Carla’s Top Travel Tips

Caveat: no pictures, no history, no culture, just a bunch of ways to save a buck or drachma.

As a college freshman, expecting to become either the Secretary General of the United Nations or the NBC Bureau Chief in Moscow, I chose Russian to fulfill my foreign language requirement. That fall, the 8:00 am section was taught by Gospozha (Mrs.) Pavlova. Her first name, Galina (Hope), seemed an odd mismatch to the stocky, sturdily built, unsmiling, and steel-tempered matron who stood before us five days a week and terrorized us into learning the myriad conjugations and declensions required to even begin mastering that tongue. Knowing a little college Russian turned out to be a godsend in Georgia, where most of the 30+ crowd spoke it about as well as I did, and it became a clumsy but helpful lingua franca, far preferable to the completely unintelligible local language of ქართული, known there as Kartuli, not Georgian.

время – деньги (vremenya denyegi) or “Time is money,” Gospozha Pavlova used to repeat to us sternly, usually when someone was stumbling over a translation or momentarily frozen into incoherence. Attributed to Benjamin Franklin, it seemed an odd expression extolled by a person raised in the Soviet Union, but it has stuck with me as a useful phrase nonetheless, and it is the theme of today’s blog entry.

As is clear from the postings of the last couple years, I have been doing a lot of traveling. A LOT. And, while it hasn’t been cheap, I have been fairly clever and thrifty in how I travel, hence my ability to do more of it. Newly back from my latest jaunt, and while these ideas are still fresh in my mind, I thought I would share some of the ways I save money on some things so I can spend it frivolously on others.

The important thing to emphasize is that – saving money when you travel is 1.) a matter of doing  your homework and 2.) being willing to give up a little (a little) of the security of a travel agent, a tour group, or a Eurail pass. But if you are interested and able to do the work, you will be astonished at how much you can save without sacrificing on comfort, safety, or fun. So here we go. Caveat: most of this information I have gleaned from travel in the US or Europe; there may be other competing philosophies for other parts of the world of which I am not aware.

Plane tickets

Clearly one of the biggest ticket items in any travel budget, plane tickets today are curious beasts and require a bit of study. There are two philosophies. One is to become a frequent flyer of one particular airline or airline group. If you fly enough and long enough, this can benefit you through upgrades and lots of other benefits. But this requires consistency and patience. Those miles add up; but it takes a lot of them to really help. The other way is to learn about the different airlines out there and have a little flexibility, if you can, about when you travel and how much time you are willing to spend en route.

There are a lot of online resources for plane tickets – Expedia, Kayak, Hipmunk, and so forth. I like and have used Expedia for some time now – my main reason is their customer service. It is good and they will solve your problem, even if it takes an hour and a half. The customer service desk is in Manila (or was, last time I called), but it is a 1-800 number from the States. In my experience, prices are as low or lower on Expedia than other sites I have checked; anyway, they are my go-to for planes and sometimes hotels. I use both the airline websites AND the consolidator sites (Expedia) for planning trips.

Plane ticket prices vary by season; higher in the summer, usually. Some airlines have very useful pages on their sites where you can see at a glance the different prices for different days. If you crawl around the airline websites, you can often find these pages. As of today, Wow Airlines offers a flight from Boston to Amsterdam (one way) for 330 USD in June; 149 USD in September. Days of the week even in a single month can vary wildly. Wow, again, has that 149 USD price on three Sundays on September, but the price is 445 USD for the 15th and the 17th. So, as you can see, lots of volatility.

Then there is the whole issue of when to buy. In my experience, there are two “sweet spots” for plane tickets – six months out, and two months out. In my life, I don’t usually plan things too far in advance, so that two month window has worked very well for me. After that, prices can go up precipitously.

Finally, there’s the “budget airline” question. As we all know, plane flight, once romantic and glamorous, is now basically a practicum in Zen meditation conducted in a sardine can. (Can I stay focused on my book for three more hours while that child behind me screeches at the top of her lungs and monotonously kicks the back of my seat? Can I both stay sufficiently hydrated AND not have to climb over two heavily sedated people to go to the loo every 45 minutes?Has the man in the seat in front of me HEARD of deodorant?)

But budget airlines come with their own additional hidden agendas. On Turkish Airlines (one of my favorites – still feeds you and gives you movies for free at a decent ticket fare) the carry-on allowance is 8 kilos, about 17 pounds. On Wow Airlines (no movies, no food except for purchase), the carry-on allowance is 5 kilos, about 11 pounds, and you have to pay 39 USD extra *for each segment* if your carry-on is heavier than that (as of today – it was 24 USD when I traveled in May). There is also a charge for checked luggage, all charges cheaper if done online than in person. So, for a Boston-Amsterdam flight, for example, there are four segments (to Iceland, to Amsterdam, from Amsterdam, from Iceland), and that’s an additional ~140 USD, just for a bigger carry-on (in this case, 12 kilos, about 26 pounds). Ryan Air is infamous for hidden fees, so if you travel one of the known budget carriers, be sure to take a little time to read the website and the user reviews so you’re not in for serious sticker shock at check-in, a bad way to start a trip. Here’s the link for WOW, just so you can get your bearings:

http://wowair.us/travel-info/fees-charges/

Accommodations

In this ear of Couchsurfing and Air B&B, I’m still a hotel girl, so you have to accept that as my biases. Frankly, I don’t like having house guests overly much, nor do I like being one, but lots of folks have had excellent experiences with these organizations, and I would encourage you to do your own personal due diligence in this regard. Why do I like hotels (well, good hotels)? They’re clean, they’re impersonal (I don’t have to make pleasant chatter in the morning before coffee), they have a front desk staff that’s usually very friendly and helpful, and, when I do it right, they have a big breakfast and free internet.

Again, lots of research goes into my hotel selection, and I don’t always get it right, even with all that. Like plane flights, hotel prices vary A LOT, day to day, week to week, month to month. The big difference between using a hotel website to make your reservations as opposed to a site like Expedia or booking.com is that if you book through the hotel’s website, you have a better chance of getting an upgrade and other perks. If you use the consolidators, you run the risk of getting of the the “dog” rooms (I’ve been under the eaves, subject to hot afternoon sun, forced to listen to the S-bahn line, crouched under shower heads). But I have gotten them through the consolidators at very affordable prices, sometimes significantly so. And of course I don’t always get the dogs, but this is the risk.

What Expedia does that I find helpful, is have weekly deals on different hotels, and those deals move around at random. Once you type in your dates and get a list of potential hotels, Expedia even has link for “best deals.”I compare those hotels with TripAdvisor’s evaluations, and then watch the hotels I like best for a while to see if I can get deals on them. My best score was K&K Central Hotel in Prague, where I had a fabulous room, bed, breakfast, location, and internet for about 65% less than the other consolidator websites *because I managed to book during one of the weekly deals.* I loved that room. Loved it. They had to drag me out kicking and screaming.

Watch carefully, though, for the notes in small print about breakfast. In every European hotel I’ve stayed in (and most other places), there is a buffet, from small to large, dull to imaginative, dismal to mouth-watering. I think the best was the Radisson Blu in Tbilisi, of all places. Anyhoo, if the breakfast is not included, you can almost always buy it on the spot, but the prices for these things can be outrageous (to my mind). 15 Euro is rock-bottom (about 17 USD), up to the breakfast served in Copenhagen this past week, 220 DKR or 33.50 USD per person for breakfast. (Yours truly usually finds a local coffee shop.) Other services, laundry, mini-bar, even the innocent water bottle on the nightstand, can also be prohibitive, so watch carefully.

Local transportation

I was armed and dangerous on my first trip to Europe – Eurail pass and youth hostel card. In those days, 350 USD bought you three months of continuous travel over what passed as Europe in those days – everything from East Germany, Czech Republic, Hungary, the Balkans to the East was verbotten, making the rail-accessible continent a smaller place than it is today. But it was a deal, and I used it well, days, nights, you name it.

Today I would use caution in buying a Eurail pass, particularly if you’ve passed the magic age of 26. What you get in ease of purchase and use — you pay for rather dearly in money and flexibility. Don’t get me wrong – I love trains. But to use the train system well, I recommend consulting Mark Smith, the man in seat 61, who basically knows all there is to know about train travel around the world, and from whom I have learned a great deal:

http://www.seat61.com/

BUT if you can tear yourself away from the allure of the rails, Murder on the Orient Express and all that jazz, I really recommend the buses these days. Cheaper, more frequent, more nimble than trains (they’re rarely late), buses are the way the young and thrifty travel. The stations are far less glamorous, but the buses themselves have been consistently for me clean, fast, equipped with refreshment and wifi. On long trips they break at nice rest stops where you can eat, use the facilities, buy goodies for the road, smoke, etc. I traveled around Poland for two weeks using only Polskibus and spent 25 USD TOTAL. That’s right. One four-hour leg of my journey was 1.75 USD. (I spent more on the cappuccino.) Now, most of the rest of Europe can’t match those prices, but you can do very well indeed. Again, day of the week and time of day figure into the prices, so keep that in mind. Flixbus in Germany is good, also Eurolines. There are others.

Parting shots: food, fun, restrooms

Okay, so I told you to take the bus, right? Now I’m going to tell you to GO to the train stations – for food. The bus station food is dreadful, but the train station food is great (in most major cities). Everything is less expensive than in restaurants, packaged to go, and, because there’s a lot of demand, relatively fresh. You can get organic stuff, gourmet stuff, and regular stuff, along with the regional specialties, coffee, and of course, Toblerone.

Facilities at bus and train stations vary widely. In Berlin, for example, the main bus station has restrooms that virtually sparkle – but you can’t count on that. My suggestions for clean restrooms on the go are department stores, museums, restaurants (if you are a patron, of course), and if you’re feeling particularly bold, luxury hotels. Yes. Just throw a scarf around your neck, ladies, freshen your lipstick, throw back your shoulders, stand tall, and walk right in. I personally have never been challenged and have carved my initials in some very lovely venues indeed. If you act like you belong there, you can usually get in and out without much fuss.

Finally, take some time when you are in a place to discover what’s free. Often museums have a free day (or time of day) and that can save you a lot. Consider, if available, a 72-hour pass that comes with reduced entrance fees or sometimes free entry to various attractions. During the summer months, there are lots of free concerts and festivals in many places. Your front desk staff, if you’re at a hotel, can be very useful and there are often free publications for the month or week that lay out more activities and entertainment than you can possible imagine. Alternatively, check TripAdvisor. There’s always a “Things to Do” section for every destination (many written by me at this point) that will point to to the “must sees” and may help you uncover something amazing you might otherwise have missed.

So there you have it – my collective travel wisdom of the moment. If you know differently or would like to add your thoughts (or have me include them), just let me know. I’ve really enjoyed figuring these money-saving measure out for myself, and I’m thrilled to know they might help someone else. Safe travels!

 

 

 

 

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3 Responses to Carla’s Top Travel Tips

  1. Janet Stebbins says:

    Great advice. Very helpful.

  2. Rachel says:

    I learned so much! Thank you for sharing your cultural tidbits!

  3. Great travel tips. Thanks for sharing.

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