Travel Tips - Part 4 - The Final Instalment.
This will be my last blog on travelling on the cheap. I've covered flights and accommodation in Parts 1 to 3. Now for some of the other basics.
Food is obvious: you can either stay in a place where you can make your own, meaning, a kitchen is available, or research inexpensive restaurants in proximity to your destination. Sometimes just going to a supermarket to buy breakfast (if it's not offered where you're staying) and/or lunch items helps your budget tremendously.
Me, I'm terribly spoiled. I don't enjoy cooking and far prefer to have someone else make a meal for me, and I also like to sample local cuisine. Normally I stay in places where breakfast is included, when I can, which usually gets me through the day until dinner time. Being on holiday, the last thing I want to do is cook! Googling inexpensive restaurants serving local cuisine is my way to go. However, having said that, others may feel differently about cooking and eating and may need to or want to save the money that preparing your own meals will engender.
There are many tips for travel and I highly recommend this site, which not only lists prices for flights and hotels and sends you alerts if you so desire, but their blog has a wealth of articles on just about every aspect of travel, for example, how to survive long flight, how to pack just a carry-on bag, and so on. I've found Airfare Watchdog the best site for useful info.
I often use a Base Location. For example, London. I frequently travel elsewhere, returning to London several times. Going back to the same place allows me to leave a large suitcase with the hotel or b&b or even airbnb so I can just have a carry-on for short trips of 3, 4 or even 7 days. A small and light suitcase is much easier to travel with than a large suitcase, which is a pain to lug around and usually requires paying a luggage fee to airlines whereas a carry-on is free. Just make sure your carry-on is the right size--airlines give measurements. My suitcases are the 4-wheel spinner type--they are a LOT easier to move around because you can just walk it next to you, or pull it when necessary over cobblestones or carpet.
For a trip of 3 weeks, a carry-on won't give me enough clothes and other things I require. I take my giant 28" suitcase, which I can check for free on overseas flights, and leave at the hotel when I go away on short excursions because I'm coming back. That way, I have clean clothes to return to. Still, doing some laundry is usually required for more than 1 week away from home. There are small packets of laundry detergent you can take with you to wash clothes in a sink or, if you find one, at a laundromat. I've gone to laundries where you pay, say, 15 Pounds and can bring as much laundry as you can carry. It's washed, dried and folded for you to pick up later the same day. I've also had a hotel wash clothes--once! That is extremely expensive as it's a set price per article for each type of clothing--definitely not a money-saver.
Timing. Travel to Europe, for example, is generally less expensive in early spring and in the fall. Summer is high season. Travelling to warm spots if you live in a cold-winter climate is most expensive during your winter months, for example Florida, anywhere in the Caribbean, Mexico, South America and Southern Europe and further south. If your dates are flexible, you save money by going low season. If you must travel with the hordes during high season, expect to pay more so keep your eyes open for sales. The best are usually the all-inclusives where you get flight, hotel, food and drink for one price.
I've found that for me, a trip of 3 weeks is perfect. I've done 4 weeks and I've done 5 months. Now I feel a tad restless after 3 weeks so 4 is my max if I have a valid reason for extending the trip that extra week. You may be constrained by finances to 1 or 2 weeks, but don't despair. Your frequent flyer points will aid you for future trips of a longer duration.
During 3 weeks I can travel from London to other places, for example, Germany for a weekend, then return to London. European airlines often have better prices than we are used to in North America so I can frequently get cheap tickets, or buy them with my frequent traveller points. Again, research is crucial.
People. When I travel, I like to be alone but I also like to be with friends. I like to plan and I like spontaneity too. If I know people in a place where I'll be, I alert them that I'm coming. Most of the time we will get together for dinner and, on occasion, I will be offered a room in their home, which I may or may not take, depending on how close I feel, how limited my time in their hometown is, and what I want to do and see.
I like to travel alone but I also like to travel with friends. My most recent trip, using London as a base, I travelled to Munich, Germany with a friend, then returned to London. Then I travelled to St. Petersburg, Russia with another friend, who returned to London while I went on to Estonia by myself. From Estonia I went to Prague and met yet another friend there and we travelled around the Czech Republic for a week by car and then spent a couple of days in Prague before we both flew to London on different flights.
This, for me, is ideal for a lot of reason. Travelling in countries where you don't speak the language comes with automatic stress. Most countries in Europe are so familiar with foreign travellers that they speak a smattering of languages other than their own, and can understand a bit of English. I've found people nice and very helpful, even in Paris, which is notorious for rude people--not my experience at all, and I've been there five times. But, for example, very few people in St. Petersburg speak a language other than Russian. Reading street/road signs and menus, exchanging money, figuring out maps, trying to find a place that is a block away, ascertaining a fare for public transit or a taxi, for all of this and more, it's helpful to have a friend with you, especially when the language uses other than the Latin alphabet. But another plus of travelling with someone is being able to talk about (and laugh about!) the experiences you've shared, what you've seen, how you are both doing, and researching restaurants or places to stay; it helps a lot to have a companion to travel with. And if one of you gets sick or has an accident, the other is there to take control. But also, you save money. That room you are playing $80 CDN for at an inexpensive hotel will suddenly cost you $40 CDN a night by sharing with a friend. If you rent a car to see some of the places outside major cities, the car rental and gas will be half price for you. There are lots of benefits to travelling with a friend so if you have friends who like to travel and also like to save money travelling, suggest that you go on a (short to start) trip together.
I like travelling with people who are as independent as me, meaning, we are together some of the time, but we part ways sometimes when one wants to see this and the other wants to see that. We do not need to walk side by side through a museum, stopping at the same object d'art but can move at our individual pace. It's a great arrangement for me and it might be for you as well. This, presuming you are not travelling with a partner, or family.
Exchanging Money from currency to currency is easier with the Euro than it was in the past when every country had its own currency. But not all countries use Euros. It's usually best to exchange at least some currency before you leave home because you will get a better rate at home than at, say, an airport exchange bureau. At your destination city or town, you may or may not get a good exchange rate. Banks are the worst, so avoid changing money there in any country, and forget American Express Travellers Checks--no one wants them. Bring a few US $$s and CDN $$s, especially the former, which can be exchanged anywhere--the exchange office in the Russian hotel would only take four currencies and Canadian wasn't one of them but the U.S. dollar was. The more money you exchange at one time, the better the exchange rate will be.
For my recent 4 week trip I needed Pounds for the UK, Euros for Germany and Estonia, Rubles for Russia, Euros and Czech Korunas for the Czech Republic (which takes both, but not everywhere). That's a lot of changing money. I took some Pounds with me and had a few Euros left from a previous trip. I needed and bought more Pounds in the UK. I exchanged Pounds to Russian Rubles on entering Russia, and then, on leaving Russia, exchange Rubles for Euros. Finally, I bought with my CDN $$s some Czech Korunas at the Prague airport exchange at a decent rate. It worked well and I didn't end up with anything more than one coin in Rubles and just a couple of coins in Czech Korunas, both of which are currencies I probably won't be using in the near future.
Having a Cellphone today is crucial. I used to have a separate cellphone for the US and another one for the UK that allowed roaming to European countries, both phones pay-as-you-go. I would buy time in those countries and on the latter, roaming time for Europe. But carrying several phones around isn't my idea of light packing and also what worked in the past might not work now--I've had that experience.
Last year I bought a roaming package from my Canadian provider for $40. for my cellphone. When I got to the UK, my phone did not work and I spent hours calling the provider in Canada from Europe on a land line until finally I was connected to a tech guy who helped me get it going, the problems not obvious ones. That wasn't pleasant. Then, because of a glitch, I ended up paying $90 instead of the $40. This year I vowed to not have that experience.
If you use your home cellphone and buy a roaming package, you need to remember that when you are NOT using your cellphone, turn off the roaming. In fact, turn off the phone. Otherwise, you are using up your time and data allowance.
Over the ocean they have wonderful and cheap cellphone service which we North Americans (especially Canadians) do not enjoy. This year, I had options.
1 - A friend sent me a SIM card she got for me for free in the UK. By exchanging my phone's SIM card for that one, I could then buy very cheap time, which also included roaming time to other countries.
2 - Another option is what my other friend did in the Czech Republic. She arrived the week before I did so she was on her own in Prague. She brought two cellphones with her from home and took one into a local tech shop where she bought a Czech Republic SIM card that gave her calls, texts and oodles of data for $13 CDN. We used the GPS on that phone to drive for a week around the Czech Republic and she still had piles of time/data left at the end.
3 - Ultimately this year I decided that I would wing it. In London, I stayed in a hotel which provides a cellphone in every room that offers free Internet and free long distance calls, so I was able to get on the Net with their phone and also make calls home. Pretty well everywhere I stayed during my 4 weeks overseas offered free wifi. 99% of the restaurants, shops, museums, train stations, airports, etc. where I was throughout Europe (but not Russia except for the hotel) offered free wifi. I did not buy or use roaming from my provider but had wifi just about everywhere. In other words, you can get wifi for free so why pay a fee for what you don't need.
Lastly, a Reality check is not so bad. While you will be spending money travelling you are also saving money because you are not at home. Let's say you spend $100 a week on food at home. Travelling, you will spend money to eat in restaurants (or buy food to cook if you have the facilities). The $100 you are not spending at home that week is used towards the roughly $25 to $50 a day you will spend on food travelling. Taking the average as $30 a day for lunch and dinner, 3 of your 7 days are covered by your regular expenditure on food so you're really paying for 4 days worth of food when away or $100 to $200 a week (not $175 to $350).
If you have services you stop, like a newspaper delivery, water delivery, a cleaning service, all of that money is saved and used during your trip. You do not need a transit pass or gas for your car during your time away, and walking or using local transit in the city you're visiting is a great and inexpensive way to see the city. More money saved. If you can leave your pet with a friend or have someone come in to feed and be with your pet and not pay for boarding at the vet's, you save money. Your home electricity and gas consumption is down for those 1-2 weeks. These are just examples of money you are not spending which is diverted to the trip. In other words yes, travelling costs money, but you also save money being away which pays for some of being away.
In the end, if travelling is in your blood, if you recognize the value of taking a break from routine and exploring new and exciting places, or even just lolling under a beach umbrella by the ocean and reading a cheesy novel, this is physical, emotional and spiritual refreshment. We all need it. You can get it. And by taking the time to research the various aspect of your trip, you can save a lot of money and still have an amazing time away. It's not free, but it's cheaper than you think to invest in your well being.