6 Tips to See the World in Style on a Budget

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My friends know that they can tell me their budget, preferred destinations and travel style, and I’ll find them the trip of a lifetime that’s right for them.

Being able to travel is definitely a privilege. For many though, cutting back on a few frivolous expenditures each week can fund an amazing trip.

For me, I have always preferred to travel as often as possible rather than in luxury. In college, I got a cheap ticket from Denver to London, an even cheaper round trip from there to Amsterdam, and a rail pass. Then I attempted to stay in hostels for $10 a night (it didn’t quite work out). $600-$700 could finance everything but food, and we mostly ate inexpensive street food (Belgian waffles, baguettes, cheeses, stroopwafel, amazing strange fried things, etc.)

British Museum 1999. I’m really more thrilled than I look!

In law school, I got a direct flight from Miami to London, a decent hostel bed for the week and an Oyster card for under a grand. (My rule on staying in hostels by then, by the way, was female-only rooms, four-bed max, so it was a bit pricier).

London 2011

Stashing a $20 bill each week for a year ($1k total) would finance a week-long trip to Europe. If I couldn’t find anyone to go with me, I hopped on a Contiki or G Adventure tour, which cost more but provided group security and instant friends for the week.

Note: You can always opt for the camping tours to save even more money on accommodations and meals—though I found during my first (and only) camping trek that this option isn’t for me!

Now that I’m married, I have a built-in travel companion. Planning is half the fun for me, so I’ve become our own travel agent. I’ve doubled the budget for a European trip from $1k to $2k per person. My rule is that saving a dollar an hour from your paycheck each year will finance an amazing trip.

The budget includes air and ground transportation, accommodations and excursions. The doubled budget combined with savvy planning for independent travel has quadruple the luxury and overall experience. We stay in better locations in the heart of the action, we take private tours, and we travel at our own pace.

That pace is sometimes fast! On our most recent trip, we traveled to 5 countries in 10 nights, took three private day tours, stayed in wonderful accommodations and still kept to our budget. Here are some tips on how to do it.

5 beautiful countries in 10 nights

Note: I’ve included links to the travel tools we use. I’m not getting paid to do so (though maybe I should?). These are the tools we use, and I am including them because I love to travel, write, and share our experiences to encourage others to see the world.

I know some people say they don’t like Airbnb or Uber. I can only say that we have had very positive experiences over the past 5 years of using each platform. I’ve had some really terrible experiences with hotels and taxis—so there are pros and cons to all choices, and we have to make the ones that work best for us. We support lobbying for a fair playing field for accommodation providers and workers. We also travel with respect for the local economy and kindness in our hearts for the people we meet. That’s the essence of travel.

  1. Find the cheapest direct flight to Europe and take a budget airline from there

We really wanted to go to Dubrovnik on this trip, but flights from Washington, D.C. (with a layover) ran about $1,150 pp–which is more than half our budget. Flights into Croatia’s capital, Zagreb, could be found for $750, but instead, we found direct flights to Amsterdam for $600 per person and a direct one-way on easyJet from there to Dubrovnik for $50 each. We knew we’d be flying around the region, so the savings to cross the pond really helped.

It’s a good idea to play around with flights. Look for the cheapest direct flight to Europe and take a budget airline from there. I swear by Google Flights because you can type in your origin city and then put “Europe” as your destination and see what comes up.

Save even more by opting for a layover on that first oversees flight. Right now you can find flights to Europe for less than $300.

Pro tip: keep in mind that Europe’s budget airlines often run from smaller airports. We could’ve flown direct to London Heathrow for $480, but we would have had to change airports for the flight to Croatia and that would’ve cost more time and money.

2. Get alerts on flight deals

We subscribe to Next Vacay for $25 a year and get daily emails on cheap flights from our origin city and other close-by airports. This service has led to $500 tickets to Paris and $450 tickets to Barcelona on major holiday travel dates, $750 tickets to Japan on a great flight route, and our $600 direct to Amsterdam. Some people use Scott’s Cheap Flights, which offers a free limited service and an upgraded paid feature.

We also use Hopper—an app that tells what a good flight prices looks like for your route and dates and alerts you when flight prices drop. This service got us $214 tickets to Panama from DC on a direct flight.

3. Stay in apartments instead of hotels

Staying in an apartment is almost always cheaper, more spacious and a better experience than staying in a hotel. You can use Airbnb or VRBO for this, or you can check out local sites for the cities you need. Orbitz also shows apartment listings, which we’ve booked successfully in the past for Paris and St. Martin.

The only problem is that individual apartment owners are more likely to cancel on you. This has happened to us three times, but everything ultimately worked out. You just have to accept it as part of the experience and come up with a new plan.

Apartment owners could be more flexible, too. Our Airbnb host in Barcelona generously gave us a full refund when we cancelled due to political unrest.

Apartments can save you even more money because you can use the kitchen for breakfast and lunch and just go out to experience local cuisine for dinner. In Dubrovnik, we stayed near a gorgeous hotel that cost more for one night than are apartment cost for 4 nights. We still wandered over to the hotel and enjoyed the on-the-water view with a bottle of Croatian wine without paying the steep price of staying there.

Sunset view from our Dubrovnik Airbnb

We try to book places with a washer because we pack really light, so this saves us on luggage fees and laundry service.

Our Belgrade Airbnb was so comfy and cute and in the heart of town

Our accommodation cost per person for 8 nights in Croatia, Bosnia and Serbia was $300 per person, and our places were beautiful. Our Amsterdam apartment cancelled on us and we couldn’t find another, so we wound up paying much more than anticipated: $250 per person for two nights in a hotel (only $50 pp less than what we paid for the next 8 nights combined!). This is way more than we usually spend, but the hotel was centrally located by the train station for our 48-hour stay in the city.

4. Book private day trips

OK, this is NOT cheap, but it would be way more expensive to book a fully guided group tour to Europe. So if you want to get out of the cities and see the major sites with a local, this is a great way to do it.

On this trip, our 3 private day tours and 3 private airport transfers cost $500 per person and were worth every penny—especially considering that one of those trips got us from one destination (Dubrovnik) to the next (Sarajevo). We got to see the beautiful countryside in between and make stops along the way.

In Amsterdam, we used Withlocals to book a private food tour and it was awesome. We felt like we were wandering the city with a good friend and we stopped at places we wouldn’t have found on our own and sampled all the local cuisine.

We sampled all the local flavors
In Amsterdam

To get from Dubrovnik to Sarajevo, we used MyDayTrip.com which offers one-way drivers between many cities in Europe. This is a great way to see the countryside and you can add stops at major attractions for an added cost. This is how we got to see Mostar and some other beautiful Balkan towns. We had an amazing driver who became a friend who we keep in touch with now.

Exploring Bosnia

While in Dubrovnik, we took a private day trip to Kotor, Montenegro. For this trip, we booked through Viator. I like Viator, which is now owned by TripAdvisor, because they provide guarantees and assurances when you book local guides through their website. I also book airport transportation through Viator. Prearranging private airport transfers is definitely more expensive than some other options (we use the train whenever it’s available), but it makes me feel safe. I always research the transport provider in advance and make sure there are plenty of positive reviews.

Gorgeous day visiting the Bay of Kotor

Safety tip: Research taxi, Uber and other ride options before you leave for your trip. In some cities, it’s perfectly safe to hail a taxi, in others it’s extremely dangerous. When in doubt, tuck into a hotel or restaurant and ask an employee to call a reputable taxi company for you. Carry your hotel’s business card with you (or the address of your apartment) in the local language so you can hand it to the driver. We use Uber where it’s available because it’s easy. The address is plugged in, the charge is automatic, and the ride is GPS tracked.

Save even more money by staying in one place and renting a car to explore on your own. We could’ve hopped along the Dalmatian coast of Croatia and took day trips to Kotor and Mostar on our own, but we opted to hire guides for the convenience and the insider tips. We really like supporting the local economy while we travel.

You can also take group day tours for way cheaper than private trips, but the individual attention and experience is really valuable to us.

5. Consider trains, planes and automobiles

Because the scenery and stops along the way were extraordinary, we opted for the pricy day tour from Dubrovnik to Sarajevo. It’s only about a 4-hour direct drive, so there aren’t direct flights from the major airports. There also aren’t any trains.

But I always look into each option to consider comfort, exploration, price and time value. A train, plane or car could be better in one situation and not in another (also research road safety when driving in unknown territory).

From Sarajevo to Belgrade, Serbia we decided to fly. A $110 plane ticket and 45-minute flight seemed way better than the 5-hour drive in that case.

Sarajevo

It cost us $178 per person to fly back to Amsterdam because we wanted a direct flight that gave us plenty of time to make our separately booked overseas flight home. Otherwise, there were direct flights on budget airlines available for about $55.

I absolutely love the train, and I usually go with this option if the trip is less than 4 hours, but rail transport wasn’t an option on this trip. Also, in some areas of the world, budget air travel is cheaper, safer and faster.

6. Travel in the shoulder season

Summer and holiday travel comes with expensive flights and accommodations, huge crowds, and sold out attractions. Sometimes this is when you have to travel because of work, school or other life demands, but if you can travel in the shoulder season, I highly recommend doing so. The shoulder season is different, depending on where in the world you are traveling, so do some research first. Find a time outside the high season when the weather is still comfortable and it’s not too rainy. October in most parts of Europe is lovely, but it’s a risky time to explore the Caribbean because it’s hurricane season—so consider March or April for that region. Another off-travel time to get a good deal is the weekend after New Year’s Day. Everyone in the world just got home from visiting family and isn’t going anywhere for a while.

You might even get a sunny October day in Amsterdam

The Budget Results

So for our most recent trip this October to Amsterdam, Dubrovnik, Kotor, Sarajevo and Belgrade, we had a luxurious experience all within the $2k per person budget:

  • Airfare: $1,000 (DC -> Amsterdam. Amsterdam-> Dubrovnik. Sarajevo-> Belgrade. Belgrade -> Amsterdam. Amsterdam -> DC. Including seat upgrades.)
  • Accommodations: $550 (for 10 nights).
  • Private day tours and transport: $500 (food tour in Amsterdam, round trip day tour from Dubrovnik to Kotor, one way day trip from Dubrovnik to Sarajevo, airport transport in Dubrovnik and Belgrade).

OK, so that’s $50 over budget. Not bad!! Do you have budget tips for world travel? Tell us in the comments.

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Why I Over Plan My World Travel

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My first trip to Europe in 1998 was an organized educational excursion for class credit. The experience was vastly different from my second trek, a year later, when I grabbed a backpack and a Let’s Go Europe book and took off into the world with my college boyfriend without a plan.

Well, we had a loose plan. I was living in Colorado and we were going to go to take a trip home to Philly, but we found $350 tickets to London and decided to purchase those instead. We also wound up with a $75 round trip ticket to Amsterdam and a rail pass that was good for the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg. We explored them all. But not easily.

Amsterdam

As a free spirit and an aspiring world traveler, I wanted to let the experience take over—so I didn’t book accommodations in advance. I figured, if we liked one place, we could stay longer, if we didn’t like another, we could quickly move on.

This was about a year before many hostels were set up for online booking, so it was more complicated to find accommodations at that time. We got to London and immediately booked our first and last nights (at a dumpy £100 a night hotel). The we showed up in Amsterdam with a map and a list of hostels in our guidebook. It was March, the shoulder season, and we didn’t expect hostels to be full—but they were.

We walked from hostel to hostel, and the front-desk staff at each one told us they were booked. We called budget hotels (on a pay phone), but they were full, too. We aimlessly wandered the streets, with our backpacks getting heavier and heavier and our legs getting weaker and weaker. Finally we decided to use the rail pass and get the late night train to Luxembourg. We could sleep for a few hours on the way.

But when we showed up at the train station, we discovered that that last train to Luxembourg had already departed for the night. I had read the train schedule backwards 🙄 So, feeling like we had no other choice, we took the shuttle back to the airport, and using our backpacks as pillows, we got some cautious sleep in the waiting area.

The next morning we hopped on the first train to Luxembourg, and though we couldn’t find any hostel beds there either, we found a cheap hotel with a spacious and clean room, and we luxuriated in the comfort for a night.

We had a wonderful time exploring Luxembourg 🇱🇺 and Belgium 🇧🇪 and when we made our way back to Amsterdam, we finally found a room for $25. We had a private room and a shared bath and strict rules about when and how long to shower and when to show up for breakfast. But we were so happy to have a place to stay.

That experience shaped my travel style. From that point on, I’ve always scheduled my accommodations and ground transportation in advance. And on my most recent trip to Amsterdam, 20 years later, I was glad! This time, hoards of travelers made the city almost unbearable—even in the shoulder season—so I can’t imaging showing up without a plan.

But I still think it’s important to leave a lot of free time in the schedule for wandering, getting lost, and letting the moment take you where you need to go.

How do you like to travel? Are you a planner or a wanderer?

~ LiAnn

4 Top Things to Do in Lisbon

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We overuse the word amazing on our blog, and that’s because the world is amazing! Lisbon was no exception … but it can be more aptly described as magical.

The old-school trams glide up and down the hilly historic district. Narrow alleyways open up to breathtaking views of castles and cathedrals. Small shops serve the most delicious local pastries.

We only had four days in Lisbon, so we had to make the most of it. Really, it was a love affair with food and wine. Here are our favorite things we did on each day:

1. When we arrived, we hired a private guide through Withlocals to take us on a tasting tour of the city. This was the perfect thing to do on our first night there. It was a walking tour, so we got the lay of the land, and we went to some of the best local spots that we would have never known about had we gone around on our own. The food and drink tastings were fantastic and our guide Camila was wonderful. It felt like a friend was showing us around her city. Later we were watching Anthony Bourdain in Lisbon and when he ended the show with the most delicious sandwich in the world, we knew it was true because we had a phenomenal experience there, too!

2. On our second day we just wandered around the city. It’s a great place to get lost and an easy place to get found again. That night we went to BA Wine Bar in Bairro Alto. If you’re into wine, this is a must. You have to make a reservation in advance (which you can do from their Trip Advisor page) because they only have a few tables and they give you an individualized experience. Keep in mind that for food, they serve only meats, cheeses, oils, bread, honey and tinned fish. This was plenty for us and absolutely delicious. Had we known the tinned fish would be so good, we would have ordered more of that and a smaller meat and cheese plate! This place is all about the wine. Portugal doesn’t export much of its wine, which is too bad for the rest of the world! At BA Wine Bar, they will ask you about your wine preferences and price range and bring you a few wines to sample. Then you pick the one you want by the glass. You can repeat this process as desired and don’t have to try the same wines as the rest of your party. I tried crisp whites, rosè and tawny port. All of it was amazing!

3. Our favorite thing we did on day three was check out Belém Tower. It was too far to walk from our hotel, so we hoped into an Uber (which is super easy to do in Lisbon). The old tower is breathtaking and a fantastic photo opportunity on the river. A lovely women sold local wines from a cart by the tower and provided a plastic wine glass you could carry around or just sit with and take in the beauty of the tower and the river.

4. Time Out Market is a must for any foodie. The place has a ton of food stalls with everything you can imagine. It’s pricey and crowded but absolutely worth it. We had some of the most delicious seafood we’ve ever tasted. O Surf and Turf was particularly exquisite! Go hungry and sample from several vendors. It’s sooooo good!

Before you go to Lisbon, you should know that getting around on public transportation is super easy. Get a reloadable metro card (Viva Viagem card) right at the airport and ride into town. The card also works for the trams, trains and ferries.

OK, now go to Lisbon!

27-Nov-17

The Golden Circle, Iceland

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Although the golden circle wasn’t our favorite part of the trip, it was really interesting and well worth it!

The trek around the sights included the usual characteristic of the “must see” places around the world: large crowds and long boarded walkways, overpriced gift shops, obese birds dining on littered junk food, etc.

BUT the sights were really impressive: the history of the first parliament, the original Geysir after which all other geysers are named, and a giant, gorgeous waterfall.

These sights give the traveler a peek into the wonders of Iceland while also being fairly accessible. We’re glad we rented a car to do it at our own speed – and the roads were easy to navigate.

Our favorite stop was the Kerid volcanic crater lake we stopped to walk around on the way back to Reykjavik. On a clear day, its blue-green water is amazing!

We would definitely recommend the golden circle if you have the time – but if there’s something else you really want to see, there are many other good options!

Blue Lagoon, Iceland: Tourist Trap?

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We were hesitant to go out of our way to visit the Blue Lagoon because we thought it may be a tourist trap. BUT there is a picture of its beautiful blue water in an Iceland Air ad on the Washington D.C. Metro that I often stared at dreamingly during my daily commute. And so, I had to check it out.

It did not disappoint! Touristy? Yes. Heavenly? Absolutely. The water was warm and wonderful, the backdrop was beautiful. The wine was tasty. The people were friendly. Need I say more?

We didn’t make reservations, but we called ahead and raced over when they told us they had some room (which apparently never happens, so book online at least two hours ahead of time). They ran things so efficiently that, despite the line to get in, everything went smoothly and the atmosphere was calm and relaxing. We went at about 7 pm and I highly recommend this time – when it isn’t as crowded.

Wonderful experience!

Welcome to the Arctic! (Well, Reykjavik is close, anyway)

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Reykjavik is a beautiful town and perfect for wandering on foot. Everyone is friendly and locals will gladly help you find your way around. It’s a bit cold and rainy, but that hasn’t taken away from the experience. The weather right now (in August) is sort of like October weather in New York.

LiAnn at the Golden Circle

The travel was easy with a 5 ½ hour direct flight from JFK and a reservation for the Flybus to take us into town. We arrived at our adorable little studio (reserved through airbnb for a fraction of the hotel rates) at about 1:30 a.m. Sunday morning.

Reykjavik has a reputation for being a party town and it didn’t disappoint. After asking a few questions out on the safe and clean streets, we found our way to the heart of town. Laugavegur, the main street, was full of tall and sturdy-looking youth in various stages of intoxication running from club to club or standing in very long lines outside awaiting their chance to get into the next venue.

We were glad to find a pizza shop and some food trucks operating at the late hour – the famed hot dog place, Baejarins Beztu Pylsur, had already closed. Then we opted for a quite spot and sipped on vodka drinks while we watched the scene from the window.

When our quiet pub closed at 3 a.m., we were provided plastic cups for our drinks and we wandered home, passing by the still raging nightclubs along the main street.

Keep in mind, Reykjavik is small and beautifully quaint. Many of those raging clubs operate as cafes and restaurants (or perhaps even a laundromat) during the day. There are no skyscrapers or superhighways. But there is plenty to do.

The food is absolutely amazing! Try the tasting menu at Apotek or Fishmarket for a once in a lifetime culinary experience! It’s very pricey, but tax and gratuity are included in the price, so it’s really not that much more than what you would pay in New York or Washington D.C. after you add that in – if you’re from less expensive areas though, you should prepare yourself for sticker shock.

Tomorrow we are renting a car and we plan to drive through south Iceland. We hope we get some sun!