If budget travel makes you think of noisy dorm rooms and slogging across countries in cramped overnight buses then think again. The New York Times’ Frugal Traveler and professional penny-pincher Lucas Peterson reveals it’s less about finding the cheapest deal and more about having the best experiences for the best price.
With the launch of our new book The Best Things in Life are Free, we caught up with this budget-savvy globetrotter to talk about his best hacks for saving money on the road, why your travel itinerary should include the typical tourist hotspots and how his favourite childhood food was ruined by a giant fish.
Where was your last trip?
My last trip was to Russia. I was in Moscow and St Petersburg on assignment for work.
Where is your next trip?
I’m not entirely positive. A lot of things don’t always get planned very far in advance, but I am looking at something in Central and South America right now.
What is your first travel-related memory?
My parents took me to Italy when I was about four and I remember getting bags of seed from these old ladies in St Peter’s Square in Rome to feed the pigeons. The pigeons would fly over and land on you and eat the seed out of your hand. When I look back I think that was such a filthy thing to do, but at the time it was really exciting.
My favourite food at the time was spaghetti – just plain spaghetti with red sauce on it. And one evening we went to a restaurant in Rome and they brought out this big plate of spaghetti with a giant fish on it – it was very traumatic. I didn’t know one could do that to spaghetti and it seemed to sully the whole experience.
Aisle or window seat?
I prefer an aisle seat because I’m pretty tall. Though I will say, if it’s a long trip then I can occasionally do the window. But then you need to have all of your provisions with you and camp out.
Do you have any travel habits or rituals?
My travel ritual is to insanely underpack – and it’s not always on purpose. I’m kind of a last-minute packer, which is not a great habit for a professional traveller. I often end up having to find a drugstore to buy things like toiletries or socks.
Favourite city or country or region?
Short answer: I don't have one. It’s hard to choose because every place offers something so different; you could go on some crazy adventures in this place or you could fall in love with someone in that place... it’s all inextricably tied to personal experience.
What does budget travel mean to you?
Budget travel is not a race to the bottom. It’s not necessarily about trying to find the cheapest flights that inevitably have three connections, or sleeping on the floor of some dirty place because it cost $1. I think most people want to have some modicum of comfort while they travel otherwise it’s not enjoyable. So my MO is about showing my readers that you can have really great experiences for a very reasonable amount of money.
I was just reading an article that said travel is a luxury and very elitist, accessible only to people who have the money and time to do it. And I think to some extent that is true, but I would argue that it’s more about making travel a priority. Recently I asked a friend to join me on a trip, and she said she didn’t have any money to travel – but then she told me she had bought a pair of $250 sunglasses. The trip I was asking her to go on would have essentially cost $250. To me that perfectly illustrates that if you make travel a priority it can be accessible to almost anyone.
Is there a standout budget destination in your mind?
I was just in Bulgaria and it wouldn’t surprise me if that becomes a popular destination for travellers. It kind of goes in cycles with the Eastern European countries – Prague was very popular and then Croatia was very popular. But Bulgaria has this beautiful Black Sea Coast, it’s very inexpensive and I encountered very, very few tourists when I was there.
What is your best hack for saving money on the road?
As far as the nuts and bolts of travel are concerned, there are now a lot of travel portals, like Priceline (priceline.com), that offer very highly discounted last-minute deals. For some reason, especially on popular flight routes, they’re trying to get butts in seats rather than have half-empty carriers, so will offer really reasonable last-minute prices on flights and hotel rooms.
Is there anything you simply refuse to pay for while travelling?
I hate paying for wi-fi. I will go out of my way, sometimes to my own detriment, to avoid paying for wi-fi in a hotel.
What are you most likely to splurge on while travelling?
I love eating on the street, and I rarely get to splurge because of the nature of my job. But if you’re on a budget and want to splurge at a fancy restaurant the trick is to sit at the bar. Most of the very highly regarded Michelin-starred restaurants offer tasting menus which are very expensive, so I will sit at the bar where there’s typically somewhat of an abridged menu. The food will be exactly the same as what they’re eating in the dining room and you’ll spend a fraction of the money.
What is your best or worst travel souvenir?
I brought back a really lovely hookah from Syria a long time ago.
What is the best or worst piece of travel advice you’ve received?
I’ve received a variation of this travel advice from several people in my life, which is to ‘always say yes’. Obviously, you must use this with some common sense, but if you have the opportunity to do something you’ve never done before, you should do it.
What’s your biggest travel fail?
When I was 16 I was living in the Netherlands as an exchange student and I had a very bright idea to take a bus with a couple of friends to Prague. Going from the Netherlands to Germany there was no passport control but when we got to the border of the Czech Republic it tightened up a little bit. So at the border between Germany and the Czech Republic these policemen come onto the bus and check everyone’s documents and I realise I had not brought my passport.
They took me off the bus and long story short: I ended up in a German jail and spent the better part of a day watching a German policeman, who was missing fingers, clean his gun in front of me. I was so stupid, not taking any kind of identification; I was very new to this international travel thing. But everything turned out fine and I got sent back to the Netherlands and was made fun of relentlessly in school for the rest of the term. But I never forgot my passport again.
What advice would you give a first-time traveller?
Go and see tourist stuff. Sure you don’t want to strictly stick to popular sights, but there’s a reason people go to the Eiffel Tower. Sometimes the touristy and obvious things are touristy and obvious for a reason, because they are very beautiful and they are very important.
Follow the Frugal Traveler on twitter @frugaltraveler or catch up on Lucas' column at nytimes.com for more budget travel tips.