Seth Kugel Would Choose a Rickety Boat Over a 5-Star Hotel

Most people dream of being able to travel for a living. Seth Kugel is living that dream, albeit on a tight budget. Meet the “Frugal Traveler”– a thrifty nomad that travels around the world, writing a weekly column for the New York Times in the process. From riding on a hammock on a rickety boat in the Amazon to trying the strangest food, Seth has done it all.

1. You’ve jumped around from job to job a lot before becoming the “Frugal Traveler.” Can you tell me a little bit about what you did?

I am sort of an accidental travel writer. Actually, to a certain extent, I am an accidental writer. I was doing other things when I took a writing class in 1998. I ended up publishing a bunch of stuff and then I ended up as a journalist. As a freelance journalist in New York, you sort of have a specialty you know more about than other folks — so I wrote about the Bronx actually, where I had worked for a long time. Then I started working for the Times as a freelancer and for the Times, you can write for whatever section you want, as long as you have a good idea – so I did a couple of pieces for the Travel section and they liked it. But I never thought I would become a full time travel writer. I went to Brazil so I could be a foreign correspondent and they dragged me back and offered me my current column. I was just following the flow of where my interests were.

2. Can you tell us a little bit more about the column?
“The Frugal Traveler” is a budget travel column, but it’s important to realize that that doesn’t mean a super low budget travel column. I’m not a 19-year-old backpacker who eats ham and cheese for 5 straight meals to save 4 dollars. I mean I’m not against that, but that’s not what the column is about. This column is about having good vacations and good trips for much less money than readers might have thought possible. It also has an independent edge towards travel. Very rarely do I go on tours. I do a lot of wandering and a lot of things just happen. I always hope that that will show people, not only good ways to save money, but also good ways to have adventures while traveling.

3. What’s the best part of your job and what’s the most difficult part?
The best part of my job is that I get to travel around! Traveling around is not the same as being on vacation because it’s still my job to write once a week for the New York Times. On the other hand, it’s not like sitting in an office, making calls and writing an article that way. So being able to travel is part of my job and the fact that it resembles a vacation is obviously the best part. But I guess, in some ways, it’s also the worst part. You have an unusual lifestyle because you are never home. Well, I’m not one of those guys that travels 365 days a year, but sometimes I wish I could be at home for more than a week at a time. I wouldn’t be happy traveling on the road 12 months a year, but there are people who would be. I think I am a little bit more mainstream in that I like to travel to places that feel like home. Then, I like to travel away from that home and come back to a home. So I would say that I am away from it a little more than I would like.

4. Do you get homesick a lot?
I miss my friends and my family, so yes. But that’s something that only happens when you are in the hotel room at the end of the day. But that doesn’t happen when you’re out walking the streets of Buenos Aires. I have this little switch that goes on and I go into traveling mode – just have a full of a day as possible to go to as many places as possible. My homesickness is in limited doses.

5. How do you decide where to go and what to do on a tight budget?
It’s not just me who decides and the Frugal Traveler is not just me. It’s an editor, a photo editor, and web editor —  all of us working together. We choose a combination of places we think readers want to hear about and places that they don’t know about, but we think they should know about. So for example, since the column is for a New York paper, we would assume that most people would want to go to the Caribbean in the winter or the beach in the summer. Travelers also like to go to big cities in Europe, so we would certainly want to cover those kinds of places. But on the other hand, I think traveling to lesser-known destinations has its advantages because there are just fewer tourists around. I also do a lot of domestic travel pieces. It’s not like I’m literally traveling around the world. I’ll go on shorter trips, somewhere in New York. And then I’ll do longer trips in the United States and less frequently, I will go on these foreign trips – maybe 4 or 5 times a year. It isn’t so much that I am a globe-trotter, trying to get to every single country in the world. It’s trying to figure out what our viewers most want to hear about about.

6. Out of every place you’ve ever been to, which one is your favorite?
It’s funny because my favorite place to go is a place I am hesitant to recommend to other people. In general, it’s Brazil, which is a great country to visit, but there are reasons not to go. I’m all about meeting new people when I travel and in Brazil, people are super nice and welcoming. But that’s not the real reason I go. I like to go because I know my way around and I have lots of friends there. It’s an absolutely massive country that I will never completely know. There’s no end to the places I want to go in Brazil, but I also have a base where I have friends. I know my way around and I speak the language. So travel around the world, but have a favorite place that you continue to go back to because, while its great to see new places, there is something special about having a place that is not actually your home, but feels like your home.

7. Is there one unique experience or story that remains with you?

I better think of some crazy one…I was going through this area of Turkey that is known for its pistachios. There’s a city there that makes baklava and all these other things out of pistachios. The city is great, but there’s a pistachio farm, so I went to the car and drove to where the pistachio orchards were, out of town. I just sort of turned down a random road and saw a sign that had town names on them. I was in a completely random place, going down a dirt road, in the middle of Turkey, which was just a great feeling. It’s not a dangerous country so I wasn’t worried, but I was very nervous in a good way. “What’s at the end of this road?” “Who am I going to meet?” The first village I drove through, I didn’t meet anyone. But in the second village, everyone was coming out on the street and this old man immediately invited me over to his house. I told him, in my very limited Turkish, that I was a tourist looking for a pistachio farm and he was pistachio farmer. He invited me over and I spent the whole day with his family, which had like 25 people. Nobody, except the kids spoke English and the English they spoke was from the English books they used at school, so we did a lot of talking out of English books. But I got a tour of the pistachio farm and a great meal and it was both super familiar and super unfamiliar. It was a Muslim family and a very Turkish family, so we sat on the floor and we ate with our hands and literally no one spoke any English, but I guess when you’re in a place like that, you get the feeling like there’s no where else you’d rather be at that exact moment. And that’s how you know you are having a great adventure – to randomly meet a family and spend the whole day with them (they even gave a concert for me, the older kids were singers) – it just mounted the whole day for me out of no where. It’s also important that they don’t know I’m a writer. I never tell them I’m a writer. My best moments are always me just meeting people, not me hiking across a desert or anything like that.

8. So…how were the pistachios?
Yeah…well…I ate more pistachios in four days than I have ever eaten in my life. I even took a tour of a pistachio institute….But I don’t know what to tell you. The pistachios were delicious! But I sort of already knew that pistachios are delicious!

9. If you weren’t a writer, what do you think you would be doing?
My guess is that I would be working in some form of international development or some sort of nonprofit in the United States. I also might be a teacher. That’s kind of what I did before hand. I wouldn’t want to be…a lawyer! Or a doctor!

10. Imagine you were the “Lavish Traveler” instead. Where would you go and what would you do?
I don’t know if I would go anywhere different…Well, the problem with being a lavish traveler is that you can’t have the same adventures. Spending a lot of money means that you probably have more tour guides and good tour guides – really qualified local people – but there’s much less of a chance to find your own adventure. So I would probably be doing a lot of escaping from tour guides and escaping from resorts. Sometimes, I look at glossy magazines of luxury resorts and I do sort of momentarily think I would like that. But I think if I had more money to spend on trips, I would be eating in more famous restaurants. I’m not really into spending money on lodging or crazy adventure travel in nature. I would also order appetizers a lot more.

11. 5 star hotel room in Italy or hammock on the Amazon?
That’s a totally unfair question! A hammock on the amazon is my favorite thing to do. I’ve done it like 5 times!

12. Really, 5?
I think the number is actually 5. I call the boats, the “Greyhound buses of the Amazon.” They are not like modern buses. They are like the old fashion Greyhound buses that go back and forth between cities for days. The great thing about the Amazon is that the entire region runs on water as opposed to asphalt. There’s a school on a boat and a store on a boat. People get around between towns on a boat. And the ambulance is basically a boat! That sort of completely different way of living is one the things I look for the most in a destination – a culture that is different in ways that you didn’t even know could be different. I realize that some people are different. You have different food, different attitudes towards strangers. I all get that. But when you go to a place and you’re like “What the?! There’s no roads?” And it’s a school boat instead of a school bus…that’s the sort of thing that you’ll be like “whoa I want to see more and I want to know more about this.” I actually find that about China as well. I remember being on a boat in China. I seem to be on boats a lot. A kid wanted to see a dollar bill – and I knew that because I had Google Translate on my phone – so I opened my bag. The fact that I had opened my bag led a huge crowd of people to run over to me to see what was in my bag and stare into it. People obviously weren’t being rude. This is normal behavior, just not normal to me. And I found this charming…like I would’ve wanted to see what was in the foreigner’s bag too. I would be glancing sideways to try and get a glimpse.

13. Our website is focused on the theme of adventure. How do you define adventure in your own words?
An experience that is unlike any you have had in your regular life that at least, to some extent, makes your heart beat much faster than it normally would because you are nervous or excited. I think there should be an element of perceived danger. I’m not into taking really big risks when I travel, but certainly something like crossing an African country using public transportation. That would qualify just as much as a hike through a jungle with nothing, but a knife and a match. It’s anything that makes you nervous is good, that seems like a little dangerous and is not in any way like in your daily life.

Seth, are you sure you want to pass on that 5-star hotel? I’d gladly take it off of your hands!