Month: May 2015

Why I Would Never Describe A Traveler As “Out Of Touch”

I don’t typically post multiple times during the week, but I just read an opinion piece by one of my favorite travel guides – Rick Steves – that really spoke to me.

Despite his hundreds of thousands of Facebook fans, Rick received a negative comment on one of his recent social posts describing his European travels. In essence, the commenter implied that with all of the troubling news in the world right now about the earthquake in Nepal, the riots in Baltimore, and beyond, Rick Steves’ entertaining and educational posts about his latest European excursions seemed “out of touch.”

I could not disagree more. Luckily, Rick felt the same way, and approached his public reply with his typical open-minded and inspiring prose.

“Traveling thoughtfully, especially in challenging times, is one of the best ways to put current events in perspective. It forces you to see that global victims of poverty and natural disasters aren’t just faceless statistics in a newspaper, but humans. You can’t help but feel empathy. In my travels, I’ve stood on the steps of sacred temples in Kathmandu, Nepal, bowed my head, and said “namaste” to people — perhaps some of the very same people who are now homeless and whose temples are now rubble.”

While I have not yet been to Nepal, the message behind his words resonated to my core.

I grew up in a fairly wealthy suburb of Chicago, but at certain points during my teenage years my family could not afford vacations. I lived in a sheltered and ethnically homogeneous community, and I rarely traveled outside of it. I was certain that all of my peers were better off than myself, since my only exposure to other kids enduring true hardships was via the news. Apart from what I saw in the media, I was completely disconnected with the rest of the world.

So, when my folks signed me up to go on my first mission trip to Standing Rock Indian Reservation in south-central North Dakota with my church at age fifteen, I had no idea how much a trip devoted to volunteer work would give back to myself as well. I saw first-hand what it looked like to grow up in real poverty, and to be angry at another culture who overtook your land.

While I understand that the struggles and strife on Native American reservations are not in the news as often as the conflicts in Israel, that volunteer experience as a teenager has since helped me put those types of clashes into perspective. Meeting and learning from people who had different backgrounds than my own helped me learn what meaningful travel is all about.

In the article, Rick Steves continues on to say, “When people question how I can enjoy a great vacation while horrible things are happening, I say, “Sure, horrible things are happening. But what good does staying home do, especially when I find being on the road gives me a better understanding of the challenges our society will be confronting for a long time to come and help me better respond?”

Humans around the world face many challenges. That said, I firmly believe we (as a collective) will learn fastest by seeing first-hand how other cultures would approach problems differently than our own. In essence, the experiences we gain from traveling will enable us to find solutions together…as global citizens.

Through traveling as frequently as I can, following other travel bloggers, and writing original travel content, I hope to help both myself and my readers bridge our personal cultural divides and broaden our perspectives. In this way, we will never be “out of touch.”

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See My Trip Budgeting Tool In Action: Planning for our San Fran Trip

With long, steep hills rising above a glistening bay, San Francisco is one of the most iconic cities in the world. And for a good reason – there may be no other city on the planet as gorgeous year-round as “The City by the Bay.”

Steep hill rise high out of San Francisco Bay

Steep hill rise high out of San Francisco Bay

In less than two weeks my boyfriend Derek and I are headed to SF for six days to visit his brother Matt, who recently relocated to the Bay area for his job in finance.

Needless to say, we won’t be alone. Among the ever-growing number of young professionals calling San Francisco home, the city hosts an estimated 16 MILLION tourists each year! That’s double the population of New York City visiting annually!

The Golden Gate Bridge hiding in the SF Skyline - Dec 2010

The Golden Gate Bridge hiding in the SF Skyline – Dec 2010

With that said, the only other time I’ve been to San Francisco was in December 2010 for a long weekend – and my boyfriend has never been before. Having visited in early winter last time, my strongest memories are of thick, slow to disperse fog, as well as temperatures that barely cracked 55 degrees Fahrenheit.

Fog Clearing Over San Francisco - Dec 2010

Fog Clearing Over San Francisco – Dec 2010

This time we will be going in mid-May, and I’m keeping my fingers crossed for sunshine and mild, mid-60’s temperatures.

With my expectation for beautiful weather in tow, this past week I began using my trip planning tool that I discussed in my last post to craft a daily touring schedule. I thought it would be important to plan our days and calculate roughly how much money our “extra-long weekend trip” will cost (dun…dun…dun…).

As usual, I broke out our transportation, lodging, activities, and food expenses by day. I filled in the costs of what we already booked, and then inserted estimates for anything unplanned at this point (i.e. food allowances, vineyard tasting fees, etc.). Here’s what the schedule and costs currently look like in my planning spreadsheet:

San Francisco Budget

As you can see, even though we are staying with Derek’s brother for three of the five nights, our long weekend in SF WILL NOT be cheap.

The cost of living in the Bay area is one of the highest in the United States, and the cost of being a tourist proves no different. Downtown hotels are constantly in high demand. Restaurant menus are comparable to NYC pricing.  AND if you’re taking a full-day wine tour to Napa or Sonoma counties (like we are) – ohhhhh man – the cost per person that day may completely blow your food and activity budget for the trip.

With that said, when visiting San Francisco, careful planning is essential to be able to immerse yourself in the city’s finest offerings. I used TripAdvisor and recommendations from friends to sculpt our itinerary, while keeping in mind our personal travel style.

We like wine. We like history. We like nature.

We don’t like crowded, kitschy, tourist-filled hotspots.

Tourists waiting in line to ride the only National Monument that moves - the San Francisco trolley car

Tourists waiting in line to ride the only National Monument that moves – the San Francisco trolley car

So, after discussing together what will be most important to the two of us during our limited number of days in the city, we decided to de-prioritize some of the most common destinations – Alcatraz, Chinatown, and Pier 39. We figured they just aren’t our cup of tea.

The gate to SF's Chinatown district - Dec 2010

The gate to SF’s Chinatown district – Dec 2010

Wild seals relaxing by the docks at Pier 39 - Dec 2010

Wild seals relaxing by the docks at Pier 39 – Dec 2010

Instead, we pinpointed that we want to see The Presidio (with the Golden Gate Bridge backdrop), the Mission District, the Ghirardelli Factory, Fisherman’s Wharf, and the other destinations listed in my spreadsheet above.  By talking to my travel companion in advance about our expectations and priorities, we were not only able to estimate how much money we will spend in our activity budget each day, but I feel we have the flexible itinerary in place to optimize each day of our trip.

Outside the Ghirardelli Factory in downtown SF - Dec 2010

Outside the Ghirardelli Factory in downtown SF – Dec 2010

While some people enjoy spontaneity on their vacations, I always recommend traveling with some general idea of what you will do upon your arrival as well as how much money you plan to spend. In this way, you will avoid two types of regrets – spending over your budget and not seeing everything you wanted to see.

I hope this post provides a helpful example of how my trip budgeting tool can be applied in real life, as well as how you can replicate it for one of your upcoming trips!

For your reference, feel free to download my SF trip planning spreadsheet (seen in the above spreadsheet screenshot) from my MeansToTravel google docs. From there, you can make and save changes that apply to your own upcoming trips!

How To NOT Go Over Budget While You’re On Vacation

It’s very easy to spend more than you expect when you’re on vacation. Even if you plan in advance, your “vacation brain” can set it. Actually, I think they call it YOLO these days.

We’ve all been there. You’re relaxing by the pool – it’s hot as heck – and you absolutely needed all four of those $8 strawberry daiquiris with the mini umbrellas that the pool boy placed on the table next to your lounge chair. Then you get the bill – $36 including tax! Plus you have to tip! Yikes. You just spent $43 and you haven’t even gone out to dinner yet.

After several OMG DANGIT moments like that in my travels, I learned that the tactic that works best for me is to map out my daily expenses ahead of my trip so I know exactly how much I’m in for.

You're at a moonshine distillery in Gatlinburg, Tennessee with your friends. Ergo, you will probably buy a few rounds.

You’re at a moonshine distillery in Gatlinburg, Tennessee with your friends. Ergo, you will probably buy a few rounds.

Please understand that my budgeting tactic does not involve planning every single detail of my vacation in advance. Au contraire, mon ami!

Instead, I map out what I know to be true, and give myself an allowance for the rest. Since many of my readers typically travel with at least one companion, I thought the most relevant example would demonstrate what it looks like to travel with a buddy for ten days. The example below is from my trip to Seattle and Vancouver in late summer 2013 – and my boyfriend was my buddy.

Planning to $5K Vacation Budget - my Vancouver/Seattle Trip 2013

Planning to $5K Vacation Budget – my Vancouver/Seattle Trip 2013

As you can see, I estimated each of our expenses by day, and included notes about what was planned in advance. Most notably, I divided up my budget tracker into four vacation expense types:

  • Transportation
  • Lodging
  • Food
  • Activities & Souvenirs

Based on my experience, all travel expenses will fall into one of those four buckets.

Ever since I started pre-planning my trips using this spreadsheet tool and making sure to stay within my allotted budgets, I have not had any issues with overspending at a “YOLO” moment. (for all non-Millennials reading this, YOLO stands for “you only live once”)  I know exactly what I can spend each day on food and souvenirs, and I stick to it.

A few budget-busting tendencies to avoid during your travels are:

  • Not packing what you truly need. Last year I went to Ireland in the springtime without waterproof shoes. On the second day of my trip, and after several spontaneous rain showers, I scoured the shops in Dublin for a pair of boots that could get me through the next six days. I ended up spending 60 euro on a new pair of shoes, and had to make up for that cost within my food and souvenirs budgets over the rest of the trip. Major bummer.

    Shopping with my best friend for warmer clothes in Cork, Ireland.

    Shopping with my best friend for warmer clothes in Cork, Ireland.

  • Not being realistic about your food/alcohol budget. You’re on vacation. You will most likely have at least one coffee and one alcoholic drink per day. If you’re planning to go out at night, budget for a few more drinks than you usually consume. It’s always better to over-estimate what you’re going to spend on food and drinks than under-estimate. And don’t forget about exchange rates! If you’re in London, there’s absolutely no way that you’re going to spend the equivalent of five dollars for lunch on-the-go.

    https://www.flickr.com/photos/76657755@N04/7027596629

    Create a realistic budget for what you will spend. (image source: flickr.com)

  • Forgetting to account for fees. Before you leave, think through carefully when you’ll be charged specific fees. There are many examples of this to choose from. Most airlines charge around $25 to check a bag. Some hotels charge a small fee to print out your boarding pass. Some train stations have pay-per-hour lockers to store your bags for the day while you tour a city. If you’re renting a car, you may have to pay to park near a tourist attraction. Whatever the case may be, I recommend that you brainstorm all potential fees in advance of your trip so you can factor them into one of your four trip expense buckets.

    Think through all potential fees in advance so you're not caught by surprise (image source: timeshighereducation.co.uk)

    Think through all potential fees in advance so you’re not caught by surprise (image source: timeshighereducation.co.uk)

I hope I’m not being the bearer of bad news as I explain how expensive dream vacations can be. Trust me – I am just as eager as you to explore the world! And I know that people who read travel blogs are usually looking for inspiration rather than a reality check. So for that reason, I’m sorry!

But, by using my budgeting tool to help you take affordable trips, I sincerely hope I can help you experience an enjoyable vacation that you won’t have to pay off for several months upon your return. To me, that idea alone is inspirational!

So, feel free to download my vacation budgeting template here, located in my MeansToTravel google docs.

Here’s to hoping my tactics can work for you too!