Category Archives: Budget Travel

Our trip to Europe is booked!

tour eiffelThe plan was to book our trip to Europe in January. But I started shopping around, and I found an amazing deal this month. I talked with a friend of mine (an expert in London travel who runs the Anglotopia blog). He said in his experience tickets aren’t likely to get much lower than this. So I decided to go ahead and book now!

Here are some things I discovered during the booking process that helped us save some money:

Fly on the weekdays.

Originally, we were planning to fly out on a Friday. But after comparing fares, we decided to push our departure back to a Wednesday. We’ll also be flying home on a Wednesday. This reduced our total flight cost by about $300.

Book international flights at major airports.

When we first started planning our trip, we thought we would be flying out of Raleigh. Now that we’re moving back to Indiana in the beginning of May, we were able to book our trip out of Chicago. This change saved us another $300-$500.

Book your flight and hotel together.

I’ve always been skeptical about “vacation package” offers on Expedia. However, as I planned to book this trip, I did a lot of comparing and put together a lot of different combinations. It turns out, they’re not kidding about those vacation packages. We were able to book nicer hotels than we could have afforded without the vacation package discounts. All together we saved about $400 on hotels.

Look at traveler opinions, not hotel class.

I typically don’t pay attention to hotel class when I’m booking. I just want a clean hotel in a convenient location. The negative reviews by other travelers on Expedia and TripAdvisor can tell you a lot about the hotel. Are other travelers complaining that the pillows weren’t fluffy enough or the receptionist was a little rude? If that’s the worst complaint next to a ton of positive reviews, you’re golden. But if a lot of review say the hotel is dirty or located in a bad part of town, I’ll move on. I’ve had really good luck in the past booking hotels with 4-stars+ in traveler opinions.

Weigh convenience with price when choosing hotels.

We could have reduced our hotel cost by staying in extreme budget hotels or staying far outside the cities, but I was really really nervous about that. We’re already going to be in a new country. In Paris, we won’t even speak the language. The last thing I want is to end up stuck in a filthy hotel for 5 nights or lost in the middle of nowhere with an hour bus ride into the city. We may have paid a little more than necessary, but we weighed our options, and it was important to us that we be in a safe neighborhood with easy access to public transportation.

For peace of mind, spring for the travel insurance.

We were on the fence about travel insurance. I did some research, and I thought it would cost us about $200 to insure the trip. Expedia offers trip protection for about $90 a ticket. We’ll be able to change our dates or cancel our trip for any reason without paying $150 a ticket, and the insurance will reimburse us for any nonrefundable costs. It also includes coverage for medical emergencies and lost baggage on the trip. For such a small amount of money, it was worth the peace of mind.

We spent $3500 on flight and hotels. This is exactly what we budgeted. It breaks down to about $1700 for flights and an average of $150 a night for 3-star hotels in excellent locations in London, Paris, and Amsterdam (cities that are notoriously expensive). We’ll spend 5 days in London, 2 days in Amsterdam, and 5 days in Paris. Then we’ll fly home directly from Paris.

And now it’s actually official. We’re going to Europe in 177 days!!! I can’t believe it’s actually happening! :)

Photo by ainet

Countdown to Europe: 6 months

eiffel towerWe’ve been planning for our trip to Europe for months now, but we’re down to about 6 and a half months until the trip. Since we’ll be moving about 3 weeks before we take off, I’m getting organized now to ensure everything goes smoothly.

Here’s what we’re doing in the next month to prepare:

Make final decisions about where to travel.

We know we want to visit London and Paris, but we’re debating whether to add a few days in Amsterdam to our trip. This month we’ll really crunch the numbers and determine whether a few months in a third city is worth the time and money.

Create a budget.

We already put together a budget for our trip months ago, but if you haven’t thought about how much it’s going to cost you, do it now. It’s easier to save money if you plan around a budget.

Start reading the guidebooks.

We’ve browsed a few books on travel to London and Paris, and while we’ve learned quite a bit, we haven’t found any that we feel compelled to purchase. We plan to do some more hunting this month and see if we can find a couple companion books that will be worth taking along on the trip.

In the meantime, there’s a wealth of information on European travel online. I’m hunting for additional resources to determine where we’ll stay and what we’ll do while we’re there.

Research flights.

I’ve been watching flight prices for several months, but now I’m getting serious about deciding how we want to put our itinerary together. Flights generally seem cheaper out of Chicago than Indianapolis, and direct flights seem easier to obtain there, so we’ll likely fly out of Chicago.

Consider accommodations.

We’re also looking into hotels, deciding where we want to stay in each city, and what type of accommodations we need. It doesn’t seem that hostels will save us much in the long run, so we’re looking into budget hotels. I’ve found quite a few options on, but I’m continuing to research areas and attractions to determine the best possible location in each city for our stay.

Start thinking about attractions.

This month, we’re making a list of what we want to do and see in each city. This is the fun part of the planning, because it’s all about how we want to put the trip together. I’ll probably factor in plenty of downtime to explore so that we don’t feel pressed for time with a strict itinerary.

If you’re a seasoned traveler, help me out. What do you suggest a first timer do to prepare 6 months before the trip?

Photo by anirudhkoul

Overseas transaction fees give me a headache

credit cardsWe’re not going to start booking until January at the earliest, but right now we’re doing a lot of research for our trip to Europe in May. That means we’re tracking airfare, putting together a loose itinerary, and researching the logistical aspects of traveling to another country.

One of the biggest headaches of traveling to another country is money. The last thing we want to do is carry all of our money in cash. A lost or stolen bag could be catastrophic. Taking cash out of an ATM is expensive, so we also don’t want to withdraw a daily cash allowance. Traveler’s checks seem like a hassle, but using a debit card or credit card will result in wasteful overseas transaction fees.

We’ve determined that the best way for us to handle money will be to carry a small amount of cash in the local currency, and then use a credit or debit card for the rest of purchases. We’ll have cash saved for the trip, so we’ll pay off the credit card immediately when we get home, but we don’t want to be stuck with ridiculous overseas transaction fees.

What are overseas transaction fees?

Here’s how it works: If you use a debit or credit card in another country or with an international company, you pay a transaction fee of 2-3% to the bank. On top of that, you’ll pay another 1-2% transaction fee to the credit card company backing your card (Visa or Mastercard for example). These fees are in addition to any applicable sales tax on your purchase.

Check out this article for current transaction fees on popular credit cards as of June. Here’s what we’d pay for cards we currently hold:

  • American Express: 2.7%
  • Bank of America: 3%
  • Wachovia debit card: 3%

If we spend $4000 total on hotels, food, and other expenses overseas, we’d be paying a total of $108 to use the American Express card. American Express is only accepted on a limited basis, so we might end up having to use our Visa Bank of America card or Wachovia debit card, which would cost $120 in fees. That may not sound like a lot, but we could do a lot with that money in terms of food or entertainment. If there’s a way to avoid paying it in fees, I’d like to try.

If we withdraw cash every day, we’ll pay $5 per ATM transaction plus 2.7%-3% for purchases we have to charge, like hotels. That’s $60 in ATM fees over 12 days, plus a fee to the bank that owns the ATM for each withdrawal (usually $2-$3) for a total of $96 minimum. It’s also likely that we’d pay $2 per transaction to Wachovia, bringing the total to $120.

How can we avoid fees all together?

Capital One is the only company that doesn’t currently charge overseas transaction fees. Capital One doesn’t charge a fee, and they even waive the fee imposed by Visa or Mastercard. We don’t have a Capital One card, so we’d have to apply and open a new account just for this trip.

So I’m torn. We’d pay off the balance immediately when we return home, but still. I don’t know how I feel about opening another credit card for this trip. Is it worth it to save a little over $100? When I think about spending $5000 on a vacation, $100 seems like chump change, but then I think about what we could do with that money in Europe. On a frugal vacation budget, $100 can do a lot.

My other concern is with the changes happening in credit card companies, it’s possible that Capital One will suddenly start imposing overseas transaction fees.

Like I said, we won’t be booking anything until January, which means we have a few months to wait and decide. But even if we apply for the card and book our hotel in January, that doesn’t mean Capital One won’t suddenly start imposing a fee before May. Then we’ll have a new credit card for nothing.

What do you think? Is opening a new credit card worth possibly saving $108-$120, or should we just suck it up, use one of the cards we have, and factor the fees into our budget?

Photo by andresrueda

Winding down from a wonderful vacation

We’re home after a marathon 10-day trip to Indiana to see family and friends. Ten days, three cities, 2,000 miles, babies, puppies, family … we’re absolutely exhausted.


Above: Howie and Abby, my sister-in-law’s beagle puppy, take a brief break from their constant wrestling.

As we drove home, I found myself dreading the budget breakdown that always follows a vacation. We had big plans to be as frugal as possible, and we worked really hard at it, but inevitably there is always a little money spent on vacation. We treated friends to dinner to thank them for hosting us. We bought food and drinks on the road. We made a couple of very small impulse purchases at a record store in Indianapolis (about $10 for record albums to play on the used record player my sister’s husband generously gave to us).

blogger eli

Above: My adorable nephew getting an early start blogging.

We budgeted $400 for this trip including gas, food, and entertainment. We’re actually not far off that mark. Gas cost about $200 and we spent about $150 meeting friends for dinner, going out for drinks, and enjoying ourselves. The nice thing about staying with family and friends is that money usually reserved for a hotel can go to more fun.

We’re back now which means back to reality. Back to budgeting, cooking at home, staying in on the weekends, watching what we eat, and waking up early to exercise. No fun, right? But as hard as it is to get back into our routine, I find myself craving that stability. We’ve been living out of our suitcases for 10 days, bouncing from house to house all over Indiana as we visit family and friends, uprooting the dog every 72 hours. We’re all ready for some normalcy.

I’ve written before about how hard it is for me to get back into the swing of things after a vacation. That spendy mentality tends to stick around, especially as we start to come down from the excitement of vacation. We start to feel down and try to console ourselves by bringing back that vacation mentality — overspending and overeating.

But the sooner we get back into our routine, the easier it will be to overcome those feelings. I came back to work yesterday and Tony’s last year of graduate school begins tomorrow. I took yesterday off from the gym, but this morning I was up bright and early. I’ll likely catch up on laundry and tidying tonight.

While the winding down from a vacation can be a downer, I’m reminding myself of how nice it is to be back in the quiet of my own home, spending time alone with my husband, and living the quiet life that we love so much.

Traveling with pets without losing your mind

This week on our vacation to Indiana to visit family and friends, we brought our dog Howie along for the ride. Our families were both happy to accommodate him, and he’d rather be with us than back home in a kennel. But bringing a dog along on vacation comes with a long list of hassles.

Howie window

We took some steps to keep Howie happy and out of our hosts’ hair while saving our own sanity. Try these tips if you’re bringing your favorite family pet along for vacation:

Exercise, exercise, exercise.

If you think your dog has had enough exercise, put him on the leash and take him out again. If you have a young dog, it’s not possible to exercise him enough on vacation.

Howie is incredibly well behaved in the car — he usually just goes right to sleep as soon as we start driving. But we still stop every two hours on the road to let him stretch his legs on long car trips. We also took him for a run every morning when we were staying with family. Nothing is more stressful than an under-exercised dog in a strange environment. Without enough exercise, dogs are restless and whiny at best and downright destructive at worst. Make sure they’re spending the vacation as tired as possible.

Bring as much of home as you can.

When Howie was younger and sleeping in a crate, we brought it along on trips. Now we bring his dog bed, his favorite toys, and plenty of food. If you’re traveling with a cat, consider bringing a scratching post, cat toys and bed to keep them occupied and comfortable. Bringing a piece of home along with you will make them feel more secure in a strange environment, and the more secure they feel, the less likely they are to act out.

Don’t pawn your pet off on family.

I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but Howie is pretty much the most adorable dog ever. Consequently, all of our family members were offering to walk him and feed him and pet him. It’s easy to walk away and assume they’ll take care of taking him outside or disciplining him if he’s getting too rowdy. Be careful not to do that.

If you’re visiting family with your pet, don’t expect them to do the dirty work. Just because they’re enjoying the novelty of your furry friend doesn’t mean they want to scoop the litter box or follow your dog around with a poop bag. Don’t get too distracted to take care of your pet’s basic needs.

If your family or friends want to take advantage of the fun parts of spending time with a pet, let them. But when it comes to the dirty work, make sure you’re doing it yourself. If you expect someone else to take out the dog, you might end up with a mess on the floor, and your family won’t be so willing to welcome your pet next time.

Since I’m not a cat owner, I’d like to hear from those of you who’ve traveled with cats. How do you make it easier on your pet when you’re traveling?

Another frugal road trip

road tripAfter our harrowing experience in Washington D.C. last week, we’re both a little nervous to get back on the road. But we’re heading up north to see our families for the next week!

Tony starts school again week after next, so this is our last chance to make a trip to see family until Christmas. We’ve already decided to stay home for the holidays this year since we’ll be saving money and vacation time for Europe, so we want to spend some time with family now.

Here’s how we’re planning ahead to make it healthy, frugal, and stress-free:


We made these plans (and saved the money) months ago. We budgeted and set aside $150 for gas, and it shouldn’t cost much more than that. We’re bringing the dog, staying with family, packing food for the road, and making the trip in one day instead of stopping overnight and spending money on a hotel room. Snacks and meals for the trip are covered by this week’s grocery budget. This should truly be a frugal vacation.


I’m putting some extra time in at the gym this week to make up for extra calories I’ll most likely ingest at home. We’ve made a vow to avoid fast food at all costs on the road. It’s a particularly bad idea when we’re traveling with the dog, because we have to eat in the car. Fast food makes it stink for weeks. Yuck. It also makes us feel horrible to eat fattening food, and then sit still in a long car ride.

Our grocery store deli makes delicious footlong subs out of premium deli meat and bread for only $4. We’ll pick one up on our way out of town on Friday, put it in a cooler, and eat it for lunch. For the drive back to North Carolina next week, we’ll probably stop at Subway for a $5 footlong.

We’ll be taking Howie out running every morning before it gets too hot to let him burn off some energy and burn some calories ourselves. Hopefully that will keep me from getting too out of shape before I return to the gym next Monday.

With cookouts and restaurant meals with family, I can’t guarantee I’ll make the best choices, but I’m determined not to let one vacation throw off all of my success so far.


Last month we took money out of our car savings to replace our tires and change the oil, so our car is all set for another road trip. We just renewed our AAA membership for the year in May, so we have access to roadside assistance and towing on the off chance that something goes wrong.

As always when we travel with Howie, we’ll be stopping every 2-3 hours to let him stretch his legs and pee. We’ll also bring a gallon jug of water and his water dish so he can stay hydrated. He’ll most likely sleep through the trip, but since it’s a 12-hour drive, we usually offer him water every time we stop to make sure he doesn’t get dehydrated.

We’ve put a lot of planning into this trip, so hopefully it will be more fun and less fiasco than last weekend!

Did you go on a frugal vacation this summer? Where did you go, and how did you save money?

Photo credit: pleeker

Can we afford an extended trip to Europe?: Part 2

eiffel tower
Photo by stevenvanwel

A few weeks ago, Tony and I started doing the math to see if it would be possible to stay in Europe for two months. We decided to think about it, see if we could save the money, and go from there. After looking at all of our options, we’ve decided to go back to our original plan for a two-week trip in May 2010.

There were a number of reasons, and I wanted to share them with you:


We’re on track to save enough money for our emergency fund, moving expenses, and the extended Europe trip. However, we’ll also be moving across the country and searching for jobs as soon as we were to return from our trip. As much as I wanted to take this trip, I think it’s safer and smarter to hang on to as much money as possible in case we need it during our transition.


This factored into our decision even more than money. The fact is, the only time we could take this trip would be early spring 2011. Tony graduates in December 2010, so we’d be moving out of our apartment, moving our stuff back up north, and preparing for life in the Midwest at the same time. When I think about planning a big move while simultaneously planning a huge trip to Europe, I feel more stress than I’m comfortable facing.

Ease of planning.

Trying to plan the most frugal way to stay in another country for two months was overwhelming. It’s much easier to plan for two weeks. Short term hotels are easier to book than long term rentals. We’ll be able to afford to see and do more in two weeks of vacation than we could in two months living frugally. Trying to plan a huge trip for our first experience abroad seems a little over my head. And of course, two months is a very long time to leave our dog, even if he is with family.


As fun as this trip would be, thoughts of what would face us upon our return to the States could spoil the trip. If we head to Europe before we secure jobs or decide where we’re going to live, I know I would stress throughout the trip about our next steps. Separating our vacation to Europe from our move and going on the trip when I have a secure job with paid vacation time will allow us to focus on having fun. We’ll have six months after the trip to plan the move and decide what to do after Tony graduates.

In the end, all of these factors combined made us decide to nix the extended trip. I’m not saying it was a bad idea. It was an idea — one that I’m really glad we considered.

If every time we wanted something big we thought to ourselves, “There’s no way we can afford that. We shouldn’t even consider it,” then we’d be limited by our decision to live frugally. Instead, I choose to weigh all of our options, think things through, and balance our wants and needs.

I love that frugality allows us to dream big. We can often accomplish these big goals. But sometimes after weighing the options, we decide on a different course. That’s okay. To me, the ability to make these choices for ourselves is one of the best parts about frugality.

Vacationing vs. living like locals: Can we afford an extended stay in Europe?

For the past few days, Tony and I have been going over an idea that might be completely insane.

I’ve written a lot about our plan for a two-week vacation in Europe next May. Both of us always wished we’d taken the opportunity to study abroad in college, and this vacation seemed like the next best thing — one last big trip before we start our family.

One thing has continued to plague me, though. We didn’t really want a vacation. We didn’t want to stay in hotels and live like tourists for a whirlwind two-week trip. We wanted the opportunity to live like locals, absorb the culture, and experience life in another part of the world. We don’t want to move abroad permanently, though. Living 800 miles from family is hard enough; I can’t imagine living an ocean away.

While talking about this, we started considering a crazy idea.

Tony will finish student teaching in December 2010. It’ll be another 4-6 months before he can start looking for teaching jobs for the following fall. We were already wondering how to spend that time. What if we spent two or three of those months in Europe, living like locals instead of tourists?

Obviously, two or three months in Europe will cost more than 2 weeks. But after doing some research, I’m surprised to discover the difference isn’t that huge. Living like a tourist costs $200-$400 a day with restaurant meals, hotels, and excessive travel. Living like a local costs much less, and since we’d be there in the late winter/early spring, everything would cost less than we’d pay in May, the beginning of the high season.

Our biggest expense would be housing. Renting a furnished apartment in France is less expensive per night than a hotel, but still more expensive than we’d pay in normal rent. We’d likely spend about $425 a week on housing or $1700 a month (utilities included). Ouch. But we could make up for the high cost of housing by cooking our own food, avoiding expensive tourist activities, and living frugally.

Based on rough calculations, we’d need to save $7,500 – $10,000 for two months in Europe. Here’s the breakdown:

Airfare: $1200
Housing/utilities: $3400
Food: $800
Travel: $500 (Trains, bus fare, etc.)
Fun stuff: $800
Total: $6700

I added up all of our regular living expenses that we’ll have to pay while we’re away. We’d be paying these expenses whether we were traveling or not, but I’m including them since travel will delay our job search:

Debt: $400
Travel health insurance: $250? I’ve done some research, but not enough to have a solid estimate.
Cell phone: $200
Total: $850

Based on these calculations, we’d need $7,550 to pay for the trip and our living expenses. I’d be more comfortable if we could save a full $10,000, which would give us a nice cushion when we return to cover our living expenses without using our emergency fund.

That means we’d have to save an additional $1,550 -$4,000 on top of our emergency fund and the $6,000 we already planned to save for Europe. We’d have an extra 7 months to do it. If we really buckle down and put every extra penny into savings, I think we can meet that goal and then some.

Maybe it’s just a pipe dream. It’s certainly not practical at all, but I kind of like the idea of doing something a little crazy and impractical before we settle down and live like adults — as long as we don’t add to our debt or spend our emergency fund. I can think of a million more practical uses for $7,500 — debt repayment, part of a down payment on a house, paying cash for a used car, an extra plush emergency fund. None of them are as appealing to me as this once in a lifetime experience.

So what do you think? Are we completely out of our minds?

Our frugal anniversary trip


View from the Top of Cape Hatteras

This weekend, we planned to celebrate our first anniversary with a weekend getaway to Charleston, SC. Since we’re working toward so many financial goals, we didn’t want to spend much money on this trip. However, it wasn’t quite as frugal as it could have been. With a $100 hotel room and $50 in boarding fees for our dog plus restaurant meals and entertainment, I had the nagging feeling that we were spending too much.

On Friday afternoon, I checked the weather for Saturday in Charleston. Thundershowers. Though it was disappointing, I just couldn’t justify spending that kind of money on a trip when there was such a high potential for rain all weekend. At the last minute, we canceled our hotel reservation.

I felt good about the decision from a financial perspective, but I still woke up feeling disappointed on Saturday morning. We had both been looking forward to getting away to celebrate our anniversary and holiday weekend. At 8:30 a.m., we made a highly uncharacteristic last minute decision to pack up the dog and our tent and head north for an anniversary camping trip in the Outer Banks.

Last month Tony won $150 in a writing contest, so we decided to use that money for our trip. Here’s the breakdown of what we spent:


We spent $15 at the grocery store on the way out of town for snacks (fruit and nuts), $5 on coffee stops, $30 at the grocery store for camping provisions like hot dogs, chips and charcoal. We were not as frugal as normal at the grocery store, but we had decided to avoid restaurants as much as possible so we wanted to make sure we had plenty of snacks. We went out to lunch Sunday and spent $25, so our food total for two days was a ridiculous $75. Whoops.


We used about two tanks of gas round trip ($50). I cashed in some MyPoints for a $25 gas card. I also cashed in a $25 rebate reward from our gas credit card (which we pay in full every month). So we didn’t spend any money out of pocket for gas! We did pay to ride a ferry to one island from another, and the two-hour ride cost $15.


We stayed at a national park, so camping was free! We were right next to the beach, so we could hear the ocean waves at night. The sky was clear so we left the rain flap off the top of our tent so we could see the stars. It wasn’t quite as comfortable as a hotel, but it certainly had its charms.


We spent the weekend hiking nature trails, hanging out at the campsite, and walking along the beach. In the evening, we played cards by candlelight at our campsite (campfires weren’t allowed on the beach). The only money we spent on entertainment was $14 to climb to the top of the lighthouse at Cape Hatteras. The view was worth every penny!

Dog Boarding

We would have spent $50 to board our dog if we had gone to Charleston. Instead, we brought him with us, so we didn’t pay a dime. And he had a great time outdoors, even if he was a little stressed about sleeping outside.

So instead of spending $150 plus food and entertainment, we spent about $105 for a fantastic weekend. Since we didn’t pay for a hotel, dog boarding or gas, our budget was better spent on good food and fun. Overall, I’m very happy with our decision to cancel the Charleston trip, and we plan to spend a lot more time camping this summer.