I’m often asked about my travel planning. How do I decide where to go next? Do I have an overarching plan, or do I make things up as I go? So I thought I’d describe my recent process for you.
When I’m thinking about leaving the States, I start by looking at where the cheap airfares are. The key to affordable flights is flexibility. If you’re willing to wherever the wind blows, you’ll save hundreds of dollars. Generally, in winter, the wind blows to Europe, while in summer, cheap fares to South America are on the breeze. Subscribing to a newsletter like Travelzoo, along with newsletters from Expedia, Travelocity, and other online travel sites, will keep your inbox full of deals. I love Travelzoo’s site as well as their newsletter, for a quick roundup of the best airfare deals of the moment.
This time my needs are a little different. Because I’m emotionally and physically a little fragile, I want to start out by re-visiting some places I’ve already been — but mix in some fresh new adventures as well.
I happened across Norwegian’s new cheap transAtlantic fares. Wow! One way fares to Europe, so rare, and so affordable. I noticed that there was a low fare to Madrid. So I contacted Vaughan Group, who I volunteered with last year, to see if they had any openings. After some back-and-forth, they placed me for a week in Navarre, in the Basque region. I did a quick Google image search on Navarre and…well, let’s just say it looks satisfactory. (If I hadn’t already known about a volunteer opportunity out of Madrid, I would have used workaway.info to explore possibilities. I like having that connection with a place, and sense of purpose.)
But one week of free lodging, however fantastic, wasn’t enough to make my trip worthwhile. I thought about what I felt drawn to do, and realized I wanted to go back to London, to spend some time in the British Museum. Craig always raved about it, he said it contained the entire history of humanity, and admission is free. I contacted the friend I did some cat-sitting for last year, and she said yes, she’s leaving England for several weeks in July and I can use her apartment if I take care of her sweet kitty during that time.
Buying Plane Tickets
Spain in March. London in July. I now had a bit of a framework to work around, so I bought a one-way ticket to from NYC to Madrid. The ticket was about $450, and I still needed a ticket to NYC. But once I get to Madrid, I won’t need to fly again for a while. I’ll take trains and busses from place to place. So that expense can be spread out over six months or more. That’s doable.
Using Expedia, I found a ticket to NYC for just $111, four days before my flight to Madrid leaves. I had just discovered the Met Museum last time I was in New York, and wanted lots more time to explore it.
Staying Cheap in NYC
Finding cheap lodging in NYC is hard work, and I really wanted a place near the park so I can visit museums without having to waste time and money on transportation. Since I’m only staying for four days, I prefer a hostel or hotel to an apartment, and Airbnb has legal issues in New York, anyway. So I used all the usual travel sites — Hipmunk, Hotels.com, TripAdvisor, Hostelworld, and Booking.com and searched like mad for three hours before I found an affordable room. Different sites have negotiated different rates for blocks of rooms, so I find you have to search them all, and sometimes you have to come back on a different day and search again.
I finally found what I wanted, a bunk bed in a hostel for about $43/night, at an Expedia sale rate — the Broadway Hotel and Hostel. That is ridiculously cheap for NYC near the park (although it exceeds my usual lodging budget of $30/night). I find that it’s always either your money or your time, and in this case I gave up many hours to save the money. I don’t love shared hostel rooms, but I don’t hate them either, and for a few days, it’ll be fine. Reviews say the place is old and worn-out looking, but the location is excellent and it has all the basics – hot water, wifi, and a clean bed. If walking weren’t a problem for me at the moment, I might have found a nicer place for the price in Brooklyn, but that’s OK. I won’t be hanging out in the room all day.
I think it’s always very important to know what you’re willing to give up to get what you want. Every dream (even a simple one, like spending four days in New York) is paid for with sacrifices. People with plenty of money can just use that. I have to give up my comfort and privacy. But how badly you want a thing is measured by the sacrifices you’re willing to make for it.
Booking Lodging in Spain
Now I had to find a place to live after my volunteer week in Spain. I started breezing through Airbnb listings for Madrid, Seville, and other major cities using a month-long time frame. I’ve usually had my lodging booked well in advance, and I quickly learned that waiting until the last minute was a horrible idea. An apartment is off the table for a month-long stay if anyone has booked it for even one night during that month! Sometimes I’m happy to rent a room, but I haven’t had my own place to live since October, and I’ll be coming off hostelling and volunteering — I really wanted a quiet space where I could unwind for a month and write. Combined with the fact that I was trying to book over Holy Week meant I just couldn’t find a place I was excited about. And I really needed to feel excited.
One my guiding principles is that there is no one ‘right’ place to go — or rather, that there are many wonderful places to explore. So I don’t get too hung up on deciding the exact spot. In this case, I backed out the ‘map view’ on Airbnb until I was searching the entire country of Spain, simultaneously tightening the search for my price range (under $900/month for rent & all utilities) and my amenity needs (wifi & a kitchen). I checked each apartment, looking for a well-equipped kitchen, a comfortable place to sit and work, good reviews, and that special something that knocks my socks off and makes me feel excited about living in a space. Bonus points if there’s a bathtub.
Plus one very important thing – since I live without a car, I need a walkable neighborhood, where I can at least get groceries easily. A cafe, bar, bakery and restaurant within walking distance improve my quality of life a thousandfold.
It took half a day, but I finally found the place. It’s not available immediately after my volunteer gig, so I’ll spend a few days in Granada before I go there. It’s a cave house, above the town of Baza. On writing to the hostess, I was assured that I can get groceries and tapas in the town, which is only a 10 minute walk. If I have too much trouble with my hip, I can get a taxi to take me and my groceries up the hill. The town is full of Moorish history, tapas bars, restaurants, and Andalucian charm. The house doesn’t have a bathtub, but has a private saltwater pool where I can sip wine under the stars in the evenings, and a terrace where I can sit and watch the landscape all day long.
Before I committed, I ran a quick Google image search on the nearby town of Baza to see if I found it instantly appealing. I did.
I also used wikitravel.org to read up on the area, I feel like I get the best overview of a place there. Then I used Rome2rio.com to make sure there were busses into the town from Granada and check pricing.
The place was only available for three weeks (23 nights) , but my bill for that time comes to about $650. Again, the price includes everything except food. So much cheaper than my bills in the U.S. Life on the road is amazingly affordable, if you’re willing to put in the time to find the great lodging — and, again, make sacrifices. In this case, I’ve sacrificed being in a major city close to lots of attractions and gotten a good price because I’m staying in a more rural area — which can be challenging without a car.
This post has gotten very long, thanks for bearing with me through it all. I’ll continue writing about my process in my next post…
To summarize, here’s the flow of my decision-making process
- Find cheap airfare to someplace interesting, decide to go there
- Possibly search for volunteer opportunities in the area, or see if I can tap my network
- Search surrounding areas for fun places to stay – using google images and travel wiki to get an overview of each area.
- Find cheap lodging, usually on Airbnb – this often causes me to rethink where I’ll be going
- Use rome2rio to connect the dots between cities
Essential websites I mentioned in this post that might be new to you:
Travelzoo.com – subscribe to their newsletter & use the site to keep up on deals
Rome2Rio – put in any two (or more) places and it will tell you how to travel between them
workaway.info – to find volunteer opportunities (read reviews carefully & research the places on your own, screening is minimal.)
Wikitravel.org – to get an overview of a place (combine with a simple Google image search for visuals.