Seth Kugel's career is all over the map.
You most likely know him as the New York Times’ Frugal Traveler columnist and blogger, a position he's held for the last two and a half years. But the path he took to get there was itself a winding professional adventure.
After graduating from Yale, Kugel spent time teaching in New York City public schools with Teach for America, got a public policy degree from Harvard, and went back to New York to work in immigrant and child-protective services. Along the way, he serendipitously acquired a unique set of skills that serve him in his job today, documenting the world from a coach-class, budget-hostel perspective. During a rare week of rest in New York City, Kugel spoke with Fast Company about his own career path, the future of travel writing, and his impressions of a world in flux.
FAST COMPANY: Your resume is all over the place—did you have any kind of plan at all?
SETH KUGEL: If you’d have asked me what I wanted to do while I was in college, I would have said that I would like to become a newspaper columnist. So I did have a goal, but I basically abandoned that goal for a long time because I thought—this was two decades ago—that you couldn’t become a columnist without reporting on local city issues at a smallish newspaper. I liked writing humor columns and sarcastic, satirical-type writing, and I didn’t see what was actually interesting about going out and writing things that were true. I thought that was incredibly boring. It turns out that my favorite job so far was working at the City section of the Times, so I was completely wrong. But ultimately it all sort of led to the right place.
You took a long detour through teaching and social services.
In school at Yale, I’d volunteered at public schools in New Haven—doing Teach for America was a natural extension of that work. Teach for America was very competitive, and at the time there was real demand for bilingual teachers. So in a last-minute attempt to get in, I ticked off the box on the application that I spoke Spanish, which was sort of true, and sort of a lie. I took high school Spanish, and I am good with languages. They gave me a Spanish test, and I ended up as a bilingual teacher in New York City public schools. I was extremely interested in my students’ immigration backgrounds, and I got to know their families, and traveled to the Dominican Republic and Honduras to visit with them. These were quite formative experiences. It wasn’t that common a thing to do, to pick up and go for the summer to your third-grade student’s grandmother’s house. I kept going back, visiting different families, and that led me to school for public policy. I came back to New York and worked in immigrant programs, which led to a job in children’s services, because I got a promotion.
How did the gig at the Times come about?
While I was switching jobs around the city, a friend suggested I look into writing again. I found a night-school class called Writing for New York Newspapers and Magazines. During the class, I got three stories published—one for the Times, one for Time Out NY, and one for Playboy, believe it or not. I started freelancing on the side, writing for the City section of the Times, because as it turned out, I was interested in writing about cities if I was writing about immigrant communities. And I had a lot of story ideas that other people didn’t have, because for six or seven years I had been working in lower-income areas of the city with very diverse immigrant groups. From there, I did a guidebook to Latin New York, and ended up doing a column called "Weekend in New York" for the Times’ Travel section. So I became a travel writer about New York—a travel writer that didn’t travel. When I got sick of that, I moved for a few years to Brazil where I became sort of a freelance foreign correspondent—and then I was offered the Frugal Traveler thing. I have no idea if I’ll be in travel writing for the rest of my life; I have no idea if travel writing will survive as a money-making endeavor for more than another few years. But I consider myself basically a writer who travels, rather than a travel writer.
You’ve spent the first part of your professional life working with lower-income populations—and in the kinds of jobs that tend to pay modestly. Has that informed your approach to travel?
Yeah. There are three basic reasons people travel: to get to know the world, to relax, and to pursue a special hobby—like rock climbing, or going to stamp-collecting conferences around the world. I admire that last kind of travel, but between relaxing and learning about the world, I’m obviously a learning-about-the-world person. You put up big barriers between yourself and the world when you spend a lot of money when you travel. This is always the way I’ve traveled, and the things I’ve been able to learn as I’ve traveled this way have been a real gift and have given me a much more interesting perspective on the world. I think people are becoming a little less adventurous—everyone from the people who just want to stay in boutique hotels to today’s early 20s backpackers following masses of other backpackers going from one place listed in Lonely Planet to the next. There are, of course, adventurous backpackers and adventurous rich people out there—but if you only follow Lonely Planet or go to the latest boutique hotels, you’re missing out on a lot. I love Lonely Planet, but it’s a victim of its own success. If everyone reads the same guidebook, it’s no fun anymore.
Can new technology help you avoid that Lonely Planet rut in any way?
As long as you’re using modern technology for good rather than evil, there’s a lot of positives about it. But it’s a doubled-edged sword. I’m definitely not in favor of choosing what restaurant to go to by looking on Yelp and Trip Advisor on your smartphone as you’re walking down the street. The availability of data and the documentation of the world is in many ways a negative for spontaneous travel. It would have seemed ridiculous 10 years ago to walk into some obscure restaurant in Cambodia and know which item on the menu had been reviewed the best by other backpackers. It’s a lot harder now to find that beach that nobody’s on. Although it can be useful to know that wherever you go, you can find six places to stay and get a little information about where they are. Certainly, Google Maps on your phone is very useful, as long as you don’t use it to avoid asking local people for directions, which is a great way to meet people. Certainly technology has made travel cheaper—it’s forced a lot of data on pricing into the open and created a much more efficient market that has made travel accessible to a greater number of people.
So, what’s in the toolkit of a 21st-century travel writer?
I’m basically carrying around $3,000 of fairly heavy equipment with me at all times, including a laptop and a quite expensive digital SLR camera that also does video. Even if I didn’t have to for work, I’d have the camera. When I’m totally alone, the way I make it through days without human companionship is trying to make everything into a beautiful photo—that’s actually the most fun part of my job, being able to do my own photography for the Times, which has a lot of really great photographers. I wouldn’t have the smartphone if I didn’t have to, or at least I wouldn’t turn it on much. But I tweet, so I have to have a way to get data on the road, and I have to be available to my editors.
You’ve been traveling the world for two and a half years as the Frugal Traveler, and exploring Latin America for many more years. What do you notice about the way the world is changing?
It’s becoming more homogenized—there’s no question about it. You need look no further than Manhattan. There was a time when you could barely find a McDonald's in Manhattan, let alone a Banana Republic. Now SoHo, which used to be so funky, is a shopping mall for all the national fashion brands. This is happening all over the world. When you walk down the street in Stockholm or Sao Paulo, if you’re walking in the wealthy neighborhoods, it might as well be anywhere. That’s a little depressing. One of the great things about travel to another country is to be made uncomfortable by how different it is, and then to adjust so by the time you leave it somehow seems normal. Then you get back to the U.S. and you’re shocked back into the real normal, and it creates this great feeling of having been somewhere great and gotten to know another culture. This still exists to some extent, but not so much. I mean, everyone wears T-shirts. Everyone eats Doritos everywhere. It’s hard not to find someone in the world who doesn’t watch House, or Friends. More and more everyone’s kind of the same.
You said you’re not sure if travel writing is going to be a viable career in the near future. Why?
Well, it’s expensive. I would guess there were lot more full-time travel writers who made a living at it 10 years ago than there are today. You can pass your 20s doing a blog and freelance bits and pieces, but the number of places that pay more for travel articles than the travel costs you are very, very few. At the Times, we have a rule that travel writers can’t accepts comps or press trips even when they’re not writing for the Times. I think it’s a great policy, but I don’t know if it will be possible in a few years, because you can’t be a full-time travel writer without taking a whole bunch of junkets. While travel writing seems like a fun and frivolous job, there’s a whole ethics involved. You are essentially a reviewer, and to be an honest impartial reviewer, you can’t be in the pockets of the people you’re reviewing. So the world of good, honest travel writing is shrinking—and it’s really too bad. But, you know, it’s not as too bad as the fact that coverage of local government is shrinking—I’d save the state house and city hall reporters before I saved the travel reporters. People always ask me, "How can I get your job?" And I always give them the line: Become a writer who travels, not a travel writer, because I don’t know that you can make a living.
[Image: Flickr user Colin Grey]