A well-known fact about me, that goes without saying to my close friends, co-workers, and family; I am a travel addict. To the readers of my page this will become apparent – it is not something I am ashamed of; rather proud actually. In a few days I embark on my 9th trip across the ocean – and my 10th in a few months. In this post I want to give advice about what I do to plan my trips from start to finish; more importantly how to save money without losing any part of the experience.
Ever since my childhood I have been fascinated with travel. I was lucky to be part of a family that took long road trips every summer, so planning the tiniest details became second nature to me. The high of planning the route and picking hotels was a great learning experience (not to mention intoxicating) and I think that molded me for how I plan my trips to this day. Throughout Wisconsin and Minnesota, out to Wyoming every few years, down the Mississippi River to Missouri and Southern Illinois, even as far as Florida; all by car – this was my childhood travel. I remember my parents planning the route meticulously, including stops, hotels, points of interest, etc.; spending hours preparing before even getting in the car. This inspired me and made me have a thirst for the wider world, there is so much to discover and what seems like so little time.
Now for advice:
I have many internal rules of thumb that I follow regardless of location when planning to go abroad – if I can’t do the trip within these guidelines I don’t go. I always say that travel is possible even on the smallest budget – which is why I’ve been able to cross the Atlantic going on 10 times since 2006. I will focus on my upcoming trip to Hamburg/Northern Germany as an example of how I plan out where I’m going, for how long, and what’s my budget.
Rule 1: If I can’t book everything (flight, hotel, local travel, sights, spending cash) for less than $3000 I don’t go. Now that is an upper bound which I have never spent or come close to, however it is an upper bound because flights to Australia for example are more expensive than let’s say Canada or Europe, etc. Either way that is my self-imposed limit.
Rule 2: Time is important – the number of full sightseeing days must be at least 7. If I can’t go abroad for at least 7 days then it isn’t worth my time or money. Time is important in the sense that my travel dates must be flexible to get the best price. I never set myself up by only being available to go during a certain time (this is why I book months in advance if possible).
Rule 3: If I am required to book a hostel/hotel, it must be near public transport (prefer subway, tram, and rapid transit – but not buses!), and/or walking distance to a grocery store (I don’t eat out for breakfast and sometimes lunch – I pack my own).
Rule 4: I plan my itinerary after I have my flights booked not the other way around. For example if I fly into Munich and out of Brussels that leaves a wide range of possibilities for destinations in-between and that allows me to determine how many days I spend in each place. I book my flights first because that is usually the biggest expense, and I want the best deal possible. It adds a sense of adventure because sometimes the best deals are to places you wouldn’t think of going.
Rule 5: Consider all costs before booking anything! The flight may be cheap, but the hotels not so much – always find a great deal on flights first and keep the tab open; then search for hotels during the same time frame. For example a recent search of flights from LAX to London (LHR) found with Virgin Atlantic a ticket for $430 round trip! However London in general (hotels, restaurants, etc.) can be very expensive. Do the research before you book anything that can’t be refunded or cancelled free of charge.
So let’s time travel a few weeks back to the beginning of January. I get the travel bug really bad for most of the year, and of course I am always scouring the web for flight deals. So picture me sitting on my laptop searching my favorite carriers which include Condor, Icelandair, WOW air, and Norwegian Air Shuttle. This doesn’t mean that other carriers do not offer great deals, but I’ve found flights for as low as $480 round trip to even $70 one way. Now granted departure airports are limited as are destinations, but either way great deals can be found among these airlines. My number one destination will always be Germany, and of course I am usually looking for the cheapest flight to Munich, Frankfurt or similar at any time of the year. After searching Orbitz, Kayak, etc. I went to Condor. Now at that time, Condor was offering one ways for a little over $200, and since I have never flown to Europe for less than $700 round trip, this was a bargain. I found my flight to Frankfurt am Main (FRA) from San Diego (SAN) via Seattle (SEA) for $490 with Condor. Departing January 30th, return February 9th. The flights with Condor are only on select days so to determine the trip length I picked flights that gave me at least 7 days of sightseeing (my biggest rule, I want to spend at least a week abroad, otherwise paying for the trip is pointless).
Now granted Frankfurt is not my final destination, so next I need to find where I wanted to go once I landed. I have family in the south of Germany that I could stay with, however that option didn’t work out. Next I asked a friend in Hamburg if I could stay with him. I normally seek out my friends/family first before I invest any money in hotels/hostels. If I didn’t have the friend/family option, I would have needed to find accommodation, which when I searched was around $120 total for 9 nights at a hostel/low budget hotel (I always figure it’s just a place to rest, as long as it is clean, near a grocery store, and public transport; I will be happy). Finding accommodation that is near the city center without going over budget is always tough. Consider looking outside the city center but with access to public transport. When you consider the price of the accommodation will be less, coupled with the cost of your ticket on public transport, there can be a huge amount of savings for traveling maybe 10-15 minutes each day.
Once I knew that I would be going to Hamburg and that I didn’t need to find any sort of hotel/hostel, I looked at the train tickets to and from Hamburg. With Deutsche Bahn and almost any rail company, booking a few weeks/to at least a few days in advance will offer savings. For my ticket from Frankfurt Flughafen Fernbahnhof to Hamburg Hbf (main station) I paid $35 with ICE (InterCity Express). From Hamburg Hbf to Frankfurt am Main Hbf I paid $40 with ICE. If you can afford to keep your travel plans tight and not worry about flexible-tickets then you are guaranteed a deep discount. Now on my return to Frankfurt I needed to spend one night in a hotel since my flight was very early on February 9th. I found an easyHotel near the main train station for $35. Had I looked for a direct flight to Hamburg my flight costs would have easily doubled, which would make trying to go on a budget worthless.
So let’s break it down:
$490 for flight
$75 in long distance rail travel
$35 one night in Frankfurt hotel
That’s $600 if I stay with my friend – add on the $120 for 9 nights in a hostel/hotel if I had needed to do book one – that’s $720 for 10 days in Germany – a bargain when compared with spending $700+ on the flight alone! Spending cash and extras (entrance fees, local rail travel, etc.) I’ve figure around $300 to $400. That’s a total of $900 to $1000 for 10 days.
Lastly I don’t plan on spending all of my time in Hamburg. I will be using Hamburg as my base and traveling out 2-3 days while I am there. My itinerary includes Hamburg itself spread over a few days/half days, Bremen, Sylt, and Neuengamme. Of course my friend and I have planned an extensive list of activities that we will be going to together; including theater shows, dining out together, and a few attractions. I usually plan all of my getaways the same using one city as my base and then traveling out – the only time I change this rule is if I am visiting an entire country in one trip/visiting multiple countries spread over a few weeks.
Look for an update when I get back from Hamburg – Hansestadt (Hanseatic City), Tor zur Welt (Gateway to the World), aus Wind und Wasser geschaffen (Created from Wind and Water)!
Thanks for reading!
Backpack – J.Crew Harwick Backpack
Messenger Bag – Tom Tailor
Boots – Clarks for Tretter München (Exclusive for Tretter – Wool/Fur Lined)