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How to travel well on a budget

There are a lot of travel blogs out there that will explain in greater detail what me and my husband were able to put together for our honeymoon, but I guess it never hurts to have another point of view! We originally planned for a honeymoon in Japan. We are big culture and nature buffs, and Japan would offer a great combination of both. We booked a Japan trip for this coming June.

I had randomly entered a Facebook contest called “Feel the Music” for US-based travelers by SWISS last year. We found out that I won the grand prize of round-trip airfare for two to Zurich and a first class Swiss Pass for two for a week. We added a leg to Paris on the trip ourselves. And on our way back, despite our first flight being canceled, we had the luck of getting a business class upgrade as well. What an incredible stroke of luck and thank you to SWISS and Switzerland Tourism for the amazing trip!!! And I’ve fulfilled my dream of traveling to Paris with a husband or coming back from Paris with a husband :D

Thank you Swiss Air for the amazing upgrade on the way back!

Okay, so what do we do when I don’t win contests?

My husband and I are value based people. We believe that travel doesn’t have to be super expensive, but it means doing work to make that happen and making trade-offs. We recognize how lucky we are to be able to afford travel, and we believe that it is very important to see the world as it grows us as a couple, adds to our perspectives, and opens our minds. We forfeit conspicuous luxury and relaxation for the experience of having an adventure. It also helps that between the two of us we can get by in 4 languages (English, Chinese, French, Spanish) and guess at some more

Travel to emerging countries
You get more bang for your buck by going to emerging markets where the dollar goes far. This means avoiding most of western Europe, northern Europe, Australia, fancy resort islands, remote exotic places, in favor of locales like Vietnam, Argentina, Turkey, etc.

In spring of 2012, we traveled to Southeast Asia and it was grand

So I will say this and I’ve said it to my friends often – without the winnings, we’d  never be able to afford Switzerland unless work paid us to go there =)

Travel during shoulder season
Spring and fall are much better times to go than summer for many places, but the definition of “high season” can be different depending on climate. You will have a lot of tourists in your photos during high season, and more competition to get into all the hot spots. Lines get longer. You take a greater weather risk by traveling in shoulder season, but it does help a little bit when it comes to overall costs.

Don’t pay for air travel
We use miles to book most of our flights. He gets it from traveling for his job. I get mine by playing the credit card churn game. There are other websites that explain this, but the point I want to make is that you have to spend money strategically and you need to have good credit. The more you spend the more you get, so it is a linear equation dependent on what you do for your job and your lifestyle. Airliners continue to devalue miles through updates to their loyalty programs, so it will get harder in the future. I have friends who obsess over racking up points and status. I don’t have that much money to earn status, but with a little bit of research and determination, I save myself thousands of dollars a year in airfare. If you are really serious about earning points, make sure you have The Points Guy and Flyer Talk bookmarked

Stay in hostels
I would say that after airline points, this is a place where we save the most. The advantages of hostels include: low price and usually a super convenient, downtown location. We once had beds in a common room in kuala Lumpur for $6 each a night! Hostels often have excellent and free wifi in common rooms (I got better wifi at the hostels than the hotels we stayed at). Some provide kitchens for you to store and cook food. They are reliable and don’t cancel on you (a risk with booking through Airbnb). They have Local staff who will recommend you more local places. Downsides are communal baths, communal rooms if you opt out of a private room, lack of amenities, loud guests, and tiny uncomfortable beds. Hostels in Europe are usually extremely well run and high in quality, the ones on other continents you will have to read the reviews. I think this is where some people will have a comfort obstacle to overcome. Staying in hostels actually forced us to do more out in the cities because at the end of the day, it’s just a bed, and it’s hard to justify paying hundreds of dollars for one. (to give you an idea, if we were to get a hotel we’d prefer around $125 – $150 a night, which in expensive countries clearly doesn’t get you much) We book usually through booking.com and hostelworld.com

Nevertheless, lodging in Switzerland took up a huge chunk of our budget and where we “lost” the most amount of money, and this is us staying at the cheapest places. In conclusion: Switzerland is not cheap.

Use points for hotels
We usually do a mix of low end hotels and hostels, but a night or two, we treat ourselves to a good hotel room. We love the Starwood Preferred Guest program

Take public transportation
Get to know the public transportation system really well for cities/countries that have great systems. For other countries renting a car or using taxis might be better. In developed countries, we have never taken a taxi and the reason we don’t is because we…

Pack light
The less you pack, the more flexible you can be. Travel on a busy US holiday and you can easily earn free air travel by not checking your bags and then volunteering to take a later flight if your flight is overbooked. This also avoids checked baggage, which runs risk of getting lost and of prolonging your transfers. In addition, this offered us the flexibility to chase after buses and trains on tight turnarounds.

This is all I packed for the trip – a Crumpler Dry Red No. 5 backpack and a small duffel. *note: when I bought my Crumpler bag they were still available commercially in the US, but it looks like they’re now shipping solely from Australia which makes the bag a lot more expensive than when I first purchased it

(My duffel)

For myself, I like to stay relatively fashionable while traveling but I hate dragging around a lot of stuff. For this, I specifically styled a set of clothes that could easily be interchanged to make a large number of outfits, while looking sleek and not too American (the husband often gets mistaken for a local due to his very European face :D). In the photo below you can see basically all the clothing I brought with me (omitted are underwear and socks obviously). I worked with three layers – the inner being tank tops, the middle being one of 5 layering shirts. Then on the outside I layered one of three outerwear options (cropped jacket, jean jacket, or long sweater) and then had the option of accessorizing with one of two scarves. I brought a formal dress for a special night out.

I only wore one pair of shoes for the entire trip – Skechers GoWalk shoes. They are the most comfortable walking shoes I have, but since my feet are essentially flat, the arch wasn’t the most comfortable after days of walking ~5 miles each. That being said I think it still is a great option for a lot of people. During the day, I packed a folded tote bag to carry around a smaller amount of stuff

For makeup I kept things very minimal, that’s who I am. What you see here: blush, eye shadow color palette, a small lipstick, Too-Faced eye primer (love that stuff!), a lip liner, mascara, and  eye liner

Get local recommendations for food
It is easy to eat in tourist districts because there are English menus, prices are reasonable, there is a menu of the day, but you mostly get pretty boring food. For our special night out, we usually try to get a friend’s recommendation and then use Google Translate on the menus =)

Use no-fee credit cards
We absolutely love the Chase Sapphire Preferred credit card, and we prefer withdrawing money at ATMs (never use a money exchanger at the airport) with our TD Bank account which carries no transaction fees. We were hit with a crazy amount of fees the day our TD Bank card didn’t work and had to use Bank of America. In the end, we found that we had the best exchange rate by sticking with our Chase Sapphire card

Pack snacks
It’s really easy to over-eat on a vacation and over-pay in the process. Prior to leaving, I swung by Trader Joe’s and purchased various snacks and divided everything into 150-calorie pouches. I planned for 20 portions though we ended up only eating about 2/3 of what I brought.

Specific tricks for Switzerland
Switzerland is just super, super expensive in general. While the locals have lower rents and many government subsidies that help with daily life, for a US traveler, it is not unusual to find most food priced at 2x US prices. We did a couple of things:

– Go to Coop and Migros for all your groceries, and pick up plastic utensils on the way. We ate nothing but bread, water, cheese, and yogurt for days. We could have eaten just a little more, but we were saving up for France. Also, around 5PM is when most near-expiration cheese and yogurt goes on sale for up to 50% off, so it’s a great time to go shopping at that time!

Did I mention we ate a LOT of bread and cheese?

– Stay near train stations. Large train stations typically have a large grocery store nearby or even a Coop Pronto which are smaller format stores designed with convenience in mind

– Most things in Switzerland close early and you are stuck with kebab and Chinese takeout after 8PM. Most places are also closed Sundays, so make sure you have enough food for the weekend

– Switzerland is a small country and each city is easily explored in half a day or so at our ambitious pace (we didn’t go to any museums), and after a while some of the cities do start looking similar. I would recommend max 4 – 5 days to explore Switzerland

– Most European train stations have storage lockers where you can store your bags (no multiple access privileges). This is great if you’re backpacking. Look for luggage signs that say “Left Luggage”

All right! That covers most of my tips for traveling so far. Stay tuned for lots of photos and individual city recommendations coming up from the trip!

Don’t miss these related blog posts

1. How to travel well on a budget

2. Switzerland: Lucern, Basel, Bern, Zurich, and Geneva

3. Switzerland: Riding the Bernina Express

4. Switzerland: Riding the Glacier Express

5. Interlaken, Thun, GoldenPass train, and flying business class on SWISS

6. Lyon in 10 hours

7. Paris: Museums and Eats

8. Paris: The Beautiful City

9. Versailles Palace

Shang Chen Photography has rebranded to Saavedra Photography
Based in NYC | Open for select photography commissions on Sundays only

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