By Adam Roy
Nickel and Diming it in Manhattan
Budget travelers are the McGyvers of the wayfaring world. They start with a handful of odds and ends: a few dollars, a change of clothing, the address of a old friend with a comfy couch. Then, by some combination of wits and chutzpah, they combine those scraps into something that transcends the sum of its parts, an eye-opening trip. It's every bit as challenging as it sounds.
I discovered this last fact while piecing together a last-minute trip to New York. Even under the best of circumstances, New York is not a city that screams "thrifty". As a destination, it's expensive beyond belief, a town ruled by big-city glitz and hotel rates exorbitant enough to make even the most hardened travelers weep into their rapidly emptying wallets. Add in my chronically underfed bank account and the limited time I had to prepare, and it was clearly going to take some ingenuity to make this trip happen.
After a few Internet searches and a quick phone call, I concocted a plan relying on two mainstays of budget travel, discount buses and hostels. I reserved a dormitory bed at Manhattan's Central Park Hostel and bought a round-trip ticket on the most well-known (read: infamous) of Boston's Chinatown buses, the Fung Wah.
Since it began offering express service between Boston's South Station and downtown Manhattan in 1997, the Fung Wah's tantalizingly low fares and multiple daily departures have made it a favorite among college students, backpackers and other travelers frugal enough to ignore the buses' history of accidents, including their supposed penchant for bursting into flame. After some consideration, I decided that the 30 USD price tag made up for the buses' colorful safety record and booked my seat.
In the wake of several discouraging reviews from friends, I found myself beginning to doubt my decision. When I told one of my housemates, a Fung Wah veteran, about my misgivings, she smiled ruefully and dutifully attempted to focus on the company's silver lining.
"If anything, you'll get to New York really quickly," she pointed out. "I mean, with how fast they drive and all."
Saddled with this bleak outlook, I showed up at South Station's shopping mall-like bus terminal the next day prepared for the worst. Then, to my surprise, the gate agent waved me onto a clean, modern coach bus, complete with TVs. As we pulled away from the station, I wanted to stop the driver and tell him that there had been a mistake, that I must have climbed onto the wrong bus. Where were the crowds I had been warned about? The homicidal driving? The crates of live chickens?
A quiet hour into our trip, the gap between rumor and reality was clear. While the driver certainly sped a little, the calamitous tales I had heard seemed overblown. With this worry out of the way, I relaxed and settled in for the rest of the haul.
After four hours on the road, we were in Manhattan. The driver unceremoniously dropped us off on a street corner in Chinatown and I wandered out into the waning afternoon sun, setting out to find my hostel. Clutching my sheaf of Google Maps printouts, I made for the nearest subway stop.
By the time I arrived at the Central Park Hostel, twilight had bathed the Upper West Side in a wash of pinks and oranges. After getting my key from the hassled receptionist, sitting behind the plate-glass-enclosed front desk, I headed past a mural of New York's subway system and into the hostel.
Once again, I was in for a surprise. Where I expected peeling paint and roach infestations, I got a clean, well-decorated hostel that, while no Mariott, was not at all a bad place to stay. In fact, for 35 USD a night, it was downright pleasant.
This is the secret of budget travel: despite what many people think, "cheap" is not the opposite of "good". In fact, there is a certain Do-It-Yourself pride that comes from being able to take 100 USD and cobble together an adventure on two days' notice. It's a feeling that the resort-going bunch misses out on.
These thoughts were still echoing through my head when I got to my room. Upon opening the door I found it nearly empty except for a young, well-dressed Indian man sitting on a bunk in the corner. After a minute, he broke the silence, launching conversation with "Which country are you from, sir?".
It turned out that Saha, my roommate, though a financial adviser by profession, was also a philosopher of budget travel. So when I wondered out loud why so many travelers turn their noses up things like hostels and buses, he had an answer ready.
"It's a status symbol," he opined. "It's like people saying 'I need a car' instead of taking the train." In the end, it may get your feet a little dirtier, but what you lose in creature comforts, you gain in community, in new people and interesting stories.
Though, he joked, we might not want it to get too popular. If the hostels were booked solid, then where would we stay?