Budget Analysis: NY Times’ “Frugal Traveler”

November 12, 2007

in Automobiles, Budget, Cheap Activities, Drink, Food, Lodging, Online Media, Travel, USA

One of the things that really annoys me, as you can read on my About page, is the “budget” travel advice given by travel writers with a budget I (and others) would kill for. Matt Gross, better known as the “Frugal Traveler” of the NY Times, is one such writer. His weekend travel budget for a recent trip to Chicago was $500. For himself. For two days. I recently analyzed the budget of a family with children who spent less than $300 on a multi-day working vacation, including all gas, food, lodging and entertainment. I bared my budget for a recent 5-day trip to London where all expenses, including flights to/from London, came in at under $200. Let’s take a closer look at what “frugal” means to the NY Times.

Matt had four major expenses: lodging, food/drink, transportation and entertainment. We’ll look at each individually.

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Lodging . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Matt seemed to think he might have trouble staying within the generous $500 budget, so he booked a room at a hostel. While this hostel may have been voted one of the best in the world, it’s still pretty pricey at $27-33/night for a 6-bed room. Matt chooses the more expensive en-suite room and pays a nightly penalty because he’s not a Hosteling International member (he goes so far to admit that he eschews hostels when traveling . . . remind me again why he’s their budget travel writer?).

+ 2 nights @ $33: $66

+ 2 nights’ penalty for non-membership @ $3: $6

+ tax: $5

subtotal: $77

Food/Drink . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

One thing Matt did right was to book a hostel that included a complimentary breakfast, saving (in theory) the price of two meals. Matt does end up oversleeping and having to buy himself one breakfast, however.

Friday night, he treats himself and a friend to a filling taco dinner for only $14. They then headed to a bar, drinking the local brew for $4.50/pint.

+ Friday night total estimate: $32

Saturday he oversleeps and buys himself a royal brunch for $16. In the evening he treats a friend to a fine dinner, coming in at $110.

+ Saturday total: $126

Sunday he enjoys the hostel’s free breakfast and has a hotdog with everything for lunch.

+ Sunday total: $3.16

subtotal: $161.16

Transportation . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Matt rents a car for his weekend stay (apparently to drive to/from the airport only) and takes a lot of cabs for a frugal traveler.

He doesn’t mention the price of his rental from the airport, which is only suggested by his mention of bumper-to-bumper traffic and the hint at “parking” in the total. He and his friend catch the “el” to dinner (and back?) for $2/ride.

+ Friday estimate: $4 + rental

Saturday Matt walked around all day, then took a cab to ($12) and from ($19) dinner.

+ Saturday total: $32

Sunday he walks around some more, pays his parking fees and drives his rental back to the airport.

+ parking fees for 2 days @ $20: $40

subtotal: $76 + rental

Entertainment . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

On Saturday, Matt takes advantage of the city’s free offerings: the Millennium Park and a Blues Festival. He even gets a free souvenir from a booth at the festival. He then takes a $12 architectural walking tour.

+ Saturday total: $12

Sunday he returned to the Blues Festival and wandered a book fair (both free) before visiting a museum with a friend ($20).

+ Sunday total: $20

subtotal: $32


Grand total: $346.16 + rental

(Matt claims his total at $370.16, suggesting the rental car was only $24, which I don’t really believe, meaning he either found extremely cheap parking somewhere or is fibbing about something.)

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Matt used Less than a Shoestring’s frugal tips when:

+ He booked a hostel rather than a hotel.

+ He booked accommodation with breakfast included.

+ He avoided trendy restaurants and headed to the locals’ favorite.

+ He drank the local brew.

+ He took advantage of free activities.

+ He walked a lot.

+ He took advantage of discounts offered by his hostel.

+ He did nominal research beforehand.

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What Matt could have done better:

+ Matt could have saved lodging costs altogether by staying with one of his many friends in Chicago. He could have stayed for free with someone via Hospitality Club.

+ He could have saved money at the hostel by using the hall bathrooms and becoming an HI member.

+ He could have gotten up in time to grab breakfast Saturday morning.

+ He could have packed lunches and cooked dinners with his friends. They could have imbibed in their homes rather than on the town.

+ He could easily have taken the subway everywhere, saving him the cost of the rental, parking and cabs.

+ He could have researched the town and its activities a little better, as it appears that the restaurant tip he had was wrong and he didn’t appear to know that the huge Blues Festival was on that weekend.

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Now I recognize that a travel writer needs to review hotels and restaurants, that his goal in traveling is quite different from ours, that we appreciate him making the $110 mistake on the Times’ dime rather than our own. But at the same time, his over-generous budget didn’t make this a true challenge in any sense. He could easily have stayed in a hotel, he didn’t need to use a coupon, he could have attended any expensive function and eaten any expensive meal he wanted and still come out at $500.

It is absolutely possible to spend far less than the $370 he manages. Without changing the essence of the trip too much, he could have knocked $100 off the budget simply by limiting himself to public transport. Cut out the over-the-top meals and he’d have saved another $125. That brings the total for the weekend much closer to $150. Perhaps Matt and Co. would have started getting creative with a budget of $100. I think a real “frugal” traveler could get by with $30 for a weekend trip to Chicago. And *that* is something I’d like to see covered in the Times even once.

Read the second post in this series:  Seattle.

{ 6 trackbacks }

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Budget Analysis: NYT “Frugal Traveler,” Part Deux « Less Than a Shoestring
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{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Nora Rocket 11.12.07 at 5:24 pm

I agree I agree! I cannot BELIEVE he blew $370 on a Chicago weekend–in fairness, in the article he said that not even he could believe it, but for different reasons. He seemed to feel like either he did something wrong or Chicago is a budget paradise, and though I agree with him on both counts (he’s wrong and Chicago is paradise), I think he’s also wrong on both, for the reasons you list and more.

Rental car? In Chicago? That’s just plain stupid. Cabs? In a city with spots of 24-hr transit, that’s indulgent. I would kill for even a $100 weekend in Chicago, staying with friends, drinking “local brew” in neighbourhood bars with specials that bring the prices of pints down, borrowing a bike when the el doesn’t cut it, and exploiting the heck out of one of the most lovely, affordable cities on the planet. Matt really dropped the ball on this one. Can he send me the difference between his $370 weekend and the indended $500 one? I promise the NYT that I’ll have a good time.

Additionally, I don’t make that $500 budget in a week on the job, so calling it frugal is an insult. My next screed will be entitled “In Defense of Cheapskatery: Why My Penny-Pinching Is Not a Character Flaw.”

2 poetloverrebelspy 11.13.07 at 12:04 am

Nora, there is an entire corner of the internet already defending cheapskatery, no worries! (Do a search for “make your own laundry detergent” and you’ll see what I mean.)

It didn’t take Matt long on the ground to realize he had WAY too much money to spend. Saturday is the crazy height of “well, I have to blow this somehow” with the cabs and the fancy dinner, and then he’s all disappointed that he still didn’t even make it to $400. Do you suppose his friend John, reading the article, feels ripped off that he only got an el ride and a $14 dinner when Tiffany got the deluxe treatment? I just don’t think anyone claiming to be a “frugal traveler” can have $126 worth of meals on one day (that is at least 30 pints, my friend!).

It seems to me the ethos is wrong. Truly frugal people spend as little as possible and try to come in under budget. They enjoy the challenge of finding creative ways to save. Matt still seems a little too tied to the luxuries of life — hotel rooms and rental cars — to be a real penny-pincher. It’s a “how can I spend this money” message rather than a “how can I save this money” one. The summer road trip had this problem as well. You can tell he’s not spending his own money, and there is simply too much of it to go around.

I like the Times, but this is certainly an example of them (or NYers generally?) being out of touch with the rest of the country and a lot of their readership. No matter how you slice it, a $500 weekend ANYWHERE is not frugal. In your world, that’s 7-days’ work. In my world, that’s rent. So whom is this “frugal” advice really geared at?

3 Jo Beaufoix 11.19.07 at 8:34 pm

Hi. Thanks for taking part in the Al Women Blogging Carnival.
Some useful advice here. :D

4 poetloverrebelspy 11.20.07 at 1:56 pm

Find this and other frugally-minded posts at this week’s Festival of Frugality, hosted this week at Rather Be Shopping.

5 poetloverrebelspy 11.20.07 at 6:05 pm

This and other posts by female bloggers at SheBlogs, hosted this week by Sex and the South.

6 rocketc 11.22.07 at 4:05 am

My wife and I love Chicago. We always go once a year, typically for two nights. Granted, it has taken some trial and error, but we are able to have a great time for far less than $370 – for two people.
[You can view rocketc's suggestions for a cheaper weekend in Chicago at this recent post.]

7 Jesse 09.21.08 at 4:44 pm

Why don’t you take a trip to Chicago where you get by for the weekend on $30?

8 poetloverrebelspy 09.21.08 at 11:14 pm

Jesse — brilliant idea. Now who will fund the $1000 plane ticket from Berlin? :)

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