If you’re getting close to graduation, you’ve probably heard people talk about taking trips to Europe or taking a year to backpack around the world. I know when I first heard that people ACTUALLY did that, I was flabbergasted. And it wasn’t surprise that people wanted to go abroad or take a year off to ‘find themselves’, I was more shocked at HOW CAN YOU AFFORD TO TRAVEL FOR SO LONG WITHOUT A PAYCHECK???? Because I’m frugal and I hate watching my bank account diminish with each credit card payment, the idea of traveling and spending so much money scared me to death!
However, once I was given a ‘job’ offer with the Peace Corps and realized that I’d be living pretty much without personal expenses for two years, that savings cushion seemed to look a bit more tempting. I wanted to do something special with my boyfriend, a kind of ‘Thank you for letting me leave you for 2 years’ thing. I mentioned earlier that we had thought about going to Europe. He’d never been, I wanted to go back, etc. Well, traveling to Europe is a bit hard without a passport. I had to turn mine in to get a new PC specific one, so going outside the US was nixed.
Limited to staying within the US, my boyfriend and I decided on New York; he’d been once, I’ve never been. Once we finalized our decision about New York, I realized that we were planning VERY close to the birth of my nephew, so I modified our plans a bit: I’d fly up to stay a week with my sister, her husband and my new nephew, my boyfriend would fly up to meet me, then the two of us would take Amtrak to New York, stay there for a few days and then fly home. It definitely complicated arrangements a bit– we had to buy two one-way flights instead of one round trip, and we had to add in the expense of Amtrak. But all in all, not too bad.
But here’s where it get’s hard: actually booking things. I hate booking things. I had to do it while I was in England, and it’s one of those grown-up things that is just time-consuming and annoying. I mean, who wants to spend time and hassle figuring out the best way to spend money? Not me. But I have to be a grown-up now; mommy and daddy can’t book my flight or tell me which hotel to stay at.
After doing all this, here’s what I learned:
(Rule #1) DO YOUR RESEARCH.
Just like with everything else, I will spend hours if not days researching before I buy anything. Especially with travel arrangements, it always seems like you can find something better, something cheaper. But then, cheaper doesn’t always mean better and then you’re back at square one! It took my boyfriend and I about 2 weeks to finally make our final decisions. Granted, we made most of the decisions in the few days we were actually together (he lives at school still and I live at my parents house 45 minutes away). But it still involved a lot of research and number crunching on my part.
If you’re wanting to travel, pretty much my favorite site to search flights is Kayak.com. It’s fast, it’s simple, and seems to be reliable. I like being able to easily change dates or airports, and it keeps each change saved under a new tab so you can compare quickly and without hassle. I haven’t used it for anything else (hotels, car rental, etc.), but I’m sure it works well.
Another amazing site I like to use is hostelworld.com. Especially if you’re a student or recent grad and want to travel cheap, this is the place to look for hotels, hostels, B&Bs, apartment rentals, and campsites. I used it when I was traveling in England and found an AMAZING hostel in Edinburgh. I’m using it now to find hotels in New York (my boyfriend doesn’t like the idea of a hostel). The site is reliable for booking and very easy to use!
A word of warning on booking your hotel though: make sure you check out the area you’re booking in to see what kind of transportation is available, what the area is like, etc. We almost booked a B&B in Newark, but were warned that Newark isn’t a great city to be in. While I’m sure the B&B there is excellent, we decided we’d rather pay the extra money to be in New York City close to the metro, and also know we’re in a safe area (as safe as any part of New York is at least).
Finally, you can’t plan a trip without knowing things you’re going to do. And for my boyfriend and I, that means planning out FOOD. We’re foodies; we love watching the travel channel and food network, anything like Man vs. Food or Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives is amazing. So we made sure to check out our options! Two great sites for this: TV Food Maps and Nomadic Matt.
(Rule #2) BOOK EARLY, BOOK CAREFULLY. Once you’ve got your trip all planned out, you’re probably getting ready to book. I like to have all my researched prices laid out on an excel template so I know what I should be paying, it helps calm the cheap-o in my brain a little. Be ready to book well in advance, but keep your eyes open for price changes; especially with airfare, prices will fluctuate pretty regularly, and will change depending on day of the week.
Here’s a tip to a cheaper flight: book a flight for a Tuesday-Thursday. They’re significantly cheaper than the rest of the week.
Your research should have found the cheapest options for you. For my boyfriend and I, flights actually turned out to be overall cheaper doing one-way tickets. We have to add in the price of Amtrak, but even with that it comes out to almost the same price as a round-trip airfare would have been.
Now, here’s where the BOOK CAREFULLY comes in. Buying plane tickets was easy. Find the airfare, hit purchase, fill in some info about yourself, and your done. Hundred dollars spent. Easy-peasy. Buying Amtrak, not so easy. Technically it should be just as easy; the process is similar, you even fill in less information. BUT, that’s if their website is working.
Unfortunately, it was my job to buy the Amtrak tickets (my boyfriend bought the plane tickets from New York, so it was only fair), and even more unfortunately I happened to try to buy them while Amtrak was having a miniature crisis on Monday. As far as I can tell, for poor Amtrak it was the day that NOTHING went right. The snowstorm caused train delays and cancellations. The website crashed, which meant the phone lines were swarmed, and all their potential and current customers were angry. I tried to purchase tickets and kept having problems getting through the website, which should have been a warning to me to stop and try again the next day. But I was impatient. Finally I got to the payment page and was able to enter all my payment information and click “purchase”, only to receive a website error. I was worried. Did they have my payment info? Did the tickets get reserved? Would they bill me? I stressed all day, sent an email to them, checked my credit card account, checked the Amtrak twitter, tried to call (gave up on the 110 minute wait), and finally gave it up for the day. They hadn’t billed my card hours later, and I still hadn’t received a confirmation or a reply to my email. Who knew what was going on? Next day (today) I still hadn’t received anything from them and my card still wasn’t billed, so I felt a little more confident and a little more annoyed. Honestly, this seemed like too much of a hassle. If my boyfriend didn’t get motion sick, I could have bought two Megabus tickets for $9 total (check them out, they’re cheap, reliable, and did I mention cheap??)! I sent another email to Amtrak, which also went unanswered. I tried to call, and was given a 49 minute wait so I hung up. I finally was able to contact Amtrak through twitter, and they answered that without a confirmation there is no reservation. That’s all I needed. So I booked the train (again) and this time I received a confirmation, and my credit card did get billed. What an ordeal! I’m thankful to Amtrak’s Twitter people, but frustrated with their other forms of customer service failing. I know that they’re busy, but I gave them a whole day to answer an email! Now don’t take this as me telling you not to buy Amtrak. They seem like a great service, though a bit pricey. I will reserve judgement until I ride the train, but don’t expect to be displeased. If you’re willing to pay the money and don’t need to bother with customer service, give them a try!
(Rule #3) KNOW WHY YOU WANT TO TRAVEL. I’ve read the advice books that say everyone should travel in between graduation and settling into a job. I’ve gotten so much advice from friends and family to ‘just go’! Well, it’s not that easy. And if you feel the same way, then don’t go! If you want to step right into working, do it. If you don’t think it’s the right time for YOU to go out and spend hundreds or thousands of dollars and weeks or months traveling, don’t do it. Yes, it’s a great time for you to travel because you’ll never again have as much free time or as little responsibility. But will you enjoy it as much if you’re constantly worried about running your bank account dry?
The way I see it, the decision comes down to what you value. If you travel now you’ll have the time to see whatever you want and be gone as long as you want. But, you may have to sleep in train stations or in a 12-person dorm in a crappy hostel, and you may have to eat at fast food restaurants or out of vending machines, all to save money. If you travel after you’ve been working and saving up money your time may be limited to a week or two, but you’ll be able to stay at a nicer hotel and actually get some sleep, you’ll be able to eat out at nice local restaurants and participate in more activities without worrying about draining your bank account to zero. So weigh your options and make a decision. This is your life, don’t listen to wayward advice if it’s not right for you!
Good luck in your decision or planning, now I’ve got a hotel booking to figure out!