Tips for Traveling: Money and Packing

I hope you were able to learn something from my last post of travel tips! I had a fun time writing them and thinking of things that I wished I knew in the past. Sorry for the delay in posting this part II, but it’s finally ready: This post will go over a couple more things I think are crucial to getting the most out of any trip you plan: Money and packing, which are tied closer together than you may think.

There’s a famous phase that my friend Val reminded me about on facebook: “Bring half of what you think you’ll need, and twice as much money.” This is so true! I used to be a chronic over-packer. I’d pack “outfits” so that each day I’d have a unique look. Now I try to pack [fewer] clothes that all mix and match well with each other. My other epiphany is that most of the time, if you forget something, the place you’re headed to will sell what you need. This takes a lot of pressure off!

Ace Hotel Portland

Money and Savings

As far as paying for the trip itself, like I’ve shared in the past I am a chronic planner. For me planning the trip is a huge part of the experience. So much so that I’m constantly looking up fares on Kayak and Airbnb just to see what the going rates for things are.

So to budget for a trip I do it just like any other big purchase: I get the total and work backwards. For a longer international trip let’s use a ballpark figure of $2,000 (for our purposes: something like a $900 flight, $100 per night hotel, plus money for attractions and food). I think of when I’d like to visit that place, count how many months away it is, then divide. If there’s no possible way I could put that much away per month, then the trip gets pushed back so the monthly savings amount is lower. Even if I don’t have something coming up I still try to prioritize putting a certain amount away each month. My “present self” has thanked my “past self” on many occasions.

If this sounds like poor planning because I’m saving for my trip as it approaches: well, you probably have a point, but I also have a strategy. I book things in installments if I’m pretty sure the price of that aspect is going to stay stable. Remember, for an international trip I start booking things a pretty generous six months out. So after a few months of saving, I have enough to book the flight, so I do. Then a couple months later I have enough to lock down my hotel or Airbnb, so I do. Doing this in waves (instead of all at once) gives me more time to daydream about what I want from the trip, research neighborhoods, and learn what good lodging prices are. Then for the remaining months before the trip I put aside money for food, sightseeing and shopping.

Cash

As far as spending money for each day, it really depends on your lifestyle. Something we did on our last trip that worked out well was just dealing in cash. With cash (overseas), you only have to pay the bank ATM fee once (sometimes it’s a percentage of money withdrawn plus a foreign transaction fee) and you end up with what basically works as your budget to go on. Of course if something unexpected happens you’re able to get more out of the ATM, but dealing with cash in hand and avoiding being hit with bank fees twice has a way of being pretty persuasive on where you want your money to go.

london-14

As an example, here is how we dealt in cash on pour last trip. When we arrived in Heathrow, the ATM would only let us take out 300 pounds. So, that was our budget for the three days in London: 100 per day. London is so expensive!! We put a couple pricier items on our credit card (the pricey Arsenal stadium tour, an expensive keepsake from Liberty, for example—and do use credit not debit when swiping; fewer fees) but other than those things, the £300 carried us through with 60 pence to spare. We did the same in Paris and Madrid. 6 days, 600 Euros. Paris was more expensive than Madrid so it was probably more like €125/day in Paris and €75/day in Madrid. (Remember, this was for two people).

I try to avoid cash exchange windows and just deal with the ATM. If the ATM claims to be “fee free,” even better. They often have these in airports just before you get out of Customs. I don’t know if they really are “fee free,” but it is better to at least try avoiding fees of up to $8. Regardless, make sure you are using a reputable ATM at a major bank (not a convenience store). Before you travel, you can look up the terms of your credit or bank card and see if they have any particular foreign partner bank. If not, at least you’ll know what your foreign transaction fees will be and can plan your number of withdrawals accordingly. Also, take a moment to add a travel note on your account so it doesn’t get frozen (when the bank sees international spending they try to protect your money by shutting it down). This is super important!

paris8small

Make your money go farther by scoping out if any of your must-see sites have free days or free evenings and plan around that. Alternate between sit-down restaurants and street food (which is usually delicious, more “typical,” and cheap!) Buy or bring snacks to keep on hand and you can probably get by on two meals a day, if you really want to scrimp.

Packing

Packing, especially when planning a trip with a significant other or a relative, can get heated. One person always wants to bring something the other person thinks is totally unnecessary. You’ll want to check with your airline(s) in regards to what kind of bags incur charges and which are free, and plan accordingly. I’m making great strides in being more minimal. When laying out clothes to bring, make sure everything mixes and matches together. It all depends on where you’re headed, but consider wearing things twice, or doing light layers. You can pack with dryer sheets in your suitcase if you are worried about – ahem – scents, but my bet is that nobody will notice if you re-wear an outfit. If you still want to cram more in, roll your clothes to create more room. I don’t know how this voodoo works, but it does.

Madonna Inn

Here’s something important, though: If you are checking a bag, make sure that your carry on bag contains what you’d like to have if you are stranded without your luggage, say, overnight. Put some comfy clothes and a toothbrush, at the bare minimum, alongside your device chargers and light airplane reading. My friend Laura recommended, “as someone who has been stuck in an airport more than once overnight without access to luggage… I would suggest always having on you when flying: 1 change of clothes (with undies), an extra pair of socks and sweater (airports and planes are cold), a toothbrush and toothpaste, a few snacks, and cash (one time I was stuck in an airport because there was a power outage and the only way to buy things was with cash).” Remember! If your flight is grounded you could be spending unexpected hours in the airport.

As for that other random thing you are on the fence about bringing along? You probably don’t need it or won’t have time to use it. If it doesn’t jump to your mind as essential, it probably isn’t.

Thanks for reading! If you have tips or something you swear by, please put it in the comments below! I’m always looking for helpful ideas.

Advertisements

Tips for Traveling: Flights and Lodging

I thought I’d wrap up my recent string of traveling posts with some tips I’ve learned along the way to help out someone (you?) who is thinking of planning a “bigger” trip. I realize that a big trip to one person could mean going more than a couple states over, or a big trip to another could be a three-month backpacking trek across South Asia. For my purposes, something I consider a “big” trip is: more than a week, or out of the country, or some combination of the two.

Note: I was planning on writing one big post, but when I got on a roll it was turning out to be very long, so I’m breaking it up into two posts. The second one will be published Thursday! 

I’ve gone abroad 4 times since 2005. Some things have changed and some things have stayed the same. Hopefully, even if all of these tips don’t apply to you, you can find something of value here. I opened the question to some of my friends on facebook and got good talking points and tips from them as well.

bruges2small

Booking

I like to book whenever I’ve made my mind up that I’m serious about the trip and have the finances in order. Then again, I am a big-time planner. So, for our last Europe trip, I did my research all throughout January and booked the tickets at the end of the month. For the trip we are going on this winter, I watched prices for a couple of months, and went ahead and locked my tickets down a couple weeks ago. If you are able to plan six months ahead, you can get a good price for going abroad. For domestic trips, about three months ahead has been a pretty good time to make plans. Of course, sometimes airlines have flash sales, so if you aren’t as much of a planner, but more of a money hoarder, you can look for sales or Groupon Getaways and get some good deals.

Always plan ahead. I use Kayak.com fanatically. Their predictive tool shows you the way prices have fluctuated and recommends you to “buy” or “wait.” Kayak doesn’t show you all carriers, so go straight to the source for budget airlines like Southwest or Spirit. The rule of thumb is “always book on a Tuesday.” This is when airline websites announce sales, and the rest of the market reacts to this. If you are wanting to save every dollar you can, you can follow this advice—or you can refer to the paragraph above and just book as soon as you’re ready.

UK Ireland 2010 422

If you plan to travel at least a couple times per year, it is worth it to sign up for a loyalty plan. OneWorld, SkyTeam, and Star Alliance are the “big three” that span the globe. Before you sign up with one, you can think back to which airlines you happen to have flown the most regularly and consider if that trend will continue. Personally I’ve signed up with Alaska Airlines because they have lots of flights out of San Diego and their points can be used on a broad variety of carriers. I also collect OneWorld points too—all of my overseas flights have been on American Airlines. They key to accumulating airline points is to make sure you don’t let them expire. Look into alternative ways of earning points to keep them “fresh.” With Alaska Air, I can shop through their website and take online surveys to make sure that the minimum number of points are added per year. I’m a member of a handy website called Award Wallet that tracks amount of points and expiration, but a spreadsheet or Google Doc could work too.

I’ve got a cousin and a few friends who play the credit card game—opening up cards and reaching “minimum spend” to get mileage plan credits then cancelling (or setting aside) the card. This is attractive because sign-up bonuses are usually enough for at least one round-trip ticket. However, airlines are increasing minimum spend or reducing miles, making “the game” harder to play since there are some devoted people on the web teaching others how to work the system at the airlines’ expense.

The Vatican

I never purchased “travel insurance,” but back in June when our Air France flight got cancelled, I wished I had. We ended up getting our money back a month later, but with post-Brexit exchange rates we lost about $10 on each ticket. For our upcoming trip to Mexico the travel insurance was only about $3 per ticket so I added it on. From my friend Wayne: “Check if the credit card you used to buy the flight includes travel insurance. Might include compensation for flight delays or cancellations. For cancellations, don’t automatically accept hotel/food vouchers from the airline if it requires an overnight stay. The credit card company usually will give you more than the airline.”

Hotels

Hotels, I have found, are one of the biggest question marks when traveling. From my aunt Joyce: “Some of the hotels look wonderful but when you get there… Not everything is as glossy as the brochure.” This is so true! Sometimes a place looks good online, but when you arrive it’s the size of a shoebox and is dingy (this happened to us in Paris, 2012).

There are a couple different directions you could go with hotels: book something really cheap and take what you get (you will free up more spending money this way) or, if creature comforts are important to you, diligently read reviews: and not just one or two of them. Some fussy people leave a bad review for minor infractions (sub-par breakfast maybe), and some people give a high-star review but couch a few gripes in their written portion. I don’t spend too much time on the Tripadvisor forums, but I do check their reviews on hotels since the site is just so widely used. This site, trivago, is a search aggregator and has parameters you can use to narrow down lodgings. When I was searching for places in Europe, the trivago engine brought up the greatest number of places at a wide variety of price points (even including hostels).

trier4_small

Of course I’ve been singing the praises of airbnb for a while now, and it’s what we used on several of our latest trips. When I search airbnb, I always set the parameters for “superhosts.” This way you will be matched with highly reviewed hosts—by using this to narrow down my rentals for safety and accuracy, I have yet to be disappointed. To me, searching airbnb and trivago are interchangeable to help me find the right room, in the right part of town, for the right price, so I don’t lean one way or the other. We are definitely going to book an airbnb for the group trip we’re doing in December, so I guess if I was traveling with a group regularly (like, a family) I’d go with airbnbs because you’ll get more space to spread out and not be in each other’s hair– for less than booking two or more rooms at a hotel.

In my next post I’m going to do my best to tackle money and packing. Anything you’ve always wanted my opinion on? Any tips you want to give me? I might add an “oh yeah, and…” post Friday for anything I forgot to include!

Downtown LA in a Day

For my birthday (which was ages ago), instead of a normal present, I asked for a getaway to Los Angeles to visit LACMA, the LA County Museum of Art. I didn’t know what to expect but I was blown away by the breadth of their collection! It truly is a world-class museum.

Urban Light
Urban Light and one of LACMA’s buildings in the rear

But first, let’s back up. We can play this like you are spending your whole day in LA. Traffic is a giant bummer, so we’ll pretend like you woke up there. Could be that you stayed at The Ace, where we stayed for my birthday, or in an Airbnb in the downtown area. Or crashed with a friend. I’m sure you know someone who knows someone who lives near… right?

For breakfast you can go a couple of ways. You can eat at Bottega Louie, which is basically what it would be like if Marie Antoinette designed a brunch restaurant–an amazing bright white emporium of small but impeccably crafted sweets, and big entrees. Or, you could poke around for a smaller place like Poppy & Rose, which is aptly named since it sits right in the midst of the Downtown LA Flower District. It’s hard to mess up brunch, but a meal that makes a lasting impression is worth writing about—so I include both places which were each very good. Also near the Flower Market is the Fashion District, where  you can find almost every kind of fabric and sewing notion known to man.

Disney Concert Hall
Walt Disney Concert Hall by architect Frank Gehry

After brunch it’s worth driving around Downtown LA to check out some impressive sights like the famous Walt Disney Concert Hall and the new Broad [modern art] Museum across the street. The MOCA is right there, as well, so pay the parking meter and poke around these three famous sites. If you wanted to make your day an Art Triple Feature, you could check out the Broad and MOCA before lunch, and the LACMA after lunch. That is, if you have the Museum Stamina.

The Broad
The Broad

I just mentioned lunch — depending on how early you ate breakfast you may be in the mood to grab a bite. Go to the Grand Central Market— you won’t be disappointed. I heard that the line at Eggslut can get really long, so if it’s short (like it was when I was there), get on it. If it’s too long, just pick any type of cuisine and I’m sure you will find another vendor that fits the bill. I highly recommend Berlin Currywurst. The Market has been open for almost 100 years but is experiencing a kind of renaissance (or, you could call it gentrification or hipsterification). It’s really helping along the revival of rundown (scary) DTLA move from sketchy to nice, and by the way, the food is delicious.

Egglsut
Eggslut burger and “slut” (coddled egg with mashed potato)

Now head west a few miles to (in my opinion) the main event. Let me pause for a moment and tell you to drive through the super fancy neighborhoods near LACMA. WOW! You may even recognize some of the exteriors from movie locations. (I’m horrible at that kind of thing so I wouldn’t recognize any). You can park underground at LACMA so your car stays cool. The exterior of LACMA has a lot of interesting things to view without paying admission. The buildings themselves, from different eras and different architects don’t “match” but they “go,” kind of like a good outfit. You can see Levitated Mass, a giant boulder installation that caused quite a stir when it made its way to LACMA, and Urban Light (photo at top), the installation that launched a million selfies. You can even see an Alexander Calder mobile and fountain around back.

With admission, though, you can see art from every region in the world and almost every time period. It really is an extensive collection. Back in September we were there just about all day but didn’t even get the chance to see it all. I even went back a month ago and still haven’t seen everything there is to offer. The limited time exhibits are so, so good. The first time I saw a fascinating collection of works by Noah Purifoy, who I’d never heard of and now know so much about, and the second time Angela and I got to experience the famous Rain Room.

LACMA Calder
Alexander Calder – Three Quintains (Hello Girls)

Don’t forget that LACMA is directly adjacent to the fascinating La Brea Tar Pits, which are actual, active tar pits that have been excavated over the years and contain preserved animals. Like, real preserved prehistoric animals. You can see a lot of the tar pits by just walking around the outside, but if you pay for a ticket you can go inside the main building and get a tour and learn a lot more information and context about what you’re looking at. Oh yeah, and since they’re adjacent to the art museum you only have to pay for parking once, which is a huge win.

To be completely honest, I usually skedaddle before traffic gets bad so my tips for LA are more concentrated on the morning and midday—truncated around 4PM. My evening tips are lacking. LACMA is closer to Koreatown though, so do yourself a favor and get some authentic Korean BBQ nearby. Then, if you don’t have to be rolled outside by your friends (many KBBQ places are all you can eat) you can head back downtown to Spring Street to find some trouble to get into. Or instead, you can grab a quick In-N-Out burger and go catch an up-and-coming band or a newly released movie. You are in LA after all.