Ernesto Machado has written a really thought-provoking blog post at Brave New Traveler called When Does Budget Travel Become Exploitation? The post makes some generalizations and assumptions about people traveling on the cheap, but it certainly does raise a lot of points about budget travelers who go overboard on the cheapness. Even better than the original post is the discussion it has spawned in the comments section. This is a highly recommended read.
I don’t feel I can add much to the discussion, since I haven’t traveled extensively overseas myself, and when I have, I haven’t really done it in the kind of budget way that Ernesto describes. But I will say this: I think the ethical fine line between frugal and cheap is crossed when the person who suffers from your lack of spending isn’t yourself but someone else. I don’t have a problem with the frugal traveler (probably because I am one) who decides to stay at a $50/night motel rather than a $200/night hotel or to dine at McDonalds rather than the Palm to save money. What I have a problem with is when people are willing to spend the money to dine at the Palm but try to save money by not tipping the waiter appropriately, or are willing to spend the $200 a night for a nice hotel but not leave a tip for housekeeping.
Yes, it’s a shame that the hospitality industry in the U.S. underpays its service staff, forcing guests and customers to make up their wages through tips, but that is the way it is until somebody in a position of power changes it. Don’t let your cheapness prevent someone from making a livable wage so they can pay their rent. If you don’t have the money for the tip, you don’t have the money for the trip. That’s my opinion, what’s yours?