It’s always hard to say goodbye, and I found this to be especially true as my time in Asia drew to an end. I won’t miss the heat or the crazy motorbikes almost mowing me down each time I walk down the street, but everything else I will definitely miss! Even after 3 weeks, I was not yet tired of the food, the culture, the history, and the friends I had made. On our last night in Vietnam, our group had a farewell dinner at Cau Go in Hanoi, which turned out to be quite the posh spot (posh is another word I’ve adopted from my British friends!) I spent the next day packing, saying goodbyes, doing a bit of last minute shopping around Hanoi, and sitting by Hoan Kiem lake one last time.
By a fortunate twist of fate, my closest friend from my Asia trip, Nat, was on the same flight as me from Hanoi to Doha, Qatar. It was so great to have a friend on this flight! 🙂 We said our “see you laters” in Doha around 11pm, as he was continuing back to London that evening. I was so happy to learn that Qatar Airways would provide me with free 5 star accommodations for the night before my 8am connection to Dallas. This was by far the “poshest” accommodation I’ve had yet on the journey! Thank you Qatar Airways! While I had initially been nervous to spend the night alone here, everyone in Qatar was extremely hospitable, helpful, and nice. I highly recommend Qatar Airways! After showering and catching a few hours of sleep in a big, fluffy, clean bed, I returned to the airport for my 16 hour flight to Dallas.
Despite some turbulence over Iran and Russia (which I of course freaked out a bit over…hyperactive imagination?!), the flight went very smoothly. I watched several movies and listened to some Bob Dylan on their entertainment system (so on point!), then touched down in Dallas. I had not anticipated how good it would be to be back in the USA even for a few hours!! I even found a special soundtrack for landing 🙂
Once in Dallas, I walked around the airport for a couple of hours to stretch my legs and made calls to family and friends. I also realized how completely exhausted I felt, so I stocked up on Airborne tablets and Tylenol. I boarded my flight to Lima at 10:20pm, but we didn’t take off until around 11pm (typical for my experience with American Airlines! Why can’t all airlines be like Qatar?!) The plane did not even have a TV/entertainment system, but it was ok as I finally caught a few hours of sleep. After about 7 hours, I was in Lima, and the sunrise was beautiful from the window.
I was so happy to find my checked backpack had made it all the way to Lima from Hanoi, as I had my doubts about all the crazy connections. I made my way through customs and quickly found my driver I had booked transport in advance through my hostel). My driver did not speak English, so I spoke with him the entire drive in Spanish. I was relieved to see how quickly it came back to me (gracias to Senora Sephore from high school and Senora Botero from Vandy!), and I am excited to see how much I will improve over the next 3 weeks. I arrived at my hostel and checked in, and am now enjoying some coffee on the porch with my new friend Pisco. Sarah arrives at 11pm tonight, and I absolutely cannot wait to see her!! She and I will be traveling together for the next 3 weeks here, and our friend Rachele (also from NYC) will be joining us about halfway. I am so happy to be in South America! Encantada!!
One of the most exciting parts about traveling abroad is the unknown and the unfamiliar—being surrounded by people who don’t speak your language, using money you don’t know the value of, and finding your way around a brand new place where your recognize nothing. To make the unknown more exciting and less distressing, it helps to do a little homework ahead of time. Although it’s impossible to prepare for every “unknown” you will encounter along the way, doing some preparation beforehand will build confidence for the solo or first-time traveler, more than anything. Below are some of my basic tips for preparing to encounter the unfamiliar during a trip abroad.
Learn a few basics of the local language. Several readers have already asked me how I travel solo to countries where English is not spoken. The truth is, most people know some amount of English in most places you may be traveling. However, it helps to learn some language basics of the country you’re traveling to in advance, keeping in mind you will also learn a good bit once you actually arrive (thank you, Joslin, for teaching me “how to flirt” in Afrikaans!)
For my travels this summer, I have decided to focus most of my preparation on learning French, since I will be spending a relatively large amount of time in and around Paris. From what I’ve heard, the people there are less likely to choose to speak English and expect you to get on their level and speak French primarily! I recommend the Duolingo app for your smartphone (free in the App store). Duolingo will quiz you simultaneously on vocabulary, verb conjugation, and common phrases by using matching exercises, bi-directional translation exercises, and microphone recording. The app will also send you push notifications and emails to remind you to stay regular on your practice. (If you fail to practice regularly, the app will even send a very sad message that says, “We see these notifications aren’t working, so we’re going to stop sending them…” 😦 )
As for the other countries I am visiting, I plan to rely on the very basic skills I still have left from Spanish courses in college, as well as an Eastern European language phrasebook and Southeast Asia dictionary. As a last resort, I also plan to carry this picture dictionary, although I plan to avoid using it at all costs! (I feel like this screams “tourist,” but let’s be real…I am a tourist. And it is best to be prepared!). My goal is to come away from each country with at least a few solid phrases and expressions I can use the rest of my life!
Practice your mental math to calculate currencies. When planning a trip abroad, it’s important to keep an eye on exchange rates. During my time working in foreign exchange, I paid attention to exchange rates down to the pip/half-pip. However, it’s important to only know general “ballpark” rates to be able to calculate exchange rates in your head. Depending on where you are traveling, one of the most important rates you need to learn is the EUR/USD rate. For the last year, EUR/USD has been in the +/- 1.10 range, meaning 1 euro has been worth about 1.10 US dollars. This means Europe is a slightly “more expensive” place to spend money than the US. Despite this value difference, now is a great time for Americans to travel to Europe, as the US dollar is the strongest it has been since being at parity with the Euro in the early 2000s!
To calculate prices, I know that the cost of something in euros is really that plus around 10% in US dollars (just move the decimal place over once to get 10%), or the price in euros x 1.10. (For example, something that costs me 2 euros really costs me roughly $2.20, something that costs 45 euros really costs me roughly 45 + 4.5, or $49.50, etc.)
It is important to realize that the Euro is the “base” currency against USD, and the same is true for the British pound, Australian dollar, New Zealand dollar. However, for most currency crosses, the US dollar will be the base currency. This means that when my hostel reservation in Budapest costs me 4,800 Hungarian forints per night, I only owe $17 per night (1 USD is worth approximately 280 HUF, so I divide 4,800 by 280 to get ~$17/night. Very reasonable!)
(Note to my former math students who may be reading this–see how useful math can be!?)
For those of you without an FX background or who would like to simply double-check your currency conversions, I recommend the free Oanda Currency Converter smartphone app. I will be keeping this on my phone, and referencing as needed!
Use maps on apps! Living in NYC has instilled me with a deep love of and appreciation for public transportation. I have had the NYCMate app on my iPhone since day #1 of living in the city, and I am now seeking out similar apps for cities where I plan to use public transportation a good bit. So far, I’ve been able to find similar apps for the metro systems in Paris, Berlin, London, and Munich. Of course, it’s always good to have old-fashioned paper maps on hand for when/if your smartphone runs out of battery (gasp!). Most hostels provide maps of the city for free.
What do you mean it is 45 degrees?! After riding for 4 hours under the scorching African summer sun and drinking ~2 liters of water to stay hydrated, imagine my surprise when my safari guide told me it was 45 degrees! I knew he was, of course, giving the temperature in Celsius. However, measuring temperature on the Fahrenheit scale my entire life means I need to do an extra calculation in my head when discussing temperatures in every other part of the world (just 5 countries measure temperature in Fahrenheit!)
The equation for the conversion is F= C*1.8 + 32 (Former math students who are still reading–this is your standard y=mx+b equation!)
However, the shortcut is just to multiply the Celsius temperature by 2 to approximate the Fahrenheit temperature.
Until my next post, totsiens! Or goodbye (in Afrikaans)!
“Travel is the one thing you buy that makes you richer.”
I could not agree more with this statement. Travel (along with education) is the most important investment you can make in your personal development.
But, let’s be real. Traveling is expensive. Once you decide to travel abroad, it helps to have a game plan in place to make the trip a reality. You do not have to have a trust fund or win the lottery to see the world! With some research, extra attention to spending habits, and patience, the world will be yours to see. Below are some of the tips and advice I’ve found to be helpful in the process.
Save, save, save!Once you decide upon a trip abroad as a goal, pay yourself to go. What do I mean? Take a close look at your budget (fixed costs v. discretionary spending). What can you live without? It is really as simple as deciding you can live without certain things, and setting the money you would otherwise spend aside. For example, as soon as I got back from Africa, I was so inspired to save money to travel more that I cut off my cable!
Websites like Mint can even help you set savings goals for vacations, and track your contributions on a regular basis. Also, most tour companies like EF Tours and G Adventures will let you make payments on the cost of your trip starting several months in advance, instead of paying the amount in full. Once you decide to travel, treat the saving process like paying bills (except this is a fun bill that actually gives back to you!). Remember, tours are all-inclusive (sometimes even including flights to and from), so this can be helpful if you want to work with a hard figure for your savings plan.
If you’re in college, study abroad! Often, financial aid packages will cover the costs of tuition and room and board expenses for study abroad, and living in a foreign country can be equal to (if you’re careful) or less than living in the US. My one regret from college was not pursuing a study abroad opportunity. All my friends who did it says it was a life-changing experience. At least visit the travel abroad office to investigate your options. It never hurts to ask!
Be on the lookout for flight deals. Flying is not as expensive as you’d think it might be! The growth of low-cost airlines has been a boon for budget-minded travelers, especially in Europe where they’ve been around a while.
I use Kayak to search for flight deals. It is a “metasearch” engine that searches for good deals across multiple search engines, so it’s better than just using Expedia or Priceline. It also includes a lot of deals from low cost airline providers. You are more likely to find a good deal on a flight if you can be flexible with your schedule (I recommend using the “flexible dates” function to compare prices across a range of workable departure and return dates). I also really like using Skypicker. Often, their results will show up in a Kayak search, but sometimes I like cross-checking against their website just in case (just be careful, because all Skypicker sales are final!)
For my upcoming long-term summer travel, I’ve managed to lock in my intercontinental flights (US to Asia to South America to Europe to US) for a much cheaper rate using Kayak/Skypicker than I found when searching for an around the world (“RTW”) flight ticket. However, this type of ticket may be sensible for you if you have a firm schedule for long-term travel. I highly recommend doing your research on Kayak and comparing it to RTW ticket prices you find on Airtreks.
Tip: I have no idea if it is true or if it is just me being superstitious, but I always search Kayak in “incognito mode” on Google Chrome, so as not to inflate prices on multiple searches. Maybe it is me being silly…but passing along, just in case!
Be as flexible as possible.As mentioned above, be flexible with your dates as much as you can be when searching flights by departure and return date (for example, it is often cheaper to leave on a Wednesday than a Friday). Also, be flexible with your airport of departure if you can. For example, searching a round trip ticket from Atlanta to London yields a price $910, while searching a round trip ticket from Birmingham, AL to London shows a price of $1,625…big difference!
Track “small” expenses.Something as basic as your passport will cost you $30, which is important to keep in mind as these small but critical expenses add up. Some countries will charge you for a visa to enter (anywhere from 35 USD for Zimbabwe to 80 USD for Vietnam to 135 USD for Bolivia), but many if not all European countries and some South American countries will grant US citizens a free visa for a period of time, usually less than 90 days.
Try to avoid foreign transaction fees and currency exchange rates. Keep an eye on foreign transaction fees as you book transportation and accommodation overseas in advance, as well as when you use your credit card abroad. It is best to try to open a checking account with Charles Schwab (reimburses ATM fees) or obtain a credit card with no foreign transaction fee, such as a Chase Sapphire or Capital One card. Bank of America charges a 3% foreign transaction fee for each purchase made outside of the U.S. or Mexico…ouch! Try to use ATMs instead of currency exchange kiosks once abroad, as they will charge you exorbitant rates. You can usually order currencies from your bank ahead of your departure for a much lower rate.
Stay in hostels. This advice is especially true if you’re young and single (yeah!), but I’ve also found some family-friendly hostels in my search process. Hostels provide dorm-like conditions for the budget-minded traveler at costs as low as $8/night (this is what I am paying each night in Chiang Mai before I meet with my tour group in Bangkok). The trick is to make sure you reserve a hostel with a reputation for being clean and safe, as well as one that provides extra perks like free wifi, free breakfast, and a washing machine. I used Hostelword as well as word of mouth from friends when planning my hostel stays for this summer. Hostelworld features good, detailed reviews for each hostel. I also like their “flexible booking” system, meaning you can pay an extra $1 to receive a credit back on your deposit to use for another reservation should you cancel or change your reservation. This has proven very handy, as my plans have already fluctuated multiple times even a few months out!
Research the train system. I’m actually very excited for this tip, as I have yet to master the rail system in Europe (I’ve heard it’s great though!). While I am using low-cost airlines for some travel within Europe, I will be using the train for much of my travels. I recommend crunching the numbers to see if it is more cost-effective for you to buy a Eurail pass, or just buy tickets as you go. For me, I will just be buying tickets as I go along. The point is…don’t assume a “pass” is the cheapest option! Visit The Man in Seat 61 for awesome advice regarding train travel.
Enjoy and appreciate destinations closer to home. In the meantime, enjoy your home and the surrounding area as a destination! I’ve met plenty of people on my travels who have never visited the US, so take time to appreciate what is unique about the place around you. When it comes down to it, we all live in and are from a great travel destination…so own it!
I hope my tips have helped you realize traveling can become a reality with some planning ahead. Do you have any additional tips or questions about saving money to travel abroad?
Hi, I’m Gracie, a 28 year old New Yorker, native Alabamian, law student, and lover of travel. I’m excited to share my journey with you.
I started this blog to encourage and inspire people to travel, no matter their age, background, or prior travel experience. I left the US for the first time just a few years ago, and recently I’ve had the opportunity to travel across 5 different continents–just me and and my trusty backpack! I hope the information and stories I share will help readers travel with confidence and purpose. I also look forward to using this blog to share my thoughts about current events within the US and around the world in an effort to promote dialogue and understanding across the political spectrum.
“I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig tree in the story. From the tip of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked. One fig was a husband and a happy home and children, and another fig was a famous poet and another fig was a brilliant professor, and another fig was Ee Gee, the amazing editor, and another fig was Europe and Africa and South America, and another fig was Constantin and Socrates and Attila and a pack of other lovers with queer names and offbeat professions, and another fig was an Olympic lady crew champion, and beyond and above these figs were many more figs I couldn’t quite make out. I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death, just because I couldn’t make up my mind which of the figs I would choose. I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest, and, as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet.” – Sylvia Plath