Vacationing With Pliers

The New York Times’ Frugal Traveler columnist on what gear you shouldn't leave home without.
  • Transcript


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. 

Recorded on April 15, 2010