As I was writing up the post for day 2, I started to write a list of cheap travel tips. After I’d finished, I took a look at it and realized that it was really long enough to be its own post, so I figured I’d post it as such, and I’ll get the day 2 post up later today.
Incidentally, this was by far my most expensive vacation since the last time I went to Italy a couple of summers ago. As trips to Europe go, it was still fairly cheap. Not counting airfare, it ended up being around $70/day, but that’s still a lot for how I usually travel. So here are tips 1-3:
1.) Be prepared for hassles/snafus, and be prepared to be patient with hassles. Yeah, my plane ticket was cheap (almost half of what I paid two summers ago to fly to Italy) but I also had two layovers (6 hours total) on the way there, three airlines, and five itinerary changes. We waited until the last minute to book hotels, hoping Couchsurfing connections would come through, which they unfortunately didn’t. And because I’m mildly Type A, not knowing where I was going to stay before I got on the plane was a bit unnerving, to say the least. As far as hotels, we didn’t stay in any truly hideous ones, but cheap hotels mean you don’t always get a bathroom in your own room, so if this sort of thing bothers you, you might want to pay extra for one that is “ensuite”.
2.) Find out when it’s cheap to travel and travel then if at all possible. That’s why I ended up in Rome in November — I had a week off of school, and this is the low season for European tourism. I really think it was the best time to go! The weather was PERFECT–low 70s and sunny until our last day there, when it was overcast/threatening rain and low 60s. And nothing was really hideously crowded. Contrast this with when I went two summers ago and it was during one of those heat waves you read about in the newspaper where all the elderly people are dying across Europe (100+ and 95% humidity) and shoulder-to-shoulder crowds for everything (and the amount we paid for a hotel was easily double what we paid this trip!) and, well, forget it.
That said, I’m really lucky to be at the school I’m at. The “high season” for travel coincides with most school breaks, so usually it’s more expensive to travel, but where I am now, we get a week for Thanksgiving, a week in February (new this year, and I’m not complaining!) and a week at Easter. Yeah, a week’s not a whole lot for a trip (most people, when I mentioned my Thanksgiving plans to them, responded with some form of, “You’re going to Rome for a WEEK?!?”) but it was totally worth it, because if I had gone during either Christmas or the summer, it would have been a LOT more expensive! That’s also why I’m hoping to go to Cuba, er, Mexico City, in February. (Cuba? Me? Never! That’s illegal!) Still not sure if that’s going to work out, but I could do that trip (airfare included) for less than this Italy trip cost… so it’s really really tempting. :-)
Incidentally, I’m also really lucky in that jet lag rarely bothers me, so it’s not an issue of needing to be there longer in order to get over jet lag and enjoy myself.
3.) Search for plane tickets early and often. I have an account set up with Yapta.com, a travel site where you can put in where you want to go, when you want to go, and how much you want to pay, and it’ll send you an email alert when the tickets get to the price you set. That’s not actually how I found my ticket to Rome, but it is still a cool site, and I’ve got other searches set up with them for other trips I want to take. For my Rome tickets, since the dates were set as to when I needed to leave and return, I used Kayak.com, which is my preferred site for looking up air travel (that’s also how I found my $450 ticket to Dublin for next summer.) You can’t actually book through Kayak–they’re just a fare finder, so I booked through Orbitz, which I’m not entirely thrilled about (since they changed my itinerary, including length of layovers and number of stops) FIVE times before our trip… but I wanted the cheapest tickets, and they had them, so oh well. In the grand scheme of things, it was worth the hassle.
4.) Work your connections for lodging. Ok, so Couchsurfing failed us this trip, but between staying with friends and staying with Couchsurfers, I didn’t pay a thing for my last couple of big trips (London in August and Washington DC last Thanksgiving.) Usually when I travel in the US and have to stay in a hotel, I hit up Priceline.com, and I usually have a fair amount of luck — when I went to the Reno balloon races, I think I paid $40/night for that hotel. This time around, since the three of us were splitting lodging, it ended up being the same amount (if not cheaper) to stay in a hotel vs. staying in a hostel, so that’s what we did. Which leads me to #5…
5.) Travel with others to split the costs. I’m lucky in that I had two awesome traveling companions, and while it was great to be able to split the cost of everything three ways, this trip definitely went past that in terms of funness and companionship. It’s a real treat to travel with your two best friends. :-)
6.) Bring your own food and drink as much as possible. I always travel with a reusable water bottle. That way I can empty it out before airport security, fill it up afterwards, and keep it filled on the trip. Usually restaurants charge for water, and buying soda in a restaurant is EXPENSIVE (€3 on average!) and not refillable like in the US, so if you’re cheap like me, it’s best to bring your own water, and have some before and after dinner (or when the waiter’s not looking, if you absolutely can’t wait until after dinner.) For lunch, I always travel with cheese, crackers, dried fruit, and chocolate. This time we also had trail mix, but we ran out of both that and the dried fruit on the first day, and didn’t find any at the small grocery store we went to. We also made the mistake of buying saltines at the grocery store… Let me just point out that those don’t travel particularly well! Heh.
As far as the cheese goes, unless you’re keeping it somewhere really warm, as long as you keep it well-wrapped in paper, it will keep for at least three days without refrigeration. If it’s already prone to being a stinky cheese, it may get a bit more pungent, but it’s still safe to eat. (And oh how I love my stinky cheese… much to John’s chagrin on a plane coming back from Amsterdam to London this past summer, when I unwrapped my already-stinky-made-stinkier-by-two-days-in-a-backpack cheese lunch.) We found a couple of cheese shops over the course of the week and bought cheese for our lunches, and when we were in Sorrento the guy at the cheese shop talked me into a small loaf of bread (what can I say — I’ m a sucker for good bread.) The loaf cost almost as much as the entire box of crackers, but it was SOOOO good… and hey, it lasted the three of us two days of lunch, so that’s still cost-efficient. Oh, and in a pinch, dental floss and a couple of pens make a great travel cheese slicer (thanks for the dental floss, Joel!) :-)
That said, I’m not always cheap when I could be.
Things we did on this trip that weren’t cheap:
1.) Took the express train in from the airport (€11/$16.50) when we could have taken a local (€5,50/$7.25) or a bus (around €3/$4.50 total, if I remember correctly.) We took the express because it took 30 minutes (whereas the local would have taken 1-1.5 hours and required 1 transfer, and the bus would have taken at least 2 hours and three transfers.)
2.) Ate out at a restaurant almost every single night. I definitely don’t usually do this while traveling, but geez, who can resist Italian food in Italy? Well, actually, by the end of the week, I could… I was pretty burnt out on pasta and pizza, so I was really happy on our last night there when John and I found a lunch counter that served 1/4 plain roasted chicken with a side of roasted rosemary potatoes (OMG those were SO GOOD.) It was €3/$4.50 total for the two of us, and was plenty of food. That said, when we did eat out, we stuck to the trattorias, so it was still fairly reasonable… if you can call €6/$9 for a plate of pasta reasonable. It adds up after a while.
3.) Went to expensive tourist sites, booked tickets ahead of time online, and paid extra for the audio tours. The three places we went to that really weren’t cheap were the Colosseum, Vatican Museum (where the Sistine Chapel is) and Pompeii. We booked online for the first two because I didn’t want to have to waste time waiting in line (two summers ago I stood in line for 2 hours for the Colosseum and 3 for the Vatican Museum), but they do charge a fairly steep service charge (about €4/$6 per ticket.) Once inside, we paid extra for the audio guides, which, depending on the place, were between €4/$6 and €7/$10.50 apiece (at Pompeii, John and I shared one and just split the headphones we’d brought specifically for this purpose… although it’s kind of awkward trying to walk and share headphones.) But in my opinion, the audio guides are worth it — what’s the point of spending all that money to be there and then not knowing what you’re looking at? I suppose we could have just bought a guidebook, or, even cheaper, checked one out from the public library and brought it with us, but since we traveled with only carry-on luggage, space and weight were at a premium.
Hmmm… I think that’s pretty much it. I mean, there are TONS of sites with cheap travel tips online, so it’s not like any of this is anything new — it’s just what I do so that I can finally satisfy my urge to travel.
So where’s next? Well, like I said, I’m hoping to end up somewhere interesting in February (somewhere interesting that’s definitely not Cuba, as that would most definitely not be legal, and I’d never do anything like fly to Mexico and then bribe a Cuban immigration official to not stamp my passport), but we’ll see how that works out money-wise. I really need to save up for next summer, which is when I’m planning to finally do the get-a-train-ticket-and-travel-Europe-for-as-long-as-possible thing that I’ve been wanting to do since college. I already have a plane ticket to Dublin, and I have a tentative itinerary after that, but it’s definitely subject to negotiation and change. There are many boxes of breakfast cereal to be consumed for many non-breakfast meals between now and then, if ya know what I mean. :-)