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A Better Vacation for Less Cash

Frugal Travel Expert Seth Kugel on the secrets of terrific low-cost adventures

As the Frugal Traveler columnist for the New York Times for six years, Seth Kugel has not only learned how to travel for less, but to prefer low-cost travel over the more predictable (and expensive) hotels, destinations and restaurants. In this interview with Bob Love, Editor-in-Chief of AARP the Magazine, Seth talks about how to plan lower cost vacations that deliver the most joy, adventure and memorie

Welcome to The First Word from AARP, a series of conversations with the experts. Today on The First Word, Seth Kugel on getting the most out of your vacation dollars.

BL: Hello, I’m Bob Love, editor-in-chief of AARP The Magazine and the AARP Bulletin.  Welcome back to The First Word from AARP, our live interview series. 

You are in for a treat today. Seth Kugel has deservedly earned a reputation as one of the most entertaining and insightful travel experts in America. As the author of the New York Times’ Frugal Traveler column for seven years, he’s traveled the country and the world on modest budgets and shown just how much fun and adventure you can have. His most recent book is Rediscovering Travel: A Guide for the Globally Curious.

Many of you have already sent questions in to Seth, so thank you. We’ll answer some today, but for all of those who asked for personal travel advice, we’ll do our best to send an email response in the coming days. 

Seth, it is fantastic to have you here.

SK: Bob, thanks for having me.

BL: Let’s get right to it. You wrote a piece for our website a year ago in which you said that traveling frugally actually makes for better vacations than taking a more luxurious path. What was your thinking? Can you explain that a little bit more?

SK: Sure. When you spend a lot of money when you travel, it tends to isolate you. Imagine a really exclusive resort where you’re being pampered and you’re staying in your luxury cottage on the edge of the sea and you’re not really getting out there. The same thing with a really expensive hotel; if you’re staying downtown in a really expensive hotel, you’re not in a local neighborhood.

 What I like to do when I travel is to get out, to meet people, to learn about the place, to interact, and quite honestly, I’ve stayed in really nice hotels and the last thing I want to do is leave. I want to go to the pool. I want to go to the awesome restaurant.

 I just think in general it forces you to get out there. If you’re staying in a hotel that’s just nice enough (I’m not telling you to sleep in a youth hostel next to a bunch of 20-year-olds) but they don’t give you free breakfast and there is no spa, then that forces you to get out on the streets and interact with people and have experiences.

BL: You’ve written before that you might go out to a pharmacy or a supermarket in a foreign country and you will learn some cool stuff, see some products that you didn’t expect, some American products that you never expected to travel?

SK: Yes, and it can be regional supermarkets as well within the United States. I think supermarkets are a place you’ve got to visit. I’m not saying go to Walmart when you go somewhere, because you’ve got Walmart at home, but local markets are really great, especially in really diverse cities in the United States. I live right near an amazing Chinese supermarket that I am entertained by and I live right near it. There are a lot of very common, everyday things that are really interesting to do when you’re in a different kind of a place.

BL: Let’s talk about an example of a recent trip in which you kept costs down but still had a great time.

SK: My most recent trip was to Prague in the Czech Republic. For people who don’t visit Europe all the time, it’s one of the great, old, historic cities of Europe. I stayed at a very, very inexpensive place. I compared the furniture to pre-Ikea. It was just very basic stuff, but perfectly comfortable. That was cheap.

I certainly didn’t want to be around there very often, though. I actually went because of a cousin who lives in Prague. He was very helpful with this tip. He said, “There are still all these old-fashioned, communist-era cafeterias, and if you go, the food is incredibly cheap and the ambiance is like 1985.”

I went to a number of those places. Some of them are buried within office buildings, but they’re open to the public. So, you go in and you spend like $4 and you have real Czech cuisine. I wouldn’t say it’s absolutely delicious, but the people you’re around are really interesting. The people giving you the food are curious as to why you might be there. That would be one example.

You could go to Prague and spend a lot of money going to the top museums, which are beautiful, and visiting Prague Castle. I did a little bit of that.

I went to the supermarket, and a friend of mine (who is a friend of my cousin’s) said, “You’ve got to get these Tatranky bars.” These are what would be the equivalent to us of Twinkies. I bought a whole bunch of them and I used them to keep the cost of my meals down, sort of as snacks. They’re kind of like granola bars. Also, a lot of conversations got started. They saw a tourist with a Tatranky bar and they’re like, “How do you know about that thing?” There’s a lot of things that spending as little money as possible brings.

BL: I’ve noticed in your writing that you are interested in cuisine in general, in food in particular, and not necessarily exotic, but just good, honest food that folks are eating.

SK: Yes. Look, part of the reason that I don’t go to the really expensive restaurants is because I do budget travel. If someone were to invite me on the Michelin-starred tour of New York City or L.A. restaurants, I would go, but I think that there is something to be said for coming to New York and trying to figure out which are the top 10 pizza slices that are the best. You meet a lot of characters in these pizzerias.

SK: I went through Kansas, and there is an area of Kansas famous for fried chicken, believe it or not, so I went to all of those places.

BL: There is a kind of Kansas fried chicken as opposed to other kinds?

SK: Yes.

BL: When you think about taking a trip, how much of the trip’s success do you believe depends on planning? When you’re thinking frugally, what is the tradeoff between the amount of money you spend and the amount of discomfort that you or a typical traveler would have to deal with?

SK: Well, planning, I think, is very important and I think you should have a general plan for your trip. I certainly don’t recommend an hour-by-hour plan, but you need to have a general plan for your trip to fall back on. Here are the 10 things that I want to do in the city. Some of them might require reserving in advance. If you want to go to the crown of the Statue of Liberty, you need to make reservations months in advance. To camp at Yellowstone, it’s too late now pretty much for the summer. So you do need to do certain things in advance, however my big rule is that when you get to the place, look for better things to do. Your plans are to fall back on if you can’t find better things to do.

You’re talking to someone and they say, “Wow, you should go to this place because you love coffee or you love some kind of art. There is a Himalayan art museum in New York City.” If you didn’t know about it and you hear, you’re like, “Oh my God, I’ve got to go there!” You shouldn’t be stuck on your own plans.

When possible, do plans that don’t cause you to pay a lot of money up front. But you know, if you’re going to get a cheap hotel, you do want to do that sort of thing in advance as best you can.

BL: I think what I picked up from the way that you think about travel, your philosophy is that you like an improvisational aspect to it: Hit the locals, see where they’re going for coffee or a cheap meal.

SK: One of the things I think is great about travel is that our regular lives are routine. We do the same things every day in general, we go to the same places, we see the same people. I don’t think it’s really as much fun to have a routine when you get somewhere.

When unexpected things happen, you really feel alive and you feel like you’re experiencing a place. You don’t feel like you’re experiencing a package deal. I have nothing against, say, going to Disney World with your kids or your grandkids, and it’s very well done, but nothing unexpected happens, or if something unexpected happens, it’s very carefully planned by the people who work there.

When you’re out in the city or the countryside or you’re driving along a highway and you see an exit sign in a regular old town, it becomes incredibly interesting when you don’t know what’s going to be there and when people aren’t expecting you and people don’t see as many tourists there as if they’re working at Disney World.

BL: Most of your career was done solo travel.

SK: Yes.

BL: I think all of it, probably.

SK: Pretty much.

BL: A lot of our members have asked us recently about the ins and outs, the good and bad of solo traveling. Could you talk about your experience in that way, please?

SK: A lot of solo traveling — the biggest advantage of solo traveling is it basically forces you to talk to other people. If you’re like me, here I am talking to you and talking to a whole bunch of other people, but in general, in private, I’m pretty shy to meet new folks. When you go solo, you’re stuck with either not talking to anybody all day long or chatting with someone in a store or café or someone you meet walking along a trail. When you’re alone, you have more incentive to do that, so it’s great.

The other thing, of course, that’s great about solo travel is you get to decide exactly what you want to do. I don’t think any of us have travel partners or family members who completely 100 percent agree with us on what we want to do, so you get to do what you want to do.

Now there is the aspect of really being lonely and scared sometimes, and there is no one to say, “Is that safe to do?” You do have to use your judgment and read up ahead of time about specific local safety issues.

BL: I was going to ask about that.

SK: For gay travelers, for African American travelers, it depends on where you’re going. You need to do a lot of preparation. There are also fantastic ways online to ask questions in travel forums. A lot of companies like Trip Adviser have places like Lonely Planet where you can go and ask questions. A lot of people ask questions about safety; “Is it safe for a solo traveler this many years old to walk around this place at night?” for example. You can get answers from people who have recently been there.

BL: Great. It seems to us that the biggest costs of travel are transportation and lodging, so let’s focus on that for a bit. In general, how do you get from here to there and back the cheapest way possible?

SK: Well, there are a couple of things that you need to decide that have a big impact on that.

One of the first things you’re going to decide on is are you flexible with dates, because I can’t tell you that if you need to fly from Chicago to Los Angeles on July 15th and come back on July 23rd, you’re not going to find great savings. It’s going to be the basic price. It might be a little cheaper if you do it in advance, but the real ways to save money are to adjust your dates, especially if you don’t have kids at home anymore or if you have adult kids or don’t have kids then you certainly don’t want to travel on a Friday and come back on a Sunday evening. There’s that.

There’s also the idea of traveling to fewer places. If you’re taking a three-week trip, it’s a lot cheaper to fly to one spot and travel around that spot, maybe by car or local transportation, than to say that you’re going to go to 10 European cities in 20 days or do the whole West Coast of the United States from San Diego up to the Canadian border and rush from one to the other and take a lot of flights. Staying in one place for more time, first of all, allows you to get to know the place better, and of course it costs less.

When you get into very complicated airplane itineraries, there are ways to do it better. Let’s say you’re taking the trip of a lifetime for two months to a bunch of different countries. I’ve done these tests online; depending on how you search, you can find massively different prices and conveniences. There are companies that will figure it out for you and can often save you a ton of money. I’ll mention Flight Fox, even though I’m not recommending them, but that is one example and I’ve tested it out. I created this crazy itinerary for myself going through Europe and into Africa and then I sent it to them and they found a way to do it $3,000 cheaper than if I had figured it out just by using the sites that we all use.

BL: Is it a free site?

SK: No, you end up paying something, I can’t remember exactly, but it’s way less than you usually end up saving and you have the choice not to accept their proposal.

BL: Do you recommend joining airline memberships?

SK: There is nothing wrong with signing up. In fact, you should, because why wouldn’t you? You get free miles and, eventually, you might get a free trip. The problem is when people start to game the system and say, “Oh my God, I have to travel American or Delta or their partners because that’s what I collect miles on.” Miles it seems like every month are worth less because it takes more and more miles to book something.

Miles work well for people who have a job that forces them to travel a lot on the same route. They’re always using the same airlines and they build up tons and tons of miles. For once- or twice-a-year travelers, it’s not really as important.

The one thing I would recommend is, depending on how your credit is, signing up for credit cards that give you big bonuses like 50,000 miles or 70,000 miles, which will be enough for at least a domestic flight. The only thing is, they will charge you an annual fee. I have to admit, I sign up for these credit cards, get a year for free and then I cancel  and I get a free flight out of it. You have to be very organized. Flights and miles are really for very organized people who will not be tempted to pay $100 extra for their flight just to go on their airline. You’re definitely doing it wrong if that’s what you’re doing.

Miles are worth less than 1 cent. You can think about it that way. Do the calculations. Never get miles without realizing that they’re worth less than 1 cent each.

BL: What about baggage fees? Do you have tricks to figure that one out?

SK: I may have a bit of a counterintuitive view on this. I don’t think you should torture yourself to avoid baggage fees. Certainly I think everyone can travel for one week with a carry-on bag, but now sometimes you even have to pay for the carry-on bags. I think the best tip I can give on baggage fees is to make your reservation through the airline website where they explain it all. You can look up the airfare costs on any site you want, but unless it’s very clear what you’re going to pay for baggage, then you can go to the airline site itself.

BL: Here is something that has always troubled me, and I don’t know the answer to: Why am I always stuck in loading group 4? By the time I get in, every single overhead is stuffed full of other people’s things. Why do they do that?

SK: Well, just wait until you get a bit older and then you can get on first! Everyone who has some sort of status on the airline, probably business travelers who always travel this airline, they’ll get in before you. Children will get in before you. You probably got a cheaper ticket.

Now you can pay more to get on early. I just bought a flight and it asked if I wanted to pay $15 extra to be in an earlier boarding group, and I just couldn’t do it.

I find myself often getting on with a carry-on stuffed to the gills, and if there is nowhere to store it, they take it and check it for you. I don’t have any problem waiting for my baggage for an extra 20 minutes when I get to the place. That wouldn’t be the reason. The fees are one thing.

Also, if you really want to pack a little extra, just check your bag if the price is reasonable. If it’s $75, which sometimes it can be these days for international flights, then don’t do it, but I wouldn’t worry about it too much.

BL: All of these booking sites like Expedia and Travelocity offer the same airline fares these days, our experts tell us. Are there places to go for real travel deals that you know about?

SK: Again, a lot of it depends on your dates. If your dates are flexible, there are ways to search dateless or date ranges. You always want to do that. The idea of coming back a day later on a holiday weekend can save you a lot of money.

A lot of it you can do yourself. You’re right, the prices are mostly the same, especially on easy flights: one-leg domestic flights, one-leg flights to Europe from the East Coast and that sort of thing.

When it comes to international flights and flights from smaller cities, one of the things to remember is that Southwest Airlines is not on these sites, so you definitely always want to check Southwest. They have opted out. The airlines have to pay a fee to be on these sites, so you always want to check Southwest.

Sometimes if it’s a complicated flight, you might want to use a travel agent. It’s very counterintuitive these days, but even with a three-leg flight that’s international, a lot of times you’re not going to get the best deal.

The example I love to give, that won’t be relevant to everybody, is if you go to China and try to take a domestic flight inside of China, when I’ve tested it, the variation of what you get when you search Expedia versus Kayak, for example, is huge. It just so happens that trip.com is owned by a Chinese company now, so trip.com is pretty good for domestic Chinese flights. There is no way to know that necessarily without doing a lot of research. Just be aware that more complicated flights, you’ll find bigger variations in what you’ll find online. Dallas to Seattle, probably not.

BL: I’m the type of guy, when I arrive at a new destination, my preference is to rent a car and drive around. Is there a formula about when to do that and when not to, in your experience?

SK: A formula, I’m not sure, but certainly a lot of things apply, like what is the public transportation like, what is Uber like in the place you’re visiting, how many people are you traveling with, how much stuff you have with you. Obviously, if you rent a car and you want to take camera equipment around, it’s safer, you can lock stuff in your car. More rural areas, you want to be on your own and have that flexibility. I think it depends on the way you do it, and it depends also on rental car rates.

If you come to New York City, first of all, you’d be crazy to rent a car in New York City, but even if you’re going around the area, rental cars cost a lot more in New York City than they do in very car-friendly places. I guess that’s the best advice. Don’t feel bad about it if you’re getting something out of it.

You realize also that public transportation does have its charms. I just mentioned Prague. I was completely charmed by the transportation in Prague, which are trams, trollies. They’re always on time. I live in New York City. Nothing is ever on time! When I was in Prague, everything was on time and it comes every six minutes. I remember staying in a bar and knowing that it was a three-minute walk to the tram at midnight and knowing that I could literally leave the bar and the tram would come at exactly the right time. If the public transportation is great, taking public transportation is a great way to see a place.

BL: I once read that when Francis Ford Coppola blows into a new town, the first thing he does is he takes the touristy bus trip around the whole town, gets the idea of the lay of the land, does the circuit, and then he explores on his own. What do you think of that?

SK: I like it. It doesn’t have to be the touristy bus trip, necessarily, but I definitely believe if you’re going to be in a city for four days, taking the first day and ticking off the big attractions is important because you don’t want to miss them.

The Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, which are on the same boat trip, is a must-see in New York City, but do it on the first day, get it out of the way and then do your explorations on the next days. I agree with that.

BL: Let’s talk lodging now. It seems like there has been a revolution with the rise of Airbnb and similar home and condo rental services. Based on your experience, are they really cheaper than hotels?

SK: Based on my experience, Airbnb is really cheaper than hotels, maybe not every single place, but it really is. There are certain tradeoffs with Airbnb. There are reasons not to like Airbnb politically like there are reasons not to like Uber politically. People have to make their own decisions.

One of the things I tell people with Airbnb is try to stay in places with Airbnb that are real people’s houses as opposed to obvious vacation rentals where a place is open all year long and has people rotating in and out. You can tell that by looking at user reviews.

You can rent a room in someone else’s house — and by the way, that’s a great thing to do because then you’re automatically meeting local folks and it’s also cheaper if you stay in a room in someone’s house than it is to get your own apartment and that’s cheaper than staying in a hotel.

There are lots of ways to do it. You don’t necessarily have to go through Airbnb. I love it. The other thing is you get to cook on your own when you want to. I think making breakfast for yourself is a great way to save money, although eating breakfast out is also great because breakfast is cool and different everywhere you go.

BL:  John W., one of our members, just wrote in: “If you’re on a budget, are there some obvious choices on where to consider going or not going?”

SK: Well, I would look for places that are less touristy or going to really touristy places in the off-season. That’s just basic. You’re not going to go to New Orleans during Mardi Gras and save a lot of money, but you could go during the winter or during the week and get some really good deals there.

You can also look at any hotel site and filter it. If you went onto, say, Booking.com, you can get a really good sense of how expensive a city is by looking at how many hotels there are under $150 a night on the dates that you are going.

If you compared New Orleans with Portland, Oregon, and you see a lot of nice-looking hotels in Portland for under $100, then that’s going to be a cheaper, overall, city. That’s a good way to tell whether a city is cheap. It’s just a little trick.

A great way to do it is to not decide your destination firsthand. Try three different locations that you think you would like to go to and look what you can get at each one, choose the cheaper one and save the other one for next time.

BL: I’m picking up a theme with you: If you can approach travel with flexibility of spirit, you are possibly in for not only a treat, but a cheap treat.

SK: I couldn’t have said it better myself.

BL: Listen, another question just came in. CookiesDS writes, “Where is the best park for 55-and-over people who can’t ride big roller coasters or rides due to bad backs, but still want to have kick-butt fun?”

SK: Well, I definitely don’t have the answer to that, but I really appreciate the spirit of the question. You definitely don’t want to go to Coney Island and ride the Cyclone. That thing batters your back for sure. I’m sorry, I don’t have the exact answer to that.

BL: One of our editors is a proponent of having one memorable excursion on every vacation, like a hot air balloon or dinner at a four-star restaurant, but obviously those costs run into the hundreds or thousands. What are great, unique experiences that you’ve encountered over your years that don’t cost that kind of coin?

SK: I think we’re at a great moment in travel now because experiences are on sale everywhere. You’ll book a tour or a cooking lesson with a unique local person and get to do it.

If you don’t want to pay for a hot air balloon, why don’t you take food tour in Queens? I live in Queens, New York, and it is the most international, vibrant and cheap area of the city, and there have got to be at least five people running really interesting inside culinary tours. That would be one example.

Another way to do it is to do things on day trips rather than five days. You can afford a luxury spa for a day, but not for three days. There are day-long boat cruises, staying on farms, that sort of thing. There is a lot of opportunity to do that too these days. What a great time to travel. Experiences are everywhere. Just look it up. There is such a huge variety. If you want to do a Cambodian cooking lesson, that’s one thing. If you want to ride Icelandic horses, that’s another thing. It’s really just all out there for you. It’s a great time for travelers.

BL: We’re getting towards the end. I want to give you a lightning round of questions. You can swat it away if you don’t have an answer.

If I gave you $1,500 and five days to go anywhere, where would you go?

SK: I would go definitely to a place I had never been before. I’m thinking that I might go to eastern Canada, Prince Edward Island and that area, a place I had never been before. I could almost drive there.

BL: Is there a drive/fly ratio formula? When do you stop driving and take a plane? How many miles? How many hours?

SK: I’d say how many people. If you’re a family of four or two couples and you can drive, four times that is really important.

Also, are there interesting things along the way? I once did a trip from Washington, D.C., to Savannah, Georgia, and almost didn’t make it to Savannah because I was stopping off in so many places along the way. If you’re willing not to take the main interstate and take a smaller road, that’s a really good way to do it.

BL: San Francisco or Los Angeles?

SK: I am partial to Los Angeles. It’s a very difficult place to visit and San Francisco is a very easy place to visit, but it’s so incredible and enormous and full of crazy immigrant neighborhoods you can get lost in but also really high-end culture. I love L.A. Maybe it’s heresy for a New Yorker to say that, and I enjoy San Francisco, but it’s getting expensive out there and very precious.

BL: Yosemite or Yellowstone?

SK: That’s easy, Yosemite because I have never been there, but it’s going to have to be after this summer because the campsites are full.

BL: New York or D.C.?

SK: The only reason to choose D.C., I think, is because of the great museums there and they’re free. That’s a budget reason to go to D.C. I live in New York. There are so many great neighborhoods to see and so many great things to do, I guess I just have to say New York.

BL: There are more world-class restaurants in D.C., and since we’re headquartered there, I’ll do a little shout-out.

SK: Yes. My brother lives in the D.C. area. I do really like going there. I love the Postal Museum. If you haven’t been to the Postal Museum, what a great museum that is.

BL: How about an Atlantic Ocean beach or a Pacific Ocean beach?

SK: I think I’d choose the Pacific Ocean because I feel like I’m going to like the people near the Pacific Ocean beach better, but that’s really the only reason.

BL: Aren’t the Long Island beaches some of the best in the world, out by the Hamptons?

SK: You’re talking to a freelance journalist. I don’t go to the Hamptons.

BL: We talked about solo traveling. Give me 30 seconds or so on traveling with a group. Does it get cheaper, does it get better when you have more people around you?

SK: Cheaper, yes. Better? Not so sure. You have to choose your travel companions very, very carefully and make sure you’re all on the same page and come to some ground rule agreements beforehand. If you’re with a big group, getting there can be cheaper if you go in a car, of course. Staying can be cheaper if you’re willing to get an Airbnb for example that is a whole house. That’s really great. And just realize, you can always split up and go off on your own for a day, and you really should. There is no real reason to have to stay together the whole time. Even a couple can split up, which is something I really recommend.

BL: If I wanted to stay on a farm and have farm-to-table food, are there apps that will take me to those things?

SK: I’m not sure the answer to that. Chowhound.com is a great site for asking questions about specific cuisines, and certainly, if you asked that question on chowhound.com, you would probably get a million answers. Many would say, “We’ve answered that question before, just do a search.” You can often search and find great answers.

BL: Seth, thank you very much. This was a blast and it was inspiring.

It’s a good moment for me to remind everyone that AARP offers lots of ways to help you plan great vacations. Check out aarp.org/travel and you’ll find lots of information and advice on destinations and planning and Seth’s articles.

Plus, the page is our gateway to all of many travel discounts and services. Speaking of which, go to the member benefits section of aarp.org for the current list of all discounts, which change, by they way, and services that we offer to make sure that you’re getting the maximum from your membership.

Thank you for joining us at The First Word from AARP. 

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