Travel Without Breaking the Bank

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When I was young, I always thought how wonderful it would be to travel to far away places. To hike mountains in another hemisphere, ride a camel, or sail around tropical islands. To walk the cobbled streets of towns and cities, and see the same sights that I’d read about in books. But really, I thought, how would I ever be able to do all that? Travel was for the wealthy. Wasn’t it?

Sunset camel ride on the beach in Broome, Australia

Funny, isn’t it, how you can get things so wrong when you’re a kid?

Hubby and I are not wealthy; we travel quite a bit, especially now that we’re both retired. And after each trip we are always amazed at how easy it is to travel for extended periods without breaking the bank.

white houses of a village in Italy cling to the cliffs along the Amalfi Coast
Village of Vettica Minore, on the Amalfi Coast

If you’ve read my blog before, you’ll know that deep down I’m a numbers person. I love to add things up, crunch numbers, look at graphs and pie-charts, all that seemingly boring stuff. And each time Hubby and I come home from a trip, I total what we’ve spent, every last cent, and see if we’ve stayed within our budget.

This last trip, we travelled for twenty-three days in Italy. When we came home I added up our expenses: airfare, car rental for two weeks, gas for the car, accommodation for twenty-two nights, all food, tours, and incidentals, in short every single cent we spent from the time we left for the airport on September 21 until we arrived home on October 15. We’d spent just over $8,600.00 Canadian dollars. Gad. That sounded like a lot, until I started to break it down.

the ancient stairs from Agerola down to Amalfi, in Italy
Walking the ancient stairway from Agerola down to Amalfi

We paid for our flight from Ottawa to Venice, and home from Rome with our Aeroplan points. When we travel we pay for as much as we can on our credit cards; we both have travel points cards. Might as well earn air miles while we’re spending. We each take a couple of hundred of whatever currency we’ll need, in this case Euros, with us, and use our debit cards at ATMs to get more cash, as needed, as we go. We usually take turns, I’ll draw cash out of my account one day and a few days later it will be Hubby’s turn. So by checking credit card statements, and tracking ATM withdrawals in our bank statements, I can very easily keep track of exactly how much we’ve spent, in Canadian dollars.

white haired owner of a pizzeria in Agerola, Italy removes pizza from the oven
Gigino the master pizza maker in San Lazarro Square, Agerola, on the Amalfi Coast

If I take our airfare out of the mix, our trip cost was a little over $7400. CAD, or $3700. per person. That includes all other forms of transportation (car rental, gas, transfers to and from airports, plus vaporetto, bus, ferry, and subway tickets), all accommodation, all meals (including lunches, dinners, wine, coffees, pastries, snacks and other treats), tickets for museums (in Venice, Florence, and Rome), incidentals like souvenirs, and all tours. We did walking tours in Venice and Florence, and hired a private guide for a morning in Rome. The guided tour of Rome was a bit expensive, but was one of the best experiences of our trip. If you plan to be in Rome for the first time, we’d highly recommend Lucca, who was suggested to us by good friends.

Italian pastries
Post Sunday lunch goodies from Pasticceria Avitabile Mauro, San Lazzaro Square, Agerola

Our Italy trip was a bit unusual for Hubby and me. We did not stay in self-catered accommodation. On most trips we try to cook for ourselves if we’re going to be in one location for more than a couple of nights. In France in 2015, we rented a flat in Paris for six days, and a cottage in Provence, outside of Avignon, for five days. But this time we chose, instead, B&B’s, small hotels, and Agritourismos, which is what the Italians call farm-stays. We booked almost all of our accommodation on-line before we left home, and we were really happy with our choices. The Agritourismos were fantastic. In Urbino we had fresh truffles for dinner and a view across the hills to die for, in Norcia our room was a converted farm outbuilding, and it was rustic and gorgeous, in Manoppello and Agerola our hosts had vineyards, and we sampled their wine, even taking a complimentary bottle from our hosts in Agerola with us to Rome. That’s the wine Hubby is enjoying on the rooftop terrace of our hotel on our first night in Rome.

smiling man drinking wine on a rooftop terrace
First evening in Rome, enjoying a glass of wine compliments of our hosts in Agerola

The theme here is that while we don’t travel in luxury, we don’t suffer, either. We prefer small, unpretentious places, which are neither backpacker hostels nor expensive five-star hotels or resorts. We’ve learned a lot over the years. For our first big trip, back in the early 2000s, we used a travel agent who booked our flights, arranged car rentals, tours etc, and booked several of our accommodations. But we found that we made better choices on our own once we’d landed, consulting local tourist offices, and choosing small motels, rustic cabins, and even cabins in caravan parks.

We found that the cabins in caravan parks in Australia were our favourites, one even had a Jacuzzi. We cooked our own food at the communal barbeque area, and met lots of interesting people. I remember the first night we did that, I had stayed at the cabin putting together the salad, and opening the wine, while Hubby carried off the steaks to the barbeque area. Before too long he was back to get me, and the salad, plates and cutlery, and wine. We had a wonderful time eating and chatting with two young doctors from the UK, and an older couple from Tasmania.

fountain and buildings in Piazza Navona in Rome, Italy
 Piazza Navona, Rome

These days, with arrangements so easy to make on-line, we plan and do all our own accommodation bookings. A few years ago a friend told us about Auto Europe, and now Hubby makes our car rental arrangements with them over the phone. We’ve used them all over the world; they’ve never let us down, and the price is very good. Our two week rental in Italy, picking the car up as we left Venice, and dropping it off at the airport as we arrived in Rome (Hubby did NOT want to drive in Rome) cost us a little over $500.00, including the extra cost for the GPS.

a tour boat sails the placid waters of the Tiger River in Rome, Italy
Strolling the Fiume Tevere, with the Vatican in the distance

Of course everyone has their own preferences for travel. We’re not “cruisers”… as someone asked us in Rome. We don’t take packaged trips, nor trips that are fully guided. We prefer to chart our own course, pick up a short tour (sometimes for a few days, sometimes a few hours.) We have a limit as to how much we can listen to guides, so even though we’ve found most to be helpful and knowledgeable, we pick and choose where and when we take advantage of them. We’ve never opted for an all-inclusive resort, and rarely for any resort at all.  In 2008 we decided to treat ourselves and, enroute to New Zealand, stayed for three nights in a beautiful resort on Mo’orea in Tahiti. Ha. Not our favourite travel memory. Gorgeous, fancy schmanchy room, good breakfast, staff with a little too much attitude, and other guests who seemed loath to strike up a conversation. And very pricey, not very appetizing dinners. After our first night, we opted instead for the charming and casual pizza place down the road, chatted to the young waiter who was from Mo’orea and wanted to talk about Canada, and counted that we’d learned a lesson.

ancient wall of the old city of Rome and a park beyond
Part of the ancient city wall, Parco degli Scipioni, Rome

One of the things I did when I was adding up our final trip costs, this time round, was to look at how much it costs us to live when we’re at home. I mean, think about it: groceries, wine and beer, gas for cars, Hubby’s golf, my coffee and lunch dates with friends, dinners out, when you add it up it’s not like we live for free at home. Of course I didn’t count utilities and stuff because we pay those regardless. Our credit card bills for the time of our Italy trip were somewhat higher than normal… but not that much higher, and not enough that we had to dip into our travel savings account. In fact we laughed that we’d just travelled for over three weeks in Italy and covered it with our regular monthly pension income. Now we’re wondering why the heck we have a travel savings account at all.

smiling woman on a red Vespa in Rome, Italy
Ms. B. on a Vespa. When in Rome.

Of course, travel hasn’t always been as easy on the bank account as it is now. When Hubby was first retired and I was still working, I took two leaves of absence, a few years apart, so we could travel, both times for three months to New Zealand and Australia. Now, those trips were expensive! Mostly because each time I was off work for a full semester from February to June, plus the summer, without pay. I’d saved for two years before each trip to be able to live on my savings while not working, to keep paying into my pension, and to pay for our extended health and dental plan which was attached to my work contract. Hubby always paid for the big ticket items like airfare, car rental, any resort bookings, and pre-booked tours, and we split the other accommodation expenses, and food etc along the way. Being retired, he received a “salary” while we travelled, while I watched my bank account dwindle, and dwindle, and prayed I’d make it to my first pay cheque in September. Now that I’m retired too, travel is much easier. We go when we want, come home when we feel like it, and we both have “salaries,” which while not overly generous, still replenish our bank accounts each month, whether we’re home or not.

Now I’ve yakked your ear off for long enough, my patient friends. That’s if any of you are actually still reading. Ha. Hubby is waiting for me to go for our Sunday afternoon walk.

But, I want to leave you with a small moment we enjoyed in Rome. Our hotel was next to the opera house, and each night a street performer played his violin on the corner below our window. Except for this night when he was joined by a man in a white shirt and dark suit, who emerged from the opera house, sang a song with the violin player, and then ambled on up the street.

Have a listen. The last bit is the best. Of course I had to stop filming to put down the phone and applaud, the sound of my clapping echoing down and across the street, until they saw me at my window, and laughed and waved.

I’ve watched that little video countless times. It always makes me smile.

Sometimes I can’t believe I’m so lucky as to be able to travel as much as we do. Sometimes I want to pinch myself. Like when we’re walking down an empty street on Murano, under a full moon, and the church bell starts chiming; or sitting at a wobbly restaurant table on an ancient stairway in Vieste watching as a woman leans out her second-floor window to bring in her washing and chats to a passerby below; or calling a cheery “Buongiorno” to Gigino, the owner of the restaurant we ate in the night before, as he strolls along the street with his morning coffee and his groceries; or waving back at the singer and his buddy the violin player that night in Rome. Those moments are the best. You can’t factor moments like those into a travel budget.

They’re priceless. Don’t you think?

In case you’re interested I’m including some links below to accommodations in various places in Italy that we would heartily recommend. We booked most of these on Booking.com, except for the Murano Palace, but I’ve included links to their websites where possible. Plus a link to find Lucca the driver in Rome. If you have any questions about any of these leave a comment below, or you can drop me an e-mail here, if you’d prefer.

Murano Palace, Murano, Venice
Rovezzano B&B, Florence
Country House Ca’ Vernaccia, Urbino
Agriturismo Il Casale Degli Amici, Norcia
B&B Miramare, Agerola
Luke the Driver, Rome

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42 thoughts on “Travel Without Breaking the Bank”

  1. What a wonderful video of the street opera! You've catched something so precious ! Those little moments are really priceless and one has to be open and mindful not to overlook them
    Thank you for the complete financial and logistic report of your trip-it will be very useful and inspiring as well as encouraging, for a lot of people
    I was never on the cruise (so far-some cruises like the Danube tour seem very interesting and different ) or in the resort,loved to plan individually as well and have kept track of everything I was spending
    I wish you a lot of new and interesting travels
    Dottoressa

    1. That moment in Rome was so special. I have imagined that the unknown singer is some famous opera singer, but he may just be the ticket seller and I'm too much of a romantic.
      A couple of years ago someone asked me to write a post about our trip budget, and I've always thought it might be too boring to read. Hopefully not:)

  2. Loved this long blog. We travel in the same way in France and, like Italy, it actually feels luxurious. This level of travel is much more pleasant than "equivalent" (if it even is) travel in the US.

    And love the video. Truly captures something special.

  3. That was fascinating – I often wonder how people can afford to travel for a few weeks and now I know. I don't think money spent on travelling is ever wasted, really. And yes, taking a cheaper option is usually the wisest option. We often stay in Air bnbs, mid-range small hotels and I do like taking trains, buses, trams when abroad. Resorts would be my absolute last…resort…I suppose. Hope the eye is holding up well.

    1. We've never done the Air B&B thing, although many of our friends have. We generally look for a price range in the middle… and then choose something we really want to stay in. And if we can't find it we bump up the cost. We've found that adamantly sticking to one's price range can have negative effects. Ickkk. I remember one place in Christchurch, New Zealand where I was afraid to take off my socks. We learned our lesson about different locations having different price ranges that time!

  4. i really enjoyed your post thank you.. it brought back so many memories of travelling, particularly in Italy. i have always found that its the glimpses into local life that are the most memorable memories, and living as the locals live is usually the most economical way to travel

    1. Thanks, Noreen. When we were in Agerola for five days we really felt at home. Especially going back to the same restaurants more that once, or being greeted by the waitress at the coffee shop.

  5. Thank you for taking time to write a wonderful post on travel/planning. I like seeing how others plan their travel; must say I heartily agree with your methods. Never been fond of having to march to the beat of a tour or staying at a resort.

  6. We have a very similar approach to travel, budget-wise, it seems, although we're more likely to take the train than to rent a car (we've done that often enough, but prefer not to be stuck with one in a busy city). I can see why some want luxurious or design-conscious accommodation, but I feel very fortunate that we're happy enough at a 3-star-ish level — clean and comfy will do, if it's in a decent location.
    And after years of being frustrated with the difficulty of using points in one plan, I've been very pleased with the one we've switched to — our trip to Europe together and my solo one this year were both made on points.
    I also agree with what you say about spending while away and spending at home. . . There's so much "free" entertainment while traveling . . .

    1. We never have cars in big cities, either. They're more of a burden than an asset. But then again, we generally don't do many big cities, and try to bracket our trip with them like this time. We picked up our car as we left Venice and dropped it off before we carried on to Rome. I was going to say that so much that is wonderful about travel is "free"… like just walking and looking.

  7. Thank you for sharing your trip's financial breakdown and love your method of travelling where the planning/searching/booking is done by you rather than a travel agent…that is what we do for the most part as well. However we have done several cruises and have found them a relaxing way to cross a large expanse of water (transatlantic or transpacific)…the time zone changes are barely noticeable at a ship's pace! A priority is accommodation and we look for places that are central so that we can immerse ourselves in walking local neighbourhoods and experiencing eateries 'off the beaten track'. We do love to be in a tourist scrum and see the major sites but must balance that with days in quieter locations where line-ups and masses of people don't blot out what you wish to see…we have loved and are grateful for each and every opportunity we've been given to travel. As Mark Twain once wrote "Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow mindedness and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts." He also wrote "Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one's lifetime"…how true those words are even today! Cheers, Alayne

    1. I have a friend who loves to take cruises from Miami to Europe. She says the time "at sea" is her favourite.
      Love those quotes from Mark Twain. Especially the part about not vegetating in one's own corner of the world. How true.

  8. Hi Sue–I loved this post because it coincided with my own thinking. We do things a bit differently, however. We do our research and then rent an apartment in a small city where it is easy to take day trips. We then do our best to live like the locals for 3 or more weeks, but also have the advantage of seeing many other areas by train or local buses. We aren't limited to small towns–our day trips have included Nice and Barcelona. This has worked well for us on several trips to France and Italy. When I crunch the numbers, they look pretty much like yours. Thanks for this great post (and all of your great posts). Bobbe in Montreal

    1. I'd love to do that. When we came home from Yorkshire a few years ago, I told Stu it was my dream to rent a cottage for a month in a Yorkshire village, and walk, and visit markets, and take tea. Sigh. How lovely that would be. But I'm afraid that he is not that keen. Maybe it's the idea of being forced to sit with me in too many tearooms.

    2. Just thinking as I write this that there are a few readers who live in Yorkshire who might be pleased to accompany me on my tearoom tour and let Hubby off the hook. Ha.

  9. Yes, that’s how we have been able to travel each year, except for the air miles. We don’t spend enough during the year. They are used once in a while though. We have a spread sheet, so that we know how much we have spent over the years. We do rent a car for the whole time, as we tend to change our mind and drive off where there is limited transportation sometimes. We also use train and buses when it’s easier than driving and parking. We rent a house, through a friend, so it’s much less expensive. We also use B&B and Gites. Half house rental and half exploring. Nothing is ever what you could call fancy. We just want to be in France and other parts of Europe. Life is short and regrets of not – just doing it – are so sad when a person waits, and then can’t.
    Ali

    1. Yep. We don't want to regret NOT having gone. We were a little leery about South America, feeling that maybe we'd left it too late, and should have gone when we were younger. Stu is over 70 now. But in the end we had a wonderful time, and never, ever felt unsafe or worried in six weeks.

  10. Thank you so much for sharing this – the practical information, which is so very helpful, and the intangibles, the special surprises. My husband and I are nearing retirement, and it is time to start thinking about these details. Thank you!

    1. I will say that trip planning becomes so much easier when one is retired. No vacation days to have to match up with trip timelines. And for us retired teachers, finally being able to travel in the NON high season.

  11. Absolutely loved this, Sue! While we've traveled extensively in Asia, we've yet to set foot on European soil. I'm hoping 2019 will be the year! I wish you were close enough to sit down over coffee (tea for me) and pick your brain some more. You clearly like to travel the same way we do. We did the all-inclusive resort thing once and I'm not at all interested in doing it again. We've had so many amazing and unexpected experiences planning our own trips.

  12. Thank you for this. Seeing actual numbers helps me think about how I and my DH will manage travel when I retire. (I will be last.). I feel so fortunate that we will both have pensions and the example of offsetting travel costs with what you would otherwise have spent st home is genius. Time too to consider changing our credit card – we’ve used one for twenty years that has domestic travel rewards only. That’s been great for trips to visit aging parents and shorter vacations but as parents have passed or moved closer and I’ve taken a less demanding job that will allow me to actually use my vacation time, maybe it’s time to switch. We can use our stockpile of domestic miles for a few years and then start banking for international again.

    Thank you for your humor and good sense always and today’s practical help too

    1. Stu and I use our Aeroplan miles (and from now on our CIBC Adventura points) for our together travel. And I use my Airmiles for travel down east to visit my Mum. Most of our miles are accumulated on credit cards… which we use to pay for everything, then pay off at the end of each month. It's worked for us so far. We'll see about the new one… haven't tried to redeem anything yet.

  13. Thanks for your down to earth posting! Good to see hard numbers…we love to travel also..we love all different types..guided groups on an archaeological learning trip, all inclusive with grandkids :), on our own driving around Europe,using public transportation ( which my husband loves)…we will be retiring some day soon, so it is nice to hear how you manage. Love your ideas! Coco

    1. We've done some short guided groups, several days in Peru, 3-4 days in Australia in the outback, and a 3 day sailing trip in New Zealand. We loved them all, but were also happy to be back on our own when they ended.

  14. As many have responded, we travel the same way although we generally need to choose self-catered since I have a medically restricted diet. This also lets us meet more people, find the little places that are off the beaten path and even wash our clothes! We tried a cruise once — too many people and too structured for us.

    1. We prefer self-catered, especially now that Stu is on a heart healthy diet. Plus we just prefer to cook for ourselves, and relax with a glass of wine, and our feet up. Being able to do the laundry is an added bonus!

  15. Since my favorite things are travel, planning travel, reading about travel and dreaming about travel, I thoroughly enjoyed your post! We also do a spreadsheet of expenses before (while I'm planning) our trips and after (the great reckoning). Our cost-per-trip ends up being slightly higher than yours, mostly because we haven't been able to score overseas airline tickets with points or miles, and my belovedest is slightly fussy about accommodations — totally based on a gut feeling he gets when I show him photos.

    We usually use Air BnB or VRBO to rent apartments in city areas, if we'll be there for 3+ days, and then a combination of B&Bs, Agriturismo or small hotels. Our motto is often "Save in the City, Splurge in the Country". We still rent cars through AutoEurope to get around, but always on our way out of a city area, and drop off at airport or outside the city on return.
    We love to take a warm weather vacation in the late winter/early spring, and use our FF miles for tickets from Hartford to the Caribbean. We'll stay on one quiet island for 7-10 nights, renting a small villa and a car. On those trips we bring lots of frozen meats and specialty items from home, and supplement with local goods, which really keeps costs down.
    Starting to plan for a big trip next fall and narrowing down the field……let the games begin!

    1. I'm well ready to have a warm weather vacation again. Not sure that Stu is interested, though. He hates to miss any of the skiing. And I'm the pickier one about accommodation. But Stu is getting more picky after a few fails when he insisted that we keep the cost down. Ha. I earned brownie points for NOT whining when we stayed in a couple of places a few years ago. I'll be interested to hear where you're going next.

    2. Usually I have an instinct about where to go next, but I'm not feeling a strong pull this time. We're trying to work off of our bucket list, given that we probably only have about 12 yrs left of active independent travel together — after that, we'll capitulate and go on tours :~). Trouble is, our top stars on the bucket list differ and it's going to be a milestone birthday for Arn so he gets 1st dibs.

      Sicily, maybe, or a combination of Southern Spain/Sicily, Puglia/Sicily, Southern Spain/Puglia?

  16. What a great read! I love your approach to travel and how lucky you are to be able to do so. Good that there will be a next time. The planning and anticipation are all part of the pleasure. Iris

    1. Thanks, Iris. We're just beginning to think about next time. Maybe Africa, maybe Europe again. I'd love to go to Croatia. But I'd love to go back to most of the places we've been already too.

  17. We travel similarly to you. DH is absolutely not interested in a cruise (I've done two and didn't hate them, but I was with single friends long ago). I planned our last trip to Italy myself and we had great experiences. We too paid for a pricey guide or two – totally worth it. I've talked DH into trying airBnB in the US this winter, so we'll see how that goes. I've had good luck with it staying with my daughters.

    We were also near the Opera House in Rome. But we didn't hear a concert! Lovely!

  18. Very interesting, and exactly the kind of trip report I like…details! So thank you. I always subtract the "regular life cost" from how much a trip costs, something that I have noticed not everyone does, and of course NOT doing it artificially inflates the cost of one's trip.

    ceci

  19. Ah, thank you so much for this great post! I'm so glad you shared it on Thursday Favorite Things. My hubby and I are nearing retirement, and we would LOVE to travel, but will be wanting to do it as economically as possible. I really appreciate all of this great advice!

  20. We are 5 so the airfares almost always kills us. We have done a number of holidays combining flights on budget airlines instead of direct flights. That has saved us up to $4K or $5k at times.

  21. Glad you are able to travel as much as you do. I rarely stay in resorts either. My go to accomodation is usually Airbnb. I do like cruises though. I think it a great way to sample a lot of locations and I have been able to find deals too. Thanks for sharing on #TheWeeklyPostcard

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