Interview with Tim Leffel

Tim Leffel author of the world's cheapest destinationsA few months ago, you might have noticed a newly-released book on traveling the world on the cheap. Recently, Tim Leffel, one of the original budget travel gurus and a travel writer I admire greatly (who also read through drafts of my own book), updated his cheapest destination book, The World’s Cheapest Destinations. As someone greatly interested in value for money, I interviewed him about his new book, budget travel, travel gear, and saving money on family travel.

Nomadic Matt: You’ve been in the travel writing industry for a while. How has travel changed over the years?
Tim Leffel: The good and bad tend to cancel out a bit and it often depends on your point of view. The first time I circled the globe as a backpacker, there was no internet, no e-mail, no online banking. Plus ATMs were scarce in a lot of countries so getting and changing money was always trying. Now it’s all so simple that people can connect to whatever they need online from almost anywhere. The dark downside of that is many travelers stay waayyyy too connected to home. Physically they are abroad, but mentally they’re still connected to the safe and familiar idea of home. That’s the biggest downside I see to travel now: so many people are in their home-based social media bubble instead of interacting with the new people and experiences around them.

The biggest plus is everything is easier and more organized now. If you can’t figure out how to get from place to place and find somewhere to stay now, you’re really dense.

Tell us about your book.
I recently put out the fourth edition of The World’s Cheapest Destinations. I wrote the first one more than a decade ago because there was no good way to figure out which countries were the best values without doing a ridiculous amount of research. So I wrote the book I always wanted to buy. Thankfully lots of people felt like I did and it has sold very well each year. Each edition I update every chapter, removing countries where prices have gone up too much and adding others to take their place. It’ll save you 20-40 hours of research for ten bucks or so and hopefully it’s kind of fun to read when you’re dreaming or planning.

How do you pick the twenty-one destinations? Why these ones and not others?
It’s purely based on which are the best values—there’s no arbitrary $x per day figure. I’m trying to help both shoestring backpackers and vacationers with a bit more cash to stretch their budget, so they tend to be countries with a decent infrastructure and plenty to do, but with very attractive prices that are far less than home. So at first I didn’t include Cambodia because only the most hard-core backpackers and high-end fly-in luxe tourists were going. Now the infrastructure is much better and there’s a wider base. Myanmar will probably get in next time for much the same reason if the reforms continue. On the other hand, I removed Turkey this time because prices have risen rapidly there as the economy grows quickly. Still a decent value, but not as good as Slovakia, which replaced it.

You’re a family man. Can you travel on a budget as a family? A lot of people don’t believe you can.
There are lots of family budget travel blogs out there now showing you can indeed do it, especially if you choose the places covered in my book. There are lots of families roaming around Southeast Asia and Latin America, spending less than they do on day-to-day expenses at home. You have to spend more than a single or couple of course, but it’s easy to get decent-sized hotel rooms on the cheap in most places, or to rent an apartment short-term. Three of us traveled through Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam last summer on a budget of $150 a day after airfare. That’s not a backpacker budget, obviously, but we lived it up on that, eating every meal in a restaurant and staying in nice hotels with room for three. When I tell friends and relatives we spent that, they don’t believe me. To them it seems too cheap for a vacation. It’s all in your perspective.

We’ve done similar trips on a much lower budget in Mexico and Guatemala. There are families out there traveling on $60 – $80 a day in plenty of countries and making it work.

the world's cheapest destinations book coverDo you travel a lot with your family?
When I’m on a real writing trip where I’m going to have to be researching the whole time, I tend to go solo. But when I can mix that with some downtime, I take just my wife or my wife and daughter along. That’s much more fun. My daughter got her first passport when she was three and has seen a lot. Plus we’ve lived and traveled in Mexico for a year straight before and are going back there for two years in August.

What are your top three tips for traveling on a budget with a family?
Slow down. You can’t be doing crazy check-the-box, bucket-list itineraries where you’re constantly on the move. Pick a few priorities and use home bases to branch out. Don’t try to schedule more than one or two things a day.

Get more space in the right lodging. You need rooms or apartments where you’re not falling over each other and where everyone else is coming in at 2 am, while your precious is up and yelling at 6 am.

It’s not all about you. Compromise on what you’ll like and what’s best for the little one(s). For every museum, there should be a playground or mall in the mix, despite your feelings about that not being “travel.”

What is your essential travel gear?
Well, as editor of Practical Travel Gear I’m trying out an insane amount of new apparel, luggage, and gadgets each year. I’m still a minimalist at heart though, so I try to take only high-impact items, preferably ones that are light and can do more than one thing.

As a writer I can go out with just a camera, pen, notebook, and water bottle. But I guess the things I pack almost every international trip are a Steripen water purifier, a multi-charger unit for the gadgets, a portable charger for when I don’t have time or place for an outlet, lightweight quick-dry clothes, a couple pairs of good double-duty shoes, a small toiletry kit with the essentials, a good sun hat, and a real book or the Kindle. I hardly ever use my smart phone for non-work things though, so that sits in the room a lot.

Okay, time for some fun questions: Scariest “Am I going to get out of this alive?” experience?
All of them involve bad bus rides really, from scary mountain passes to riding on top of one in Laos for hours. The worst though was one in Egypt — where idiot drivers hardly ever turn on their lights — in really thick fog. The driver was still hauling ass at the normal speed and twice we almost had a head-on collision with another bus. People and gear went flying everywhere. I really did start wondering if I would arrive alive.

Coolest “local” experience you were invited to?
Despite all the scams and hassles in Morocco, we trusted a guy we met who was heading the same way as us and he took us all around Fez to places we never would have found, invited us to lunch with his family, introduced his friends, and told us where else we should go in the country. He didn’t want a thing from us, which shows sometimes you have to let go of your suspicions. We also taught English in Istanbul and Seoul, so we went to a lot of parties and dinners with locals in those places.

What’s the biggest mistake you think people make and how can they avoid it?
The first would be trying to cram in too much and being on the move every day or two. That kills the budget more than anything. Honorable mention: booking all their lodging in advance. You’re guaranteed to pay more money that way, especially if you’re a couple getting a room in places where you don’t have to be subjected to a dorm bed in a hostel. Instead, get to town earlier, look around, and negotiate.

You can find more great tips and information from Tim on his blog, his gear site, and his Twitter profile. You can learn more about his book or purchase it here.

  1. This is great advice:

    “Slow down. You can’t be doing crazy check-the-box, bucket-list itineraries where you’re constantly on the move. Pick a few priorities and use home bases to branch out. Don’t try to schedule more than one or two things a day”.

    Even if you are not on a tight budget. I have seen so many people trying to “pack-it-all-in” when they have only a few days. And then the miss it all because time became their stumbling block.

    Time is an issue but don’t make it worse by trying to much.

  2. Colleen Bowen

    I traveled for a year with my husband and sons visiting 20 countries. We spent the same amount of money adventuring for 12 months as it would have cost us to stay at home, basically my husband’s salary for a year as a nurse. Even though my sons took their 10th grade year off from all formal academics, they still graduated from high school two years later with over 2 1/2 years of earned college credit in the bag. They used their junior and senior year as self-educated students, studying for and completing 20 different college courses via College Board CLEP examinations. Nothing can compare however with the education they experienced while traveling. = )

  3. Definitely enjoyed Tim’s book: Cheapest Destinations. Good for planning an extended trip. Thanks for bringing us the interview. Good to get a perspective on how travel has change with the coming of the Internet.

  4. Excellent comments. I’ve always enjoyed Tim’s writing and guru is kind of an understatement!

    You’re Morocco moment is always one of my favorite things to hear. I had something similar happen to me on Milos in Greece. We got a free ride across the Island, right to our guesthouse, from the rent-a-car company owner!!! I am astonished by the kindness of some people while traveling.

    Thanks Matt & Tim for doing this!

  5. Great interview! I would have to concur with the comments about people not being able to leave home even though they’ve left home. We were in a hostel in St. Petersburg a couple of years ago and could not get on the Internet to do a bit of work because everyone was on Facebook 24/7 telling their friends what a wonderful time they were having. I kept wondering when they were actually going to get out and see St. Petersburg.

  6. Great interview. I am so with you on the slow down concept. I think the experience is so much better when you have time to experience it and not just from the bus! Made that mistake in Croatia – had 2 blissful weeks but felt a little rushed moving around too frequently.
    Love your Morocco experience – talk about really getting a feel for the place. Love that. Hope to make my way over there – will definitely be giving it the time it deserves!

  7. Great interview!

    I would’ve loved to backpack around years ago when things were more difficult (and probably more interesting!) I sometimes can’t stand the fact that we’re all so connected, it would be nice to actually “get away” for real :)


  8. Nice interview. I will make sure to pick up the latest addition of The World’s Cheapest Destinations. Love the list of what to pick. It’s small and to the point. I’ll be sharing in with my husband to help show him we really don’t need to travel with as much as he thinks.

  9. Tim brings up a good point that being too connected via social media on smart phones can be a downside. Staring at a screen can take one away from being in the moment.

  10. I agree its good to slow down and not go overboard to keep to your budget. The other side I want to point out to many travelers is that you shouldn’t just go somewhere because its the cheapest spot. You still have to follow your heart and see the things you’ve always wanted to see. So if your heart is to go to Europe, then you will have to change things around due to the higher cost of living and currency exchange, but you will be happier. Of course I want to go everywhere so these tips work out perfect for me.

  11. Caleb

    “Honorable mention: booking all their lodging in advance. You’re guaranteed to pay more money that way, especially if you’re a couple getting a room in places where you don’t have to be subjected to a dorm bed in a hostel. Instead, get to town earlier, look around, and negotiate.”

    Would you say this is true for most trips and most destinations? I have always had a problem doing this because:

    1. I spend quite a bit of time researching where we are going to stay, getting the right price, location, cool factor, etc well before we go. I don’t want to burn up 2 hours some morning when I could be laying on a beach, in a bar or just going for a walk through an interesting neighborhood with those two hours I am hunting for accommodation.

    2. I normally have not seen a significant amount of savings this way, but maybe that is because I am not as flexible in where I stay? (this has only happened once for me in Santorini after our first hotel was a nightmare, I remembered the name of another hotel that was more $$$, we called them and they took care of us at a great rate)

    What scenarios and type of accommodations do you feel this works best in?

  12. coffeecream

    facebook kills your time and experience while on travel especially so many people these days on travel spent wayyyyy too much time on FB that they missed and lost their precious time exploring the city/country, why pay for your trip and spend half the time or day on FB. MIGHT as well stay at home and dont travel.

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