Because Seth Kugel prefers the unexpected find to online travel reviews, he’s Our Type of Traveler. As The New York Times’ Frugal Traveler, Kugel shares his insights on how to enjoy a destination without breaking the bank — or being a slave to endless online travel reviews — in mapping out a travel itinerary.
For Kugel, it’s all about the delight of discovery, something travelers could use more of, he says.
“We’ve eliminated discovery in travel because places are so well-documented,” says Kugel, from his home in Queens, NY. “I’m not an evangelist for being dumb about a place but there’s something to be said for leaving a little room for discovering a place on your own.”
Here’s how Kugel finds the charm of the unexpected, on the cheap.
Traveling Type: What’s so bad about using online travel reviews for finding places like restaurants?
Seth Kugel: It’s hard to explain why food tastes better when you haven’t read 300 Yelp reviews but it does. On my last trip, to Sighisoara, Romania, I visited one place close to the city center, and had a huge meal — mititei (grilled ground meat), tripe soup, fried cheese and dessert. Later I saw there was virtually no mention of the restaurant online; TripAdvisor had only 1 review; the place was actually ranked toward the bottom. I can’t imagine going to another more highly ranked place and having a more rewarding experience even if the food may be slightly better.
What does frugal travel mean to you?
Frugal, to me, is not paying for extra expenses that you wouldn’t pay for at home. I try not to spend more than $10 on a meal … this becomes more difficult in places like London, but it’s always possible. And I don’t think I’ve ever spent more than $100 a night on lodging.
You don’t care for hostels though. Why?
Pretty much anyone in the world can go on HostelBookers, there’s no magic to that. It’s much more valuable to learn how to find a guesthouse or room where you can have your own private room. Plus, I sometimes snore, and I feel bad about that.
How do you find places to stay?
Unlike my aversion to online restaurant reviews, I do think documentation of lodging online is excellent. I like Booking.com. I will run a search in terms of pricing from cheapest to most expensive. I will then call places directly, versus going through the site — that gives me a sense of what the place is like; I also often get a discount because I’m not booking directly through the site.
What other travel discount sites or apps do you recommend?
GetGoing, which allows travelers to pick 2 acceptable destinations, then gives them one of them with a discount. Routehappy is a great airline booking site that takes a lot of things into account that a lot of others don’t, like how wide the seat is, how long the layover; it reorders the list so it’s not just from least to most expensive. I also really recommend using Priceline, Hotwire or other opaque booking sites for hotels; you could save an incredible amount of money. For renting a car, I like AutoSlash and, for cheap gas, GasBuddy.com. TripAdvisor has Offline City Guides, which means you don’t have to be on the internet using international data roaming to find a place and see what’s around you. TripIt is also a great app; it keeps all itineraries straight if you’re disorganized like me.
What are some surprisingly cheap destinations right now?
One of the best deals is Bolivia, at least for now. For Europe, Budapest is an incredibly affordable city that is also classically European — you can stay in a nice hotel, go to the opera and order whatever you want off the menu. My contacts took me to a traditional Hungarian place, where nothing on the menu was more than 1,000 forint, or $4, except for the champagne.
When you’re not on assignment, where’s home?
Jackson Heights, Queens. My neighborhood is one of the most unheralded great tourist destinations of New York City. It’s home to lots of immigrant neighborhoods with great food — a South Asian, East Asian, South American mishmash of cultures. The food is incredibly cheap, and it’s 3 stops from Manhattan.
What places in Queens would you recommend?
I would recommend the taco stand on the north side of Roosevelt Avenue, between 75th and 76th avenues, and I would recommend the quesadillas instead of the tacos, because they’re made with machine-made tortillas, which anyone from LA will have a fit about. I love the Uruguayan café, La Nueva. For culture, the Louis Armstrong House in Corona is one of the absolute great, yet poorly visited, cultural attractions in NYC.
What travel destinations are on your bucket list?
I would like to spend a month running around Indonesia. I’ve never been, but just know it’s the kind of place that I would simply love … so big, so many places to see, and relatively easy to get off the tourist trail.