Opinion

Traveling on the cheap

A friend said, “If I had your money I’d travel too.” Hah. I happen to know that his retirement income is roughly double mine though the recent downturn might have bit chunks from his nest-egg. Nevertheless, my particular circumstances place me right at the bottom of what economists like to call middle-income.

Heeding my father’s advice that economy is another source of income, I stay out of casinos, pay off the credit card every month, own my house and car outright and am satisfied with Three-Buck-Chuck for our house wine. That and a whole lot of planning allow my wife and me to travel — but not like most travelers.

We’re fiercely independent travelers. Web-searches call up photo-tours that let us compare rooms anywhere in the world. RailEurope, Trenitalia, DBahn and other transportation sites provide precise info on timetables and ticket-cost. Of course we check event-calendars for the towns where we’ll stay and study language discs on the car stereo.

In the past we’ve had to thread through hanging laundry and kick chickens out of the way to get to our rooms. Other times we’ve lugged our bags up four flights of stairs. Once we were instructed to pound on a certain door and shout, “Paco. Agua caliente.” and then wait thirty minutes for a hot shower. But with age we now demand a certain measure of comfort, like not sharing a bathroom with everyone else on the floor.

At least half of our combined flight costs are paid for with credit card flight-miles. We stick as many big-ticket items as possible on VISA — medical co-pays, insurance, all car expense, every payment that doesn’t expose us to risk goes on the VISA/United travel card. These savings on flights pencil out to about

2 percent of total VISA charges if we work it right.

We fly within Europe when in-country flights are a better choice than surface transportation. Consider that a $90 slow train from Barcelona to Malaga takes over thirteen hours. The $293 fast train takes only 5 hours 45 minutes. But flights as low as $71 get you there in a little over an hour. A no-brainer.

One goal is to eat, sleep and travel in Europe at little more than what we’d spend traveling the United States. Another goal is to get the two of us to Europe and back for no more than the price of round-trip tickets to the east coast. Goal number three is to stay distanced from the hordes of tourists who spend too much time with each other and must-see attractions and not enough soaking up local culture.

It takes three to six months of study to put a trip together. Best choices of housing vary from nation to nation and even city to city. Hotel rooms in Croatia’s capital, Zagreb, are terribly expensive or inconveniently located but one can rent any of a hundred beautiful apartments for half the cost of a hotel room. Hotels or hostels like Rome’s Beehive may be near the rail station — a big advantage. Many of Spain’s hostels compare with excellent two-star hotels. The star-rating system takes into account features like conference facilities, restaurants on site, exercise rooms, 24 hour concierge service and secure parking. Stunningly beautiful rooms are available in tiny hostels that offer none of those bells and whistles. Hotels in Croatia’s Zadar run $120 and up so we chose an excellent hostel with a perfect location for $68.20 per night.

Dinner in Zadar’s tourist zone run $25 to $40 but the old city boasts wonderful hole-in-the-wall restaurants where locals pay $12 to $15 for the region’s excellent seafood platters. When accommodations include breakfast, we fuel up for the day figuring a gelato snack will tide us over until dinner. Or if we need a real lunch we hit a grocer for cheese, bread, water and fruit for about $10.00 for two. That’s a perfect choice when scenic lunch spots like Vernazza’s breakwater beckon.

Packing up, getting to the station, enduring travel and finding our new digs eats up time and energy so we like to stay three days to a week in one location, day-tripping into the hinterland by bus. Cars don’t make sense unless travelling in a group of three or more and actually aren’t necessary because Europe is equipped with public transportation that gets one anywhere with comfort and convenience. And finding where to park a car can become a frustrating issue that eats up hours and a lot of money.

By the time the planning phase is over we feel like we’ve already been there. Web-sites have shown us our rooms and where they lie on a city map. Evenings have been spent over calendars, logging bookings as they’re confirmed and figuring out what we’ll do at each stop. Of course we expect that when our shoes hit the streets, unexpected attractions will lure us off the itinerary. That’s part of the fun.

Of course it’s challenging to step out of our routines but the benefits of independent travel far outweigh the hassles to deliver wonderful rewards. While group-travel allows the comfort of being with home-folks, it also insulates travelers from a maximum of exposure to the new scene. Though it is less stressful for travel and baggage arrangements to be taken care of by an agent or guide, do-it-yourselfers better understand what it is like to actually live in other countries. It is through that extra investment of effort that one discovers that other peoples might actually have workable solutions to problems that currently plague our nation.

Comments may be addressed to: rgraef@verizon.net.

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