The new year has already brought about significant changes to our world, including the way some of us travel. It also commemorates, less significantly, the one-year anniversary of my taking over the Frugal Traveler column. (No applause, please.) The old cliché “time flies” rings true: It really does seem like yesterday that I wrote my first column from Las Vegas. I’ve also spent entirely too much time actually flying this past year. But at least all that airtime has yielded lessons — some more painful than others. Here are five of them, picked up during my travels through 10 countries and a dozen states in 2016.
CARRY VALUABLES ON YOUR PERSON When my Megabus from Chicago to Milwaukee burst into a fireball on the side of the highway, I was among the lucky ones. I had settled on a budget carrier that loudly advertises fares as low as $1 (mine was a still-cheap $11). We quickly realized something was wrong when the bus turned around halfway through the trip and headed back to Chicago, and some passengers noticed a burning smell. A fire had started in the wheel well and, within minutes, had consumed the entire bus, along with people’s luggage.
While the experience was harrowing, I was traveling with only a backpack, and so didn’t lose any of my possessions in the ensuing blaze. Others lost thousands of dollars in property, including clothes, laptops and schoolbooks. One man I spoke with lost nearly everything he owned, including credit cards and personal identification. A good rule of thumb, regardless of method of transit, is to carry particularly valuable or irreplaceable property — phone, Social Security card, passport and the like — on your person. No matter how brief the trip — it’s only 90 miles between Chicago and Milwaukee — a lot can happen in a short distance.
TO EAT LIKE A LOCAL, GET IN LINE Travelers frequently ask me for tips on finding good, cheap meals overseas. I typically recommend thinking like a local: going to grocery stores, farmers’ markets and, if your stomach can handle it, eating street food. Another good tip is simple but effective: Follow the crowds. The idea is that if there’s a long line of locals outside a restaurant, that’s usually a sign that there’s something good being cooked inside.
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I did that during a trip to Osaka, Japan, with great results. I spotted a long line outside a dingy storefront near the train station. It was approaching lunchtime, so I hopped in line, not knowing what to expect. After a short wait, we were taken upstairs to a cramped, atticlike restaurant with a flat-top grill, behind which stood a man casually ladling a mixture for okonomiyaki — a pancake with cabbage, dashi, pork, onions and seafood — onto the grill. It was hearty, satisfying and delicious: a perfect example of the casual home-style specialties Osaka is famous for.
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The best-case scenario with this approach is that you make a wonderful new food discovery, as I did. Worst-case, you’ve waited for the Japanese equivalent of a Cronut, and at least have a good story to tell when you get home.
If something happens to your rental car, even a flat tire (or two), you are responsible for the damage.
H. Armstrong Roberts/Retrofile/Getty Images
MAKE SURE YOUR RENTAL CAR IS COVERED The question of whether or not to get rental car insurance baffles many travelers, and while there is no hard and fast rule for every situation, I learned a valuable lesson the hard way. In a remote area of the Big Island of Hawaii, I blew two tires and had to be towed over 100 miles back to the Hilo airport. I had not bought the liability insurance from the rental company and paid for the two tires out-of-pocket. Little did I realize that wasn’t the end: Over a week later, I received an email from Hertz demanding more than $1,400 because of scratches on the wheels.
What was I to do? Fortunately, the credit card I used to make the rental, a Chase Sapphire Preferred card, came with built-in coverage for the rental car itself (but not liability insurance for other parties). Through a somewhat arduous process of submitting every receipt and document under the sun, I was able to have the card’s insurance cover the cost. Had that failed, I could have asked my personal auto insurance to step in. The bottom line: Know your coverage before you begin driving. If you don’t have personal insurance, you’ll definitely want to make sure you either buy the rental company’s insurance (which can be very expensive) or make the purchase on a credit card that includes vehicle coverage (and you may want to supplement with liability coverage, which often isn’t included).
WITH AIRBNB, STAY WITH A LOCAL Airbnb is a fraught topic in some major urban centers, particularly New York City, where it’s effectively illegal for short-term rentals of entire apartments (as opposed to sharing a space). But the app is an undeniable force in the travel world. And while it’s definitely nice to have your own space, I’ve found that Airbnbs contribute far more to the value of a trip when they’re shared with a local. If you’re truly looking for a “local” experience, why not let an actual local guide you?
It’s important to understand that, strictly speaking, that’s not the job of your host. You’re paying him or her for a place to stay, not to be a tour guide. But more often than not, when I’ve stayed in an Airbnb with a longtime resident (check owner bios on the site, which are frequently full of useful information), particularly a retiree, they’ve been extremely eager to share knowledge and tips, even going so far as to personally take you places. My host in Moscow, Natalya, took me to a local market and gave me advice on bathhouses in the area. When I traveled to New Zealand, I stayed in the home of a kind woman who drove me around the northern island, taught me the names of local trees and plants, and even a bit of New Zealand slang. It’s not something you can expect from every host, but it’s an added perk that can tremendously improve a traveler’s experience.
The Fathom Adonia, from Carnival.
GREAT DEALS? BOARD A BOAT It’s easy to focus on flights and hotels, but some of the best bang-for-your-buck deals today are actually found on the open seas. I took a seven-night cruise to the Dominican Republic in September that cost $250 — a price so low that some passengers were wondering out loud if they might be allowed to move onto the ship permanently. While taxes and fees (and a single supplement if you’re traveling solo) will certainly raise the price, this cruise aboard Fathom’s Adonia, which includes a room and all food, but not alcohol, is still amazingly cheap. (The lowest price currently available is $299 for an interior cabin.)
And it’s not your typical booze cruise. While you’ll still be expected to dance to “Y.M.C.A.” every now and again, the focus was volunteer work in communities around the Dominican town of Puerto Plata. Passengers were given the option to teach English, help in a women’s cooperative, install cement floors, and plant trees, among other activities.
My activity, teaching English, was brief but rewarding. I helped a girl learn the English alphabet and numbers one afternoon in the sweltering heat of her family’s home. The volunteer experience raises questions about the efficacy of untrained passengers coming to work for a very short period of time, but the value of the person-to-person experience was undeniable.
A version of this article appears in print on February 12, 2017, on Page TR3 of the New York edition with the headline: One Year In, Five Lessons Learned. Order Reprints| Today’s Paper|Subscribe