Pay more, get a better product. That’s how money works, right? Front-row seats behind the dugout are better than obstructed view bleachers. A pint of fresh farmers-market blueberries tastes better than a cheap bag of frozen supermarket blueberries. A fancy sports car goes way faster (and looks way cooler) than a subcompact hatchback.
But travel is different. When I landed the Frugal Traveler column for the New York Times in 2010, I believed my job was to help people save on travel without giving up too much or being too uncomfortable. But it was not long before I realized that the great experiences I was having on the road — a night out with the Brazilian women’s boxing team in Barbados, conversations with the small-town Mexican cheesemaker who had rented me a room, a friendship made waiting in line for rush tickets at the Comédie Française in Paris — were not despite my low budget, but because of it.
That doesn't mean I'd turn down an upgrade to business class. But shaving down your budget will make your journey better in countless ways. Here are some.
You’ll be less isolated. Have you ever stayed at the Plaza in New York City, right across from Central Park? Did you notice the neighborhood feel when you emerged onto the street? Of course not, because you were surrounded by tourists and hot-dog vendors and a line at the Apple Store across Fifth Avenue. Locals don’t come near the place if they can avoid it. Compare that to the $45-a-night apartment I rented from a filmmaker in São Paulo, Brazil. The house was
a single-story home in an old-fashioned villa, a cluster of houses off the street in one of the city’s safest (and hippest) neighborhoods. There were tons of locals around, but my favorite turned out to be Bonifácio, the filmmaker's white-streaked black cat who pounced into bed in the middle of the night and actually stole all the covers. I loved it.
You’re forced to ask questions. Sometimes, you’ll need a guide — say, to keep you safe from lions on a walking safari. Sometimes, you’ll want to splurge on one — maybe a chef-led food tour of an immigrant neighborhood. But budget travelers will be on their own most of the time, and that’s a good thing. Guides are a huge disincentive to interacting with locals, because they do everything for you and speak the local language.
You’ll be more present. Budget travelers don’t pay for unlimited international data for their smartphones, and thus are “forced” to be more present when they’re out seeing the sights. No way to post pictures on social media until you get back to the hotel. You also won’t get news alerts, you won’t be able to check email from a bench in the picturesque town square. Chitchat with the folks at the next bench. Be where you are.
You’ll explore more. High-priced hotels are falling all over themselves trying to provide every service you need under their roof. Take the (often) free breakfast buffet. The more expensive the hotel, the more international its food. There's no need to try the local porridge if there are bacon and eggs to be had. What a shame: Breakfast is a fascinating time of day to decode another country (or region of our own country — think morning buns, breakfast burritos, grits).
It’s hardly just breakfast. Two of the more fascinating places to visit in other countries are supermarkets and pharmacies. But if you’re eating every meal in restaurants and staying in a hotel that will instantly provide you with the toothpaste/aspirin/razor blade you forgot, you’ll likely never get to either one. That's honestly too bad: In a supermarket, you’ll be surprised both by wacky products you’ve never seen before, and American products that you didn’t know had made their way around the world. Or a mix of the two, like Onion Rings and Ketchup Doritos in Canada and Matcha KitKats in Asia.
Your itinerary is likely to be more flexible. Taking pricey vacations requires lots of advance planning for guides and hotels and transport. But in the age of the smartphone, budget trips can be planned on the fly, so you can adjust as you go. Love a city? Stay a few extra days. See a storm front moving in the day before you’re headed to the coast? Postpone your beach days to the back end of your vacation. Unless you’re traveling in the highest of the high season, you can easily find places to stay at the last minute using the apps you already use — and sometimes you’ll find last-minute bargains. It also hurts a lot less to cancel a $15 intercity bus ticket than a $200 flight.
You’ll meet more people. Last year I was in Paris, and I splurged for pricey tickets for me and my girlfriend to attend the opera. We shared a box with a white-bearded man who tolerated my poor French enough to tell us about the time decades ago when, working as a firefighter, he had responded to a fire in the very same opera. It was lovely. It was also rare. I've found that people tend not to talk to others at high-end cultural events, and they certainly don’t ask to borrow ketchup from the family at the next table while dining in a Michelin-starred restaurant. At markets and street fairs and cafeterias and hole-in-the-wall bars, you practically can’t help getting into conversations with locals.
You’ll travel more. Let’s not forget the biggest advantage of spending less: You spend less. So you can travel more. Extend a two-week summer trip into three, or invite family members along, or stash the savings for a winter getaway. Or you can do something else with the leftover cash: Splurge on those seats behind the dugout, gobble up those fresh farmers market blueberries or buy that sports car. (But really, you should just travel more.)
This article is adapted from Rediscovering Travel: A Guide for the Globally Curious by Seth Kugel, which was published by Norton this month.