Seth Kugel is the current man behind the wildly successful Frugal Traveler column for the New York Times. He’s the fourth Frugal Traveler, having taken over from the previous one, Matt Gross. Seth and I share similar views on travel, and he’s someone whose work I admire greatly. Since we are never in New York City at the same time (we did recently have breakfast in Boston — turns out we are both native Bostonians!), I was able to virtually pin him down via email to talk about our mutual love: travel.
Nomadic Matt: How did you become the Frugal Traveler?
Seth Kugel: It took a bit of a lifelong perfect storm. You could say it dates back to traveling with my parents, who eschewed fancy restaurants and package tours and let me go on an exchange trip to rural Kenya when I was in high school. (I came home with hepatitis A and a desire to study African politics in college.) After graduation the story gets a bit more twisted: I worked as a teacher and immigrant services provider in Latino neighborhoods in New York, which led to a gig covering the Bronx as a freelancer with the New York Times city section, coauthoring book on Latino New York, and eventually getting a few articles into the Times travel section, the first of which was about the ultimate frugal Amazon tour, sleeping on a hammock alongside a few hundred Brazilian strangers. I combined my interest in travel writing and in New York City to propose a column that become “Weekend in New York,” which I did for about three years. Then I fled the US to become a freelancer in Brazil, writing about politics and economics and culture but still contributing to the travel section of the Times. Two years later Matt Gross left the Frugal Traveler position, and I was in the wrong place at the right time. So I moved back to New York. It’s actually one of the very few jobs I would have left Brazil for. Starring opposite Zoe Saldana in Avatar II would have also qualified, but that didn’t happen. (Zoe, call me.)
For people who don’t know you, tell us about your job. What do you do exactly?
Essentially, I travel around on a very tight budget and then write a weekly column about my trips (and occasional other travel topics) for the New York Times. It appears every Tuesday afternoon on nytimes.com/travel and sometimes in print on Sundays. Lucky for me, my trips are fully (if frugally) funded by the Times, making me one of a very, very few full-time travel writers who don’t accept junkets, press discounts, corporate sponsorships, and the like, meaning I can remain anonymous in my travels and experience the world like any of my readers might. That’s great, although it can be a drag to have to lie all the time to people I meet. I wish I could say I spin tales of being a Hollywood stuntman or a Nobel Prize–winning physicist or distant heir to the British throne, but usually I just say I’m an English teacher.
How do you go about planning your trips? Do you have a process you use?
There’s no precise checklist; I think I do what most people do, except I do more of it. For any given trip I usually end up with a huge list of places I’d like to go and things I’d like to do along the way; those come from a wide variety of web resources, friends of friends who live in the destination, details in books or articles I’ve read, and tips that come in from Twitter. Then, when I arrive, I ditch most of the recommendations and wing it by instinct and recommendations from people I meet along the way.
Does the NYT pick where you go or do you get to pick your destinations?
If by the NYT you mean my editors, the answer is a bit of each. Some trips emerge from a back-and-forth; others I dream up. Occasionally an editor just says “Why don’t you go here?” It’s not like I’d ever say no; there’s pretty much nowhere I don’t want to go. But “picking a destination” is actually the least of it. I’m writing this from a dirt-cheap all-inclusive resort in the Dominican Republic — technically the destination — but the story is about how to get to a Caribbean beach for four days for as cheap as possible. I could be in a sandy tent in Curaçao or on a rickety sailboat off Jamaica. But here I am. Earlier this month I hiked up the coast of Piauí, a state in northeastern Brazil that virtually no international tourists visit. But the piece really has nothing to do with Piauí; it is about forging a creative, original path through a very overdocumented world.
As the Frugal Traveler, how do you define frugal traveler?
Not with a dollar figure. Lots of people write in to say something like “You’re not frugal! You spent $50 a day in X country? Last year I survived there for a month and spent just 14 cents!” OK, but what did you do? Have a ham-and-cheese sandwich for breakfast, lunch, and dinner and refuse to pay for a bus to get into the countryside or mountains? Not go to a wonderful little museum or invite a new local friend for a beer?
Frugal to me means, at the very least, avoiding spending on unnecessary comforts: nice hotels, fancy restaurants, organized excursions. It probably includes giving up some niceties you enjoy at home: a comfy mattress, organic produce, a car.
But at its very essence is the belief that spending less almost inevitably leads to experiencing more, and that the best travel experiences are built on avoiding just about everything the travel industry wants you to do.
Publicists write to me all the time and try to get me to believe their client’s hotel or restaurant or attraction is perfect for my column. But the mere fact that a place hired a publicist is pretty much automatic disqualification from frugal status.
There is a perception that travel is expensive and unaffordable for most people. How do you fight against that perception in your writings?
If by “most people” you mean most of the people living on planet Earth, I think that’s certainly true. Even frugal travel is a luxury from that perspective. But there are a lot of people out there who could be traveling and aren’t. One of my goals is to show them travel can cost much less than they think, and can be worth more than they would ever dream.
As part of being the Frugal Traveler, what has been the most interesting trip you’ve done?
The day anyone finds anything more interesting that hanging a hammock on a rickety boat and heading up the Amazon for three or four days alongside a few hundred working-class Brazilians, I’d love to know what it is. I’ve done it three times and I’d go again tomorrow if I could.
Do you reach out to your audience a lot for advice?
Reader tips for me are very hit or miss — never more so than on Twitter, where there’s not much space to back up your suggestion with some details. I do get some great advice over email, though — people who feel passionate enough about a place to write up their own personal experiences there and sent it to me do me a great service.
Even so, I do often ask for advice on Twitter, and quite frequently responses will intrigue me enough that I’ll write to the person directly and ask for more advice.
When you aren’t on the road, what’s your favorite activity to do?
See as many friends as possible. But it’s a losing proposition. Even though I technically “moved” from Brazil to New York more than two years ago, I’m on the road so much a lot of my New York friends think I still live in Brazil. The first thing I hear from most when I let them know I’m in town is “When are you leaving?” Not feeling fully at home anywhere is really the biggest downside of the job.
Since you travel a lot for work, where do you travel for pleasure?
That’s easy. To my parents’ for Thanksgiving, and to my brother’s to visit my nephews.
What are your three top tips for being “frugal?”
- Pretend nice restaurants don’t exist. I literally don’t even notice them anymore.
- Book lodging from hostel websites, even if you don’t want to stay in a hostel. Those sites also offer guesthouses and cheap B&Bs you won’t easily find elsewhere.
- Go places where you have friends. Or one friend. Or one person you met on a train to somewhere else who said “if you ever get to X, look me up.” X is my favorite all-time destination.