The Value-Sweet Spot of Thrifty Travel
Alright y’all. I realise that I sound like one of those really bad business books, not only do I have all of these headings- but really, bold text and specialised jargon? Buckle up yo, I’m about to expand on a bullshit-seeming formula that I hope will make a mother-lode of sense.
You see, the thing is, that when we shop for travel, a lot of us go to Wal-Mart right away, we look for the inexpensive but good-enough products, like Fast-food instead of dining out. . . It’s sort of the “budget travel” school of thought, and, dude, I have nothing against budget, but I think there are a couple of things to keep in mind when thinking of thrifty travel.
A Fair Price
I’m fairly well-known amongst my friends for being a frugal person. But, I don’t think any of them would describe me as a miser. The reality is, that while I’d like to get better at the making money side of things, I don’t think that I’d like to ever spend a whole lot more. In fact, I have this philosophy of frugality, that is pretty much this— your money is your life (I’m not saying money is the be-all end-all, far from it, but what we don’t often consider enough is the way that money is bartered time). And, on the other side of the equation, when you are paying for something, the person providing it is sharing their life with you— so it’s important to both receive and pay a fair price.
This applies to travel in a couple of ways.In the first, the fact is that there are a few travel products that are built on industries of misery. Price doesn’t always provide a misery index, but chances are if you are underpaying, someone is covering the short-fall in terms of poor recompense for a tough job. If you find yourself in this situation, simple things like appropriate tipping and spending can make a real difference to the people you interact with, and to your trip.
Something I never expected when we hit the road for the first time was to so instantly be recognised as Canadian— not because of our weird accents, funny clothes, or pale legs, but for always always dickering over the price of things. I don’t know if this has been everyone’s experience, but I know that I’ve heard from people in several corners of the world that myself and my compatriots are the cheapest peeps on Earth.
In fact, an occasion where I was accused of being Canadian was a watershed moment for me. It was Benaulim India, and there was this swell incense burner with all the grace of a Brancusi sculpture. (Oh! The incense in India! In particular there was this Auroville stuff, their “Veda” line, that was so amazing. We bought tonnes of the citronella stuff to supplement our mosquito netting and found it super effective— I wonder if it’s still around). So, I asked the shopkeeper how much the incense burner was, and he came up with some crazy price. Now, this wasn’t unusual, and dickering was wholly appropriate. But I didn’t reply with anywhere near an appropriate price.
Bargaining can of course be a fine art, and there’s not much more I like than a good haggle, but in this instance, as I have in a few others, I got caught up in it. It wasn’t a particularly long or dramatic haggle, but in the end, I resorted to the walk-away gambit, looking all grumpy, stomping towards the door . . . “$&!^, you are Canadian aren’t you! Fine then. 50 rupees, whatever you want. Just relax OK, relax!”
Almost everywhere we went in India, we were treated like guests. On more than one occasion we decided to try a new food and didn’t like it, only to have the proprietor refuse to charge us for it, or come to our table if we hadn’t cleaned out plates to ask what and how we’d like something else prepared. I’m not saying there weren’t touts or people trying to run scam, but they were the exception rather than the rule. It’s easy to let guide-books and anecdotes put you too on your guard. The shopkeeper was genuinely distressed as he thought that I thought he was trying to rip me off, and was offering to charge me a lot less than a local (much less in fact than the price-tag I found later on the bottom, just a little under his original asking price), just to appease me. There I was, in the middle of this India sojourn that I hoped would help me to question my classist and materialist biases, being an asshole.
I hope that my apology came off as sincere. Still, I think that the people in that area of Benaulim witness to the whole scene, and where we stayed for a few weeks, knew me as that cheap farengi bastard. Haggling can be important, because people don’t really appreciate a chump, nor do we like people to flash money around or throw it at us (Well, maybe I do! But as a dude, I kind of generally like being objectified. The only thing better than free money is if there is someone to tuck it in your underpants). But paying a fair price is important, no one enjoys being ripped off, and few of us really enjoy ripping off others.
When we spend our money on travel, particularly in the case of packages, each dollar that we spend is split so many ways, which is fine— but I think we have a responsibility to see that a good portion of it goes into the local-economy of where we find ourselves, and to the people directly providing us with services.
In the second, regardless of our income, most of us scrounge a little to afford our travels— so we should make sure that we squeeze all the wonder out of them we can, which can be a factor of how we spend our budgets.
Travel is generally an exceptional experience, to really enjoy it, you have to manage your expectations and be honest with yourself. Is it really worth spending all of the money on fare and accommodation if you wind up in some miserable motel? are you fine sharing a washroom?— the answer to these questions might both be yes, but the important thing is to answer them honestly. Would you like to spend your vacation at McDs? Or do you want to go somewhere posh? Or, are you after something self-catered, a picnic by the ocean or a tramp through the mountain and forests?
In whatever event, your trip should be one you can afford without stressing out over it, and that you can also enjoy without—not discomfort, which really can be part of the adventure—but without misery, or feeling like you’ve let an opportunity to do something fantastic pass you by.
The value sweet spot? It’s pretty simple, it’s where you strike a balance between what you want, and what you can afford, and where the external costs of your vacation are all in-line.
Where getting obsessed with travelling on a “shoestring” can keep your eyes glued to your wallet, finding the value-sweet spot is about realizing what you want to do, and setting out to do it with eyes wide open. If you want to travel on a tight budget, you have to realize that it is going to require a little bit of leg work.
This series on Budget Travel is intended to walk you through that leg work. Over the next week or so I’ll fill you in on some of the crazy deals we’ve gotten, tell you how we pick where to go, share some thoughts on eating—and—most importantly, right at the end after we’ve made you seat it for a while—I’ll spill the beans on some good, tried and true tips for finding decent hotel rates, and finding great travel fares. If you have any comments, or just want to call me on being a miser, please feel free to comment up a storm.