This past summer, I had the misfortune of sitting across the table from a person who whined, “My university paid for my airfare and gave me only $6,000 for this eight-week internship. Lucky for me Bratislava is way cheaper than I expected.”
On one level, I had an iota of jealousy — because I want institutions to hand me plane tickets and large amounts of money — but on another, I was annoyed by her use of “only.” That “only” said almost everything about the speaker’s upbringing. She had used the intonation the traveling offspring of the well-to-do use when talking about having heard about couchsurfing or wanting to try hitchhiking. The downbeat placed on the verb, the condescension on the noun. If somehow that mere $6,000 had been spent in such a short time, then all of us listening knew that reinforcements were only a phone call and a bank transfer away. It was only the sound of her parents’ money in her voice, and, unfortunately, only the sound of her asphyxiating on its leash.
Parents are clever and devious. They finance Euro-trips, gap years, study-abroads, international volunteer experiences with the humble expectation of a few souvenirs brought back by their offspring, while knowing perfectly well that the kids won’t be able to survive in the wild. My own dear parents’ modest tax bracket deprived me of a golden parachute. I had to learn how to fall to earth on my own. Investing my own (and sometimes taxpayer) money and energy into travel brought with it the joys and street smarts of crashing into the world. And I got a smart and pretty wife out of it to boot.
I married her in a park overlooking Prague. Simple, elegant, and with a setting almost as gorgeous as the bride. A reception of pizza and beer followed the ceremony, after which we decamped to a fancy hotel by the river — a gift from friends. The next day, because of heavy rain, we took the bus back to Bratislava instead of hitchhiking (which was our means of getting to the wedding). Including the cost of the bus tickets and augmented by some small cash gifts from guests, our wedding in Prague cost about $65. Remove money from a wedding, and only the sacred beginning of a marriage remains; remove it from travel, and what’s left is simple wonder and freedom.
Minus Mom and Dad, how do you reduce travel’s three main expenses — transit, lodging, and food? You learn a few basic skills: hitchhiking, hunting for budget airline deals, couchsurfing, cooking your own meals, packing a loaf of bread and chunk of sausage for the road or trail. In my experience, and in very important ways, there’s very little to pay for. Instead, my wife and I have experienced thousands of miles hitchhiked, dozens of nights — and the occasional meal — under the roofs of generous strangers, and hundreds and hundreds of sandwiches thrown together by the side of the road.
The ‘frugal traveler’ archetype encountered in mainstream media is an exaggeration rising from the assumption that money enables travel. Thus, the ‘frugal traveler’ is a fiction, maybe even a bogus equation: (Travel) – (Money) = (Being edgy by beating the overriding assumption).
The pose of being a ‘frugal traveler’ makes saving money the goal and reduces the sharing of travel stories to bragging. Frugality may be the result, but learning to travel well comes from being pragmatic — though I’ll admit ‘pragmatic traveler’ has less of a ring to it. My system of travel happens to be free or cheap; but more importantly, it’s a better alternative to what money can buy. I travel the same whether broke or having ample funds in my bank account. It’s a system and a preference. Hitchhiking is faster and more comfortable than buses or trains. Getting married for $65 was simpler and more meaningful than all the trimmings and fluff of the more normal wedding. And most importantly, I get more direct interactions with humanity.
Learning to travel on your own dime and the kindness of strangers is about striving for the best of all possible worlds, a world full of people, a world in which experiences grow richer and richer. Afterwards, you scroll through the memories, still in mild disbelief that what happened did happen. Like the florist in Belgium who insisted on lunch with her and her husband before driving you to Bruges. Or the cult in Estonia whose attempts to convert you were balanced by great vegetarian cooking and comfortable beds. Or the time you accidentally hitchhiked to the best spot in the Carpathian Mountains even though you didn’t know where you were going, after which you stayed up until dawn crashing a Slovak wedding.
Note: Don’t make saving money the goal, and don’t have the expectation of or feel entitled to others’ generosity. They will be generous, but always contribute. Buy a round of beers. Cook a meal for others with ingredients you bought. Host some strangers. Use money to give back. Transmit hospitality. Because no one likes a mooch.
A few weeks after our nuptials, my wife and I spent six days in Austria for roughly the same cost as our wedding. We also managed weekends in Budapest and Krakow for about $12 and $5, respectively. Granted, we miss out on some things and indulge ourselves in others, but we have ownership of the journey, and that’s the real thing.
Fall to earth without a golden parachute and the costs will drop, the beauty of the road and of people will flourish, and you’ll realize you’re not just traveling but living, two things that are impossible to do genuinely with a bank account full of your parents’ money.