One week in Germany and Austria for less than $1,300 (including flights)

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Image via Wikimedia Commons

Germany — the land of the castles and the home of the beer. That sums it up right?

Almost. While my knowledge of Germany is wanting until I can get my butt there and discover it firsthand, I have at least enough know-how to find a way to get there for cheap.

Now the following outlines my budget for an upcoming trip. Meaning there’s a chance a wild boar might escape from the Berlin Zoo and pummel me on my way to the train station, causing me to miss my transport to Münich and have to find a new train the next day and pay for another night in a hostel — costing an extra $200 or something plus hospital bills for the boar attack. That would completely discredit my claim in this post.

But that probably won’t be the case. Especially because the Berlin Zoo doesn’t have wild boars.

So, given that all goes accordingly, here here’s how my boyfriend and I are doing a week in Germany (and a day in Austria) for less than $1,300 each:

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WOW Air connects US to Europe by way of Iceland – image via wowair.us.com

Flights: $531.00

I prepared for the worst when I first searched LAX to SXL on Skyscanner and watched the results start to roll in. I thought that the move from East Coast to West Coast (3,000 miles in the opposite direction from Europe) would mean nearly double the cost for a flight to Germany. The first result was $1,200 (okay, what I was expecting), then I saw $830, then $600. My heart fluttered. $600 – I can afford that!

But the wheel kept spinning and more results loaded. $580, $530, $500. I felt like I was watching my tickets fly out of the dispenser at an arcade. The wheel stopped spinning and the final result beamed at the top. LAX to SXL for $420.

Whut.

So I had heard of WOW Air before. But in the time that the airline had evolved into a major player in the budget travel community, I hadn’t searched flights in regions the airline serviced.

In my last semester of college I completed a mock PR plan to revamp Spirit Airlines’ reputation, and I consequently learned all the rules and facets involved with their bare-bones business model. WOW Air draws many similarities to Spirit in that its prices include the bare minimum fare to get from point A to point B — meaning you’re SOL of you seek such luxuries as in-flight entertainment, leg room and food. But if you’re prepared with a preloaded iPad and 8-hours worth of protein bars and Goldfish, you’re peachy and you get a cheap flight.

WOW Air offered a smattering of flights from the U.S. to Germany for around $400 each, and on the day I am flying, $420. So why does the header of this section say $531? Because they charge $50 for carry-on luggage each way — and then extra taxes. So tack on $100 to the tab, but even that $531 ticket was cheaper than the next cheapest option. I of course have my hesitations about doing such a long journey without common airline inclusions; but I’ve had it too good for too long and it’ll make me feel young again to be cramped up in an uncomfortable seat with a bag of homemade granola and a juice box.

The nifty part about this airline is that every U.S.-to-Europe flight includes a stopover in Iceland as a way to entice tourists to explore (and spend money) in the country. We’ll have 16 hours to explore Reykjavik before our 3-hour connecting flight to Berlin.

Post-trip, I’ll share a review of my experience with WOW and determine if it was really worth it. It will either be my new favorite way to travel to Europe or my favorite horror story to share at dinner parties.

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What our double room should look like at Grand Hostel Berlin – image via hostelworld.com
Accommodation: $221.50

This is where we splurged a little. We kept costs low by booking only hostels, of course, with help from my favorite hostel booking site HostelWorld. We could have stayed in hostels for as cheap as €15 per night. But for the first time, I didn’t sort by price “low –> high.”

I chose each of the hostels based on a rigid criteria of rating, reviews, location and amenities. This will be my boyfriend’s first experience in a hostel and I didn’t want to overwhelm him with the crowded summer camp cabin ambience of some of the hostels I’ve stayed in before. So I booked us private rooms in top-rated hostels and saved money by choosing hostels that:

  • are located within walking distance to most tourist hubs so we will save money on transportation
  • have breakfast included or available for less than €4
  • have proprietary bars/restaurants because it’s almost always cheaper to drink at the hostel bar first before going out
  • offer social activities or – at minimum – free walking tours
Here’s the list:
Berlin  – 2 nights

Grand Hostel Berlin (Private room: $30/person/night)

Munich – 3 nights

Euro Youth Hostel (Private room: $33/person/night)

Salzburg – 1 night

YOHO International Youth Hostel (Private room: $38.50/person/night)

Back to Berlin – 1 night

SleepCheapHostel (Private room: $24/person/night)

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We’re taking the Deutsch Bahn from Berlin to Munich – image via railwaypro.com

Inter-city transport: $96.00

Through my research (aka gleefully reading through travel blogs), I’ve found mixed opinions on whether or not to pre-book trains. I’ve traveled both ways before, and there are always ups and downs – like the risk of missing your pre-booked train and not getting a refund, or, on the other hand, arriving to the station without a ticket just to find all the trains are booked or cost twice as much as they did online. I’ve chosen to pre-book for this trip because, from my understanding, inter-city trains can get pretty pricey in Germany and you can save if you book in advance. I used GoEuro.com to book as it seemed like the prices  on that site were the most reasonable, but if there is anyone reading this who know of a better rail-booking site accessible from the U.S. let me know!

I compromised departure time for price here, going for the cheapest tickets I could find (at odd times) that were at least late enough in the morning that I knew we wouldn’t snooze through them.

Here’s the breakdown:

Berlin-Munich: $26/per person
Munich-Salzburg: $40/per person
Salzburg-Munich: $30/per person

Per Diem (total): $450.00

This is the area that could push us over the $1,300 mark but I’m confident we can survive on this amount.

For 10 days, I’m allocating $45/day to cover food, souvenirs and entertainment. (Luckily the USD to Euro conversion rate is happily in our favor now so the following prices estimates are in USD but should roughly be the same in euros.) If we stick to free or cheap hostel breakfast, we’ll clock in around $4/day maximum for breakfast $10 lunch, and $16 for dinner and cheap beer. That leaves $15/day for things like museums and “free” walking tours. Our itinerary is filled with free things to do in all three cities so hopefully we won’t even spend the entertainment ration. On days when we don’t spend the full amount the rest will go toward souvenirs (or more beer).

Annnnnnnnd there you have it folks!

 
$531.00
$221.50
$  96.00
+     $450.00
= $1,298.50

Post-trip, I’ll do an analysis of how closely we stuck to our budget. Fingers crossed the boars stay at bay and we can proceed as outlined.

People say they can’t travel because it’s too expensive or they just don’t have the money right now. I get that, and I’ve been there. But I don’t think many realize just how cheap travel can be if you 1.) do your research and 2.) are willing to sacrifice a few luxuries for the trip of a lifetime. No, my travel style isn’t spending a week at a resort and spa on the beach. Yeah, that could get pricey. My style is being immersed in a new culture, discovering unfamiliar foods and traditions and languages, and meeting people who have a completely different perspective on life — and that doesn’t have to cost a life’s savings.

How we’re squeezing in a weekend trip to Dublin

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AHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!

Sorry about the exclamation — I’m just really, really excited! This summer, I’ll be spending a week in London with my travel pal, Sarah. And in our planning, we figured that we might as well plan a trip to Dublin while we’re in the U.K. We both have a love for pubs and Irish jigs and figured we could spare a couple of days stepping away from England and exploring the Emerald Isle. And going to Ireland means I get to check something off my bucket list!

When we’re going

While Sarah will be in London for nine days, I will only have six days there before I leave for my Contiki tour. So we’re taking a short weekend trip to Dublin — leaving Friday morning and returning Sunday afternoon. Yes, we know we should avoid weekend travel when we’re on a budget, but a weekend trip was the only option that worked for our schedule.

How we’re getting there

Sarah discovered a transportation company that is perfect for our schedule and budget. Called RailEasy, the company lets us find and book a train ride from London to the west coast of England and a ferry from England to Ireland. We booked a train ride from Euston to Holyhead, where we will then hop on a ferry to Dublin Port. The journey takes about eight hours — six by train and two by ferry.Though the ride will be long, it’ll be totally worth it because of the stunning views of the countryside we’ll see along the way.

Here’s a short video of the highlight of the London-to-Dublin journey:

Where we’re staying

We used Hostelworld (as usual) to search for places to stay in Dublin. There are other accommodation options featured on the site than hostels — such as budget hotels and bed and breakfasts — but Sarah and I prefer hostels because they allow us to meet and hang out with other travelers. And we love making friends. We searched Dublin hostels based on price, ratings and location and found several that fit our criteria, such as Isaac’s Hostel and Backpacker’s Citi Hostel.

But the one that caught our attention most was Abigail’s Budget Accommodation. With an 98 percent location rating and a Hostelworld recommendation, Abigail’s stood out as the best place to stay if we want to be centrally located to Dublin’s main attractions. It’s located on Aston Quay overlooking the River Liffey with Temple Bar only footsteps away from the doorstep.

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Since we’ll be tight on time, we need somewhere that is within walking distance of most sites we want to visit, and a few minutes’ car ride away from the rest. Not only is Abigail’s centrally located to all the historical sites we want to see, but the hostel offers free 3-hour walking tours every day at 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. This bonus means we’ll have to do way less planning for where to go and what to see.

Nightly bar crawls are another prized feature for the hostel, one that we will happily take advantage of. Have I mentioned that I’m obsessed with Irish pubs? We’ll be visiting the Guinness Brewery and the Jameson Distillery while we’re there, of course, we’ll be sure to salute the local spirits on our night(s) out.

In my next post, I’ll share our tentative itinerary for the trip!

Have you been to Dublin? How did you get there and where did you stay? Comment below!

Planning my weekend trip to Toronto

Toronto-Branch

So I have a confession: I am teensy bit obsessed with Canada. When I was a kid, I visited Nova Scotia with my parents and fell in love with the adorable, quaint town and the alarmingly polite people. My trip to Niagara Falls two years later left me with the same impression. Fast-forward 10 years, and I’m ready to experience it again. I think it was the Winter Olympics and rooting for the Canadian hockey team (don’t hate me!) that finally reignited my love for the country. I finally told myself enough is enough — I’m going. 

1.) Picking the Date

After begging a friend to go with me, I started making a plan. First item on the agenda: pick a date. It honestly stinks that I am still in school and my only time to travel is on weekends. I could go during spring break, but I need that time to work so I can continue to save up for my trip to Europe this summer. Given this, I chose the first weekend of spring break as the optimal time to go — I won’t be missing work, and I won’t have homework to worry about.

2.) Choosing the City

Some may argue that this should be the first step, but I’m a spontaneous gal. I’ll go wherever the wind — and my budget — takes me. My decision really came down to Toronto versus Montreal. I wish I could say I conducted extensive research, carefully weighing the pros and cons of each city and making an educated decision, but ain’t nobody got time for that. I asked a few friends who have visited both places and reached out to some Twitter followers for advice. Essentially, this is what I collected:

  1. Montreal is a vast, dynamic city that demands much longer than a weekend’s visit.
  2. Toronto is bustling and enticing, but is doable in a weekend.

So, off to Toronto it is.

3.) Finding Transportation

Okay, maybe the greatest factor in selecting the city really was the accessibility. Being based in Washington, D.C., I felt like I could find cheaper transportation to Canada than flying. I looked at trains and bus services in the area, but none had direct routes from D.C. to Montreal. A trip there would require transfers and possible delays, which I would not have time for in a short weekend trip. Luckily, my go-to bus service, Megabus, offers direct routes to Toronto at exponentially cheaper rates than airfare: $75 round-trip. This was a huge selling point for Toronto.

I relayed this information to my friend and she and I booked Megabus tickets for that Thursday night. Because it’s a 14-hour drive, we’ll get to Toronto Friday morning.  Then, to be back at work on Monday, we had to choose the return bus that leaves Saturday night in order to be home by Sunday. This gives us the greater portions of two days and one night in Toronto. I mean, it’s something, right?

4.) Hostel, Hostel, Hostel!

I think it was all of the great experiences in European hostels that made me actually prefer to stay in them rather than budget hotels. Naturally, I went to my favorite hostel-finding site, Hostel World, to find a place to stay in Toronto. Since $75 on transportation is already taking away from my Europe fund, I could not spare much more money on accomodations. Using the site, I found a high-rated hostel that will only cost us $25 each for a Saturday night. The Only Backpacker’s Inn is located just on the outskirts of downtown Toronto, and is central to all of the attractions we want to visit. The bonus is that it’s built ontop of The Only Cafe, a supposedly awesome bar with over 200 beers from around the world. As it stands, I’m 20 years old, but the drinking age in Toronto is 19. When in Rome…

5.) Figuring Out What to Do

Ah where to begin. Like I said, Toronto is bustling. I checked out the city’s official tourism website for ideas for what to do, but I was pretty overwhelmed by the possibilities. I wanted to know what are the top must-see attraction in the city than my friend and I could knock out in one day. That’s when I stumbled upon Tripomatic. It’s most likely not the first site of its kind, but it is the first I have found, and I am quite jazzed about it. This website is the ultimate trip-planning helper. It swiftly guides you through its operations making it superbly easy to use. Once I entered my destination and dates,  Tripomatic presented me a map of Toronto with all of the major attractions, restaurants, hotels and public transportation routes pinpointed. All I had to do was choose a spot and a day and Tripomatic would add the attraction to my itinerary as well as show me the travel time from one spot to the next. The site even has filtering options for most popular attractions. I used this positioning software to determine what was sights and activities are nearby our hostel and our bus terminal. After adding a few items to our itinerary, such as the CN Tower and Casa Loma, I think I have devised a plan to get the most out of Toronto in 36 hours.  After I saved the itinerary, Tripomatic generated a personalized travel guide with maps and travel tips, including currency information, where to eat and how to get around, all available online and in a printable PDF form.  Visit my itinerary here.

Tripomatic

6.) Waiting

Somehow, I managed to plan all of this in literally a few hours, and now, I think I am all set. With the trip only two weeks away, all I have left to do is pack and try not to spend money in the meantime. One of those things will be more difficult than the other.

Hostelworld: Best site for finding reliable lodging on a budget

Hostelworld.com is the only tool I use to search for and book hostels. It has everything I need wrapped up into one convenient website. And they offer more than just hostel bookings. On the site, you can book campsites, tours, group hotel rooms and more. Plus they show you the reviews and ratings right on the page.

HOW IT WORKS

Similar to other sites, when you first visit the site, you’re prompted to enter the location, dates and type of accommodation you’re looking for:  Hostels  Bed and Breakfasts  Hotels  Apartments  Campsites.
About 4 out of 5 times, I search only for hostels, but sometimes I find that I can get a better deal at a bed and breakfast or budget hotel.

Hostelworld’s directory consists of 35,000 properties in 180 countries. Once you search, you’re presented with a list of hits that you can arrange by price, rating, availability or name. Most of the hostels have hundreds of reviews. Typically, I don’t give too much heed to reviews, since everyone has different standards, but these are pretty useful. In total, there are over 3.5 million guest reviews, according to the site.

WHY IT ROCKS

Along with reviews, Hostelworld provides general information, facility descriptions, rates, and even a map with directions for how to get to the hostel. They give you everything you need to make an informed decision on where you want to stay. Then, they have sample itineraries, local guides, Hostelworld events and a travel blog where Hostel World staffers write about awesome deals, travel tips and adventure spots.

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Once you book, Hostelworld does the processing. For most hostels, you only have to pay a booking fee, then pay the rest once you arrive. So, if something comes up, you’re not losing all of your money. Plus, they have occasional deals and sweepstakes for extra savings. They even offer a 100% booking guarantee:

“It’s very unlikely that something will go wrong with your booking. In fact we’re so confident, that if your booking details cannot be found at check-in, we’ll credit your account with your full deposit and an additional $50 towards future bookings” (http://www.hostelworld.com/guarantee).

So basically,

I love Hostelworld.