Growing up in Missouri, we never had much time or money for traveling, and while we knew people who did, their vacations – driving for days just to stand in long lines at overpriced rides – never sounded like much fun. Visiting other countries seemed unthinkable; flights, hotels, rental cars and restaurants added up into triple and quadruple digits we didn’t have. Thus, I was in my 30s before I left the country, and I'd never seen an American ocean.
Now that I live in Europe, though, I’m learning how valuable travel can be for the soul, especially for rural people who might otherwise become isolated – nor need it break the bank or the blood pressure when done properly.
Take lodgings, for example: You might be able to stay with friends or family for free, or stay in hostels for a fraction of the price of a hotel room. Hostels are much cheaper because, instead of private hotel rooms with televisions and maids, guests sleep in Spartan rooms with several other people. Most guests respect the privacy and habits of others, however, and are out during the day, using their rooms only for sleeping. Also, since most guests relax in common lounges rather than private rooms, hostels offer the chance to chat with other travelers from around the world. My first night in London I chatted with an Italian chef and a Danish hotelier on temporary work there, and soon the chef was making Pasta Carbonara for all of us.
Or take food: In a new city, you can eat out every night at pricey restaurants – or even worse, do what many tourists do and eat the same fast food as back home, just more expensively. Or you can buy groceries for cheap, healthy food and only eat out for social gatherings.
Entertainment doesn’t have to be exorbitant either; the best things to do are usually free, from scenery to monuments to historical sites to museums. Other diversions are less expensive than you imagine; I imagined that West End plays would be only for elite patrons of the arts, but I get tickets for only slightly more than a trip to the cinema – only the movie stars were acting live in front of me.
Getting around in a strange city can be costly if you rent a car, but even in my own country that’s not usually necessary. Some U.S. cities, and most European ones, have so many options that cars are almost never necessary; many Londoners don’t own cars, as they have the Underground (subway), the trains, buses, and a bike-rental system. Most importantly, the city streets themselves are walkable, bordered by sidewalks, crosswalks, fruit stands, cafes, trees, awnings, gardens, and other walkers, rather than broken glass and auto flotsam.
Before World War II, American cities looked like more like European ones do now, with many buses, bicycles and streetcars. Unfortunately, the streetcars were bought and destroyed by a group of oil, car and tire companies, who were found guilty of criminal conspiracy only after the damage had been done. As a result, American cities exploded into sprawl that can be seen from space, and Americans have to spend a lot more money than they should just to get around.
Getting to your destination, of course, will probably be the greatest expense, and flying can be quite expensive. One way of bringing the cost down is to book a cancellation around a certain date, thus getting the ticket at a lower price, even if it means having to keep a flexible schedule. If you have a day job that sends you to another city, see if you can stay extra days and get a free holiday out of it.
People crossed oceans, of course, long before they flew; I took a boat to London rather than flying, which is cheaper, better for the environment and allowed me to write, mingle, smell the sea and savour the journey. Ships still cross the Atlantic and Pacific, and I know of people who arranged to work their way across, doing some equivalent of washing dishes until they reached their destination; as money grows tighter, this could become a much more popular way of traveling.
On land, of course, there are buses and trains, and over here they take you almost anywhere. My native U.S.A. has them as well, although our standards have fallen below those of many other countries. I can tell you from experience that if you take a bus or train across states, bring your own food and be prepared for delays.
I would gladly accept junk food and rescheduling, however, in exchange for buses and trains that just went more places. U.S. rail systems, for example, once had vast capillary networks to service a nation of 100 million; now Amtrak has only a small number of lines that must stretch between two oceans and serve 300 million people, and in many small Midwestern towns, abandoned rail stations sit beside grass-covered tracks. Nearby towns that do have rail lines are often inaccessible to each other, as the lines run parallel for hundreds of miles without meeting.
In the U.S.A., I had rarely ever seen a taxi, and thought of them only for big cities, but in Ireland they are a necessary part of rural travel. They are sometimes local people who spend most of their time farming or doing chores, but who are on call whenever someone needs a ride to the bus stop or train station. I never encountered a small town in America having such a service, but more rural people should consider starting one for their area.
The extremely frugal traveler still has the old standbys of riding the rails or hitchhiking, although the first is illegal, and both are dismissed today as unconscionably dangerous. They used to be staples of rural life, though, and most country folk remember when young people casually hitched a ride to the farm or the next town. People still hitch in Ireland, where communities are stronger and people are less fearful, and I suspect the attitudes feed on themselves – when everyone is too frightened to hitch or pick up hitchers, the custom is abandoned by everyone but the genuinely frightening.
The same could be said of many of these options; they have become less popular because they require people to give up the normal and convenient, to mingle with many different types of people, to exercise patience, to accept uncertainty. They make us engage with the landscape and travel through it. They exercise muscles, in body and mind, that our forebears knew well, and that we forgot we had.