Rediscovering Travel: A Guide for the Globally Curious
For those of us who are devotees of budget travel, Seth Kugel’s “Frugal Traveler” column often seemed the most readable contribution to the New York Times travel section. Kugel’s stories were packed with humor, money-saving tips and adventurous insights.
Alas, Kugel’s column wrapped up in 2016 after a six-year run, but readers can enjoy a second helping of his adventures in his new book, Rediscovering Travel: A Guide for the Globally Curious.
The book is a manifesto of sorts, challenging the wisdom of over-reliance on travel apps, TripAdvisor, hotel booking sites, Google Maps, and other online helpers. In Kugel’s view, overdoing it, with say, Google Earth, to check out every destination in advance only serves to suck the joy out of travel. He notes that even just reading about the Taj Mahal spoiled the experience for Mark Twain, who was unable to savor the monument without preconceptions during his visit in 1895.
Kugel has a point. After all, what most of us like about travel is the surprise of experiencing a novel sight or sensation around the next corner. If you’ve already experienced a trip to Nepal, Bangkok, or Venice through legions of YouTube videos and TripAdvisor reviews, you may as well stay home.
Kugel also addresses the perils of being taken in by online travel reviews and rankings. On TripAdvisor, which offers 600 million reviews of more than 7.5 million businesses, he notes that the McDonald’s at the Dubai International airport is ranked in the top ten percent of the city’s 8,500 restaurants. Meanwhile, a Subway sandwich shop on a dingy street in New York gets a higher ranking than his favorite Italian restaurant in the East Village. Message? Online reviews are often written by folks who who may have radically different tastes and outlooks than one’s own.
Taking another example, he notes that the majority of visitors to Bali are Asians, Indonesians from Jakarta on weekend flings, and young Australian partiers. These travelers post the most reviews on sites such as TripAdviser and Yelp, yet often with a far different agenda than those of us who arrive from halfway around the world. “For me, depending on TripAdvisor reviews from the average Bali-goer would have been like a Ukrainian anthropologist going to Mexico and depending on the reviews of American spring breakers,” he writes.
Add to that, starred reviews and “thumbs up” emojis on various hotel booking sites may be more a consequence of a hotel paying extra to the likes of Booking.com to boost its rating.
Kugel doesn’t dismiss the value of online sources of travel information, however; he simply offers some advice for reading between the lines on various sites, while urging readers to look beyond the top 10 or 20 recommendations.
“I’ll skip the Top 10 or Top 20 ‘Things to do’ or ‘Restaurants’ and dive into the middle of the list (on TripAdvisor),” he writes. In Philadelphia, for instance, this approach turns up the intriguing Mummers Museum, Physick House, and Woodford Mansion, places that have been bypassed by the masses, but which may be worth visiting.
It's true that one needs a a certain wealth of experience as a traveler before venturing “off the map,” and some readers may not be up for the challenge. Readers who aren’t veteran travelers would likely find it daunting to follow in Kugel’s footsteps, far from the tourist bubble, to places such as rural China or across the northern rim of South America.
Speaking of the above, the best bits in Kugel’s book are his adventures in obscure places, where tourists are as scarce as flowers in February. He kicks off his book with a weekend in a dreary Hungarian town, Mezőberény, “the opposite of a tourist destination,” and has various memorable encounters with the locals.
On another trip, he travels far up the Yangtze River on a two-week trip to obscure cities in central China, including Badong, “a particularly grimy river town utterly free of tourists.” Yet another trip involved traveling overland through Suriname and French Guiana in South America to save on airfare on a trip to northeastern Brazil.
Daunting stuff, this, and probably not what most tourists have in mind for the typical one- or two-week vacation. But Kugel notes that readers can adapt a sense of adventure to any trip, if only by taking baby steps off the beaten path advised by travel apps and websites.
It’s not all far-flung destinations for Kugel; he also has some thoughts on well-trammeled tourist destinations such as Bali, the Dominican Republic and Cuba. This, along with advice on foreign romance, maps, GPS, dining out, iffy destinations, safaris, and budget travel in general.
All told, Rediscovering Travel is an excellent primer on the current state of our most beloved pastime and a clarion call to experience the world without the spoilers of travel apps and online chatter.