So the triple M family just spent a couple of nights in Santa Fe on our way here to Phoenix. I’ve been to Santa Fe a few times now, and it’s quite a pretty city. Nestled in a high desert valley surrounded by tall mountains, it’s over 400 years old, with the randomly arranged little streets and neat historic buildings to show for it. Even the newest buildings are still made in Adobe style with rounded corners and brown stucco exteriors. So when viewed from a hilltop, the entire city looks like an ancient settlement, despite the fact that it’s right in the middle of the United States.
While the place is physically beautiful, there has always been something just mildly unpleasant about spending time in the central historic district of that city. This year is the first time I’ve visited the place as Mr. Money Mustache, and my new superpowers allowed me to put my finger on the problem: it’s a tourist trap.
What exactly is the definition of a tourist trap, you might ask? I would define it as any location that makes most of its income from selling things to visiting tourists, as opposed to a valid local economy.
This sounds harmless enough, since we’re all free to buy, or not buy, whatever we like. And it works well for standard tourists, since a large part of their idea of a vacation is going “shopping”. When they go to a new place, new products are available – in Hawaii there are unique tropical-themed trinkets, and in New Mexico there are turquoise pieces of rock carved into jewelry and even fabric that mimics traditional Native American patterns. Santa Fe has evolved into an upscale tourist trap where dozens of fancy art galleries can open up next to each other and sell art very profitably even in the high-rent district.
The stylish polished copper logos and crisp halogen lights of these galleries are pleasant to walk past on your way to the central square where the big old trees are beautifully lit up for the holiday season. But the experience is compromised by the fact that every single street of central Santa Fe is absolutely jammed with tourists motoring around pointlessly in their expensive cars. The entire area is very compact and everything is within a five minute walk, yet all around you are fluffy-haired ladies with oversized sunglasses and fur collars, perched on the wide tan leather seats of Escalades, X5s and Range Rovers, bumbling down the crowded narrow streets while the pedestrians squeeze past each other on poorly maintained three-foot-wide sidewalks. There’s a beautiful hill right next to downtown with a walking trail all the way to the top, but the trail is almost vacant even while the streets directly below are jammed with the idling SUVs.
All of this represents a deep conflict of interest to Mustachian Travelers like ourselves. You and I like to travel the world as a way of learning more about the different cultures and geographies. Travel is also a good way to teach your children about life outside of your own city, and even a way to take a break from winter and do some swimming and frolicking out in the sun.
But just because you are leaving your home town doesn’t mean you suddenly want to transform into a mouth-foaming consumer who derives enjoyment solely from making purchases. In fact, you probably want to continue your naturally efficient and healthy lifestyle regardless of where you are. This becomes even more important as an early retiree, when you have the option of spending much more than two to four weeks per year on vacation.
So when the tourist trap sticks out its ugly candy tongue and tries to lure you in so it can bite you, you simply need to recognize the signs and avoid them. I’ve developed a few tricks of my own over the years, and I am happy to present a few of them in this handy dandy list:
Mr. Money Mustache’s Tips and Tricks for Fulfilling Family Travel:
Food: Wherever you go, you’ll still be eating every day. At home, you have carefully optimized your eating routine to achieve maximum health and enjoyment at the minimum cost. So why not replicate this as closely as possible even when you’re on the road? When traveling by road, I always throw two large food carriers into the car: large self-chilling (12 volt) cooler for cold stuff, and a zippered-top fabric bag for everything else. Then I pack things like nuts, fruit, cheese, peanut butter, cucumbers, carrots, eggs, milk, cereal, and good leftovers from recent home cooking. Along with this I need a knife, fork, spoon, a few beers and a bottle of wine, and an opener for both. Now the MMM family is a rolling party – we can eat while we’re driving, or bust out an impromptu picnic on any mountainside, and sit back with a nice alcoholic beverage at the end of a long day.. with no need to ever search for McDonalds or Subway fast food stops for less healthy and more expensive fare.
If we’re not camping, we always choose hotels with an in-room kitchen. But in a pinch, the 12-volt cooler mentioned above can keep the food fresh in any hotel room, and you can add a camp stove for cooking up nice meals anywhere. And there is always a grocery store nearby. For airplane-based travel, you won’t be bringing as much stuff, but you can still find good natural food when you get there at the nearest grocery store, just as the locals do at whatever location you are visiting.
The most recent example of using the power of Mustachianism to eat like the locals?
I was walking through the lobby of the Santa Fe hotel, and a bunch of Texas business people were finishing a catered company meeting in one of the opulent meeting rooms off to the side. “A guy came out and said to me, “Hey! Y’all like pizza? We ordered too much and don’t want to let it go to waste”.
I was skeptical at first, expecting a big soggy Domino’s cheese and pepperoni pizza. But I decided to check out what he had to offer, and it turned out to be an enormous, unopened, very fancy vegetable pizza from a trendy local restaurant. I graciously accepted the offer and packed it into my fridge, and I’ve been eating for free ever since.
Amazingly enough, this good luck was compounded with the addition of another food group when we arrived in Phoenix. We were outside horsing around on the kids’ play structure, and I noticed an area of orange trees that the hotel had grown as part of its decorative landscaping. They were drooping with delicious ripe oranges, some of which had even fallen to the ground and been left to rot. With no competition for the free food, I was able to pick the very best oranges from the trees.. and we’ll all be enjoying them every day for the rest of this trip! Delicious, and educational too.
Destinations: The world has its popular vacation destinations (which are often the crowded and expensive tourist traps), and it has its beautiful places to visit. But these two things are often completely uncorrelated. Your job is to find the beautiful spots that are not overrun with people. If you see a long line of bumbling 45-foot RVs winding along a road, or slick corporate logos selling timeshare properties, or photographers who take a picture of you and then try to get you to buy it (holy shit that is annoying), you are in the wrong spot. If you see plants and animals and perhaps the odd person going about their daily life in a natural manner that has nothing to do with your presence, then you have probably found a good place to enjoy a vacation.
Activities: The most satisfying and memorable things to do are generally the ones that take the most effort from you. It may seem convenient to ride a cog railway or a helicopter to the bottom of the canyon so you can get out at the bottom, buy a picture of yourself, and eat a giant helping of cotton candy on the way back up. But it is even more fun to pack a lunch and a few bottles of water, figure out how to get down yourself on the walking trail, swim around in the cold river at the bottom, and then make the 3,000 foot climb back up in the hot afternoon sun. Then you get to marvel at your tired feet and dusty but well-exercised calves when you kick off the shoes at the end of the long day and crack into the cold beer from your cooler. While the other people in your travel group pay for a 4×4 tour around Cozumel’s jewelry shopping district, you might prefer to go for a walk through the streets where the people actually live and see if you can join a soccer game with some of the little kids out in the street.
This philosophy of travel would seem shocking to the standard Wealthy American or European traveler, and it does not fit in at all with the examples of expensive restaurants and white-suited valet parking attendants at the gatehouse of prestigious golf courses I sometimes walk past while on vacation. But I can guarantee it will allow you to have more fun than the big spenders are having, even while you spend about 90% less than they spend per week of vacation. You’ll be able to maintain a much healthier lifestyle, and a much bushier Money Mustache than they could even dream of attaining. Happy travels!