Seth Kugel, the New York Times new frugal traveler columnist, spoke to John Wilcock, one of the very first frugal travelers, about the practicalities of traveling on a limited budget. This is the article from the New York Times.
A Budget Travel Pioneer on a Time When $5 a Day Was Real (Frugal) Money By SETH KUGEL
It was the first handwritten letter I’d received in 5 years. Or maybe 10. Signed by John Wilcock, a man I’d never heard of, and postmarked Ojai, Calif., it was waiting for me when I returned from my São Paulo-to-New York summer trip. Mr. Wilcock wrote that he had been an assistant editor at The Times Travel section back in the 1950s, and had written the first editions of “Mexico on $5 a Day,” “Greece on $5 a Day” and “Japan on $5 a Day” for Arthur Frommer in the 1960s.
By George, I thought. This man was the original Frugal Traveler.
Sure Mr. Frommer himself, author of the seminal “Europe on $5 a Day,” could lay legitimate claim to that title as well. But Europe was one thing. The first-ever budget guidebooks to places like Mexico and Japan? That was some real trailblazing.
Mr. Wilcock, it turned out, did a lot more than scribble about travel: he co-founded The Village Voice in 1955 and wrote a column in it for 10 years; he also edited or wrote for or otherwise assisted countless other alternative and underground newspapers. His “Autobiography and Sex Life of Andy Warhol” was published in 1971 (and re-released in March), and he also was co-founder of Interview Magazine with Warhol.
Now 83 and living in Ojai, Mr. Wilcock is still traveling, and still writing a weekly column on the site he calls his “personal journal,” the Ojai Orange. (It’s also an occasional print publication, with all the archives online.) His autobiography, Manhattan Memories, also came out this year. I spoke with him about frugal travel in the days before there were even backpackers, let alone Internet cafes and Doritos to be found worldwide.
What do you remember best about researching “Mexico on $5 a Day”?
Traveling on third-class buses with my neighbor putting a chicken on my lap. And driving a rental car into a Pemex [gas] station with a battered front and having the guy say “Una vaca!” Meaning I’d hit a cow, which was of course correct.
How long did it take you to do the $5 a Day books for Mexico, Greece and Japan?
Every book I’ve ever written was 11 weeks. I need 11 weeks to do things. After 11 weeks, even living here at home, I get very antsy. If I went to a country to do a book, after 11 weeks, I would say to myself: Obviously I could stay here the rest of my life and still research this place, but this is it. I’m going to call a halt at this point.
How did you approach a country like, say, Japan, when there were no prior budget guidebooks to serve as a baseline and no Internet to search on?
I was very lucky in Japan. My column in The Voice had been picked up all over the place, including the Mainichi Daily News in Tokyo, and my editor there introduced me to a couple of guys who were doing an underground paper in Tokyo. He also took me all kinds of places I wouldn’t otherwise have found, like a whale meat restaurant and a bear meat restaurant. But there were other people there – as there always are – who speak English or actually are American. After I wrote the Mexico guide, my contacts said, “How did you find all those things? I’ve lived there for years and I only know some of them,” and I said, “Yes, but I spoke to you and 20 other people.
Five dollars in 1960 is, adjusted for inflation, about $36 a day today. I travelled through Latin America on $70 a day this past summer. Was your budget actually $5 a day?
Frommer’s theory was that people don’t travel alone, they travel together, so you had $10. That means you had $1 for breakfast, maybe $4 or $5 for your hotel room and the rest of lunch and dinner. I always joke to people, I did Japan on $5 a day and now it’s $5 a second, but in actual fact if you go to Japan today, there are cheap things just as there are anywhere else, like dollar noodle places, or McDonald’s. Any country, even with an expensive superstructure added to it, still has a lot of people who live very cheaply.
But now those facts are already out there. Hotel prices are online. Sites list youth hostels. If you want to get any restaurant menu in many cities, you can find the menu on the Web site of the restaurant.
Today everything’s available.
So what does that make the role of travel writers today?
Everyone’s turned into a travel writer. It started when people who were bankers and people like that went on vacation and realized that if they wrote something about the trip they could maybe take it off their taxes. But today, basically everybody writes about their travel. I don’t suppose you can say there’s nothing left to discover, but it certainly is hard.
Should we be happy or sad about this?
It’s just an inevitable development. The way the world has gotten smaller all the time, it’s easier to get around. it’s easier to fly everywhere. That Ryanair guy started doing $1 flights to obscure towns that nobody had ever heard of before all of the sudden they became tourist centers.
You wrote in the 1970s that most most travel writing is just “public relations bull.” Is that true today?
Things have changed a lot since then. One of the things I’d like to claim is that the underground press changed the nature of almost all newspaper and magazine writing. Travel writing today is much more interesting than it was in those days. When I was working at The Times everything was incredibly impersonal. Basically, you weren’t allowed to have an opinion at all. And nowadays it’s almost the reverse, almost everything is written from the personal point of view. So things have changed tremendously.
What was this Travel Directory you founded?
When I first went to Mexico, I wrote in my column that I’d like to call and see people along the way. From that evolved a directory back in the early ’60s, which eventually had people all over the world in it who were willing to offer varying degrees of hospitality to travelers.
It sounds like the original CouchSurfing.
It wasn’t called that back in those days, but that’s what it was, of course. I wouldn’t be surprised if you could still Google the Travel Directory. I bet it ended up somewhere. [Note: It did.]
I assume that at 83, you travel a bit more luxuriously than you used to.
No, I still travel as cheaply as I can. I don’t look 83, I look about 60-something, and I’m actually pretty active still. I’m not really handicapped: my eyes are going a bit and my hearing’s going a bit, but otherwise I’m in pretty good shape and I live pretty much the way I always have. When I’m staying with somebody and they say “I’m sorry, we only have a couch,” I say “Listen, I’ve slept on billiard tables and in bathtubs.” I’d like to think I’m as adaptable as I always was.
By Seth Kugel