Big Think Interview With Matt Gross

A conversation with the New York Times’ Frugal Traveler columnist.
  • Transcript

TRANSCRIPT

Question: How has your traveling style changed since you started writing your column? 

Matt Gross: I’ve been traveling as the Frugal Traveler for four or five years now. And I think when it started, I was maybe a little bit more willing to put up with certain hardships, terrible places to stay, for instance. I still like a bad place to stay every once in a while now, but I really appreciate having not just a shower, but a hot shower; having a decent bed to sleep in. Those are nice things, I really like them now. I can still go without food or go with bad food, I can walk 15 miles a day and not worry about it, I can be on some sweaty, uncomfortable busses, but it’s nice to have a place to stay that you’re happy to be there. 

I just want to, I want to sleep a little better, I want to be comfortable. Maybe I’m old now. Maybe I’m old. That’s what happens.

Question: What’s the biggest spending trap that people fall into while traveling? 

Matt Gross: When people travel, they don’t know what’s actually important to them. Often you have a mix of travelers in a group and some people really care about the hotel that they’re staying in and some people really care about the food. Other people want to spend a lot of money on shopping, some people want to spend a lot of money in museums. And those are all different priorities. And people wind up spending a lot of money because they’re not really sure of what their priorities are until they get somewhere and they think that a lot of money has to go toward everything. 

But if you say, “Look, all I really care about is shopping, you know, buying clothes, buying books, buying chachkas,” whatever, then, hey, you know what? If that’s what important to me, then maybe I don’t need to spend that much on the hotel, I don’t need to spend that much on getting there, I don’t need to eat anywhere besides maybe street food or some small, easy restaurants. Focusing the money, focusing what your priorities are, is really the way to save money and to avoid blowing it on things that you don’t actually care about. 

But it takes time, it takes a lot of experience traveling to figure out what you actually care about. I mean, you’re not going to know, going to a place like Bangkok—or Sydney or wherever—you’re not going to know what you actually want to do on your first trip. It’s only with time, after years and dozens of trips that you say, “You know, I don’t really care about, you know, going to fancy restaurants any more, and so, I’m not going to spend money on that.” 

Question: What is your top priority when you travel? 

Matt Gross: Food, food. I mean, if I, you know, if I had to devote 80% of my budget to one thing, it would be food. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that I want to eat in fancy places, it just means that the experience of eating is what’s most important to me. And so, you know, if it’s a street stall with a great bowl of noodles, or if it’s a really great restaurant with two Michelin stars up in the mountains that’s totally inaccessible otherwise, those are the things that are important to me, and the price for them is something that I’m willing to pay wherever I go because I want that experience. 

I’ve started again, as I said, I’ve started to spend a bit more when it comes to hotels just because I’m tired of being tired, but it’s still a lower priority for me. But food is what I’m most excited about when I travel, and so if I’m spending 3 euros or if I’m spending, 50,000 yen on a meal, that’s what I’m going to go for, but I also want it to be worthwhile. You know, if I’m going to spend $300 a person on a meal, it should be a good meal. 

Question: What’s one of the most memorable meals you’ve had on the road? 

Matt Gross: Back in 1996 and 1997, I used to live in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, the form Saigon. And while I was there, I had a pretty standard lunch routine. There was a place near my little mini apartment that did pretty good grilled pork chops on rice, that’s really popular South Vietnamese lunch. And I just had that all the time and it was quite good, I loved it. 

And then on a trip back to Vietnam, I think about six years ago, a friend of mine took me to a restaurant that specializes in this grilled pork chop on rice, and it just, it totally blew everything out of the water that I ever had before. It was the biggest, juiciest, most perfectly grilled and caramelized and flavorful pork chop I’ve ever had on really excellently cooked rice. They use a thing called broken rice, which is broken grains of rice, this is very sort of peasanty thing, which was just perfectly cooked. The memories that I’d had of eating my good, standard lunch every day back in the late ‘90’s, were just completely forgotten because this one pork chop, so sweet and charcoally and juicy had destroyed everything else. So it makes it hard then to eat the stuff again elsewhere because there’s the memory of the great one. 

I had that happen in Galicia, in northwestern Spain, they make this octopus... which is really simple, it’s just long, boiled octopus. They boil it perfectly, they slice it up, they drench it in good olive oil, crunchy salt, and pimenton, this sort of smoked chili powder, not spicy, but very smoky, sweet flavor. And I had it with some dark bread in this little bar and it was just so totally amazing and perfectly cooked that I couldn’t eat octopus again for months and months after that because nothing could possibly be as good as this one thing at this little bar in this little town near the coast. 

So, I always watch out for these, these great meals because they tend to ruin the future. If you want really, really, good meals, you want to eat at a high level every day and not just, you know, not at an ultra-exceptional level, but a very high level, because the ultra-exceptional will make everything pale in comparison. And then, you know, you’re disappointed and crabby because nothing is ever as good.... and then you start talking about how you this octopus in Galicia in northwestern Spain and you sound like a douche. 

Question: What gear is essential for a frugal traveler? 

Matt Gross: Good socks, good socks are very important. Probably as important, maybe more important than good shoes. A very lightweight, waterproof shell that you can put on over whatever you’ve got, something that hopefully weighs less than 8 ounces and can be rolled up and compressed and stowed in the corner of a suitcase or a bag. Little, collapsible bags are great things to have for shopping for groceries, or whatever, something that compresses up like that, and then unfolds into this big bag. Those are things that you just need to have all the time wherever you go. A pair of pliers is a really good thing. 

Technology-wise, an unlocked cell phone, that’s probably the most important thing, whether you have a computer or not, doesn’t really matter, that’s up to you. I carry a computer because I’m working.  I wish could leave it at home. Oh, man, to take a trip without a computer and a power supply and all the little doodads and wires, oh, man, that would be so nice! Do people do that? Do people travel without all that stuff? They must! 

Question: What are the pliers for? 

Matt Gross: They’re for anything that might happen. A pair of pliers will help you pull something out of a campfire. I like to bring those little, little cans of Spanish clams and white beans, or octopus and garlic sauce that you can just pull open. They’re great to bring on a camping trip, because you just open them up, put it near the campfire and it starts to bubble and then you can eat it, you have warm octopus out in the middle of the woods. But you need a pair of pliers to like pull it back out. I used a pair of pliers to help fix the battery leads on someone’s car in northern Cyprus one day, out in the middle of nowhere, otherwise we would’ve been stuck. Pliers are great! Pliers are, they’re like fingers, but they’re made of metal and they have more leverage. And they don’t burn so easily. 

Question: What’s a cheap alternative to souvenirs? 

Matt Gross: I don’t go out of my way to look for souvenirs. I don’t need these little physical reminders of where I went on a trip; I have good memories, usually. But every once in a while, I find something that calls out to me as an unusual symbol of where I was. 

When I was in Cambodia several years ago, I visited a rubber plantation and just wound up with a little seed for a rubber tree in my possession. And I don’t know why I held onto it, I didn’t even really remember holding onto it, but it just kind of stayed with me and around me and on my desk and among my things without ever totally getting lost and I just like it, it’s this reminder that these huge rubber plantations come from these little seeds and everything that we see that’s made of rubber these days, actually has its origin in this strange, little, sort of brown zebra-striped seed that I have. So, those are nice. 

I look for, I save currency. I save currency just because there’s always some left over, so I have a big bag of notes from countries I visited, and they’re kind of interesting to go through every once in a while. I’m really looking forward to when my daughter’s old enough to kind of understand the idea of money and I’ll be able to look at these bills and say, “Oh, this is, who is that person on that bill from Hungary?” Or, who, you know, “Why is Gandhi on every single bill in India? And not just some of them, but I think he’s on like, he’s on all of them.” 

The other thing I like to get whenever I can is lithographs and etchings and various prints at like flea markets and things like that. Partly because if they’re small, they’re sort of easier to transport, but also, I like multiples, I like the idea that some little print I get in Venice of three chickens scratching on the ground is one of like 40 that were produced and somewhere out there, there’s 39 other people somewhere in the world who have this little thing that I found at a flea market in Venice. And who knows? Maybe I’ll wind up invited over to someone’s house somewhere in Slovakia or Morocco or something like that and I’ll look on the wall and I’ll say, "I know those three little chickens! I have those three little chickens, too." Those are sort of exciting moments, when you spot something like that. 

Question: Why do you think traveling on a small budget is valuable? 

Matt Gross: More and more now, I feel that your budget should just not matter. You should give up the idea that spending money is the key to having a great and successful trip or adventure. Once you put aside that idea that travel and money are related, that the more you spend, the better you travel, then you suddenly... everything becomes open to you. When you say, "I don’t need to spend the money to have a good meal, I don’t need to spend a lot of money to have a nice place to stay, I don’t need to spend a lot of money to get from point A to point B," then you have to be more creative. You find other ways to travel, you find other kinds of places to stay. 

I just got back from a trip walking from Vienna, Austria, through Slovakia, and down to Budapest, Hungary. It’s about 300 kilometers, and I was in these little towns that didn’t have hotels or restaurants or much of anything, and people were constantly offering me meals, offering me places to stay. These were things that happened not because I said, “I only have a limited amount of money to spend,” but because spending money was sort of beside the point. I could’ve spent a lot of money in these towns and it wouldn’t have gotten me anything. If I had spent a lot of money, first of all, I wouldn’t have wound up in these towns in the first place. And if I had 100 euros a night to spend on a hotel, in a town that doesn’t have a hotel, it doesn’t get you anything. Whether you’ve got 5 euros or 100 euros or 1,000 euros to spend a night in an interesting place, the place that you get free or the place that you get that’s run by someone small and creative and clever is going to be much better than the place that you get simply because you have money.

Question: What was it like walking from Vienna to Budapest? 

Matt Gross: I learned something about walking. When you have 300 kilometers to walk, which is about 160 miles, I think, you learn a couple things about walking pretty quickly. One is that there’s a difference between walking a lot on your own in a city and walking 15 miles a day with 40 or 45 pounds of gear on your back. My legs are very strong, except for my ankles, it turns out. So there were times when I realized I wasn’t going to make it unless I took a train for 20 kilometers and then started walking from there. 

So, I probably walked well over half the distance, I think it’s 290 kilometers total and I walked probably about 150 or 160 of that. So, it was tough. It was tough. My ankle, this ankle, is still a little swollen and I shouldn’t run, so I’m going to get fat for the next few days. 

Question: What’s the benefit of a long journey on foot? 

Matt Gross: You see places that no one else has seen at all. No other tourist goes to [...] No one walks into Estragon, you know, these are strange places that they won’t impress anyone when you tell people you went there, but the kind of experiences that you’re going to have there are just amazing. People were giving me places to sleep for the night, they were inviting me in for dinner. They were showing me around, offering me rides, helping me in my investigations. It was, the people that you meet, for me, are definitely the most important part of the journey. You make friends, you exchange email addresses, you stay in touch with these people. Every once in a while, they come to New York or you’re traveling somewhere and you meet them in a third country, and those kind of connections are, those are the most important souvenirs, those are the most important on-the-ground experiences you have when you’re traveling. And you don’t necessarily get those if you’re speeding through from city to city on a train or a bus. If you’re walking, you know, you wind up walking next to someone who’s walking their dog and they turn out to be an English teacher, and they invite you home for backyard wine and sweets and give you a nice bed to sleep in. There’s nothing better than that. 

Question: Would you have had the same experience walking across the U.S.? 

Matt Gross: Absolutely. This is a really large country and it’s not necessarily a small town value, but it’s, people in America are very friendly and they often actually want to meet outsiders and new people. I’ve had that happen. In 2007, I drove from New York to Seattle, sort of zigzagging across the country, staying off the interstates entirely and in Decorah, Iowa, I stopped in this little town in northeast Iowa one evening and found a bed and breakfast, arranged to stay there for the night, walked down a hill and found this cute, little bistro, La Rana Bistro, The Frog. And walked in and got a glass of wine and some bread and cheese at the counter and started talking to the owners and about five minutes after they met me, they said, “Hey, you need a place to stay?” You know, they had a lovely house, they had a whole wing of the house with its own bedroom and bathroom all to itself that they just offered to me for three or four days, just because they liked me. I was an interesting traveler who was passing through, let’s give him a place to stay. 

So, yeah, whether you’re driving or walking, that’s, you know, that’s going to happen. 

Question: Did you grow up traveling? 

Matt Gross: I think my first big trip when I was little. I was almost eight years old and my father and I went to Denmark together, one summer, for maybe two or three weeks. And that was my first big adventure overseas. Soon after that, we had, my family moved to England for a year, moved back to Massachusetts, then we moved to a different house, then we moved down to Virginia. We moved around a lot and we traveled a lot, California, England, Italy, France, and when I was a teenager, I was a skateboarder and I had access to my parents's car, so I spent a lot of time driving all over Virginia, southeastern Virginia, just pulling into a new town, looking around, trying to figure out how the town is organized and constructed, looking for great places to skateboard. But that taught me a lot about how cities are organized, where are the sort of industrial, warehouse loading dock zones where we can find places to skate where nobody will see us. How do you find cities that have great, sort of marble granite plazas in the center? 

So, throughout my high school years, I was exploring and exploring and exploring. So, yeah, I’ve never really, never really stopped moving ever since I was about seven years old. 

Question: What’s the most compromising situation you’ve found yourself in while traveling? 

Matt Gross: It’s terrible when you’re traveling on your own and you get sick and you don’t speak the language, it’s terrible the first time that happens. And then you deal with it, and then the next time it happens, you say, “Oh, yeah, I know how to deal with this,” and then it becomes easier. And the next time, it becomes even easier. All of these things build on each other and you learn better how to travel by dealing with the really awful stuff that does happen to you a lot of the time when you travel. You stay in a bad hotel, you get sick, you’re alone, you get lost, these are all pretty traumatic things that can happen. But by dealing with them, by learning how to get un-lost, by learning how to talk to a doctor, how to go to a pharmacy and find the drugs you need to get better, makes it so much easier the next time. These things make you a stronger person and a stronger traveler. And you know, after a few years of that, you can go anywhere, any time, on your own, with friends, and be happy and comfortable and enjoy yourself in a way that you never used to be able to. 

Question: Is Brooklyn home to you? 

Matt Gross: I’ve lived in New York now for 12 years and that’s the longest I’ve lived really anywhere, since, yeah, my whole life, I don’t think I spent 12 years in any place as a child at all. And I love New York, it’s a very easy place to live for me, because you can do pretty much anything you want at any time of day or night. There’s no limits on the kind of life that you lead. 

But I guess I could leave it, I could go somewhere else, as long as I’m near an international airport, that would be great. My wife and I talk about moving back to Taiwan, where she’s from, maybe in a few years when our daughter is ready for school, but, yeah, we don’t know yet. I mean, that’s, my daughter is 16 months old, so that’s at least three or four years in the future and that’s just, I mean, that’s impossible to say what’s going to happen four years from now. I don’t know what’s going to happen in June. I have no idea, I have no idea what’s going to happen in June, in July and July is like the 23rd century! So, yeah, you talk about the future and I don’t really know. But New York, I love it, I don’t want to live anywhere else, but, hey, you know what? I could. 

Question: If you had to move somewhere for 10 years without leaving, where would you go? 

Matt Gross: Honestly, if I had to leave New York and go live somewhere else and just live there and not use it as a base for going to other places, I could probably go back to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, back to Saigon and spend quite a bit of time there. I loved it when I lived there, I loved every trip back to visit friends and it’s, it’s a big place and a complicated place and I know it well, but I don’t know it well enough. There’s a lot of corners I haven’t explored, a lot of people I haven’t yet met there. I could focus a bit of energy on that city. 10 more years? I don’t know, we’ll see. 

Question: As a frequent traveler, how do you stay in touch with your home base? 

Matt Gross: I feel like a fisherman or a soldier going off and making the money and then coming back, or maybe not coming back, things are unpredictable sometimes. When I’m off on a long trip, my wife and I talk just about every day. One of the nice things about having an unlocked cell phone is you get a SIM card for whatever country you’re in and outside the US, a lot of the time, receiving calls is free, so my wife can call me, it doesn’t cost me anything. We use Skype a lot, Skype is a great way to stay in touch, I have it on my computer, I have it on my iPhone and just talk for free all the time wherever I go. 

It’s more complicated though, with a kid. Not seeing my daughter for two weeks is really difficult. And a trip I took in March, when I went to Italy, I was there for less than two weeks and when I came back it was as if she had no idea who I was. She’d been sick a little bit, so she was just not in great shape overall, but when I came back, it was just, sort of lack of, not lack of recognition, but just a bit freaked out by me. But then I just came back from this two-week trip to central Europe and she was totally cool with me, very comfortable, very happy to see me. So, I don’t know if there’s really a key to it, to making it work. 

My wife now says, you know, two weeks is the most I can go away, you know, after two weeks, maybe I should think twice about coming back at all. But there’s no key, it’s just talk, make sure everybody knows that the ground rules are. Having my wife say, "Two weeks is what you can do makes it so that, okay, yes, now I know two weeks is what I can do," two weeks is the most I can ask for from her, two weeks is the most, is the biggest assignment I can accept from a magazine or a newspaper. Yeah, hey, two weeks, that’s good, that’s my limit. And if we left it sort of vague, who knows what kinds of arguments and tensions would’ve arisen. 

Question: What’s it like traveling with your daughter? 

Matt Gross: She comes with me whenever I can convince my wife that it’s a good idea. When Sasha, my daughter, was six weeks old, we all went off to Italy together, we went off to Venice and Milan for two weeks, I mean, she was just this little nugget, you know, fit inside your coat, but she had a pretty decent time, she ate, she slept, she stayed warm, she didn’t cry too much. And we were in Italy, and so people loved her, “Oh, the pico nina, que, cara bambina, oh so sweet,” everybody was so happy to see her. 

And then in January, when she was a year old, I took her alone to San Francisco for a week. It was a much more complicated endeavor. I mean, at a year old, all of a sudden you have this creature who walks, who was starting to talk, who eats things but not other things, who’s developing a sense of will and a sense of won’t. And that was tough, and that was just me and her on our own together. It was exhausting, I mean, just the physical effort to keep up with her and to take care of her. And to know that at the end of the night, at the end of the day, there’s not another parent to shift her off to. Yeah, man, I was asleep at 9:30 every night because there was no other way to do it. But, you know, in the end, it was fun, I mean, I had a good time, she had an interesting experience, who knows what she’ll remember of it, but I like to think that she’s getting accustomed to the idea and the experience of travel. It’s not an unusual thing for her to do. 

And those were just trips for stories. In the meantime, she’s been to Taiwan twice, she’s been to Germany, she’s been to Minneapolis, she’s got a well-stamped passport, you know. She knows the TSA drill pretty well at this point. You know, I think she’s got a bright future ahead of her as a traveler. Travel writer, I don’t know, I mean, she has trouble counting to three, so we may have to wait a little bit on that.

Recorded on April 15, 2010