Thursday, March 19, 2009

In which the economy bums our heroine out

I have to admit, I am kicking a habit. Unwillingly. I would do anything not to give up on reading the New York Times travel section, or Conde Nast Traveler, or the travel editions of my mother's Town&Country -- or the many blogs and photo slideshows I come across. I don't want to start skimming the long emails of my friends abroad, but I have to, out of unforgiving, clawing negative feelings.


In college (ah, the days where meals we paid for and vacations were guaranteed!), figuring out my trip was much more straightforward -- when is break, can I get course credit, comment dit-on "I don't speak Czech," where the hell is my duffel . . . and while in these troubled times I am thrilled to be out of school (tuition is revolting . . . take note, colleges, you were told this before the breakdown), finding ways to travel has become a bit of a hobby for myself and my similarly-obsessed friends.

So here's what I've got so far. In general, I believe in living by the backpacker mentality; folks have traveled around the world on very little before, and there is a lot to learn from them!

How to save for travel when one is working for the sadly all-to-typical-today peanuts?

My trick has been to open a savings account alongside my checking, and drop small sums in whenever I can. My weaknesses are French fries and German beer, alongside Mexican food and Boston bookstores -- and whenever I am able to say "no" to any of them, I put the savings right in from my laptop. Cliche, but I am 5/6 of the way to a trip to Morocco (in which out heroine may learn that foreign alphabets are not be underestimated -- I'll let you know).

How to get from point A to point B?

The most expensive part many trips is getting there. With a worldwide recession, many people can't even consider travel for pleasure, and those that can are looking to cut their travel budgets by a lot -- forunately, the airlines are just as desperate as the rest of us and will do a lot to fill their flights!

Flexibility, it is always said, is key (as in flexibility on departure and arrival dates, as well as the number of stops your flight takes). I have seen some craziness take place for a cheap plane ticket -- such as a flight from Philadelphia to Detroit to New York to Amsterdam to Johannesburg to Dar es Salaam to Kilimanjaro -- but at the end of the day, a stop or two is not so bad, aprticularly if you schedule it right and maybe get a leg-stretching afternoon in a city you don't know, or do as a classmate of mine did and schedule a few days' layover in an exciting locale such as the Unied Arab Emirates (brilliant!). And don't forget to join a frequent flyer program, even if you are not a frequent flyer! You would be amazed at some of the offers you can get -- if nothing else, you may find yourself upgraded to business on your unpleasantly-scheduled trip.

Car rental can also be a brilliant way to save money, surprisingly, as are train and bus passes. When stranded in Germany for two straight days (long story . . .), I was desperately trying to get to the Czech Republic, and found my Eurail pass ( to be a lifesaver. I was able to jump on any train that was convenient, and it had all benn paid for up front. Paying before I left the States also meant I paid in USD, not Euros. A BIG difference!

How to find accomodations?

One word: couchsurfing (well, it should be two). By that I mean: This site is an awesome resource for the adventurer who has little in the way of cash-moneys (or prefers to spend what money they do have on delicious new foodstuffs). If you want to know more about how to find a free place to stay n this site, you should check out my previous post.

Hostels are almost a cliche at this point, a staple of the American/Australian/Kiwi who backpacks through Europe (guilty). They are known as dorm-like bed factories, with lots of noise and theft and sub-par bathrooms. And certainly, those exist (hint: if it is a brand-name hostel, such as the A&O Hostel, which is in a few European cities, it is more likely to be like this. For the record, it was clean and inexpensive, and when I missed my train I was able to show up at midnight and get a bed, but yes, much more like a high-capacity dorm). But many hostels are more like B&Bs, with staff happy to help you and often breakfast included. I was able to find a bed for an average of $30 USD a night -- sometimes more, sometime less (Venice is notoriously touristy and expensive, be prepared to pay a fair amount more, even in the off-season). And if you want the real secret, it's to avoid this sort of trip in the high season, which is basically any time the universities are on vacation. When I was backpacking and using hostels, it was November, which meant I was able to get a good deal, and the backpackers were more often very interested and curious travelers, rather than the high-season partiers.

Some hostels are even quite classy nowadays, with some urban European hostels running about $100 USD for a private room which can have anything from antique furniture to contemporary art. Oh, and a last note -- many have lockers for personal items. I never had a single problem with theft, nor have either of my other friends who have backpacked alone as young women. I'm just sayin' -- don't be careless, but don't be afraid to try this way of traveling.

How to bring home lots of lovely gifts for family and friends?

Unfortunately, the mdern tourist's mentality appears to be that if they do not bring home a physical object from each place they visit, they haven't really been there. Believe me, I have quite a bit to say on this topic. But I say to live by the backpacker mantra: never buy anything big or heavy. If you had to live out of a small bag (our heroine was NOT in the mood to hurt her shoulders while backpacking -- I actually recommend a small wheeled carryon-sized bag. Added bonus: you don't immediately look like a foreigner), you would NOT purchase clothing, ever. I learned this when I bought myself an entirely unpackable fedora in the Galleries Lafayette and ended up wearing it nonstop for the next three weeks.

Instead, opt for jewelry (I found so many fantastic pairs of earrings in Prague, and had a wonderful ring handmade for me in Tanzania, all for much less than comparable pieces in the States), especially if there is a local specialty -- central Europe is the home of amber and garnet, Tanzania of course has tanzanite, etc. But be careful -- I NEVER recommend buying gems if you don't know their origins, especially in less wealthy countries. In general, however, jewelry can be inexpensive and light to carry, and often is a great representation of where you have been; I was able to buy small glass earrings in Venice when I was determined to buy something of Venetian glass that I would not break!

Alternatively, consider small local trinkets which can be found in a market or small shop -- soaps, jacket patches (I have a collection), a pocket-sized book by a local author. A friend of mine who is just back from Greece got it just right when she sent me a walnut-sized wooden shrine to Mary and Jesus -- religion aside, it is a beautiful carved thing which lives next to my bed.

Or you can make the best kind of unique gift -- a photograph. No one will have one like yours, and with digital cameras it is easier than ever to keep many photographs safe until you get to a photo shop and turn them into postcards. Cheap, thoughtful, and no packing required.

The moral of the story:

It is perfectly possible to enjoy a relaxing trip abroad without a ton of money. Never forget the basics -- pack lightly, don't spend money on frivolous tchotchkes, and remember a student ID (I'm not even a student anymore and I keep mine . . . shhh. If you are particularly smart and your ID does not have a grad date on it, do as my friend did and get it renewed before graduation so it continues to look like you for a long time!). The best travel experiences are rarely expensive -- local food markets and beautiful days spent in exciting places, conversations and photographs. If you have ideas that I have forgotten, please let me know!

1 comment :

  1. loved it Julia.... was wondering what went on!tttttthanks. Mike


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