Whether you’re traveling to a new state or a different country, advice from someone with experience can go a long way to help prepare. A few tweaks to your itinerary could save you money — and a headache — down the line. With that in mind, we spoke with travel writer and author Seth Kugel.
As The New York Times’ Frugal Traveler, Kugel demystified the process of globe-trotting for less — with recommendations for visiting Prague on a budget of $57 a day (the income of the average resident), thoughts on air travel’s environmental impact and more. In “Rediscovering Travel: A Guide for the Globally Curious” — out in paperback Nov. 12 — Kugel lays out countless useful tips, and he sat down with The Seattle Times to dole out some more key practices for budget travel.
First? Saving money is good, but going overboard can kill your trip. Being budget-conscious is OK. Budget-obsessed? Not so much.
“People who are obsessed with budget travel are not gonna have a good time,” Kugel said. “And they’re likely to cause damage in some way.”
Here are three areas where Kugel says travelers can save cash without sacrificing enjoyment.
Before you go, think beyond cheap flights
The first place people try to cut travel costs is usually airfare, but Kugel said that might not always be best. “People go all out finding the cheapest flight and then end up spending that money somewhere else,” he said.
If you pick the airport an hour from your destination to save a buck, you’ll likely end up blowing that money on a cab, ride-share or car rental. If you arrive too late because you booked that supercheap red-eye, public transportation, like buses and trains, might not even be running. In the days of Uber, it’s unlikely you’ll end up completely stranded, but it’s an avoidable and potentially expensive inconvenience. Take all this into account when buying tickets.
For international flights, consider consolidator companies. Because consolidator fares use a separate pricing scale from conventional airline tickets, Kugel said fares typically come in around $100 cheaper than major airline companies. Even if they aren’t flying to your city, these carriers could get you to a nearby airport for less. Consolidator fares for an economy ticket from Houston to London, for example, totaled $579 for a one-week round trip.
Also, research the transportation infrastructure of any given destination. “Public transportation can show you a whole different side of a city,” Kugel said. “I rented a bike in Los Angeles for a week and never had to use a car.” Cities with good transit infrastructure will usually have deals for daily, weekly or monthly passes.
And if you’re less than seven hours from your destination, Kugel recommends taking a train over a plane. You might get a deal like the one that took Kugel to Miami from his native New York for $33. If buses are more your speed, especially on intercity lines, check the company’s safety records and history of breakdowns beforehand. Kugel noted that the top cause of death for Americans abroad isn’t drowning or homicide: It’s vehicular accidents. (This figure is based on data from the U.S. Department of State between January 2018 and June 2019.) A quick Google search will yield U.S. safety records, while a local could point you in the right direction on international trips. Ask someone where you’re staying which bus or transport company is best.
Booking a room? Choose real homes over chain hotels
Kugel recommends avoiding hotel chains in trendy areas — instead, opt for homestays, an Airbnb or lodging from a similar service. “Most people, when they travel, don’t want to be around tourists the whole time,” Kugel said. He tries to stay in someone’s real home and not an investment property whenever possible. “It’s often a more genuine experience to stay in an actual neighborhood where actual [locals] live.”
The recommended list on your booking site of choice may not be entirely honest, either. In “Rediscovering Travel,” Kugel noted that at the time of his writing, companies could pay for a spot in the “top picks” section of certain hotel sites. You’re better off organizing results by price — or, better yet, user rating. Or, go right to a homestay service. Staying in a neighborhood that’s not designed for tourists can facilitate a better connection with the people and the place you’re visiting. “The more luxurious your trip is,” Kugel said, “the less likely you are to have a cultural experience.”
Before eating and exploring, ask around
How do you find the best places to eat in a new city? Ask someone who lives there, of course. Ask someone on the street or contact that friend of a friend on social media who happens to live in your upcoming destination. And patronize privately owned restaurants, too — Kugel says he “would always take a ‘hole-in-the-wall’ restaurant over more touristy places” when traveling, and he recommended food tours as a great, inexpensive way to see a city while experiencing some of its lesser-known restaurants.
Speaking of touristy places: Consider avoiding the “must-see” sights unless they’re truly important to you. If you have always wanted to see the Mona Lisa, by all means, wait in line at the Louvre. But don’t spend half a day in line to see a painting you don’t actually care about just because you think you can’t leave Paris without ticking that box.
Striking up a conversation often reveals referrals, attractions and venues you’d never discover otherwise. Where you cut spending will differ depending on your interests. If you’re a foodie and couldn’t care less about Broadway, your New York trip will be heavier on the “dining” category. Tweak your budget so you spend on what makes you happy and save where you can.
When asked what people underestimate most about travel, Kugel’s answer was the possibility of discomfort. No trip will be completely Instagram-perfect. Flight delays, language barriers and breakdowns can — and probably will — happen.
“Travel has become an obsession with many people,” said Kugel, “I would encourage people to realize that travel is not always easy, and as long as you’re expecting that, you’ll be able to enjoy the good parts.”
And, with these tips, you might be able to come home with some cash in your pockets.
“Rediscovering Travel: A Guide for the Globally Curious” by Seth Kugel, Liveright, 320 pp., $15.95