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!

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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).

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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!

Eurotrip 2016: Part 3 (Madrid)

See Part 1 here and Part 2 here. 

The final leg of our trip was Madrid, Spain. Doug and I were both eager to experience Madrid since neither of us had been there before—and we were going to see our friend from college, Jonathan! Actually, having a friend in Madrid was one of the main reasons we booked a trip to Europe in the first place. We want to travel, well, everywhere, but were drawn to the prospect of seeing an old friend in a new place. We were glad to finally see the sun!

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The first day in Madrid didn’t quite go according to plan. Originally, we were supposed to arrive around 2:30 p.m. and check into our airbnb right away. However, as you may have read in my last post, our flight from Paris was cancelled and we rebooked the next, cheapest flight available. It happened to leave Paris around 6 a.m. which meant we woke up between 3:30 and 4 a.m. since we were worried about getting to the airport, checking baggage, and everything. (Paris’s airport is kind of far outside the city and it’s worth adding in extra time to get there). Anyway, our flight put us in Madrid around 10 a.m. We couldn’t check into our airbnb, so we had 4 hours to kill in a new city with all our luggage in tow.

We ate at a nearby restaurant called El Madroño. The staff were a bit confused about Americans eating a full-fledged lunch at 11 a.m. because most of the restaurants don’t even open until around that time, and the lunch rush at most places is closer to 2. (note: I discovered that I loved running on Madrid Time). Anyway we really tried to drag out the meal because we didn’t have anywhere to go with all of our stuff.

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After we’d overstayed our welcome at the restaurant we headed up to Plaza Mayor, which is probably the most famous sight in Madrid and wasn’t very far from our airbnb. [Cut to us dragging rollerbags up a cobblestone hill.] Plaza Mayor is a nice, open square with a statue in the center. There are lots of restaurants and gift shops around the perimeter. We made a couple laps and stopped in the tourist center to get pamphlets and use their wi-fi. We walked a little farther to just outside an old monastery where we found a concrete bench. Doug read a book while I napped (comfy!).

Finally we were able to check into our flat. The wait was worth it! Out of the three airbnbs we stayed in this was… well, tied for the most picturesque, with Paris, but it only had four flights of stairs instead of six!

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After another nap and a shower, we were ready to explore some more, meeting our friend when he got out of work at 6pm. He showed us around a few more parts of town including Catedral de Almudena, which we went into; it is an old cathedral filled with interesting art, and the Palacio Real, or royal palace (we just looked at the outside).

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We continued to trek around the city—including to his apartment in the south part of the city to drop some stuff off, then we checked out Mercado San Miguel (below), had tapas for dinner, did more exploring out to the east, then back to our flat to stay up really late catching up and talking about old times—the best kind of conversations in my opinion. My fitbit clocked over 26,000 steps that day!

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The next morning we were exhausted and a bit under the weather, due to the rain in London and rain+stress in Paris. So, I slept in while Doug went out to explore the city. He didn’t find much because nothing really opens before 10. So, we had a lazy morning. Then we went to Retiro Park which is a beautiful huge park that has a variety of things to see, including Palacio de Cristal, and a large lake where one can rent a rowboat and paddle around. I bought a comic book (in Spanish) from one of the bookseller booths and we sat on the grass trying to decipher the plot using intuition, Doug’s beginner Spanish skills, and adapting my French knowledge to fit.

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During the evening was more bumming around with our friend. We had a fancy dinner at a culinary art school (so it was fancy but inexpensive) and checked out more of the Centro neighborhood. Lots of walking, but not as much as the day before.

On our final day in Madrid we went to Reina Sofia, the modern art museum. There is also one of the world’s top art museums, Museo Nacional del Prado, but we’d seen a lot of classic-style art in the Louvre and overall, we prefer modern art. (Also, Reina Sofia was a bit cheaper and we were nearly out of Euros by this point).

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That evening, we were able to see Jonathan in a variety show! It turns out there is a thriving expat performing arts community in Madrid. I was really excited to be able to attend—he does stand-up too, usually on the weekends. This show was on a Wednesday, fortunately for us!

The next morning we made it to the airport with plenty of time, and didn’t have to get up at 4 a.m. to do it. Ah, it’s so nice when things go according to plan.

The beat of life in Madrid was much more slow and leisurely, which was a great change of pace after busy, bustling London and cosmopolitan Paris. By this point in the trip Doug and I both had full-fledged colds so it was nice (and necessary!) to slow down.

Busy-busy-busy trips have their pros, and so do relaxing trips. What pace of life do you look for on a vacation?