Talking Travel with economist and traveler Tyler Cowen

For several years, economist Tyler Cowen has been the man behind Marginal Revolution, one of the world’s most popular economics blogs. In addition to being an economics professor and regular contributor to the New York Times, Tyler is also well-traveled, and often discusses his thoughts on travel and world affairs on his thought-provoking blog. I recently interviewed Tyler via e-mail about his travel experiences, and whether being an economist changes the way he travels.

AH: When and how did your love of travel begin?

TC: My love of travel began relatively late. At 23 I decided to go live in Freiburg, Germany for a year. I was hooked before my first day — spent in Mainz, Germany — was over.

AH: How does being an economist inform the way you travel? What are some surprising or counterintuitive tips for discovering the best a country has to offer?

TC: Being an economist means there is always, and I mean always, something interesting to look for. In the limiting case, if a country or place is really boring, suddenly it is fascinating to try to understand how it got to be so boring. Economics suggests there is always a “why.” Curiosity is what makes travel so fun and economics gives you one way of organizing your curiosity and framing your questions.

My main tip is simply: “Go, go go!” Go. People have a status quo bias when they make decisions and they don’t take enough chances. My colleague and co-blogger Alex Tabarrok makes an interesting point. If you knew your life were much shorter you would travel to those places you always wanted to see. If you knew your life were to be much longer you would have more time to travel; again you would travel more. So, are you trying to tell me that your expected lifespan is just at that length where you shouldn’t travel more? I don’t buy it.

AH: What are your favorite places in the world to visit? Any destinations that you’d really like to visit, but haven’t?

TC: Mexico, Haiti, and Brazil are clear favorites for me. I love the New World and its sense of being fresh and undiscovered. I regret never having been to Cali, Medellin, Santa Cruz (Bolivia), or northern Chile.

AH: “I’d love to travel, but it’s just so expensive,” people always say. What is your response to that?

TC: It’s easy enough to travel cheaply. Just don’t get fixated on Europe, which is now virtually unaffordable. Stay in a rural Mexican village for a week and you will save money and have the experience of a lifetime. The U.S. dollar is still strong in plenty of countries. Is Honduras — a lovely country — really too pricey for you?

Be sure to check out Tyler’s blog, Marginal Revolution, where he’s recently discussed the costs and benefits of long-distance relationships, abolishing cafeteria trays, and congestion pricing to reduce traffic in the air and on the road.

His most recent book is Discover Your Inner Economist: Use Incentives to Fall in Love, Survive Your Next Meeting, and Motivate Your Dentist. His ethnic dining guide for the Washington D.C. area is available online here.