many of you may know my partner and i just returned from a five week backpacking trip in europe. this trip was a huge anomaly for me, considering i rarely leave the eastern US nor fly on planes. but i do believe travel is a worthwhile adventure, even for the frugally minded. today’s post looks at the logistics of this trip from a financial and conscious perspective.
the case for travel
the seed of a long trip to europe was planted three years ago after we watched many friends go abroad. i had reservations about travelling abroad, ranging from expense to mental health concerns to the environmental impact of travel – all valid. yet i felt called to leave the country, not even sure what i was looking for abroad. i did know that my life had consisted of much of the same for the past six years- the same landscapes, culture, people, governments, and dominant societal norms.
in our society we often “specialize” in the work we do that makes up the bulk of our days. this usually leads to work of a repetitive nature – we are trained at a handful of tasks, and complete these same tasks perhaps in different sequences day in and day out. those of us who work full-time probably only get 15-20 paid days off per year besides our precious weekends. by default, we spend most of our days in the same towns, doing the same things, and often daydream and look forward to our precious vacations to exotic places.
the dichotomy between “normal life” and “vacation time” is ingrained in us due to our work schedules and fragmented lives. thinking about “normal life” as somehow less enjoyable or worthwhile than “vacation time” is damaging to our psyches. it puts us in a constant state of wanting more than we currently have. i often hear people talk about wanting a “vacation from their life” which makes me sad, because it implies that everyday life is straining, monotonous, and a chore.
cultivating a sense of community and place can break down this dichotomy, perhaps helping us to find “vacation feelings” in the ordinary. i try to practice finding the extraordinary in the everyday. integrating our work with our values and interests in another way to bridge the gap. we can craft a whole lifestyle that aligns with what brings joy. we can feel more content with our daily lives.
yet i would argue that as important as it is to do the work of connecting to place and finding joy in everyday life vs always looking for the next vacation, it is equally important to be open to new experiences that are radically different. vacations are enjoyable because they take us away from the ordinary and let us shift our daily life from the same routines to something new. we are exposed to new landscapes and cultures, as well as new thought patterns and feelings withing ourselves.
thus, i try to approach the idea of travel from this perspective of personal growth instead of escapism. when we started planning this trip, i was more interested in experiences that spoke to my values and interests. i wanted to visit scandinavia to experience alternative economies and governments. everywhere we visited, we sought experiences in nature where we could be immersed in new-to-us ecosystems. and of course, we didn’t skimp on food – we ate local cuisines to our hearts content, and have returned to america with long lists of recipes, cooking ideas, and even new culinary plants to grow in our gardens.
the cons of travel
as i mentioned above, there are a number of negative impacts of travel that should be carefully considered. the most obvious to me is the considerable expense, especially when travelling abroad. i talk about viewing money as a representation of life force, and making financial decisions based on what aligns best with your values. some folks love to travel and derive great pleasure from taking long trips multiple times per year. others (like me) balk at the expense to pleasure ratio and travel only occasionally. likewise, there are a variety of travel styles ranging from ultra expensive to dirt cheap, and all these spending choices should be approached from the lens of value-based spending.
the second significant negative impact of travel can be the environmental impact. airplanes, cars, boats, and trains unfortunately all run on fossil fuels, and travelling for pleasure is certainly a luxury that only citizens of first-world countries get to enjoy. another flavor is the overall impact of the tourism industry. in some countries habitat is destroyed or fragmented to provide venues and amenities for tourists. also, non-renewable resources are used to build and create hotels, tour buses, parking lots, resorts, etc.
a final point to consider is the impact that tourism has on the local communities. is the tourism industry supporting the community in a just and fair way? or is it creating sub-standard and/ or dangerous jobs and cycles of poverty, gentrification, and displacement? these issues of human rights are important to consider when planning a trip abroad, and should be researched beforehand as the answer is likely complex and varies from place to place.
a vacation is an expense – usually a large expense, and should be treated with careful consideration and planning. we spent $9,000 together on our trip abroad – more than either of us has even spent on a single item in our lives. we had a travel budget and kept track of all our spending in a spreadsheet to make sure we were staying true to our plan. but the financial preparation started long before we even bought our first round of plane tickets.
just like buying a house or a car or any other large ticket item, it’s important to make sure you are in a sound financial position before deciding to spend on an expensive trip. this means not carrying consumer debt (outside of a mortgage) and having built up a reserve of cash in hand to cover at least six months of living expenses. we did not set aside savings for this trip per se, but we did wait until we amassed a comfortable amount of cash savings such that our living expense fund would not be depleted below our baseline (i actually keep an entire years worth of living expenses in cash). we found that by putting ourselves in an advantageous position to travel, we felt much less stressed about money throughout planning as well as the actual trip.
we planned our trip over a period of seven months, making big purchases in increments – one month we bought all our plane travel, the next all our lodging, the next train travel and insurance, etc. by the time we left we had prepaid for virtually everything except daily items like food and museum tickets. this method had pros and cons. one one hand, we saved a lot of money especially on trains by booking ahead of time and planning our travel around the best fares from city to city. we knew when all our trains were and never had to worry about waiting or missing a train. however, this severely limited spontaneity – if we arrived somewhere and loved it, we didn’t really have the option to stay a couple days.
we planned our trip in the middle of the travel style spectrum – we didn’t splurge on anything but we also didn’t stay in hostels and eat pizza everyday. we opted for airbnb’s – mostly private rooms in people’s homes. this guaranteed us privacy but at a low cost – the rooms ran us on average $45/ night. much less than hotels, and we got to meet some cool hosts and stay in some great neighborhoods where there were no hotels.
once place we saved a lot was on airfare. we flew budget airlines and pre-paid for our checked backpacks on every flight. we probably could have saved $100 total by trying to carry-on our bags, but it wasn’t worth the stress of trying to make our irregularly sized packs fit into the carry-on frame. we also spent a lot of time in airports, and it was nice to be pack-free. five flights per person ran us $2000 total. and we did the cool/ cheap thing of flying to europe via iceland, which i’m so glad we did because we’re in love with that little island country!
one place we didn’t skimp on was experiences. any museum, park/ garden, or tour that sounded interesting to us we went for without too much thought of cost. we also ate well – usually enjoying local street food for lunch and a nice sit down dinner (ps – there was SO MUCH vegetarian food everywhere we went!). we also picked up meals from local grocers quite often, buying and trying regional cuisine items. we tried to eat at non-touristy places in small residential neighborhoods, and spent a decent amount of time reading restaurant reviews and picking our food options. but both of these expenses are exactly in line with our values and the purpose of our trip – we wanted to be immersed in local culture, and eat well because … we love food!
in terms of lessening environmental impacts, we opted for local (as opposed to tourist based) public transportation the entire trip. we did not rent a car or taxi anywhere. we walked a lot for both the exercise and ability to see more. we skipped most of the big “tourist attractions” everywhere we visited. and we didn’t buy souvenirs! in total we brought back two small bottles of limoncello, a pair of hand carved dice from a local artist in norway, a lapel pin from norway, and a bag of italian candies. $30. that’s it.
we had a great trip that was exciting, challenging, beautiful, uncomfortable, and inspiring all at once. and we feel good about the price tag.
what we would do differently
- take a shorter trip. five weeks was a long time to be away from our pets, home, and routines. i think two-three weeks is ideal.
- visit less places. we are talking about returning to one small town in italy for two whole weeks.
- skip all the big cities. the most cherished experiences of the entire trip were the days we spent in small towns with no tourism industry.
- rent a place with a kitchen. and stay there minimum 4 nights.
- learn more of the language before leaving.
- spend more time hiking. we loved all the hiking we did, obviously – it’s our favorite thing to do back in the states.
- take more classes/ small tours. we did a great street art tour in berlin and a wine tasting in italy that were our top experiences. i would love to study regional craft with a local if we return.