I’m a high/low traveler – at least when it comes to work. I stay in five-star hotels and backpacker hostels. I like chocolate crème brûlée as much as I like the candy bars sold in German vending machines.
What does ‘high/low’ mean?
It means that I like this as much as this
and this as much as this.
I grew up in a large Irish Catholic family; my parents were paying back my dad’s medical school loans for the duration of my childhood. But even without money for extras, my parents showed their kids a good time. In summer, we had nosebleed seats at Yankee Stadium – and after the game we had fantastic $5 pastrami sandwiches at the deli (or was it a dive bar?) across the street. My mother taught horseback riding to paraplegic children partly so that my sister and I could take riding lessons for free. In winter, skiing was out of the question, but my dad took us sledding on the steep, snowy slopes behind the Hotel Hershey. We didn’t have theatre tickets, of course, so my mother signed us all up as volunteer ushers; after the curtain rose, we could watch local off-Broadway productions standing along the wall in the back of the theatre. I really hated putting on the usher vest and bowtie, but I did learn all the words to the music from South Pacific and Carousel.
Then I became a travel writer. Thanks to so many assignments with luxury-driven publications, I get to go to wine tastings, to spas, up in hot air balloons. In the name of journalism I’ve had private cooking lessons with famous chefs, photo safaris with National Geographic, hot stone massages and chocolate volcanoes and French champagne and tango lessons with ridiculously handsome men.
At first it was a novelty. But now I know that fancier isn’t automatically better. Once I was at a really elegant hotel where a ‘personal butler’ kept knocking on the door to see what he could do for me – and I felt kind of uncomfortable. Actually, I felt really uncomfortable. In that moment, I would have preferred to be sharing homemade spaghetti in the communal kitchen of a hostel – the place where I’ve had some of my most memorable travel moments.
That’s why I keep a foot in the door in both worlds. I’ve backpacked all over Patagonia for Lonely Planet, sticking to a close budget; I’ve lived for months in a house in Nicaragua that didn’t have running water. While teaching English in Prague, I had bread and cheese for dinner too many nights in a row. I know what that is. And that allows me some perspective on the often over-the-top world of luxury travel.
Being a high/low traveler isn’t always about how much money you spend (or don’t spend.) It’s about value. I only want to endorse travel experiences I’d pay for myself. That could mean splurging on tickets to the opera in Vienna or paying two pesos to ride the colectivo (city bus) down to Buenos Aires’ Costanera to taste-test the street vendors’ steak sandwiches.
I hereby kick off the High/Low Traveler series, aiming to explore the concept of ‘good value’ as it pertains to travelers. Look for upcoming posts on high/low hotels, cuisine, wine, fine arts, transportation, plus commentary on things that fall, confusingly, somewhere in the middle (the luxury cama suite buses in Argentina? I mean, bus travel seems ‘low’ by price and definition, but these buses are crazy. They serve champagne and chocolates and you can stretch out on a bed-sized seat while watching Jack Nicholson movies with Spanish subtitles. High or low? High/low?)