I met Seth Kugel, the former columnist of the Frugal Traveler for the New York Times Travel section, at a Pink Line Project event. He was a guest on a live podcast of “Women of Uncertain Age” with the founder of PLP.
All I knew when I arrived at the eclectic apartment was that I was going to learn how to travel smarter. I found out this was exactly in line with Seth’s mindset because he believes that, just like any other activity, we can always improve the way we travel.
What I walked away with was a signed book, a pending interview with Seth for my blog and a desire to relook at why and how I was traveling. I realized how little “adventure” was really in my travels, given how much I depend upon TripAdvisor, Yelp, and other apps- especially given that the very theme of my blog is supposed to be about the adventure of life. I’m happy to say that after reading the book and interviewing Seth, I feel a lot more confident about providing you all with some great travel content in the future.
In this book, Seth invites us to rediscover our passion for travel through connecting with humans instead of technology, embracing curiosity in travel, and opening ourselves up to the unplanned. In doing so, we are meant to feel delight and ownership over our experiences rather than mere contentment with checking off another “bucket list” item.
The following are thoughts shared during our phone interview. We covered everything from how to travel more frugally, to what the most revolutionary technological development has been for the travel industry, and all the way to the impact of Anthony Bourdain. I hope you enjoy the conversation!
Author: Seth Kugel
Seth was the “Frugal Traveler” columnist for the New York Times from 2010 to early 2016. He started off his tenure with a 13-week trip from Sao Paulo to New York City. Fluent in Portuguese, he was recruited to start a YouTube Channel for Brazilians traveling to New York City called “Amigo Gringo.” He recently launched a channel for English speakers called “Globally Curious”, which happens to be the subtitle for this book.
For more info on Seth and how to follow him, please click here.
A: The book’s intended audience is anyone who has free time and less responsibility, such as those in their 20’s or those who are empty-nesters/recently retired. To me this is a silly question, but I have to ask: why specifically do you think one should travel in their 20’s?
S: You should realize that you are at your most adventurous, most risk-taking (not just physical risks), and doing unusual stuff- stage of life in your 20’s.
Any chance you get to travel, you should take it. You may be worried about doing an internship in the summer instead of traveling. But, your career will always be there. You never know when things may change and you will not be able to travel anymore (examples: a job, family, a partner who doesn’t like to travel, health issues, etc.). You have the whole rest of your life to work. We are in an era where people are changing jobs all the time and it’s much cheaper to travel than it used to be.
You should go as far away as possible, in terms of places that are different. Look for home-stays or volunteer opportunities. If it is comfortable with you and culturally acceptable, you can make friends or even romantic connections with locals. I recommend doing this rather than meeting fellow travelers at a hostel.
The basic idea is that you don’t know when your travel days will be over, or taken from you. So, if you have the means to do it, take a year off. Or, if your job is remote, possibly move to another city. I had a friend who moved to Mexico City for a while because rent was cheap and his job allowed him to be location independent, so he became a digital nomad.
A: One of the main topics you cover in the book is the commercialization and globalization of travel. There is almost this “herd mentality” about certain places. In fact, the Washington Post travel section recently covered this with the phrase of “Overbooked vs. Overlooked.” Can you explain more about how this is hurting our travel experiences?
S: Sure – even if you think Google is a perfectly fair way to look at the world, the sites with the most content will rise to the top. People need to realize that they are being pushed to buy, even if it’s not evident.
Places become fashionable to go to, because they look really good on Instagram. But, that can be deceiving. There is actually an example in the book, which also illustrates that the issues we have now with travel are not too far off from the issues of the past. Basically, Mark Twain goes to the Taj Mahal, and he says, “Yup, it’s not as nice as I thought it would be.” He read descriptions about it, but you could easily substitute that with seeing Instagram pictures nowadays. It didn’t meet his expectations: there were crowds, the sky wasn’t blue, etc.
Then he talks about going to other temples nearby. And, in essentially “discovering” these temples, he thought that they were so much better than seeing the Taj Mahal. He thought they were so incredible, because he had no expectations of them.
A: Another area you focus on is the way technology has impacted the way we travel. While you are, of course, not suggesting we totally ditch technology, you explain the pros and cons of using technology. Can you talk about why using technology can be limiting while traveling and how we might use it to actually enhance our adventures?
S: While technology has made traveling easier, cheaper and faster, there are definitely some downsides. Mainly, the extent to which people lean on it to travel. The question that travelers should be asking themselves is, whether or not the technology opens up exploration, or makes you more dependent on the solutions and opinions you find.
In today’s world there is an overabundance of options. Particularly, I focused on user reviews in the book. Because there is so much information, sites and apps use algorithms to curate content. Again, often this content is trying to sell your something. However, travel is personal, and just looking at any opinion online doesn’t always mean you’ll get the most well-informed directions. Not to mention, you lose the joy of discovery by following in other people’s footsteps.
Basically, what I am saying is stop using algorithms and use human beings to crowdsource your trip. For example, post on Facebook or twitter to see what your network thinks are the best places to visit while in London. Or check with a friend who has a cousin who lives there, to see what they recommend.
Technology is catching up with this. An interesting way to book a flight now is through Flightfox, which uses both technology and human expertise to crowdsource the quickest and cheapest flights.
A: So what should someone do in the first 24-48 hours in a foreign country?
S: I’ll start by saying that worldwide data is the biggest revolution in travel, ever. The fact that you can now access your data almost anywhere, allows the connection to information to be limitless, which can become a crutch.
When you first arrive, you might feel completely lost, which leads to a real tendency to just dive into data, especially using an app like Google Maps to get around. But, these are the most important hours not to use Google Maps, because this is the time when your brain is going to mentally map the place. However, using a physical map is okay.
There is research about London Cab drivers, who must take a crazy test to show they know every street in London. These taxi drivers have a bigger memory storage area of their brain than those who do not have to spatially map their town.
Besides the research, there is an astonishing difference in how a person might understand a place just by wandering around. You’ll get to know landmarks to help with directions.
A: What are your thoughts on using a travel guide or going with a tour group?
S: If you are someone who really would like to use a tour curated by someone, go ahead.
But, I would only recommend it for something that you really need a tour for. For example, a gluten free tour of food in Queens. It’s very specific. But, if you are looking for the best pizza in Brooklyn, you don’t need to book a tour for that.
I don’t want people to think that I am advocating for some sort of old-fashioned travel without any technology. Like with anything else, I want people to use technology in positive ways, like not letting it ruin your spontaneity or the discomfort of travel. While we don’t like to feel discomfort, it is kind of the point.
A: In a recent article you wrote for the NY Times on how an itinerary is just the “rough draft”, you ask adventurers to “be on a mission, rather than have a check list”. Can you elaborate on how to create a mission?
S: Start with an area of interest. It can be as simple as you love tea. And you are going to a place that is known for its tea, so that is what you ask everyone about. It is your talking point to connect with others; asking what is your favorite type of tea, where do I get it, how do I learn to prepare it properly, etc. It’s a tool to go down unexpected paths. Someone will respond with: go here, buy this, or let me show you how. Make sure it is something that you are genuinely interested in.
In fact, you can even use your profession as a tool as well. I actually learned this from a fellow journalist. He would always contact the local newspaper or tv news station and introduce himself and ask to find a time to exchange ideas and converse. Making professional connections doesn’t need to be the reason for your trip, but it is a way to make a connection and a great example of how to use modern technology positively while traveling.
A: Can you talk about the impact of Anthony Bourdain and the inspiration he has left behind?
S: His show, Parts Unknown, is ,in a lot of ways, what I hope the book can be. His attitude is that he wants to get out there and have exchanges with everyday people. The thing that is unfortunate about his show, besides the fact that it no longer will continue, is that he also ruined some places. If he ate somewhere, that place would become overrun.
I don’t think that is the lesson to be drawn. If you are watching Anthony Bourdain and copying the places that he goes to so you can go to the same places, that’s really the wrong lesson to take away.
The real lesson is in how he finds the places. How does he go to places that others are not going to? How does he find the “best” dumpling shop? It’s more about how he does it, than where he goes. I can guarantee that it is not the “best” dumpling shop. There are thousands of places that might serve this. It might be very good, even the best he has ever had.
In fact, I’ve had a similar experience. In the opening of the book, I talk about the small Hungarian town I visited. After I wrote the article for the NYTimes, I had someone comment something like, “Oh, that sounds like a lovely place to visit, I’ll put that on my list.” And, I thought, “No, that is not the reasons why I wrote this article.” You don’t need to follow my path, you need to follow your own path.
A: Do you have any frugal traveling tips, for those who have not yet read your former column, the Frugal Traveler?
S: One thing would be to spend more time in every location that you go. Instead of seeing 14 countries in 2 months, why not see 2 countries in 2 months? It helps to cut down on travel cost and carbon emissions. That’s a win-win! I also am an advocate for getting to know a place in-depth, rather than flitting around to many different places. In depth travel also happens to be the cheaper option as well.
What I took away from the interview is: to use less technology for planning and more crowdsourcing, talk to more people (even if I struggle with the language) and travel “off the grid” to places that are not “tourist destinations” but are opportunities for more discovery and adventure.
Whether you are a world traveler or someone who is just beginning to travel outside of your country, this book can provide some new strategies for rediscovering travel. We can all get better at traveling, so take some time to invest in this book.
Get this book as a gift for anyone who is “globally curious.” Click the image to buy this book on Amazon. Or go to your local bookshop.
A special thank you to Seth for generously giving his time on a Tuesday morning to chat with me on the phone.
I am curious to know, what did you all take away from the interview and do you have any “off-the-beaten-path” discoveries of your own to share?