When Seth Kugel MPP 1997 was teaching elementary school in the South Bronx for Teach for America, he had a chance to visit the Dominican Republic with the family of one of his students. The family was very poor, but he enjoyed staying at their home and visiting area sites, all while spending hardly any money. Little did he know that his vacation then would portend his vocation today as the “Frugal Traveler.”
Since June 2010, Kugel has written under that title as a New York Times travel columnist traversing the world in search of bargain accommodations, low-cost food and attractions, and experiences rich in interest if not in price. Offering unusual discoveries often gleaned from natives and a puckish sense of humor, he aims to entertain and amuse readers — but also hopes to change their travel philosophy.
“One of my big goals is to try to convert people to a more frugal way of traveling,” he says. “I think it’s more genuine and exposes you to a lot more.”
Indeed, that is clear from his own experiences, which range from joining fishermen on an outing in Albania to spending a day with a local family in a Turkish village he chose at random. “The best part,” says Kugel, “is the spontaneous stuff that happens and being able to make it happen.”
Fluent in Spanish and Portuguese, he journeyed to Nicaragua with his parents (his mother, Judy Kugel, is a longtime associate dean at the Kennedy School), showing that people accustomed to more upscale travel can still enjoy the alternative — even if their cheap rental car gets stuck in the mud. Of course, frugal traveling presents challenges, including riding on a bus for 36 hours through Bolivia, bicycling in a Florida rainstorm, and staying in an “extremely disgusting” hotel in Guatemala.
Kugel may have set out on some of these adventures on his own, but the chance to do it professionally for the Times developed out of his interest in immigration, a subject he studied at the Kennedy School after teaching students from primarily Latino immigrant families. After graduating, he worked for an immigrant services project in New York and then for the city’s Administration for Children’s Services in the Division of Child Protection. Though he had only limited journalism experience, having written mostly humor pieces while a student at Yale, Kugel began writing freelance stories about immigrants for the Times. “What made my job so rewarding was I was reaching a much wider audience about certain aspects of immigrant life and the varied cultural life of poor parts of New York City,” he says.
His articles on immigration led him to do some travel stories on Latin America, and eventually he focused on travel writing. Now based in both New York City and São Paolo, where he also writes a travel column for a Brazilian publication, he’s on the road for half the year, a hectic but satisfying lifestyle for the time being. He has learned that it doesn’t cost anything to connect with strangers in another part of the world, and that it is worth more than most people will ever know.