Budget Travel – With The New York Times’ Frugal Traveler, Seth Kugel
The New York Times’ Frugal Traveler shares his money savings tips and experiences, most of which are from places all across america. He has nearly 400,000 Twitter followers and has been contributing to the New York Times since 1998 and he has also contributed to O: The Oprah Magazine, New York Magazine, Conde Nast Traveler and The Boston Globe, among a number of other prominent news outlets.
What made you decide to move to New York City?
It’s just a necessity for the job. Since I’m working for the New York Times, I do a lot of local travel around here. If I need to go to Connecticut, it’s easier to travel from here than from Brazil to Connecticut. It’s just a thing with the job, that’s about it. But New York City is not such a bad place though!
Can you tell us what it’s like working for the New York Times?
Sure, well I don’t work in the building. I’m a freelance columnist so I don’t have quite as much information as maybe someone who works for the staff, but I have been writing for them for over a decade. Probably the best thing about it is how smart everyone you’re working with is and the second best thing is that you can always count on a big audience for what ever you write. If I write something, I’m never worried that no one’s going to read it, let’s put it that way. And that’s something I’m really grateful for and I feel pretty lucky that I’ve been able to work pretty steady for them, even as a freelancer, for over a decade.
I did some research and found that New York City has the highest cost of living in all of America. Manhattan’s cost of living is about 125% above average (and for those wondering, Harlingen, Texas is the cheapest place to live in America), but many consider NYC to be the most expensive place in the country to visit, so do you have any budget travel tips for visitors to NYC?
Sure, well the most expensive thing you’re going to find here is lodging, so you have to make some decisions. You have a couple choices. If you’re going to stay in a regular hotel, probably the minimum you’re ever going to pay is $200 a night and that’s not going to get you much, so first you need to think if that is a doable amount. For most of my readers and certainly for me, that’s not a doable amount. I haven’t spent over $100 for lodging in 3.5 years in this job and most of the time I spend significantly less than that. So that’s not going to work too well in New York, unless you think you’re going to stay in a youth hostel and even the youth hostels are pretty expensive.
But a couple of options, first of all, there are some less expensive lodging options in Manhattan for I’d say $150 or less. They do exist, but usually you won’t get your own bathroom, you’ll have a shared bathroom, but they’re okay. The other options are to stay outside of Manhattan. Certainly, there are a lot of options in Queens and in Brooklyn that are fairly pricey. You can always stay in New Jersey, it’s just a quick train ride away. The other thing you can do is stay with one of these new fangled methods like Airbnb, you know lots of people use Airbnb right now. And though it’s still going to be expensive compared to other cities, the apartments featured on there are often going to be significantly less than hotels and of course you also get to live in someone else’s apartment, which is cool.
And another thing I always recommend for New York is to bid for your hotel on Priceline or Hotwire, both of which require you to put down your credit card before you find out where you are staying, but it will always be a decent hotel and you can save quite a bit off the regular rates if you can just turn over to Priceline or Hotwire, the choice of the hotel. So I guess the final thing to do is to hit up all of your friends and stay on their couch. That’s probably the best way to do it.
Speaking of hostels, there really aren’t all that many hostels in America, but what are your thoughts on them and do you have any advice for people looking to save money on the price of their hostel?
There’s two reasons to stay in hostels, one is because they are very cheap and the other is because they are very social. But I’d say that 80% of the guests in hostels are under the age of 30. There are a significant number of people that stay in hostels, especially retired aged people. So you shouldn’t feel like you are too old to stay in a hostel.
But you do have to share a room with other people and that is where some people get caught up. I mean it can be a risk for a bunch of reasons, you can have a loud snoring person near you, and if you do, it might be me! So some people have things stolen occasionally, you have to have your things locked up and a lot of people just are not into sharing a room with strangers.
There are some hostels around the country that do have private rooms and in almost all cases, those private rooms, especially if you are traveling with a couple or with one or two friends, are much much cheaper than hotel rooms. So that would be another option that doesn’t work as well in New York City. But lots of the time I stayed in Shanghai at a youth hostel, I found that it was a very nice place and I had a room and it was pretty much indistinguishable from say a low rate, low number of stars, maybe a 2 star hotel. It was a little smaller but it had it’s own bathroom, so definitely think about that option. Just staying in a hostel doesn’t necessarily mean that you are sharing a room with someone else.
The New York Times.
Have you ever had any bad experiences where you wished you wouldn’t have been so frugal?
Sure, but in the vast majority of my travel experiences, my travels have actually been better from operating on a frugal budget. A lot of the time, the more money you spend, the more time you find yourself isolated from the place you are visiting and the people who are there. One obvious example is when you are taking taxis instead of public transportation. You’re in a private cocoon and a lot of interesting things happen on public buses and subways and it’s a real way to take in the place.
There are times when I wished I would’ve had a private room, one obvious example is when I took a trip to Puerto Rico and when I was traveling around the island, and I don’t always book hotels in advance, especially if it’s in the high season. So I arrived in my destination on the west coast where there’s a lot of surfing, maybe it was windsurfing, and it turned out that all the hotels in my price range were booked and I ended up sleeping in my car. I would have loved to have had $250 to spend that night and stayed in a resort, so it does happen.
One time I was waiting on a ferry boat on the Yangtze River in China until something like 4 in the morning. I thought I was supposed to come at 2 AM and I came at 4 AM, so I was sitting out there on the dock and it wasn’t a terrible experience, but I was wondering if I wouldn’t have been better off taking a more luxurious form of transportation, like a tour bus or something like that.
Sure. And I think a lot of people might be afraid of spending too low on a hotel because they might be afraid of finding bedbugs or roaches – but of course that’s what TripAdvisor is for.
You know, TripAdvisor is a great site, but you have to be very careful when you use it. I don’t think everyone knows exactly what a bedbug is. I think that there have been people who like to get back at hotels. Maybe there is someone that has been rude to them and they want to get back at them. Also, many hotels have enemies or rival hotels who leave reviews on their site, so I would say that TripAdvisor is a useful tool, but to depend entirely on TripAdvisor, or certainly to believe everything you read on TripAdvisor, is unnecessary.
Would you say that we should be more skeptical if they have less than 20 reviews?
I think that is very true, excellent point.
I also always like to ask for an upgrade at the time of check-in.
Sure. I’ve never been upgraded on a flight, I guess you can just keep asking and I guess it will happen eventually. With hotels, just a little bit of charm and politeness also goes a long way. Even fake politeness and charm if you waited a long time in the line or something. I think that will get you better service and if not an upgrade.
How do you like to save money on dining?
I’ve trained myself not to even see expensive restaurants when I walk by them. I think it’s the basics that everyone knows, you try to stay out of restaurants in very touristy areas and you also want to ask people who live in the place. I wouldn’t just ask “Where’s the best place I should eat?” because they often default to where they think the best places for tourists are. I like to ask people “where’s the last place you ate lunch,” which forced them to give me a place that they actually go to, rather than a place they think I’ll like.
I like to have at least one meal a day to be self catered. Also, if you are in a place that has free breakfast at the hotel, eat a really big breakfast and this will all depend on your particular stomach, but I absolutely love street food. I realize that there are some people out there who fear getting sick, but I think there’s a difference for people who are scared to try street food and for those who really do have a weak stomach and most people fall into the first category. I advise people to be a little bit more daring and try street food, at least street food from places that look semi sanitary and you can save a whole lot of money that way and often eat something that is pretty tasty.
What’s the least amount of money needed to travel? Do you have a daily budget?
I sometimes set a daily budget for my trips, but this is entirely dependent on two things. The first is your minimum level of necessary comfort. A lot of people take a tent and camp everywhere they go and take peanut butter sandwiches and never take a taxi anywhere. If you are comfortable with that, you can obviously spend very little. The other thing is that different destinations have entirely different costs. If you are really on a budget and have to choose, let’s say a country to travel to when you are traveling abroad, I recommend you choose five countries and figure out which one of the five is the cheapest and come to that one.
Just an example, in South America, which is a part of the world that I know pretty well, let’s say if you set a budget of $100 a day, which is kind of a high end frugal, it’s still much less than what most people would spend, but it’s a lot higher than what a backpacker would spend. So $100 a day in Bolivia, which is a very cheap country, you’ll be living pretty well, you’ll be at s nice hotel, you’ll be able to eat at pretty good restaurants. You might even take some taxis and go into any attractions you want without worrying and whereas in Brazil, which is next door, $100 a day and you’re going to have trouble finding a hotel that doesn’t cost you $100 a night. You’re going to be doing more of the youth hostel thing, whereas in smaller cities where you’re going to be staying in nicer hotels, but you’re definitely going to be watching your budget and going between cities is more expensive. But you’ve got an entirely different experience in two cities that are right next to each other. So that is something to think about.
Norway, for example, is often cited as one of the most expensive destinations in Europe, if not in the world. You really have to want to go to Norway to make it worth going there. If I say France, Spain, Italy, and Norway, and you say Norway, and you say “I definitely want to go to Norway,” then go to Norway. But those other countries, such as France and Italy, are far cheaper than Norway and you know, if you are on a budget and unless you are of Norwegian heritage and going to visit your relatives, there’s not much reason to visit Norway.
What are your thoughts about haggling to get a better price?
I think it depends entirely on the country you are in and also on the circumstance. I think there’s a difference between haggling and asking for a discount. Haggling is required in some places and in some places you are really expected to haggle. So at a market in Kenya or some place like that. But always ask politely for a discount, you can’t go to H&M in NYC and ask for a discount on a shirt, but certainly, I’d also advice don’t push it too hard. Don’t feel like you have to ask for a discount. Also, it’s really distasteful to ask for a discount on things that are under a dollar. Maybe a little inappropriate if someone tries to sell you something for 80 cents and you try to get them down to 40 cents. I’d say haggle for items of a significant value and if in any case that you are not sure if haggling is okay, you just politely ask for a discount.
Sure. And I think people often just don’t even think to haggle, especially in the USA, as much as other countries. But just as an example, this was just a few blocks from Times Square at a family owned camera shop, they were willing to come way down on the price of a camera at 25% off what I would have payed at Best Buy. That’s just an example of how even in a large city, people can save a lot more by speaking out.
What’s the cheapest trip you’ve ever been on?
Certainly, the cheapest trip would be visiting a friend somewhere. The cheapest country would be, as I mentioned before, Bolivia, but I guess in a sense, I did do a story last winter where I tried to figure out the cheapest way that I could get to a beach in the Caribbean. Judging from the minute I stepped out my door to the minute I returned, the only requirement being that I had to spend three days on a beach. I can’t remember the total cost, but including airfare and the resort I stayed in in the Dominican Republic, I think it was $400 something dollars, which I thought was pretty good. But on the other end, you have to agree to spend three days at a low end all-inclusive resort in the Dominican Republic.
One thing that is really important is to not let your budget become the dominating factor in your decisions because some people take budget travel to an extreme and show off how little money they spent and end up not seeing as much because they don’t want to spend bus fare to get to another city. Or they may not end up eating local cuisine because they are buying the cheapest bread and ham and cheese at a local supermarket. So you just need to make sure that you have your priorities straight and not be totally obsessed. The purpose of my column is not to teach people to save money, it’s to teach people to travel well on less money. I do have a series called $100 weekend where I have $100 to spend from Friday to Sunday, in the city, including lodging. But the funny thing is that people will get on my case and say “oh you went over budget by a dollar” or “you stayed with a friend.” That’s not fair. But the point of these articles isn’t to have a trip for people to imitate word for word, it’s to show how much can be done, that’s fun, for a small amount of money, basically.
So obsessing over spending as little as possible so you can show off to your friends or travel companions is counter productive. I think you’re much better off accessing the minimum that you need to spend to have an excellent time and get done what you want to get done, but also to go up to them and say “if you don’t have enough money to travel for 8 days, then travel for four days and have a better time.” That’s all part of the calculation.
Out of the largest cities in America, have you visited one that you found to be surprisingly affordable?
Affordable. Affordable in America! That’s a tough one.
A lot of people say the Las Vegas hotels are a lot cheaper than most other cities.
Well believe it or not, I’ve actually never been to Las Vegas and I have close to zero desire to go but it is true that you can stay cheaply in Vegas.
I saw that you never go anywhere without your DSLR camera, so I am curious if you have any photography tips that you would like to share today?
Yeah, I don’t have any technical tips but I think especially for people traveling alone, which I do, I think photography is a great way to pass the time and kind of have a companion. You’re constantly challenged by the feeling of where you are by using a camera and a lot of times I’ll find that I am bored in a state park or somewhere like that and the way I’ll make it more enjoyable is to really capture the light of a typical fellow visitor, based on who’s there. So it’s been a great passion of mine. I’m sort of an amateur photographer, I guess you can say, but yet my photographs are posted along with my column.
If you love photography, I guess I would say to invest in a good camera. People have now gone back after I guess the first part of the century, being obsessed with the tinier camera the better, people are back to being obsessed with large DSLRs, It’s not just that you are getting better pictures, it’s also better quality and you have more control over the camera. I think for people who’ve never tried to use a fancy camera will be surprised to see how challenging and fulfilling it is and how the results are better.
If you had an unlimited travel budget for the next week, where would you go? What would you do?
I would probably go straight to Southeast Asia, you know Cambodia, Thailand, Vietnam, because that is actually the part of the world that I really have never been to. You know people think that I have been everywhere in the entire universe and the truth is that until about 3.5 years ago, I basically exclusively wrote about Latin America and New York. So in 3.5 years, I haven’t been everywhere and that’s a part of the world that I think is the most glaring gap in my experience.
For someone whose never been out of the Western Hemisphere, where would you recommend they go first?
I would choose whatever country in Europe that most tickles your fancy. People might say France or Italy or whatever and then you’d want to try to go off the beaten path. I’d never recommend for someone whose never been out of the Western Hemisphere to go to say France and spend a week in Paris and come back. You want to spend a few days in Paris and then get out to a smaller city, or a more rural area. I just spent a few days in Toulouse, which I believe is France’s fourth or fifth biggest city, something like that, and it’s such a college town. It’s such a less touristy city than going to the big name, so choose the part of the world that you want to see and then get out. You’ll almost always have a better time – that’s what I’ve found, especially if you’re the type of traveler who likes to meet people. If people are who you travel for or if you are dying to see a mountain range, or you love hiking or whatever, but if people and culture are what you want to see, I urge people to get away from the major tourist capitals before they leave a country.
Where do you plan on visiting next?
I’m hoping to plan an African trip soon, I’m trying to do a safari that doesn’t break the bank and besides that, I’m also, I’m looking for some good winter getaways right around New York. That’s probably the most immediate thing. The winter is starting and people, especially for New Yorkers, need to know how to get out of the city and enjoy the winter in a place where the snow doesn’t turn into black sludge in a few minutes of falling.
Do you have any final words of wisdom for people who are trying to cut back on their travel expenses?
First of all, I can’t stress enough how learning to use Priceline.com will help you save money. It’s a little intimidating at first, but you can read tutorials on how to do it and bid a price and then they tell you if you’ve gotten it or not and you can save like 50% on hotels. And #2, well just to repeat that no matter how much money you have, you can take a trip. The trip might just be a couple of hours outside of town on a bus. Size up how much money you want to spend and then retrofit a trip of that amount, don’t just say I can’t afford to go to Paris because I can’t afford a flight across the Atlantic. Just go to the next city over. A huge check of the joy of travel is being in a place that you do not know. It almost to a certain extent does not matter what that place is, as long as it’s different than where you live.
Alright, well thank you very much for being on the show Seth, I really appreciate your time. I invite everyone to check out his Frugal Traveler column from The New York Times.
What’s your favorite budget travel tip? We would love to hear from you in the comments.