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Spending Money Isn't the Key to Successful Travel

Question: How has your traveling style changed since you \r\nstarted writing your column? 

Matt Gross: I’ve been \r\ntraveling as the Frugal Traveler for four or five years now. And I think\r\n when it started, I was maybe a little bit more willing to put up with \r\ncertain hardships, terrible places to stay, for instance. I still like a\r\n bad place to stay every once in a while now, but I really appreciate \r\nhaving not just a shower, but a hot shower; having a decent bed to sleep\r\n in. Those are nice things, I really like them now. I can still go \r\nwithout food or go with bad food, I can walk 15 miles a day and not \r\nworry about it, I can be on some sweaty, uncomfortable busses, but it’s \r\nnice to have a place to stay that you’re happy to be there. 

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

Question:\r\n What’s the biggest spending trap that people fall into while \r\ntraveling? 

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

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

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

Question: What is your top \r\npriority when you travel? 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Recorded on April 15, 2010

A hotel "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."

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