How to Make Travel Fun Again

Q&A with travel writer Seth Kugel
December 11, 2018 Updated: December 11, 2018

From 2010 to 2016, Seth Kugel traveled the world and penned the Frugal Traveler column for The New York Times. He’s just released a book, “Rediscovering Travel: A Guide for the Globally Curious” (W.W. Norton & Co, $26.95), where he urges travelers to discover the joys of travel again—to go off-grid and off-the-beaten-track and get their heads out of their apps and interact with the world and people around them.

Rediscovering Travel
Rediscovering Travel

We may already know we spend too much time on our these personal devices; but Kugel, who remembers traveling before they existed, offers a thoughtful and lively reminder of the possibilities that await, of the fun of giving in to unplanned hours and days.

I caught up with Kugel over email to ask him about our over-reliance on smartphones, tips on how to maximize discovery on trips, and how to balance the spontaneous and the planned.

The Epoch Times: When and how did you first realize that people were becoming too reliant on their smartphones while traveling?

Seth Kugel: Sometime in 2011, I was sitting in a hotel lobby near a couple planning their day. I don’t remember where we were, but I’m thinking it was the Caribbean, because everyone was in shorts and flip-flops, maybe Puerto Rico. They were on a tablet, reading through user reviews to plan where they were going to eat that day. I remember thinking, What is this? Why aren’t they using a guidebook written by experts, why are they trusting random people, why didn’t they plan this online before they left, and if they didn’t, why don’t they ask the other travelers around them who have been in town for a while, or why don’t they just walk around and look at menus and see which places are crowded with locals?

It’s hilarious that this surprised me, because just a few years later this is completely normal. And no need to do it in the hotel room, since most travelers are now connected to mobile data one way or the other. There are even apps that ping you when you’re near something they think you’ll find interesting. Alas, our phones have brought out the worst in us, because it’s human nature to be uncomfortable approaching strangers, wandering around in unfamiliar cities and countries, and taking chances—exactly what makes travel more interesting. Our instinct is to depend on our phone. But travel is better when we depend on the world around us, which is significantly bigger and more interesting.

Another huge lesson came two years later, in Santiago, Chile. Google Maps for iOS had been out for just a year, and I used it at home regularly. But in Santiago, the app stunk. It didn’t know where anything was. So after a day, I bought a paper map, a big, gorgeous, tear-proof paper map of the city. I marked it up with the day’s plans. And within hours I felt I knew my way around the city, I felt at home there, I no longer felt I was randomly obeying the directions of a GPS system. By the way, it’s not just me. I’ve read articles by neurologists talking about how map apps inhibit your brain’s ability to build mental maps and navigate on its own.

The Epoch Times: If you had had to write a guidebook to maximize discovery, what information would you include and what would you leave out?

Mr. Kugel: I would include a long section on cultural differences. How do people in the destination interact with one another? What are the proper greetings that will make people feel comfortable? How open are they to foreigners? What do they like to talk about? We New Yorkers are often criticized for talking about work all the time. But it would be useful for travelers from, say, Brazil—where nobody talks about work once they leave the office—to know asking a New Yorker what they do for a living is a good way to break the ice. It would be good to let us know that in some parts of the world we should immediately ask about family, or perhaps about where people go to church. I’d also be sure to write extensively on how to stay safe, and which parts of a city you can wander in and which parts you couldn’t.

Then I would do what I do in my travel articles. I’d write about a variety of places that represent what the city has to offer. If a wonderful thing to do in Paris is to buy supplies from a cheese shop and a bakery and go eat in a plaza or park, I’d pick a few especially good places to do that, but stress that you could do it anywhere. I’d also write about the lesser known parts of big attractions. Do people know the Eiffel Tower’s role in the history of the selfie? Well, the Eiffel Tower appeared on the first postcards ever sent. Those were the first images travelers sent back home to say “look where I am.” The selfie is a direct descendant.

The Epoch Times: When making a travel itinerary, what are a few tips for a good balance between spontaneous and planned?

A younger Seth Kugel on a hammock by the Madeira River in the Amazon. (Courtesy of Seth Kugel)

Mr. Kugel: Some things have to be planned. You can’t just swim down the Amazon River, pet the piranhas, and then visit an indigenous reserve. You can’t show up in New York and be escorted to the crown of the Statue of Liberty, it’s booked months in advance. So first priority is to plan and reserve the things that must be planned and reserved. Then, as the trip approaches, make a big list of other places you’d like to do. I recommend doing that not just from guidebooks but by Googling topics (“best hot dogs in Chicago”) and then going to the third or fourth page of results to skip over all the TripAdvisor lists and such, to find some really fun articles. That said, I’m also hopeful about the just-released new TripAdvisor, which tries to know you and your likes. I’m not entirely anti-TripAdvisor. (I’m just largely anti-TripAdvisor.)

Once you have a big list, plan each day the night before. Map out what’s where and what’s convenient to get to from what else. Then go. But here’s the most important thing: anytime anything comes up that is remotely appealing, abandon your itinerary. You might just see a place, or you might fall into a conversation with a local or another traveler who might recommend something. The best travel days are the ones that don’t go as planned.

I also recommend leaving one day to simply wander. It can be on foot if you’re in a city that allows that—pick a neighborhood that packed with traditional attractions—or in a car if you’re not—head out on local roads, not interstates. If you (or someone you’re traveling with) is uncomfortable with that, pick a destination a ways away—a farm stand, a restaurant, a church, whatever—and set out with the primary purpose of never getting there.

I asked a tango instructor I met in Buenos Aires which neighborhood was the best one that tourists never got to. He said Villa Crespo. Someone else had recommended a hole in the wall pizzeria called La Mezzeta. So I got out a map, plotted out a path from my hotel to Villa Crespo to La Mezzeta, and started walking. It was my best day in town. (And best evening, too, as the tango instructor had set me up on a blind date.)