The travel community is filled with amazing people. Research and social media has given me the opportunity to reach out to a few prominent individuals with travel-focused lives. Seth Kugel writes The Frugal Traveler column in The New York Times. Over the phone we discussed his travels, tips, career and how he came to write this well-known column at this major news outlet. While he is writing, traveling and working on a book-here he shares his story and what he finds to be the gifts of travel.
Seth Kugel: The Frugal Traveler
1.When did you get start traveling? As a child growing up in the greater Boston area, my family would travel to the beach every summer. When my parents thought my brother and I were old enough, we scrapped the beach and headed for the road. I took my first big trip to Wyoming and the west at the age of ten. Some other memorable childhood trips were trading houses with a family in England and traversing Canada by train. On my own, my first major trip was through a YMCA international camp exchange. At fifteen, I spent six weeks in Kenya doing a village work project with other teenagers. I started traveling again after college when I was teaching in New York City. Having a large base of immigrant students, I often traveled in the sumer to visit their families in the Dominican Republic.
2.How did you save money to be able to afford to travel often? Did you ever relocate based on your love of travel? Why? Going to the Dominican Republic didn’t cost much at the time. To travel there for one month was probably cheaper than actually staying and living in New York for the summer. Flights were inexpensive, and it was free for me to stay (I often bought groceries for the family to thank them). Yes, I did relocate once to Sao Paulo, Brazil. I like to learn languages and at the time I was learning Spanish and Portuguese. When I decided to make the leap to live abroad (2008-2010), I got a job as a freelancer and truly embraced the culture. Living somewhere is different than traveling; the gloss of travel sometimes disappears when you have to figure out how to get the electric turned on.
3.What circumstances led you to make the jump to a travel-based existence as a writer? I was offered a job to write a travel column for the NY Times. I was a long time freelancer for the NY Times and this was a really cool opportunity. Travel was already part of what I was writing about and then it just became the greater focus.
4.When traveling for yourself how do you choose your destinations and for how long you’ll stay? What type of accommodations do you typically choose-apartment, hotel, couch-surfing? Since most of my travel is work-related, I haven’t gone anywhere for myself in the last four years. If I think about it, when I traveled a lot on my own (10 years ago), it was around a similar structure. (Now I do enjoy Air BnB, couch-surfing and small guest houses) I often chose my destinations in a way that would allow me to learn languages (mainly Spanish or Portuguese). Interestingly, when I was going to Brazil I bought a guidebook and a stranger who saw me reading it, came over to chat. He suggested a boat trip down a river in the Amazon that was used by locals to travel from one city to another. So that’s what I did – it was a boat on the river on the Columbian-Brazilian border to Manaus and then I flew to Rio.
5.Could you share your top two travel tips that you believe to be most important for travelers? #1 Don’t over plan and if you do, be ready to abandon the plans you make. No matter what or how much you plan it won’t be perfect, but, I’ve never regretted abandoning a list or trying something unexpected. #2 Look at your itinerary and try to do a bit of something that’s not related to the formalized travel industry. If everything on your list is in Lonely Planet or can be found on TripAdvisor, try to inject a few other elements at random. Often times people confuse what is dangerous for your health with a social risk or being out of your comfort zone. Go explore.
6.What have been some of your favourite types of locations to write from or about? I often advocate going to a place where you speak the language (even if it’s English). I have found that places not in a guidebook and random spots on a map are usually more fun. Travel is an individual process.
7.Which travel destinations or heritage sites are at the top of your personal list to learn about or visit? I’d like to travel to South Asia and southeast Asia and stay in the region for a few months. Often times people confuse me with those who have been everywhere. I’ve been traveling the Latin American region for twenty years but the world for only four.
8.If you were to settle somewhere other than New York- where would it be and why? If it was in the US I’d choose San Francisco and the Bay Area which I feel is a great city and has a lot of elements of NY. If it was outside of the US, then probably Sao Paulo, Brazil. Although it may be a difficult place to live, I have a network of friends and some professional contacts there that would make it a bit easier.
9.What would you say are the two best ‘gifts’ that travel has given you? #1: Perspective. Travel provides that real sense of the world with concrete experiences in a variety of cultures and showcases how little we actually know about the world. It may be impossible to understand it all, but, with any issue I find myself figuring out how it would play out in those other regions (Dominican Republic or Brazil) and that our problems in the US are so much less significant. During my recent travel in Mozambique, where there are many traffic accidents and un-inspected cars, I had a conversation with a local man regarding the fact that there’s no functioning ambulance. Maybe the ambulance comes in 23 minutes instead of 12 or you go to a less efficient or lower income hospital, but, no matter where in the US, the ambulance does come and there is a hospital. While sitting on that crowded bus in rural Mozambique I realized if this bus crashes-that’s it. Perspective! #2: People. It may seem cliché but with things like Facebook now you have the ability to keep track of the people you meet and the ability to collect friends who are diverse and unusual and those you couldn’t meet in your day to day life. I find myself saying there’s that guy I met in Uruguay or the baklava salesman I spoke to for awhile in Turkey. People make the difference.
10.If you were to offer advice to others trying to make the jump to a location independent or travel-heavy lifestyle, what would you tell them? There’s no 100% ‘no risk’ way to do it. I am very lucky that my travel is paid for but I don’t get to go wherever or whenever I want. My travel is restricted. There’s no easy way to do it; I get to travel a lot but am on a strict deadline and schedule. I have to turn in an article and meet very high standards regularly; not what many want in travel. I’ve written articles in bumpy crowded public buses and many in a tent. But I’m lucky. What I like to say about my work is ‘it’s a really great job, but it’s a job’. I may have to write the article in the tent; but I get to go to the tent. Be clear about where you’re coming from, where you want to go and how you want to get there.