Category Archives: Budget Travel

I’m not knocking luxury

So. Hmm. That last post was a little misunderstood, I think.

Let me clarify. I’m not saying I don’t indulge in life’s luxuries. My husband and I didn’t choose to live frugally so we could sit in an empty room counting all of the money we’ve saved. We chose to life frugally, count every penny, and save when we can so we can afford some of life’s luxuries without putting ourselves into debt.

Case in point: Last May, after saving for three years, we finally took our vacation to Europe. We had a blast (despite the fact that I was 10-12 weeks pregnant and suffering the worst of my morning sickness). But I wouldn’t trade the trip for the world.

Did we need to go to Europe? Absolutely not. We wanted to take the trip, saved diligently, and paid cash. I’m so glad we worked so hard to save, and we’ll remember the trip for the rest of our lives. In my last post, I wasn’t saying that we should only ever spend money on necessities. I just think it’s important to recognize which luxuries we choose to spend money on, and draw a clear line between what’s necessary and what’s nice to have.

I’ve spent the last couple days editing photos (finally), I can finally share the pictures with you! I’m not looking my best, unfortunately, as I was quite ill. But there are lots of pretty buildings and scenery.

The photo below is us at the top of Notre Dame in Paris. Somewhere behind Tony’s head is the Eiffel Tower. Unfortunately, the tourist who snapped the picture for us didn’t tell him. Boo.

Click here for the slide show. Happy Wednesday!

Lessons learned after 2 weeks overseas

Before I share the fun stuff about our trip, I thought I’d share some of the financial lessons we learned on the trip. We planned ahead, and we did a lot of things right. But we also made some mistakes.

If you have a smartphone, turn off data roaming.

Luckily, I knew about this one before we left. I brought my iPhone with us to Europe, but I left it on airplane mode the entire time we were there. If I had left data roaming on, my phone’s automatic updates would have racked up hundreds of dollars in overseas roaming charges.

Fortunately, I still had access to wi-fi, so I could connect my phone to the hotel wi-fi to connect to the Internet for free. This was a lifesaver when we needed directions or information. We were also able to use the Skype app to make calls home basically for free. This was a huge moneysaver since calling cards are expensive and hotel phone fees are astronomical.

Don’t touch the hotel phone.

I wish I’d read the fine print on the card next to our hotel phone as soon as we got to the room. When we arrived in London, I realized that I’d forgotten to notify my credit card company that we’d be traveling abroad. We planned to use the Capital

One card for most of our purchases over there to avoid overseas transaction fees, so the last thing I wanted was for the card to be shut off for suspicious activity. I used the hotel phone to call Capital One collect. Capital One agreed to accept all long distance charges for the call. The hotel still charged us around 12USD just for using their phone. Ugh.

When I finally looked at the fee card, I saw that the hotel even charges fees for local calls. This was the case in all three of the hotels we stayed in. To be safe, just avoid the hotel phones all together.

Over-overestimate for food costs.

I pride myself on overestimating my budget most of the time. I like to build some cushion into the budget by assuming things will cost more than they do. Usually I’m pleasantly surprised to discover we’ve spent much less than we planned.

When we left for Europe, pretty much everything but food was paid for. I estimated $100 a day for us to eat, a number that I thought was pretty high based on our past experience, even considering the money we’d lose in the conversion. We typically spend very little for food on vacation. In this case, I was wrong, and we ended up going overbudget. It wasn’t by an astronomical amount, and it wasn’t a big deal because we’d built extra into the budget on top of my estimates.

Think hard before buying tourist passes.

A few months ago, I struggled with whether we should purchase London Passes for our trip. The London Pass offers admission to a ton of tourist attractions in London for one flat fee. The cost of the pass is much lower than the combined admission fees of all the attractions, but the catch is that it’s impossible to see everything in just a few days. I added up the cost of all the attractions we thought we’d see and compared it with the cost of the pass. It seemed like it would work out to be a good deal, so I went for it.

What I didn’t plan for was my pregnancy. Because I was tired and a feeling sick some days, we ended up seeing a lot less than we planned. In the end, we lost about 50USD on the passes. Blerg.

On the other hand, we bought Paris museum passes for 32 euros each and ended up getting 75 euros in admission out of each of them. Package deals aren’t always a bad deal, but you really have to do the math.

Despite these few hiccups, we stuck to the budget pretty well, especially considering how much we were able to do and see over there. If you’re planning a trip overseas, I hope you can learn from our mistakes to make your experience even more successful.

Photo by e01

Countdown to Europe & moving: 2 months to go

Can I tell you how excited I am that our trip is now absolutely, completely booked? Because I am SO excited. Everything is booked, paid for, and all of our travel documents are compiled together in a neat little stack on the bookshelf.

The last thing we booked? Tickets to see Les Miserables in London. I don’t even think I’m ready to talk about that yet because it’s possible my head will explode.

I should be relieved, but the amount of documents and confirmations and plans to keep straight are more than a little overwhelming, especially when I consider the fact that we’ll be packing up the rest of our lives approximately five days before we board our trans-Atlantic flight. Eep.

Speaking of moving. You know, that other thing we’re doing in May? I haven’t even thought about that thing. Yes, you read that correctly. I’ve been planning our 12-day European vacation for over a year, but we’re now two months from transporting our lives over 800 miles away and I haven’t even begun to compile a to-do list.

Well, I guess that’s not true. I’ve booked our movers and reserved a moving van. I know what needs to be done. I need to pack up three years of our lives — currently occupying over 900 square feet of space — and condense it all to fit in a 17-foot moving truck. I also need to find someone to sublet our apartment so we won’t end up paying rent in June and July. Ugh.

What I don’t need is boxes. Because I have a pathological fear of not having enough boxes when I need to move, I refused to throw away any of the boxes we used when we moved here. I also have kept every single box that came into this apartment that I felt might be useful in a move. It began as a single closet full of boxes, but they’ve now spilled out into our guest room. The floor is no longer visible. I open the door to the guest room, and all I can see is a wall of boxes.

Have I mentioned before that I despise moving? It’s pretty much my least favorite thing ever. From the nightmare of going through years of accumulated stuff to the limbo between packing and unpacking, moving makes me anxious, exhausted, and overwhelmed. I’m excited for the change, but I’m preparing myself for the worst this time since we’re not moving into anywhere permanent. I’m staring into several months of limbo until I finally get to unpack all of my boxes and begin decorating my new home.

Anyway, all of this is to say that I’m procrastinating. But on the bright side, did I mention our trip to Europe is completely booked? Because it is.

Photo by e01

Tips for a happier, healthier cruise

This past weekend we took a three-night cruise to the Bahamas. There were a lot of ups and downs, but I wouldn’t discourage you from trying it for yourself. It’s definitely an economical way to travel, and even though I don’t think I’ll do another cruise in the future, I definitely recommend it to those travelers who are looking for a relaxing getaway rather than a non-stop travel experience.

If you decide to try cruising for yourself, here are some things I wish I’d known before our trip.

Take the stairs.

You will be eating too much, and the food is mostly bad for you. Yes, in an ideal world you’ll eat nothing but reasonable portions at the giant buffet, but I don’t have that kind of will power. If you don’t either, one way that you can make sure you can (somewhat) counteract the damage is to ignore the slow, overcrowded elevators and take the stairs. There were 12 floors on our ship, and we were constantly going up and down the stairs. By the end of the trip, my calves were aching, which tells me I got at least a little exercise.

Bring a watch.

I don’t know if it’s part of the cruise “experience” and they want you to forget the time, but there was a serious shortage of clocks on that ship. We had to turn on the TV and flip to the channel guide to see the time in our room, because there was no clock. The only place we ever saw clocks were on the stairs. A watch would have made it easier for us for us to keep track.

Remember: nothing is “free.”

Because food is included in the cost of your ticket, you won’t receive a bill at the end of your meals. It’s a strange and wonderful feeling, but beware: that feeling makes it easier to spend money on the extras on the ship. After all, food is “free,” right? Why not treat yourself to all of the extras? But food isn’t free. Remember how much you paid for that ticket, and budget for extras accordingly.

They give you a little card hooked up to your credit card, which is what they swipe for all extra purchases. Don’t get too caught up in the “free” mentality, or you’ll undoubtedly end up with a painful bill at the end of the trip.

Read the fine print.

Several times we were almost duped into spending money without realizing it. For instance, after dinner we were offered a cup of espresso. There was no mention of an additional charge — until I read the fine print at the bottom of the menu that said specialty coffee drinks were subject to additional charges. Know what’s included with your ticket and what’s not so you won’t be surprised.

Be (somewhat) reasonable.

You are on vacation, so your resistance will already be low. Then you’ll be surrounded by unlimited food and drink. You’ll be approached by a bartender with a tray of delicious drinks every five minutes. All you have to do is swipe your magic card.

Take it from me, though. If you eat, drink, and spend too much, you will be sorry. We set a limit for what we could spend on the trip, which we only exceeded slightly. I can’t say the same for the food. I ate way more unhealthy food than I intended, and I definitely regret it.

Enjoy yourself, indulge, but also keep in mind that the real world is waiting for you, and you can’t leave those extra calories behind on the ship.

Photo by 27828104@N08

Recapping our cruise: The good, the bad, and the ugly

We’re back after a relaxing weekend at sea, but I have to say, after experiencing it? I don’t know if cruises are for me. It could be that we just had a bad experience with Royal Caribbean, but for a number of reasons, I can’t say I’ll ever do another cruise. Here’s the rundown of our weekend.

The Good

Cruising was definitely affordable. If you’re able to drive to your departure port and avoid the “extras” on the ship like alcohol, the total cost of the trip will like be much less than if you flew to a destination, booked a hotel, and paid for food separately.

For the most part, the rooms were comfortable if a little small. But it’s really true what they say about your room on a cruise ship — you spend very little time there. Even though we spent an above average amount of time trapped on the ship, we didn’t spend the time in our room. We were on the deck looking out at the water or reading.

Being at sea surrounded by nothing but deep blue ocean and sky was amazing. My favorite part of the trip was watching the sunset from the deck on our final night at sea. We went parasailing on our first day off the boat, which was definitely a worthwhile experience.

I also found it easier to relax on a cruise ship than I have any other vacation. Perhaps it’s because everything is taken care of for you, but I didn’t feel the urgency to go-go-go that I normally do while traveling. I read an entire book, which is unheard of for me on vacation. I never take the time to read while traveling unless it’s on a flight, and even then I’m usually too excited to really focus.

Since this trip was meant to be a chance for us to relax and recharge, that part of it was great. We mostly just read, slept, and ate, and I really enjoyed the relaxation. It was just what we needed.

The Bad

Honestly? I wasn’t at all impressed with the ship’s activities. Aside from drinking at the bars (expensive) and gambling in the casino (also expensive, and boring in my opinion), there was very little to do. We’re admittedly pretty anti-social when it comes to group activities, and after catching part of the ship’s comedy act on the closed circuit television, we decided to skip that, too.

Our second port of call ended up being cancelled due to high winds. They were unable to shuttle us safely from the ship to shore, so we spent our last day at sea. The ship definitely felt claustrophobic on that final day. I was frustrated and angry that we were stuck there when I’d been looking forward to getting off the ship and exploring the island — especially since our three-day cruise only included two ports of call.

For the record, the Royal Caribbean crew and staff of the ship was pretty rude about the cancellation. Their attitude seemed to be, “We just canceled half your vacation, but that’s not our problem. Spend more money at the bar! kthnx.”

I would have rather been off the ship in another country exploring rather than feeling trapped surrounded by other American tourists. It ended up being okay for us since it kind of forced us to relax for the day, but it was still a bummer. I felt stuck on the ship.

The Ugly

I debated whether I should share my feeling on this subject, but I’ve decided to give an accurate depiction of our experience. And honestly, I found the cruise culture to be a little disturbing. It was extremely strange to me to be surrounded by so much excess. Excessive food, excessive alcohol, and excessive spending.

I really don’t want to get on a soapbox here, and believe me, it’s not like we didn’t overindulge on the cruise. We ate way too much, probably drank too much (mostly because we felt like there was little else to do), and spent too much in the process. But on future vacations, I think I’d rather avoid that kind of temptation. It’s hard to resist eating and drinking too much when food and alcohol are literally every. where.

I think our biggest problem was our choice of destination. The only place we stopped was Nassau, Bahamas, which was a pretty bleak place. The entire city seemed to center on tourism, which honestly just isn’t my style when it comes to travel. I want to explore another culture and experience another city. I didn’t like being surrounded by other tourists and people seeking to cater to tourists. As Tony said, the part of the Bahamas that we saw was a lot like the beaches of North Carolina during the heavy tourist season.

By the end of the trip, when this towel animal appeared on our bed, I was ready to get home to Howie.

The Conclusion

I can definitely see the appeal of cruising, and I think it would be a good vacation idea for a family (as long as you pick a better destination than the Bahamas). If you’re someone who enjoys complete relaxation on vacation, you’d probably really enjoy a cruise to a tropical island. If you’d rather do and see more, I’d recommend choosing a destination with more to do and see than a tropical island.

It’s also possible that I just had kind of a crummy experience for our first cruise. For another perspective, read about Kacie’s cruise to Alaska. From what she’s told me, it seems like an entirely different experience than our cruise to the Bahamas with more interesting sights and experiences.

I definitely can’t wait to see how this experience differs from our trip to Europe in two months. The two trips couldn’t be more different, and I’m thinking the freedom of Europe will suit us a little better.

Have you ever been on a cruise? What was your experience like?

On your mark, get set …

Tomorrow afternoon, we set sail for a four-day cruise to the Bahamas. I so need some sunshine and relaxation.

Taking time off from my day job was easy. Unfortunately, taking time off from my own to-do list, worries, and work isn’t so easy.

It’s been months since we took real time off to relax, and no matter how much I plan to relax in Europe, I know better. With all the travel and things to do, I doubt we’ll have much time to just be.

Our trip this weekend is different, though. We don’t have high expectations or a long to-see list. I have no itinerary and no plans. We planned for this cruise to be our chance to recharge and refresh ourselves before the craziness coming up. The past few months have been hectic, and the months ahead will be even more so. We need to take some time to ourselves to reflect on what’s coming up and prepare for what’s ahead.

So I’m requesting time off from myself. I need a few days to collect my thoughts. I need time to read a book without feeling guilty about everything else I should be doing. I need to spend some real time with my husband talking and planning for the near future without work between us.

Tony is guilty, too. With his thesis due at the end of next week and graduation quickly approaching, I feel like his computer has become permanently appended to his lap. It’s rare that I’m able to pull him away from his work for a real conversation.

Because the weekends are when I do most of my writing for this site, posting may be light next week. I hope to catch up early in the week, but there’s no telling what my schedule will be like when we return.

After this trip, it’s time to get serious about packing our lives and moving north. It’s time to prepare ourselves for a new home, new jobs, and what will surely feel like a new life. So much is changing so soon. I hope we’re able to stop the clock, if only for a weekend.

Photo by lynnoel

Tips for applying for your passport

We’re setting sail for our cruise to the Bahamas in 44 days, which means we’ll need our passports much sooner than we originally anticipated for our trip to Europe in May. I already planned to take care of that this month, but booking our cruise really pushed me to do it sooner rather than later.

Week before last, we put together all of our documents and headed to the passport application office on Tony’s campus (you can search for the office nearest you here). I was really nervous about all the hoops we’d have to jump through, but I was pleasantly surprised to discover that it wasn’t that difficult. The whole process took about an hour and a half, and I was able to do it on my lunch hour. We filled out the application in the office and had our photos taken there, too. You could cut your time in the office significantly by filling out the paperwork ahead of time and bringing in your photos.

If you’re dreading your passport application process for an upcoming trip, keep these things in mind.

It takes 6-8 weeks to process your application.

If you’re planning to apply for a passport, I’m sure you already know this, but it’s really important to keep in mind. I didn’t think about the timeframe until after I booked our cruise, but luckily we were still able to get our applications in 8 weeks before our cruise. We’re cutting it close, but I’m optimistic that it will be okay. If you can’t wait 6-8 weeks, you can apply for expedited processing with a 2-week turnaround, but you’ll have to pay an additional $60 and cover the cost of 2-day delivery.

Bring your certified birth certificate.

You’ll need a certified state ID or driver’s license and your birth certificate. Some hospitals issue a “certificate of birth,” but you’ll need a certified copy from your county, city, or state to apply for a passport. Look for a notary stamp and a signature from a county or city official to be sure. Also, you’ll have to send the original copy with your application. They’ll send it back to you when they’re finished processing your application, but be prepared to be without your birth certificate for a couple months.

You’ll need a 2″ x 2″ headshot.

You can have passport photos taken at many drugstores and photo processing locations. Passport photo regulations require that the photo be recent and in color with a plain white or light-colored background. If you’re in a hurry, choose a passport application agency that will take the photos for you. We paid $8 each to have our photos taken at the office, which is comparable to prices I saw at drugstores.

To save time, fill out the paperwork ahead of time.

You can fill out the passport application ahead of time and bring your completed application to the office. I wish we’d done this, because I made a mistake on mine in ink and ended up filling it out twice.

Bring a check or money order.

The total cost for each passport was $100, but it doesn’t all go to the same place: $75 goes to the U.S. Department of State and $25 goes to the application agency for processing fees. The $75 passport fee is payable to the U.S. Department of State and sent along with your application, so it must be paid in check or money order. You must have a separate check or money order for each application. The passport agency allowed us to pay the processing and photo fees in one lump sum on a credit or debit card. If you use an online bank that doesn’t offer paper checks (like ING), you can get a money order at the Post Office for a fee of $1.10.

Track your application.

About a week after you apply, you’ll be able to track the status of your passport online.

Overall, the process wasn’t as difficult as I expected. Cross your fingers that we’ll get our passports with plenty of time to spare!

Photo by clappstar

Countdown to Europe and moving — Four months to go

The end of the holiday season was particularly bittersweet for me. We’re moving and taking a trans-Atlantic vacation in 120 days, and it’s finally time for me to start doing all the things I’ve been putting off until “after the holidays.” It’s so exciting, but overwhelming, too.

I’ve been breaking everything down month-by-month to make sure I get it all done. Here’s what’s on my plate for January.


Last month I set a date for our move and booked the movers and the truck. We’re renting a U-Haul and hiring a moving company to load up the truck. I don’t know if I’ve written about this before, but honestly, even though loading the truck ourselves would be more frugal, hiring people to do it is the best $150 I will ever spend. We’re on the third floor, and it’s just us. Knowing that two professionals will be here to lug our heavy possessions down three flights of wind-y stairs takes a huge load off my mind.

Just before the holidays I also informed my boss and co-workers that I’ll be leaving in May. My plan was to make an announcement in March, but the other employee in my department is pregnant and due in June. I felt like it was only fair to let everyone know well in advance so they could plan for both of us to leave around the same time.

We’re also continuing to declutter, but that’s not going as well as I’d hoped. :( I’m hoping the New Year will motivate me to really start getting rid of stuff so we can lighten our load.


For Christmas, Tony’s parents got me a couple of frugal vacation planning books for Paris and London. This month I plan to read through them and make a to-do list based on the tips I find valuable.

Since our flight and hotels are already booked, there isn’t much left to do beyond deciding what to see in the cities and getting our passports. This month we’ll be taking care of the passports to make sure we have plenty of time.

Everything is coming together nicely. Here’s hoping it’s smooth sailing from here to May.

Photo by tahir

Europe Update: 5 months to go

tower bridgeNow that we’ve booked our trip, there’s not a lot for us to do this month. Our flight is booked, and we’ve chosen our hotels. Our travel dates are set, and we’ve paid for the trip.

It’s been almost a month since we booked the trip, and I only have one regret so far: I didn’t use* when I booked the trip. I could have earned 2% back on the trip, which would have earned me about $70. It’s not a huge amount of money when you look at it next to $3500, but every little bit counts. That $70 could have bought us a pretty extravagant dinner in London. So I’m kind of kicking myself now. But I want to pass the lesson on to you: if you’re booking through Expedia, it’s absolutely worth it to go through Ebates! Don’t make the same mistake I did!

This month is all about research. We’ve made a tentative list of all the things we want to do and see while we’re abroad, and we’re making final decisions about what we’ll have time to do.

I’m also looking at discount cards for London and Paris. Both cities have discount “passes” that allow you to pay a single fee for free admission to a number of attractions. The passes are really only worth it if you plan to see a lot of the attractions available, so we’re trying to decide if it’s worth the money.

We made a list of the things we want to do without looking at the attractions available through the passes. Then we compared our list with what the pass offers.

The nice thing about the London Pass is that you can order it ahead of time and have it shipped to you. If you choose the option with transportation included, you can get right on the Underground from Heathrow and travel to the city with your pass. This would be incredibly convenient. Considering what we want to do in London and the cost of transportation, we’ve decided that the London Pass might be a good option. We’ll probably end up saving only a small amount of money, but the convenience will make it worth while. I added up all of our costs, and we’ll save a few dollars a day. But we’ll be able to skip lines, and we won’t have to worry about picking up Underground passes. I also think we’ll do more of the things we want to do if we pay ahead and we’re not counting dollars while we’re there.

The Paris Pass also includes transportation, but the attractions offered don’t line up quite as well with what we want to see. We’re still considering the option, but we might end up skipping the Paris pass and paying cash for what we want to do there.

To pay for the trip, I opted for the Capital One card. We’re charging all of our expenses on the card and paying them off right away. The card is interest free for the first year, we won’t pay any overseas transaction fees, and we’re earning 1% cash back on all of the money we spend. When we’re overseas, I plan to use the card to pay for food and other purchases that allow Visa. We’ll carry a small amount of cash, but I don’t want to get hit with high fees for ATM withdrawals and currency conversion. I also don’t want to end up with a bunch of pounds and euros at the end of the trip, so I want to keep our cash to a minimum.

That’s it for this month! Planning has actually been much easier than I anticipated so far. And next month we’ll be applying for passports, which we’re really excited about!

As always, I welcome any advice from seasoned travelers!

*referral link

Photo by anirudhkoul