Minimalist Travel

If you are American and haven’t traveled much lately, I can only say that things have changed pretty dramatically when going abroad. I had avoided most travel after 9/11 until a couple of years ago when I finally resumed travelling. I definitely noticed how much the world has changed.

Back in the day, let’s say the 80’s, before the breakup of the Soviet Union and the rise of China, I traveled a bit both as a student and for work. In general, I found that it was best to bring the stuff with you that you thought you needed. This view arose for two reasons: 1) it could be a hassle to find what might be commonplace in America; and 2) it was, in all likelihood, going to be more expensive. I now reject this view and conclude that Americans are living expensive lives paying more for the same inexpensive stuff precisely because they live expensive lives.

In the past, I would have even brought batteries for my electronics. Not anymore. Do NOT buy an international cell phone plan unless you need to call back to America with your number. Most stuff for general living in most places is simply cheaper. I will give some examples.

For example, food (specifically raw vegetables, fruit, meat, not processed food) in grocery stores in the Netherlands is probably about 2/3 the cost of food in American grocery stores. And better quality. Bakery goods are cheaper than US bakery goods too. In places like Bulgaria, cooked food is nearly the same expense as raw food if you are eating at non-restaurants. A giant slice of take-away pizza at one of the pizza shops will cost about 75 cents; two are an adult meal. There are little shops that specialize in takeaway grilled meats and cooked vegetables, and the cost is only slightly more than the raw foods. But one doesn’t bring food abroad, so let’s discuss other stuff.

I brought an Apple iPad with a cracked screen with me on my trip. I got it fixed in Bulgaria for $75 by a super-skilled Bulgarian tech guy who had repaired Apple products in the US and returned to Bulgaria. I had priced it in America, and Apple wanted $400 at their store, which basically means “buy a new iPad.” The machine works AWESOME now.

Eveready batteries were cheaper abroad than in America. I couldn’t believe it. But I didn’t buy them because I bought Aerocell batteries, a European alkaline battery that is just as well made from all appearances, and I paid about half the price.

Cell phone SIMS are very cheap. I bought a Bulgarian card with 100 minutes and 1GB data for $5. In the Netherlands, I paid only $10. International calls will probably be more expensive, but they are probably cheaper than using your out-of-sight American plan. Frankly, I can’t believe that Americans tolerate their astronomical cell phone bills.

Clothes. Even clothes are cheap. With Chinese manufacturing and a market economy everywhere in the world, textiles are everywhere. Which means that you can leave your American clothes behind and pick up some clothes that are local and you’ll stand out less. And you can bring them back to America and it won’t have been any more expensive.

The point that I am making is that America no longer is the marketplace with the best quality products at the lowest cost. Globalization and the market economies everywhere have completely altered that past reality. Admittedly, you will NOT find 150 brands of cereal in the store, but you will find distinct local varieties at lower costs than America. For example, in food, there are varieties of stuff that we would find familiar, but even better, and at low cost. In Croatia, I buy an Oatmeal that has some other grains blended in it, and the nutty, tasty flavor is great and it’s cheaper than American oatmeal.

And it goes even further. Some policies abroad, like the regulation of medicines, mean that the cost of medicine is much less than in the United States. Kate got needed antibiotics for an infection straight from a Malaysian pharmacy for a few dollars; the co-pay in America would have exceeded it. This is why “travel medicine” has arisen where people go to India for major surgeries because the total cost for the surgery, hospital, recuperation time, medicines, and travel expense are less than what would paid by having the work done by the doctor down the street in the United States. Think about that.

It has gotten to the point where if you have a work-at-home job for a US company, it makes economic sense to work from abroad. There may be many factors (two: friends, family) that probably dictate otherwise. But the economics of earning a high wage and living where it can be leveraged is obvious. Because the past advantages of living in America no longer apply. The sales pitch that “America is Number 1” seems to me to be more like whistling through the graveyard of trying to avoid a certain fear more than a real sales pitch.

But I digress, and so let me return to the original topic. When you travel abroad, bring what you need, assuming that it is durable. If it isn’t durable, then you might consider leaving it behind. And, finally, a word of caution. People abroad are not dumb, and they understand that you may have no idea what the price is and they will exploit this informational advantage. So, know what you are buying and know the local price. Be dismissive of outrageous prices. I PROMISE – They will come back and ask you what you are willing to pay. You can strike a good deal, but you must be willing to play the game. (If you want to read an example, click here.)

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