Sunday, August 17, 2014

Travel Budgeting

Travel is a fun amazing adventure, but it can be quite expensive. In my household, we are continuously saving for our next trip. Whether it’s the $800-$900 for air for two to Mazatlan or several thousand to visit Europe, it takes plenty of planning and saving.

We live in the Tacoma area, which means all of our flights go out of Sea-Tac International Airport. If you are lucky enough to live in LA or New York, your air prices are a lot less than ours because your flights are more direct. Lucky you. When we go to Mazatlan or Puerto Vallarta, we choose Alaska Air flights through LAX or San Francisco because they are the most direct for the money. For Europe, we usually have to make one or two plane changes before we get to our final destination. Those extra flights add cost to our trips as well as time.

There are several factors to look at besides just the cost of the plane ticket when you are planning a trip. The cheapest ticket may not be the best choice for you. Routing is very important too. Some airlines only go through certain airports which can add up to many wasted hours between you and your final destination, even as much as a whole day. Ask yourself if saving $25-$50 is worth a whole day of your hard-earned (and in the US, probably short) vacation. Take Mazatlan from Seattle for example. We can fly the cheapest with US Air, but it flies though Phoenix, several hours beyond our destination, and then maybe on through Mexico City, an airport notorious for flight delays. Even on time, that flight takes 4-8 hours longer than our usual route through LA. The cost difference isn’t that much and we happily pay an extra $25 bucks to get to the fun sooner and with a lot less stress. It still takes a careful eye though, because Alaska Air often does this devilish thing where their connecting fight doesn’t leave LA to Mazatlan till the next day, and it’s not even cheaper. Also, routing is an important factor at certain times of the year, such as winter or hurricane season. We had to spend an extra day in New Orleans once because our flight via Dallas was cancelled due to hurricane force winds that blew out a large bank of windows at the Dallas Airport. Know the common weather problems at different airports for the time of year you are flying. Taking a southern or lowland transfer in winter over a northern one is a lot less likely to result in a snow delay for example.

Once you have decided when and how you want to fly, it’s not hard to start budgeting the cost of air for your trip. A site like Kayak will let you compare many different flights at the same time. That will give you your ballpark numbers for air. Then you also need to think about how long you will stay and let that guide your food and lodging costs. This can vary a great deal depending on where you are going and what kind of traveler you are. Here is where a good travel guide and research can help you. This is the time to ask yourself what style of hotel you want: Do you need air conditioning? Will you really use a spa or gym? I don’t care about spas or gyms, but control over my heat and AC are important enough to me to pay a little extra for. A travel guide can help you identify the average cost of hotels in the low, medium or high-end range for your destination. Will you be eating fast food or expensive restaurant food? A good average for meal costs is about $35-50 per person per day. Once you’ve made those decisions, you will know the total cost of the basics: transportation, lodging and food. Add in your extras like shopping money, local transportation costs for buses, trains or rental cars, and you’ll have your final number. When you see it, do not panic!

NOW you can work up your savings budget number. Take that total figure and divide it up by how many paydays you have until your trip. Even though the original number might have been scary, if you are serious about your trip, your savings number should scare you a lot less. If it’s higher than you are comfortable with, ask yourself if you can go a little later or shave off a day or two, or if there are things you are spending money on that are less important than your trip. Most of us waste a lot of money and this exercise will help you identify where you might be able to cut back on other costs. Can you change your phone plan or cable plan to a cheaper one? Do you buy a lot of meals or coffee out? For the one-month long Europe trip I plan to take with my husband in 2017, I need about $12,000. At the time I started saving for it, that worked out to saving $300 a month. I cut back on going out to dinner once I realized we were spending around $150 a month on dining out when we were just too lazy to cook. I also modified my land phone line plan, which saved me another $25 a month. Any tax return money we get will also go directly into the travel fund. Although it is not part of my budget, it will add to the fun money we have when it’s time to go. All it takes is planning and some discipline. If you really want to travel, you can do it. Start saving today!

Thanks for reading! May all your wanderings be blissful!

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Guide Book Review: Rick Steves’ Europe Through The Back Door 2014

    I want this blog to be a useful tool for travelers planning their journeys, and research is a big part of that, as I discussed in my first post. A good guidebook can help you immensely and a bad one is just dead weight, so travel guide reviews will be a regular part of this blog.
 I worked at a travel agency for 5 years and saw a lot of different guidebooks on their shelves from Berlitz to Frommer’s, Michelin to Steves. It was while I was working there that I really started reading them. As I was more able to travel myself, I began to put more effort into my own research and planning.
  I started at the library. Travel agencies don’t pay well, so free resources like the library are the right price before dropping 20 bucks on a book. I checked out Rick Steves books because I was familiar with him from his public television series and I like his down-home style and good attitude, plus he’s from my neck of the Northwest. He seems to know his stuff. I bought his Germany book in 2012.
  Currently, I’m planning a trip to Italy for next year and a more extensive Europe tour in 2017 for my 30th wedding anniversary, so I checked out Rick Steves’ Europe Through The Back Door 2014 guide. I was looking for an overview on Europe highlights and this guide seemed like a good place to start.
  First off, this guide is sub-titled “The Travel Skills Handbook” so that is a clue that this is designed for less experienced travelers. It does live up to that subtitle. Europe Through The Back Door is divided up into two main sections. The first half is all about travel skills. It begins with a map of Europe and then takes the reader on a step by step tour of how to budget and plan the trip, required paperwork such as passports and visas, how to pack, transportation options, money, common scams, communication and travel styles. The flow is practical and logical and the table of contents makes it easy to get to just what you want. Information is not just general. It includes phone numbers, addresses, web URLs and even bus lines when appropriate. I particularly appreciated the Theft and Scams section as well as Rick’s personal opinions on what places were overrated which helped me narrow down a rather large bucket list of sites for my trip.
  The second half of the book is called “Back Doors: Finding a Back Door of Your Own” and covers Rick’s favorite locales, divided up first by country or region and then listing a sampler of trips by interest such as chocolate lovers, castles or war history. While this section featured interesting info and was laid out by region, its features were “back door” travel, as in off the beaten path, less well known than the common tourist sites in each region. For the most common tourist sites in Rome or Paris, get a book specifically on those places.
  Overall, this book is a great tool for the inexperienced traveler just for the travel skills section alone. Even for an experienced traveler wanting to learn to pack lighter or to know the scams common to a new destination, this book is a good all-in-one resource to wise you up and get you excited for your travels. I give it 5 stars for the first half and 4 stars for the second half.
  Now for the real question: should you buy it, or just check it out from the library? Well, I used up all three of my renewals to keep this book for a total of 9 weeks so I could read it cover to cover. I have a charity event at a bookstore coming up and was wondering what to buy at that. There is a 90% chance I will buy this book at that event. I suggest you check it out from the library and decide for yourself.
  Thanks for reading! May all your wanderings be blissful!

Sunday, July 27, 2014

You're Not In Kansas Anymore!

Welcome to The Blissful Wanderer blog. As a lover of travel, culture and informed tourism, I hope to share information, experiences and opinions with other travel lovers that will help make our future travels a little more fun and a lot less stressful.
  I believe the key to successful travel is to be open-minded and accepting of the places we visit. I don’t know how many times I’ve been embarrassed by “ugly Americans” while I’m a guest in another country. Ugly behavior includes but is not limited to acting like a jerk because people don’t speak English, getting freaked out by things that are just done differently in the country being visited, and treating the locals like servants. Ugly behavior isn’t limited to Americans, but sometimes I feel like we work hard at cornering that market.
  Travel done well opens one’s mind to the rich history and culture of the human race. It can bring people together in greater understanding and appreciation to help build bridges toward a more peaceful future for our world. Traveling well requires courage, acceptance, and a willingness to learn from and appreciate our differences. Travel done ugly is fueled by intolerance, unrealistic expectations and frustration over the very differences a traveler should be trying to appreciate.
  How can you tell if you might be an ugly traveler? Watch an episode of HGTV’s House Hunters International for some clues. Do you go to a new country with zero knowledge of the way of life there then complain about it? Warning! Does the phrase "We don’t do it like this back home” frequently pass your lips? Red alert! Do you get angry when you go to another country and a waiter or taxi driver doesn’t speak your language? If the answer to any of these questions is yes, then you might be an ugly traveler setting a bad example and making it that much harder for everyone around you.
  I use House Hunters International as an example because almost every episode has at least one classic example of bad behavior. Almost all of them are based on poor planning leading to incorrect expectations and assumptions that could have been avoided with a little research ahead of time. Many inexperienced tourists share these common problems experienced by those newcomers:
  1. Language. Whether visiting or moving to a different country, don’t assume everyone speaks English. Many people will but many won’t. Arm yourself with at least a few basic phrases including “Do you speak English?” and “I don’t understand.” I have noticed that when I speak to a person in their own language first, even badly, they are appreciative of my effort and more willing to work with me and we end up learning from each other which is fun, as opposed to getting frustrated with each other which sucks.
  2. Kitchens and bathrooms and closets, oh my! Housing varies greatly in many European and South American countries. A German kitchen and bedroom is a lot different than an American one. A “suicide shower” which has an electrical device that heats water at the shower head, is a common and accepted feature in many Central and South American nations. Public and business bathrooms are not free in Germany. Suck it up and learn to accept it. Keep in mind that European culture and cities are a lot older than American ones. The buildings people still live and work in might be 100-200 years old, have no elevators and small kitchens. Closets are not common. I have seen far too many potential homebuyers complain about the lack of closets, small refrigerator or having a toilet in a separate room from the rest of the bathroom facilities. Knowing what is normal before you visit will make it easier to get used to. Instead of closets, expect to use an old-fashioned piece of furniture called a wardrobe. That tiny fridge and small supermarket are because most people don’t have cars and can’t or don’t want to carry 8 bags of groceries on the bus then up 8 flights of stairs. Instead, embrace the concept of buying fresh food every couple of days and appreciate the idea of fresh vegetables, a nice dessert from a local bakery or today’s fresh special fish or meat from the butcher or market. Yes, these lovely industries are all still viable and lively businesses in most of Europe. Isn’t that wonderful?
  3. Public transportation. You might never ever take the bus or train in your home city, but it is often the most common form of transportation in most European cities. Gas is crazy expensive in Europe, running about double what we pay in the US. Car insurance and drivers’ licenses can also be ridiculously expensive. For those reasons, as well as ecological ones, the best way to get around when visiting major European cities is by bus and train. Get a good map or guidebook and you can get around like a native. Rick Steves’ guidebooks will actually tell you exactly which bus lines to take to major attractions and what the cost is. I got his books for free from the library. Isn’t your $5000 trip to Europe worth a free trip the library or a $20 trip to the bookstore?
    Travel can be a fun and enriching experience when one is willing to accept that where you’re going is different than where you are from. Before you utter the words “This is not how we’d do it back home” check yourself immediately by remembering you are not in Kansas anymore. You are now a world traveler, a guest in another country, and an ambassador and student in a new culture. Your job on this journey is to learn, and enjoy, to surrender yourself to the new people and ways of living you are moving through, and to leave with a better understanding of your fellow passengers on spaceship earth. If you do a little homework before you go, you’ll enjoy the trip more and leave a more positive impression on those you meet along the way.
  Thanks for reading! May all your wanderings be blissful!