Category Archives: Travel Advice

Accommodation – Chain Hotels are so Last Decade

When planning a trip of any length, thinking outside the box can save you money.  Instead of just booking a chain hotel, check into other options like locally owned small hotels, hostels, inns and B&Bs as well as alternative options like apartments, houses, and even just a private room in someone’s flat.

When we took our European Odyssey trip in 2012, I used booking.com for all of our reservations.  Since we moved every couple of days, it was very handy to have all of the reservations organized in a central location.  If I had booked 13 hotels, hostels and apartments separately, it would have been a logistical nightmare to keep track of everything, and would likely have involved hauling around printed reservations.  Because I used booking.com, I was able to log in and see all of the reservations at a glance.  When one of my reservations was canceled at the last minute, booking.com sent me an email and I was able to make other arrangements on very short notice.

Our very first stop was Nottingham, England, and on booking.com I found a 2 bedroom apartment for rent at a very reasonable rate.   I had read a tip from some long-forgotten source on traveling with children, that renting an apartment or house could actually save you money over a hotel room, especially in Europe where rooms for only 2 people are the standard, and finding a Quad – a room for 4 – is actually difficult and expensive.  The apartment in Nottingham was an oasis.  Two bedrooms, a fully equipped kitchen, a living room and balcony – space can be a luxury all on its own.  Our children could go to bed undisturbed while we stayed up to talk or watch TV.  Such a thing is unheard of in the typical American hotel room with 2 double beds.  Had I known that the Nottingham apartment was going to be the best accommodation of the entire trip, I would have approached our reservations a completely different way.

For our extended trip to Andalucia, a hotel, inn or B&B was definitely not going to cut it.  I had used vrbo.com to book lake houses in Texas for a couple of family vacations, so I decided to start searching there for our home in Spain.  I managed to find a house in one of the Las Alpujarras mountain villages.  When I read the description that from the rooftop terrace on a clear day you can see the mountains of Northern Africa, I knew this was the place for us.

I recently discovered airbnb.com, and I’m so excited to have found it.  Just today I reserved a large house in Florida and a 2 bedroom apartment in Oslo, Norway, and both bookings were incredibly easy.  Airbnb.com wants their users to make a personal connection rather than be complete strangers making business transactions.  To that end, they require you to fill out a profile, and recommend letting potential hosts get to know you a bit to increase the chances of your reservation request being accepted.  I like that it’s not an anonymous process.  I take comfort in knowing that our Norwegian hosts love to travel, and enjoy planning vacations for each other, where only the planner knows the destination ahead of time.  I find that endearing, quirky and real, and I’m happy to be giving them my custom.  Both transactions with airbnb.com have left me feeling good about the process, and secure in the knowledge that my money will not be released to the host until 24 hours after we check-in.  That way, we have 24 hours to report any issues to airbnb.com, and ask for help, should the accommodations not be as advertised.    When you’re thousands of miles away from home, and you have two small children with you, this kind of security is most welcome.  Oh, and by the way, we are saving hundreds of dollars by staying in a 2 bedroom apartment, 15 minutes walk from the Oslo city center, as opposed to staying in a bare bones hostel a 20 to 30 minute bus ride from the center.  That one is definitely a no-brainer.

When the World is Your Oyster: Choosing a Location

We are planning an extended stay in the Andalusia region of Spain this Spring, and I keep finding myself so conflicted.  Should we stay in a city center, like Granada or Sevilla, or stay in a small village anywhere in the region?  The ability to easily use public transport or walk to anywhere we’d like to go are huge factors for us, as we are planning to do without a car, most if not all of the time.  We want to immerse ourselves in the food and culture of Andalusia, and see all of the amazing things the region has to offer, like the mountains, beaches, Moorish castles and ruins, orange and olive groves, and just everything that makes Southern Spain such an amazing place to visit, but we also want to be in a place that is comfortable, and homey, and most importantly, has stable internet access, since Scott will be working remotely while we are abroad.

I’m not sure what kind of experience we want our children to have: faster paced urban, or less anonymous small town life.  For that matter, I can’t decide what experience I would prefer!  The one thing I’m certain of is that I want to have a terrace with a view of something beautiful, whether that be the Alhambra in Granada, or a lovely plaza or garden in a village, or the mountains or sea doesn’t really matter to me.  I just want a place to sit and admire the landscape, and marvel that we have been presented with this amazing opportunity to live in a foreign land.  I wonder if our children will start to think of Andalucia as home?  I hope so, because one of the outcomes that I most desire to give them is that they will think of many parts of the world as home, and not just the United States.

When the world is your oyster, and the options are wide-open, it can be a daunting task to commit to a single place.  My wanderlust is high, and in the back of my mind this thought keeps flashing by like a LED banner sign “but you have so much time, you could see so many places if you just moved around.”  I have to keep reminding myself that this trip is about immersion, not about seeing as much of the world as we can in the time we have allotted.  It helps that I clearly remember how exhausted I was during our last family trip abroad.  It was an amazing experience, and we saw so much during that nearly 6 week, 9 country odyssey, but it was rather grueling at times, and being tied to hotel reservations and train schedules made it far less spontaneous than we prefer to be.  This trip is about living as a local, and having the time to actually figure out what that means in Andalusia.  We will certainly take a few road trips on the weekends, and venture afield from our home base, but the heart and soul of the trip is to just hang out in one place and live.

Sticker Shock

Most North Americans traveling to Europe seem to be met, to some degree, with sticker shock.  There are several factors contributing to this.  The biggest factor is, of course, that Europe is a tad bit expensive but prices are very hard to compare between countries for many reasons.  It is not so much that prices in Europe are so much higher but that they are quite different.

A huge difference in how Americans see prices and how Europeans see prices is in how taxes are disclosed.  In Europe, the price that you see is the price that you pay.  A four Euro sandwich costs you four Euros.  It’s that easy.  You look at the price and can have your money ready – just hand over two two-Euro coins and the sandwich is yours.  In the US, for example, you look at a four dollar sandwich, get to the counter and are then told what the real price is as tax(es) is added in afterwards and tax rates vary from town to town so knowing what they are ahead of time can be difficult.

Europe is famous for its high sales tax (VAT) but in my experience it is not much higher than sales taxes in the States and, at times, I have even seen it be around half of common American tax rates.  Hotels, a big deal while traveling, are a great example.  The price of your European hotel might seem excessive but when you go to check out and realize that your eighty Euro per night hotel costs actually eight Euro per night you will be very surprised.  It is not uncommon at all for hotels in the States to have tax rates levied against them approaching twenty percent (and in some cases even higher.)  This means that one hundred dollar per night hotel room in New York might easily cost you one hundred and twenty dollars when you go to check out.  That is a huge price difference.

The use of “real” prices in Europe makes things sound more expensive when comparing stickers but makes the actual transactions a bit less expensive than you believe.  In reality it is a far more honest system and allows consumers to actually compare prices of things and makes it impossible (or nearly so) for vendors to fudge the numbers and use tax as a way to overcharge you.  In the US they just add on a surprise tax at the end, hope that you don’t notice and there is nothing that you can do about it since you don’t know what the tax rate is and what taxes may or may not apply to you.

Travel to Europe almost always involves visiting heavily touristed areas of large, wealthy cities.  The average European travel experience is going to involve eating in the hearts of Paris, London, Rome, Berlin, Florence, Venice, Nice, Madrid, etc.  A European traveling to the US or Canada would likely have a similar experience.  Go to our own major tourists centers, New York City, Los Angeles, Montreal or Orlando and try eating at sit down restaurants right in the heart of the city in the spots with all of the tourists (Times Square, near the most popular museum, inside Walt Disney World) and see if prices in the New World are not just as crazy as those in the Old World.  Often the price jump is simply caused by comparing tourist prices in Europe to regular prices back home.

European prices will also swing dramatically based on the relative strength of the Euro and the Pound primarily versus your home currency.  In general the Euro and especially the Pound are quite a bit higher in value than the US or Canadian dollars.  So something listed as two Pounds might equal three dollars.  The need to do the conversion can be scary and confusing and it varies not just over the long haul but will change during your trip.  Having prices fluctuate but five percent in a single week of travel has happened to me, fortunately it was five percent in my favor and suddenly my trip became more affordable rather than less.

Europeans also do things differently, or know how to do things in Europe, than Americans.  For example, beer is much cheaper in Europe than in the States while soft drinks are extremely expensive.  Going with local beer can save a lot.  And knowing to order tap water, always, is important.  The cost of bottled water, always offered by default, can be extreme and a complete waste as tap water is often superior to bottled water in quality, especially in Europe where tap water is extremely good.  Little tricks add up over the length of a vacation.

Getting used to how prices are written in Europe, being prepared for exchange rates to fluctuate and remembering that you are likely “acting like a tourist” will go a long way to helping you to mitigate fears of high European costs.  Europe really is not that expensive, but being a tourist anywhere, is.  Getting away from eating three sit down meals per day, avoiding tourist traps (at least for food) and heavily touristed regions, getting away from the big city centers – there are ways to make Europe every bit as affordable as other parts of the world.  Real people live here and eat here and do things in Europe every day.  They just are not likely doing them in the same places and in the same ways as the tourists.