29 March 2012

Help

Since 2009 people have asked "How do you do it?" The obvious reasons are I don’t have money-sucking children, nor a mortgage, and Betty -- my car -- was a gift. There are other, less thought of factors too, which is why I've compiled a lot of travel tips. I’m positive you can save more money and will make your own adaptations, but here is a starting point. This worked for my Mom & I who were constantly budget-conscious but not on a backpacker's finances. If you really want to go cheap, check out a girlfriend's travel tips for the very conservative.

1) Look at a map, often (memorizing names is not dorky). Other than #3, this is vital. Absorbing intersections, landmarks and city names eventually leads to an unconscious awareness of your surroundings.  Likewise, an accurate map is worth its weight in gold. Let’s get serious: maps are expensive. Mom & I spent nearly $40 buying maps for Firenze, Roma, Athens and Santorini. Some at Borders were better than others. We ended up purchasing one that had a regional map, an inset of downtown, the different train routes and a landmark key all in one pamphlet. Keep them nice and return them after your trip!

Furthermore – especially if you’re going to be driving – it may be worth exploring the local library (if you do not have proof of residence you may not be eligible to receive a card and check out materials. I had to show proof in Australia).  In the land down under, I checked out a national atlas and used it religiously as Mom & I gallivanted around Queensland.  The atlas detailed mile-markers and secret rest stops which helped us know where to spend the night.
 
2) First time in a new city?  Take a taxi or airport shuttle.  This general rule worked well for Mom & I.  Already exhausted from traveling we did not want to lug around suitcases nor were we familiar with the area.  Had we rode the bus I doubt we would have known at which stop to disembark and the one-way streets in most metropoli make navigating by vehicle sometimes difficult.

3) Bested only by #1 on this list: prepare, prepare, prepare. Mom & I started researching flights weekly 5 months before our departure.  We tracked the rates, therefore, getting the best price.  We met a Pennsylvanian family in Florence who booked all their excursions/airfare/lodging through a travel agency and ended up spending ~$2,000 more than we did (and they were only in Italy for one week; we stayed three). 

Though planning any trip is stressful, by the time Mom & I actually arrived in Italy we had a clearer idea of what to expect.  For instance, we read about combination and skip-the-line tickets for Italy's popular sites which allowed us to bypass the very long queues.

Here is my general process for planning a trip: I read an entire travel book from front to back, write down every page that seems remotely interesting. Based on my pages I narrow my trip down to specific regions and must-sees. Then, I photocopy the pages so that I can highlight/make notes/have maps as I create my itinerary.

4) Be open to the options. Do you really need to stay smack-dab in the center of town? Sadly, there was a lot of false advertising about the amenities offered through Priceline.com's hotels and on Expedia.com too.  For example, our hotel in Fiumicino, Italy, stated there was an airport shuttle on request. That was a blatant lie & I ended up forking out €20 each way (the website still boasts a fictitious shuttle to this day).  Yet, even after adding in the cost of the shuttle, Fiumicino was still cheaper and nicer than lodging at a one-star hotel in Rome.

In Brisbane, Australia, I booked a 5-star Hilton hotel for $69 USD before tax!  Last, don’t feel like you need to stick to just American carriers that fly internationally. Mom & I met a couple from New York that used AerLingus (Ireland’s primary carrier) to book their flight for ~$250 less.
5) Drink water at restaurants (even though it's not always free, it's more economical), splurge on groceries and drink soda at your "home". Take advantage of continental breakfasts offered by hotels – they're not necessarily the tastiest but it's free sustenance.  Hey, you might even try something new (like arancia rossa juice)!  I also took some of the pre-packaged items -- like yogurt -- from the breakfast bar and saved them for snacks later.
6) Listen to the locals because they almost always know best. I would never have discovered Cueva Ventana in Puerto Rico if not for picking my guide's brain about the area.  It was never mentioned in any travel books nor were there any sort of directions to it.  When I arrived, I initially over-looked the dirt trail leading to it, but it was one of the most stunning experiences I had in Puerto Rico.  When Mom & I entered a family-owned convenient/grocery store in Athens the owner showed and introduced us to the local fruit, pointed out his favorite snacks foods, and was incredibly helpful.  If not for a nameless man and a knowledgeable dollar store woman, Mom & I may never have found the SITA bus depot in Florence. 
7) Discipline yourself. I think I bought one new t-shirt in the two years leading up to my 2011 European vacation. Other than utilities, gas, and food, there were few extra-curricular expenditures. Stopping just one bad habit really adds up! It was also mentally difficult to go almost two years without a vacation (I took some long-weekend trips) which is why #21 is paramount.

8) Be money savvy. The bad news: No matter how much you try to avoid losing money during a currency conversion, it will happen. The good news: You’ve got options. Before flying overseas, I inquired at my local bank to determine their exchange rate (and any applicable fees). They didn’t offer a competitive rate so I decided to take my chances and try an American or European airport. At the airports especially, the more you’re willing to exchange the better rate you will receive. At JFK in New York City, NY, Mom & I only lost $.04 per euro.  On the contrary, know when to cut your losses and exchange as soon as you get a decent rate.  For example, Mom refused to sell her euros for a decent rate, thinking the motherland would give her a better offer... nope!  She ended up taking an additional $0.12 cut here in the USA.

I traded my credit cards for others that offered "Cash Back" bonuses. With my Discover card cash back bonus, for every $20 I redeemed I received a rental gift card for double the amount. Basically a $300 car rental would only cost $150 – not even out of pocket – but from my "cash back rewards."

9) Always have a camera ready.  I used to look at all the geeks in foreign cities with their bulky cameras slung around their necks.  Yet, after I missed a priceless photo opportunity at Piazza del Popolo, I understood why "geeks" do this.  Mom still tells me how she awoke the first morning in Blackdown Tablelands National Park and saw a kookaburra three feet away staring back at her, but her camera was trapped in the trunk of the hire car.  You just never know where, when & what God will bestow upon you...
(Saw this on my usual afternoon run in Mackay. Thanks cell phone camera!)

10) Book everything in advance/buy foreign transport from American websites to pay a cheaper rate.  While waiting for our room at Hotel Della Signoria a solo Asian traveler on-the-spot inquired about a vacant room to which the clerk told him the rate per night was almost double what we had paid online.  Many hotels and travel agencies worldwide connect you with excursion companies, but Mom & I paid much less (and in US dollars instead of the more expensive Euro) for things like rental cars (this was the only way we found unlimited mileage), Uffizi passes, and reasonably priced tours.
11) Get off the main road... for the experience but moreover for the savings.  On Via Por Santa Maria -- the main Florentine street -- I paid €20 (about $30!) for two scoops of gelato on nasty waffles.  Just a few roads northeast Mom & I found gelato significantly cheaper. Also, at Fiumicino airport in Rome calling cards cost €35 for 60 minutes. In a ubiquitous souvenir shop next door to Vatican City I bought a €10 card containing 30 international minutes.

12) Don't be afraid to haggle (for rides, souvenirs, lodging, everything).  I've been to Mexico three times & my dad never paid the going rate.  How do you politely say "Sorry, but you're ripping me off"?  I avoid the situation entirely by confidently approaching the driver and -- before he/she can speak -- asking "Will you take us to _______ for $___?"  It is factual and honest. I bet you if that driver says no, there will be a driver who will accept your rate.  I've even done this in the podunk city of Sandusky, Ohio... and it worked.

Similarly, if you think it's a rip-off, don't be afraid to flat out lie.  It seemed I was being nickle-and-dimed to death in Puerto Rico.  $0.50 for the restroom at Cueva Ventana, $2 parking for a dumpy lot near Pinones beach.  Eventually, I ended up lying by stating that I did not drive there/that I arrived via taxi.  I don't feel bad about it.

13) Understand that nothing goes as planned & plan accordingly.  Sometimes you fall incredibly ill.  Sometimes it rains.  Sometimes you can't get to your rest stop one hour away because there are too many kangaroos relaxing on the highway.  I suggest scheduling the most important and/or weather-dependent activity for the first few days of the trip.  If there is unfavorable weather or unforeseen circumstances, you still have time. Although it created a dilemma then, Mom & I were thrilled to have three unplanned days at the end of our 2011 European trip to tie up loose ends, explore further, or rest.

14) Accept your limits.  I definitely pushed & found mine in Puerto Rico.  Not content seeing two beautiful beaches, I just had to see the third -- and last -- beach on the trail.  The potholes were more like sinkholes for my little 125cc Yamaha scooter.  I took a nasty fall which resulted in tearing my new backpack and jarring the entire right side of my body.  And that was just the first fall.  I could -- and probably should -- have sustained a crushed ankle from pushing my limits & that would have been the ultimate vacation buzzkill!
15) Work out ahead of time.  You never know when you'll be forced to run for a plane, hike a volcano (or a super-steep street in Siena), or sprint 30 blocks because you left your daily medicine in the hotel refrigerator (did that in Greece).  Not to mention long flights in a cramped coach cabin can lead to Deep Vein Thrombosis (DVT) which can be fatal.  En route to Australia on a six hour layover at LAX, Mom strapped on her backpack and walked laps around the concourse to condition her lower body.  You'll be glad you did when a 75 pound nugget named Meg tries to drag you across the park.
16) Is ignorance always bliss?  I'm a bit torn on this tip.  In Australia, Mom & I wandered onto and off of a CityCat boat taxi in Brisbane for hours for free.  In our defense there was no information posted, no personnel anywhere (except for the captain who was isolated in a glass room) and nothing to process the tickets.  If the transportation authority really wanted our money I would think they would do a better job at enforcing their procedures.  In Las Vegas, I bought a 24-hour bus ticket the first day/first trip to the casinos.  When I realized everyone sort of flashed their ticket to the driver, I followed suit & slid under the radar for the remaining three days of vacation.  However, in Italy, tickets are infrequently checked for validation but the adage "Oh officer, I'm sorry, I didn't know" will not spare you the immediate €75 fine.  So maybe paying €3 each trip is worth it?  Maybe it all evens out in the end?
17) Be wary of everything you read.  I've read quite a few Lonely Planet and Frommer's books and despite their plethora of writers, a lot of the site descriptions are seasonal or inaccurate.  The same wariness applies to Expedia.com and Priceline.com.  For example, our "Tuscany" cooking group was supposed to be transported to a "medieval palace."  What really happened:  the group walked across a bridge, turned left into an alley, squeezed into an unassuming rowhouse, and feasted in the damp, musty basement.

Even worse, Mom & I descended for a mile in search of a "waterfall" on one of Mt. Coot-tha's trails, only to arrive at a pile of dirt, leaves and water that dripped off a rock overhang.  Maybe that description was written during Queensland's wet season!?  Needless to say we were bummed and -- to add to our misery -- we had to hike another mile as we retraced our steps.  I had every intention of hiking Kjeragbolten in Norway, but thank God I inquired ahead of time.  It turned out this "hike" was grueling with its 4,000 foot elevation + rocky footing/lack of a trail + over 8 hours + required an overnight visit (or a completely-out-of-the-way, curvy, mountainous drive back to civilization).  In light of those new, unexpected circumstances, I decided to pass on Kjeragbolten.

18) Never look at postcards, Google photos, or read insider's guides beforehand. Doing so ruins that priceless moment and emotional connection when you see something for the first time ever.  Not to mention, most landmarks/scenes look better on a postcard (where the weather, birdseye view, crowd, and lighting is ideal) than in real life.  Mom read an in-depth book about the Uffizi on the flight to Italy and was bored to tears when we actually toured the museum.
19) Share.  How else can you learn what to expect, what to buy and what to bypass? Some of the most rewarding things I've done have not been extrapolated on by guidebooks or are easy to miss to the unaware visitor.

20) Sleep in your vehicle.  There are countries where this is a huge DON'T. For me, Australia, most of Europe & Puerto Rico are not on that list.  I felt completely safe in rest areas along the highway, campgrounds, hospital parking lots and even an unkempt driveway in a residential area.  In Oz, a lot of places there had amenities like hot showers, restrooms with running water and fire pits.  If you are short, sleeping in a reclined driver's seat is actually comfortable!  To save luggage room and weight, I borrowed two airline blankets & used one as a pillow.
21) Commit.  Visualize your goal.  Reading travel books about my next destination always gets me excited because it jump starts my imagination.  One of my favorite Christmas gifts was a daily, tear-away calendar all about Australia from my cousin Julia... and years later I still have those pictures to leaf through because they remind me why I want to return.  I have X-ed off days on my calendar, made a paper chain with words of encouragement, and taken the complimentary magazine from my doctor's office because it had a two-page article about Puerto Rican islands. Talking about my dreams with others affirmed them and made my plans feel do-able.  This was my workspace... can you tell where I wanted to go next?
While #1 and #3 are extremely helpful, the majority of this list relates to tangible suggestions; #21 is the most spiritual.  Your attitude, your motivation and your faith will be what influences the actions you take as best written by W.H. Murray in The Scottish Himalayan Expedition 1951:
"But when I said that nothing had been done I erred in one important matter. We had definitely committed ourselves and were halfway out of our ruts. We had put down our passage money--booked a sailing to Bombay.

This may sound too simple, but is great in consequence.  Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back, always ineffectiveness. Concerning all acts of initiative (and creation), there is one elementary truth,  the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then providence moves too.

A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one's favor all manner of unforeseen incidents, meetings and material assistance, which no man could have dreamt would have come his way."

22) You are not the center of the universe.  There are 6.4 billion people on Earth.  Therefore, it is pure ignorance to act like you are the only person on vacation.  I am talking to the family that walks four-deep across tight, crowded Roman alleyways, forcing others to play a game of Red Rover with them.  I'm referring to the tourists whose noses are practically smashed against the glass, leaving no viewing room for anyone else.  If they just took three steps back, every single person could see!  I am referring to that annoying person who pushes into your spine & nips at your heels.  I do not appreciate you bumping me with your purse as we all wait in the same IcelandAir queue.  I am calling out the high-maintenance flyers who believe their jacket warrants space in the overhead compartment.  Did you choose to not pack it in a suitcase?  Okay, consequentially keep it at your seat so travelers can use that space for its true purpose: luggage.  I mean the tourists that unexpectedly halt in the streets of Florence to look through a window or down at a map without regard for the hordes behind them.  Did God bless you with legs? Yes, then please step to the side & do not make the rest of the world screech to a halt behind just you.  Poor Greek lady, are you angry that I shoved you in the gut?  Perhaps next time you should heed my "excuse me"s and not loiter -- with your four sisters -- at the conveyor belt as passengers claim their baggage.  However, if you are reading this entry now, you probably have enough wits about you & not any of these self-centered culprits.

23) You can board transportation early.  Our taxi whisked us away so quickly to the port of Elba [Italy] that the previous ferry was still at the dock.  Not wanting to wait an hour for our ticketed ferry, Mom decided we press our luck.  When I noticed the ticket's time was printed in the top right corner, I carefully ripped that piece of the paper but assured the date remained visible.  It worked & we saved ourselves time.

Furthermore, I have only been denied boarding an aircraft early once -- and it was so long ago I do not remember the carrier.  This is imperative whence traveling with carry-on luggage since you don't want to check your bag to its final destination and chance it getting lost (read: being stuck in the Arctic Circle with nothing but a pair of jeans). The key is to shoot the gap.  I was convinced of the theory and, recently, when I flew to California I tested it.  Unless you are dressed the part, aiming for boarding with First or Business Class is too presumptuous.  Out of the 5 boarding groups for United Airlines (I was Group 3) I positioned myself toward the end of Group 1.  As I neared the podium,  the second corral was called forth and I was sandwiched in instead of being the renegade at the back of the line.  If your ticket is open (i.e. it's pre-printed from a computer) you're more likely to slide because it's ready to be scanned.  If the gate attendant has to actually unfold it or wait for you to, it breaks his/her repetitive motion & you're more likely to be busted.  However, the use of smartphones as tickets has greatly improved your chances of boarding prematurely!  Worried I would be found out, but in need of overhead space on a full flight, I watched the gentleman ahead of me turn his phone over on the scanner.  Imagine my excitement to learn I didn't even have to give this gate cop my ticket, I could approach the machine with my ticket face-down.  Outcome: second person in the back of the plane & an empty overhead bin of my choice.  For those of you who follow the order, I apologize & commend you for a type of patience I will never have.

24) Please don't touch.  Please.  How would you like to be harassed while eating dinner... not just a telemarketing call but the actual salesman in your house hounding you?  How would you enjoy being petted & cooed at while using the commode?  Exactly.  So don't do it the animals, insects, ruins -- anything!  I refused to summit Uluru's cairn  because it'd be like crawling all over a church's altar; using a synagogue as a playground; man-handling a temple's idols.  No one else cares to read your name carved into Indian Staircase atop Red River Gorge.  Would it have been new to touch the sea turtle's shell [in Belize]?  Of course, but humans need to respect the earth & not treat it like a toy.  Plus, you are altering Mother Nature's course & where is the authenticity in that?  You are a true traveler when you know it is more meaningful, respectful and enjoyable to observe the life around you, rather than disrupt it.

25) Write it all down: the little details (like almost running over a 4 foot long iguana), the mishaps, the images that make you do a double-take. There are experiences I vowed I would never forget, but I have, and rereading my journal, chicken-scratch on scrap paper, postcards, or blog helps me relive the experience and remember why traveling is so precious to me. Feel free to comment with your travel-isms & go forth!

2 comments:

  1. Girl you certainly have a gift and I enjoy reading and visualizing you and your mothers reactions and hearing your witty comments on locals lol. The furtest I have been was Las Vegas w Kurt 2 years ago (1st time in big plane too) and I remember the scary yet excited feeling of exploring all I could! Keep posting stories and my heart will surly smile!! Next up for you looks like Canada!!! Enjoy!

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  2. Thank you girl, that really means a lot to me. Haha I still get jitters flying, I could imagine how nervous you were on your first flight =) did you like Las Vegas? Even if you never leave the country I'm sure theres lots to explore in just the USA. Thanks for reading!!!

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