For the tightwad traveler, independent travel is the best and cheapest way to go. Why spend $200-400 a day for an organized, commercial tour, when you can do it better yourself for less than $90 a day?
Planning your own vacation is also far more rewarding than signing up for an organized tour. While plotting your itinerary, you will learn the history of the places you plan to visit; you'll come to understand the local public transportation system so you'll feel like a native when you hop on the bus or subway; and, after researching apartment rentals or hotels, you'll have a “feel” for the area you couldn't get any other way.
Does planning your own trip take more time? Yes. But there's no better feeling than knowing you are the one in charge of your vacation--if you want to see four museums in one day or sleep late every morning, you can. You'll also find that doing your own planning increases your anticipation, and, after all, that's half the fun of any trip!
Arranging your own trip is not difficult, and, if you start six to twelve months in advance, you will be able to pace yourself so the planning is enjoyable rather than burdensome. Here are the steps that will make the process a pleasurable one.
If there are a number of destinations on your list that you'd like to visit over the next several years, it might be wise to narrow your choices by considering how your currency is faring right now in the countries you plan to visit. You may be able to save a considerable amount of money by traveling to a country this year with a favorable exchange rate and postponing the trip to the countries with unfavorable exchange rates until another time. For example, the UK is off-limits for David and me until the dollar is doing better compared to the pound; but we're seriously considering a trip to Southeast Asia where the dollar is thriving.
Once you know where you want to go, start thinking about airfare. If you're using frequent flyer miles, it is essential to reserve immediately because those seats disappear quickly. (Bear in mind that you can always change the dates of your FF flight, at no charge, should your plans change later.) If you're paying for your flight, you might want to check http://www.farecompare.com/ to see when the most economical fares are predicted. But, since your flight is one of the costliest aspects of a trip budget, you will not want to rely solely on predictions. You can assure yourself of getting the best rate possible by tracking the price over several months with frequent, detailed updates. Get that information with an airfare alert that will be sent to your e-mail in-box daily. The alert tells you whether the airfare you're seeking has increased or decreased in price, so you can buy when the price is right. I like http://www.kayak.com/, but there are many companies that perform this free service.
The next step involves the second most expensive item in your trip budget, the place you will sleep. I've said this several times before in previous articles, and Arthur Frommer, the travel expert himself, confirmed it in his blog last Friday (See blog post below.), that the cheapest accommodations in Europe right now are apartments.* If you are planning a week's stay in each location (Most apartment owners require a week's stay although, occasionally, you can find someone who will rent for only three-nights.), an apartment is the wisest choice. Not only can you prepare your own meals which results in tremendous financial savings, but you will have amenities that you cannot get in a hotel or B&B. And, on top of all that, you will find lovely apartments that are cheaper than budget hotels or even hostels!
Once you're convinced that an apartment is the best way to have a home away from home, you'll find that there are many resources to choose from. One of my favorites is http://www.slowtravel/ because the site prints honest reviews written by people, like you and me, who have actually stayed in the apartments. The reviews are lengthy and give excellent information about the room sizes, condition of the furniture, proximity to public transportation, price, and ease of working with the rental agent/owner. This is the site David and I used to locate our Paris apartment. Another source is Vacation Rentals by Owners http://www.vrbo.com/, a site where owners list their houses or apartments in locations all over the world. Many friends have used this site with great success. Another option in rural areas, of course, is to look for gites in France and agriturismo in Italy, Spain and Portugal. Or use your computer search engine to search for holiday apartment rentals in whatever area you are considering.
No matter which source you use, however, be sure to do your homework. Trustworthy owners/companies will be honest about the apartment's advantages and shortcomings. They will provide lots of information about the amount of furniture and its condition. It's helpful to know, for example, the number of beds- if you have a group of people - and their sizes -if you're as tall as David and I. (Some sites are unintentionally misleading. For example, an owner will state on his site that there is bedding for four, and he is correct as long as one couple doesn't mind sleeping on a fold-out couch in the living room! You need to read the descriptions carefully. Bedding that might be suitable for children may not be suitable for adults.) And, of course, learning you will have a washer/dryer, means you can pack far fewer clothes.
The site should supply the answers to all your questions. Here are a few questions we usually ask. Is there free parking? Is the apartment within walking distance of shops and public transportation? Are there stairs? Is there a cleaning fee or is the renter responsible for cleaning before he leaves? Is there a patio or terrace? Also look for lots of photographs (four is the minimum, and I love sites with ten to twenty!) to document the promises made in the text. The very best sites will also provide square footage and a diagram of the apartment's layout.
Perhaps the most important aspect of a listing, though, is that reviews from previous renters should be available to you. An owner who has nothing to hide should be proud to share his guest book with you. Read it and learn if what pleased or disappointed others will affect your vacation.
If you cannot find this basic information on the site, or if an owner/company does not promptly respond to your e-mails, move on to another. There are many owners/companies vying for your rental dollar, so deal with someone who will give you all the information you need to make an informed choice. After all, your rental will be your temporary home in a foreign country, so your selection needs to be a good one.
Now that you've got the two biggest expenses out of the way, it's time for the exciting part of the planning—deciding what you will see. You will want to invest in at least one or two current guidebooks because these sources are the lifeblood of an independent traveler. Here's one way of deciding which one you'll like best. Go to your favorite bookstore, gather every book on the shelves dealing with your chosen location, and find a chair to curl up in. Turn to the same section in each of the books, Paris, for example, and ask yourself some questions. Which book devotes the most pages to Paris? Which has the best maps and graphics? Which provides the most information about the sites in Paris that are high on my list? You'll soon know which guidebooks are the best ones for you.
Guidebooks are such a valuable commodity you will even find uses for old ones. Buy them at yard sales or used book stores for a quarter. Outdated guides are still helpful because the four-hundred-year-old sites you want to visit haven't changed much! When you've only spent pennies on a guidebook, you won't mind ripping out pages from several books. Organize these pages into one notebook to create your own personalized guidebook that will weigh far less than most novels.
That three-ring notebook will also hold information you'll gather from the Internet. While your just-purchased, current guidebook has up-to-the-minute information about hours of operation, costs, walking tours and itineraries; and your torn-apart, old guidebooks supply historical details about the sites you'll see, websites can often supply esoteric information that is not available anywhere else. For example, David and I were uncertain about finding the shuttle to our airport hotel on the last day. We found the information we needed on a Trip Advisor page. (We still got lost, but at least we didn't get lost quite as badly as we could have!) A New York Times article introduced us to macarons. (Though it would have been better for my waistline if macarons and I had never met!) So, don't overlook the Internet as a great source of information.
And, of course, you do not want to forget the information available on blogs. Type two words – the destination name and the word “blog” -- in any search engine, and you will discover scads of sites sharing their travel secrets with you. This is where you'll hear about the fabulous, tucked-away-in-a-back-alley restaurant where the food is divine and the bill negligible, or where you'll get tips on how to avoid the latest tourist scam. The information on blogs is invaluable; no matter where you're going, somebody's already been there and would love to give you a tip or two. Scour the site, follow the links, and take notes. Write a comment on the blog or ask a question. Most blog writers are anxious to share their knowledge and will enjoy re-living their trip while helping you at the same time.
After you've arranged your flight, rented an apartment, and planned your itinerary, sit back and relax. Bask in the good feeling that comes from being a tightwad traveler. You can be confident you've snagged the cheapest flight and saved hundreds of dollars per day by renting an apartment where you will prepare your own meals. You've also armed yourself with insider information about your destination because you've researched guidebooks, websites and blogs. You should be feeling something no tour company can provide right about now — satisfaction at having arranged the best and cheapest trip possible. Go ahead and enjoy it!
*If you're planning a trip to Southeast Asia, Mexico or South America, you may find that hotels are inexpensive and rental apartments are in short supply. In those countries, it may be just as inexpensive to eat locally and stay in hotels or B&Bs.