bunk beds in a hostel

Tightwad Travel Tip #6: Hostels

Your next travel tale starts here

Hostels can unlock the power of your travel money. They can extend your vacation from just one week to four. They’re safe, friendly, comfortable, and, best of all, affordable. 

What is a hostel?

bunk beds in a hostel

A hostel–unlike a hotel–caters to budget-conscious travelers seeking a place to crash. Many, though not all, strive to provide a sense of community among the guests. Camaraderie over seclusion, wanderlust over luxury, experience over creature comfort. Hostels are all this and more! 

To cash in on a hostel’s friendliness and discounts, you only have to forego one noticeable thing: the walls separating you from the other guests. Many hostels offer private rooms for just 1 or 2 weary travelers, but most rooms have between 4 and 20 beds. More beds = cheaper price. It also means more chances to meet likeminded travelers!

 

hell no wag fingerHeeeeeell no! ?

I know many of you think that hostels aren’t for you. They’re dirty, uncomfortable, dangerous, noisy, and far from the city center. I’m here to tell you why that’s not true.

Hostels get a bad rap for a good reason: many used to be everything listed above. While there were plenty of good ones to keep the idea alive and well, many hostels were filthy hovels where everyone’s luggage got stolen. Time (and the transparency brought by the Internet) has changed all that! 

You can select clean, comfortable, safe, and quiet hostels in prime locations with just a few tips. Read on to open your eyes to new travel possibilities!

Options

These are my 3 favorite websites for discovering hostels. They are reputable, full of reviews, have good cancellation policies (check each hostel), and offer mobile apps.


3 Valuable Tips for Booking Hostels

The Internet has made it easier than ever to separate the good hostels from the bad. Use it to your advantage!

Tip #1: Look at the reviews!  

Many of your concerns are answered in a single panel on the booking page. 

hostel review summary

 

Tip #2: Pick the right hostel by plotting locations on Google Maps!

screenshot of top things to do in Amsterdam plotted on Google Maps

Capture a screenshot for later. I also recommend that you bookmark your search. Even if you choose a different hostel, you can quickly find where it is on your newly created tourist map!  

Tip #3: Verify cancellation policies!

If you think your plans might change, make sure to find the hostels’ cancellation policies before booking. Many offer free cancellation up to 24 hours before arrival! 


Storytime: Making new friends 

I hated the idea of hostels when I was 16. I couldn’t imagine why anyone would want to share a room with total strangers. I was interested in travel, but only a part of it.

My eyes began to open when I studied abroad in Japan. Suddenly the opportunities for travel multiplied exponentially. Unfortunately, my money didn’t. I was ready to see it all but had no way to go! Being in Japan, a notoriously expensive country, didn’t make my job any easier. In the end, I sucked up my concerns, gave hostels a try, and have never looked back!

I also traveled a lot when I lived in China. In 2015, I decided to visit Beijing for a week. I booked a hostel for my solo trip, packed my bags, and was on my way! 

Nestled on a small alley in the heart of Beijing, my hostel didn’t look like much from the outside. It was in these quaint accommodations that I met my new friend. He was French-Canadian and interested in Asia. I was American and living in China. We both loved travel, neuroscience, and cheap bowls of warm noodles. We hit it off right away! 

Had I sequestered myself away, I might have enjoyed the peace and quiet of my private room. That said, it’s unlikely that I would’ve made new friends. I would’ve missed out on our great conversations at the Great Wall of China, laughs over bowls of spicy noodles, and even the chance to show a newcomer around my old stomping grounds in Tokyo the following month. 

By removing the barriers around your room, you can remove the barriers to starting new friendships. This, more than economical accommodation, is where the true value of hostels lie.

Plan your next adventure!

Browse around. See what you find. These 3 sites–and many others–are full of hostels that meet every price point, interest, and need. 

Sultanahmet Mosque

Travel in Turkey – The Ideas Behind a Country

Check out my article on trip finances to see how I ended up in Turkey in the first place

"Sitting there in bed, I happened across one of my lists. "REDUCED PRICES FOR RT TICKETS TO ISTANBUL," the banner blared at me with unrelenting intrigue. A normal person thinks, "ISTANBUL!? Dangerous, far, expensive, no time, no money, no interest, where is that again?" But I'll be the first to admit that I'm far from normal. My first thought is, "[DESTINATION]?! That's exactly the place I've been wanting to go!" A click here, a swipe there, and before you know it an airfare calendar is maximized on my screen."


Chasing the surprise of travel

Stepping out of the plane's recycled air and onto the tarmac, the Turkish sunlight mercilessly shined into my squinting eyes. As my first time in a country with a Muslim majority, you may expect that I had a palpable feeling of things being "foreign"--a jutting spire here, a blaring adhan (call to prayer) there--but familiarity was the emotion du jour. However, this was just a modern airport. My real feelings would emerge later in the day as I made my way to Istanbul. 

Despite Turkey's modernization, integration into the international economy, and Westernized cities, there's still something about the presence of Turkish spices in the air and towering mosques on the horizon that keep you aware that you're not in Kansas anymore. The feeling of the unknown is often just a glance or a sniff away! I search out this feeling, running full speed towards it with each new trip I take.

Knowing the unknown 

Sadly, that feeling seems to be more fleeting with each trip. The more countries I travel to, the harder it is for me to feel that a place is "foreign." I used to think that Britain was so peculiar and unknown that my whole life would feel totally different (and even difficult) if I lived there. Now, I usually just need about 8 hours to bridge the gap between "this is strange" and "I could easily live here for the rest of my life."

Likewise, living in Asia's bustling but organized metropolises for 3 years has made it slightly more difficult for me to appreciate cities. Now, I need a bit of time to adjust to the idea of delayed transportation schedules, "ancient" subway networks, and cities that were laid out without a grand, overarching design. Those have all become givens.

But these are all minor concerns. It's the fact that no two cities are the same that draws me to visit more! I always try to embrace the differences and find the upsides. For example: while losing the gleaming corridors of brand new subway stations and towering glass skyscrapers in Asia's cities of commerce, I gain a city landscape rich with history, local culture, eclectic architecture, and ethnic diversity. This is especially true in Istanbul!

Skyline of Istanbul from a boat

Saving graces: reprieve from contentment

I don't want to sound like there was something "wrong" with Turkey because I adjusted to it so quickly. On the contrary, it was one of my favorite travel destinations so far! There were absolutely no disappointments on my trip. Rather, I brought this up because I wanted to juxtapose two conflicting feelings I experienced while on my trip (both of which were positive). On the one hand, I adjusted to their incredible country quickly, which is a testament to the comfortable feeling I got from the people and city itself. One of the other hand, Turkey threw more surprises my way than any other country I've traveled to recently. The feeling of foreignness, while leaving me shortly after landing, came back again and again in a way that almost no other country has done to me before. 

Diving in

A collage of Istanbul TurkeyThe joys of Turkey have already been summed up in countless travel blogs. Anyone who has read up on the country knows the fame of Istanbul's bustling markets, Turkey's odd but delicious Euro-Asian-Middle-Eastern food, and the potentially awkward experience at a public bathhouse.

All of these things were true. The markets were full of life, the food was some of the best I've ever had, and the bathhouse was a deeply relaxing, one-of-a-kind experience. To read the description is to rob the experiences of justice, for only by going to visit the country, immersing yourself in the local environment, and letting the strangeness wash over you can you truly understand what makes the Anatolian Peninsula so diverse and interesting. Though I think that's true for more places, I feel it's especially true for Turkey. That said, it's because there are so many websites that can offer information about sightseeing that I'm going to pass on the particulars of sites and focus more on the ideas that drove my curiosity throughout the trip. 

Ideas of a place: hidden in plain sight

Many destinations exist merely as eye candy. Pristine stretches of sandy beach in the Caribbean, rolling tongues of grassy hills in Ireland, and scaping mountain vistas in Switzerland all demand awe at their beauty. Their depth of color, peculiarity of pattern, and unimaginable size grant us a look into the eyes of nature's elegance and intellect. 

Some places, though, inspire something deeper in our minds. Maybe the same places I listed above are what drive your intellectual curiosity. Maybe it is sandy beaches that cause you to reflect on the vastness of the world and our tiny spot in it. That's true for me as well, but natural scenery affects my emotions more than my intellect; marval, not intrigue, guide my experience.

Inside Hagia SophiaCities, on the other hand, forcibly ply my mind from dormancy and command it to search for answers. "How did they build a 180-foot-tall building almost 2,000 years ago?!" This kind of question doesn't just captivate my mind and lock it onto a single point, but forces it to expand into architecture, society, organization, religion, engineering, and history. It's the fact that it raises a question--and a question with a decent chance of finding an answer--that makes it so valuable to me. Turkey, more so than many other countries during my recent visits, made me ask a lot of questions. 

Feeding the Inquisitor 

There is simply too much historical, cultural, and religious information floating around out there for me to give you a comprehensive overlook at the kinds of topics that Turkey made me interested in. Because of that (and to save you from boredom), I'd like to just simply share some of the thoughts that my mind kept coming back to during my trip. I hope that you will make it to Turkey someday, and if you do, I hope that some of my interest in these questions have rubbed off on you.

Istanbul

Sultanahmet MosqueIstanbul sits on at the crossroads of Europe and Asia (literally). One part (Karaköy) is in Europe, while the other part (Kadiköy) is located in Asia. You could travel from Europe to Asia and back in 10 minutes, all without ever leaving the city. Despite being situated on two continents, Istanbul is predominantly Muslim--a trait not shared by either continent. The resulting mix that developed from this is exquisite.

Galata TowerSleeping in Europe with plans for a day trip to Asia, I'm woken by the adhan (the Muslim call to prayer, which is blasted from loudspeakers all around the city, alerting people that it's time to pray). I peel back the curtains of my modern European room, looking out towards the 3 largest mosques in the distance. Meandering my way downstairs and out to the streets, I grab a French pastry and Asian tea before starting my day. 

Curiosities: How did Islam reach Turkey? How does being in both Europe and Asia affect Turkey today? Historically? Linguistically? What does it mean for its future? How does Turkey remain secular despite overwhelming support for Islam? Is it successful? How do the people see themselves? Their system of government? Are they proud of the mix? Do they even know it's there? Is Turkey's food really a combination, or is it it something wholly different? Do the European and Asian sides "feel" different? Do people identify with one over the other, or is it basically non-existent?

Ephesus ruins

Ephesus

Escaping the crowds of Istanbul, I made my way to Ephesus. Formerly a city belonging to ancient Greece, it was built more than 12,000 years ago. Eventually (in 129 BC) the city changed hands and was ruled under the Roman Republic. Notably, Ephesus was built near the Temple of Artemis--one of the 7 Wonders of the Ancient World--and was one of the seven churches of Asia that are cited in the Book of Revelation. 

Ephesus has an undeniably European feel. Thick Corinthian pillars speak volumes about its origin. Yet, standing there and knowing that I'm still inside Turkey gave me an odd feeling. Of course, I know that history is littered with the expansion of empires. And yes, of course I know that, when things come to an end as they always do, buildings are left behind in the wake of their contraction. Buildings, unlike people, are not so easy to pick up and move! But something about this ancient European ruin, the grandeur of Muslim mosques in Istanbul, and the familiarity of being in a modern country, all conspired to thrust the conspicuous contrasts of Turkey into plain view.

Curiosities: Turkey's history...all of it. Who are the natives of the Anatolian Peninsula? Who were the first to establish civilizations there? Which was the first empire to try to conquer its areas? Why did Greek rule give way to Roman? How does that affect the genealogy of modern Turks? Why and how did those religions end up being so completely supplanted by Islam? Why has Ephesus fallen into disrepair? How did they construct these buildings so long ago? How do they build so high? How can the ceilings stay standing? Who were the last to inhabit it? Are there any lasting Greek or Roman influences on modern Turkey's political system? Do people admire or hate the Europeans who came to conquer centuries ago? Ambivalent? What other countries have such a mix?

Pamukkale

Blue water in Pamukkale

With so much talk of buildings and empires, I wanted to end on a more relaxing note. In fact, "relaxing" is exactly what I wanted to talk about.

Pamukkale is located a few hours east of Ephesus by train. While the ancient ruins of Hierapolis are a popular site in the area, the real attraction is the mineral hot springs perched along the white mountainsides. 

I love to taste all aspects of a place. I love to dine (read: binge) on local foods and learn (read: clumsily memorize) a few phrases in the local language. One other thing I go out of my way to experience is a country's local "culture of relaxation." In modern China, people like to play mahjong and drink tea. In Switzerland, hiking in the mountains is a popular pastime. In Turkey, bathhouses and hot springs are perfect ways to soak up some of the local relaxation culture. 

Though many parts of Pamukkale were closed off to the public in order to protect the unique topography and color, some areas remained open. While the things that make Turkey distinct and unique had stood out in my mind for the preceding week, it was standing in the waters of Pamukkale that I thought about how people the world over have so much in common. Despite what the news would have you think, I meet friendly people everywhere I go. Regardless of how different our jobs our, people are hustling to make a living. No matter how wide that gulf that separates our lives, people still value family, friends, and enjoyment. Work is admirable, but relaxation is divine!

Standing in the reflective pools of Pamukkale, I thought about how people of all countries take time to relax with loved ones, collect themselves, reflect on their pasts and futures, and prepare for the tough roads ahead. Standing there looking out onto the the flat hills below, my mind gradually brought to silence, I only had one question: "How do I get more of this?"

The travel adventure never ends...

 

Tightwad Travel Tip #5: Carry-On Essentials

Packing Smart

When it comes to traveling, knowing how and what to pack is essential for long-term success and ease of mind. Well-seasoned travelers know that a streamlined packing list and small bag can be the difference between a nightmare at every turn or a breeze through their trip.

For those who aren't so familiar, it's easy to get carried away with the things you bring. It always starts so innocently. "Well, obviously I need a pair of headphones for music," you say. "And if I'm going to listen to music, I should probably have earbuds for convenience and noise-cancelling headphones for flights and what not." Somehow, some way, it's just 15 minutes later and you're trying to pack the living room's 7.1 Dolby Digital surround sound system into your threadbare backpack. You know, just in case people in the hostel want to listen to your tunes too. 

Knowing how to pack for a trip and what should be accessible in your bag are not only important before you travel, but also during.  That 7.1 channel speaker system from above? Well, even if your packing wizardry accomplished the impossible, you will quickly find that lugging it from hotel to hotel and airport to airport through busy streets and swaying subways isn't the party you thought it would be. 

Pack Simply - Back to the Basics

There are thousands of posts about packing for every kind of trip imaginable, from hiking excursions to beach getaways. Likewise, there are plenty of suggestions on what to keep at your seat during a flight. For both of these, I believe simplicity is key. I'm not looking to be pampered at every turn in my journey; I'm looking for an unforgettable experience in amazing places with great people. That goal doesn't require much except a good attitude, positive thinking, and adaptability. 

Toss these into your plastic carry-on bag (remember?) and your fellow passengers will thank you for not hogging the aisle during boarding!

NOTE: top 5 are for every flight, bottom 5 are for longer flights

  1. Infographic - 10 in-flight essentialsHeadphones
    • No explanation is needed here. Whether you want to listen to music on your phone or watch TV on the in-flight infotainment system, headphones are an indispensible part of any trip. 
  2. Ear plugs
    • Late-night partygoers and crying babies are a sleep-deprived travelers' worst nightmares. Normally tolerable, your bleary eyes might not be able to hide them from view, but you can do your ears a favor and tone it down the noise by a solid 85%.
  3. USB Charger
    • Dashed out the door to catch your flight? Forgot to charge your phone? Not to worry! Many domestic and most international flights these days have USB ports at every seat.
  4.  Book / eReader
    • I'm especially reliant on these during really long flights. Once, when I got booted out of China, I had to take a spontaneous flight back to America. I arrived 40 hours later, and mostly mentally intact. Eye fatigue, boredom, and noise-induced headaches make books and eReaders an entertainment necessity. 
  5. Credit/debit card
    • Cash is not accepted on airlines. Cards are generally the only way to pay for things. I like to keep my wallet stowed in my bag so that it doesn't slip out of my pockets while I'm squirming around in my "economic"-size seat. Though I almost never buy anything during flights, some people may find the regular menu items are not to their liking and be forced to go for something else. 
  6. Snacks 
    • I usually bring a snack or two if I'm taking a long flight. Honestly, it's not because it's needed; they usually provide plenty of satisfactory meals. Rather, it's just because being trapped on an airplane for 17 hours can go by slightly more smoothly when you're accompanied by your favorite bag of chips (Ranch Dipped Hot Wing Doritos!).
  7. Pen
    • The one I always forget! When flying to foreign countries, flight attendants will pass out passport and Customs forms. You don't have to fill them out during your flight, but it saves you time at the airport (where you WILL have to fill them out).
  8. Travel pillow
    • Flights are already uncomfortable. Small seats and inadequate leg room can test the nerves of even the most patient people. There's very little you can do about those things, but what you can do is use pillows for your neck, back, or wherever. I haven't found an excellent travel pillow yet, but something is better than nothing.  
  9. Sleep mask
    • I usually schedule my sleep to occur during any long flight (whether that means going to bed late, getting up early, or not sleeping at all). Sleep masks make this task a LOT easier. 
  10. Computer + charger
    • Have work to do? TV shows saved on your hard drive? Then at some point you may want to bust out your computer, which is likely the largest (and therefore most inconvenient) item in your seat sack. 

Any other in-flight must-haves? Comment below!

Debt – The Case Against Charging Your Trip

How do you pay for your trips? Do you hoard vast sums of money? Stow away pennies? Put it on your card? Here, I want to make a strong case for funding your travels with cash. 


 

There are as many ways to fund your trip as there are destinations to visit. Some people:

  • automatically transfer money into their savings account,
  • religiously hoard a maximum percentage of their income for multi-year traveling extravaganzas,
  • put money aside here and there for the occasional weekend getaway,
  • watch their spending when a trip is on the horizon,
  • use their credit cards to fund the adventure,
  • something else,
  • or a combination of these.

I want to clearly state my opinion right from the beginning: if you want to travel, you should always be saving for it. Period. Cash is king. The only difference is the amount that you're putting away. 

saving money mattersUnlike a surprise plumbing disaster that has found its way through your ceiling, travel is something most people do on a somewhat regular schedule. Do you take an annual vacation every summer? Or remember that you usually visit friends in other cities twice a year? Or know that you like to go skiing in the winter?  Or that you prefer spending 6 months on the road every year?

Unlike the leak, you know that your trip is coming--even if you don't know the travel dates yet. 

No matter when or how long you're traveling, the answer is the same: save for it! 

Don't believe my boring, preachy scoldings? Let me share a recent story to help convince you. 


March 2017 - Unexpected Adventure

Snowy view - travel in ColoradoSlinking down into the heated comfort of my bed in snowy Colorado, my eyes remained transfixed on the glowing screen ahead. With the unlimited content of the Internet at my fingertips, anything could've been holding my attention hostage. But to anyone who knows me, innumerable guesses can quickly wither to a mere handful: Facebook, Alibaba, cute puppy videos, or a travel site. It's this last one that had pulled me in. 

I had originally planned to fly from Colorado directly back to St. Louis. The Internet, however, is always conspiring to make sure that sane and reasonable ideas stay out of my grasp. See, this is what happens. The more I travel, the more it becomes not just present, but interwoven into the fabric of my daily life. I'm subscribed to cheap airfare lists, receive emailed blog updates, and have my most visited sites stored conveniently in Chrome's bookmarks bar. Travel is never more than a saccade away. 

Sitting there in bed, I happened across one of my lists. "REDUCED PRICES FOR RT TICKETS TO ISTANBUL," the banner blared at me with unrelenting intrigue. A normal person thinks, "ISTANBUL!? Dangerous, far, expensive, no time, no money, no interest, where is that again?" But I'll be the first to admit that I'm far from normal. My first thought is, "[DESTINATION]?! That's exactly the place I've been wanting to go!" A click here, a swipe there, and before you know it an airfare calendar is maximized on my screen.

$375 for a round trip ticket to Turkey? I said I'm not normal, but to leave that on the table is simply unreasonable! Within an hour my trip was booked.  


But how did I do it? Why can I pull the travel trigger so quickly? The airfare might be cheap, but what about everything else?!

My last post talked about travel as a skill. Like playing piano, the better you become, the more efficiently your brain can handle the task. When first starting piano, it takes every ounce of mental and physical control to get it right: your eyes are scouring the keyboard's black and white bars, your ears are straining to stay attuned to the variations in tones, and your arms are raised and tense to strike the right notes. Your brain (and body) are working in overdrive to overcome this new challenge. As time goes on, however, a pianist can relax their shoulders, fluidly control their fingers and wrists, and play a song while using much less brain power. 

Travel, like other skills, is no different. When you first start traveling, your mind is all over the place. "Wait, where goes my flight get in? Where did I write that down? How do I find things to do there? What time do I fly back? Did I get a confirmation email from my hotel? Do I have a way from the airport to the hotel? Wait, what airport again? Did my reservation say that a shuttle was offered? Should I book attractions in advance? How much was all this again?!" With a bit of practice, you can cut through this static and see the components that are essential NOW

Sitting in bed, I only needed 20 minutes to answers all of my questions. 

  1. How much are the tickets? 
    • Airline website 
      • Is it a good price? 
        • Yes
  2. What travel dates offer the discounts? 
    • Calendar
      • What's my schedule like?
        • Good
  3. What can I do in Istanbul?
    • TripAdvisor - Istanbul - Top Attractions 
      • Is this enough time to see what I want?
        • Yes

Open 4 flight websites to compare prices, enter dates, double-check there are no mistakes, choose the cheapest one, click-click-click...done. Ticket booked.

Open up 6 hotel sites, limiting search by dates, price, room type, number of stars, location from center, WITH FREE CANCELLATION, click-click-click...done. Hotel booked.

Note: the key here is that you CAN CANCEL THE HOTEL. My trip might be a month or 6 months away. I haven't figured everything out yet. Maybe I'll only spend 7 out of 10 days in Istanbul. Maybe just 5. Maybe I'll Couchsurf with someone for free, or switch to a slightly more expensive room closer to the city center, or not even stay in Istanbul at all. Either way, before I decide on the details, I want to ensure I have a place to stay at a reasonable price. At least I've got something!

Travel to see Hagia Sophia in Istanbul Turkey30 minutes later and the barebones of my trip are booked. Another 30 minutes of curiously browsing sites about Turkey brings me to 1 full hour. From there, I usually ignore the trip for the rest of the day. This gives me time to start thinking about what I want to do there, if I know anyone there, and what kind of trip I want it to be. 

Although you might not be open to such a spontaneous trip, the principle behind my ability to do this is still the same for you.

 

That's not because I make a lot of money--in fact, it's quite the opposite. Because I can't spend money frivolously, I'm ALWAYS saving. It's the only way I could travel so frequently! 

Compare these two scenarios.

  1. Debt-funded trip 
    1. You have a trip to Spain coming up in 3 months
    2. You bought your ticket, but you haven't booked your hotel
    3. You estimate that you'll need $2,000 for the 10-day trip
    4. You haven't started putting money aside, but you think that'll be easier to start next month.
    5. You do this, but now you have to save $1,000 in 2 months. You have to cut back on dinner with friends, carefully consider plans before accepting, stress about whether you'll be able to pull it off, wonder if you should even be going in the first place, and repeatedly check your bank and card balances to see how you can pull this off.
  2. Cash-funded trip
    1. You have a trip to Spain coming up in 3 months
    2. You bought your ticket, but you haven't booked your hotel
    3. You estimate that you'll need $2,000 for the 10-day trip
    4. You have $5,000 in your travel account. In 3 months, you'll have $6,000. You don't think about how to finance it because you already have 3x your budget. 

Tip: NEVER LET THE BALANCE DIP TOO LOW! Always save. Always replenish. 

Now, what would happen if you didn't save up the $2,000 in time? You could put it on a credit card. 

  • Let's say you have a $5,000 limit
  • You've already used $1,200
  • You think you'll need $2,000 for this trip
  • In this sick world of ours, you have 17.95% APR and this is considered "great."
  • You think you can pay off your entire balance in 10 months.

Paying Interest

How much does this cost you in the end? Paying $347 a month for 10 months, you would end up spending $269 on interest. INTEREST! It seems small, but that adds up. In just 3 trips, you will have spent $1,000 on interest, or the price it costs to take another trip! 

Fleeced by bankersImagine this conversation with a travel agent: "I think you'll be very happy with this trip package. Southern Spain is GORGEOUS in the summer! Now we just have a few things to wrap up. How would you like to pay? We have two options. If you use cash, you will need to pay $2,000. However, if you use your card, there will be a $300 transaction fee." For someone who cringes at the thought of paying $3 to use another bank's ATM, the thought of forking over $300 makes me want to bawl my eyes out! 

But perhaps more importantly for your love of your travel, ignore whether it makes financial sense and ask, "how does it feel to travel on debt?"

You're worried about interest and late fees. You are constantly checking to make sure you don't overspend and eat into that needed line of credit. Sadly, instead of coming back to a paid-off trip, you might be suffering through repayments for the next 6, 10, 16, or however many months. What better way to kill your enthusiasm for travel?! Who wants to go on another trip when they're still trying to pay off the last one?

Note: using credit cards to gain travel points and rewards is extremely worthwhile, but I ALWAYS pay it off. No interest for this guy! 

So, while debt traveling might seem like a quick and easy solution to your wanderlust woes, I would strongly caution against it. Instead of giving the money to VISA or MASTERCARD, why not give it back to yourself? That $300 in interest could be used for an amazing day of shopping in Sri Lanka, a ultra-luxurious spa treatment in Hong Kong, or a night in an overwater bungalow on a paradisiacal tropical island.

Don't carelessly give away your dollars to bankers; use them on yourself!

Sultanahmet
Turkish food
Ephesus

Skill Mindset – How to Conquer Travel Fears

How do you see travel?

Your answer to this question can greatly influence your past and future feelings toward it. I want to show you how seeing travel as a skill (as much as a hobby) will help you reduce stress, increase enjoyment, and provide a clear path forward to improving your travel experiences. 


Destinations. Travel dates. Sightseeing. Transportation. Vacation days. Packing. Checklists. Passports. Reservations. Excitement. Fear.

"Travel" is a simple six-letter word to describe a hobby as complex and interesting as they come. Those five simple letters compress weeks of travel, months of preparation, and a lifetime of experiences into a single bite-sized chunk.

Travel and Chinese share many things - calligraphy on doorTo the uninitiated, travel can seem daunting. How could someone possibly find the time or energy to plan everything? Where does all their money come from? Don't they have a job? Where do they get the courage to throw themselves into the Cambodian rainforest without a lick of the language to help them out?!

To the lightly acquainted, it can seem effortless. They know that the planning phase, while potentially stressful, is often stimulating and exciting. They know that it's not "courage" that they have, but interest or determination. A few trips abroad show that the Boogeyman under the hostel's bunk bed is nothing more than a little waterbug--an slight discomfort that makes us crinkle our noses rather than a monster that makes us flee in terror.

But to the abundantly experienced, travel shows its true face: a mixed bag full of delicious fruit with a few rotten apples thrown in to keep you on your feet. 

Traveling can be paradise. Traveling can be hell. Traveling can be everything you thought it would be. Traveling can be everything you never could've imagined. Traveling is what you make of it, what you expect, what surprises you, what happened by chance, what you could control, and what you couldn't. Travel is all of this and more!

Now that you're properly scared about where you fall on this continuum, let's take the fear level down a notch. Hobbies, while a form of enjoyment, are also often skills. Love to make pottery? That's an enjoyable hobby and a skill. Enjoy snowboarding? The same. Even playing soccer with friends? Yep.

"Real knowledge is to know the extent of one's ignorance" --Confucius

Slowly building skillsComfort with novel experiences often come in 4 phases

  1. Many things seem difficult at first
  2. After trying, you begin to think they're easy
  3. The longer you try, the more you realize that it's even more difficult that you imaged
  4. Eventually, through perseverance, you attain mastery

Applied Example: Learning a Foreign Language

Let's use Spanish as our example here. To the uninitiated, the conjugations, word order, and tongue trill can seem complex and difficult. To the lightly acquainted, Spanish can seem so similar to English that you don't doubt you'll be able to figure it out in no time. But to those who have grappled with Spanish for 10 years, it's obvious that the myriad phrasal verbs, colloquialisms, and contextual undertones make even a language like Spanish a daunting subject to master. 

The burden and joy of planningTravel is no different. Whether learning how to organize trip information or find affordable accommodation, most things that seem difficult today quickly become easy with experience. The more you travel, the more travel skills you obtain, and the sharper your skills become. Don't know how to organize months of transportation information into a useful format? That's a skill. Not sure how to keep track of 14 different websites' airfares to find the best deals? That's a skill. Unable to filter through the results to find what you're looking for? That's a skill.

Like any skill, travel isn't something people are born knowing how to do; it's something learned. And if it can be learned, then that means you can learn it too. 

This understanding is an important step to reducing your stress. Past mistakes weren't caused by irreversible character faults, but bad luck or lack of preparation. Current anxieties are natural and will lessen as you build experience. Future problems can be mitigated by being thoughtful, patiently confronting difficulties, and realizing that mistakes are inevitable. You can use each mistake as a lesson to make your trips even better the next time! 

Good news

Travel, unlike Spanish, has a softer set of skills that can be mastered relatively quickly. Sure, it seems hard at first. And sure, a trip or two can boost your travel confidence to Everestian heights. And sure, the second you make your first big mistake, you'll cry your eyes red as you realize you've still got plenty to learn.

Luckily, mistakes are a totally acceptable part of travel! In fact, though mistakes can often be travel's most stressful component, they can also be its most enjoyable. Learning how to roll with the mistakes is a skill in itself! 

Final thoughts

For all that could be written on the topic, surviving and thriving with travel ultimately comes down to understanding what you want, learning how to plan for that desire accordingly, having the patience to learn, and the interest to try it again and again (even in the face of mistakes). The relaxed look of the worn-traveler isn't "courage," but the expression that rests on the faces of those who know that they'll be fine just like last time. Experience builds skill, skill builds confidence, and confidence can increase interest in a never-ending feedback loop. 

Enjoy travel as much as elephants enjoy bath timeDon't be afraid; be curious! After all, how many times have you heard someone say, "Well, I tried to travel to Thailand once, but I made a mistake on my hotel reservation, so my entire life was ruined. If I hadn't messed up that reservation, my life would be 1,000 times better today!" Mistakes will fade into the past, but your good memories will remain a lifetime. 

You'll survive 🙂 

 

 

Tightwad Travel Tip #4: Plastic Carry-On Bags

You've done everything right. You've successfully prepared for your three-week trip. You're carrying a lightweight, regular-sized backpack. You've cut your clothes, toiletries, accessories, and electronics down to the core essentials. Every shirt is masterfully folded, every wire painstakingly wrapped into a perfectly compact bundle. You finally board the plane, stow your bag in the overhead compartment, and take your seat, breathing a little sigh of relief that you didn't oversleep your alarm clock and miss your flight. You're ready to travel!

Now, time to relax and listen to some...air conditioning? "Oh no," you think. "Where are my earbuds?!"

Well, they're buried in the bottom of your bag, of course! Beneath perfect roll after perfect roll of cotton-folded mastery! Nooooooooo 

We've all been there. Maybe it wasn't your earbuds. Maybe it was your Kindle, your earplugs, or some other in-flight travel essential. Effectively packing all your needed luggage into a tiny backpack can take substantial concentration and planning. There are many things to consider when choosing how to pack your bag. How should socks be packed: all in one place, or spread throughout? Should I put this heavy item on the bottom? Which compartment is the safest for my passport?

Ultimately, though, most people don't bother too much with this (unless they're carrying a month's worth of camping gear on their shoulders). In the end, you only have the minor inconvenience of pulling things out and stuffing them back in. 

That said, one thing to consider is this: 

 What is likely to come out first?

In an airport setting, this usually leaves just a few things to remove from your bag at security: 1 - toiletries, 2 - laptop, and 3 - what you want to use during your flight. 

For this reason, I usually pack my toiletries in a front zippered pocket and my in-flight essentials in a plastic bag in the main compartment. Both are easily accessible. Why a plastic bag? Well, for one it's cheap and easy. But more than that, it's easily stored when not in use. After taking my seat and emptying out the contents of my plastic bag into the seatback pocket, I can smoosh that plastic bag into a tiny ball and stuff it wherever there's a crack of room. Ready to deboard? Pull it out, shake it back to life, and load everything back inside. It's lack of structure is what makes it so versatile! 

Not sure what to put in the bag? Check out Tightwad Travel Tip #5 for some basic but useful recommendations!

Tightwad Travel Tip #3 – Use Price Matrices and Calendars

Searching For Flights

Many people search for airfare the old-fashioned way: enter a departure city, arrival city, date of departure, and date of return. A ticket is chosen from that page. Ready to travel! Simple, right?

Yes, simple. But not cost-effective. For those who are lucky enough to have some flexibility in their schedules (read more about the importance of that here), you have 2 main options for quickly browsing through hundreds of potential ticket combinations:

  • 1 - Choose "flexible dates" or "± 3 days" before submitting your search. If hidden, this function can easily be exposed by clicking "show advanced options", "more options", or something similar. 

Kayak - search

 

  • 2 - Find a website that offers a price calendar. Here is a current example (taken from Google Flights on April 29, 2017) 

Google Flights - search

 

Overall, Google Flights is one of my favorite places to look for plane tickets. It can really simple the search for good travel dates and plane tickets. It might not be the winner in the end, but it's the website I always check first. 

Analyzing the Price Calendar

By looking at this calendar view of direct flights between STL and Denver, I can more easily find the diamonds in the rough. Maybe I was planning to fly to Denver on Monday May 15th, but now I see that Tuesday is $129 cheaper. Just by waiting 1 day! 

Even more incredibly, had I chosen to travel on the following Monday, I would've spent an extra $202! And this is just a one-way ticket! 

Likewise, checking out the ticket prices on that Tuesday (the 16th) reveals some important information about available flight times:

flight details

While I'm only showing a small subset of the available tickets here, one thing is obvious: if you want the $54 ticket, you've got to choose the 1:40PM flight. Like being flexible with dates of departure, flexibility with departure times is equally important in securing a cheap, comfortable ticket. 

Join me next time for more great travel tips! 

Tightwad Travel Tip #2 – Flexibility Saves Ca$h

Flexibility doesn't just help you achieve Sirsa Padasana in your Sunday yoga class, but also when traveling.

Do you have the flexibility it takes to travel on a tight budget and still have a good time? Find out why it's important and how to maximize it!

 


Growing Up on an Airplane

When I was 12, I flew to Colorado to visit my aunt and uncle. This was my first time on an airplane by myself.

Now, fast forward 15 years. From the Americas to Europe to Asia, I've hopped all over the globe on my own. If there's one thing that I've learned, it's this: researching ticket prices pays off. 

Before I get started, it's only fair to mention that, historically, my schedule is unlike most people's. I have an unusual degree of flexibility in choosing the dates and durations of my trips.

This, in fact, is Tip #1: if you're looking to save money and have flexibility, choosing the right dates can save you a ton.

Piggy bank for travel

Real World Savings

Though a very basic tip, the amount of money it can save you makes it worth mentioning. For example, I recently booked 2 tickets: 1 from St. Louis to DC, and 1 from NYC to St. Louis. I paid $92 for each. My requirements? A) less than $100 one-way, B) sometime in May.

Shortly after, I helped my mom and her friends book round trip tickets from St. Louis to NYC. Their available dates and departure times were rigid, and they paid the price. Their requirements? Must leave on June 15, must depart before 8AM, must leave NY on June 18, and must depart after 2PM. They paid about $350 a piece. 

Rigidity cost them $166 per person, or $664 total for the 4 travelers. That's 90% more!

Support for Their Expensive Plane Ticket

This was not a bad choice, and there's nothing wrong with booking tickets in that way. Each person has a different set of goals and restraints when booking a trip. My goal was to minimize costs by taking advantage of my flexible schedule. Their goal was to coordinate the hectic, structured work schedule of 4 people in order to squeeze in a trip that is ideally placed on the calendar during a prime travel period.

For you personally, what do you think is the biggest constraint that's costing you money on trips? Please share your thoughts in the comment section below!

Join me next time for more great travel tips! 

My 3 Travel Guidelines

wing of a planePlanning a trip

Recently I was helping my mom, aunt, and their 2 friends plan their trip to New York. My mom's task was simple: find the right plane ticket at the right price. Naturally, as the family's de facto (and UNPAID!) travel agent, that task was given to me instead. And so marked the beginning not just of her trip, but mine as well. 

Generally speaking, my life is well-organized. I'm disciplined, have good impulse control, and know how to say "no" to things that will take my money...with one exception. Travel! I'm the world's biggest sucker for good airfare deals. Knowing that I can find dirt cheap (if not free) accommodation everywhere I go, airfare is usually the deciding factor when it comes to my travel destinations. 

I lived in China for 2 years. I lived in Japan for 1. I've traveled around Asia, Europe, and many parts of the United States. But somehow, some way, I had never been to the east coast (minus Florida). How could I let such a brazen gap in my life as a digital nomad remain?! Answer: I couldn't.

Travel: A Part of My Life

See, what happens is something like this: I'm casually browsing Facebook, reading a recent blog post, or helping someone find airfare when suddenly BAM!! It finds me, or I find it: a ticket that is too good to pass up. And in a matter of minutes I've gone from having an open calendar to planning my next getaway. That's what happened here.

working at a deskAllowing me to search for airfare deals is like dangling little baggies of drugs in front of an addict. Sure, there's a chance I won't bite, but don't bet your money on it. While searching for the best tickets in June I discovered something surprising: flights from St. Louis to New York (and DC) weren't bad in May! I ignored the baggie long enough to get their tickets booked, and then quickly grabbed my dose and ran. 

Framework for Traveling

As the first post about one of my trips, I'd like to focus primarily the overarching guidelines and ideas that govern my travel. Sometimes I wish I were the kind of person who could throw caution to the wind, show up at a destination unhindered by preconceptions, and let the river of freedom take me wherever it flows.

But I'm not. Not even close. I like having plans, and I like making them even more. But don't cry for poor, rigid me just yet. In truth, I have no problem breaking plans...once I'm on the ground. In fact, I do it often. But for me to arrive without anything in mind is a tragedy of Greco-Roman proportions. That said, there are people who can pull off that kind of spontaneous trip. I'm just not one of them.

So now that we got that out of the way, let's begin!


#1: Structured days and free nights

As I mentioned, I'm a guy with a plan. And I like that. But I'm also a relatively seasoned traveler. This is shorthand for "plans change". 

I have two guidelines for making plans: 

  1. Make a plan
  2. Don't worry if it changes

tropical beach paradiseLet's say that I'm going to Thailand for 2 weeks. I already know that it's often cheaper to book things in advance. In preparation for this trip, I spent $65 to reserve my spot on a boat tour to islands nestled in a sun-soaked water paradise. Better $65 now than $90 later!

Now the day I've been waiting for arrives. Paradise, here I come!

But that morning I meet some incredibly interesting travelers in my hostel. They tell me how they're taking a full-day backpacking trip into the forest to walk with free-roaming elephants. For $60 I can hitch a ride with them, be taken through the tropics with their local guide, eat lunch and dinner with them, and of course see elephants in their natural habitat. 

Which to do?! Many people would assume that I would naturally stick with my non-refundable $65 boat ride. I mean, I'm practically the dictionary definition of a penny hoarder. But this is travel, and that changes everything! You see, I'm strict with my money during normal days so that I can be free during travel days. My first thought isn't, "Well, what is the right thing to do financially?" Rather, it's, "What do I want to do, given that I'm in this remote village on the other side of the planet, a place I may never see again?" 

Regardless of which I choose, I won't feel any stress about the decision. $65? Who cares. I'm in Thailand! I haven't been waiting for that boat ride as much as I've been waiting to have the time of my life. Here, opportunities trump money. 

elephant hike in Thailand

Thailand - Summer 2016

It's worth noting that I'm rarely in this situation. Usually I'm happy with what I've picked out, the people I'm staying with are also doing it, or nothing more interesting comes my way in time. If this happens once or twice during your trip, just go with the flow. 5 years later you're not going to give a damn about that those 60 or 100 bucks, but you WILL remember seeing a wild elephant through the thick green foliage of a Thai rain forest. 

Now, for nighttime. Most tourist attractions are closed at night. Most travelers also have the bulk of their free time at night. Nighttime = free time. Hang out with new people, casually stroll around the night markets, and relax!

#2: Walk!

Manhattan hiking on my tripFor better or worse, I'm highly sedentary most of the week. Though I sporadically engage in short-lived bursts of cardio and the occasional hour in nature, you can usually find me working and studying at my desk. It's not that I'm a bonafide couch potato, but that I have a lot of interests, hobbies, and work that are best done sitting. 

Which is why I like to stay as mobile as possible during my trips. If I have the option to walk or take a bus, I'll walk. I prefer taking in the destinations with long breaths instead of panting gasps. I like the serendipity of finding a scenic view, eating at a cozy restaurant, or an unexpected chat with locals. 

In fact, this has become such a prevalent feature of my trips that I now schedule full-day walks (assuming it's a place where that's worthwhile). I did this on my most recent trip to New York. Granted, this particular walk was a little extreme, but it seemed suitable for a city of extremes. 

 

 

#3: Learn something 

rotunda in dc museumEvery trip is different, and each destination on the trip has something unique to offer. Nonetheless, I try to learn things everywhere I go. An interest in history, culture, and architecture can leave you spiraling down into a sea of curiosities and new information...which I love!

If there's a worthwhile museum, I'll go. If there's a free walking tour, I'll join. If there's a class about local cuisine or wares, I'll take it. I always aim to walk away with something more than just a pretty memory. Need ideas? Groupon is a good place to start! 

painting class in new york              painting class in new york              painting class in new york

 

Thanks for joining me! Until next time...

Tightwad Travel Tip #1 – Pack for a Trip, Not a Lifetime

Taming the Suitcase Beast

Have you ever gone on a weekend trip and somehow managed to pack 2 suitcases? I've been there. Anyone who has travels has.

When I was 12, I visited my aunt and uncle in Colorado. This was my first solo trip! From that point on, I never looked back. My cousin (the girl below) joined me for a lot of these trips, but I tended to stay longer. I started visiting them for 2 weeks in the summer. That became 2 months. Slowly but surely, I was staying for 2 months in the summer, a week in winter, and several holidays. Travel was becoming a part of my life.

Unfortunately, not many pictures survive from those days, at least not on my computer. I had to wait until the days when I started carrying around a camera before coming back with photo evidence of my trip. 

Mary and Nikita
Danielle and Ron

Rough start

At the very beginning, I packed my suitcases like I was never coming back. I was packing to live, not to travel. Suitcases...s...plural. I had 2 full-size suitcases and a duffle bag to boot! I brought every pair of shoes I owned, summer and winter clothes (no matter the season), a battery-powered CD player (in case Denver didn't have electricity?),  and tons of other things I never touched at home (much less when traveling). That could only go on for so long.

The enthusiasm of packing for a trip was replaced with the dread of knowing what was to come: loading and unloading, dragging it through airports, check-in counters, lines, security, baggage carousels...oh, and no remaining useable space in my bedroom, where an explosive mess of utter disorganization strewn about the room gave the impression that I packed up a small Midwestern tornado to bring along with my 8th pair of shoes.

The solution

While not conscious of my thought process at the time, I was slowly realizing that the answer to my woes wasn't to be more organized during the trip, but before the trip. I slowly worked my way down from 3 large pieces of luggage to 1 small backpack. After finally reaching this apex of minimalist travel, I've never been able to stomach anything else!

So, by the time I was 16, I was already a pro at packing a backpack. I don't mean the detailed stuff like distributing items by weight for maximum spinal comfort on long hikes. I mean the simple things, like "there's a washing machine where I'm going," "I probably won't use that," and "if I end up needing that I'll just buy it there."

Packing for an upcoming trip

Tomorrow I'm heading to DC and NYC (for 5 days each). I wanted to show you a sample of what I pack. I pack for a week in much the same way I pack for 3 months. Be forewarned: it's not exciting. At all. There are no crazy feats of unimaginable packing wizardry or an intensely planned selection of essentials. Basically, my guiding ideology is simple: I need clothes, electronics, and some toiletries. And with that simple assumption, I make my travel selections.

packing a backpack gif

Total packing time: 18 minutes.

travel horror shockDon't fear the backpack

I can already hear the screams of people across the globe saying that this might work for me, but it could never work for them. And maybe they're right. It's all a matter of priorities and abilities. If you're not someone who has tons of expendable cash for travel and are not willing to make some sacrifices to see the world, then it might not work. And if you're fine with that, I'm fine with that. To each their own!

But for the others who would rather forego some small luxuries in order to reap the rewards of global travel, the only advice I can say to you is "give it a try!" You'll quickly find that you can live without all those things far more easily than you imagined. You won't be dejected about not bringing that thing when you're having the time of your life on a beach in Fiji or hiking up to Machu Picchu. It all just fades away...

Travel tips

  • Checking luggage costs money on many flights. You can save a TON by foregoing checked bags, especially if you're flying around Europe on budget airlines.
  • Checking luggage not only costs money, but also time.
    • You have to stand in the check-in line (can't use the kiosks).
    • You have to wait at the carousel when you arrive (instead of just walking out of the door).
    • You risk luggage getting lost, which comes with a whole host of problems.
    • The more you pack, the more you have to unpack to find what you're looking for, and when you're on the go constantly this becomes a real drain. 
  • I roll my clothes. I'm not sure if it really makes a difference in the end, but it does seem to make my clothes less wrinkly.
  • I usually pack black shirts for travel. They stain less easily and don't show my profuse sweating!
  • Buy shampoo and toothpaste wherever you go (if it's not provided for free). TSA only allows three containers (3 oz each) of liquid in your carry-on. Save it for something you don't want to buy again (read: expensive or hard-to-find products)!
  • If I end up needing to buy something I didn't pack, I just write it off as a normal part of the traveling experience.

Check back later for more great tips to save you money, energy, and stress. Happy travels!