Spending Money Isn't the Key to Successful Travel

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."
  • 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. 

Recorded on April 15, 2010