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Matt Gross writes the Frugal Traveler column for the New York Times travel section, where he seeks out destinations that combine high style and a low budget. He was born[…]

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.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Question: What is your top rnpriority when you travel? 

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

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

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

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

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

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

So, I always watch out for these, these great meals rnbecause they tend to ruin the future. If you want really, really, good rnmeals, you want to eat at a high level every day and not just, you know,rn not at an ultra-exceptional level, but a very high level, because the rnultra-exceptional will make everything pale in comparison. And then, yourn know, you’re disappointed and crabby because nothing is ever as rngood.... and then you start talking about how you this octopus in rnGalicia in northwestern Spain and you sound like a douche. 
Recorded on April 15, 2010