Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Budget Travel Advice

28 July 2015

We've been busy with medical and travel errands during the day, so nothing exciting to report.  But I've been working on this blog, so here's the info on how we manage to travel the way we do on our pensions.

Travel on a Budget 
People often ask us how we can travel full time, isn’t it expensive, all those questions.  Our standard answer is no, it actually is less expensive than when we were living on St. Thomas.  And everyone is shocked.

Think about it:  whether you rent or own your home, you still pay a monthly rate for either rent or mortgage.  If you own, then you pay property tax.  If you are in a condo or co-op, you may also have association fees.  You also most likely have property insurance.  Add in water, electricity, possibly natural gas.  Garbage pickup.  Telephone, mobile phone, television, cable, internet.  All that.  Then there’s the car, gas, maintenance on the vehicle, maintenance on the home, and whatever you pay to heat or cool your residence. 

We pay a hotel or B and B by the night, or the week, or even the month.  It includes all utilities, including internet, air conditioning, cable or satellite television, and heat.  Plus cleaning, fresh linens, daily towels.  Toiletries are included.  In much of the world, breakfast is included.  If our hotel bill is equal to our apartment rent, we actually are paying LESS than we paid to live in that apartment on St. Thomas.

That’s just the beginning.  The cost of living is much lower in much of the world than it is in North America, so we rarely have a hotel cost that equals our former apartment rent; most hotels we stay in are a fraction of that price.  There are also tricks we’ve learned to keep prices down, get “free” nights at hotels, and pay the lowest price for transportation.

So this blog is devoted to sharing those tips.  (Yes, these are all my photos - rooms we've stayed in, meals we've eaten, trains or boats or campers we've travelled in.)

Air Transportation
Air transportation is usually the biggest single expense.  But there are ways to cut the cost. 

Travel off-season.  While some places might be
miserable during rainy season, others aren’t bad.  Prices will definitely be lower. 

Loyalty programs offer frequent flyer miles, which are wonderful.  However, sometimes flights with those airlines are pricier, so weigh the benefits of flying with your usual airline versus a less expensive one.

We always begin with - you put in your place of departure, dates, and where you’d like to go.  Or, type in “everywhere” or just a continent, and you can find every flight leaving from that location.  Going everywhere in the world!  Be open to flying to a new place!  This is how we ended up going to Samoa, where we had a great time - we found an inexpensive flight from Australia.  Had so much fun.  And we might not have gone there otherwise.  Skyscanner will list every flight so you can comparison shop.  (Just be aware that some of the no-name sources might be scams, so do a little internet checking before you book.)

Many airlines have round-the-world specials, where you pay a flat rate and select something like ten stops; you need to follow your itinerary, keep going in one direction without backtracking, and you need to do all your travel within a calendar year.  This option doesn’t work for the way we travel, but we’ve met other travelers on RTW tickets who are loving it, and they felt the ticket was a bargain.  Worth looking into!

Luggage - most trips overseas allow flyers to check at least one bag for free.  However, some of the budget airlines charge for checked luggage, as do many domestic flights.  If you can’t manage to have only carryon luggage, consider the pros and cons of a budget airline that nickel and dimes you to death versus a more costly airline that gives you the perks you want. is a website that will tell you the best ways to get from point A to point B, and approximate cost.  For example, using their title, you can fly from Rome to Rio for X price.  Or, you can take a train to another city, take a boat across the Atlantic, and arrive in Rio fifteen days later.  Depends on how you want to travel.  Worth a look to see all your options.  And invaluable when you are travelling within a country and want to go from place to place but don’t know if you should bus, train, fly, or drive.  Or what it might (or should) cost.

Last, do your research.  Look up safety records and traveller reviews of no-name airlines.  You really don’t want to fly with some unsafe airline, so always check before booking.  Also, there are plenty of scams out there - even might refer you to a bogus website if it looks like they have the least expensive flight.  If you’re referred to a website to purchase the ticket and it looks disreputable, or you’ve never heard of them, do some research.  Look up the website, get some reviews, see if people are reporting fraudulent practices or giving good reviews.  We do all the above and we haven’t had a problem yet - and we’ll continue to practice safe booking!

Accommodations take the next large chunk of your budget.  You can stay in fancy hotels (and sometimes collect frequent flyer points), you can rent fancy campers, you can go as posh as you like.  We prefer to spend less on housing, so we can do more in each place we visit.  Our general rule is that accommodations should cost less than what we used to pay in rent.  That way, we almost always save money. 

There are places around the world that are pricier than others; Japan is known to be pricy, as are many countries in Europe.  Parts of North America are also high-cost zones.  Any large city will be more expensive than the suburbs or small towns.  Premium locations such as hotels on the beach will cost more than something a few blocks inland.  There are plenty of ways to spend less, however.

Prioritize what you want in housing.  Do you want to be on the beach, or is a short walk okay?  Do you want to have more space in the countryside, or do you want to be right in the center of downtown city life?  Do you like to retreat to your room mid-day, or are you happy to only sleep in your room and spend the rest of the day running around? 

We like to stay in the center of the city, where we have access to more restaurants, can walk everywhere, or can use public transportation.  The old parts of most cities tend to be more interesting and house the historic sites, so we often look for those locations.  Most hotel booking websites let you know the distance to the city center, or if the area is in the old city, so look for that information if the location makes a difference to you.

There are many hotel websites.  However, there are a few websites that, like Skyscanner, look at ALL the hotel websites and refer you to the least expensive websites.  Really, the same hotel can vary up to $100 depending on which website you use for booking.  I always begin with, or - both sites review the major and minor hotel booking sites, and you can find the best price this way.

Some websites don’t give as much information as I’d like, or they don’t have photos of the rooms - if I really like the sound of a hotel and want more information, I’ll check the hotel at or, and get more info and more photos that way.  And of course is THE place to look at reviews, although most websites now include reviews of the hotels as well.  (Be sure to at least scan through and get an idea of what the hotel might be like.)

Some booking sites have loyalty programs; my favorite of the moment is, where you collect nights for each night booked - after ten nights, you receive a “free” reward night, the price of which is an average of the nights you’ve paid for.  We book with often enough that we get free nights every two weeks or so, and we use those free nights on our next booking.  Saves us the cost of an entire night!  I also like, where you collect a certain “discount” based on hotel stays, which are then deducted from your next booking - we booked a room that would normally cost $99 a night but we paid something like $56 for that hotel!

When we stay in a pricy location, such as Tokyo or Hong Kong, we usually check  They’ve been in the news lately - people can rent out a spare room, or a spare apartment they haven’t rented long term, or even rent out their place when they go on vacation themselves.  We’ve had great stays in New York City, Kyoto, Hong Kong, Sydney, Langkawi (Malaysia), Taipei, and we’re booked for Seattle.  Sometimes we’ve had the entire apartment to ourselves, sometimes a room in a house or apartment or even an artist’s studio.  We’ve met interesting people and learned more about the place we’re visiting.  At a fraction of the cost of a hotel.  Absolutely worth checking out.

Hostels are another option.  Some people don’t mind the dorms, though they aren’t the best for couples nor for privacy.  Many hostels have private rooms or family rooms, some with private en suite bathrooms but others with shared bathrooms.  Some offer free breakfast, or use of the kitchen.  Others have free laundry!  We’ve stayed at hostels and met great people, some of whom we’ve run into while traveling around whatever country.  So don’t discount hostels.  

Camping is another option - that way you have in-country transportation as well as housing, all in one.  This can go from cheap (budget car and a sleeping bag) to expensive (huge motor home).  We’ve done some camping and had great fun; we had a big camper in New Zealand, a camper van on the east coast of Australia, and a tent on top of the car in the wild Northern Territories of Australia.  Just keep in mind that you may have additional expenses with camping:  campground fees, at least part of the time (for hot showers), as well as gasoline, and possibly vehicle insurance.  Also, in some countries you need an international drivers license, so check all those options before you book something.  (You can book online, or work with a travel agent in the country you’re visiting.  We’ve done both, and I can’t say one is better than another.  Shop around and compare.)

If you are traveling part-time and have a house or apartment, there are housing exchange programs.  We don’t have this option, but I know people who have travelled this way and enjoyed.  Look up house exchange programs or house swaps online, there are quite a few.

We also had an online friend who invited us to stay with them in Christchurch, NZ - we had a wonderful time, and it was interesting to stay with (and get to know) people from another culture.  Many countries have home-stay programs; some are available online, others can be arranged through the tourist information center.  And if you have family living in another country, even better - I stayed with various friends' families in Israel, Japan, and Italy, and it's absolutely wonderful!  (And free, except for the hostess gifts and taking these friends to dinner.) is an additional website where you can meet up with people who are okay with you sleeping on their couch.  We haven’t tried this so I can’t vouch for them, but we’ve met people who were traveling this way and having great fun.  This is a good option for younger singles, maybe not so much for couples or older people.

In-country Transportation
Another big expense can be transportation within a country or region.  In some locations, you can take trains or buses all around the country and even from country to country.  If you’re visiting islands, there are often boats and ferries to take you around. 

The best resource:  This is a website run by a train travel enthusiast in England.  The site includes maps of countries or regions and the major train routes within that area.  Ferries
and boats are included.  Routes for going from one country to another are included if that is feasible, such as how to go from Singapore all the way to London by rail, with all the stops and options in between.  Plus he includes the websites so you can book rail tickets online, or purchase rail passes if that’s the best way to go.  Truly THE best travel site we use when getting around.  We both love train travel, and we refer to all the time.

One caveat - we found in Australia that the rail pass was our best
choice for what we wanted to do, crossing Australia in both directions.  The rail pass was less expensive than youth tickets or senior tickets.  We paid a flat rate and were able to travel north/south from Adelaide to Darwin (and back), out west to Perth, then all the way in the east to Sydney.  We found the rail pass while trying to book tickets at the railway office in Melbourne.  So sometimes, you can get a better price in country and at the office than you can find online.  It can be worth your time to check both.

This is when you check  They’ll give you most of the options available for travel within the country you’re visiting.  You can even find out how much a taxi should cost, so you don’t get ripped off.

We found that in some countries, flying was the best option.  Flights were not much more than bus travel and in a fraction of the time.  These can be booked online or with a travel agent; sometimes you don’t figure this out until you’re in country, so leave yourself open to planning some of your transportation once you’re there.

Many countries have overnight buses for travel within the country or between countries; these are best booked when you’re in the country.  Talk to your hotel, the local tourist information center, or a travel agent.  In places with developing tourism, such as Myanmar, we found it was easier to book through a travel agent than to try and book ourselves.  (The buses in SE Asia are not designed for tall or large people.  Keep that in mind.)

Cars can be rented for low cost, although some countries have restrictions that prevent foreigners from driving legally in that country.  Sometimes a car and driver can be hired, and depending on your circumstances, this can be worth the price (which often is low enough to make it a workable solution).  For example, we travelled around Cambodia by bus, since the country doesn’t have a rail network.  But when I came down with dengue fever, I just wasn’t up to bus travel while aching and feverish.  We hired a car and I spent the entire trip lying down on the back seat.  The cost was only a bit over the price of two bus tickets.  If there were four of us, it would have cost less to hire the car than pay for four bus tickets.  So don’t rule out what you think is a pricy option, it might not be.

Motorbikes and motorscooter rentals are common and inexpensive.  I personally don’t like distance travel on the back of a motorbike, but I’m just putting it out there.  However, keep in mind that rules of the road can vary from country to country.  And also think about whether it is monsoon season or not.  (We also met people who had been in motorbike accidents, so consider that possibility.)

People also hitchhike.  I probably wouldn’t recommend it.  Just sayin’.

Food is always an interesting and exciting part of travel.  Various cuisines are known around the world; others are relatively undiscovered by outsiders.  Food can be a reflection of the agriculture, culture, economics, and immigrants of a nation, and definitely can enhance your understanding of a country. 
The most expensive thing you can do is look for cuisine from countries other than the place you are visiting.  If you’re in Japan, a traditional hamburger will cost more than shrimp tempura or fresh sushi.  When in Bali, pizza won’t taste the way you expect and it will cost more than chicken saté.  Try new foods, eat where the local population eats, get recommendations from your hotel staff.  Let them know you don’t want a fancy restaurant, ask where they eat when they go out.  However, if the country was under colonial rule for a long period of time, you can often find a mix of cuisines at reasonable prices.  (There are exceptions to the “eat local” rule, see below.)

If your hotel offers breakfast, eat that.  Sometimes you can make a sandwich and save it for lunch, along with a piece of fruit.  But if they charge extra for breakfast, skip it - go out to a local bakery for a scone or croissant, or the market for fruit, or a neighborhood café for whatever the local specialty is.  You’ll eat better and it will cost less than the hotel is charging for that breakfast.

Most hotels, B and Bs, hostels, etc. now include an electric kettle in your room, and include free tea and coffee, sometimes even hot chocolate.  Use this!  Don’t pay for tea or coffee if you don’t need to.  I have morning tea in the room on a regular basis, as well as a cup of tea in the afternoon if we’re back in our room.  There are all kinds of foods that can be made with boiling hot water - oatmeal, ramen, instant soups, etc.  Great for a budget traveller!

Check out local markets, supermarkets, even convenience stores.  In many parts of Asia, we’ve found great meals at the local Seven-Eleven stores!  Fast food around the world doesn’t always mean fried and greasy.  I’ve eaten fresh sushi from the 7-11 in Japan.  Or grilled chicken and hot rice.  In Taiwan, the best way to get single servings of fruit or single portions of salad are at the good old 7-11.  Don’t discount places you might not go to while at home, sometimes these places surprise you!

And sometimes, you just want food from home.  Comfort food.  You don’t want to see another bowl of rice.  Or face another meal featuring beans and rice.  Or whatever.  This is when you look for the chain of your choice or the local equivalent - Richard will go to McDonald’s for his hamburger fix, bad as they are.  I’ll go to Starbucks for a venti nonfat whatever.  Some countries have these franchises, others have equivalent local places which we’ll visit if available.  It’s okay to splurge a little when you have to.

Look for restaurants owned by ex-patriots.  If you want Italian, look for a place owned by an Italian chef who moved to that country.  Or the French chef in Thailand.  The Canadian burger chef in Malaysia.  Whatever.  Again, this might be a bit of a splurge, but when you just have to have something different, there are lower priced options than the big fancy hotel restaurants that cater to tourists.

Staying Connected
You want to stay in touch with friends and family.  You want to post photos on social media, share thoughts with friends, research new locations and excursions, book your next hotel.  You want to research where you're going next and how to get there.  There are low-cost ways of doing this.

Always book accommodations with free wifi.  Always.  Never pay a surcharge.  We’ve learned to not book hotels if they don’t provide free wifi.

If you are traveling with a smartphone or tablet, talk to your service provider and find out if you’ll be charged roaming rates.  This is the most expensive way to go.  Some providers will give you a special rate for the countries you are visiting, and you need to set that up before you travel.  Definitely talk to the company before you leave home.

Most smartphones and tablets need to be unlocked to be used globally, so that’s something else to check with your service company.  Get unlocked!  Some people buy SIM cards in every country they visit, and top up minutes.  Other people use the unlocked phone/tablet with the free wifi available at their hotel. 

We travel without a phone - we have Skype on our laptops, and a MagicJack for phone calls.  Consider a MagicJack - you buy the device, pay a yearly (or multi-year) user fee that is really inexpensive, and you have voice over internet-provider phone calls for little to nothing!  It all works on your internet connection, plus it gives people a way to call you if there are emergencies.

If you are in a remote location where wifi service is iffy or unavailable, you can carry a hotspot device.  Again, this means purchasing a SIM card and topping up minutes or service/data, but it can be worth it.  In some areas this doesn’t work, the location is just too distant from the relay tower or out of range of the satellite.  (Parts of New Zealand and Australia are that far away from everything!) 

In most countries, certain franchise stores or eateries have free wifi, as do many coffee shops.  As long as you make a purchase, they have no problem with you sitting there for a few hours to check your email, write a blog, post your photos online.  (McDonald’s and Starbucks are usually available in most places.)  Airports and train stations also often provide free wifi; just be careful with use of passwords, and try to avoid making financial transactions on unsecured wifi service.

A wise friend told us that when travelling, she never regretted spending money to do something.  She occasionally regretted spending money on souvenirs.  We’ve kept that in mind while travelling.  We save our money for experiences, and we don’t buy unnecessary knickknacks or souvenirs.  We go to concerts, movies, zoos, museums, a tour.  For us, this is what travel is about, seeing the place we’re visiting and meeting people from that country.  There are ways to do this at a lower cost.

If you are a senior, always ask for the senior discount.  If buying a ticket using a machine, push the button for senior or pensioner.  Most museums and other attractions have a discount price.  Even zoos!  Carry your AARP card with you.  (The same goes for teachers, even if retired - sometimes you can get a discount with a teacher ID card.)

Some museums are free but charge extra for special exhibits.  Consider visiting the basic museum, and skip the special exhibit unless you really are interested.  (I’m always paying extra for the special exhibit, but I usually talk them into the aging and retired teacher discount price.)

There are free days at most museums, zoos, etc.  Look for the free days, but be ready for larger crowds.

Talk to your hotel or host, sometimes they have discount coupons for you.  Or they’ll know an agent where you can get a discount.

Some sights have multi-visit passes, or cities have a pass that gives you entry to a number of sights, or a discount to the major sights.  Sometimes the pass includes transportation with the city’s metro system.  I’ve used the Roma pass in Rome, and saved a ton of money.  The same with the day and night zoos in Singapore, which included bus service.  Consider where you want to go, what you want to see, and the cost of each visit before you purchase a pass.  Some of these sound great, but if they provide entry to places you don’t intend to visit, it’s a waste of money.

Research research research.  Comparison shopping is important!  Also, you can find wonderful walking tours to see the sites and sights - for example, the best way to see the buildings by Gaudi in Barcelona is to just walk.  No need to pay a guide, you can put this together yourself with a little online research.

Read local newspapers - there are festivals, parades, pageants, school events, local celebrations and competitions that are free!  Many won't be advertised for tourists, but these are really fascinating and can be great fun!  We attended parades and fire dancing and walking over fire, as well as the wonderfully insane water festival, all for free.  Be ready to just join in and enjoy the culture!

There are also the splurges that are absolutely worth the price - the classical concert at the Medici palace in Firenze.  The Coldplay concert in Auckland.  The overnight boat cruise in Doubtful Bay, one of New Zealand’s fjords.  Sure, you could skip it.  Or you could splurge and do it.  And then eat oatmeal and ramen for the next week, and not buy yourself a few new tee shirts.  Which do you think you’ll remember forever, the concert or cruise, or the new tee shirts?  (Yeah, we do the concerts and cruises.)

We tend to avoid the large bus tours, however.  But sometimes that’s the only option to visit the penguins on a remote island, or whatever.  Again, think about how much you really want to see the sight or visit the location, versus the cost, versus the tour itself.  Talk to your hotel and see if smaller group tours are available.  If you’ve met friends at your hotel or hostel, try and get a group together to get a better rate.  Or ask at the hotel/hostel if there's a way to do the same activity without the tour; that's how we found the little blue penguins at the pier in Oamaru, New Zealand, instead of paying a ton of money to sit in bleachers and watch the same thing.

One way of avoiding the package tour is to book a private tour with a local taxi or tuktuk driver.  We've done that in a few places, and it worked out great.  We negotiated what we felt was a reasonable price, and we felt better knowing that our money was helping an individual rather than going to some large company.  I did this for my three-day visit to the temples in the Angkor region, as well as the pagodas of Bagan.  Plus you get to sit in the front seat, ask to stop for photos, take as long as you want at each site, stop for lunch or restroom breaks, and have someone to ask questions and find out more about the culture and country.  If you have three or four people in your group, this can be the most economic way to go.

Self-drive tours are also possible, and can be very affordable.  Research the cost of purchasing a package tour where you can drive yourself around versus the price for paying for the vehicle and hotels separately. 

Some people like the security of a package deal where the agent books your hotel, your local transportation within the country, and takes you to the sights.  That way, someone else deals with the hassles of travel, and you can just relax and enjoy the trip.  I can understand that.  These suggestions aren’t for you, these are for the people who book their own travel and look for the best deal at the best price.

Making Friends 
Part of learning about another culture is meeting the people.  This is free, but there are ways to make it easier to get to know people in other countries.   

First, don't assume that everyone speaks your language.  English now seems to be the major international language, so you're likely to meet people who do speak English.  But we always try to learn how to say "hello" and "thank you" in the language of wherever we happen to be.  This opens doors as well as hearts, and seems to make people more willing to be helpful.

If you studied a foreign language in school, dredge up as much vocabulary and grammar as you can.  People will be thrilled that you are trying to speak with them in their language, no matter how horrible your pronunciation or construction of sentences.  Really, my French is passable, but people in New Caledonia thanked me for speaking to them in French.   Don't be shy, jump in and do your best (or worst - even if you get a laugh, you're making contact with another person and easing into an acquaintance).

When you find someone who speaks English, keep returning to that café or shop or whatever.  Be friendly, chat up the person, ask them to help you translate something.  As you get to know them, you can start asking the questions that might be considered rude to ask a stranger.  (They'll ask you questions about your life and your home country as well.)  This is how we find out about the culture above and beyond what we can see around us, or read in books or online.  This is the one-to-one interaction that humans seek.  Make friends!  

Be willing to look silly.  Really.  In South Korea, we couldn't read a word of the menus.  Identification of food turned into charades.  Our waitress made a pig nose and oinked so we'd know this was pork.  Aim for universal gestures while avoiding anything that might be derogatory or obscene.  Again, people laugh at my pig nose, cow horns, or chicken wings flapping gestures, but it gets the point across.  And those people remember me when I show up a second time.

Carry a small notebook.  Draw a picture if you need to.  (Have you ever shopped for a memorial candle in Thailand?  Draw a picture and everyone knows what you want.)  You might draw badly, but a small sketch can help a great deal.  Also, if the language uses a non-Roman alphabet, ask your hotel staff or restaurant friend to write what you need in their language.  Whether it's what you want to order for a meal, where you want to go, an allergy you have, anything - ask someone to write it for you.  (You can use google translate and copy that, but it's easier to get someone else to write it for you.)  Oh, you can also take a photo of a sign with the name of the place you're heading - then show the photo to someone on the street when asking for directions.  You might not share a language, but they can read the sign and then point you in the right direction.

Look for common ground.  We talked to a restaurant owner about his chocolate torte, shared our recipe, and he later gave us free chocolate mousse.  I chatted up another restauranteur and praised his mousse - next thing I know, I have his mousse recipe as well as an extra chocolate truffle to sample.  Our friends in Penang were fascinated with our travels, we were interested in their lives, and they kept giving us macarons to test out.  Not only did we make new friends, we ended up with free goodies!

Children are a good ice-breaker.  Whether you travel with children, or just smile and wave at little kids around the world, people are somehow more willing to talk to you if you're nice to children.  And in many countries, the children make money for school by giving tours of sites, selling postcards, etc.  While hordes of children can be annoying, I've found that if I smile and joke with them they can be friendly and helpful, and enhance my time in the country. 

If there's a festival, participate!  The water festival of Thailand and Myanmar is crazy, fun, and unique - but it means wearing waterproof shoes and being willing to get soaked.  India has a paint-throwing festival, Spain and Italy have tomato-throwing festivals - don't be afraid to get messy or wet, just jump in and enjoy!  Don't worry about not speaking the language, the guys in Myanmar let me hold the fire hose and danced around me in the street.  Join in and experience the festivities!

 Health & Safety
Your health and safety are always important.  Before traveling to any country, check with your home country’s travel advisories for the place you’re thinking about visiting.  You really don’t want to head directly into a war zone.

Call your bank card company (or bank) and let them know where you’ll be travelling, so your cards aren’t cancelled. 

Contact your health insurance company and see if you’re covered for health care overseas, as well as whether you’re covered for emergencies only or ongoing health care.

If you need prescription medications, talk to your doctor about getting a year of medication, or a three-month supply to be renewed three times during the year.  Have these mailed to a friend or family member who will FedEx the package to you overseas if needed.  Some prescriptions may not be available everywhere in the world, or you might not want to switch medications or brands.  (Be sure to carry a copy of your prescriptions with you - you may be asked to show the scrips when you go through Customs and Immigration.)

Travel with a first aid kit - sterile wipes, bandages, and antiseptic ointment at a minimum.

Get travel insurance if you’re traveling for an extended period of time.  We’ve had medical issues that were covered by both our medical insurance as well as the travel insurance, so that we had no out-of-pocket expenses.  Also, good travel insurance will pay for you to go “home” if there is a family emergency, including fire to your residence, death in the family, etc.  While the initial outlay may seem expensive, we’ve found that it definitely is worth the investment.  (Most travel insurance plans include emergency evacuation in the event of natural disasters.  They don't cover your evacuation if you knowingly travel to a danger zone, as in a country at war.  Travel smart.)

Follow normal precautions as you would at home:  no flashy jewelry; handle money discreetly; take care with your electronics.  Use hotel safes when available.  Don’t leave cash sitting around.  (Don’t even leave your wallet or purse in the room when you go to breakfast; while we want to trust people, it isn’t always safe.  I had cash stolen this way.  Just be cautious.)

Last word of advice:  check weather and climate before you go, so you know if you’re heading into rainy season or a cold spell.  You don’t want to have unexpected expenses like specialized clothing.  (Also, check clothing expectations for the locale you’re visiting; many countries have greater standards of modesty in dress than we do in North America.)

That's about it.  There's no magic formula for travelling inexpensively.  But there are ways to minimize your expenses.  And perhaps ways to think about travel that are different than what you'd expect.

Travel light, travel cheap, and travel long.


Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Home Again, Home Again, Jiggity Jig

22 July 2015

Apologies for the radio silence.  This is partly due to the long, long, LONG flight from Taiwan to Vancouver, BC, which was an overnight flight landing in the evening.  Yes, we had a 39 hour day, so I just stayed awake in order to sleep well when we landed.  And of course promptly woke up early.  It took us a few days to get used to the new time zone.

But we also were in Vancouver, BC, Canada, where we've been before.  So there isn't the thrill and excitement of discovering a new location and exploring a new culture.  We mostly walked around our usual neighborhood, visited places we've been before, and found a few new spots.  

Our neighborhood is old and historic, with wonderful mosaics embedded in the sidewalks.  Each mosaic features some aspect of the local history or culture - one mosaic has goldfish (or koi) and Chinese writing, and the placard nearby describes the Chinese immigrants and their part in building the city of Vancouver, contributions to the country as a whole, all that.  Another mosaic features the Raven, who figures prominently in the creation stories of the First Nations in the region.  The Yellow Dog was a famous restaurant or pub; the chinook salmon (the Granville Street mosaic) is an important and delicious natural resource; and "The Heart of the Community" ties it all together.  We probably didn't see all of the street mosaics, but I took a photo of each one we walked past.

We stay at a budget hotel that is vaguely between Chinatown and Gastown - Gastown being the old part of the city, where the first gas street lights were installed.  The lovely old light fixtures still stand, and during the summer hold gorgeous baskets of flowers.  

We met a few people who have the wonderful job of watering the flowers.  They have a wheeled water tank and a hose, possibly a pump - they just roll around town, reaching up and watering the baskets of flowers overhead.  It's been a dry summer, so they've been busy.  I think it sounds like a nice job, just walking around watering flowers, enjoying being outdoors, chatting up tourists, locals, and street people.  I'm sure it isn't as romantic as it sounds, but I think it would be a rather relaxing summer job.

There were other interesting mosaics on the sidewalk - this one is in front of the police and firehouse museum.  The fruits and vegs and seafood were little brass designs inlaid in the floor tiles at a mall we visited.  (Malls across Asia seem to be very different from North American malls.  But stores and markets everywhere are different, and are great ways to learn something about the culture.  We always enjoy checking out supermarkets and outdoor markets when we travel around, and our time in Canada was no exception.)

Vancouver also seems to have decorative metal plates around the trees that line the streets, and the occasional interesting manhole cover.  I think these are tadpoles turning into frogs.  Or something along that line.

In with the First Nations art galleries, and the coffee shops, and the tourist shops, we found a chocolate shop.  They roast their own beans and grind them, making a variety of chocolates.  I tried their sampler of dark chocolate, which had three squares of single-source chocolate - very dark, very intense, and each one slightly different.  One was from Madagascar beans, one from Dominica, and my favorite, from Peru.  It was just a tiny bit smoother and without the acidic background taste that lingered after the other two chocolates.  (Who knew that one could focus and discern the slight differences between chocolate's place of origin?)  It was a lovely little treat, and oh the shop smelled so incredibly delicious!

After our time in Taiwan, in fact our year spent predominantly in SE Asia, it was strange to wander through Chinatown.  Much looked familiar, such as the foo dogs, the huge gates, the dragons and cranes as decorative elements.  At the same time, much was just Canadian, or even generic North American.  No one was butchering meat on the sidewalk, the way we saw in Vietnam.  We didn't see the ubiquitous birds in a cage, which seem to be a lucky symbol throughout much of Asia.  There wasn't a temple on every block, we only passed one.  And saw only one monk, in his maroon or burgundy robes.  People were taller than in SE Asia.  And, best of all, bathrooms had paper and the floors were dry!  (This was an issue in several countries, so I was thrilled to have tissue in the bathrooms and not need to carry it in my purse!)

Anyway, we had four fun days in Vancouver, where the weather was at its summertime best, all sunny and warm, with cool mornings as the sun burns off the clouds that roll in from the ocean or down from the mountains that surround the city.  And late sunsets, because this far north the sun doesn't begin to think about setting until 8 PM or so.  Sunset is roughly 9 PM, with the light lingering until 10.  

Then we took the train down to Bellingham, WA.  This is a lovely train ride, travelling along the coastline for most of the trip.  We didn't see eagles this time, but plenty of herons flying by, and the occasional fish (salmon?) jumping in the water.  Plus a few hardy souls swimming in the water that probably is cold cold cold!

It's an interesting process, crossing the Canadian-USA border by train; we completed our forms and were stamped out of Canada and into the US while at the Vancouver train station.  We filed onto the train, checking our rolling luggage, which also received a Customs clearance.  But at the actual border, Customs agents board the train and check each and every passenger, looking at passports, chatting to ensure the people sound or look "American," and, well, we don't know what happens if someone doesn't seem to pass the test.  Everyone was heading to one of the towns from the border to Seattle, and seemed to have appropriate documentation.  No idea what they're looking for, or what the agents do when they find it.  We were just happy to continue on our merry way, and arrive in Bellingham.   

We've borrowed my brother's car, our father's former car, so we have transportation.  We're staying in a newly-renovated but historic Bellingham motel, in a quite comfortable room, complete with mini fridge and microwave.  Both Richard and I have our yearly medical check up exams, lab work, and renewing our prescriptions - this is our concession to travel as retired people, there are the medical issues that need medications and the yearly exam that goes along with getting a doctor to write those scrips.  Thus far everything is fine, we're as healthy as 60-something year old people can be, and we're doing what we can to stay that way.

However, on the not-as-healthy side of things, our Bellingham tradition is The Bagelry.  Their website says they've been here for 27 years, but it really is more like 30, I know they were here before I moved to the Caribbean.

Anyway, this is where we have breakfast.  Daily.  Sometimes a snack, or lunch.  Or pick up a little something for dinner.  Because the bagels are that good.

My personal favorite is the bialy - lighter than a bagel fewer calories, somewhere between a bagel and a confused English muffin, a bialy has a dent in the center lightly tossed with slivered onions and poppy seeds.  A bialy, warm and fresh and lightly buttered, is perfect with a single egg, scrambled.  A bialy is chewy like a bagel but has nooks and crannies like that English muffin.  With much more flavor and personality.

And never ever ever should be eaten with cream cheese.  Sorry, but that's just a fact of life.

Anyway, the hat was jumping up and down with excitement, it was so happy to be back in Bellingham and at the Bagelry.  Bellingham, which bills itself as the "city of subdued excitement," is just quirky.  The town is all of maybe 50,000 people, not including the university students; but there are concerts and theatre and art films and art galleries.  Summer festivals.  Agriculture in the county, with wonderful berries, vegs, and fruit.  Flowers hanging from gazebos and streetlights.  Little historic enclaves with lovely architecture from the 1800-somethings when the town was founded.  (Bellingham is actually four towns that merged into one, so that streets intersect at odd angles and disappear behind hills, only to reappear further down the road.)

We'll hang out in Bellingham for a week or two while we take care of the medical, as well as shop for all those little items that we prefer but can't find when we're travelling to off-the-beaten-path places.

After that?  Well, there isn't much of a plan.  Seattle.  Yakima.  Paperwork, downsizing, trading out clothes.  

And deciding where next.  Because there's still a whole lot of world out there.