Archive for January 2009

Tips & Tricks for the cheap Traveler.

January 31, 2009

Money Money Money Money.

It’s all about the money. More money you’ve got, longer your travels can last, the more you can do, and the more fun you can have. Run out of money? That sucks, you’re left calling you friends or parents (or both) begging for pennies to head home and in the meantime probably sleeping somewhere uncomfortable munching cheap snacks for dinner. Joy. Of course you could always try to work for some quick cash, but then you’ve got a whole new plethora of annoyances to work legally, and if you choose to try to get cash the ‘under the table’ way you’re likely going to be working hard for minimal profit, all while knowing if someone decides not to pay up, there’s not a thing you can do about it. Damn.

So how can you avoid this apocalyptic scenario? Easy. Save your pennies and play it smart. You’d be amazed how much comfort you can get for minimal monies. This isn’t a guide by any means, more just a few common sense little things I’ve found useful while traveling Europe.

-If you’re eating at a restaurant, drink water. Not bubbly water, not sparkling, not mineral or holy water or water infused with the power of Zeus. Just plain tap water. Cheap. Free. Tap water. But why you ask? Because the drinks are the expensive part of any decent meal, and without that added cost of a cola or a glass of wine, you can easily afford to sample delicious local foods without breaking the bank. Which brings up…

-Drinks in general. For the most part, stick with bottled water. Find the local market and they’re sure to have big 1 liter bottles for dirt cheap prices. And if you absolutely must enjoy a cool tasty specialty, then again, find the local supermarket and get it there. Buying drinks at the little tourist kiosks may be convenient, but it’s also likely three times the price you’d pay anywhere else.

It may sound boring, water, water and more water. However not only is it healthy for you but you’d be amazed at how much money you’re saving by such a simple thing. If you absolutely must spend a couple nights in a pub as part of you trip, try to limit your money spent carefully. I’ve met people who’ve wasted away days worth of money on nights they can’t even remember the next day. I can do that at home if I want to, traveling half-way across the world to do it just seems stupid! But hell, I’m not here to criticize anyones habits, just point out how bloody expensive it can be. Do that every night and you’ll soon find yourself wondering where all the money went.

-Hostels are an excellent place to spend a night or two. Don’t be stupid, don’t believe the silly movies or whispered rumors. The truth is Hostels are just like Hotels in that there are some that are better than others. Hell, I can name a few Hostels which I found better than hotels that cost hundreds a night to stay at. Indeed the novelty of spending the night in such a setting can be refreshing at times (Unless you’ve got a snorer in the room. Damn them! But after a long busy day world wandering, not even the mountainous rumbling of a fellow roommate is likely to keep you long from precious sleep.). Hostels can range in style and quality from location to location; some are small family run buildings, the equivalent of renting out an apartment. Small family run operations. And then there are the big organizations. Regardless of which type you stay in, Hostels are usually damn cheap and as far as needing a place to sleep goes they serve admirably.

-If you are traveling with a companion cheaper hotels are also an option. For a 2 star hotel (Basic amenities but little else.) the cost of a 2 bed room, or 1 bed if you’re traveling as a couple, split between two people will often end up the same cost as a pair of beds in a Hostel. And yet there’s no doubt about the advantages of having your own room for the night. 1-2 stars doesn’t mean bad by the way, the higher the star rating the more luxury. One of my favourite hotels was actually a 2 star hotel, which had spacious room, clean comfortable beds, great location and friendly staff.

As a side note, if you travel from one city to another you’ll quickly find out about the organization ‘Hosteling international’ which runs a good slew of Hostels around the world, and it’s worth mentioning that in general I’ve had more bad experiences with that organization and the hostels under them than good. Usually when looking for places my mantra would be ‘anywhere but Hostel International’. A mantra that served me well. I’m sure they’ve a couple excellent quality locals but seeing as I’m not omnipresent (Although I do try to be!) and the vast majority of times I’ve stayed there (Usually for lack of anywhere else affordable to stay.) have been fairly negative experiences, you’ll forgive me if I just try to avoid them as a whole!

-Don’t buy maps or touristy info, there’s always a free alternative somewhere. Tourist information will often have a free cheap map and a slew of ones which you have to pay for, and for the most part you’ll find that the cheap freebies are more than enough to explore the cities core. That’s what they’re for after all: An incentive to get tourists to explore the local areas. They wont give much information beyond the central core of the town or city, but that’s usually more than enough.

-Walk whenever possible and if you need to get somewhere far enough away that you can’t walk there, then take the public transportation. Taxi are just too damned expensive, and even the thought of renting a vehicle sends a money related shiver down my spine. Via transit and walking the cost of wandering a city is negligible, leaving you all the more money for an extra days travel later on or to treat yourself to a cool soft-drink or a snack at a local cafe.

-Try to avoid spending in the tourist traps. These are the locations where the prices are highest, the crowds are thickest, and everything is designed to sneak pennies from yer pockets. By all means wander them freely and enjoy, the tourist traps are often the nicest part of cities. But just keep in mind that almost anything you buy there, whether it be food or drinks or tickets or whatever, will often be almost twice the price of anywhere else in the city. That’s just the way it works! Meanwhile the attractions you’ll find in these areas are often the most pricey but showy of a cities sights. Whether you pay for admission to these places is ultimately up to you. You are a traveler after all, it’d be silly to go to say; Paris, and not visit The Louvre! Just keep in mind these things add up after a while.

-Batteries are expensive, either bring enough to last the trip from home or make sure whatever electronics you’re carrying are rechargeable. Unfortunately the different voltage from UK to Europe to North America and various other places around the world will not always be compatible with the rechargeable item in question, regardless of plug converters. But for the most part anything designed for travel or convenience: Camera’s, Electric Shaver’s and the like will work just fine. Just be careful.

*ADDED*

-Many places you might stay will offer a basic free breakfast or at the least a baguette if you happen to be in France. Ask about it before getting a room for the night and consider it when choosing a place to stay, most hotel will have this and many hostel as well. Take advantage of this always! Eat your fill and then eat a little more before going about your day.  Stuff yourself. GORGE! Free food is a beautiful thing and should be taken advantage of. Might not always be the best (9 times out of 10 you’re choices are cereal, cereal, and more cereal if you’re at a hostel.) but it’s free.

-Now if you’ve saved money by not buying an expensive breakfast, here’s another tip in the same vein; Eat smart! It might seem counter-intuitive for me to suggest you eat at a nice place for dinner but that’s exactly what I’m doing. Perhaps you think fast food is a clever way to save money, it is cheap after all and McDonald’s really is everywhere. But the food they serve is simply neither very healthy or filling and you’ll find yourself much more hungry quicker than if you’d eaten some genuine food. And this applies not just McDonald’s but most any fast food chain. Meanwhile if you’ve taken my advice above and do not order any drinks, you’ll discover that eating at a fairly nice place to enjoy the local cuisine isn’t all that much more expensive than the fast food chain you were considering earlier and so much more filling. Indeed, you just might start skipping lunches and looking forward more and more to trying something tasty and new for dinner. Saving money and eating great, you can’t ask for more!

-This isn’t always an option but if you can find a local marketplace there will occasionally be a few stalls which will offer basic meals. When you can find these go for it, you’re getting the best of the local cuisine at dirt cheap prices.

That’s all I can think of for the moment, although I’m sure I’ll end up editing this a few times in the future as various other little things come to mind and I feel the urge to make this as complete as possible for next time I look it over. And honestly it may not sound like much, but the money saved from things as simple as drinking water really does add up. I write this just as much to remind myself as anything else, since I’m still kicking myself over some of the stupid mistakes I’ve made while traveling that cost me so very much money.

Next time I’ll be smarter, next time…

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Once upon a time in Rome.

January 11, 2009

Once upon a time there was a city named Rome, and it was the center of the world! It’s power stretched across almost all of Europe and into strange, foreign lands of beauty and danger. From the icy north-lands to the vast desert stretches, all answered to Rome. Grandest city in the known world.

Needless to say, Rome isn’t quite like that anymore. But it made for a dramatic introduction to this short article and it sets a proper mood for reading about Rome. Why? Because Rome is all about the past. It’s about the empires of the past and the mighty people who ran them. It’s a persistent vibe throughout the city that truly sets it apart from any other capital city in the world.

But let us begin somewhere more grounded, shall we? Departing from the train system into Romes main terminal is a bit of a mess really. It’s crowded and not terribly traveler friendly. Indeed the city itself is not very kind to backpackers at all. Between a complete lack of any useful tourism information that’s easily accessible for your average unprepared random wanderers like myself, and the abundance of rather grumpy and unfriendly people, first impressions were not the best sort. I still harbor a few particular grudges towards some events that took place in Rome. But I wont dwell on these things, promise, I’m simply stating the blunt truth to try and set a grim but necessary foundation for my brief description of Rome.

Once you have found a place to spend the night and a safe location for your things, you’ll want to wander and see the city proper. And this is where Rome begins to shine! Despite everything said above Rome is actually one of the few major cities where to get the proper experience I’d say walking worked best. Whether you’re strolling between the fashionable tight Italian alleys or staring up in awe at some of the magnificent works of art that fill the city to near burst, it all feels ‘right’ to be on foot and most of the things you’ll want to see as a tourist are within walking distance of one another.

And there are many things you’ll want to see in Rome. You’re probably thinking of the coliseum right now, but once that awe inspiring moment where you stand at the structures base and stare up at it for the first time thinking “I can’t believe I’m seeing this in person!” passes, I quickly found the coliseum to be one of the lesser sights of Rome. Surrounded by fencing and crowded beyond belief. Loud with pushy tourists and locals and vendors and who knows who else all over the place. Eug. I was if anything a bit relieved to walk away from that particular famous attraction. Luckily Rome has many, many more to offer. Some just as famous, others not as much. Luckily even simply walking down the street in Rome can offer all sorts of sights and sounds. This is one of those rare places where it’s common to find archaeological digs interrupting streets or where you find yourself by accident wandering across some famous relic from the past you’d forgotten till just then. For example; You’re walking down a narrow street on your way to the Pantheon and find yourself stumbling across Trevi Fountain on the way, which you’d forgotten was even in Rome. Or walking across a bridge to see the Vatican and finding yourself staring up in awe at the amazing Castel Sant’Angelo, or Hadrian’s Tomb as it’s also known, with it’s dozens of angels watching its way. It’s an amazing thing for one city to be so full of such amazing things.

Which brings us to The Vatican, most well known for its main structure Saint Peter’s Basilica, which from a glance is extremely big and quite impressive. Although truthfully there are other cathedrals and churches which I’d say lent to a better first impression despite being nowhere near the Basilica’s size. The vast Saint Peter’s Square and the journey leading up to Basilica entrance is certainly something you’ll remember, but it’s the inside, the sheer size and… opulence of Saint Peter’s Basilica seen from the inside which is nothing less than humbling. I am not a religious man, I’ve said so before and I say so again. And yet the majesty and glory of Saint Peter’s Basilica is something to appreciate regardless of your religious beliefs. I marvel at the time and craftsmanship it must have taken to build such a structure, and the costs of maintenance must be beyond belief.

Here, let me describe my experience better instead of simply saying how amazing it was. In the square outside leading to the Basilica there is a long lineup that stretches across one end of the area. Usually there are hundreds of people there, patiently waiting in line. Luckily it is a quick line as I found the heat while waiting nearly unbearable. To this end unfortunately you ‘must’ cook to a certain degree, as in a nod to the Basilica’s tradition and history there are armed guards who look over every person before you are allowed to pass, making sure you wear the appropriate amount of clothing befitting the nature of the church you’re entering. Many are given a cheap but effective paper shawl to wear inside if their clothing is not conservative enough to pass muster, but not revealing enough to outright deny entry as they can and will do if your clothing is simply that scant. Slowly you’ll move forward and eventually find yourself inside, passing through the catacombs and past the tombs of the popes past. It sounds more glamorous than it is really, and in truth the catacomb is a stately white area with orderly niche for tombs. The last pope’s tomb, John Paul II, with a vigilant guard standing nearby. Eventually you’ll be led up a small circular stairwell, and finally into the Basilica proper where you’re free to wander as you see fit.

St. Peter’s Basilica is awe inspiringly big from the inside, crowded shoulder to shoulder with tourists and staff more often than not, and with nearly every square inch of the walls decorated with some sort of elaborate art. Paintings and carvings are so plentiful it’s impossible to count, all done with that particular renaissance style that the church has grown associated with. What I found particularly stunning were the ceiling murals and the way it seemed every window was designed just right to create beams of shimmering light that reached down like, well, godly beams. Extremely impressive to say the least. Humbling to be allowed near the seat of such wealth and power.

And that was simply the Vatican, Rome has much more to offer. Another notable experience which springs to mind is of probably the single most massive monument in Rome, the Monument to Vittorio Emanuele II, first king of a united Italy. This structure also holds the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, a monument to the Italian soldiers lost in World War I. To say it is big is an understatement, the structure, all a pure white marble, is simply breathtaking. You’re allowed to climb the marble steps, past the unknown soldiers tomb and the eternal flame, to the top where you’ll find a small museum dedicated to the unification of Italy. What’s interesting is that there are armed guards who watch the monument and who will stop anyone from sitting or spitting or anything of the sort anywhere upon the monument. More than once I saw a tired tourist pause for a moment while climbing the steps, and try to take a seat only to have a guard whistle in their direction and gesture for them to continue moving.

But I could write forever on the many, many, many sights of Rome (And The Vatican, since it’s really its own city-state! Tiny one, but city-state nonetheless.). The true experience is simply to walk its streets, visit the cafe and relax in the shade. Saunter along next to a field where once lay a famous hippodrome, or to count the cats that climb about an ancient Roman temple now turned into a preserve of sorts within the middle of a busy intersection. Each famous monument is on its own impressive, but it’s that they’re all collected into one city that truly amazes. Rome is, truth be told, not a city I would live in. It is however a city I’d recommend for all to visit, especially for anyone with even a remote love of history.

Rome. Beautiful and ancient!