Introducing the No-Nonsense Traveler

Editor Doug Stallings, expert traveler and world-class cheapskate, begins a new column dedicated to helping frugal travelers plan their next trip.

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Before you listen to any of my travel advice, before you even read a sentence further, there’s one thing you need to know about me that will inform virtually everything I say: I’m cheap. I’m not quite as cheap as my father, but my cheapness has informed virtually all my travel experiences. In fact, it’s the very reason I’m able to travel as much as I do.

Travel is a necessity, and it’s something I can’t imagine doing without as long as I am employed and physically able to go, so I guess being cheap may be a very attractive trait in these uncertain economic times. For now, we may all need to become cheap travelers.

For me, being cheap means I want to get the absolute most for my money, regardless of whether I’m laying out $8 for a hotel in Thailand or $180 for a canal-side room in Venice. But like any traveler, I have my limits, and there are things I have trouble doing without (increasingly so, it seems, as I get older). Like many Americans, I prefer a private hotel room with a bath over a cheaper hostel. And I like good food; it doesn’t bother me in the slightest to skimp a bit on two of my meals if it means I can afford a better lunch or dinner, though Pret à Manger is just fine for lunch in London. More and more these days I appreciate a nice bottle of wine, or the convenience of booking advance tickets so I don’t have to stand in line for an exceedingly popular attraction.

Frugal Travel Means Making Smart Choices

Though I appreciate the finer things, I’m always calculating whether my splurge will really make me happy enough to overcome the pain of opening my wallet wider than it’s accustomed to opening. That €400 hotel room in Paris? Hardly. A $4 glass of Coke at that lovely Champs d’Elysées café? Ha! Bacon and eggs for breakfast? No, a croissant and café crème will do nicely (but I’ll stand at a café counter rather than have the overpriced petit déjeuner at my hotel).

Now, I wouldn’t blink at spending $150 for an excellent dinner, though you can keep your Michelin stars to yourself. Nor would I turn down a balcony stateroom on a cruise in the Caribbean. The chance to get outside away from the frigid a/c and breathe the salty air is definitely worth an extra cost. A soothing Swedish massage? Yes, please—but it always feels better when I’m paying $40 at a beautiful spa in Manila than $150 at a mediocre spa in the Caribbean.

Talk to Doug: What do you like to splurge on when you travel?

Being a cheap traveler means you have to seize opportunities, as I did after the SARS epidemic devastated travel to Asia (I booked a very sweetly discounted Cathay Pacific All-Asia Pass). On the one-year anniversary of the Kuta bombings, I was walking around Ubud and riding a bike around the rice paddies of central Bali. In October 2001, I was returning from a trip to Italy on an almost-empty plane. Now, I’m looking at exchange rates for the pound that are the lowest they’ve been in almost 40 years and thinking that it’s been a long time since I visited England.

Here to Help

As these posts continue, I want them to become more interactive, to spur some lively debate in our forums, and provide some concrete help to those travelers out there who aren’t willing to stay at home worrying about their 401(k) balance sheets. In future posts, I’ll be telling you why my favorite hotel in Paris is part of a charmless chain; how I managed to get home after Christmas simply by being nice—but persistent—after I was booked on five cancelled flights (and, more important, not paying anything extra); and why the worst time (but most expensive time) to travel to the Caribbean is Christmas. But I’ll also be asking you to help make this more of a dialogue. Send me your questions, your challenges; tell me your travel dreams, and I’ll try to see what I and the other users of Fodors.com can suggest to make them become reality. I love to ferret out the best deals and separate the travel wheat from the chaff. And I love a good challenge.

–Doug Stallings