Friday, February 8, 2008

The Budget Traveler

I consider myself a budget traveler. For me, it isn’t necessary to spend a lot of money because I can travel on a budget and still feel comfortable, safe, and still have a wonderful trip. There are people who like to backpack and stay in hostels, but not for me. I want a little more comfort but don't need the extra bells and whistles (such as a concierge or a luxury room). So I consider myself a moderate budget traveler.

When it comes to chosing a hotel, my priorities include safety, comfort, a room with a private bathroom (nope, I won’t schlep down a hallway in the middle of the night), and location, location, location! By being in a smaller hotel, I have the opportunity to get to know the owner and meet other travelers. Sometimes these hotels or pensiones have some history to them, so it becomes an added treat. I usually select a 2 or 3-star hotel or nice, comfortable pensione. A couple of times in the past I stayed in 1 or no-star hotels, but never again. They were much too basic for my needs or comfort.

Times have changed since the Euro was introduced. Prior to 2004, I typically spent anywhere from $50 to $95 for a room for two people. These days the average hotel price ranges from $110 - $150, depending on the city. Venice is very expensive compared to other cities in Italy.
Since I save on cost of the hotel, I use the 'extra' funds for shopping and splurging on an expensive dinner once in a while. I find it challenging and fun to get the best deal possible, and I enjoy telling people about the great bargain I found in a small town or charming hotel.
One way to help in reducing hotel costs is to ask the hotel manager to quote the price of a room without breakfast, which normally is an overpriced continental breakfast of stale rolls, pastries and coffee. The only exception I have seen has been in Germany where I have enjoyed a full breakfast of assorted meats, cheese, jams, breads, soft-boiled eggs, yogurt, coffee, tea and orange juice, always well worth the cost.

Another method in reducing costs is to ask if any discounts are available if payment is in cash rather than using a credit card, especially if you are staying for more than 4 nights. Many smaller hotels would prefer the cash and avoid the credit card transaction fees.

As for choosing my hotel, I like to be close to the major sights and attractions, as well as near transportation, such as the metro or train station. This saves time in getting to one place from another, especially when having to take the train very early in the morning. Many cities are quite small and manageable on foot. Therefore, you can skip the expensive taxis and walk to your destination, or you could take the bus or metro.

When it comes to dining out, I much prefer places filled with locals, rather than mostly/only tourists; and the only time I walk into a McDonald’s is to use their bathroom. I love the small trattorias where I can sample tasty local cuisine without breaking the bank. I also enjoy the local house wines, which can be very inexpensive.

Speaking of wine, I have found in most countries I can purchase local wines at a great price. In Italy and France, there are little wine stores where I can have an empty water bottle filled with a Merlot (or any other kind of wine) for just 4-5 Euros. In Greece, my husband and I once bought a 5 litre of white wine for $4.20 – talk about cheap!

When I travel from one city to the next, I’ll either take the train or bus or rent a car splitting the cost of expenses (car, gas, parking fees) with my travel partner. Selecting the mode of transportation depends on where I’m going and if it’s worth having a car for several days. As an example, when in Tuscany, it’s best to rent a car for the entire stay. Once I was ready to head to Florence I dropped my car off in Siena and took the bus to Florence. It’s a big “no-no” to even attempt to drive a car in Florence. Traveling by car gives me the freedom to stop along the way whenever I want to. I’ve done that many times when I’ve seen a great photo opportunity or another little hill town. When traveling alone, I won’t rent a car because it’s not cost effective. I get by with the train or bus.

Many cities have combined tickets for their museums and other sights. It’s really cost effective to puchase these, such as the Paris 3-day pass. These combination tickets allows for entry into several sights, which would be a lot more expensive if purchased separately. The nice thing about the Paris pass is that you can walk straight in without having to wait in line.

I usually don’t go on paid tours. I find if I do enough research I can create my own tour of a city or come up with an itinerary to see a few places in a day (via car). There are some exceptions: When I was in Saint Petersburg Russia on a Baltic cruise, I booked a 2-day tour for a group of 11 people that I had met via It was less expensive than the ship’s tours, only 11 of us rather than a busload of tourists, and we couldn’t have done all we saw on our own. In most cases when on a cruise, it’s better to book your own tour with 2-5 other couples on the ship. Most tour companies will customize the tour for your needs or desires.

Budget traveling can be such an enjoyable and fun experience. It does take some time to do the research to find the right hotel, the best trattorias, and figure out transportation, but in the end, I am always happy with my travels.

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