We just got back from three weeks in Europe. Do you know how much it cost? When I started fantasizing about world travel 25 years ago, the best guess I would have had was CAN’T AFFORD dollars and TOO EXPENSIVE cents. I wouldn’t have known whether it cost closer to $100 or $100,000. The truth is that there are NO FIXED PRICES in the world of travel. Every mode of transportation and every form of lodging has a different price depending on season, availability, and advance planning. There are also infinite ways to attain travel without paying retail prices, or even spending money at all.
Some countries are expensive, but many have a lower cost of living than ours. We found that in Spain, groceries, city bus tickets, and museum tickets were slightly cheaper than what we’d pay at home. The few nights we stayed in a hotel, we were stunned at the low price, but that’s probably because we were there during shoulder season. We would have expected to pay double, and if we’d been there in July, we might have.
We slept in a tent for all but three nights in Spain. I found out when I was planning our trip to Iceland that it’s quite common for Europeans to travel by staying in any of over 20,000 campsites, called “campings.” A camping can be anything from a patch of grass to something more like an amusement park. Unlike in the US, most campings are located near urban areas. They have hot showers, electricity, laundry facilities, and wi-fi, and often they have services like bicycle or car rental. We paid $16-20 per night as a couple, depending on whether wi-fi cost extra. Prices are determined at a fixed rate per person, plus a rate for type of lodging. Most people stay in RVs, some bring tents like we did, and some campings also offer rental tents, trailers, or other types of lodging at various prices. If you don’t mind setting up camp on gravel or bare dirt, it’s actually pretty nice.
We already had a garage full of camping equipment, but it was for “car camping.” We figured that investing in backpacking gear would be expensive, but compared to paying for hotels in Iceland, it would be fully amortized by the end of the trip. Even if all of it blew into the sea or got torn up by Arctic foxes, we still would have saved money. All of that equipment (the packs, the smaller tent, lightweight sleeping bags and inflatable pads, the stove) is still in use four years later. Including backpacking trips at home, we’ve used this gear for over six weeks. It’s enabled us to take trips of about 3x longer duration than what we could have afforded in the traditional manner.
We did not rent a car. There are a lot of reasons for this. Most cities that are scenic enough to visit have large pedestrian-only areas. Not even a cab can pick you up in a historic district. Most of the time, we’d be paying for the car to sit idle at the curb or while we slept. Rental cars are really expensive, and gas costs more ($4-5 a gallon in Spain right now). The occasional $25 cab ride is far cheaper in this context. There is also the factor of legal liability. I’ve read stories of people being billed for scratches or scuffs on the vehicle, and my foreign language skills are nowhere near strong enough to negotiate that kind of conversation. Car = hassle. Walking, riding the bus, and taking the train provide more opportunities to see the country and experience unmediated local culture.
We cooked most of our own meals. We would stop at a grocery store every couple of days, because there’s no way to refrigerate perishables. We would eat cereal for breakfast. (We prefer oatmeal, but the cost of fuel for our backpacking stove must also be factored in). For dinner, we would heat up a jar of cooked beans or lentils with a jar of mixed vegetables, and maybe sauté half an onion. We went through one jar of curry powder and a small bottle of olive oil in two weeks. We would often get a fresh baguette as well. Restaurants in Europe are extremely expensive by American standards, and we have never had leftovers on any occasion. We think of it as “paying double for half the food.” Quite frankly, we could not have afforded to go out for both lunch and dinner every day. We were walking an average of over 8 miles a day, and cooking our own dinners was the only way we could afford to satiate our energized appetites. I brought three cases of protein bars (adding 5.4 pounds to my pack), and we ate them all, sometimes immediately after having lunch at a restaurant!
The takeaways from this are 1. Now we know why Europeans are so, so much leaner than Americans and 2. The quality of the cuisine made me want to go to cooking school. I believe I can remember every dish at every meal from our trip.
But what about the tickets? How much did it cost us to get there? Remember, there are no fixed rates in the travel industry. We paid a particular price for traveling from one American airport to one European airport on a specific date outside of peak season. The going rate for a round-trip direct flight from LAX to Barcelona, leaving in two days (month of May), is roughly $1200. That can be lowered by planning further in advance, going at a cheaper time of year, flying mid-week, flying to/from a cheaper destination city and doing part of the trip on a cheap regional airline (invisible to price comparison sites), having stopovers, or covering any leg of the trip with reward miles. If you can cover the whole trip with reward miles, well, it’s free plus tax. Let’s put this in context. I flew to New Zealand in 1994, and that round-trip ticket cost $1500. Plane travel is CHEAP right now, so cheap in fact that using reward miles isn’t even a good bargain. (You want to aim for 3 cents per mile, and right now plane tickets are closer to a penny per mile). Save $25 a week for a year, and you can buy a round-trip plane ticket anywhere you like.
Sound like a lot? We live in a 728-square-foot house and we only have one vehicle. We don’t have a storage unit. My husband walks to work and packs a lunch every day, and we moved to our neighborhood precisely so he could do this. We don’t have cable. We don’t drink alcohol, smoke (anything), or buy soda or other junk food. We go out to eat maybe once a week. We don’t “shop” or buy most kinds of objects. We don’t have tattoos. I don’t dye my hair or get professional manicures. We use/pay the set minimum rate on our water, electricity, and waste management bills. An extra $100 a month could vaporize if we spent like typical American consumers. After maxing out our retirement accounts, we like to spend our money on travel. (!!!) Frugality doesn’t feel like deprivation when you’re saving toward the thing you want the most. In our case, that’s to see the world while we’re still alive to see it. That seems like a bigger deal now that we’re in our 40s.
When I went to New Zealand at age 19, I moved out of my rented room. My trip lasted three weeks, so what would have been my rent that month went toward my trip. I moved into a new place when I got back. I was working as a temp, and I simply told them I was unavailable. They took me back when I returned. I had two roommates before I left, and I had a different set of two roommates in my new apartment. I didn’t have a credit card or a student loan (yet), and I didn’t get a car until I was 29.
If I had it to do over again, and I was 20 years old and single, this is what I’d do. I’d focus on building the strongest credit I could, starting with a secured credit card, so I could qualify for points and miles cards as young as possible. Then I’d “churn” as many expenses as I could through the cards, paying off the balance in full each month. I’d look for a job overseas, probably as a nanny or possibly on a farm stay, and if I could manage it, I’d tutor people in English on the side. Maybe I’d get a job on a cruise ship to earn my passage. I’d work on becoming fluent in another language. When I aged out of nannying (due to national regulations), I’d focus on getting a job that involved business travel. With the reward miles and hotel points from my trips, plus a premium for being (at least) bilingual, I’d stash cash like a stingy squirrel toward my next trip. Hopefully I would then bump into my husband on one of his trips, and our alternate timelines would converge!
Free things we did in Spain:
Talked to other travelers
Practiced our Spanish
Walked around La Rambla and other historic districts
Watched the Magic Fountain show
Watched a seven-level human tower competition
Watched a group of Catalan people doing traditional dance in front of the Cathedral
Saw wild, collared parrots in a Barcelona city park
Climbed the Valencia city walls
Watched a French couple dance the tango in a park while a Spanish man played accordion
Put our hands in the Mediterranean and tasted the water
Saw birds, including magpies, storks, Spanish sparrows, and a hoopoe!
“Held” macaques in Gibraltar
Walked past a private party singing with a flamenco guitarist
Overheard a flamenco dance lesson from over a wall
Saw two female acrobats perform with a hula hoop in an intersection
Visited the General Archive of the Indies, one of the best museums ever
Watched crew teams racing on the Guadalquivir
Saw bats flying around the belfry of the Seville Cathedral
Saw uncountable numbers of public statues, murals, bridges, buildings, medieval fortresses, Roman aqueducts, and gardens
Things we did in Spain that cost 1 euro:
Shared a pint of strawberries in the Barcelona farmer’s market
Tipped a camel driver for letting us pet his camels
Tipped a guitarist who serenaded us during lunch
Climbed the Rock of Gibraltar (1 euro each for park entry)
Surprisingly cheap peak experiences:
A tour of a cave with Neolithic paintings at $9.13 each
A flamenco show at $20.53 each
A day trip to Morocco, lunch included, for $66.78 each
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I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.