I have to admit, I’ve spent at least two or three weeks writing this, mostly out of fear that I’ve missed ‘important’ nuggets of info for you all to read word for word (ha!). This is the third and last part in my Travel Tips & Tricks series and, at around 3,500 words, I honestly hope it is helpful to at least one person out there. As per Part 1 and 2, this has been generally written for the novice/first-time traveller – so whilst this isn’t a definitive guide – there are plenty other invaluable tips and tricks if you scour the interweb!
Like most things in life though, I’ve learnt you can never be completely prepared for a bout of travelling. But that’s the thing, isn’t it? There’s this opportunity to conquer the unknown; discover far flung places before any ‘city guide’ can; and find a new perspective that no textbook can give you. After all, they say that to learn more about home, you just have to leave it.
Even with the best of intentions, travelling on a shoestring is so hard. I’ve tried on my most recent Europe trip and (according to my husband) I failed. Miserably.
Leaving expensive purchases aside, I’ve found food and metro tickets to add up frighteningly quick, particularly in places like Paris, London, Switzerland, and generally all Scandinavian cities.
From my own travels, here’s a brief and general guide as to the cost of day to day living (food, transport, accommodation) is in various cities:
Paris $$$ (e.g. a 330ml bottle of Coke will set you back 4.50 euros at a café) | South of France $$
London $$$ | Prague $ | Leuven (Belgium) $$ | Berlin $ | Rome $$ | Cinque Terre $$ | Venice $$
EUROPE – SCANDINAVIA
Copenhagen $$$ | Stockholm $$$
EUROPE – NORDIC
Reykjavik $$$ (car hire is reasonable though – on par with Australian prices) | Helsinki $$ (in my experience, the least expensive Scandinavian city)
EUROPE – BALTIC
Hong Kong $ | Singapore $$ (food is inexpensive but designer bags/clothes are the most expensive in Asia)
Ho Chi Minh City $ | Kuala Lumpur $ | Shanghai $$ | Bali $ | Tokyo $$ (whilst food is reasonably cheap, hotels are pricey for their sqm)
Maldives (ok, not exactly Asia, but close enough!) $$$
New York City $$$ | Las Vegas $$ | Boston $$ | San Francisco $$ | Vancouver $$
HOW TO SAVE MONEY ON FOOD
These days, we spend our dinners in the comfort of our hotel room or apartment, rather than at a café or restaurant.
As an example, a typical 2-course meal at a mid-range restaurant in Paris would typically set us back 50 euros for both of us without beer/wine. A stop-off at the local Paul’s patisserie or a nearby Monoprix gets us dinner sorted for under 10 euros in total (and that’s with beer or wine!). Whether we were eating in the middle of Jardin de Tuilluries (Instagrammable picnic or not) or on the banks of the Seine, or taking it back to our apartment, it was still fun. And the great thing about most parts of Europe is that public drinking (in the civilised sense, at least) is not illegal like it is here in Australia. So you don’t have to be sitting at a restaurant and having a meal to be enjoying a drink.
Of course, though, holidays are meant for splashing out, and we’ve been fortunate to experience the most incredible dining experiences in the world (aside from the Michelin-starred restaurants, Noma and Waku Ghin have been notable highlights). But whilst my husband would have no qualms eating pre-made cous cous from Franprix each night in an effort to save money, I would. I prefer my food fresh and not pre-packed with preservatives and what-not.
The deal was that we’d eat a big breakfast (preferably by booking a hotel that offered a breakfast buffet), then skip lunch (most times we’d pick up a small snack in the afternoon to tide us over) and then only eat out for dinner every second (or third) night. It’s not a shoestring solution by any means, but it’s a good compromise for us.
THE RULES OF EATING OUT
On the other hand, if you are eating out in a very tourisy city (e.g. Paris, Rome, et al) and you prefer not to be ripped off by exorbitant restaurant prices, I have a few tips that might point you in the right direction:
Get off the beaten track
Often the more authentic (and cheaper) places are found away from main tourist drags. I’d walk at least 800m-1km away from touristy areas to find something that fits the bill.
One time in Rome, we made the mistake of having lunch at a pizza and pasta bar around the corner from Trevi Fountain (in our defence, we were hangry. And my in-laws were with us). When the bill was brought to the table, there was a mysterious 6 euro charge for the four of us, in addition to the food we ordered. Guess what that charge was? A ‘sitting’/service fee. I was so livid. I mean, my pizza cost 6 euros. It’s probably quite common amongst ‘touristy places’ to be honest but that was the only restaurant I had eaten at in Italy that demanded such surcharges. Moral of the story? Get off the beaten track.
Try to avoid restaurants that openly advertise English menus
Ok, so it sounds a little stupid given I don’t speak any other languages except some really awful Vietnamese, Teo Chew (Chinese) and English, but if you want to go to the other end of the extreme (assuming you couldn’t care less about accidentally things like reindeer meatballs) then go for it. My husband gets anxious when he can’t understand a menu but I’m personally ok with it, aside from that one time I accidentally ate reindeer meatballs in Helsinki. What’s the worse that could happen? Unless you’re in questionable parts of remote China (like I have been) food’s food at the end of the day. I’ve found restaurants with no English menus tend to have the most authentic food going around.
There are some really great apps for your phone which help you find nearby restaurants and save you money. Think of it as Urbanspoon with coupon codes.
If you’re heading to France, Spain or Switzerland, it’s worth downloading The Fork. My friends used this app on our last night in Paris and we ended up having a really fantastic dining experience at a fraction of the cost elsewhere.
GETTING OVER THE LANGUAGE BARRIER
That said, sometimes it’s just impossible to fly by the seat of your pants when you’re eating at a restaurant or navigating your way around a foreign city and you don’t speak an ounce of the local language.
If you don’t have internet access when out and about, there are heaps of free language apps that you can download on your smartphone (some are equipped with phonetic functions!) or you can carry a pocket-sized phrase book with you too.
It always helps if you at least learn how to say “hello”, “goodbye” and “thank you” in the language of the country you’re visiting without referring to a phrase book.
We were so lucky to be seated at a restaurant next to an Austrian English-speaking couple in Dijon recently that sensed my husband’s anxiety and offered to translate the menu for us from French to English. It was so kind of her to do so, and we ended up chatting about our respective travels and cities. Although French is not the most difficult language to decipher (try Japanese!) it just goes to show if you ask someone nearby (whether it’s a waiter or a fellow traveller), chances are they’ll be willing to help.
HOW LONG TO SPEND IN EACH CITY
This really does come down to personal preference. Some people are satisfied with two days in Paris; whilst for others, two months isn’t nearly enough!
As a general rule of thumb though, I try not to spend any less than 2 or 3 nights in any one city (there are exceptions to the rule – usually this applies to tiny towns). It’s tempting to squeeze in as many countries as you can when you’re a 36 hour flight away from home (heck, even I’ve done 3-4 cities in one week…), but I’ve personally found after factoring in the time, cost and hassle in actually getting in and out of cities, visiting a place for such a short amount of time is really such a waste. For me anyway, it takes a few days to truly soak up what a city or town to the point where I feel unhurried and can leave knowing I’ve had a good chance to explore both the sights and the hidden back streets.
It can be hard to gauge how long to spend in a city when you’ve never visited the place before (asking friends/family helps, but it’s not infallible!). For those curious, here’s roughly how long I’ve spent in some of the cities I’ve been to:
Berlin – 4 days (7, if I had my time over)
Boston – 2 days (about right, though could spend up to 3 or 4 days here)
Copenhagen – 4 days (5 or 6 if I had my time over)
Cinque Terre – 3 days (about right)
Helsinki – 4 days (about right, but probably no more than 4)
Hong Kong – 5 days (not nearly enough – I could spent up to 9-10 days here!)
Las Vegas – 3 days (just right)
London – 2 days (more than enough for me – I didn’t enjoy London and almost went bankrupt after a couple of days! For the average traveller though, I’d say 4-5 days)
Maldives – 3 days (about right, though more if we signed up to activities & day trips)
New York City – 9 days (it didn’t even scratch the surface. At least 2 weeks here)
Paris – 8/10 days (see NYC)
Reykjavik – 4 days (could definitely have spent up to 6 days here)
Rome – 2 days (I didn’t warm to Rome either – I blame the dodgy area we stayed in! So 2 days was perfect, and I also got to explore the Roman Forum at a comfortable pace).
San Francisco – 3 days (4-5 days would have been ideal. It took me so long to enjoy San Francisco and when I started to, I had to leave!).
Shanghai – 3 days (could have spent an extra day or two here)
Tokyo – 12 days (at least 2 full weeks, if I had my time over. See NYC & Paris)
Vancouver – 3 days (about right, but we didn’t go doing ski season. I LOVED Vancouver and could definitely spend more time here exploring the landscape)
Venice – 1.5 days (2-3, if I had my time over. Venice is incredible)
Of course, the best way to get around the conundrum is to not plan or book anything. At all.
EASIEST WAY TO GET AROUND A CITY
Aside from a map in hand, GPS (we download the TomTom app on our iPhone – it’s not free but it’s worth the money) and/or Google Maps app have saved us so many times. During our self-guided bike tour in the South of France, we ended up ditching the paper maps we were given and used our TomTom instead (let’s face it, a map is only as good as the signage). If you’re heading to an Asian city (like Tokyo) be prepared. Even with a GPS, finding a place can be impossible. And if all else fails, ask for help.
As for public transport, this is our most used option. Walking or cycling is our preferred option. You see so much more of the city this way, but only if time is a luxury. Cycling gives you the best of both worlds though – and it’s easy on the feet!
Singapore, Tokyo, Hong Kong, Shanghai, most cities in Europe including Scandinavia have some of the most efficient subway systems in the world. NYC can be chaotic and slow (and deafening!) and the Tube in London can be horrendous. F0r such a populated city, Paris is really efficient and easy (aside from peak hour).
For my husband and I, we don’t have the luxury to be chauffeured from place to place and taxis are only ever used to and from the airport (if it’s an early morning or late night flight) because it’s often crazy expensive, too.
If you don’t have internet connection when you’re out, taking screenshots on your phone (I’ve never owned one but I’m sure you do it on an Android too) before leaving your hotel in the morning is indispensable (assuming you’re using wifi in the hotel). I take screenshots of everything when travelling – addresses, maps, photos, you name it. It beats writing everything down. All I have to do is open my Camera Roll and then type the address into our TomTom app. It’s foolproof.
Oh, and this is also a good thing to know.
CLAIMING TAX ON HOLIDAY PURCHASES
This is probably the best (though laborious!) part about shopping overseas.
It’s important to note not all countries and cities offer this option (definitely Europe and most of Asia, but – correct me if I’m wrong – not all parts of the US yet).
Basically (to the uninitiated) if you’re a traveller, you can claim back tax on your purchase. In Europe it’s called the VAT. In places like Singapore, it’s called the GST (like in Australia). The only condition is that you have to be leaving, say, the EU within 3 months of purchasing that item.
It’s also worth noting that tax rates differ from country to country. Minimum purchase amounts also vary from country to country. And some countries (like Denmark) adopt a tiered approach to tax rates and purchase amounts. You can find all this information on websites like Global Blue or Premier Tax Free. Generally, you’ll find you can get anywhere between 10-20% off your purchase.
Because getting your tax back on your purchases in a foreign country can get a little tricky though, I thought I’d impart a few tips based on my own experience:
At time of purchase
– Unless you have a rather intuitive sales assistant, you’ll have to tell them you’d like to claim the tax back on the purchase. They’ll then fill out the form & attach the receipt for you which you’ll need to claim tax. Do not lose these forms!
– Generally speaking, you’re not allowed to open or use your purchases before taking them to the airport’s tax refund office. Some countries (like Finland) will actually staple your shopping bag together. Some countries don’t, so with purchases like handbags, it’s possible to sneakily use them and then pop them back in its dustbag (just keep the swing tags)!
– If you’ve made multiple purchases, claim them all back at your last stop within the EU. Aim to arrive at the airport at least two hours earlier than usual (more if it’s a big airport and you have heaps of stuff to claim). You’ll need this time to line up, get the customs stamp, line up again at the foreign exchange counter, then post off the forms, and then to re-pack your suitcase.
At the tax refund counter
– If you’re wondering if customs check specific contents of your purchases at the airport… they usually don’t (in my experience!). That’s all I’ll say… in terms of packaging (paper bags/boxes), you generally don’t need it, as long as you have the actual item with you. This is handy if the packaging is really bulky! My girlfriend purchased a Birkin in Paris and was able to obtain a tax refund at the airport after shipping her empty Hermes box back to Australia.
– You can opt for a credit card refund or cash refund.
– In cities like Paris (and I assume in other cities too) there are tax refund counters dotted around the city from which you can receive your cash or credit refund (instead of receiving it at the airport). I’ve done this and it’s super simple and convenient if you need the extra cash. An important note: you STILL need to obtain the customs stamp at the airport though as a final ‘paperwork’ step, even though you’ve technically already received the refund. If you don’t get the stamp and post off the forms at the counter, you’ll have your refund debited from your credit card (which is why they ask you for your credit card at the counter).
– I know most people head to Paris to make big-ticket purchases (because it’s well-priced and the range is bigger). I recommend the Global Tax Refund office on the ground floor (next to the shoe department) at Galeries LaFayette. For the love of God, though, go early in the morning – before 10am – to beat the hoards of impatient, pushy Chinese tourists (only speaking from experience here). Global Blue can give you a cash refund (in euros) on the spot, and will only charge you (a small) commission if you didn’t make that purchase at Galeries.
– If you want to carry your purchases in your checked luggage, head to the tax refund counter before the check-in counter. This is why it’s important to arrive at the airport 2-3 hours earlier than you normally would – Rome, especially!
DUTY FREE PURCHASES IN AIRPORTS
I just wanted to include some sage advice on this so that you can all learn from my (costly!) mistakes.
Things like cosmetics and alcohol can be much cheaper than back in Australia, so whilst it’s tempting to while away a huge chunk of transit time at the airport by shopping, there are a few things to keep in mind:
– Be mindful on liquid restrictions if you don’t have your checked luggage with you at time of purchase (because you’ll get them confiscated through security screening, obviously).
– Be mindful of your destination. We once travelled from Europe to the Maldives and stocked up on super cheap whisky at Heathrow. We forgot that Sunni Islam is the state religion of Maldives, so upon arrival at Male Airport, we ended up having $300-$400 worth of whisky confiscated (you’re not allowed to consume or purchase alcohol in Maldives, unless you’re at a restaurant/resort). We tried everything – asking to have the alcohol shipped back, asking if we could store it at the airport and pick it up upon departure… but there’s only so far you can push the envelope with poker-faced guards carrying machine guns.
– Be mindful of where you’re travelling from and where you’re travelling to. One other time, my husband wanted to stock up on whisky at HKIA but thankfully before he made a purchase, a sales assistant thoughtfully advised us that if we were travelling from Hong Kong to Australia, we weren’t permitted to bring alcohol back in our carry-on, due to tough restrictions Australia has imposed on incoming liquids. One other time, we were at Shanghai International Airport and I thought I’d stock up on Elizabeth Arden 8 Hour Cream. The duty free store even sealed the clear zip lock bag for me so that it could (apparently) get through the security checkpoint. Well, guess what? It didn’t. I ended up having all 3 tubes of it taken away from me by Qantas at time of boarding. There’s a brief explanation on alcohol restrictions here but you can obviously find more info on Google.
STAYING SAFE WHEN TRAVELLING
I couldn’t round off my Tips & Tricks without mentioning a word or two about safety and security when travelling. The rise of cashed-up tourists in certain cities, comes an influx of petition-signing, string-wielding, pillow-carrying scam artists and ‘gypsies’ who try to make a buck (or more) off an unsuspecting traveller.
I travelled with my father in-law through Rome last year and he was (almost) the victim of a pickpocket who shoved a pillow in his face and put his hand into my FIL’s shirt pocket. I have to say; it wasn’t the worst part of my Rome experience, though. To the first time traveller who has all these romanticised notions of cities like Paris and Rome… please be mindful, prepared, and your expectations (and common sense) in check.
– Don’t use an ATM in a deserted, dark, or dodgy place. If you have to use an ATM (even in a seemingly scrupulous place) try to have a friend or your partner with you.
– If you’re asked to sign a ‘petition’, ignore them and walk away. Fast.
– Same goes if someone comes up to you with string in their hands and asks if you speak English.
– If you’re standing on the street waiting for a friend, try to have your back to a wall at all times.
– Don’t carry more cash than you need.
– When dining outside at a café or restaurant don’t leave your phone or wallet visibly sitting on the table.
– When walking out of a luxury store after making a big purchase, keep your blinkers on and purchases close to you. It’s also a good idea to drop your shopping bags at your hotel room – it’s not only a pain to lug them around all day, but it can also be bait for a not-so-nice mugging.
– Using a money wallet (slung unfashionably underneath your clothes is a great idea – I usually get the husband to do this. Hahaha.); as is carrying a crossbody bag in front of you. If you’re carrying a shoulder bag, make sure it has zips and always carry it in front of you on the subway or when walking through a crowded place. I also always make sure the ‘zip’ faces the front, not behind me. In some cities (like Kuala Lumpur), it’s best not to carry a handbag at all.
– If you’re travelling with valuable jewellery (like your engagement/wedding rings) turn the rings around (on your finger) when on public transport. Of course, the most cautious thing to do is not to travel with expensive stuff in the first place.
– We always carry our passports with us (for shopping purposes – ha!) but my husband always tucks them into a money wallet under his shirt.
– As far as hotel rooms go, we’ve never had an issue with getting our stuff stolen by housekeeping or others etc. But we do exercise a bit of common logic, like stowing away shopping bags out of sight, locking the suitcases before we leave the room, and not leaving cash, laptops, tablets and other valuables around (we lock them up in the luggage).
Jump to Part 1 and 2 of my Travel Tips & Tricks:
And you can browse the rest of my Travel posts here.