Tag Archives: europe

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 TravelAdvisor.com, 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 CreditCards.com 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

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.

A little symbol to remind us of our goals

Photo by benklemm

Just last week I wrote about the importance of dreaming big. Sometimes the day-to-day reality of living frugally can be tough. Having big goals to remind you why you decided to scrimp and save can make it easier. By keeping my eye on the prize, I’m reminded of why the daily sacrifices are so worth it.

It’s been almost a month since we cut back to a limited cash budget for the summer. Even though we’ve been living frugally for almost two years, this is more extreme than anything we’ve ever done. I’ve been reminding myself of our big goals more frequently lately to stay on track as it’s starting to get a little tougher.

One of our biggest goals is an extended trip to Europe after my husband finishes grad school in a year and a half. We’re trying to save enough cash for two frugal months in Europe in addition to money for moving and an emergency fund. This is a huge goal, which is part of the reason we’re cutting back even more than before.

Last week, I received a tangible reminder to keep with me. My lovely friend Kacie at Sense to Save sent me about 15 US dollars worth of euros that her husband collected in an overseas trip. Her bank wouldn’t let her convert the coins, so she sent them over to me in the hopes that we’ll be able to use them on our trip. (Thanks, Kacie!)

These little coins have actually been incredibly helpful. It seems silly, but having something tangible to keep the trip on our minds is exciting! It motivates me to push that much harder toward our goal. I look at those little coins, and I’m so excited about the possibility of this trip that the daily extras don’t seem so important anymore. They serve as a symbol for why we’re working so hard.

If you have a big goal you’re working toward, why not see if a tangible reminder can help keep you on track? If you’re saving for a new car, maybe you could pick up an air freshener and save it until you can hang it from your new rear view mirror. If you’re saving for a new house, maybe pick up a piece of art at a yard sale or a welcome mat for when you move in.

Having a tangible symbol of your goals not only feels like a step toward accomplishing them, but it also serves as a reminder of why you’re working so hard.

Have you ever tried this? Leave a comment if you have an idea!

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?

The List: Fun goals to accomplish before 2011

I’ve been in a bit of a funk lately. Just generally kind of blah. It’s taken me some time to figure out what could be causing it, especially since everything is going so well for us right now.

I’ve always had a tendency to be preoccupied with the future. Instead of enjoying what I have right now, I’m looking ahead to a new home, a baby, and everything else that’s coming up in the next stage of our lives.

Unfortunately, all this looking ahead is a good way to miss out on what’s good about right now. We have almost two years before we close this chapter in our lives and move on to the next. It’s two years of time together to experience new things and enjoy each other’s undivided attention. That’s a pretty good place to be.

Lately we’ve been talking about ways to make the most of this time. There are so many things we want to do and see before we settle down and start a family, but we’ve been so focused on lofty financial goals and day-to-day life that we’ve lost sight of those things.

We’re in a good place financially. We’re debt-free except for our student loans, and we’ll be paying off that debt for quite some time no matter how I crunch the numbers. That’s okay with me. We’re on track to complete our emergency fund in about a year, and we should have the money saved for our trip to Europe in a little under a year.

When we decided to plan our trip to Europe, it was partly because we realized this is the best time in our lives to do it. With no children and few financial obligations, we have more freedom now than we’ll have for quite some time after we have a baby and buy a house.

Acknowledging this freedom made us start to think about other things we’d like to do. We may not be able to accomplish them all, but focusing on the list will be a nice diversion for me in the coming year and a half while I count down to the next chapter of our lives.

Some of the things on The List won’t cost us a thing; others are quite expensive. We’re still committed to our other financial goals (living debt free, saving for retirement, and completing our emergency fund) and we don’t want this list to distract us too much from those goals. By setting priorities and being more frugal in other aspects of our lives, we should be able to focus a little money on travel and other things we’ve always wanted to do without detracting from our other goals.

I put up a rough draft of The List on a separate page where I can track what we’ve accomplished and add to it. We have about 20 months to do as much as we can before Tony graduates. These are fun things, so you won’t find any financial goals here.

The challenge is to accomplish them frugally without getting into debt or affecting our savings too much. We may discover that some of these things aren’t possible at this point in our lives. We’ll have to examine our priorities and plan ahead to make some of them happen. Whether we’re able to do it all or not, I’m really looking forward to trying and sharing our experiences with you as we cross things off.

What do you think we should do before we settle down? Take a look at The List, and let me know if you have any suggestions!

An update on goals & a progress report

I can’t believe it’s only been about 8 months since we committed to frugality and began saving our emergency fund. Our progress has been slow, but it’s started to pick up since we paid off our credit card debt.

Beginning in January, we doubled our monthly savings amount. Hopefully that means the progress meter I added to my sidebar over the weekend will begin to move more quickly.

Our summer savings account is actually complete … we’re just waiting on a tax refund check from the state of North Carolina. Once that arrives, it’ll go directly into our summer savings account to cover Tony’s income during the two summer months when he doesn’t receive a paycheck for teaching. We’re hoping he’ll be able to find a part-time job over the summer, and all of that extra income will go directly into the emergency fund.

As for the Europe savings account … well, that’s pretty sad so far. Our plan was to finish funding our emergency fund and then begin saving aggressively for our trip to Europe. We’ve had a slight change of plans.

It’s easier for me to stay motivated toward a goal when I can watch its progress, so we decided to open a new savings account and save separately for Europe. Opening a new account for Europe doesn’t change the total amount we have in liquid savings, it just helps us to track our savings to reach the two separate goals.

Since Europe is a fun goal, seeing the progress meter move should be extra motivating. Whenever I want to make an unnecessary purchase or spend money, I can take a look at our progress and remind myself that our tight budget will be worth it in 14 months!

After assessing our progress and our goals, I realized that we weren’t saving enough to reach them. So I shifted my budget around and cut down some of our discretionary spending to increase our monthly savings amount by $100. I’m hoping we can sustain the increase, but we’ll have to see how it goes.

Our emergency fund will remain our top priority, but we’ve begun saving a small amount for Europe every month, too.

Based on our current rate of savings, here are my projections for completion:

Emergency fund: Completed by July 2010

Europe fund: Completed by May 2010

Hopefully, we’ll bring in some additional income this summer and we’ll be able to finish sooner.

I’m glad I took the time to assess where we are and where we need to be. I was able to make a change to our savings before it was too late! Have you assessed your goals recently?

Europe on a budget: Should we add Italy to our trip?

When we started planning our Europe trip, we wanted to visit London; Paris; and Florence, Italy. After I started crunching numbers and planning a tentative itinerary, we decided that the added cost and extra travel time made Italy an impossibility.

Since then several people have urged me to reconsider our decision to nix Italy. Two of them even recommended Italy over Paris if we had to choose.

I don’t want to eliminate Paris from our plans, but I’ve started looking for a way to make Italy work. It will probably be at least a decade, maybe even two, before we can make another trip like this. I want to make sure we don’t have any regrets.

I’ve found some options for how to make it work, and now I’m trying to decide what to do.

There are three problems with adding Italy: the added travel costs, the additional time it would take to travel to Florence from Paris, and the inconvenience we’d have to endure to make it all work.


Flights out of Chicago (near where my family lives) are about $150-$200 cheaper per ticket. By driving the 800 miles to Chicago, we’d reduce our plane ticket costs by almost $500. We’d also be able to bring the dog along and leave him with my parents while we’re gone, which means we’d save the $350 cost to board him.

Here’s the breakdown. These prices are based on a May 2009 trip, so they’re obviously subject to change, but I’m using them as a basis for comparison:

Flying out of Raleigh NC:

Plane tickets: $1500
Train ride from Paris to Florence: $450
Dog boarding: $350
Total: $2300

Flying out of Chicago:

Plane tickets: $1100
Train ride from Paris to Florence: $450
Travel costs to and from Chicago: $200
Total: $1750

Flying out of Raleigh NC (without adding Italy):

Plane tickets: $1400
Dog boarding: $350
Total: $1750

We could add 2 days in Florence without increasing our travel costs if we fly out of Chicago. Now that we’ve eliminated the money constraints, our decision comes down to time and convenience.


I was concerned that the 12-hour train ride to Florence would mean losing a day of sight-seeing. Then I discovered that we could travel overnight by train in a sleeper car, which means we wouldn’t lose any time while en route to Florence. (Anyone traveled in a sleeper car before? Is it comfortable enough to sleep through the night?)

Unfortunately, we’d still have to build a couple days of driving into our trip. Our original plan was 6 days in London, 6 days in Paris, and 4 days at home before returning to work. Adding Florence and flying out of Chicago would give us 5 days in London, 5 days in Paris, 2 days in Florence, 2 days of driving, and only a day and a half to relax before going back to work.


Then there’s the most obvious problem: driving 800 miles to get home after all of that travel is going to be brutal. We know that. The question is, would it be worth it to suffer through in order to experience another country? I’ve always wanted to visit Italy, and I don’t want to miss out on this opportunity. But I do realize we’re going to be seriously inconvenienced.

The final consideration is our dog. I was nervous about boarding him for over two weeks. It just seems like such a long time. I would be a lot more comfortable leaving him with my parents (he’d receive better care, and it’s free!)

So what do you think? Is two days in Italy worth the inconvenience?

Money in Europe: What’s the best option?

photo by poolie

As I continue to research for our frugal European vacation in 2010, I’ve come across a new dilemma: what should we do about money overseas?

We’ve decided to carry only a limited amount of cash. Not only are currency conversion fees really high at banks and other institutions (at ATMs we could end up paying 10% or more once you tack on all the fees), but I don’t feel secure keeping a lot of cash on me in a foreign country. So we’ll probably convert about $500USD to Euros and GDP before the trip just in case we need a little cash and carry only a little with us at a time.

Instead of using cashing, we’re looking into other options. Here’s what we’ve learned:

Debit cards

Our checking accounts are through Wachovia, and our debit cards are Visa. Since Visa is widely accepted in Europe, I thought this would be our best option. But then I learned about the transaction fees. We’d pay a 2% foreign transaction fee to Wachovia, another 1-2% to Visa, plus flat transaction fees for ATM withdrawals. I also read something vague about additional fees to convert the money from foreign currency to US dollars. Um, no thanks.

If we moved our travel money to an ING checking account, it’s the same deal.

There are also security issues with a debit card. Our entire account could be wiped out, and it could take up to 2 weeks for the money to be replaced by fraud protection. That’s a hassle I’d rather not deal with on vacation.

Pre-paid debit cards

We briefly considered a pre-paid Visa card. I don’t know why we did, because it’s a pretty dumb idea. If we fully loaded the card with the maximum of $1500, the flat fees just to purchase the card are about 2.5%. (If we were only putting $100 on the card, it’s close to 33% in fees upfront.) On top of that, there is a foreign transaction fee of 3%. Not happening.

Travelers checks

Travelers checks spend like cash with added security. You sign the check, hand it over, and receive cash back in change. They’re also widely accepted in Europe. I’ve been unable to get a clear answer on whether there are transaction fees, though. I found something vague about “commission fees,” but no clear numbers. They also seem like a pain in the butt to use, and would most likely result in carrying more cash than we’re comfortable carrying.

Credit cards

We currently have an American Express card and a Bank of America Visa card with no balances. Our Bank of America credit card would work just like our Wachovia debit card — 3% to the bank and 1% to Visa. Ugh. American Express is a little better. We’d end up paying just 2.7% total. Unfortunately, American Express may not be as widely accepted. We could take out cash as needed, but credit card ATM fees are incredibly high.

Apparently, Capital One is the only credit card that currently does not charge any foreign transaction fees. They even waive the fee that would be charged by Visa, so we’d end up paying no fees at all. As of now, I feel like it might be worth opening another credit card to save $100-$200 in fees. As long as we pay it off immediately after our trip, it shouldn’t have any negative effects on our credit scores or interest.

What do you think? Should I suck it up and add the transaction fees into our budget, or increase our credit line with another credit card that we’ll never use after the trip?

Foreign transaction rates for major credit cards
Foreign transaction fees for major debit and credit cards