"Not to be facile, but if I don’t write, I don’t get to do the things I later write about."
My Perfect Adventure
Seth Kugel admits to not really knowing what the phrase “travel writer” means. But that doesn’t stop him from being one of the most beloved ones in the English-reading world. As the Frugal Traveler columnist for the New York Times, he writes about how to have—how he’s had—spectacular experiences all over the globe, even while holding tight to your wallet.
This isn’t exactly what he set out to do. If you were to map out his path to travel writing, it would look as rambling as his itineraries. First he wanted to be an archaeologist. Then he studied African governments at Yale. For three years, he taught third grade in the Bronx. Then he went to Harvard to get a public policy master’s degree. Then he worked for the city of New York, first in immigrant services, then in child protection. He started freelancing for the Times in 1998, and quit his day job in 2001. Once he became a full-time journalist, he used his fluent knowledge of Spanish and Portuguese to co-author a book called Nueva York: The Complete Guide to Latino Life in the Five Boroughs.
In 2010, he inherited the Frugal Traveler role from Matt Gross. Kugel’s first assignment: a 13-week bus trip from São Paulo to New York. Today, he travels much of the time, reporting his experiences, taking a bit of a curmudgeonly approach to writing, and maintaining a quippy—and very popular—presence on Twitter.
In this interview, he tells us that his dream destination might just be fictional, why he wouldn’t want to consort with Columbus (but that he’d be very interested in meeting a crew member of, say, the Niña or Pinta), and why buying a local newspaper whenever you arrive anywhere is good practice. We also found out which common question makes him cringe.
Describe your perfect day, from dawn 'til dusk. Where would you be, who would you meet, and what would you do?
Setting: A small city in a fictional country I’d never been to, with vibrant local culture, outgoing people who speak a language I am fluent in, and a reputation for strong espresso and skilled pastry chefs. I wake up in a budget-friendly, but clean and eccentrically decorated family-owned inn. Stumble downstairs, play with friendly dog, and high-five the owner’s children (whom I helped with their math homework the night before). Eat hearty breakfast that causes me to wonder for the 8,000th time how Americans got so hung up on cereal. Walk around the town, pop into a café for a double espresso, then stroll into shops and take pictures of historical buildings decently preserved but not to the extent they look like a museum or a campaign to make the city UNESCO’s eight-millionth World Heritage site. Eventually wander into some place I’m not supposed to go, like an olive-oil factory or an artisan workshop or a wedding rehearsal, pretend I went in by accident, and finagle a free sampling or a tour or a last-second invite. Have lunch at outdoor market where the slight risk of food poisoning is mitigated by an irresistible aroma of a combination of spices I cannot place but remind me of something somewhere on another hemisphere. Choose a dinner spot famous for its five-dollar, 100-calorie, 13-course dessert tasting menu. Strike up a lively conversation with the people at the table next to me, and end up joining them for drinks at a small but raucous bar in a residential neighborhood I would have never thought to visit. Return to my inn, then go online to find that all wars have ended and that world prices for sugar and coffee are down, portending even cheaper espressos and desserts in travels to come.
If you could travel somewhere you've never been, where would you go?
Aside from the place I just described? I have a thing for huge countries, because even if one part’s not doing it for you, you can just take off for another region. Countries that fit this description best are Brazil, Turkey, Canada, Russia, and the U.S. Two that I haven’t been to but are at the top of my list are China and Indonesia. Both are almost certainly more interesting than Liechtenstein.
What’s the best place you've ever visited?
I despise this question. My best traveling experiences have much more to do with what happens, not where it happens. But let’s get it over with. Lençóis Maranhenses National Park in northeast Brazil. Desert-like dunes separated by crystal-clear fresh water lakes. Gorgeous, stunning, remote, etc. Just Google Image it.
If you could have lunch with any explorer, living or dead, who would it be and why?
I’m a Western Hemisphere kind of guy, so it would have to be a member of one of the European expeditions to the “New” World in the 16th century. Probably not the famous explorers themselves—their motivations were too politically or monetarily motivated for my taste, and some were bloodthirsty. Instead, some random crew member who really paid attention to the new landscapes, animals, and, of course, people he encountered. Far more interesting, though, would be to speak to the people that encountered them—though we can read endless accounts of exploration, there are few accounts of being explored.
What’s something you can’t travel without?
I’d love to talk about some amulet a Buddhist monk gave me at the top of a mountain, or a particular brand of hot sauce delicious enough to spice up the world’s more boring cuisines yet thick enough to be undetectable by airport security. But the truthful answer is that it’s a good DSLR camera. It’s become a professional tool, because I take my own pictures for the column. But long before that happened, it was a great companion, incredibly helpful in seeing things I might not have otherwise noticed.
When you arrive somewhere new, what’s usually first on your agenda?
I’ve written about how difficult the first 24 hours in any new location are, mostly because of how disoriented you are, not just geographically but culturally, socially, linguistically. So I suppose it’s walk around, see what people are wearing, how they’re acting and interacting with each other and with me, figure out the public-transportation system, get accustomed to the money. If I speak the language, I go old-school and buy a local newspaper, just to get a feel for what issues are important to people there and how they relate to their world.
What motivates you to keep writing?
Not to be facile, but if I don’t write, I don’t get to do the things I later write about. An editor once asked me whether I was one of those writers who liked writing or who hated writing. The implication—that there are journalists who struggle with writing and that that’s completely normal—was a huge relief. I actually don’t hate writing, but it is my least favorite part of the process, far behind thinking, planning, experiencing, interacting, pondering, wandering. Now that I think about it, I should have known not all writers loved writing best. Imagine a food writer who liked writing more than eating. That would be pathetic.
As a child, what was your dream job? If you gave up that dream, do you have any regrets?
Archaeologist. As in, digging things up to solve mysteries about ancient cultures. I know now how painstaking and tedious modern archaeological work can be, and how incremental most of the progress is, so I don’t have any regrets. In fact, what I do know is kind of like instant-gratification archaeology. Modern people are still around, so to learn about them, you don’t have to sift through dirt. You can just talk to them. It’s so much easier. And cleaner.
How did you venture into travel writing?
I never had any interest in travel writing. I loved travel—who doesn’t? But that was leisure, and writing was to be about more serious things—immigration, arts and culture, socioeconomic issues. Then an editor I had worked with before became the new New York Times travel editor and asked, “Where have you been lately?” I had just gotten back from my first-ever trip to Colombia and Brazil, so I wrote one piece on Bogotá and another about learning Portuguese while riding a boat down the Amazon with a bunch of evangelical Christians.
What advice you would give to an aspiring travel writer?
Be a writer who travels, not a travel writer. The term “travel writer” is kind of pithy, I think. I’m not actually sure I know what it means. You’re telling me that Paul Theroux and someone who exalts the décor at new luxury hotels are in the same profession? Before I was the Frugal Traveler, I was a news and features reporter. The minute I’m no longer the Frugal Traveler, I will cease writing exclusively about travel. It’s a great topic, but it’s far from the only topic. There’s also the practical element: The number of people in the world who make a decent living as full-time travel writers is tiny. But there is always room for more part-time travel writers. This would probably be a good time to mention that my mom, who is a university administrator, has published lots of travel pieces in the Boston Globe, her hometown paper. So if all you want to write about is travel, start by making it just a part of your life. And if it turns into a full-time thing, great.
Who has been your most influential role model?
Like hundreds of other New York writers, my original and by far most influential role model was Susan Shapiro, whose fall 1998 class “Writing for New York City Newspapers and Magazines” at the New School launched my writing career. I sold three assignments I did for that class to major publications: the Times, Time Out New York, and Playboy.
Do you have a life philosophy?
No, but I’m developing one whose main tenet is to avoid difficult interview questions.
Have you ever experienced a near accident during your travels that made you think twice about going out again?
That made me think twice about going out again? No.
If you had to choose a different career, what would it be and why?
Something that would still allow me to butt into other people’s lives and cultures with equal impunity. Therapist, teacher, talk-show host, income-tax auditor....
Name three things you still want to cross off your bucket list.
Get married. Have kids. Write a great book. Disappointed? If you’d prefer, I could go with: Do the Orient Express, sky dive above the Serengeti, hug a dolphin. But that would be insincere.