The Frugal Traveler column has been around for 25 years. We got all five of the columnists together (virtually, that is) to discuss how the column has changed, what lessons they learned, and much more. Our current columnist, Lucas Peterson, hosted.
Lucas Peterson (2016-current): Let’s kick things off at the beginning: How long has the Frugal Traveler column existed?
Susan Spano (1993-1998): I think the first Frugal column ran in late 1993. It was about a trip to the then-backpacker haven of Tulum. The only glitch was a little fender-bender in the town of Valladolid, covered by insurance on my American Express card. (Now I have American Express Premium Car Rental Insurance, a plan that serves as primary coverage for up to 42 days for $19.95 to $24.94 per rental period, not per day. I just have to remember to book the rental using the Amex card.)
Of course, I did not tell my editors about it. In those days, I was winging it. I knew I had an incredible gig and didn’t want to mess it up by revealing the hassles that went along with it.
Daisann McLane (1998-2004): It was an extraordinary period of my life, and it’s shaped and informed everything I have done since. Doing the column forces you to develop a special skill set. Over and over you are parachuting into an unfamiliar country and culture. You have to make connections, get the sense of a place and gather enough material to write something that’s coherent, informative and entertaining. All in about 36 to 72 hours — or less.
I didn’t choose the destination of my first column, Budapest — it was handed to me by the then-editor of the section, Nancy Newhouse. She was vetting candidates for the job, and this column was my tryout, my big shot at what one of my journalism pals called “the best job at The New York Times.”
Matt Gross (2006-2010): When I first heard of the Frugal Traveler, the column was going to be about going to expensive places on a low budget; the joke would be in the headline — “Frugal Aspen,” say, or “Frugal Tokyo” — and the challenge would be to really experience the place in all its glory without the benefit of big bucks.
SS: I once did a Frugal on a weekend at the Carlyle Hotel on the Upper East Side. I remember quite clearly a special order — a room service milkshake — enjoyed in bed. My post-Frugal travel writing often leaned more to the high end. I once sampled all the luxury hotels in Bangkok, which are (or were) cheaper than luxury elsewhere. My favorite was the Peninsula. But I persist in looking for the best, not the cheapest deal.
DM: Susan’s got it. That, and choosing your destination with care. If I had one trick that I used over and over again as the Frugal Traveler, it was picking the unusual or less-traveled destination. Not only can you save money with this strategy, you will almost always have a better experience. Steer left where others steer right, and head away from the places that draw the crowds. So: Antwerp instead of Amsterdam; Greenland over Iceland; and so forth.
Seth Kugel (2010-2016): I wrote my first Travel piece for the Times around when Matt did, and soon ended up with a column called Weekend in New York; I was the travel writer who didn’t travel. I moved to Brazil in 2008, and it was two years into my stint as a freelance foreign correspondent that Stuart Emmrich, the Travel editor, called me up.
My first assignment was a 10-week “moving back home” trip from São Paulo to New York, mostly by boat and train and bus. Everything went great — aside from leaving my passport in an airport restroom (I got it back at lost and found) and dropping my new $1,200 camera into a river near Brazil’s incredible Lencóis Maranhenses National Park. But it was far more exhausting than I thought — I was shooting video, doing my own photographs and writing, of course, and sleeping (or not sleeping) in hammocks, hostels and one dungeonlike hotel room.
DM: The columns present our trips as fairly seamless, with occasional mishaps tossed in for comedic relief. But the reality is you are cramming as many experiences into your days and nights as possible, because you’re always anxious you won’t have enough good material to work with when it comes time to write.
I also had the disadvantage of working in the days before digital photography was widespread and affordable. I shot on film, with a camera, heavy lenses and a tripod, and lugged this gear around wherever I went. My back was a mess for years.
LP: I’m interested in hearing about any practical tools and travel gear you’re using today. I’ve found the app Google Trips surprisingly useful. It doesn’t provide deep insight into a given destination, but it’s good for keeping track of your different trips and providing basic information on a place (sights, getting around, local discounts). As far as wearables, I’ve found my Gap anorak to be pretty indispensable. It’s lightweight and good for different climates, and having zippable pockets is extremely useful for not losing things. The pouch in the front is great for things like your boarding pass and passport.
One item on my wishlist is a simple laundry travel clothesline from Going In Style. The flexible line keeps items in place without clothespins, and looks like it would be easy to use in bathrooms and confined spaces.
MG: Sometimes I feel like my travel preferences and tools are stuck in time from my Frugal Traveler era. I still use Kayak and Hipmunk to search flights, and I book directly on airline websites (unless the savings elsewhere are too great). I still forward my confirmation emails over to TripIt, which assembles my itineraries automatically. Nor has my gadget game changed much, except that I carry an external battery for my phone. I still pack the Petzl LED headlamp I bought a whole decade ago!
A few things have changed, I suppose. I’ve cycled through much luggage in the past several years, and am currently enamored of Muji’s wheeled hard-shell suitcases, which are lightweight, rugged and affordable. And while the credit-card scene is constantly shifting, I’m definitely into the Chase Sapphire Reserve, which on its face seems very non-frugal ($450 annual membership fee!) but quickly rewards that investment with a $300 yearly travel credit, airport lounge access and points that accumulate so fast I’m able to regularly book vacations with them.
SS: I still swear by Chaco sandals, originally designed by river-rafting guides in Colorado. Mine must be 20 years old, resoled once back at the factory. Amphibious, rock grabbing, attractive enough to dress up in.
My packing strategy remains unchanged. No matter how long my trip, I pack enough for one week, then do laundry. I want to be able to carry my own bag so it’s got to be pretty small. Besides, laundromats are great. During a pouring rain in County Clare, Ireland, a man at a laundromat gave me my most memorable Frugal quote: “This is a grand country. Rain is the only fault in it.”
SK: One of the relatively recent developments I like in travel technology is how many apps are available offline, which saves on international data. Google Translate is No. 1 on that list, and seems to get better all the time. It may be the most important travel app there is going forward. Google Maps does it too, though I’m a sucker for paper maps.
DM: I do have some leftover habits from my Frugal years. I use plastic vacuum bags and resealable food storage bags to organize my clothes and shoes in a filing system, so I can pack and unpack with less hassle. For electronics, I carry only an iPhone 7 plus, and a portable bluetooth Apple keyboard — no computer. But I probably use WhatsApp more than any other app on my phone — it’s the best for keeping instantly and inexpensively in touch via text or voice. (Unless you are in mainland China, where it’s blocked, along with Facebook and Instagram.)
The most valuable thing you can take on your trip isn’t a suitcase or app; it’s the email or number of a local contact. Whenever I travel, I try to make some connections on the ground before I go. Sometimes I travel to a destination I would not have otherwise thought of, because of a friend I’ve made there.
Here’s a question for you guys: Is there anything (besides laundry) that you always try to do when you visit somewhere? I often get under the skin of a place by booking a personal service like a shampoo-and-blow-dry or a pedicure.
MG: I’m the guy who goes running several mornings a week — it’s not only good for resetting my body clock and defeating jet lag, it’s how I scout a new area, noting unusual places and businesses (and public restrooms!), and observing who else is up with the sun. When I can, I’ll also join local running groups, which are a great way to meet a broad swath of people you wouldn’t ordinarily encounter as a tourist.
SS: I used to run a long time ago, but what I always, always loved to do wherever I went as a Frugal was to visit the town’s best hotel, sit at the bar and try to get a good martini. On several occasions, including in Paris, I had to go behind the bar and mix it myself! Not much local color there, but travelers themselves often fascinated me.
SK: I’m a big believer in the random walk. Get somewhere, figure out what regions of the place are safe enough to wander, and roam around for an afternoon. Over that time I usually ingest three coffees and least that many mini-meals, go into any bookstore, sit in any plaza that people are hanging out in, and see what happens.
LP: I always like to try to hit a local bookshop (even if the books are in a language I don’t comprehend). And my fridge magnet collection has gotten rather extensive.
I’d love to chat a little bit more about the difficulties and hardships that have come up on the road and what, if anything, we learned from those experiences.
One early experience for me was when a Megabus I was riding from Chicago to Milwaukee caught fire and burned on the side of the highway on a chilly day in February. I’d never been in a full-on emergency in a travel situation before, and the most valuable (and perhaps most obvious) lesson I gleaned was: Don’t waste time trying to save your luggage. Fortunately, I kept my valuables in a backpack I had on my person and didn’t lose anything. That didn’t apply to many other passengers, though, some of whom lost a considerable amount of property and paid for their tickets with cash (eliminating any benefits that would come from credit card coverage). I recommend paying for travel with a credit card if possible — a luxury not available to all, I realize — as there is frequently common carrier coverage that will reimburse you should something go wrong.
SS: My most dangerous situations were canine and human: being chased by a huge pack of wild dogs along a path on the French Polynesian island of Huahine and an encounter with a gang of young men while hiking above Dharamsala, India, where violence against foreign women had become common. In a sense, both were my fault for taking chances. But how to draw the line?
SK: Nothing horrible ever happened to me on the road, though I also was in a Megabus that broke down after (quite clearly) having some sort of brake or gearshift problem. The No. 1 cause of death for Americans traveling abroad is motor vehicle accidents, and cheap travel often means buses and trains and taking rides with people who may or may not be great drivers.
Aside from physical danger, traveling alone for months a year comes with a dose of loneliness and two doses of exhaustion. The cure for loneliness, I always found, was talking to strangers — easier in some countries than others.
MG: For me, the hardest thing was my three-month nonstop summer trips. Writing, taking photos, shooting and scripting video — it’s exhausting to do every week! I learned early on that my travel experiences had to take place in a five-day span, with two days left to write and communicate with my editors (and do laundry).
LP: I’ve gotten occasional comments and criticism that the activities I partake in, or general style of travel, would not feel safe for solo female travelers. Susan and Daisann, I’m interested in hearing your perspective on safety for female travelers and how, if at all, you think that informs your work as travel writers.
DM: I hate the pigeonhole of “solo female traveler.” When I was writing the column I made a point of ignoring that trope as much as possible. I tried to write with strength from a woman’s point of view, and to make that voice the default one. My position is and was: Women travel alone, intrepidly, have for centuries, it’s normal, get over it, next!
Now that I’m in my early 60s I find that age has much more impact on how I experience travel than gender. Being older on the road is equal parts disconcerting, humbling and enlightening. It’s a whole new world. Fortunately I’m in good health and I can do all the same things I did when I was writing the column. But I can tell that the people I encounter along the way see and deal with me differently than when I was doing the column in my 40s. Sometimes that means I get treated extra nicely, especially in generation-conscious Asia. In other situations, though, it means I’m invisible and ignored or just don’t fit the profile.
Getting older has changed how I think about travel. Probably the worst thing about a long travel life is coming to grips with losing places you’ve loved. And, thanks to the column, I have a huge backlog of these places in my heart. How I wish I could revisit the New York of the early 1980s, walk through endless Balinese rice paddies in 1998, get lost in a prewar neighborhood in Shanghai in 2001.
SS: As a younger, female, solo traveler I had certain, specific concerns, of course. After the Frugal job I went on to write a column for the Los Angeles Times for women travelers, my aim chiefly being to get them to travel, to show it isn’t all that hard or lonely. Age has made me a stronger, more outgoing traveler. I really don’t think anyone would want to mess with me.
SK: Lucas, I had the same comments quite regularly, and actually did a piece on it, featuring Daisann and a few other veteran travelers from the other side of the (fuzzy) gender divide. Here was my takeaway: Of course there are differences in how men and women experience travel, and how they are treated, just as there are differences for L.G.B.T. versus straight travelers, travelers of different races and religions. But what I learned from those interviews was that there are far more differences among individual travelers regardless of gender than between male and female travelers as a whole. After doing that article, when a female reader would write to me and say something like “as a woman, I wouldn’t take the risk you did,” all I could think of was: plenty of men wouldn’t either.
LP: What are one or two big takeaways you gleaned from your travels? For me, it’s the idea of what “frugal” means. I don’t see frugal travel as a race to the bottom — that’s not much fun, and it’s also not much of a challenge. Finding the cheapest fleabag hostel is as easy as, well, booking the cheapest fleabag hostel. The challenge is in finding that balance between enjoyment and frugality. I’d much rather take the $60-per-night place that’s homey and comfy over the $40 place that’s going to ruin my back for the next week.
The same applies for food and entertainment. I love eating and drinking on the street and in small local places not because they’re cheap per se, but because they frequently give a better sense what life is actually like in that city or country (It helps if the food is good, of course). So that means eating a big steaming bag of dumplings on the street in Chengdu for 8 yuan (about $1.20), yes. But I think it’s also valuable to show that eating upscale can be done, too.
I was able to have a fancy-frugal time at the bar at White Rabbit in Moscow, a fixture on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list, and have some delicious rabbit-stuffed cabbage rolls and bowl of green borscht with rhubarb for less than $20. That, to me, is one of the more enjoyable “wins” of traveling frugally — feeling like you’re getting away with having a luxurious experience while not paying what everyone else is paying.
DM: Here’s another thought: Having an unlimited travel budget can actually keep you from having a great travel experience! The luxury hotel might be more comfortable, but it is also a bubble. Often the five-star is in a grand but difficult-to-access location, and you can’t easily walk out and wander the surrounding area. You end up taking taxis or hiring drivers instead of exploring on foot. To this day, I’m happier staying in a small, family run B & B or an older hotel with a central location than I am in most five-star hotels.
SK: The less you spend, the more you see (and the more people you meet and the more fun you have). There is, of course, a low-end cut off, and it mostly depends on how strong your back is. But in that range, between how much a traveler can afford to spend and how much discomfort he or she can handle, most people would have a better trip if they edged toward the frugal end. That said, I agree with Lucas that you should never deprive yourself of a great meal just to prove a point.
MG: I think I can actually boil my travel education down to two interrelated lessons: No. 1: The best way to be a frugal traveler is to learn to truly love the things that don’t cost a lot of money, like eating honest, simple food, gazing at unfamiliar scenery or making new friends. If you crave the five-star lifestyle but don’t have the cash for it, you’ll always be disappointed.
No. 2: It takes a lot of traveling to figure out what you really like (or don’t like). Maybe medieval churches are not for you? Maybe you’re a hiker at heart? Maybe you just love a plush hotel bed? You won’t know unless you try a million things in a billion places, and while you may find disappointment at times, you may also find enlightenment. No traveler is born — we’re all made.
Susan Spano is serving as a U.S. State Department English Language Fellow in Muhanga, Rwanda. She will be joining two upcoming New York Times Journeys trips: The Canyons of the Southwest, in Deep and in Depth, Aug. 16 to 23, and Unlocking the Mysteries of Indochina, Oct. 25 to Nov. 5.
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