TravPacking

[bluebox] TravPacking- verb:  Traveling cheaply and traveling well by finding the sweet spot between cost, comfort, convenience and experience.

By Travpacking, I was able to have an amazing experience traveling through China in for under $2,000!

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The tuk tuk ride from the airport to the city center was so cheap, I actually didn’t have small enough bills to pay it.  Amidst the open air markets and cafes, I had to buy a banana so that I could get some change.

By the time I returned, the tuk tuk driver had left, telling the hostel owner just to pay her and that he’d get the money sometime later.

We had just touched down in Chiang Mai, on our first ever backpacking trip, and here we stood, in front of the Mojito House, our hostel for next two nights.

The owner was friendly, and as when we walked in to the downstairs lobby area and restaurant, I was surprised.

This place was pretty nice for $4 a night.

We told her we were the couple that had booked the “private double” room, of which there was one, on the 3rd floor.

We headed up the stairs, and on the landing of the 2nd floor, we had to step over rows of sleeping bags with people in them, picking our way through like we were in a minefield.

I was told that this was the “dorm”.

Hmmmm….

Making it through the minefield, we got to the 3rd floor and our room, and double private ensuite.

Giving us the key, the owner left, and we just looked at each other.

The sheets had stains all over them.  This skeeved Heather out, but I was ok with it.

I was, however, much more concerned with the springs that were actually popping out of the bed.

Looking on the bright side, I mentioned that we did have our own bathroom.

A small victory, considering that the water not only didn’t get hot, but it actually didn’t turn on at all.  

Oh, and we were given 4 square of toilet paper.

Heather started crying.

And we stayed.

Welcome to TravPacking, circa 2010.

Over the years, my traveling philosophy, and the way I travel, has changed.

But one thing has remained constant:

My answer to the always ubiquitious question

“How can you afford to travel so much?”

is still the same.

And it’s much simpler than people expect.

I save money in many ways that other people don’t.

In fact, when I travel, my costs are usually the same as when I’m at home.

All it takes is making the right conscious choices, and not seeing travel as an excuse to blow through all your money.

My TravPacking series is designed to show you EXACTLY how I do this during my travels.

I’ll provide enough details of my travels that if you wanted, you could theoretically recreate them step for step.  And if you want to do that, by all means, be my guest.

Imitation is always the sincerest form of flattery!

But the real purpose, and the way that I believe most people will use my TravPacking posts, is to help you see what options are really out there.

And how traveling on a budget, or traveling cheap, does not mean that you have to scrimp on convenience and comfort.

From here on out, I’ll be providing in depth TravPacking reports of all my major trips (including my latest one to China) and providing you with information about how much I spent, down to the dollar.

I’ll also be providing some commentary on my thought process on the spending, why I spent what I did, and what the alternatives may have been.

TravPacking is about finding the sweet spot- where convenience and cost merge with value.

By doing this, you’ll save a ton more money than most people who travel, and you’ll also have as good, if not better, of an experience.

Because spending more does not always equate to better.

And the more you save on this trip, the more you can travel.

Travel More, Spend Less!

The Main Tenets of TravPacking

1.  There is No Wrong Way to Travel

Just because I’m writing about how I travel does not mean that the way you travel is wrong.

There will be plenty of people out there who will be appalled that I spent so much money on a trip and proclaim that they did the same thing for half the price.

Great!

I was exactly like that 5 years ago.  But getting older and having a wife as my travel companion has changed my habits, although I definitely still skew toward the frugal end.

There will be others who refuse to ever stay in a hostel.  And while I disagree, mostly because I think that people misunderstand the word hostel, that’s their prerogative.

There are plenty of other ways to save money when traveling, and I hope they’ll take some of them and run with them.

In the end, getting out and traveling is always better than not traveling.

It doesn’t matter whether you’re:

  • going to an all-inclusive in Mexico (something I’ve done),
  • going on a cruise (something I haven’t done but would do)
  • or backpacking solo through the Amazon, sleeping in caves (something I also haven’t done but would do).

I have no patience for people getting on their high horse about the “best” way to travel or the “true” way to travel.

I’ve found what works for me (something that is a continual learning process) and what I think can work for many people out there.

Whether you choose to emulate it or not is up to you.  But I do ask that you have an open mind and don’t knock the way I travel or the way anyone else does.  We can all learn from each other.

[hopping off my soapbox]

2.  Frugality is Important…

I’m a naturally frugal person.  This website is geared towards helping people save money so that they can travel more.

So I’m always looking at the prices of things, and I write down EVERYTHING we buy.

My compulsiveness is why I’m able to provide such an accurate portrayal of my trip for you.

And I’m also a bit anal about not getting ripped off.

If I’m thirsty and someone is trying to sell me a $3 water just because I happen to be standing next to the Colosseum, I’ll walk the additional 20 minutes to find a $0.50 one.

That’s just who I am.

3.  …But Not at the Expense of Amazing Experiences

Yes, I’ll walk 20 minutes to save a few dollars on a water.

Because to me, that water is not an experience.  It’s not worth the feeling of getting ripped off, and it’s not worth the extra money.

But if I’m at the Taj Mahal and the entrance fee is $15, I won’t refuse to go in because I can catch a glimpse of it for free from a rooftop deck.

I’ll still get the awesome view from the rooftop deck, but I’ll also pay the $15 to walk around, partake in the history of the place, and take cheesy pictures.

To me, it’s worth it.

Everyone’s definition of what is “worth it” will be different.

And there have certainly been times when I wanted to do something, like take the cable car to the top of the Jungfrau in Switzerland, and turned it down because I couldn’t afford it or it cost too much ($100+ is pretty steep).

But generally, I’ll scrimp on everyday comforts, like buying a water immediately, in order to spend more money on experiences.

Seychelles

4.  However….Some of the Best Experiences Are Free!

Like I said, I generally go to monuments, historical sites, and “touristy” things, especially the first time I’m somewhere, unless they are prohibitively expensive or cheesy.

(Even I’m not a big enough sucker for the Bund Sightseeing Tunnel in Shanghai for $10).

And they are all usually pretty cool, which is why they are so famous in the first place!

But most of my best experiences come from wandering.  

And the best part about wandering?  It’s free.

I’m a huge proponent of getting out.  Out of your hostel or hotel.

And just exploring.  Map, no map….who cares!

Walk around, head down small alleys, peak around corners, and engage locals (even especially if you don’t know the language).

Travel is not just about the places you see, but the people you meet.

And you can’t meet people if you’re sitting in your room watching Game of Thrones on your laptop!

5.  Taking a “day off” is OK

This has been one of the biggest changes in my travel style over the years.

Well, this and the fact that I’ll upgrade from a $4 hostel to a $8 one if the bed springs are popping through the mattress.

I used to try to pack everything in to my trips.  I needed to see everything, I needed to be out and about all of the time.

How do people in this area act during the night?

I don’t know, let’s stay out and see!  

How do they act in the early morning?

I don’t know, let’s get up early and see (ok, that never happened).

But still, I was “going” all the time.

And when I wasn’t, I was worried I was missing something.

This is a very common feeling for people, especially because most don’t know if they’ll ever be back.

But one of the best things about TravPacking is that if you are able to save money on one trip, the odds of you going back to a place is much higher!

With Heather’s help, I’ve learned it’s ok to take a day (or half a day) in the middle of the trip and just RELAX.  

If I want to read a book, I’ll read a book.  If want to chill out and Skype family back home, I’ll chill out and Skype family back home.

And I’ve found that I often feel much more refreshed and ready to have a “go-go-go” day afterwards.

So if you’re feeling stressed or rushed, take a few hours or even a whole day and do something that you’d normally do at home.

Something calming.

And you’ll probably feel much better for it.

6.  Do What YOU Want To Do

When most people go to a place, they assume they have to do the “top 10 things” in that area.  I’m no different, trust me.

And usually, those things are good recommendations.

But that doesn’t mean you HAVE to do them.

If you don’t like art at all, then don’t go to the Louvre.

If you like to get outdoors, then go hiking or biking, even if it’s not “listed”.

And if something is a must-do but too expensive for you, like taking a gondola ride in Venice for $120, then skip it.

It’s your trip, so do what YOU want.

7.  The Biggest Ways to Save Money Are on Flights and Accommodations…

I’ve written at length about frequent flyer miles and how they can get you flights around the world for under $100.

If you’re not earning and using frequent flyer miles effectively, this needs to be priority #1.

There are also two other main ways to save money on flights.

First, consider flying on budget airlines.

I’ve flown over 30 times with the world’s best budget airline, Air Asia, and never had a bad experience.

In fact, I find Air Asia preferable to many bigger US carriers like United, American, and Delta.

To find out which budget airlines operate in the areas you’ll be in, check out this Wikipedia page.

The other way is to take advantage of mistake fares.

This is how I scored $125 tickets to Italy, $225 tickets to Spain, and $550 tickets to China.

For everything you need to know about mistake fares, check out this post.

Saving money on accommodations is even easier.

When most people think of where they are going to stay when traveling, they instantly think of “big box” hotels, like Marriott, Hilton, Hyatt, etc.

I’ll certainly stay there if I have hotel points and free nights (again, it’s about getting value, and there isn’t much better value than free).

But if I’m paying, I’m always looking elsewhere.

Renting apartments can be an awesome way to spend less than a hotel and have a more authentic experience.

Hostels are another excellent option, and completely misunderstood by most people.

Nowadays, many hostels (the Mojito House notwithstanding) are more like boutique hotels without the price tag.  

There’s no better example of this than one of my favorite places of all time, the Lisbon Destination Hostel, which we scored for $40 a night.

And if you’re looking for even more authentic and cheaper options, there’s always Couchsurfing and housesitting.

I’ll take a mint on the pillow when I’m staying for free, but with all these options, there is no way I’m spending $150+ a night on a standard, sterile hotel room with no character.

8.  …But the Little Things Add Up Too

Remember that $2.50 you saved on a water bottle a little while back?

Well, do that 2 days in a row and all of a sudden you’ve saved enough money for the world’s best sandwich from All’Antico Vinao.

One of the biggest mistakes people make when wondering how they can save more money is to ONLY look at the big wins.

Sure, saving $600 on a plane ticket or $150 a night on a hotel room is awesome, and the main reason I’m able to keep on traveling.

But doing the little things can also help make a difference.

Save the money on that water bottle.

Walk the mile from the train station to your accommodations instead of taking the taxi.

Eat delicious street food instead of sitting down for a meal.

During the course of the trip, you’ll be surprised how much it adds up.

9. Walking and Biking Are Paramount

I consider walking and biking to be the best parts of most of my trips.

Biking through Kyoto at night, seeing geisha while whipping through the backstreets, was a magical experience.

Cycling through the small towns around Yangshuo, riding through “Jurassic Park-like” landscape and snapping hundreds of pictures, was one of my top five travel days of all time.

And I’ve already mentioned how much I love wandering.

Biking and walking are not only cheap (or free), but they give you glimpses of the real life of an area that you’d never get any other way.

10.  Splurging is Fine…In Small Doses

I was with the two most important women in my life; Heather and my twin sister Gale.

We were in Porto, my favorite city in the world.

And it was Valentine’s Day.

So we did something I rarely do, and went out for a very nice sit down dinner at one of the city’s finest restaurants.  

And it rocked!

The service was amazing.  The food was superb.  The portions were huge.  And the atmosphere was incredible.

It was a night that we will all remember for the rest of our lives!

Sometimes, even a curmudgeon like myself, needs to loosen up the purse strings a tiny bit and just enjoy it.

As long as it is only sometimes, skewing towards rarely, then you’ll be fine!

11.  Experiences are Valued Over Possessions, But Sometimes You Just Have to Buy It

I walked by the same woodcarving stand in Lijiang, China for 6 straight days.

I stopped in to gawk at the artwork almost each time.

I “chatted” up the young guy working there, which basically consisted of head nods, smiles, and giving him a thumbs up.

And I watched him carve a beautiful blue wall hanging.

I fought with my inner monologue for days.  I loved it, but it was a bit expensive.

I NEVER spend $100 on myself.

If fact, I can probably count on 1 hand how many times I’ve spent $100 on an item that wasn’t a laptop.

For some of you, this may not be a problem!

But it was awesome.  It was authentic.  And, after 4 days of debating, I ran down to the shop 20 minutes before we were catching our taxi, bartered him down to $60, and bought it.

Now, it’s hanging in my office, and one of my most prized possessions.

If it’s calling to you, sometimes you just have to buy it.  

And you don’t always have to wait 20 minutes before you leave, although if you’re as frugal as me, you probably always will!

12.  Always Try to Give Back to the Local Community

One of the main reasons I rarely stay at  big box hotels, unless I have a free night, is because I’d prefer that my money go back to the local community.

Not only will staying at a local owned guesthouse almost always be much cheaper, but that money is going towards the real people who live there, not to lining the pockets of a multi-national corporation who has bulldozed their way in to town.

While I may be frugal, I do find it much easier to spend money if I know it’s going towards someone who is working hard for it.

Like the woodcarver in Lijiang, China.

Or Sony, the world’s nicest guesthouse owner in Siem Reap.

Or Bunthy, my favorite cab driver of all time.

Eating local, staying local, and buying local is a win-win-win for everyone, and puts some extra cash in your pocket!

Final Word(s)

You may agree with all, some, or none of my philosophies around TravPacking.

I’m cool with any of the above!

The purpose is to show you how I’m able to afford to travel in a manner that is not only budget friendly but also lends itself to great experiences.

And hopefully help you find your own travel style and philosophy.

I’d love to hear any and all feedback about what you do differently.  We can all learn from each other.

Are you already a TravPacker?  What things do you do when you travel to find the “sweet spot” between cost, comfort, and experience?

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