that turned out to be an affordable gem. (Mario Batali, Gwyneth Paltrow and Mark Bittman, who visited long after me, seemed to like it, anyway.)
Finally, don’t try to do too much. Enjoy the moment, wander aimlessly and save that third, expensive museum visit for the next day — or the next trip. Let yourself breathe. After all, you’re on vacation.
3. Friends Are Worth More Than Dollars
As valuable as the Internet is, nothing will save you more money — or make travel as meaningful — as actual people. From the start, I’ve relied on an ever-expanding network of friends of friends (of friends) for tips, advice and, most important, companionship. In Galicia, in northwestern Spain, a guy named Miguel — a friend’s co-worker’s cousin — showed me around his hometown of Boiro, took me out for amazing pulpo a la gallega (octopus with olive oil and pimentón) and brought me home to share a homemade Spanish tortilla with his wife and watch Barcelona trounce Arsenal in the Champions League tournament. All this without knowing beforehand that I was a New York Times columnist preparing to write about him.
Seeking out people like Miguel became standard practice for me. Before any trip, I’d e-mail everyone in my address book to ask, “Do you know anyone in Punta del Este (or Mumbai or Istanbul)?” And most of the time, I’d get a response, often from a third- or fourth-degree contact, hooking me up with an Uruguayan currency trader or Indian steel magnate’s son. These days, I use Facebook to make contact — it’s much easier. Twitter, however, isn’t great for this sort of thing. Although an inspiring 45,000 of you have decided to follow @frugaltraveler, I’ve rarely reached out to you on a personal level, worrying that you’ll be swayed by my, um, illustrious status rather than by my simply being a nice traveler looking for friends.
Most useful, however, has been CouchSurfing.org, which has helped me make some of the best friendships of my travels. In Romania, for example, where I had no previous contacts, I befriended Horia Diaconescu, with whom I wandered the oddly beautiful streets of the capital, Bucharest (see video, at left). Together we tracked down memorable examples of Secessionist architecture, ate zucchini-and-feta salads and explored strange, half-empty reservoirs on the edge of town. And since I left Romania two years ago, we’ve stayed in touch, mostly via IM, and last year Horia even put me in touch with a friend of his in Paris. Will we see each other in Bucharest again? I don’t know about that, but it might happen in Indonesia — Horia’s going there to study for a year, and I’ve never been.
But even without the aid of CouchSurfing, Facebook and friends-of-friends, I’ve managed to connect with people in far-flung locales. While driving across America, I stopped in Decorah, Iowa, where — five minutes after I met them — Joanie Sheahan and her husband, Mark Smeby, the owners of La Rana Bistro, offered me a place to stay for three nights. Why? Because, Joanie told me later, they liked what I was doing and I seemed nice. For them, that was enough.
Meeting these people, hearing their stories and participating, if only for a few hours, in their lives have been the high points of my travels, and the prospect of encountering more fascinating individuals is what has kept me continually excited about being on the road. The wondrous sights, mind-blowing meals and crazy challenges — I can do without them all, as long as there’s a possibility of human connection down at the end of the road.
The Things I Regret
Still, after all those trips, I do have a few regrets — not about things I did incorrectly, but about things I never had the chance to do. Like relax. Often, I’d wind up on a beach somewhere (France, Greece, Malta) and want nothing more than to lie on the sand all day, with occasional forays into the cooling surf. But then I’d think: Where’s the drama there? If I didn’t go do something — anything— I’d have nothing to write about! And so off I’d go, anxiety-ridden and not nearly tan enough, in search of more prose-worthy excitement.
That excitement, alas, did not include budget scuba diving, affordable hang-gliding or cheap marlin fishing. I never found the right, inexpensive way to cross the West on horseback. And apart from a week at the Fringe Festival in Edinburgh, Scotland (see video, at left), I didn’t spend much time at the theater, the opera or the circus.
But more than anything, I regret the huge swathes of the planet that I never visited. Yes, I went all over Europe, a large part of Asia, almost all of North America and the Caribbean, but that’s about it. In South America, I made it only to Argentina and Uruguay. Apart from the former Soviet republics of Kyrgyzstan and Georgia, I didn’t touch the Russian sphere of influence.
For this Frugal Traveler, the Middle East was confined to Dubai (unless you count Turkey). With the exception of a single day I spent in Fez, Morocco, I skipped the entire African continent. And I never got anywhere near Australia and New Zealand.
Luckily, I’ve got several more decades of wanderlust to fulfill. And though I may no longer be the Frugal Traveler, I will remain forever an eager, untiring traveler — and, depending on your point of view, a frugal one.