What Follows Is An Article I wrote for College Monthly in 1992 on how to cheaply and effectively travel to a new place. It describes specific things to do to make travel easy and breathtakingly inexpensive.
Three winters ago I left California and got a temporary teaching job at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks, where the sun peeks over the Southern horizon a few degrees azimuth for a few hours each day, and seeing the ice-fog and sub-zero temperatures, thinks better of staying too long. During Christmas break all alone, for reasons which are probably obvious, I started to fantasize about travel to warmer and more populated portions of the globe. My favorite fantasy was that the following summer I could go to Paris for the 1789-1989 Bicentennial, an event near and dear to my history-lover’s heart.
As a poverty-stricken graduate student and temporary professor however, I was sure that I couldn’t afford it, but under the influence of cabin-fever I began to read budget travel books and plan imaginary itineraries anyway. One day I added up the costs of one of these three-week itineraries and was thrilled to discover that what budget travel books said was true, I didn’t need to spend nearly as much as even the cheapest budget tour. I could find a way to do it for under $2,000.00, airfare, hotel, museum and Metro tickets, meals, tips, gifts, postcards and stamps, and even souvenirs included.However, not speaking French I was afraid would be helpless all alone there, how could Iget the security of a planned tour without the expense?
Being a semi-pedantic professorial type I answered my own rhetorical question: Research. All that junk I learned in colleges about libraries and stuff working on my Doctorate had to be useful, right? So I hit the books again and planned every fiddly detail down to the minute and wrote backup plans in case of problems. Even though at school I am known for “winging it” through creative disorganization, I had fun doing this kind if nit-picky planning since it allowed me to savor my trip for months beforehand. It also made traveling in a foreign country all alone perfectly easy. This is how its done:
First, look up the Sunday paper of the city you plan to leave from in the library. (If you live in a remote area you need to get the paper from the nearest hub city and plan on taking a local flight to get to it.) Look up the Travel section in the paper and start looking for the cheapest price to your destination among the ads for”bucket” shops (these guys buy tickets wholesale from big airlines and sell them cheap-it sounds shady but its completely legal.) These tickets are usually mid-week red-eye flights on planes packed to the gills, and unless you leave from New York they are usually not non-stop, however they are also 1/3 to 1/2 of the price of tickets bought through conventional channels. When you are absolutely sure of your travel dates (these tickets can’t be changed) buy these tickets on your charge card to protect yourself in case of a dispute with the ticket agent. Do this six months in advance to save the most money.
If, like me, you’re going to Paris, make a serious study of the ‘Eurail Guide‘ to train schedules, the Let’s Go: Budget Guide to France, Frommer’s Europe on $30 a Day, LonelyPlanet Paris, a Michelinor Baedeker city map and guide, and a book of French words and phrases. All of these (except the map) should be available at your local library. Then add any specialty books your interests dictate. For example, I used Europe Off the Wall a guide to weird museums and other attractions and Permanent Parisians, a book about the cemeteries of Paris. An epicure on a budget might use Cheap Eats In Paris, writers might like Literary Paris. If you’re going somewhere else, look up the Let’s Go guide, Frommer’s book and Michelin map and guide to wherever you are going, and use them instead.
After reading all of these you should have a pretty good idea of what you want to do when you get there. Write up a rough list of where you want to go and circle the locations on a Xerox copy of the map. You will find that the places you want to visit usually form into clumps that you can concentrate on for a day or two without having to waste time crisscrossing town. For instance The Concierge, St. Chapelle, Notre Dame, The Cluny Museum and The Pantheon in Paris are all within easy walking distance from each other and can all be viewed in one very active day.
Make a list of the attractions found in each clump. Look up each place in the books and note the hours they are open, the days they close, and the cost of admission. Most museums have one day a week that they are 1/2 off or free, note this as well. Based on this data you can determine the best day of the week to see the places in each clump. Your lists will look something like this:
- CONCIERGE-Wed-Mon, 9:30am-7pm, 22F, 1/2 price Sun.
- ST.CHAPELLE-Wed-Mon, 9:30am-7pm, 20F, 1/2 price Sun.
- NOTRE DAME-every day, 8am-7pm, free, Towers open Wed-Mon, 10am-5:30pm, 22F, 1/2 price Sun.
- CLUNY MUSEUM-Wed-Mon, 9:45-12:30pm & 2-5:15pm, 15F, 1/2 price Sun.
- PANTHEON-Wed-Mon, 10am-noon, 2-5:30pm, 22F.
Assign each clump a day in your schedule and be sure to leave at least one day blank every two weeks in case of disaster or a need to do serious laundry.
Once you have an idea of where things are in relationship to one another you can have some idea of where you want to find a hotel. Try to get a hotel as close to a transit stop as possible. Checking the books, you should pick a hotel within your budget; if you don’t speak the language make sure it is one with an English-speaking manager. Using the foreign phrase book, write a letter to the hotel asking for a room during your travel period, and include a self-addressed envelope and two International Reply Coupons (available from any post office). Leave lots of time for a reply. Going back to your daily schedule, you can now figure out how to get to each day’s activities from your hotel. (Subway tickets are part of your budget, remember?) Make an enlarged Xerox of the area of each day’s “clump” of places and trace a route in highlighter of the path you plan to take. Use this to write a new hour by hour schedule including meals and the time it takes to walk from place to place. While this sounds like an onerous task it actually gets to be incredible fun imagining yourself doing all this. You can look up budget restaurants and plan them in, plan your walking route around interesting buildings and monuments in the area and otherwise play the armchair traveler.
I discovered how useful this can be when I planned the walk from the Concierge to the Pantheon. I found that lots of things (the Flower Market, a theatre bookstore, the Luxembourg Gardens, and buildings like the Odeon Theatre and St. Etienne du Mont) were all within easy reach of my main objectives. If I planned my walk carefully I could see them during my perambulation without having to go out of my way by more than two streets, usually without having to go out of my way at all.
Start listing necessary expenses for each day of your trip. Start with your hotel room costs, (including the price of a shower in cheap hotels). Calculate costs for each meal plus snacks. Add up costs for subway and train tickets. Then look up costs for museum admission and theatre tickets. Those are the basics, then you really have to use your imagination: Ask yourself “How many postcards will I send that day?”, then budget for both cards and postage. Also ask yourself how much you intend to spend on gifts for friends, souvenirs, museum guides, books, and treats. Go over your budget and check for places where you can realistically cut costs. When you feel pretty sure about the budget, mark it up by 1/5 to 1/4 in case of emergencies. This was my lavish budget for the day spent going to the Concierge and Pantheon: (values approximate)
- HOTEL-100F ($16)
- MUSEUM ADM.-101F ($16)
- FOOD-100F ($16)
- POSTCARDS-20F ($3)
- SLIDES-30F ($5)
- MISCELLANEOUS-29F ($5)
- BOOKS-50F ($8)
- TRANSPORTATION-(use Metro pass bought Monday)
This adds up to 430 Francs or about $69. I then upped the amount to 500F for my calculations for buying traveler’s checks. This left a small slush fund for unforeseen expenses. I was therefore able to come home with money in my wallet.
Finally, if you don’t speak the language you need to go over your schedule one more time. Figure out every point in your schedule when it will be necessary to conduct a transaction with a ticket agent, a waiter, a store clerk, or a bank. This will save you untold aggravation and expense during your trip. Figure out the phrases you will be likely to need with the phrase-book and write them with their English equivalents on 3×5 index cards. For example, these are two of the grammatically flawed cards I used in Paris:
Avez-vous des Livres avec costumes et illustrations? (Do you have any costume books with pictures?)
Je voudrais une grande Coca-Cola avec glace, si’l vous plait. (I would like a large Coca-Cola with ice, please.)
You then can follow up your abominable reading of the phrase by handing the person the card and letting them know what you really intended to say. This has the added advantage of making even Parisians nice to you because they pity your helplessness and admire your effort. Not a single person was rude to me, my whole trip.
Obviously when you get to wherever you’re going you will change what you do and what you spend as circumstances fit, but having a detailed plan adds tremendously to your chances for a pleasant, economical vacation. When I was finally deposited in De Gaulle Airport after the long flight to Paris I had everything plotted out for perfect ease:
I followed the directions gleaned from Let’s Go (p.64-5) to the shuttle bus for the train station. At the station I pulled out a card (made with the aid of the phrase-book), that said “I would like a ticket to the Gare du Nord Station,please” and sure enough I got handed a ticket.
At the Gare du Nord Station in Paris I used more advice from Let’s Go and found a self-photo booth, took my picture, and brought the photo, and another card which said “I would like to buy an Metro ID, and a weekly pass, please” to the Metro ticket booth. After a small cash exchange, I was handed an ID and pass. Then after taking the Metro to the vicinity of my hotel I followed the path I had marked (on a Xeroxed copy of the Michelin map), to my hotel, and handed the desk clerk a copy of my reservation correspondence and a card asking for my room. Not surprisingly I was instantly registered and handed a key. The whole thing was as easy as Connect-the-Dots: no getting lost, no wrong tickets, no hassles. Best of all no tour guide!
Finally, for a truly anxiety-free vacation don’t travel with more than you can comfortably carry in a large purse. One pair of jeans and sneakers, a few T-shirts, underwear, and a warm jacket are all that is necessary. Don’t ever try to dress well enough to look like a Parisienne, for one thing you can’t, besides which, even they have a continuous expression of fatigue from trying to look chic all the time. Carry a small squeeze-bottle of laundry soap to wash the T-shirts and your socks so you can rotate them. The one item you should run out and buy is a necklace-pouch to keep your passport,traveler’s checks, plane ticket and American Express card in. That way even if your purse is snatched or your pocket is picked you’re in no danger of disaster.
The other item you need to pack is your book of plans. The book of your plans should be a small blank book which you have filled with your daily information on budget, museum hours, Metro stops, etc. You should paste in Xerox maps of each day’s area with your walking route in highlighter. Also paste copies of any important instructions(like how to get to Versailles by Metro train and bus), from the books you have read. By putting all the information you need in one book you save having to lug a pile of tour books and maps around. Write very commonly used phrases from your phrase-book onto the flyleaf of the book and you can often save carrying your phrase-book as well.
All this planning costs very little, saves you time and aggravation, and is almost as entertaining as traveling itself. It also can save you lots of money, and make an “impossible” or “unaffordable” trip both possible and affordable. Best of all, you have the sanity and safety of a package tour without giving up your freedom. While armchair planning can’t possibly foresee every contingency, you can use the ordinary research skills you learned in college to make your trip easier, cheaper,safer, and considerably saner.
See also Travel for the Soul