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January 12, 2016

How to have “a Lat” of fun in Latvia (and Estonia, for that matter)

After a short day in Copenhagen, we made it to sunny Riga, Latvia!  After waking up at our very reasonably priced and comfortable hostel, we headed for the medieval streets of Old Town.

We spent the morning ambling through cobblestone streets snapping shots of the 17th century architecture and crumbling buildings.  Many of the buildings were pillaged in WWII and have been restored to their original beauty.  One of the most notable is the House of Blackheads built in 1344 by the Brotherhood of Blackheads merchant guild.

After listening to a somber street violinist in the square, it was time for some snacks at the Central Market.

The market is housed in four Zeppelin hangars built in 1930.  These hangars were never actually used for aircraft but immediately became the home of one of the world’s largest markets with over 80,000 visitors each day.  Each building has a different theme– meat/dairy, fish, produce, clothing, etc.  Merchants sell everything from hand-knit socks to amazing pastries.

We stuck more to the pastries.

There were plenty of locals stocking up on food, so this was an excellent opportunity to snap a few photos of Latvians in action.  Still being new at that kind of thing, I wasn’t sure how to go about this.  Do you try to take it while they aren’t looking?  Do you ask them?  I went with the former strategy and pretended to take photos of a lot of things around me and then snapped several quick shots when my subject wasn’t looking

This method was only moderately effective.

I got the photo, but apparently the woman with the pink bag was a little camera shy.  She began shouting at me in Latvian and flailing her arms wildly.  Oops.  The people around us stopped and stared while I retreated horrified.  I’ll try the other approach next time!  I did, however, manage to get a second photo of the man with the flowers.

Pre-yelling shot Pre-yelling shot

Luckily, we found some great street food at the market.  Nearly everything cost about 1 Latvian Lat (approx. $1.70) or less, which made for a cheap day of eating.  We enjoyed a black tea for 0.80 Ls, ½ a kilo of amazing strawberries for 0.75 Ls, a fresh homemade donut for 0.10 Ls, an apple filled pastry for 0.16 Ls, a loaf of rye bread for 0.58 Ls, potato pancakes for 1.16 Ls, a stick of cured sausage for 1.07 Ls, smoked salmon for 1.6 Ls, fresh bread and cheese for 1.04 Ls, and 2 beers for 1 Ls each!  This came to a grand total of only 8.22 Lats– about $14– for two days of food.  Not bad.

Estonia was a different story.  A Lat Kroon doesn’t quite go as far north of the border.  The two Baltic countries are somewhat similar in feel except the noticeable differences in quality of life and per capita income.  Riga had a very gritty atmosphere with very few tourists.  It felt like dropping in on the daily life of the local culture, which we really enjoy.

Tallinn, the capital of Estonia, relies heavily on tourism.  Their Old Town is filled with fancy restaurants, chic coffee shops, and costumed peasants and monks to recreate the Middle Ages for the masses.  There are some great views of the old city wall and towers, and it is undoubtedly a beautiful city.  However, it felt a little disingenuous at times.  Check out our Flickr gallery of Estonia.

Our CouchSurfing host, Mirjam, showed us some of the “real” city.  She also took us around to some other great sights like the open-air museum and the Kadroirg art museum.

On a side note, the lengthened daylight hours in the Baltics requires some adjustment.  The sun doesn’t set until long after midnight and rises around 4:00 a.m.  Add in cross-Atlantic jet lag, and you’ve got a seriously screwed up sleeping and eating schedule.  By the time we were ready for dinner, it would sometimes be 11:00 p.m. or later!

We said goodbye to Mirjam and Estonia last night, and we are currently relaxing in Stockholm after our overnight cruise on the M/S Victoria I.   Our journey through Northern Europe will be wrapping up Wednesday when we fly to Barcelona.  We found some unexpected treasures buried in the former Soviet States, and I’m very glad we started our journey here.

February 23, 2015

5 Surprising Ways to Save Money While Traveling

5 Surprising Ways to Save Money While Traveling

You too can have this on a budget… Playa-Paraiso-Beach 1. Book a MORE expensive flight.

Sometimes the cheapest flights are false economy. Key examples of this are:

– when the cheapest flight leaves to early or arrives too late for your airport transportation e.g., you have to pay after midnight surcharges for cabs or shuttles, or you’re not able to take public transportation to/from the airport when you usually would do so. Other examples might be when

– you miss the last boat to an offshore island,

– getting from an airport served by budget airlines is more expensive

– your bag fees, seat selection, and meal charges add up to more than a full service airline

– you end up spending a lot of money on wifi, food, and drinks in the airport because of a long layover

– the cheaper flight involves keeping your rental car one day longer (rental cars are charged in 24 hour periods)

However, the #1 reason to book a convenient flight is that when you’re tired you’ll usually make stupid decisions e.g., leave your purse in a cab, or get suckered into buying rental car insurance you’re already covered for. 2. Eat out rather than self-cater.

There are many places in the world where self catering is more expensive than eating out for meals.

Self catering is often more expensive than eating out because of:

– the typically higher cost for self catering accommodation (maybe due to a higher cost of the lodging, or maybe because it results in higher transport costs to less central locations)

– buying ingredients in the supermarket adds up to more than eating at restaurants.

buy brand name accutane 3. Stay at a hotel rather than a hostel.

There are quite a few times in our traveling careers when staying at a hotel has been cheaper than booking two dorm beds or a private room at a hostel.

For example,

– in New York dorm beds can be $50! A hotel for two people can be found for less than $100.

– in San Francisco and other places I’ve paid less for a 4* hotel on Priceline than the cost of a private room at the HI Hostels.

Airport hotels are often great bets for your last night (or first night) at a destination. For example, you can get to the airport cheaper in the morning for your flight, and you’re more likely to be able to check in early after a long day of traveling than you are at a hostel. Being able to check in early, which most hotels will permit, sure beats trying to keep your eyes open till 4pm when you can check into your hostel. You won’t need to go spend $8 on coffees at Starbucks to stay awake.

4. Book a MORE expensive rental car.

– Very cheap rental car rates are often so cheap because they don’t include insurance or don’t include adequate insurance (the might include the legal minimum liability insurance, something like $25,000, which may not cover the costs of injuring someone). Make sure you don’t end up double or tripling your expected rate because you have to buy insurance at the rental counter.

– The cheapest rate might also have fine print like you’ll be charged for a tank of gas and need to return the car EMPTY (you might need a couple of extra bucks to get you the normal “pick up full, return full option”)

– For people who aren’t covered for liability through their existing insurance, you can get around some of the issues with liability insurance renting cars if yo buy a multi trip policy that covers rental car liability or buy a named non owner policy.

5. Book packages.

Sometimes packages come out cheaper than their constituent parts. When you’re searching on airfare sites click over and check out that package rate. Use the package rates as a ballpark figure for your trip costs and work down from there, perhaps based your own research time on $20 or $50 an hour in savings.

October 4, 2010

Europe by the Numbers

Europe by the Numbers

In three hours, we say goodbye to Europe.

Our first four months have been great, but we are ready to move on to the “real” trip.  Europe isn’t all that different from home, and we are looking forward to more challenging destinations.

We are leaving in the nick of time too.  With the State Department’s recent travel advisory, we are glad to be leaving Europe for the safe and sound Middle East.

We were planning on traveling overland from Sarajevo to Istanbul via Belgrade and Sofia.  Rather than face a gruesome rail journey (22+ hours), we opted to fly to Istanbul to buy us more time in Turkey.  We almost always prefer overland travel, but I think this was the better decision in this instance.

Even with a few mishaps (read: MacBook), we are still basically on track.  We log every expense in our Moleskine notebook, and I have a series of graphs and PivotTables to keep our finances in order.  I’ll keep this blog short and let the numbers speak for themselves.

The Tab


30 buses
10 taxis
4 ferries
6 flights
1 car rented
17 trains
1 metro fine

Average Per Diem:

$45.73 Lodging
$38.42 Food
$5.15  Sightseeing
$3.00  Misc. Supplies
$2.83  Clothing
$2.51  Personal
$2.38  Entertainment
$1.36  Laundry
$0.63    Souvenirs

Total Transport Cost: $5,491

Average Per Diem (excl. transport): $102.01
Average Per Diem (incl. transport): $147.23

Grand Total: $17,962

Overall, we came out about where we planned on time and money.  I’m sure we could have done it cheaper, but we struck a balance between comfort and roughing it.  The spikes are days were we had an expensive train ride.  Besides my round-trip flight to Zagreb to fix the MacBook, we haven’t flown since mid-July when we arrived in Frankfurt.

After talking budgets with many European travelers, I am convinced we have done pretty well.  Most seem to average around $100 per day, and we are getting by at $150/day for two including transportation.  Take out buses, flights, etc. and we’re down to $100 per day.

I’m very excited about the second half of our trip.  Our daily expenses should fall to practically nothing.  I met a couple last week that spent only $6,000 over 6 months in Northern India.  Maybe we will make it home under budget even!

Our European Favorites

We are often asked what place, food, sight, etc. we have liked the best.  Kim and I have slightly different points of view, but we tried to come up with our top five to summarize our time in Europe.

Top 5 Countries

1. Croatia
2. Portugal
3. Germany
4. Austria
5. Bosnia

Top 5 Touristy Sights

1. Castle of the Moors – Sintra, Portugal
2. Vasa Museum – Stockholm, Sweden
3. Auschwitz – Oswiecim, Poland

4. Gaudi – Barcelona, Spain
5. Port tasting – Porto, Portugal

Top 5 Cheapest Countries

1. Bosnia
2. Poland
4. Latvia
5. Czech Republic

Top 5 Hostels

1. Hostel Adria – Split, Croatia
2. Lisbon Chillout
5. Dubrovnik Backpackers Club
3. Granada Homestay
4. Home – Valencia, Spain

Top 5 Cities

1. Berlin
2. Prague
3. Porto
4. Budapest
5. Barcelona

Top 5 Food Cities

1. Berlin
2. Barcelona
3. Munich
4. Budapest
5. Madrid

Top 5 Beers

1. Augustiner Edelstoff
2. Pilsner Urquell

Budweiser Budvar
4. Super Bock
5. Carlsburg

Our cab is coming in 15 minutes.  Wish us luck in the Middle East.

We will be hitting up Turkey, flying to Egypt, and crossing overland to Jordan.  I’m sure we will have a post on our Top 5 camels or falafel next time.  Dovidjenja!

July 9, 2010

One Month Update

One Month Update

Monday marked the our first full month on the road, and it’s time for a Q&A on our wild, crazy lifestyle to date.

So, how’s it going?

Pretty damn good.  Besides a lost hat in Seville, we haven’t had any problems.  We try to plan our days one at a time, and we usually see what we want without killing ourselves.  If we miss something, we miss it.  Some days are spent just hanging around the house doing laundry or relaxing.  Today was one of those days.  We slept in, had some lunch, and are waiting for our clothes to dry.

You would think living out of a single 70L backpack would be difficult, but it has greatly simplified the decision making process.  Do I want to wear the light pants or the dark pants?  The green shirt or the yellow shirt?  Hell, I may just stick to three shirts when I get back to the US.   There are no bathrooms to clean, plants to water, carpets to vacuum, etc.

Not that I used to any of those things anyway.

Laundry has been easier than expected.  Except for a shirt or two in the sink, we have been utilizing washing machines exclusively.  Best of all, they have been free about 50% of the time.

How’s the budget?

Travel is expensive, but it’s cheaper than living in Chicago.  We are spending about $1,500 less per month compared to home.  Excluding transportation, we are averaging $94 per day.  Luckily, that figure is for the two of us—not per person.  If we cut down on eating out, we should be able to bring our food expenses down to $35/day or so.  Lodging has been only $28/day, so it all averages out.  Our average daily expenses:

  • Food – $48
  • Laundry – $2
  • Lodging – $28
  • Misc. Supplies – $4
  • Personal Items – $2
  • Sightseeing – $8
  • Clothing – $2

Are hostels like the movie?

The movie Hostel?  We’ve seen slightly less spattered blood and torture in the real thing.

They have been very clean and comfortable for the most part, and we even get a private room occasionally.  Otherwise, we stay in 3-bed to 8-bed rooms.  Just make sure you remember the earplugs and eye mask.  Otherwise, be prepared to wake up at 5 am when the drunk Australians flip the lights on.

There are some negatives.  In Barcelona, we encountered some very loud American college girls drinking Merlot and Coke while trying to play Go Fish.  They failed.  I don’t know what’s more disgusting—the wine-cola cocktail or that they couldn’t understand a card game for 8-year-olds.  Needless to say, we didn’t invite them to our Sheepshead game.

Lastly, hostels are very insular places.  Some backpackers we have encountered go drinking every night and then sleep the entire day.  They only talk to the other guests and barely experience the local culture.  I think this is why I prefer CouchSurfing—it’s more authentic…and free.  Free is very good.

How are you getting around?

We have taken three flights, six long-distance buses, one train, and one boat.  Don’t ask me how many kilometers or steps taken.  Buses are much cheaper than trains in Europe, but you get a mix of clientele.  We had the pleasure of sitting in front of two screaming, teenage Spaniards on our ride from Valencia to Madrid.  In contrast, our Supra bus from Madrid to Granada had WiFi, “in-ride” meals and movies, and leather seats.  There was even a bus attendant to serve drinks and snacks.  Not a bad way to travel.

Excluding day trips, our first long distance train ride will be this Saturday to Coimbra, Portugal.  Hopefully it beats Amtrak.

What’s with all the beer?  You are drinking in every photo.

Every photo?  That’s a bit much.  Yes, many of our photos show one or both of us drinking a beer, but I promise we are sober most of the time.  Beer is usually the same price as pop or water, and you can legally drink on the streets in Lisbon.  What would you choose on a hot day?

I choose beer.

It is also very accessible.  Want a beer with that Big Mac?  Done.  Thirsty for a cold one while shopping at IKEA?  No problem.  We regularly witness people ordering beer at breakfast even.  What’s the deal in the US?  You would never see that.

We have sampled most of the Iberian varieties— Cruzscampo, Moritz, Mahou, Estrella, Sagres, and Super Bock.  Some are better than others.  I particularly enjoy Moritiz which has a strong floral flavor.  It is very tasty on a sunny day.

Have other questions?  Post them in the comment section below, and we’ll be happy to answer.

April 29, 2010

Travel Trepidation: Banking the Benjamins

This is the first of a two-part series on overcoming self-imposed obstacles to independent travel.

“I wish I could do that”, people say to me when I tell them I’m quitting my job to travel the Earth.  “It’s my dream to take a trip like that, but I just don’t have the money!”

Well, you could!

We are certainly not independently wealthy people.  We started saving in January 2009, and as of May 2010, we have reached $65,000 which puts us $5K over our goal (see The Budget).  While our friends were busy buying cars, condos, plasma TVs, iPads, vacations, kids, etc., we were saving over half our monthly income.

How you ask?  By making lots of small sacrifices which, actually, end up being not much of a sacrifice at all.

Understand Your Spending

I cannot stress this enough.  Until you start to track your spending, you don’t realize just how much of your money is going to things you simply don’t need.  The small stuff adds up.  I strongly suggest a very powerful (and free) website by the name of  This budgeting tool tracks every dollar you spend and provides analysis on exactly where your money is going.  The animated graphs will aggregate spending by category (e.g. shopping, rent, restaurants, etc.) and will show how your net wealth is growing (or shrinking) over time.  If you are a chart and graph connoisseur like me, you will love this site.  Mint will help you identify easy changes to your lifestyle.  A few examples:

  • Kim dropped her iPhone and data plan.  = $40/month
  • I started brewing coffee at my desk.  = $25/month
  • I rode my bike to work (on nice days) and stopped taking cabs. = $60/month
  • We downgraded to a cheaper cable TV plan. = $50/month
  • We ditched our storage unit. = $100/month

That’s an extra $275 in savings right there, and that’s just the little stuff.  If you cut some of the bigger ticket items like eating out, vacations, fancy apartment, etc., you will find yourself with another $500 (or more) on top of that…per month!  Not bad.
But if you really want to save some serious cash, there are three words that will have you in that hostel bunk in no time– sell your car.

Oh baby.  This was the best decision we’ve ever made.  This may seem counterintuitive, but selling your car actually gives you more freedom.  Freedom from $200 parking.  Freedom from $1,500 repair bills.  Freedom from $300 car payments.  Freedom from $30 per week in gasoline.  Freedom from an endless money pit!

Granted, this is much easier for us urban dwellers, and the car-free lifestyle may not be possible for everyone.  However, I highly suggest you look into it.  It may be difficult at first, but I think you’ll never go back after making the plunge.  Our car-free lifestyle alone has funded a large chunk of this adventure.  Would you rather be sitting in traffic in a Toyota or on the beach in Goa?

Open a Low-risk Savings Account

You will want to segregate those trip-bucks if want any hope.  Some suggest investing your money in mutual funds or stocks, but I think these instruments are too volatile in the short run.  True, if we had systematically invested in Apple and Google over the past 18 months, we would have over $100K by now.  You will drive yourself crazy if you kick yourself like that or dwell on the possible upside.  Think of the potential downside— you could lose 50 percent or more of your hard-earned savings.  Not a good thing.

We suggest an online savings account such as Dollar Savings Direct— one of the highest yield accounts when we began saving heavily.  Our money grew safely and predictably at 1.5 to 4 percent per year in this FDIC insured account.  It may not sound like much, but it put an extra $650 in our pockets.  Remember, compound interest is your friend.

Direct Deposit

If you don’t see it, you won’t spend it.  Create automatic transfers or direct deposits to your savings account each month.  I had 80 percent of my paycheck directly deposited in our savings, and we learned to adjust.  We grew accustomed to only seeing a few hundred dollars on my payday, and we lived off of Kim’s salary for the most part.  It may be tough at first, but will be a big help.

Keep Focused

Make yourself a thermometer graph.  You know the kind.  Print a copy each week and put it on your refrigerator.  If you are planning to travel with a spouse/friend, have a little unveiling ceremony each week.  It will keep you both motivated, and it makes saving money kinda’ fun!  Before you know it, that mercury will be shooting through the top.

So the next time you pick up that cute shirt or cool gadget, remind yourself:

“Would I rather have this…thing…or an unforgettable trip around the world?”

As my college roommate Ryan would say,


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