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Buying your time: David Whitley

When it comes to spending your money — or your precious time — do you always go for the cheapest option? Or do you save time? It’s not always an exact science…

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For me, the point of no return on the inevitable decline into lazy old mandom came in Thailand. I had the option of spending hours on the web scrutinising the different routes between two cities, eventually piecing together a convoluted series of buses, trains and pick-up trucks masquerading as shared taxis. This, I figured out, would cost me about £12 — and a day of sweatily, and increasingly tetchily, getting from A to B.

It would be the correct way to do things, leading to copious amounts of traveller points, possibly a few decent anecdotes and a real sense of having dipped into local life. Alternatively, I could book a door-to-door transfer in a nicely air-conditioned car, which would take around three hours and cost about £40.

It’s not so much that I actually went with the latter option that terrifies me — but the speed with which I ditched the public transport alternative. Spelling it out, this wasn’t Dylan going electric, more Dylan going electric to cover Barbie Girl for an oil company advert.

Since then, the betrayals of my younger self have come thick and fast. My backpack has remained, unloved, on top of the wardrobe for years. A wheeled suitcase just works better — even though I’ll still maintain that people dragging wheeled ‘carry-on’ luggage through airports will be first against the wall when I’m king.

Once, I’d have been enraged to pay any more than £40 for a hotel room, and would be prepared to kid myself that any old hovel falling into that price range was perfectly adequate. Now I find myself thinking, “Well, £100’s about the baseline for New York”, even if there’s probably some amazingly awful place deep in Queens that I might be able to get for less.

I’ve also found myself shrugging my shoulders and blithely accepting £25 taxi fares from airport to hotel, rather than faffing with trains, buses and inevitably getting lost while walking the last stretch. It’d be wrong to say this is all about wanting comfort, though. Sure, it’s nice to have the slightly bigger seat, the higher thread count sheets and the weight off the back, but it’s far more to do with the ‘money versus time’ trade-off.

The two face off against each other like axes on a graph, and the less you have of one, the less concern you have about the other. Twenty-two-year-old David, taking a year out on the proceeds of three months’ bar work, was merrily content to undergo any length of grim duress in order to save enough for another beer. Thirty-five-year-old David would rather have extra time to explore and enjoy the destination, preferably while not feeling like he’s just spent a week cooped up in a bin outside an Ebola hospital.

Even so, there are bite points on the money-versus-time graph that are simply not worth crossing: flights is one of them. I’ll look at the cost of the economy class flight, then consider how it might be nice to sleep better in business class and arrive refreshed at the destination. And then I’ve looked at the cost of going business class, burst into uproarious, helpless laughter, and immediately booked the economy tickets.

The only instance where flying business class is going to come out on the right side of that money-versus-time line is if the money isn’t mine. So when the opportunity arose to turn left on a flight to Sydney — at somebody else’s expense — I wasn’t going to turn down the chance of posher cutlery, higher-end headphones, the ability to order meals and drinks at will and the space to stretch out — all enough to bring giddy excitement to a first timer. But that’s not what it’s really about: it’s money versus time again, and the time in this case is having the first few days blissfully unencumbered by jetlag.

So I went into flatbed mode and prepared for precious sleep. And I slept. And slept. And slept. By the time the plane landed, I bounded off with a lamb-like spring in my step and an unusual post-flight desire to hit the bars.

Sometimes spending money to buy time works too well, however. A proper night’s sleep on the plane, it seems, leads to a night of tossing, turning, wide-awake insomnia on the ground. Jetlag and frugality don’t like being defeated that easily…

Published in the September 2015 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)