I arrived home a few weeks ago from an almost-two-week vacay in Europe. Not really a vacation; as my brother would say, I took a trip not a vacation. A vacation is when you go lay on a beach somewhere and relax. We did anything BUT relax on this trip.
We left on a Thursday afternoon (local time) and arrived in Germany the following day around noon (local time). We stayed in a studio apartment-type Air BnB with five people altogether (we’re all best friends now), slept about 10 hours total in the first four days, ate more pretzels than I’ve ever had in my life (oh, the carbs!), went to an all-day/half-the-night beautiful wedding, and explored the ruins of a castle.
And that was just the first weekend.
I could tell you of the beer we had by the lake in Sternberg, the songs and table-standing in the tents of Oktoberfest (not to mention all the Lederhosen). I could tell you of the food markets in Copenhagen, the gorgeous canal tour along Nyhavn, and the back-stage tour of the Danish version of NPR. I could tell you of the living earth in Iceland, where weather changes in minutes rather than hours or days, and the best (and most expensive) meal I’ve ever eaten.
I could tell you so much more.
With all of these amazing stories, you’d think I was rich. You’d think I make a six-figure salary and don’t have a care in the world about finances.
Guys, my day job is a dietitian.
I have to be crafty when it comes to finances to make travel + life fit together. This was my third time to Europe, but my first time to travel while having had a “grown-up” job for more than five years. Which means I’ve figured out how to travel cheap.
I’m not an expert by any means, but here’s how I make travel work for me.
Save Your Pennies
Travel has always been a part of my budget. Even if I don’t exactly know what trip I’m saving for, it’s always had priority.
I don’t dye my hair or do my nails (I mean, maybe once a year). I don’t have cable TV (who has time to watch it, anyway?). Going out to eat is part of my “entertainment” budget and I always pack my lunch for work. I drive a piddly car that has enough space for my camping gear but still gets upwards of 40 mpg in terms of fuel efficiency.
At various times the “travel” part of my budget has ranged from $50/month to several hundred dollars per month (really depending on how many roommates I can split rent with). There are lots of different types of software and apps to help track expenses. I use a free tool called Mint, which I can access online or via an app on my phone. It syncs all my accounts and credit cards so it’s easy to keep track of spending and saving.
“Travel” has been a line item in my Mint account for a long time.
Alternate heading: “Pack Light & Stay in Shape”
Where I Stay
While sometimes it’s fun to stay in a fancy hotel with all the amenities, my goal of travel is to see the world. Thus, a hotel is just a place to sleep for me. Instead, my usual abode is one of the following…
Hostels: I’ve stayed in more hostels with shared bathrooms than I can count. When I was in college, I usually found a shared women’s dormitory-style room, but most hostels offer a private room with shared bathroom for cheap – ideal if you’re traveling with a buddy
Air BnB: This service is perfect if you’re traveling with a group. It’s not always the least expensive if it’s just a couple, but for friends or extended family it works great.
Mid-grade hotels: As an “adult” and wanting a little more privacy, Hotels.com has been a great resource. I collect one free night for every 10 nights I book with this service, so our stay in Iceland turned out to be “free.”
As a Guest: If you know people abroad, contact them! We stayed with family in Copenhagen, which was one of the best experiences I’ve ever had. Not only did we have a wonderful place to stay and see how real people live in different places, we also had the best tour guides I’ve experienced.
What I Pack
After losing my luggage when traveling for a long weekend in Costa Rica a few years ago, I vowed to never check a bag again. I’m sure at some point in my life I’ll have to rethink this rule, but so far I’ve figured how to travel for up to three weeks with only a carry-on and a personal item.
Carry-ons only. If you need help with this, check out this great post from Smarter Travel for all kinds of travel scenarios.
Always backpack, never rolly bag. My all-time favorite travel item is my Osprey Farpoint 40 carry-on size backpack-slash-travel bag (check Amazon if you’re thinking about a purchase). I plan to walk at least five miles on travel days with all my luggage, going from hotel –> metro –> train station –> airport –> train station –> hotel. You get the idea; there’s no way I’m dragging a 50-pound suitcase over the cobblestones of downtown Rome.
How I Travel
Mostly by foot, but sometimes by train, plane, bus or (rarely) automobile. Once I took an overnight ferry from Sweden to Denmark because it simultaneously A) got me where I needed to go, B) saved money since I didn’t need a separate hotel (Scandanavian countries are expensive!), and C) was a cool experience, albeit a tiny and somewhat uncomfortable bedroom.
By plane. I always book major travel plans in advance so I have a basic itinerary. My favorite sites to find flights are Google Flights, SkyScanner (sometimes picks up foreign airlines that Google doesn’t), and a new one my roommate recently told me about: Skiplagged (especially for domestic flights).
By train, subway, and/or metro. Almost all foreign cities have a pretty phenomenal public transportation system. Once you have wifi abroad (or if you invest in a foreign data plan while you travel), Google maps is great at picking out how to use public transit to go from point A to point B. Despite being a millennial, I’m a little more old-fashioned and like to have a map of the subway system and figure it out myself. I’ve always been able to find this map as soon as I get off the plane in a foreign city.
By foot. If you’re like me and not great with directions, find a map of the city and learn how to read it. On this latest trip, I found it’s pretty fun just to walk to the large cathedral dome you can pick out and explore the city along the way. Just don’t forget how to get back to your Air BnB!
Get Creative & Choose Expenses Wisely
It’s taken trial, error, and more than a few mistakes to learn when it’s worth it to spend money. I’ve taken trips which I penny-pinched so much I missed out on some un-miss-out-able things (why didn’t I pay for the good paella when I was in Madrid??) and also accidentally spent a lot of money on a three-course dinner my first-ever time in Italy when I was 19 (that also happened to be a dish of prawns WITH THE EYES STILL INTACT that I didn’t expect; apparently “marinara” in Italian does NOT mean “red sauce”).
Find a restaurant before you’re hangry. Yes, hanger: the feeling of anger one experiences when hungry. Don’t mess around with hanger or it’s guaranteed to cost you a pretty penny and start an argument with your travel buddies. Also a good idea to travel with snacks; check out my recent post about healthy travel snacks for ideas!
Use your points! I save a lot of money on travel by signing up for free rewards programs: my credit card earns $2 out of every $100 that I spend that I can use to pay myself back for travel expenses. I already told you about my free hotel nights. Expedia, Orbitz, and other travel search engines have similar deals. Most airlines have frequent flyer miles that are also free to sign up for.
Consider work or study abroad. In college I studied Spanish outside of Madrid for three months. It not only gave me the opportunity to hone my Spanish skills (which have been very useful in the grown-up workplace), but also provided the opportunity to travel all over Europe for much less than if coming from the States. It was no more expensive than a semester at K-State, but was an unforgettable and life-changing experience. There are all kinds of work opportunities abroad from teaching English to working on a cruise ship to working with an aid organization (just please pick a credible organization).
Traveling is one of my very favorite things; I’ve learned more about myself, culture, and how the world works by traveling than I have from any other experience. It’s heightened my empathy towards people who are not like me and helped me understand my (very small) place in the world.
So what about you? Where was your favorite vacation? Where do you long to go? How (and with whom) do you travel best? And what are your favorite travel tips?
With the love of exploration and travel from Peas & Hoppiness.