Matt Gross Still Likes Being a Frugal Traveler

Cafe Hawelka in Vienna, photo by Matt Gross

Matt Gross may no longer be the official Frugal Traveler for The New York Times, but that doesn’t mean he’s abandoning his budget-conscious ways.

For Gross, whose columnist stint ended in May, travel on the cheap remains key to his having a meaningful experience on the road.

“Money insulates you from the challenge of travel,” Gross tells The City Traveler. “For me, travel is all about the challenge, a way to get out of normal, boring life and do something that tests my skills as a human being. If you have money, you can just pay to get things. If you don’t have money, you have to rely on your wits.”

Those wits served Gross well during his four-year stint as the Frugal Traveler, for which he focused on mining the most from European and other destinations where price can be an object.

Gross, who is still writing for The Times, as well as Afar and Saveur, shared how Paris, Rome and other high-end capitals also have their discount sides, and why he views budget travel as a means –– and not an end –– to a rewarding experience away from home. Here’s an edited version of a recent phone chat.

How do big cities in general rank for the penny-pinching traveler?

Big cities are a lot easier because they have public transportation almost everywhere. If you’re out in the country, and you don’t have access to a car, or a bicycle, you’re trapped.

Cities don’t necessarily all have rich inhabitants. You’re always going to find at least a few affordable places to eat and shop. Finding a place to stay can be tough. There are certainly cities that just don’t have a lot of cheap hotels, but you can find wonderful ways to stay cheaply, like CouchSurfing or renting places through Craigslist.

It can be harder to meet people in cities. You’re surrounded by tens of thousands, or hundreds of thousands, or millions of people, none of whom necessarily want to take an interest you. And why should they? People live in cities, so that they don’t have to know who everyone is, but it also depends on the city.

What city has surprised you with its friendliness?

Vienna –– it’s incredibly easy to meet people hanging out in cafes. I wound up getting into conversations with all kinds of people sharing a bar or coffee table. It was really easy –– I thought it would be a lot tougher to make that connection.

Matt Gross, photo by Tracy Sham

But can you still find bargains in European cities?

They all have bargains. Going to Rome and Paris, there’s great stuff you can get there that doesn’t necessarily cost a lot. There’s a bunch of really great, ambitious restaurants in Paris doing three-course meals for under 30 euros a person. That’s not an insignificant amount, but when you think about what you’re getting for that  –– well-considered, ambitious French food at often a pretty cool place –– that’s a great bargain.

At the same time, you can spend two or three euros, and have a classic jambon beurre [a sandwich of ham and butter on baguette].

In Rome, there are a ton of trattorias that have a first or second course for six or seven euros, and they’re substantial.

You have to do a little work to find them and get out of the area around the Coliseum.

Are there cities, where staying on a budget is easier, or just more pleasurable?

I’m not a very picky person –– I tend to have a good time pretty much everywhere I go. There are places where I have a great time, places where I have friends or make good friends. That has more to do with [those experiences] than how much money I spend or don’t spend. My attitude towards frugality has evolved a lot over the past few years.

How so?

Often, people see money as the goal of their trip. I have a serious disagreement with that. Saving money is a strategy for going on a trip –– for having a good time. But the point of the trip is to enjoy yourself –– that’s my goal, to find ways to amuse myself, to have an interesting experience.

For you, where does a little extra money go the longest way?

In general, over the years, I’ve come to appreciate a slightly more comfortable living space. CouchSurfing is more comfortable than staying in a cheap hotel. I’ve stayed in enough bad, forgettable hotels that to stay somewhere that’s functional and well-run is sometimes worth an extra $10 a night.

On a day-to-day basis, what’s worth a splurge to me is food. There’s never a situation, where spending a little bit of extra money on a good meal is a bad idea.

Are there any drawbacks to traveling on a budget?

There’s no drawback for me –– none at all –– except when I’m writing the stuff for publication. If I’m doing it for work, and not just for myself, there’s a certain amount of extra anxiety about every dollar, euro, kopek or baht I spend. Is it really justified? Are readers going to get up in arms about me paying this much for this thing? That’s the only deep anxiety I get.

Did readers get on your case about your spending?

One of the first comments I ever got was, “How dare you call yourself frugal? I did the same thing 30 years ago for 17 cents a day –– I ate grass and slept in an imaginary hammock.” Everyone has their own definition of frugal. What I always tried for was to not just to be frugal, but to get a lot of value out of what I was spending, even if I wasn’t spending the least amount of money possible.

It doesn’t take any effort to not spend money. To seek out more interesting, more complicated and occasionally more luxurious experiences was the challenge for me.