Hey, America, nice seeing you.
I was out on the road for the last week, talking about my book in New York, Boston, LA, San Francisco, Berkeley, and Portland, OR, all funded by the Kickstarter backers who supported my book before it was published.
Since I was spending other people’s money, I felt a strong responsibility to be frugal with it. Okay, that’s not exactly true.
I initially felt a strong urge to blow it all spectacularly, like the protagonist of a book I read while on the road, The Art of Making Money: The Story of a Master Counterfeiter.
In the end, my better nature won out, and I booked and took the trip with the following principles in mind:
- Eat, sleep, and otherwise travel cheap
- Look for inexpensive or free venues with easy transit access
- Hit as many cities as possible in about a week (the maximum time I was willing to take off work and away from my family), focusing on the cities with lots of readers
- Don’t lose my mind completely
I’d like to share with you a few things I learned on the road. They’re applicable to far more than a book tour.
With the advent of crowdsourced everything (funding, accommodations, ridesharing, and so on), I think this kind of cheap DIY business travel is going to become more common.
I spent about $150 on venues, $500 on airfare, $600 on food and other expenses, and $0 on accommodations.
Last time I went on book tour, bankrolled by a major publisher, I spent more than that in a couple of days. This trip was a lot more fun.
Sometimes business travel and frugal travel are at odds.
If my company were flying me business class and putting me up at the Hyatt, I wouldn’t complain. And if I were attending a conference where most of the value is in hanging around the hotel swapping beers and ideas, I’d stay at the hotel.
But my company is myself, and this trip had no conferences.
For microbusiness owners, startups, small software developers, and anyone whose company is looking to get lean, it’s time to start thinking less Hilton and more Airbnb.
Frugal is better
In the 1963 edition of Arthur Frommer’s Europe on Five Dollars a Day, the author writes:
“I have one of the better-known European guidebooks before me as I write. This tome states that one really can’t consider staying in Paris at hotels other than the Ritz, the Crillon, or the Plaza Athenee…. It maps out, in other words, the short, quick road to insolvency that most American tourists have been traveling for years.”
I know this because Frommer’s guide is the subject of a hilarious book, Doug Mack’s Europe on 5 Wrong Turns a Day, in which Mack finds an old copy of Frommer and decides to use it as his European travel guide today.
No, of course you can’t travel Europe for $5 a day anymore, but Frommer’s point, that frugal travel is more authentic and more fun, is as true as ever, and it applies surprisingly well to business travel.
I began the trip by booking a multi-city trip at Kayak.com. Many people I’ve spoken to assume that the airlines still charge exorbitant rates for anything other than round-trip flights, but it’s not true.
I booked four legs, including two cross-country flights, all on the same airline (for mileage plan and premium qualification purposes), for less than $600.
I also traveled the two short legs of the trip (New York to Boston and Portland to Seattle) on Amtrak, with tickets purchased via Amtrak Guest Rewards points.
As I arrived in each town, I was greeted with the words that warm a frugal traveler’s heart: “Is that all you’re carrying?”
For getting around, I relied mostly on transit.
All of the cities I visited offer real-time arrival information (via a digital display or smartphone app), support for Google Maps transit directions, and (with the exception of Portland) a plastic transit card that eliminates fumbling for change.
If you’re a reluctant transit rider, these innovations may win you over, but you can also catch a ride with UberX, Lyft, and other ridesharing services that are (usually) cheaper and better than a taxi.
In each tour stop, I stayed with friends. This may seem like cheating, but if I hadn’t had friends’ beds and couches available, I would have stayed in similar accommodations via Airbnb.
Last time I took a business trip to the Bay Area, for example, I got a $30/night futon via Airbnb, and my host was a confident 9-year-old boy (and his dad) who kept me up late playing Plants vs. Zombies.
Airbnb, of course, also lists private rooms and whole apartments, and covers cities throughout the world.
While I was out on the road, I read a scary article about a Minnesota musician whose tax status is in jeopardy.
The Minnesota Department of Revenue has classified Venus de Mars as a hobbyist rather than a professional, rejected all of her business expense deductions, and billed her for back taxes.
This was the part that really freaked me out: “When de Mars goes on tour, she often sleeps at the house of a relative or friend. To de Mars, that is being frugal, but the Department of Revenue saw it as evidence that she was merely expensing a vacation.”
The state also accused de Mars of taking “too much pleasure from her work.” You may all groan now.
I don’t know the specifics of the Venus de Mars case (except that “The Venus de Mars Case” is a great album title).
So I started making my imaginary case before the Minnesota Department of Revenue: Is this really business travel? Of course: it’s the kind of business travel that results in more money left over to put into your actual business.
The key issue in small business tax audits always comes down to profit.
Is the business trying to make a profit? Keeping travel expenses low makes it more likely that you can wring a profit out of your business in any given year.
And if that argument doesn’t fly, I could always take up counterfeiting.
Matthew Amster-Burton is a personal finance columnist at Mint.com. His new book, Pretty Good Number One: An American Family Eats Tokyo, is available now. Find him on Twitter @Mint_Mamster.