It never ceases to amaze me how much fear people have about traveling. I’m tempted to just roll my eyes and think, “silly ignorant Americans,” but then I realize I too once shared that fear of traveling. We fear the unknown and for most Americans, the unknown is the rest of the world.
OK, you’ve handed in your notice, packed your bags, said bye to mum, paid off the credit card (well, most of it) and you’re off on your yearlong adventure. Problem is if you are anything like me you’ve spent a little too long in Europe, enjoyed a couple extra flights in lieu of excruciating overnight chicken buses, sampled a few too many brews in Mexico and before you realize it you are not quite half way through your trip and over three quarters through your budget.
I‘ve loved traveling for a handful of years now but it wasn’t until I found myself venturing off the beaten path in Morocco last year when I started to realize the difference between the beaten path, and off the beaten path.
If you read this site semi-regularly you’ll know I talk a lot and recommend having a good guidebook for your travels. Many dedicated travelers frown on it as they want to see a place on their own terms and not how some underpaid guidebook writer tells them to. I see this point, don’t get me wrong, but most of my trips are condensed into two weeks or less and require some assistance with planning. My vacation time is valuable and that’s why I always use a guidebook.
Talk to several different travelers about their travel tips and you probably won’t hear the same answer twice. Everybody has their own preferences and techniques or they don’t bother planning at all. Both sides have their advantages and both have their disadvantages.
Here’s a hypothetical question that I hope you’ll have fun with:
You walk into work today and were told you are getting a free 2 week vacation as a thank you to your performance and loyalty. You’ll be given two weeks off, a $1,000 bonus, and get to cash in airline miles from the company for your flight.
Where would you travel to if you were given a $1,000 budget, and a free flight to anywhere in the world?
Where would you stay? What would you want to see and what kind of activities would you do? If you are a no-frills traveler, would you upgrade your level of accommodations, or if you are used to luxury, would you use some of your own money or travel cheaply and stay within budget?
Post your hypothetical travel plans in the comments and be sure to read others’ as well. Let’s have fun with this! :)
Thanks to Darren for the post idea.
From a scary taxi ride through Casablanca to a truly magnificent piece of North African architecture, my visit to Hassan II Mosque in Casablanca was wonderful. This mosque is the second largest in the world after Mecca and is one of the few mosques that allows non-Muslims to enter.
1. Acropolis / Parthenon
2. Colosseum of Rome
3. Fjords of Norway
4. St. Peter’s Basilica
5. Sistine Chapel
7. Louvre Museum
8. Canals of Venice
List courtesy of Howard Hillman
I have a little secret for finding great deals on hotels that I’ve used over the years, and the good news is that in this economy, it’s only getting better.
Many people will probably be angry with this post, including a large number of our followers on Twitter. Why? Because they’re constantly advertising deals for their own benefit through affiliate travel programs or their own business. I have nothing against them doing so, but I have to warn that just because somebody says it is a deal, doesn’t always make it a deal. I receive hundreds of messages daily about amazing prices on hotels in Hawaii or New York. Since I recently visited Maui, I looked into a few of them. I never found any of these advertisements to be less than $250 per night. I would hardly call that a deal. Maybe that hotel used to charge $1,000 per night. Even so, why am I going to pay that much for a place to sleep when I’m there to see the island, not sit around in a beautiful hotel?
How to find deals on hotels
Some of the best deals are to be found at the last minute. But how last minute should you look? If you’re adventurous, the very last minute. I rarely book accommodations for my entire trip unless I know it’ll be extremely difficult to secure a bed in a hostel or a cheap room in a hotel. I like to book the first night if I am arriving in the afternoon or evening just to be sure I have somewhere to sleep, but beyond that, I play it by ear. Sure, this has backfired and created a headache or two, but I’ve never slept out in the cold and I’ve never had to pay anything unreasonable for a place to sleep.
More times than naught, I’ve landed some incredible deals on hotel rooms by walking up late in the afternoon and simply inquiring about a price. Yes, you run the risk of not finding someplace, but use your judgment on the time of year and the popularity of the city you are in.
The first time this worked out for me was in Florence, Italy back in 2004. I was traveling with three Americans I met and our train arrived late in the afternoon. We walked to a couple of hostels that ended up being completely booked. This was pretty stressful and we weren’t sure where we were going to find somewhere to sleep. Before we knew it, day became night and there were no more hostels to check. On a small budget we weren’t looking forward to finding out how much a hotel room would cost.
By 8pm we entered a small two-star hotel to inquire about the price. Right there on the wall was a sign that said without a bathroom was €50, or €60 with a bathroom. We asked anyway and didn’t act desperate for a place to stay. The desk clerk (probably the owner) knew it was late and the chances of them filling any of the open rooms was unlikely. They offered us two rooms for €25 each. That worked out to about €12 per person for a very clean and authentic Italian hotel. Not bad since in Paris & Venice each hostel dorm bed cost €25 each.
I’ve had a few experiences like this over the years, but what I have been noticing lately is that, given the economy, there are even better deals to be had. Back in February I went to Costa Rica (for the second time in one year) with two friends. It was the high season and all common sense given the area were in said that booking a room was a wise idea. We reserved a private room at a hostel in Quepos as it was considerably cheaper than the hostel and hotels in Manuel Antonio (the national park area that everybody travels to the area to visit). In the guidebook and on their individual websites, all the small hotels on the road between Quepos and Manuel Antonio advertised rates of $99 or higher. You can imagine our surprise when we were driving down the beautiful road taking in beautiful views of the Pacific Ocean when we noticed signs in front of several of the same hotels we looked at online advertising $25-50 rooms! Not only could we have saved money, but we would have had beautiful ocean views and seclusion.
Sure, playing everything by ear can be stressful if you’re limited on time or easily stressed, but the upside is pretty nice.
Have you fallen into any great hotel deals? Talk about it in the comments if you have any experience or tips on the matter!
I first considered visiting Budapest after reading Tim Leffel’s blog (Tim is the author of The World’s Cheapest Destinations: 21 Countries Where Your Money is Worth a Fortune). I didn’t pay much attention to the date it was posted and decided it would be my big fall trip thanks to a college graduation present I was ready to cash in.
The first thing I noticed during my pre-planning (I do much less than you would expect) was that there was an impressive amount of hostels listed on HostelWorld. 83 to be exact, as of this posting. As a comparison, Paris only has 15 listed.
It turns out that it’s rather simple to set up a hostel in a converted apartment and many people are taking advantage of it and the increase in tourism that Hungary has been experiencing over the past decade or so. Both hostels I stayed in were pretty small but modern, clean and well run. You can’t ask for much more than that.
One of the things that I always consider when traveling is how easily I can survive on a limited budget. Budapest was advertised as the secret budget destination in Eastern Europe and your money could go a long way. Part of the EU, yet still clinging to their currency, the Hungarian Forint, the dollar was said to go much further than elsewhere in Europe. In some ways, Budapest lived up to this claim, but in others, it exceeded any expectation one could have for larger, more popular European cities.
For instance, the average price of a hostel bed was around $15-20 which is certainly acceptable for Europe and much cheaper than Paris or London. A day at the enormous and beautiful Széchenyi Baths was only about $10 and a full guided tour of surprisingly tight caves ran around $25. I wouldn’t expect any of these to be much cheaper and they were all worth the price.
Then came the food. For some reason, food was incredibly expensive. I can’t recall spending more on a meal in any country, city, or state… anywhere. My guidebook recommended a restaurant around the corner from the hostel I was staying at which offered traditional Hungarian meals for around $5-7. It had been a year since the guidebook was published and the restaurant owner must have gotten wind of his literary mention. It’s a common occurrence along the typical tourist trails for hostels, hotels, and restaurants to increase their price once they get a nod in a guidebook, but what I experienced was much higher than anyone could expect, and not only for the places that were published. In Budapest every normal restaurant, regardless of the area it was in, charged at least $20 for a typical meal. The bargains were actually on the heavily trafficked tourist districts in Pest which all offered set “tourist” menus. The downside was that they were very small and left much to be desired. Even a stop in a Subway chain for lunch cost me about $10 for a 6″ turkey sandwich. The price of food was bewildering, to say the least.
While Hungarian cuisine is definitely highly recommended, there is much more to Budapest than overpriced restaurants luckily. Budapest is a very beautiful town with beautiful castles across the Danube River and great architecture across the entire city. A great day can be had by simply walking around the city with no destination taking in the sights. Heroes Square and City Park give a taste of history and nature that helps you quickly forget about the hustle and bustle of Budapest’s busy city streets. Don’t forget that Budapest is Hungary’s center of culture and home to both art and history museums like the House of Terror which reminds visitors of atrocious crimes that occurred during Hungary’s Stalinist regime and WWII.
One of the most impressive things about Budapest though was the amount of people who speak great English. Obviously it’s in response to the tourist boom, but it’s impressive how friendly and willing to chat most Hungarians are especially seeing how this country was completely communist less than 20 years ago and experienced very little tourism. Things have changed though and tourism has become a huge source of income for many businesses in Budapest.
If you want to explore the rest of Hungary (or go to just about any neighboring country) nearly all the trains in Hungary run right through Budapest. I managed to head south three hours to Pécs which is one of the larger cities in Hungary, yet very small when compared to Budapest. You can cross the entire town on foot in about 15 minutes but it’ll take you an entire day stopping at the many sights like modern art museum or the Mosque Church. The later is quite impressive. In the 16th-century the Turks built a mosque with the stones of a ruined church. When the Turks were forced out of Hungary the mosque became a church again but kept the classic dome and still retains several touches of Moorish design. There are even a few scribbles of Arabic around the church that can be found if you keep your eyes open.
For what it’s worth, Pécs also had the best food I experienced in Hungary and at much more reasonable prices.
For more photos from my trip to Hungary, check out the set on Flickr.
1. Serengeti Migration
2. Galapagos Islands
3. Grand Canyon
5. Iguazu Falls
6. Amazon Rain Forest
7. Ngorongoro Crater
8. Great Barrier Reef
9. Victoria Falls
10. Bora Bora
List courtesy of Howard Hillman