Travel Talk #2: Transportation

For Travel Talk #2, I thought I’d do a post on how I’m affording this trip, and how I plan to afford future ones as well. The post became quite long, so this one is specifically on transportation – there will be a future one on accommodation & other expenses, so stay tuned! See the background post here for more about travel planning.

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Florence, as viewed from Piazzale Michelangelo at sunset, 2011.

1) Make Travel a Priority, in a way that works for you. I stick to a tight budget in my everyday life, always putting certain percentages of each paycheck towards school loans, rent, food, and savings before I allocate for travel. I keep my other expenses as low as possible so that I can save for a trip. I rarely eat out, I generally don’t drink alcohol (especially out), and I try to keep to free activities with friends and my partner. I purchase my clothing mostly (95%, probably) from thrift stores, and I generally try to limit other purchases. I also don’t have any additional sources of debt, or any dependents. That’s just what works for me. I don’t restrict myself from having fun in everyday life, but I do deliberately structure my life so that a natural result of the way I live leaves me with enough money to travel. And that’s what I enjoy. I’m also ridiculously privileged to work a job that both pays me enough and gives me enough vacation to allow me to travel. So as with everything else, know that this is personal. Everyone has their own priorities and responsibilities, and it’s most important to know what they are and structure your finances accordingly. Travel happens to be my best-loved pursuit, and I’ve both been lucky & worked hard to support that passion – so here we are!

On choosing where to go: Europe is my top choice for various reasons, so it’s what I’ll be speaking about for most of these posts. I also love to travel in the States (the Southwest and Hawaii are my favorites so far), and I’m interested in visiting Southeast Asia in the future. Obviously travel costs can vary immensely between these places and depending on where you are, but it’s possible to travel abroad on a budget, and that’s what I’ll be focusing on here. In any case, set a maximum amount you’re willing to spend for your next trip, and choose accordingly.

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A sign for the next town on the trail in the Cinque Terre, September 2011.

2) Airfare Mayhem. I really don’t have any secrets to finding cheap flights other than constant monitoring and jumping when I find an inexpensive flight. Sometimes I start by picking just a few dates we can travel – it’s practically impossible to compare all the options if you have twelve different travel possibilities – but if you want the cheapest flights you’ll usually have to travel on weird days or for weird amounts of time. A Friday to the following weekend schedule is best for a weeklong trip because it maximizes your time off and weekend days, but airlines know that and those flights are often pricier.

Consider how long you will need to go for in order to justify the cost of travel – and consider how much vacation time you will need to use versus the cost of the flights. I’m a big advocate for traveling in the off-season, but be aware of some possible issues (weather, closures, etc. – I should do a separate post on this!).

For actually purchasing flights, there are zillions of options. From about 2009 to 2015 I used Expedia, which I always found to be the cheapest for the trips I’ve taken. Now I use Google flights to search out different dates, departure cities, and schedules, as well as tracking flight prices I’m interested in, and usually end up booking directly with the airlines. Some airlines like Southwest (my personal favorite) don’t appear in these search engines, so you’ll need to go straight to the source. Above all, compare prices and search often.

October 553Stained Glass in Matthias Church in Budapest, October 2011.

3) Consider Your Departure City. I’ve never flown internationally out of Seattle before, and when price checking I found that the roundtrip flight would be close to $1500 per person. Not a price I was willing to pay for a two-week trip. So I checked Portland (just as bad) and then Vancouver, B.C. And here’s where it gets crazy. Roundtrip flights from Vancouver were about $900 per person – on the same dates, to the same places. We’ll have to drive 2.5 hours each way and park in B.C. for two weeks, a total cost of about $85 per person, so well worth the difference in price. This won’t always work, and sometimes you’ll have to decide whether or not to spend the extra money, as well as comparing the time and effort of driving and parking. But it’s always worth checking.

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A garden in Florence, 2011.

4) Compare Travel Routes. I knew we wanted to see several cities – I am not a person who travels & stays in one place, and I feel like I get the most for my money by traveling around. Once you pick your cities, investigate different routes between them. If you’ve been planning to start in one city and end in the other, consider reversing your trip – it may be cheaper to fly into or out of one city versus the other.

I settled on a Krakow to Prague route, with stops in Wroclaw and Dresden, but only after considering Budapest, Vienna, Munich, Copenhagen, and several other cities in the region. Ultimately this was a personal decision – I really want to see Krakow again and explore Prague – but it was also due to comparing the cost of travel to and between each place.

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Flowers in Krakow’s main square, October 2011.

5) Traveling Between Cities. Take stock of the local transportation options and make comparisons. Sometimes a rental car works best (we opted for this on both Hawaii trips), and sometimes it doesn’t. Public transit in Europe is often far superior to the States. I love, love, love trains in Europe, but they turned out to be pricier for some legs of our trip, so we’re taking buses. Consider overnight transit, as it will save you time and a night of accommodation – but also consider whether you can really sleep on a bus (I cannot), and whether it would negatively impact the next day(s) of your trip. A future post on accommodations will highlight this too.

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Sunset on Maui, March 2014.

6) Take Advantage of Crazy Circumstances. My partner and I have fallen into a pattern of taking a “big trip” every 2 years. In 2009 we did Christmas in Paris & London, in 2011 he joined me in Italy for a few weeks, and in 2013 we went to Hawaii. So in 2014 we agreed to take more local trips and save. However, in January 2014 we were searching for flights home for a wedding when we came across a crazy error on Delta’s website, selling a roundtrip flight to Maui for $125 per person (from Seattle these are usually at least $450). So we bought them. I still had to restructure my budget – I pulled over $500 from my long-term non-travel savings to afford the trip, and had to make up for that afterwards, but it was completely worth it.

Now obviously, this was a fluke. It’s not something I can replicate in the future to afford more travel. It was a once-in-a-lifetime thing, and I doubt we’ll ever fly that cheaply again. But that’s the point! As someone who loves to travel, I would have been crazy not to take advantage of a deal like that.

So there are some general travel transportation trips that help me afford my adventures, and at least leave me secure in the knowledge that I’m spending my money wisely in a way that works for me. Do you have any tips for affording travel?

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