Sunday, January 17, 2016

10 Tips for Budget Travel

Two years ago I stopped making new year's resolutions and instead decided to start making a travel wish list and the results have been amazing. In the past couple of years I've been able to:
- Visit the Taj Mahal under a full moon, experience Holi, see the Venice of India and spend spiritual time in Varanasi
- See where the Monarch butterflies go for the winter, discover the amazing city of Guanajuato, eat some incredible food (street food too) and finally see Freda Khalo's home in Mexico
- Relax and enjoy time on the French Riviera
- Spend spring break in St. Petersburg. Not Florida,...Russia
- Vacation in Ireland
- Watch the sun rise and set in the Sahara Desert in Morocco
- Enjoy a weekend in Montreal, Canada.
Three years ago I was inspired by a young friend who in our conversation as I was daydreaming out loud about being able to see the Taj Mahal simply said, "you are never going to go until you buy a ticket."  It hit me like a bolt of lightening.  From that day on I made up my mind to actually work to fulfill my travel dreams. Now I don't just dream about travel. I buy my ticket.
Do you daydream about traveling?  If so this post is for you. Today I want to share a few of my budget tips to help you make your travel dreams come true.  If you are a luxury traveler you can stop reading here.

Getting Started
I've found it really helpful to make a list of places in the world that I'd like to see. One thing I don't do is lock in to any one destination, ever. Sales pop up all the time and my goal is to find one of my destinations on sale. I am a loyal Delta traveler so I keep up with their sales and I use the Kayak EXPLORE feature to be able to track where the best prices can be found. Have you played around with the EXPLORE feature?  Love it.

 I take advantage of Delta Vacations - a lot.  Our trip to Nice, France and our summer trip to Ireland were all thanks to incredible packages put together by Delta Vacations. And when I say great, I do mean great.  It is so hard to believe that the vacation package to Nice which included hotel stay in a 4-star hotel and airfare was $998!  Yes, you read that correctly.  Our trip to Ireland was $200 more but we were traveling during the peak summer season so the added cost was to be expected.  Delta vacations won't work for every trip but if you plan to use one city as a base, the package deals can save you a boatload of money.
Guanajuato Mexico
Figure out the most expensive cities to fly into and don't go there!  Some cities like London are always expensive to visit because of various taxes. But is there a way to access London from another UK or European city? Flexibility is key to be able to maximize your travel experience, your time and most of all, your budget.

And be sure to keep up with economic news and monitor the exchange rate. I use which has a tab to also provide historical data. When the economy is in your favor, take advantage of it.

Speaking of the news, watch international news for inspiring places to visit and for world news.  We are huge fans of BBC International and Al-Jazeera America (sad to see it go).  I feel I'm a much better ambassador for my country if I'm informed and have a broader understanding of the world.
Got My Ticket, Now What?
I'm typically not a traveler who wants to be part of a tour group and I really enjoy spending time learning about the target destination and detailing out an itinerary. For me it is part of the journey and I will spend hours combing websites and reading through travel forums to help with the planning. But I've learned that sometimes I need help. Some traveler friends use agencies to help them with their journeys but when I've needed help my best sources of information have been friends who've already been to the target country.  Don't get me wrong, agencies can be great and most of my friends who have used agencies do so because they don't have the time to do the research but that is a part of the journey that I love.  Calling on friends who've recently traveled makes the planning process more fun. Friends are usually very excited to share their travel knowledge, connections and photos. When planning my trip to India I was determined to do it alone but after two months of lunches with friends it became apparent that help was needed.  Lucky for me my husband's cousin leads tour groups on trips to India and she connected me with an Indian tour company that was incredible.  Last year I spent 2 months emailing tour companies in Morocco to find a company that would let me customize our trip and luckily we found a small family-owned group that not only let us customize our journey, they are now like extended family (seriously, we have our own private Whats App chat group)!
Study up on the foods and local places before you travel and try to keep an open mind. I heard nothing but bad things about Russian food before I left for St. Petersburg last year and got there and loved it! The Georgian food was a complete surprise and absolutely delicious.  Locals are an incredible resource.  I love seeing the sights, learning new things and meeting the people but I absolutely love trying new food. Instead of taking a cooking class (travel cooking classes are expensive) ask some of the locals for recipes. One of my favorite things to do is to bring my travels back home and being able to cook some of my favorite foods allows me bring the trip home.

Four years ago we went to Italy and stayed in a B&B in a tiny town on the hilltop above Positano. Believe me, it was such an affordable stay.  And the restaurant in our tiny hilltop village invited us to join mama in the kitchen to make pasta!  Now THAT was a cooking lesson and we didn't pay a thing.

Developing Budget Travel Tips
I follow travel bloggers and subscribe to various travel publications to continuously learn about destinations around the globe.  I also try to connect with other travelers when I travel. Travelers from other parts of the world have some great suggestions for on the ground discounts, locally owned companies and cost-savings we might not hear about.  Do your homework before you go to determine ground transportation options. On our recent trip to Ireland at the last minute we decided to rent a car.  I located a local Irish car company that cost us under $100 (with insurance).  In Mexico some of my most memorable experiences have
been taking the local bus to get from city-to-city. What you probably don't want to do is wait until you get there to figure it out.  Sometimes that can work but not planning tends to be a lot more costly and can sometimes throw your travel schedule off course.
Oh the cafes of Montreal!
My best advice is spend time exploring online, monitor prices and take advantage of the readily available travel forums for some current cost-saving ideas.

Try to be flexible.  This is the most important tip of all. Travel means things will be different and being flexible can help you enjoy your trip, even when things go wrong.  My husband and I arrived in Casablanca this fall expecting to take a three hour train ride to get to Marrakesh. We were departing Marrakesh early the next morning.  Unfortunately the train was delayed for hours and by 7 o'clock that night we were panicked about how we would make it.  Luckily we met the NICEST young woman who helped us get to the train station, bought us dinner and made sure we arrived safely. We couldn't thank her enough.  Had it not been for her kindness and our flexibility, I would have ended up paying about $600 for a driver to get us there. Instead, it cost us $22.

Learning About Places
Don't let the news scare you too much.  Yes, there is evil in the world but the more I travel the more I realize that most people everywhere want the same things I do - a happy life.  And, remember there are so many more amazing places in the world that just Europe.  Don't get me wrong, Europe is beautiful but the world is full of beautiful places! On recent trips I've met a traveler returning from Iran, another from Rwanda who just returned from a visit with the Silverback Gorillas and a member of the Masaai tribe who lives in the U.S. for six months of the year but returns home for six months each year so that he can maintain his tribal status. I've been inspired to meet numerous workers with NGOs doing incredible work around the globe. I was moved to tears to spend an hour in a waiting area visiting with the sister of a gentleman who was on the MH17 Malaysia Air plane crash and completely amazed by the secretary I met who lives in DC but has spent the last 4 years making frequent trips to France. A secretary by day, yes, but in partnership with a local book store she is soon to launch her travel company leading French tours.  How's that for a fun retirement at the age of 63?

About two years ago my husband and I would wake up early on Sunday morning to watch a beautiful travel series called World From Above.  It was incredibly beautiful and I added so many experiences to my travel wish list. Because of this travel program I made it a point to travel to the Balkan sea and bought a beautiful keepsake piece of amber.

And my best piece of advice - Start planning your next trip before you return from your current trip. I got a few things lined up for the first quarter of the year.  Because of my travel wish list I was able to get some budget travels booked last fall.

Good luck with your travel planning.  If you ever want to share experiences let me know.  I'm always happy to share my tips and I love learning from other travelers. I would love to hear from you.

Bon voyage!

Friday, January 1, 2016

Things I Loved About 2015

Looking back the year went by so quickly but it was packed with travel, fun with friends and family, full of memories including some big moments and professional growth.  As New Year's Eve edged closer I was a bit melancholy wishing things would slow down so that I could take in just a few more moments of a great year but at the same time I was feeling so grateful for every opportunity in 2015.

Blogging - As I sat down to write this post I also realized how long it has been since I added anything to my blog. 2015 was crazy busy so posting fell by the wayside but I'm very proud to say that most mornings I'm up at 5:00am so that I can read posts from some of my favorite bloggers like Rhoda, Susan, Lorrie, Sue, Penny, Pat, Sarah, Bethany, Shannon, Lynne, Jilly, Robin, Joanne, Linda, Jennifer, Lynne, Carolyn and so many more. I might not leave you a comment but believe me I keep up with you.  Susan I loved your Africa photos, Pat, I hope you are feeling better soon.  Jilly, I swear that I will meet you in person one of these days. Sarah, I love all of the beauty you add to every day living. Lorrie, you amaze me with all that you find time for in a day. 
I started blogging in 2007 for fun and to connect with others.  Many of the bloggers I read and follow have gone on to be full-time influencers and it has been exciting and amazing to witness.  This year I became very close friends with one blogger whom I met online in 2008.  She isn't able to blog at the moment but I'm hoping one day she can. She has an amazing gift with food that needs to be shared.  One of my best blog discoveries this year is Beth's blog at Style at a Certain Age.  I LOVE HER BLOG and it has been so exciting to be able to enjoy a blog that is age appropriate with a wardrobe that takes you from Target to Talbot's.  
Travel - 2015 helped me mark a few more destinations off my bucket list.  This year's travels took me to: Portland, Hollywood, Detroit, Baltic Sea, St. Petersburg, Russia, Ireland, Montreal and Morocco.  These last four destinations had been on my list for years so it was great to be able to finally see and experience these places in person.   In 2015 it was exciting to take my first solo trip.  I travel solo for work so I'm accustomed to making business trips alone but until September 2015 I'd never taken a pleasure trip alone but I loved it! 
There were a few highlights and observations that I'd like to share.  
- Spent a day with the crew of Turner Classic Movies 
- Went up to the top of Mt. Hood 
- Walked along the Hollywood Walk of Fame
- Saw Diego Rivera's mural in Detroit - a must-see
- Honored to escort my daughter-in-law for her Master Sgt. stripe
- Attended the most beautiful Indian wedding and wore a saree - loved it!!!
- Graduated from the FBI Citizen's Academy
- Visited gorgeous St. Petersburg; the people are charming and the food is great
- Saw a Russian Ballet at the Marinsky
- Bought an amber bracelet from a shop located near the Baltic Sea
- Proud to have survived the boat ride to the Aran Islands (and I didn't throw up either)
- Loved everything about Ireland but especially the people and the music
- Enjoyed authentic Poutin (and it was delicious)
- Traveled alone; spent a weekend in Montreal by myself
- Walked 22,000 steps in a day in Montreal
- Camped in the Sahara desert - an unforgettable life moment 
- Finally visited Morocco, toured the Draa Valley and visited an oasis 
- Gained an adopted son, Bachir and a daughter, Jihan in Morocco
Family - Big things happened this year.  My oldest son deployed and was gone for almost 8 months. When family members deploy, military families help each other.  His absence was sad, and hard at times, but it also gave us as a family the opportunity to do things like take my granddaughter to summer camp and take my oldest granddaughter to NY to celebrate her 13th birthday.  My youngest son got married so we gained a daughter and celebrated a bilingual wedding. It was beautiful and exciting to continue to grow as a family.  My daughter's band made some big stops on tours this year including Red Rocks and Bonnaroo but I was most excited that their travels also brought them to Atlanta twice.  The older my children get the harder it becomes to get us all in the same place at the same time.  It happened twice this year and I've got a couple of photos to prove it! I also got to see my Goddaughter who lives in Seattle. They came to visit this summer so we had time together. A very special moment indeed.

Work - Yes it seems to get harder and some days it seems I just can't keep up with all that must be done or that I hope to get done.  We all continue to do more with less and some days it gets stressful but I love my work.  I love what I do, the people I work with and I especially love the outcomes.  Over the holidays one of the clients I've worked with and become very personally involved with sent me an incredible gift.  When I called to thank her and to sincerely say that she needn't buy me anything she reminded me that she send me a gift because she was grateful.  I cried.

Friends - It seems there is never enough time for gathering with friends but this year I was able to connect with few friends that grew up with but hadn't seen since the 70's.  That is no typo - yes, the 70's.  It was great and while one of the friend visits was because of a loss, it was still wonderful to be able to spend time together.  Our hometown has always had a lot of talent and beauty. In fact the current Miss America is from my hometown. This summer a group of talented alums from one of the high schools put together an amazing show. I had a blast seeing so many friends from the past and the show was fabulous.  Now we are all waiting for the next big performance. Dub?

Hobbies and Book Clubs - There just aren't enough hours in the day but somehow I manage to find time for the movies, all things French and my book club. I've been in two book clubs but one book club seems to be fading away while the other continues to inspire me.  
Favorite book of 2015  - All the Light We Cannot See 
Favorite movie of 2015 - Trumbo
Memorable moment - Walking in silence with the French community following the Charlie Hebdo attack. I love being a part of the Alliance Francaise d'Atlanta
Special highlight - Being a VIP attendee at the Atlanta Downton Abbey Premiere Party

As the year ends and as the new year begins I can't help but be overwhelmed with joy and gratitude. Today I hope to find the time to revise my travel bucket list, update my reading list, watch a little tv and set a few goals. I'm also taking time to be still and get centered. I'm looking forward to writing some new and exciting chapters in my life's book in the coming year and I sincerely hope to do more blogging. Happy New Year.