Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Packwhiz Lets You Pack Like a Pro

When I'm getting ready for a trip to Europe, I never forget what to pack as long as I've got it on a list.  But keeping track of the scribbled lists is another problem altogether.  One list is on my desk, another flutters on the refrigerator door, a third sits on my dresser and one is taped to the bathroom shelf.  By the time I get around to packing, the barely legible lists have suffered their share of abuse, and it's a wonder I pack the map instead of a mop!

My life is about to get easier, though, because I've discovered a site that makes list-making a snap.  I can either use someone else's list like the one for "17 Days in Europe," modify a generic list, or make a list from scratch.  When I print the finished product, I'll have a legible, organized, comprehensive list of everything I need.  I think Packwhiz will be the next best thing to having a professional pack for me!

Friday, October 14, 2011

Where I've Been

After David and I returned from our Italy/Spain trip this spring, two friends asked me to help them plan their own frugal trip to Europe. Although they could have looked at my blog, since most of the advice is there, my friends wanted me to give them a step-by-step procedure to follow in organizing their first European trip. 

As we worked together over the next couple weeks, I understood why they wanted personal help instead of looking through the blog on their own.   I had trouble, too, finding particular articles I wanted them to read. Most every tip is indeed on the blog....but locating the exact piece of information when you need it can be problematic.

It finally occurred to me that a book was in order. If I consolidated all the tips and tricks David and I have learned along the way and through the years, and arranged all the information in a step-by-step format that anyone could follow, maybe everyone would be able to take a meaningful and affordable trip to Europe (or two or three or twenty) the way David and I do.

So, that's what I've been doing--writing a book that I hope will benefit travelers and would-be travelers. I'd like to tell you a bit more about it in the article below.

Close to the Bone Traveling

In the process of writing this book, my travel philosophy has crystallized.  I realized that not only is my way of travel cheaper than any other approach, but it is also far more meaningful.  Although "cheap" has a negative connotation when applied to products, it is high praise when it applies to travel. I've come to think of it as "close to the bone traveling." 

Jon and Vonda Look, creators of the wonderful blog, Life Part 2, (See my article about them here.) gave me a chance to write about this travel philosophy when they asked me to contribute a guest article (published a couple weeks ago).  This is what I wrote.

Close to the Bone Traveling
The most beneficial by-product of traveling cheaply is that it guarantees traveling close to the bone. Nothing gets between you and the place you came to experience.
Renting an apartment instead of a hotel room means you shop the grocery stores, dicker in the markets, practice your foreign language skills on the clerk who now welcomes you with a smile at the bakery around the corner, and use the subway system like a pro. The apartment, although cheaper, accomplishes what a more expensive hotel never can; it puts you in touch with the pulse of a neighborhood. At the end of a long day, as you arrange the flowers you picked up at the corner stand or have a glass of wine to toast a spectacular sunset, you feel as though you live here. Here in Paris or Rome or Madrid.
Feeling like a resident means you enjoy all the advantages of traveling like a non-tourist. Dallying is an advantage, not a liability. You savor every moment, sleep in late, run across the street to get fresh croissants for breakfast, take the leisurely route to today's museum, amble down the alley chock full of antique shops you stumble across on the way home, and get take-out for dinner. Living in the city, even if only for a few magical days, means feeling and tasting and smelling it. Slowly and completely, with all your senses.

When you "live" in a foreign city, you become intimately acquainted with its history. The first time I went to Paris, my inexpensive B&B was located in the sixth arrondissement, known as St. Germain des Prés, where writer/philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir compared notes and wrote in the mid-1900s, and, later, the "Lost Generation" of writers and artists shared ideas after World War I.  I almost swooned when I realized that the cafe, Les Deux Magots, was around the corner. Now I could go there and have a hot chocolate in the very place where Sartre and Beauvoir wrote and where Hemingway and Fitzgerald bantered with Picasso and Gertrude Stein. This alone would nurture my soul and imagination for months.

After dreaming of seeing Paris for twenty years, the excitement of actually being in the city propelled me out of bed each morning before dawn, but I crept silently out of the house so as not to wake the other guests. My little room, a gold and turquoise Louis XIV gem that could only be reached by going through the dining room and across a terrace, was an extra that Madame rented only when the rest of her house was full.

The day I went to the Eiffel Tower, I used my guidebooks and city transit map to carefully plot my route the night before. Up at 5:30, I quickly showered, tiptoed out of the pension, stopped at my favorite patisserie to practice my college French and order a croissant, and made it to the Metro subway station before rush hour.

When I reached the correct stop, I climbed the steps to the street and looked around for the Tower. But it wasn't there. Only houses and apartments lined the neat streets. The Eiffel Tower was too big to hide, but I couldn't catch even a glimpse of its top. Evidently my carefully orchestrated route had a flaw or two.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Trip Planning Tools

A  sculpture on San Diego Bay 
Before you take off, you'll want to use Budget Travel's ten most useful travel websites to plan your next trip.  Here's the article by Sean O'Neill.
Many websites make lofty promises, but few deliver. From booking a flight to outlining an itinerary to tracking frequent-flier miles, we scoured the Internet for 10 essential websites for today's traveler.
The Web should make things easier for travelers, but the sheer volume of services out there is often more overwhelming than useful. Unfortunately, you don't always know which outfits pay off until you've already invested your time. The Budget Travel team puts websites—new and established—to the test every day. So when it came time to line up our favorites, the task was easy—we just turned to the sites we keep revisiting because they're so darn helpful. Our top picks can help you avoid overpaying for airfare (Bing Travel), bag the primo room at a hotel (Hipmunk), and never miss a deal on a rental-car reservation again (AutoSlash). Some of our favorites are as useful as a mind-reading tour guide (Plnnr); others are as handy as having a personal secretary track your frequent-flier balances (Award Wallet). Put them all together, and they become Budget Travel's picks for the best the Web has to offer.

1. Bing Travel
Buy plane tickets at the best possible time.

Like other booking sites, Bing lets you comparison-shop for tickets across more than a hundred sources. Yet unlike most other sites, it also analyzes historical data to predict whether the price you see on the screen today is likely to rise (or drop) in the coming week, clearly marking the bargains with a big, green Buy Now icon. What's more, Bing is the only airfare search site to have its predictions independently audited. With an accuracy rate of 75 percent, it's not perfect—but those are better odds than blind guessing gets you. bing.com/travel.

2. AutoSlash
Lock in the lowest rate on rental cars.

Here's how it works: Reserve a vehicle from a favorite agency through the AutoSlash site, and the site will instantly begin tracking rate changes for your reservation. If a sale pops up later—snap!—it automatically locks in the lower price on your behalf. You can even use AutoSlash if you've booked independently. Just enter your confirmation number, and the site will notify you when it's found a lower rate (which you'll have to rebook on your own). Neither AutoSlash nor the company you first booked with charges a fee for the service. autoslash.com.

3. Fly or Drive Calculator
Determine the cheapest way to reach your destination.

Coupon site befrugal.com crunches data from sources such as AAA and Google Maps to power its Fly or Drive estimator (found in the site's Tools & Calculators tab). The more details you supply—the make and model of your car, the number of travelers in your group, whether you'd be springing for a taxi to the airport—the more accurate the estimates. For the eco-minded, it even includes a carbon-footprint estimate for each mode of travel. (Note: The calculator only works for trips within the continental U.S.) befrugal.com/tools/fly-or-drive-calculator/.

4. Plnnr
Get instant itineraries tailored to your tastes.

Whether you have a full week or a few hours, Plnnr can craft a (free!) customized point-to-point trip guide for 20 popular urban destinations across North America and Europe. You supply the length of your stay, desired activity level, and interests (such as outdoors, kids' activities, and culture), and the site spits out a fully formed itinerary, factoring in each attraction's opening and closing hours and travel times between spots by taxi or on foot. You can further fine-tune the results by adjusting the priority level for even more specific subcategories—architecture, breweries, and even cemeteries—or reject individual suggestions outright. (Plnnr won't get its feelings hurt.) plnnr.com. [See Tightwad Travel's step-by-step guide to using Plnnr here.]

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Ten Years in Ten Different Places

Vonda and Jon Look set sail for a new life when they retired early. They sold  their house, pared their belongings, and crammed the essentials for their new life into their Toyota F J Cruiser before taking off for Xcalak, a little Mexican fishing village in the Yucutan.  They plan to spend the next ten years exploring the world by spending one year in ten different areas.

Jon says, "We are looking for the places that allow us to be a part of the community, push our boundaries and teach us things. Off of the beaten path but not so far off as to totally isolate us from our friends and families. We want communities that feel comfortable, are engaged in life and have a realistic view of their place on the planet. We want places that allow us to pursue our passions compatibly with local people in our new homes. We are not going about this with any illusions either. We know every place has its unappealing quirks and we will let you know our perspective on that as well."

The stories, photos, philosophy and ruminations of this fascinating couple are recorded on their blog.  Click here to go to Life Part 2.  To read an article about their experience crossing into Mexico at the Laredo, Texas, border, click here.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Tightwad Travel Tip - Avoid Lost Luggage

Budget Travel's e-mail newsletter printed a piece today detailing the four reasons why airlines lose our luggage and, more importantly, suggested what you can do to prevent this nightmare from happening. 

I think this suggestion is excellent.  "Ask the flight attendant handling your bag if you can see the routing information placed on the handle to verify its accuracy before she sends your suitcase down the conveyor belt."  To read all the tips, click here.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Tightwad Travel Tip - Trains

Travelers are told to arrive an hour or two early for a flight, but the same principle does not apply to European trains. The departure platform for your train, whether it's a local or a high-speed long distance one, will not be indicated until about fifteen minutes before boarding time.  You must hustle to reach the correct platform after it's posted, but arriving at the station much more than a half hour before the departure time is pointless and unnecessary.  

Note, however, that if you are using Eurostar, you must be at the station to check-in, thirty minutes ahead of time.  Eurostar is the only train I know of where you must check-in and then wait in their amenities-equipped (food, toilets, shops are available) area for the train.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Trip Planning Made Easy

One of the most pleasurable, but also the most tedious, aspects of planning a trip is mapping the itinerary. David and I usually have a dozen guidebooks, along with detailed notes, scattered throughout the house which we use to make sure we choose all the sites we're anxious to see along with their addresses, hours of operation, and cost. Then we plot a daily travel plan that can be accomplished by either walking or public transportation.

Our next trip will be much easier to plan, though, with the discovery of the free website plnnr.com This user-friendly site takes you through several steps to arrive at a detailed daily itinerary complete with maps.

The first step is to choose your city. While the site will be adding more, it currently lists only twenty cities (three in the USA, one in Canada, and the rest in Europe) frequented by tourists.

Next, you input the dates of your trip and move on to the Theme. Depending on your circumstances, you can choose Kids, Outdoor, Best Of, or Culture.

The Intensity screen asks you to decide whether you want to get up late for leisurely sightseeing, hit the street in the wee hours of the morning to pack every day full of non-stop sightseeing, or something in-between. Choices are Light, Easygoing, Moderate, Vigorous, and Extreme.

Since the site will also suggest hotels, the next screen asks how luxurious you'd like your trip to be. Tightwad Travelers will, of course, stay in an apartment but go ahead and choose an accommodation, from one to five-stars, to satisfy the program. (You do not have to make a reservation to use this service, but you cannot get to the next page without making a choice.)
Choose sites from the list. 

Then comes the fun of picking and choosing. From the list of sites, you choose what you want to see, clicking on the title for further information about unfamiliar places, and the time of day you'd like to see it. Plnnr does the rest.
A portion of one day in my finished itinerary.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Italy and Spain on $85 a Day - The Bottom Line

Resist a restaurant's lures and buy carry-out instead.

Never again will I promise "Paris on $70 a Day" or "Italy and Spain on $85 a Day." As soon as I calculate costs in January for David's and my proposed trip in the spring and I am sure every item is included down to the penny, the euro changes and all my projections are increased by 10-15%.

That's what happened again this time. We knew in January we could take this trip for $85 a day, but the dollar did not hold its value and we ended up spending, in May, closer to $98 a day. From now on, I'm simply going to promise "Travel on the Cheap" because I still believe David and I travel more frugally, and comfortably, than is possible any other way.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Italy and Spain on $85 a Day - The Apartments

Our living room in Rome
I've said more times than anyone cares to remember that the best way to save money on a vacation while not stinting on luxury is by renting an apartment.  (In case you don't know the rationale for this philosophy, see this article.)  While David and I spent a frenzied week or two researching our "homes" for this trip, all our advance work paid off in delightful rentals that made our stay in each city even more enjoyable.

Apartment reviews are usually the most important deciding factor for us; if others enjoyed the place, we probably will too.  Since they are so important, we always try to help other travelers by writing reviews of our own when we return from a trip.  Here's what we wrote and submitted to Slow Travel, VRBO, Home Away, and/or Trip Advisor about each of the places we stayed:

Rome - VRBO #282276

David and I absolutely loved our apartment in Rome! Even though it was on the outskirts of the city, tram 8, right in front of the apartment building, got us to all the tourist sites in minutes. And we enjoyed leaving the clamor of Rome behind and returning to the ambience of our peaceful neighborhood at the end of a long sightseeing day.

There's a very large open-air market next door with stands selling bread, cheese, fish, produce and a hundred other things. We LOVED this market as well as the Frontoni Restaurant across the street with the world's best lasagna, and Tony's gelato a few doors down from Frontoni.

The apartment itself is huge with three spacious bedrooms and two big bathrooms. The apartment felt cozy for the two of us yet would be spacious for a much larger group, too. The furniture and beds are all quite comfortable, while the kitchen is well-equipped.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Gracias, Jay and Rob

Jay and Rob lived around the corner from me in Mexico.  I was sad when they moved to Spain, but we still get to see each other--so far we've managed to have three reunions in Europe.  This last one was particularly special because they met David for the first time.

As usual, these guys went out of their way to make sure David and I saw all the tourist sites as well as the hidden gems most tourists miss.  The last twelve days of our trip were especially wonderful because of them.

Thanks, Jay and Rob, for showing David and me the splendors of Spain.   We'll be looking forward to our next reunion!

Italy's and Spain's Quirks

Italy and Spain are full of intriguing quirks that delighted David and me.  This Easter display in Sorrento's Primavera Gelato shop had something for every nationality!
Europeans are adept at finding ways to adapt to their narrow streets.  We loved the three-wheeled cars and were amazed by the three-wheeled trucks.

Friday, June 17, 2011


Imagine an indigo sky as wide as forever with not even a wisp of white.

Underneath it put a mountain. No, make that a hill with showy palms, pointy cypress trees, and lacy lavender jacarandas. A hill high enough to provide sweeping views of the ocean below but low enough for an occasional shout from the beach crowd to echo up here.

Add narrow, twisting streets paved, not with asphalt, but with tiles or bricks in intricate patterns.

Place white-washed stucco houses with red-tiled roofs on either side of the street, and highlight the windows and balconies with splashes of emerald, pink, and fuchsia.

At the very top of the hill, place a white church in a grove of pine trees and sprinkle confetti on the sidewalk.

Have a just married couple walk down the hill to their reception just a few yards away behind the brown door.

Make sure there's a plaza with a whimsical fountain and tables and chairs and cafes.

Add more people. Happy to be sitting outside on a warm day talking to friends people. Resting their canes against the table and leaning in on their elbows people. Skipping, pig-tailed, not quite grown up people.

And don't forget you and me. 

Here in this lovely place, this Spanish town called Benalmadena Pueblo, that is so perfect just as we've imagined it that there's nothing more to add.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Torremolinos on $85 a Day - Gibraltar Rocks!

It's only an hour and a half drive to the United Kingdom from Torremolinos.

That is, it's an hour and a half drive if you want to see a pint-size version of England crammed into an area that's only 2 1/4 square miles in size.

This spur of land on the southernmost tip of the Iberian Peninsula is dominated by the Rock, of course, which, at almost 1400 feet, is truly impressive. Long symbolizing strength and endurance, the Rock is actually more like a honeycomb riddled with holes in the form of caves where Neanderthal fossils have been found along with tunnels that were dug during WW II. If you take the cable car to the top of the Rock, you'll see the wild Barbary apes cavorting in the nature preserve, St. Michael's Cave where concerts are held in the acoustically ideal chamber, and some spectacular views of Morocco.

Because the limestone outcropping dominates the landscape and leaves little flat land, the Rock has caused an interesting situation. There are no railroad crossings in town, but there is an airplane crossing. Gibraltar's only airplane runway crosses the main road into Gibraltar. When a flight is expected, the road is closed and drivers must wait for the plane to pass!

Back in the village, where some 30,000 inhabitants cling to the edge of the Rock, it is obvious that Gibraltar has an identity crisis.

It is officially a British possession with British currency, postage stamps, newspapers, TV stations and bars serving properly drawn pints, but the languages heard in town are Spanish and English.

The architecture is an interesting blend of at least two cultures--white-washed Spanish houses, often decorated with colorful tiles, have delicate Victorian cast-iron balconies.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Spain's Scintillating Streets

Whether they jog to the right or zig-zag to the left or simply continue straight ahead, one detail is consistent about Spain's streets and sidewalks--they are delightfully crafted of  beautiful materials.

Marble, granite, brick or tile is arranged to be noticed in patterns that make a tourist want to watch his step. 
And the cities must budget considerable amounts to keep their streets so clean.  David and I have seen the cleaning machines, along with men and brooms, sweep our Nogalera Plaza in the early morning hours, and, judging by the pristine city streets, they must also work there on a regular basis.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Torremolinos on $85 a Day - Malaga

Malaga is the most underrated city in Spain. Most guidebooks mention it only in passing and passing through it quickly is the proffered advice. But I don't think those guidebook writers ever took the time to walk through this city or they would have been enchanted by its charms.

I mean, where else can you get free hugs? When you walk the city streets of marble, gaze at the architectural delights, ponder the public art, and smile at the flower-towers, you can't help but be delighted by Andalucia's largest coastal city.

And if the visual delights are not enough, Malaga, the birth city of Pablo Picasso and Antonio Banderas, has plenty of culture to share.

There's no shortage of ancient sites with a Roman Colosseum snuggling up to the Alcazaba (discussed below) while the Picasso and recently opened (spring 2011) Thyssen Museums, quench visitors' thirst for art.

The massive cathedral in the heart of the city, a national monument built in the 16th century, won't disappoint either. David, Jay, Rob and I were lucky enough to catch a free concert there, but, even without music, this architectural wonder sings. It is worth a detour to see the ornate side chapels, the soaring ceiling punctuated with lovely stained glass windows, and the unique ornamented choir stalls placed in the center of the church.

Quaint outdoor restaurants line the streets while the main street in town is a pedestrian-only gathering spot where friends actually talk to each other instead of their cell phones.

Malaga is also the starting point for an excellent light-rail system that will take you south along the coast as far as Fuengirola. The smooth-running coast train is an absolute pleasure to ride with spotlessly clean cars and destination announcements in both Spanish and English.

But you will leave Malaga reluctantly, shaking your head at the bad advice supplied by the guidebooks. Even if you don't get a free hug, the warm embrace of this lively and lovely town will captivate. This is a city for lingering and no matter how much time you allot, I promise you it will not be enough.

Practicalities -
Click for information about Malaga's museums

Click for information about Malaga's Cercanias light rail train.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Torremolinos on $85 a Day - Alcazaba, a Moorish Fortress and Palace

By all means, when you visit the Andalucia region of Spain, be one of the three million visitors to the Alhambra, but if you don't also visit the Alcazaba in Malaga, you will be missing a gem.

David and I enjoyed the Alhambra but we didn't appreciate the tedious bus ride, the crowds of people, and the difficult-to-understand guide. So, when our wonderful friends suggested we see the fortress-palace built by the Moors in the 11th century, close by in nearby Malaga and sure to be less crowded in the evening, we were excited.

Although now several blocks inland, this fortress was built when the sea lapped at its feet. The structure snakes up the hill, following its contours; the visitor path climbs ever upward leading us through defensive bulwarks, delightful formal gardens, unexpected fountains and reflecting pools, and through keyhole Moroccan doorways until, at last, we arrive at the palace.

We caught our breath here enjoying the detailed ceilings, the scroll work around the doorways, the display of pottery and ceramics, and the spectacular views of the city.

We realized that while the Alhambra was a bit more showy, the Alcazaba had almost as many fascinating architectural details and history, and, without the throngs of sightseers, our connection to this place felt far more intimate. David and I were glad we'd seen both sites.

Practicalities -
The site is open every day but Monday and costs about 2.10 euros per adult with discounts for children and EU senior citizens.

Spain is obviously not a litigious country because the opportunities to break a leg are numerous. Watch where you step at the Alhambra and the Alcazaba as there are holes, uneven paving, slippery rocks, and open gulleys all over the place.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Torremolinos on $85 a Day – The Alhambra

Gaudy, overdone, elaborate, and stunning are adjectives David and I had heard to describe the Alhambra, but since it's one of Europe's most popular attractions and only an hour and a half drive from Torremolinos, we couldn't resist going for our own evaluation. Constructed over a period of many years beginning in 1237 until roughly 1391, this palace was home to the Nasrid princes. In these three separate palaces joined by walkways and gardens, the sultan's harem, including both male and female beauties, were housed.

At first, the unprepossessing red building (“alhambra” means “red”) appears austere, but the sumptuous palaces within belie the exterior. Room after room is covered in scroll work and lattice etching that seem to cover every surface while the floors are an intricate mosaic of tiles. One of the main rooms in one of the palaces took thirty years to complete! Much of the scroll work was completed in molds, but the guide showed us many wall details that were carved by hand.