A 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 email, 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 21 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.
Do 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 2am, while your precious is up and yelling at 6am.
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 smartphone 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 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.