This column is often filled with the nuts and bolts of travel — how to do this, how to find that, when to duck and when to run, when to go and when to hunker down. We talk less about why we fret and endure all the complexities and hassle of traveling, assuming that, among fellow travelers, it's understood.
But a crashing global economy and the uncertainty it creates would make anyone — even the most committed wanderfiends — reconsider why they should travel right now. It turns out that a recession is a great time to travel, not only because we might have some unexpected time on our hands, but for a host of other reasons besides. Why travel now?
1. No one else is
Many travelers bemoan the fact that wherever they go, they are surrounded by, well, other travelers. And sometimes lots of other travelers, which translates to another reviled evil of travel: crowds. As Warren Buffett says, “Be fearful when others are greedy and greedy when others are fearful.” If Buffett's wisdom ever applied to the urge to travel, now is the time. Airports and (some) planes are empty, hotels are vacant, attractions are uncrowded and tourist boom towns seem like ghost towns. Now is the time to have your next destination all to yourself.
2. It's cheap
And we mean really cheap. Like (if you do your homework) half-price cheap. Airlines are gutting their bottom lines with ridiculous fare sales, hotels are offering free breakfasts on top of free nights on top of discounts, and gas prices are at pre-1970's gas crisis prices (adjusted for inflation) — which is even more impressive when you note that vehicles are much more fuel-efficient today than they were 30 years ago.
3. The roads are clear
It may not seem to be the case at 5:30 p.m., but Americans are driving much less these days — in the billions of miles less, according to AAA. Between this and low gas prices, 2009 may be the ideal year for a road trip.
4. Things are bad all over
Until recently, Americans taking dollars abroad found themselves a bit down and out — the dollar didn't have anywhere near the purchasing power it once did in most popular international destinations. However, times have changed, and they are hard times for most global currencies; the dollar is just one weak currency amid lots of other weak currencies, which means it's worth a lot more than it was just a few months ago. The upside of this is that it could very well cost you the same to go to Italy as it does to Arizona. Check out the Bargain Box and price out some itineraries — you'll see what I mean.
One offshoot of the global crisis has been an increase in house swapping; instead of ponying up $200 a night for a hotel, get online and swap your house even-steven with another traveler from your destination city.
5. You can put your troubles in the rear view mirror
Traveling to other parts of the world, particularly less developed countries, is a way of simultaneously escaping your own problems and putting those problems into perspective. Seeing new things and meeting new people can help you get out of the cycle of working and worrying, and your own problems may not seem so large when you see the context of how most of the rest of the world lives.
6. You need it
A recent study in the U.K. found that while many families are willing to work longer hours and give up certain luxuries, they are most reluctant to give up their holiday time. Fancy phones, big TV's, lavish parties, expensive meals ... these are all things we can do without. But a little time to ourselves, with no one making constant demands on us, is a much more basic human need than any such baubles and bunkum. And for those of us who love to travel, experiences and memories are more important and meaningful than flashy stuff.
7. You may well have the money; you just have to find and extract it
I'm not talking about turning down the heat so low you have to eat breakfast wrapped in blankets. Here's my personal case study: For the two adults and one toddler in my household, we spend $120 a month on a cable TV package. Among the three of us, we watch the following: five minutes of the Weather Channel and about 30 minutes of Sesame Street in the morning, about 30 minutes of a "Music Choice" (basically a radio station on the TV) while cooking dinner, and about 12 minutes of HGTV in the evening. So out of several hundred channels, we watch three and listen to one. We get about six magazines, only three of which we actually read from cover to cover. We have two cell phones, each with an unlimited texting allowance, but I only send about 10 texts a month.
What could I save here — nearly $200 a month almost without noticing it? If I cut my expenses and saved the difference between now and summer vacation, I could cover airfare to a pretty darn attractive location. Check out your own balance sheet; you might find a few more extra dollars than you'd expect.
8. Your money moves around anyway
I do not take lightly the very real challenges some folks are facing on the financial front. But if you are still more or less solvent, one of the truisms of a capitalistic economy is that money wants to move one way or another. That is, when people stopped spending money on gasoline last year, bicycle shops experienced a boom they hadn't seen since Lance Armstrong burst on the scene. In the end, did folks who spent $800 on a road-ready bike save $800 in gas in a short time? Meanwhile, at present, restaurants are hurting while the cookbook business, of all things, is booming. (In this case, you really can save money cooking instead of eating out, of course.) Dollar stores are the darlings of Wall Street.
The bottom line: Folks still spend, but they spend a little less, and in different places. If you're moving your money around anyway, a memorable and deeply refreshing trip merits serious consideration.
9. Life is too long (or too short) for bad coffee
The gag that life is too short for bad coffee always struck me as being backwards — I think that life is too long for bad coffee. Seventy-seven years, day after day after day, of the same scalded industrial-quality coffee can't be called good living. Likewise, day after day after day of the same grueling commute, the same nasty traffic circle, the same parking spot, the same chips and cheese sandwich at the office mess (you see where this is going), is much too long a slog to take without a break.
10. The world keeps on turning
All those places that you want to visit before they're gone, from rapidly changing cultures to endangered places, aren't disappearing any slower just because the economy is tanking. You want to make sure you visit them not only before they are gone, but before you are gone — and none of us are getting any younger. Why travel now? Because now is the time!