Editor’s note: We’re republishing our origin story, initially published in 2019, in celebration of five years of helping travelers.
We’re celebrating Thrifty Traveler’s fifth birthday today, and in those five years, this site has grown from a passion project on the side of my old day job to a full-time team of eight and counting, helping thousands of travelers see the world for cheap. And it’s time I made a confession.
This website is not the original Thrifty Traveler. And I am not the original Thrifty Traveler.
Before there was thriftytraveler.com or Thrifty Traveler Premium, there was the Thrifty Traveler newsletter. It started in 1993, reaching 52,000 mailboxes (and, eventually, email inboxes).
And before I ever thought to call myself Mr. TT, there was Mary VanMeer. Mary was the original Thrifty Traveler.
Let me explain.
I spent years building up expertise about the ins and outs of airfare, points, miles, and hotels traveling across the U.S. as a bank examiner for the federal government. Then I spent months resisting the constant prodding from friends and family to put my knowledge to use. Once I finally decided to move ahead with a site, it took several months more of wracking my brain for the right name.
Finally, I landed on Thrifty Traveler. Thriftytraveler.com would be the perfect hub to share what I knew.
It was taken.
The original ThriftyTraveler.com was somewhat out of date and very out of style, more fit for 1999 than 2015. But it was exactly what I had envisioned, promising to be “the only travel-planning site you will ever need!”
And the contact page led me to Mary VanMeer.
Mary and I traded emails over the course of the next year, and she was hesitant about the prospect of handing over the reins of ThriftyTraveler.com. Not because she was out for a big payday in exchange for the domain name, but because she spent decades pouring her heart and soul into her printed travel newsletter and website.
She told me the story of when, in 1993, she decided to put her life of travel to use just like I was trying to do and launched a printed travel newsletter. She relayed with pride when she got a shoutout in Newsday for the help she was giving aspiring travelers. She recounted her trips to New Orleans, Florida, New York City, and across the world.
She had built something. And she was understandably nervous to let it go.
Finally, she sent me an email I’ll never forget.
“You can see why I’m very much attached to the thriftytraveler.com name. But maybe it’s time to let someone else nurture it,” Mary wrote. “Let me put it this way: I certainly have no intentions of ‘putting it on the market’; but if YOU want it, I’m open to that.”
I launched the new Thrifty Traveler on April 29, 2015. And to this day, you can see bits and pieces of Mary everywhere, thanks to the advice she’d occasionally send me while following along even after handing off the reins.
She warned me that Thrifty Car Rental would probably come after me to complain about the name. She was right, but they backed off.
Mary urged me to put up a photo of my wife and myself on the site to make a personal connection with readers – “People connect better with faces ;),” she needled me. She insisted that I keep the website simple, and not distract would-be travelers from the help they needed with flashy graphics.
As the site started to snowball, Mary and I would chat every so often. She was tenacious but funny, and kind yet helpful. And without fail, she would end every email with congratulations: “I’m really proud of what you’ve done. Awesome.”
Then a few more months passed. I sent Mary another email with a few questions – one of many I’d sent her over the years. This time I didn’t get a response.
Mary VanMeer passed away on Oct. 14, 2016. She was 68.
A while after she passed away, one of Mary’s friends sent me one of the original Thrifty Traveler newsletters. I have it framed at home.
And it’s clear to me now that in all our back and forth about the website name, Mary wanted the assurance that the next ThriftyTraveler.com would live up to what she had built.
I hope I made you proud, Mary.