Monday, October 25, 2010

Traveling on the Cheap

This past week I had the fabulous opportunity to travel to Poland, with the goal of trying to develop an international collaboration between some NC schools and Polish schools. If you want to check out the details of the trip, hop over to my other blog. This post will focus on the details of traveling on the cheap, while not sacrificing any of the experience.

1. Travel on someone else's dime, if possible. I had the opportunity to take this trip through the local university, since it was a partnership between the universities and K-12 schools in both countries. Other trips I've taken, I try to weave in some professional experience so that I can apply for grants and scholarships to help offset the expenses, including plane tickets, lodging costs, and museum/conference fees.

2. Make lodging inexpensive. Most countries abroad (especially in Europe) have a hostel network, home-stay network, or university lodgings that are significantly less expensive than the cost of a hotel. For this trip, we stayed in university lodgings that were dorm style, with each room having its' own bath. The lodgings were the typical sparse dormatory feel, but they were certainly sufficient, since we didn't do much there besides sleep. These lodgings also provided breakfast, so that was one less meal that we had to pay for. The cost per night was about $30; much less expensive than a hotel in the area. When I've traveled in other countries, I've done the home-stay thing, which gives you a much better sense of the local culture and day to day life. If you're looking for inexpensive lodgings in the States, most KOA campgrounds have camping cabins that are quite serviceable and cost about $15-20 per night. For these, you have to provide your own linens and plan on trips to the bath house, but going this route frees up more funds for sightseeing and other expenses.

3. Follow the local culture in terms of meals. In Poland, we found that there is a tradition of a light breakfast around 8:00, then "second breakfast" around 10:30 (this term makes me thing of The Hobbit... anyone else remembering that?), and a heavy lunch around 2:00-3:00 in the afternoon. Dinner is either skipped or is a light sandwich around 10:00 pm. Following the local culture in terms of meals and food means that you get a more authentic experience and aren't disappointed when restaurants close earlier than anticipated. With this particular trip, the local university in Poland treated us like royalty, so there were very few meal that we had to pay for overall.

4. Pack light. When I travel in a plane, I have learned not to check baggage unless absolutely necessary. This means that I don't run the risk of the bag not arriving with me at my destination, I don't have to wait at baggage claim, and I can make easy use of public transit to get me from the airport to my lodgings. It also means that I don't have to pay a fee for checking baggage, which is becoming more and more frequent and popular with airlines.

5. Choose small, but meaningful, souvenirs. I often make my souvenirs a local street artist painting of a typical scene in the area, a Christmas ornament, tea towel, or something edible (condiment, tea bags, etc. make sure it's in a sealed package, so you don't have a hard time with airport security). Depending on my packing space, I choose one of these, or some combination. (My grandmother always likes to bring home jewelry for the same reason.) This time, I was able to find a painting, Christmas ornament, and something edible that would all easily fit into my carry-on luggage. I like the paintings because they're small and flat, which means they easily pack away, and the Christmas ornament can be padded with clothing. Generally, I come back with some condiment that seems indicative of the area, so this time it was some rose hip jam, with which I'll make thumb print cookies at Christmas. If you get too carried away with souvenirs, especially large ones, it can mean paying for shipping or an extra checked bag on the return flight.

6. As I've mentioned before, make use of public transportation. We found the tram/trolley system in Poland to be very easy to navigate, once we learned the main routes. The particular city we visited was also very pedestrian friendly, so it was easy to walk to the market area or bakery without losing our way.

7. Take advantage of museum deals or entertainment. A few people from our group attended a ballet at the local opera house while we were there, and found the tickets to be quite reasonable with the conversion rate (about $12). I opted for a night walking tour of the historic square that evening, with window shopping and people watching included for free. I find seeing a new place at night an interesting way to learn more about the local culture and more about the pop culture, since this is usually when the younger generations have time to bar hop, play street music, etc. There is often one day of the week when museums provide discounts, so this is another way to take in the culture. When I was in Germany, this day was Sunday, so it was easy to go to a few museums in the course of the day and end up paying less than the cost of going to one on a regular week day.

So, what about you? How do you travel on the cheap, while still enjoying the scenery? Do you have any tips for sight seeing or eating on the cheap while you travel? I'd love to hear from you!

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