Travel Tips

The Frugal Five

The five writers who have contributed to the Frugal Traveler column over the last 25 years share stories, travel philosophies and plenty of tips.

The Frugal Traveler column has been around for 25 years. We got all five of the columnists together (virtually, that is) to discuss how the column has changed, what lessons they learned, and much more. Our current columnist, Lucas Peterson, hosted.

The O.G. F.T.

Lucas Peterson (2016-current): Let’s kick things off at the beginning: How long has the Frugal Traveler column existed?

Susan Spano (1993-1998): I think the first Frugal column ran in late 1993. It was about a trip to the then-backpacker haven of Tulum. The only glitch was a little fender-bender in the town of Valladolid, covered by insurance on my American Express card. (Now I have American Express Premium Car Rental Insurance, a plan that serves as primary coverage for up to 42 days for $19.95 to $24.94 per rental period, not per day. I just have to remember to book the rental using the Amex card.)

Of course, I did not tell my editors about it. In those days, I was winging it. I knew I had an incredible gig and didn’t want to mess it up by revealing the hassles that went along with it.

Daisann McLane (1998-2004): It was an extraordinary period of my life, and it’s shaped and informed everything I have done since. Doing the column forces you to develop a special skill set. Over and over you are parachuting into an unfamiliar country and culture. You have to make connections, get the sense of a place and gather enough material to write something that’s coherent, informative and entertaining. All in about 36 to 72 hours — or less.

I didn’t choose the destination of my first column, Budapest — it was handed to me by the then-editor of the section, Nancy Newhouse. She was vetting candidates for the job, and this column was my tryout, my big shot at what one of my journalism pals called “the best job at The New York Times.”

Matt Gross (2006-2010): When I first heard of the Frugal Traveler, the column was going to be about going to expensive places on a low budget; the joke would be in the headline — “Frugal Aspen,” say, or “Frugal Tokyo” — and the challenge would be to really experience the place in all its glory without the benefit of big bucks.

SS: I once did a Frugal on a weekend at the Carlyle Hotel on the Upper East Side. I remember quite clearly a special order — a room service milkshake — enjoyed in bed. My post-Frugal travel writing often leaned more to the high end. I once sampled all the luxury hotels in Bangkok, which are (or were) cheaper than luxury elsewhere. My favorite was the Peninsula. But I persist in looking for the best, not the cheapest deal.

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Scott Kefalas

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