Category Archives: Travel

Enjoying The Alcazar and Jamon Iberico in Seville, Spain

We’re on the road again with installment #4 from our nine week voyage across Europe.  This week we’re highlighting our last stop in Spain: Seville!  Quick recap: after visiting Lisbon, Portugal, we flew to Malaga in southern Spain then took a bus to Granada. After Granada, we traveled a few hours west to Seville.

We spent four nights in central Seville in an Airbnb overlooking the Alameda de Hercules plaza.  Capital of the Andalusia region of Spain, Seville overflows with history and a sense of the past.  Romans first settled the area more than two millennia ago and remnants of their city remain visible today in and around Seville.  Over the centuries Seville was inhabited by the Vandals, the Visigoths, then the Moors.  In the 13th century the Castilians conquered the city and it has remained under Spanish rule for the past 750 years.

Though 40 miles inland, the Guadalquivir river connects Seville to the Mediterranean Sea and onward to the Atlantic Ocean which led to its growth as a major Spanish port in the 16th century.  Seville grew to be an incredibly wealthy city as the Spaniards colonized the Americas.  The conquerors and colonists filled galleons with gold and silver before returning across the Atlantic Ocean to Seville.

Today’s Seville preserves many of its classical roots while offering modern conveniences for tourists like great city buses, a small but growing subway network, tons of restaurants, and pedestrian malls lined with shops.

 

More than an Eyeful!

The biggest draw in Seville is the Alcazar.  Originally built by Moorish kings, the Alcazar continues its regal role today as an official residence of the Spanish Royalty.  If you’re a Game of Thrones fan (who isn’t?) then you have probably seen the Alcazar starring as the Water Gardens of Dorne, a royal palace for the Dornish rulers.

 

The Alcazar – it sports dozens of rooms with similarly intricate designs

 

And grand courtyards

 

And patios

 

Gardens of Alcazar – the grounds were huge so we didn’t get a chance to explore more than a small segment.  Growing on the trellis over our heads are grapevines that must be 50 or 100 years old.

We planned to visit the Alcazar on a Monday night when admission was free. Everyone else knew our secret too. The short wait in line provided the perfect opportunity to check out the awesome scenery such as the Cathedral in the background.

 

Plaza de España / Parque Maria Luisa

The Plaza de España was originally built as Spain’s Pavillion in the Ibero-American Exhibition of the 1929 World’s Fair.  Today it’s a notable emblem of Seville (and mostly houses government offices). We happened on an impromptu Flamenco dance exhibit while exploring the grounds.

The Plaza de España served as a filming location for Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones.

Plaza de España with fountain and horse drawn carriages

 

Plaza de España and the man-made canal that runs through the middle of it

 

La familia!

The Plaza de España sits within the Parque Maria Luisa which extends three quarters of a mile from north to south.  Most of the park is filled with trees, pathways, buildings, lakes, fountains, and wildlife.

Lake and waterfowl in Parque Maria Luisa.

 

Archaeological Museum of Seville at the far southern end of Parque Maria Luisa. The museum was originally built for the Ibero-American Exposition World’s Fair hosted by Seville in 1929.  We saw a young kid practicing bullfighting just around the corner from here.

 

Exploring the streets of Seville

Seville is a good walking city because a lot of the attractions in the old historic core are close together.  We had multiple days in Seville so we tackled a different part of downtown each day.  Some days we walked home at the conclusion of our adventuring.  Other days we had to catch a quick bus ride home for about USD$0.80 per ticket using the Multiviaje reloadable bus card (find the card at a Tobacco shop).

Torre del Oro / Gold Tower – fortification originally used to guard the Guadalquivir River.

 

Great views of the Seville Cathedral from the Torre del Oro

 

One of Seville’s many pedestrian-only streets. No cars allowed!

 

This massive sculpture, the Setas de Sevilla, is very new.

 

But if it’s the very old you seek, look underneath the Setas de Sevilla in the Antiquarium – excavated Roman ruins preserved in-place.

 

Between the Alcazar and Plaza de España is the old Royal Tobacco Factory. The building now houses the University of Seville.

 

No cultured museum visit is complete until your son yells “I can see all their peepees”. All. Of. Them.  –Small sculpture museum within University of Seville.

 

 

Lodging for four nights with Airbnb

During our nine weeks in Europe we visited 14 cities and stayed in 14 different Airbnb apartments.  It was a great way to live among the locals in a regular apartment.

We booked a two bedroom, one bath apartment for the five of us right on the Alameda de Hercules plaza in the center of Seville.  At USD$63 per night, it was on par with the $60-something per night apartments we booked elsewhere in southern Spain.  It’s less than half of what we would have paid for two comparable hotel rooms.  Airbnb was such a money saver and sanity saver in Europe (and if you want to save money and sanity with Airbnb, here’s $40 off your stay).  The living room offered plenty of room to stretch out and relax when we had some downtime. A table big enough for all of us to enjoy a homecooked meal or some takeout.  And a full kitchen to prepare said homecooked meal.

 

Basic but impeccably clean kitchen with eat-in table

 

Dining room (or office, if you have an Early Retirement Lifestyle Consulting client session).  Love that balcony and view out the front!  We had front row seats to some crazy procession that I think was Seville’s Pride Day Parade (based on copious amounts of rainbow flags and accessories).

 

Food in Seville

We cooked several meals in our apartment but also enjoyed several restaurant meals since everything was so cheap (except the $5 gelato place literally underneath our kitchen window).  Take out pizza was USD$5 each, for example, at the restaurant just outside our door.

Takeout Indian and Mediterranean food. Samosas, doner kebab, several curries, durum wrap, chicken nuggets and fries (for the kids).  I had to really convince the chef that a white guy wanted the chicken curry nice and spicy. Only USD$30 for all of this takeout.  Salads not included as I bought salad mix, blue cheese and tomatoes for $2 at the grocery store.

 

Under USD$20 for the five of us to enjoy paella, fried shrimp fritters, chicken fingers, and jamon iberico sandwiches at this casual eatery right underneath the Setas de Sevilla in a touristy area.

 

I had to do it. Taco Bell España was on my Must Do list for Spain. I’m sad to say it was disappointing compared to US Taco Bells (which I LOVE).  At least it came with a nice Cathedral view.  I can’t complain too much because they serve beer and margaritas.  And they have great air conditioning!

 

Mrs. Root of Good made some fancy tapas out of fresh baguettes, jamon iberico, blue cheese and various greens.  Good eats!

 

Thoughts on Seville

I hope I make it back some day! Hopefully I can return in the spring or fall when it’s cooler.  Seville is a great city with tons to explore in the downtown area.  I wish I had another few days to explore the streets and relax more since we were on the move every day.

Price wise, it’s an incredible value in Europe.  It really disproves the “OMG Europe is SO expensive” generality.  Lodging, meals, and transportation were all modestly priced.  It seemed slightly less expensive than other budget locales like Slovenia and the Czech Republic and not a lot more expensive than Mexico for some things.

If I had to pick just one place to visit out of the three we visited (Malaga, Granada, and Seville), I’m inclined to pick Seville. It’s bigger than the other cities and has more to do and see.  The Alcazar compares favorably with La Alhambra in Granada (our main reason for visiting Granada).  I would allow at least three to four days to explore Seville and a week if you have the time.

 

 

Check out the whole series (so far) of our nine week European family vacation:

 

 

What are your thoughts on Seville?  Can you tell how hot it was from the pics? Some days were 104F.  

 

 

Note to readers: I’ll be incommunicado October 21-28 because we just booked a last minute Caribbean Cruise on the MSC Divina out of Miami for me and Mrs. Root of Good! Flying solo without the kiddos this time! 

Exploring La Alhambra and the Narrow Alleyways of Granada, Spain

This week we’re visiting the third stop on our nine week family vacation in Europe.  After spending two nights in Malaga, Spain, the five of us set out on a two hour bus ride to Granada, Spain.

Upon arriving in Granada, we immediately noticed it was very hot but very dry.  We caught a city bus to the center of town, hopped off, and walked the last five minutes to our Airbnb.  This Airbnb was small and spartanly furnished but clean and modern – Ikea Chic style.  The apartment had all the basics – air conditioning, clothes washer, dishwasher, sleek bathroom, and full size refrigerator.  I was concerned the air conditioning wouldn’t be able to keep up with the 95-100 degree heat, but fortunately for us it had a setting that probably translates to “super jet fan turbo blast” in English.  Not a bad place to stay for three nights.

 

Getting Around Town

Our $67 per night Airbnb was pleasantly situated on a quiet alleyway within five minutes of just about everything in town including the main town square, the Cathedral, restaurants, grocery stores, and the bus stop.  It’s entirely possible to walk to most places in town and a car would be more trouble than what it’s worth unless you were planning to visit the surrounding countryside.  

The main reason we visited Granada was to tour the expansive Moorish fortification and palaces known collectively as La Alhambra. It was a 20 minute walk uphill from our Airbnb or a quick 8 minute bus ride.  We have three kids so the choice was obvious – bus it was!

A quick note: most buses in Granada are different than regular city buses ubiquitous throughout Europe and the US. These were shaped more like fancy bread delivery vans hollowed out and filled with benches and handholds.  The narrow streets and alleyways of old town Granada couldn’t handle full size buses (except on a few routes that don’t stray from the major thoroughfares).

Granada buses are cheap. If you buy a bus card for €2 (about USD$2.40) you can then add funds to it in any amount €5 or greater.  With the bus card, you save about 33% on each trip, making trips using the bus card only €0.79 each (USD$0.92).

Though we didn’t take any taxis, I saw the rate cards and they were surprisingly cheap.  From what I recall it was USD$4-6 for a short to medium length ride (from the bus station into the center of town, for example).  Once you see how steep some of the streets are, the taxis look like an even better deal.

Taxis won’t haul your lazy butt up this steep alleyway unfortunately.

One day we visited the Albaicin neighborhood – a thousand year old series of narrow alleyways lined with houses sitting on a hill overlooking La Alhambra.  From our Airbnb to Albaicin was an easy five minute walk.

I’d hate to be driving on these streets. Good thing those mirrors are retractable.

 

La Alhambra – The Main Attraction

We planned the whole nine day segment in Spain around visiting La Alhambra in Granada.  It didn’t disappoint.  I think the kids liked it too as they managed to trudge through the almost 100 degree weather for six hours (!!).  There are water fountains all over the complex which helped immensely in our battle against dehydration.

Good spirits in spite of the heat.  This shot was taken in the Generalife Palace with La Alhambra in the background.

 

Looking at La Alhambra from the Albaicin neighborhood.

 

La Alhambra’s roots are over 1,100 years old and date back to the days of Moorish conquest by the Muslims from North Africa (who controlled most of Spain for around 700 years).

The site itself is huge with one half of it extending a distance of a half mile from the main entrance gate. The other half of the site, the Generalife palace, measures roughly a quarter of a mile including buildings and gardens.

Planning tip: Tickets must be bought a month or two ahead of time during peak summer season, so don’t forget to book your tickets as soon as you can. Their website is cumbersome so allow a few extra days to deal with that. My experience involved a scratchy phone call to Ticketmaster Espana because the online site wouldn’t take any of my US-based credit or debit cards.

One of many gardens in the foreground with the Nasrid Palace and Carlos V Palace in the background.

 

Part palace, part fort. Great views of Granada abound.

 

Amazing pools. How did they build these 700 years ago on top of this mountain in the middle of the desert?

 

More pools in the gardens.

 

Nasrid Palace courtyard.

 

Intricately carved pillars and ceiling.

 

Courtyard in the Generalife Palace.

 

Good Eats

We mostly dined on food from the grocery store while in Granada. They had an amazing selection of cured meats and cheeses, olives, pastries, wine, and beer.  Plenty of ingredients for homemade tapas!  I also picked up some eggs and potatoes to try cooking the Spanish version of a tortilla after tasting it at a restaurant in Malaga a few days earlier.

Exploring the grocery stores in Spain was an experience in itself. Great way to better understand the culinary traditions of a place.  I also learned you DON’T TOUCH THE FRUITS AND VEGETABLES. There’s a lady in charge of handling the produce for you. After some begging and pleading from me, she did let me sneak a quick squeeze on the nectarines to see how ripe they were.

Restaurants and bars line the slender streets of Granada. We tried a variety of Mediterranean food from a local restaurant. We got doner kebabs, kefta meat wraps, and “hamburgers” (the latter of which were really chicken burgers on a unique yeasty flatbread roll).

 

Thoughts on Granada

It’s a phenomenal place to visit for at least a few days.  The town itself is interesting with its winding alleyways and narrow streets.  La Alhambra is a very full day-long visit and a must-see if you make it to Granada.  Though we didn’t make it outside of Granada proper on this trip, we were tempted to try out some great hiking trails criss-crossing the mountains and foothills around Granada (but the scorching temperatures kept us away).

Main shopping street in Granada. It’s covered so the intense summer sun won’t burn you up!

 

La Alhambra is superb.  The largest and best specimen of Moorish architecture in Spain.  If you can’t make it to Granada, the Alcazaba in Malaga and the Alcazar in Seville are similar in nature to La Alhambra though not as grand in scale.

I’m glad we had a chance to visit Granada and other parts of Andalusia in southern Spain because these areas had a totally different look and feel compared to the rest of Europe.  I’ve wanted to visit this region since studying Andalusia in Spanish class two decades ago.  It took a while but my patience paid off!

 

Check out the whole series (so far) of our nine week European family vacation:

 

 

Interested in visiting La Alhambra?  Have you already navigated the twisting alleyways of Granada?

 

 

From the Alcazaba to Sea in Malaga, Spain

Now that we’re back in Raleigh I’m planning on releasing a more regular stream of trip reports from our nine week summer vacation in Europe.  After we spent five nights in Lisbon, Portugal, we took a short turboprop flight to our second destination of Malaga, Spain for a quick two night stay.  What started out in the planning stages of the trip as a pit stop in Malaga on the way to Granada turned out to be a surprisingly interesting city to spend a few days.

 

Looking down from the Gibralfaro Castle with view of the Malagueta bullfighting ring and the Mediterranean Sea.  Keep going straight south across that sea and you’ll soon hit Africa.

Getting around town (with some frustration)

We arrived at the airport several miles outside of town.  From the airport, we took a train to the main train station downtown.  Our airbnb was a 15-20 minute walk from the train station so we set out on foot.  It was hot!  Eventually we located our home for two nights.  It turns out that our airbnb host spoke no English so I put my Bachelor of Arts in Spanish Language and Literature to work and navigated my way through the tour of the apartment (how the A/C works; where to take the trash; signing a two page rental agreement in Spanish).

Soon after arriving in Malaga on a Sunday I learned how reverently Spaniards take their rest and relaxation.  The short version of the story is that after much wasted effort I learned that not much happens on Sundays in Spain.

The long version: I researched the local public transit system ahead of time and found out that buying a bus pass with ten trips pre-loaded was the way to go for cheap bus tickets at about half the cost of paying for each individual ride.  And the bus pass offers a free transfer within 60 minutes whereas paying cash gets you a single ride sans transfer.

We took the bus up to the Gibralfaro Castle which looks down 400 feet to the city below.  This 800 year old castle was built during the time the Moors ruled much of Spain.

 

Great views of the city from up here!

Since we had a few days in Malaga, I wanted to go the economy route of buying a bus pass for the five of us.  Mrs. Root of Good and the kids were tired but I had plenty of energy so I set out on foot searching for a convenience store or tobacco shop that sells the city bus cards.  I figured I would be chilling in the Airbnb’s cranked up A/C within 10-20 minutes, bus passes firmly in hand.  After inquiring at several of the local stores that were actually open on Sunday afternoon, the shopkeepers led me to believe the only place that sold bus passes on Sunday was the main bus station downtown.  Fortunately I had already walked 10 minutes toward the main bus station by the time I figured this out so I figured it was only an additional 15 minute walk to the main station.  The afternoon sun was exhausting but I persevered and made it to the main bus station where I eventually learned that they do not sell the city bus pass.

Disappointed but not deterred from the mission, I visited the main train station next door to the bus station. Another strike out – no bus passes there either.  Eventually I resigned to the fact that bus passes weren’t happening and I’d be paying full price to ride the city bus (after a long, sweaty 1.25 mile walk back to our Airbnb to reunite with the family).  I can’t complain too much as this was probably the most frustrating part of our entire nine week trip.

I still find it strange that neither the main train station nor the main bus station sold the city bus passes on Sundays.  But this was Spain and sometimes you have to wait till tomorrow to conduct business.

Downtown Malaga near the Tobacco shop that sells bus passes on Sundays.

I eventually found a tobacco shop in the center of town that was open on Sunday and I picked up a bus pass that would carry us through the rest of our stay in Malaga.  The bus service is pretty reliable with frequent service so wait times are minimal for most routes.  With the bus pass it’s just under USD$1 per person per ride.

Malaga has a beach within walking distance of the tourist center of town and just a few blocks from the city bus route. First time we’ve visited the Mediterranean Sea!  I would never visit Malaga just for this beach but it was a nice break for the kids.

 

Food

I didn’t have any good food pics for Malaga unfortunately.  For dinner for the adults one night, I grabbed a whole grilled fish and Spanish tortilla (which is full of egg and potatoes) from a bar around the corner from our Airbnb. The fish was grilled five feet away from me while I watched.  Once cooked, the chef topped the fish with a flavorful lemon garlic olive oil sauce. They sent me on my way with salad and bread to accompany the fish and tortilla.

While waiting on the fish I chatted with the bartender for a bit and inquired if they offered free tapas when you order a drink.  He let out a little chuckle before explaining the tapas menu to me (everything was USD$2-3 for a small serving).  Apparently free tapas aren’t common in the non-tourist part of town where we stayed.  However, the menu prices were still reasonable, with the fish, salad, bread, and Spanish tortilla setting us back only USD$12 and it was enough to feed two.

Other meals were picked up from the grocery store a block from our apartment for about USD$20 per day.  We enjoyed quick foods like refrigerated pizzas, meat and cheese with bread, flan and yogurt, fresh fruits, pastries, cereal and milk.  And lots of jamon iberico which is basically the Spanish version of prosciutto – thinly sliced cured smoked ham.

Most days we would have breakfast at the apartment, pack a lunch of sandwiches and snacks, and then have something more substantial for dinner once we were back at the apartment in the evening.  During the day we might pick up some treats as we explored the city.

The Alcazaba.  Built around 1,000 years ago, it’s a prime example of Moorish architecture.

The Alcazaba (with Gibralfaro Castle up the hill in the background).  We started at the upper castle and walked downhill to the Alcazaba.  Hint: don’t do the opposite route unless you’re a fitness warrior or you really enjoy punishment.

Lodging

We stayed at an Airbnb about 0.75-1.0 miles from the tourist center of town and about the same distance from the nearest train station.  If it was just me and Mrs. Root of Good we would probably walk into town each day. With the kids tagging along, the bus was an easy alternative that saved limited leg endurance for exploring the stairs, hillsides, castles, and narrow alleyways of Malaga.

Lodging is generally inexpensive in southern Spain and Malaga offered a lot of value-conscious accommodations.  For USD$62 per night we found a small, two bedroom apartment with full kitchen, clothes washer, air conditioning, and two full bathrooms.  The kitchen was tiny but we weren’t planning on cooking a lot during our short stay in Malaga.

Interested in trying out Airbnb? Want to save $40 off your first stay? Here you go!

Our upstairs master bedroom suite in the Malaga Airbnb rental. We had a private balcony and full bathroom just for us!

 

Thoughts on Malaga

I enjoyed Malaga a lot.  I originally planned on two nights in Malaga simply because it was easier logistically to fly from Lisbon to Malaga (instead of to Seville or Granada) due to the availability of a short, free one-way flight from redeeming United Airline miles.  Seville and Granada were our main destinations in southern Spain.  Malaga turned out to be a worthwhile destination in itself and an even better place to visit than Granada (home of the renowned La Alhambra) since there was more to see in town.

Looking at the 2,000 year old Roman Amphitheater from the street level entrance to the Alcazaba.

The Roman Amphitheatre was undergoing restoration when we visited in June of 2017.

Outside the tourist center of town, the streets were slightly gritty and unpolished.  It reminded Mrs. Root of Good of Mexico (another place we’ve spent a lot of time).  Outside the tourist center is great if you’re seeking value, however.  Accommodations and food are very inexpensive and it’s an easy walk or short bus ride to the center of town from where we stayed.

Strolling through the Alameda Park. Paralleling the harbor for half a mile, this park offers a scenic detour around the bustling downtown tourist area.

Malaga Cathedral. It’s massive!

Overall, Malaga is worth a visit of a few days if you’re headed to southern Spain.  Like many other cities in the south of Spain, it exudes history and culture from the Roman era to the Moorish era to the colonial era to modern day Spain.

 

Check out the whole series (so far) of our nine week European family vacation:

 

 

Have you ever been to Malaga or elsewhere in southern Spain?  Any favorite spots?  Did we miss anything in Malaga?

 

 

Surprising Finds in Lisbon, Portugal

The Root of Good family started its grand nine week European vacation with five days in Lisbon, Portugal.  After a short flight from Raleigh, Lisbon is an easy 7.5 hour overnight flight from Washington, D.C., so our transatlantic flight to Europe was relatively painless.  We arrived at 10:30 in the morning the next day.  After an arduous journey through the immigration lines, we left the airport by metro for a quick ride to our first (of fourteen) Airbnb apartments that would serve as our homes away from home for the next nine weeks in Europe.

To battle jet lag, I followed the advice to stay awake the whole day of our arrival and DON’T take a nap.  We dropped our bags at the airbnb apartment, hooked up to wifi, unpacked a bit, and did a quick inventory of necessities (“Do we have soap, shampoo, conditioner, and breakfast for tomorrow?”), and headed out for an afternoon of exploring downtown Lisbon so we would be forced to stay awake.  Easier said than done, we had an overly exhausted five year old that fell asleep on the metro ride back to our apartment, and it’s the first time I’ve nearly fallen asleep while standing up (waiting for the metro).

Waking up the next day in Lisbon, none of us really suffered from jet lag. Disaster averted.

Before we jump into the Lisbon trip report, here’s some background info.  Portugal and Spain share the Iberian peninsula in the southwestern corner of Europe, and appear to be similar in terms of climate and culture.  In fact, the two countries shared a king for a period of several decades yet remained separate, independent countries.  Being geographically adjacent, we decided to visit both countries (with Spain covered in a subsequent trip report post).

A quick note on ease of communication: I’m fairly proficient at speaking Spanish which helped immensely when attempting to communicate in Portuguese.  The languages are similar enough that I could get by reading Portuguese, make out some words while listening, and occasionally speak words in English or Spanish to get by.  If you know Spanish, learning the travel vocabulary basics is pretty easy.  English is widely spoken in the tourist areas, but less so outside the center.

 

I'm glad we didn't go bare-bones budget for our Airbnb reservations. This place in Lisbon was nice!

I’m glad we didn’t go bare-bones budget for our Airbnb reservations. This place in Lisbon was nice!  Perfect place to rest up after a flight across the Atlantic.

 

Exploring the City

Our apartment was a few miles from the center of town which meant a 10-20 minute bus or subway ride most days depending on where we were headed.

The biggest attraction in town is the Sao Jorge Castle.  A relic from the days when the Muslim Moors controlled southern Spain for a period of roughly 700 years, this old fortification sits high on a hill overlooking Lisbon.

Sao Jorge Castle

Sao Jorge Castle

 

Our first castle visit in Europe! First of many...

Our first castle visit in Europe! First of many…

 

sao-jorge-lisbon1

 

I'm still not sure how they got the water to the top of the hill to fill up this old moat. Did water run uphill back in the day?

I’m still not sure how they got the water to the top of the hill to fill up this moat. Did water run uphill back in the day?

 

Great views from the castle walls

Great views from the castle walls

 

We took a bus and a tram across the city to see the Tower of Belem. This tower guarded the entrance to the Tagus River, and provided protection for the city and all inland areas of Portugal from ships sailing the Atlantic Ocean.

We took a bus and a tram across the city to see the Tower of Belem. This tower guarded the entrance to the Tagus River and provided protection for the city and all inland areas of Portugal from unfriendly ships sailing the Atlantic Ocean. (note: our son is being goofy – he’s not exhausted or asleep. He simply hates posing for pictures because he’s five.)

 

A short walk from our Airbnb, the Fonte Luminosa or Luminous Fountain entertains and cools us down from the scorching summer heat.

A short walk from our Airbnb, the Fonte Luminosa or Luminous Fountain, entertains and cools us down from the scorching summer heat.

 

Maybe I'm a transportation nerd, but I loved seeing all the trains go by in this "canyon" next to our airbnb. Our apartment is in the building on the right.

Maybe I’m a transportation nerd, but I loved seeing all the trains go by in this “canyon” next to our airbnb. Every five to seven minutes another local or regional train would pass by.  The subway pops above ground for a bit in the far left of the photo and crosses over the railroad tracks.  Our apartment is in the green building just to the right of center.

 

Just across the railroad track "canyon" from our apartment is this deserted city park. Nice way to burn off some pastel de nata consumed during the stay in Lisbon.

Just across the bridge over the railroad track “canyon” from our apartment is this quiet city park. Nice way to burn off some pastel de nata consumed during the stay in Lisbon.

 

Getting Around

We took the Lisbon transit system every day except the final day when we Uber’d (Ubered?) back to the airport at 6 am Sunday since the metro doesn’t start running till 6:30 am.  It turns out Uber is super cheap in Lisbon and doesn’t cost a lot more than transit tickets for short to medium rides around the city.

The transit system has a subway with several lines complemented by a larger network of buses and trams criss-crossing the greater Lisbon area.  Although Lisbon as a whole is rather inexpensive, the structure of the fare system makes Lisbon transit rather expensive compared to most other European cities we’ve visited.  Single transit tickets run USD$1.50 while 24 hour passes are USD$7 per person.  For tourists, no discounts are available for children or families, and even our five year old had to purchase tickets (a rarity with other transit providers).  Frustratingly, the single tickets are not valid for transfers between buses or transferring between the metro and buses or trams (transfers between subway lines are free).  As a result, the day pass quickly becomes an attractive option if you’re making transfers or planning on taking multiple trips during a day of sightseeing.  We mixed it up with some single tickets and some 24 hour passes to optimize the transit spending.

The 24 hour passes can be used on two separate days.  For example, we lazed about the apartment one morning then set out for the day’s excitement around 1 pm which is when we validated our 24 hour pass.  This meant we could travel all day then up till 1 pm the next day.  A small trick, but helpful to stretch a buck when day passes for five total USD$35 per day.

The day pass lets you ride these historic trolleys around the touristic center of town.

The day pass lets you ride these historic trolleys around the touristic center of town at no additional cost.

 

And go up the various elevators and funiculars around town, all for the price of one $7 24 hour pass.

…And go up the various elevators and funiculars around town, all for the price of one $7 24 hour pass.  Though hard to see from this angle, the elevator starts from the ground level where we took this picture and goes up to the top about 80-100 feet where you can walk out to the street level. It’s a hilly city!

 

Food in Lisbon

On our first night in Lisbon, we were jet-lagged and hungry downtown after a day of sightseeing and trying to stay awake.  The kids were starving and exhausted, so we took a break from the tourist trail and stopped into a doner kebab restaurant for some kebabs (something new to us) and burgers (comfort food for the kids).  The whole meal came in at €29 (or USD$31).

Doner kebab prato (or plate) - a double heaping serving of doner kebab meat, veggie salad, and large french fries on the side for USD$6. It came with a soda which we switched for a beer (beer was cheaper than soda so technically it was a downgrade :) )

Doner kebab prato (or plate) – a double heaping serving of doner kebab meat, veggie salad, and large french fries on the side for USD$6. It came with a soda which we switched for a beer (beer was cheaper than soda so technically it was a downgrade 🙂 )

 

Encore appearance of the doner kebab plate - kebab sandwiches on baguettes with tomatoes and olives from the grocery store! Yummy creative way to consume leftovers from huge portions at the restaurant.

Encore appearance of the doner kebab plate – leftover kebab on baguettes with tomatoes and olives from the grocery store and balsamic vinegar provided by the airbnb host. Yummy creative way to consume leftovers from huge portions at the restaurant.  Nice $1-2 bottle of wine and city view as side dishes.

Since we’re on extended travels with our three kids, it’s usually easier to buy nice foods and dine at home or grab take out, rather than try to get the crowd rounded up for lunch or dinner out somewhere, navigate to a suitable restaurant, then wait for our food to come out when our kids are starving to death literally*.

 

* not literally, but you know how kids can over-dramatize

 

Homemade snack time sampler - croissant, camambert and prosciutto (called presunto in Portuguese)

Homemade snack time sampler – croissant, Camembert and prosciutto (called presunto in Portuguese). I forget the exact cost but a fraction of the US cost. Probably $0.50-.75 for this whole plate.

We visited a Portuguese slash Middle Eastern slash South Asian restaurant and ordered several dishes to share.  Chicken curry, steak and egg, empanadas, grilled fish, and burgers. The total was once again €29 or about USD$31 for the five of us.

Chicken curry

Chicken curry, rice, and salad

 

$5 for 3 empanadas and a $1.50 "quibe" - fried meaty deliciousness

$5 for 3 empanadas and a $1.50 “quibe” – crispy fried meaty deliciousness

 

$5 for a steak dinner? Thanks, Lisbon!

$5 for a steak dinner? Thanks, Lisbon!

 

And for dessert - pastel de nata, the most famous sweet treat from Lisbon. We picked these up from the bakery in the grocery store next to our apartment for $0.35 each.

And for dessert – pastel de nata, the most famous sweet treat from Lisbon. It’s a creamy custard baked in a flaky dough.  We picked these up from the bakery in the grocery store next to our apartment for $0.35 each.

 

The $35 big haul from the grocery store to set us up for good eats at “home”:

I love checking out all the different foods they stock at the grocery stores in other countries. And snapping up cheap buys compared to prices at home.

The grocery store had a hot prepared foods counter so I got several different meat filled pastries, a sausage, some croquettes, and a whole rotisserie chicken.  And check out those presunto flavored potato chips.

We have a habit of buying some good bread and sliced meats and cheeses and packing a light lunch to take on the go.  Then we can have a nice picnic whenever we get hungry, or slide a kid a mini sandwich to eat on the go for an energy boost.

 

Thoughts on Lisbon

We had a good time in the city and thought it was a fun introduction to Europe.  Lisbon offers different sights compared to the rest of Europe since there’s the Moorish influence and the climate is drier and hotter.  For those that have only visited the most popular European destinations like Paris and London, it’ll be a pleasant change of scenery.

 

Celebrating my 37th birthday in Lisbon with ice cream cake!

Celebrating my 37th birthday in Lisbon with ice cream cake!

 

The weather was much hotter than usual with temperatures in the 90’s and 100’s while we were there in June.  But it was a dry heat, so not too bad.  On the worst day when temps hovered in the 100-104F range most of the day, we chose to take a “do nothing day” where we were lazy and didn’t leave the apartment for sightseeing.  Though we did explore the neighborhood park right before nightfall when the temperature dropped.  This is part of our “slow travel” philosophy – take it easy and enjoy the traveling.

 

Moon reflecting on the Tagus River - view from our Airbnb.

Moon reflecting on the Tagus River – view from our Airbnb.

 

Food was good and inexpensive, both at the grocery store and at restaurants.  The city is easy to navigate by transit and Uber is so cheap that it’s a cost-effective alternative if you don’t feel like taking transit (or even cheaper than transit if you have four people in your group, for example).  Overall, prices were about 65-70% of what we would pay in Raleigh, North Carolina.

 

Took this tiny turboprop for a short hop from Lisbon to Malaga, Spain.

Took this tiny turboprop for a short hop from Lisbon to Malaga, Spain. Note the luggage – that’s all we packed for 9 weeks in Europe.  Bookbags plus some small sacks for miscellanies.

 

After Lisbon, we spent nine days in southern Spain spread across the Andalusian cities of Malaga, Granada, and Seville.  Stay tuned for the summary of the Spain leg of our trip.

 

Check out the whole series (so far) of our nine week European family vacation:

 

 

Have you been to Lisbon before?  Any favorite spots we missed? 

 

 

June 2017 Financial Update

This month’s financial update comes to you from Ljubljana, Slovenia – an undiscovered gem in Europe.  We are about to head to Lake Bled, Slovenia for some hiking, lake-lounging, and more relaxing.  After that we’re on to Austria, Germany, and the Czech Republic for the next month before ending our vacation in Amsterdam.  It’s hard to believe we are almost half way through our nine week summer vacation in Europe!

June was another great month financially.  Net worth increased $14,000 to $1,842,000.  Income was very strong at $7,793 during June, while expenses remained moderate at $2,629.  Such a great feeling to watch your assets continue to grow for you while you’re on the other side of the world exploring and relaxing!

Income

Investment income totaled $6,265 for the month.  The majority of our mutual funds and ETFs pay dividends quarterly in March, June, September, and December.  During other months investment income tends to be much smaller.  We are well on our way to earning roughly $30,000 in dividends for 2017, as we have in the past.  Of the dividends and interest received during June, around $3,000 was in our taxable brokerage accounts with the remainder deposited into our IRA’s and 401k’s.

Blog income, shown as “other income” in the chart, dropped to $906.  I have a large check from an advertiser waiting for me at home, so the blog income is lower than usual.

My early retirement lifestyle consulting remained steady at $480 for the month.  That represents four hours of work.  Some of that work was completed while in Seville, Spain which technically makes me a “digital nomad” (one who is location independent and works wherever they are).

This guy works hard!

This guy works hard! No vacationing here!

Tough to focus when this is your view of Lisbon from the bay windows!

Tough to focus when this is your view of Lisbon from the bay windows

 

The $141 in Deposits includes cash back rebates from the Ebates.com and Mrrebates.com online shopping portals. If you sign up for Ebates through this link and make a qualifying $25 purchase through Ebates, you’ll get a $10 gift card like I did.  When shopping online, I always check to see if I can score some extra cash back by using one of those online shopping portals (and it usually pays off!).

Part of the “Deposits” income is $125 from something called credit card tradeline sales.  It’s something new I’m trying to pick up some easy cash. The 30 second version is: I add an authorized user to my credit card; the authorized user gets a big boost to their credit score; they pay the credit fixing agency; I get paid. I’ll expand on this explanation in a future blog post if it’s ever something worth recommending to my general readership. So far it’s kind of cumbersome for limited payback potential and comes with non-trivial but manageable risks that I would have to explain in detail.

june-2017-income

If you’re interested in tracking your income and expenses like I do, then check out Personal Capital (it’s free!). All of our savings and spending accounts (including checking, money market, and five credit cards) are all linked and updated in real time through Personal Capital. We have accounts all over the place, and Personal Capital makes it really easy to check on everything at one time.

Personal Capital is also a solid tool for investment management. Keeping track of our entire investment portfolio takes two clicks. If you haven’t signed up for the free Personal Capital service, check it out today (review here).

 

Expenses

Now let’s take a look at June expenses:

june-2017-expenses

We spent $2,629 during the month of June.  We came in several hundred dollars under our budgeted $3,333 per month (or $40,000 per year).  The big expenses this month were travel/vacations and home maintenance (a new roof).

Vacation is underway. La Alhambra in Granada, Spain.

Vacation is underway. La Alhambra in Granada, Spain. And perhaps the only picture where our five year old is smiling normally and looking at the camera. 

 

Travel – $1,290

During June we spent $1,290 here in Europe on our big summer vacation.  I haven’t been tracking this spending in great detail, but looking at the data in Personal Capital, I see $723 in ATM withdrawals (fee free or fee reimbursed, thanks to my Fidelity Cash Management ATM/Debit card).  Of that $723, I still had around $400 in cash at the end of June, so June’s spending is slightly overstated.  The ATM spits out cash and I spend it anywhere that won’t take credit cards.  I don’t keep a detailed list of where this cash goes.

I spent $95 on the annual fee for my new Chase Ink Business credit card. I assess this charge to “Travel” because we’ll use the 80,000 bonus points for signing up for this card to get a free plane ticket or three in the future.

After taking out the $400 that we didn’t spend yet, and the $95 credit card annual fee, we spent a net of $800 in June. About $300 of that is groceries.  $250 on dining out. The remaining $250 we spent on local buses, trains, and subways, Uber, and entrance fees to castles and other attractions.

Groceries – So far we’ve spent roughly $300 for the first 18 days in Europe, or about $17 per day.  Grocery prices in Portugal, Spain, Italy, and Slovenia (where we have visited so far) range from about the same as Raleigh to about a third cheaper.  We aren’t able to take advantage of bulk purchases or shopping big sales, so overall we’re still spending about the same as we do at home in spite of dining out more often here in Europe.

I love checking out all the different foods they stock at the grocery stores in other countries. And snapping up cheap buys compared to prices at home.

I love checking out all the different foods they stock at the grocery stores in other countries. And snapping up cheap buys compared to prices at home.  Prosciutto flavored potato chips! Local pastries. Fresh cherries for a buck per pound. $0.35 fresh baked baguettes. A pound sack of olives for a buck. Croissants, multiple packages of prosciutto. Camambert cheese and duck liver pate.  Beef samosa dumplings, empanadas, and cured bacalhau fish croquettes.  I paid USD$35 for all this.

 

Dining out – we go out to eat about once per day or once every other day.  Even though Europe is supposed to be expensive, we aren’t having a hard time finding meals for €20-30 total for the five of us (about USD$23-34).  Sometimes that’s take out, and sometimes that’s a sit down meal at a simple place.  Even in supposedly expensive Venice, Italy, we found a local pizza place 30 seconds from our Airbnb that serves huge 19-20″ pizzas for €10 (USD$11).  These pizzas wouldn’t fit in the 18″ box so they had to fold the pizza over onto itself to get it in the box.  I also had to incline the pizza box at a 45 degree angle to get it through the narrow doorway of our apartment!  For €20 we fed the whole family and had some leftovers for a midnight snack (and some nibbles at the Piazza San Marco the next day).  Then we broke the bank by ordering a couple of take out seafood pasta dishes that totaled €24.50 (USD$28).

$5 for a steak dinner? Thanks, Lisbon!

$5 for a steak dinner? Thanks, Lisbon!

$5 for 2 empanadas and a "quibe" - fried meaty deliciousness

$5 for 2 empanadas and a “quibe” – fried meaty deliciousness

Most recently in Ljubljana, we spent €27-30 (USD$35 or slightly less) per meal on two meals.  One meal was a nice little cafe with local Slovenian dishes where we ordered some extra sides to try different things.  The lunch special I ordered was €5 (USD$5.60) and came with a medium size salad, pan-fried smoked trout on a bed of rice and spinach, plus a slice of cheesecake for dessert.  Later, we went to the Ljubjana central market and ordered from food trucks and had more than we could eat – burgers, local sausage sandwiches, a local version of stuffed crust pizza, and fried calamari for €27 (USD$30).

The fish and rice part of my 3 course meal in Ljubljana for USD$5.60

The fish and rice part of my 3 course meal in Ljubljana for USD$5.60. Not shown – salad and cheesecake.

 

Transit – Other than a pair of Ubers to catch an early morning flight in Lisbon, we’ve gotten by with buses, subways and local trains everywhere else.  Or our feet.  Local transit usually costs USD$0.70 to $1.50 and sometimes one or two kids ride free.  In almost all cities, it’s cheaper (or mandatory) to buy a transit card for $0.50 to $2.00 and charge it with single rides, or add a day pass for unlimited rides for one or more days.  The most expensive city was Lisbon where everyone had to pay and a one way ride on transit was USD$7 for our family of five.  An Uber to downtown or to the airport is only USD$4-6, but we had to take 2 Ubers since only four passengers can legally ride in an Uber (and yes, I asked if a lap child is acceptable; no, the driver said it was not).  We would have been better off Ubering everywhere if there were only four of us.

Entrance fees – We haven’t had to pay to get into a lot of attractions so far.  Many places are free, or offer free admission on certain days of the week or times of the day.  We worked around these free admission schedules and rarely had to pay an entrance fee.  I think we’ve only paid to get into one museum (well preserved ancient Roman ruins under the city of Seville, Spain, about USD$10 total for the family and totally worth it).  We paid to get into the Sao Jorge castle in Lisbon.  Here in Ljubljana we are paying for entrance to two caves (to be reported in the July financial update).

Random parade in Malaga? Free.

Random parade in Malaga? Free.

Follow the parade into the cathedral? Free.

Follow the parade into the cathedral? Free.

Most in the family aren’t that interested in museums anyway, so we generally skip museums (even if they are free).  I do enjoy the occasional museum so I’ll sometimes leave Mrs. Root of Good with the kids and explore the museum part of an attraction while she rests with the kids (read: the kids drive her crazy).  Even for museums that charge, many are incredibly affordable compared to US prices,  Family admissions for USD$10-20 are common. In a previous month, we paid around USD$40 for La Alhambra tickets in Granada, Spain and that proved to be a cheap price for a nice (but hot) six hour adventure through a beautiful castle, palace, and gardens.

La Alhambra. Amazing to see in person. Can't believe it took us 6 hours to see it all, but it's a massive facility.

La Alhambra. Amazing to see in person. Can’t believe it took us 6 hours to see it all, but it’s a massive facility.

Alcazaba in Malaga - totally free if you time it right

Alcazaba in Malaga – totally free if you time it right. Like a mini Alhambra if you aren’t going to Granada.

 

Transportation between cities and all accommodations were paid for over the past six or eight months, so we’re not spending anything on that right now.

We’re a little below the budget estimate I put together for this trip.  Costs might go up slightly once we enter Germany, but so far I’ve been pleasantly surprised with the moderate costs on the first half of the trip.

 

Home Maintenance – $1,126:

Our portion of the roof replacement was $1,111.  The other 80% of the cost was covered by the insurance company.  It looks really nice, and hopefully it’ll hold up for many years to come.

Work in progress

Work in progress

The remaining $15 in this category is random stuff from Lowe’s to tackle a few small DIY tasks before we left for Europe, plus a gallon of gas for the lawnmower. We’re having a teenager from down the street mow the grass at $20 per mow, and I told him to use our gas to refill his mower so he can avoid hauling the gas can down the street.

 

Groceries – $157:

We left for Europe on June 12, so we only spent a little bit on groceries while in Raleigh.  When we get home in August we’ll have to restock the fridge and freezer so I expect a large grocery bill at that point.

We’re spending quite a bit on groceries while in Europe, but I’m including these in the “Travel” expense category.

At the butcher counter, they'll slice the steak thin for you. Makes it easier to fry up some steak for sandwiches.

At the butcher counter at the grocery store in Lisbon, they’ll slice the steak thin for you (“bife” style the English speaking butcher told me). Makes it easier to fry up some steak for sandwiches.

 

Restaurants – $29:

Went out to eat with our immediate family plus some extended family right before we left for Europe.  Dining out while in Europe is included in the “Travel” expense category.

 

Insurance – $25:

Farm Bureau, the insurer I use, requires a $25 annual membership fee. For some reason they billed me in June whereas I paid the other insurance bills in May.

 

Expenses that were zero during June:

Gas – we didn’t fill up the van in June before leaving on vacation, so we won’t have any gas expenses until August or September when we get back.

Internet – we cancelled internet for the summer since we won’t be using it.

Healthcare/Medical – I prepaid the health insurance through July so we won’t have to worry about that while in Europe.  So far everyone has remained healthy and my extensive first aid kit is still mostly intact.  We chose to skip travel insurance so we are self-insuring for health care here in Europe (other than our emergency coverage through US-based insurance).

Utilities – I prepaid our electric, natural gas, and water bills for several months ahead during prior months.  This was mostly to meet the minimum spending requirements for a series of credit cards we applied for this winter and spring that gave us 360,000 airline miles.  It doesn’t take much to score free tickets to Mexico, the Caribbean, or Europe (we traveled to Europe on free plane tickets, for example).

Do you like free travel as much as I do?  Check out all the credit card sign up bonuses.  Or go directly to the Chase Ink Business Preferred card with an 80,000 point bonus (any size business qualifies you for a business card).  For reference, 80,000 points can fly you almost anywhere in the world on a variety of frequent flyer programs, or get you three domestic round trip tickets.

We spent USD$21 to get into the Sao Jorge Castle in Lisbon. Very nice castle, and our first castle in Europe.

We spent USD$21 to get into the Sao Jorge Castle in Lisbon. Very nice castle, and our first castle in Europe.  Great views all around the city and the bay too.

 

Year to Date Living Expenses for 2017

june-2017-expenses-ytd

We have spent a total of $14,316 for the first half of 2017 (through the end of June).  That is $5,700 below our annual spending target of $20,000 budgeted for the first six months of the year.  I’m a little dumbfounded by this running total since I feel like we’re living a pretty luxurious lifestyle (what I call a $100,000 lifestyle on $40,000 per year).

The bulk of the planned big ticket spending for 2017 is over and on the books at this point. The new roof came in much cheaper than expected thanks to receiving over $4,000 from our insurance company for hail and wind damage.  Our Europe trip is on track for our $10,000 total budget for the nine weeks.  July shouldn’t have more than another $2,000-$2,500 in trip expenses.  There’s a good chance we’ll close out 2017 with a nice budget surplus if nothing unexpected pops up.  It’s also possible we won’t break $30,000 in spending for the year!

 

Monthly Expense Summary for 2017:

 

Net Worth: $1,842,000 (+$14,000)

Another month, another strong net worth boost.  I miss the days of up and down markets where we occasionally lost $50,000 or $100,000 in really bad months.  Right now it’s just up, up and more up.  Which means the odds of down, down, and more down increase.  june-2017-net-worth

 

In the meantime, we’ll continue mostly disregarding market performance.  I might move another $25,000 into the Vanguard Total Bond Market index fund if markets keep going up like they have been.

Life's a beach, man. Total beach.

Life’s a beach, man. Total beach. First time dipping toes in the Mediterranean Sea while in Malaga, Spain.

 

Ok, back to traipsing across Europe!  Hopefully I can carve out some time to provide a more in depth trip report for all these places we’re visiting.

 

 

How is your summer going?  Still enjoying the perpetual stock market gains? 

 

 

Want to get the latest posts from Root of Good? Make sure to subscribe on Facebook, Twitter, or by email (in the column to the right) or RSS feed reader.

Our Early Retirement Didn’t Go As Planned… Our Net Worth Went UP Half a Million Dollars!

In contrast to early retirement modeling that looks for all the worst cases and failure modes, our actual life the past almost four years illustrates that good things can offset the bad events in life.

Financial planning for early retirement is pretty straightforward.  Figure out how much you plan on spending in early retirement then save up till you have between 25 and 33 times your annual expenses in your investment portfolio.  We initially planned on spending $32,000 per year plus a large lump sum for the three kids’ college tuition.  Using the 33x multiplier (which represents a 3% withdrawal rate), that means we needed $1,056,000 plus another $100,000 to cover tuition, or roughly $1,150,000 in total investments.  That’s about what we started with four years ago but now we have a lot more.

 

The Good:

We plan for the worst and hope for the best.  Fortunately, the past four year have been very positive.  Maybe we used our luck making machine.  Or maybe we aren’t as lucky as we think.  We’re earning more than we thought and spending about what we expected, and future expenses don’t look too bad.

More Work, More Money

When I quit working in 2013, we expected Mrs. Root of Good to join me in early retirement within six months.  Then her employer decided to be really really nice to her so she kept working longer than expected.  Her employer met her requests to take a paid five week summer sabbatical in 2014, and again agreed to a paid sabbatical of twelve weeks in 2015.  The sabbaticals were on top of a 40 hour work week with negligible overtime, four weeks paid vacation, two weeks of holidays, and unlimited sick leave.  After returning from the second sabbatical in 2015, Mrs. Root of Good submitted her resignation and tried to retire.

Unsuccessfully as it turned out.  Her employer offered a flexible work from home arrangement where she officially works from home for four 10 hour days per week.  The boss gave her a **wink wink, nod nod** and said she just needed to work enough each week to make sure nothing fell through the cracks as they worked toward replacing her.  She generally worked Monday-Wednesday for six to eight hours per day and some Thursdays, probably averaging 30 hours per week.  While still collecting full time pay!  This part-time-for-full-time lasted about six months before Mrs. Root of Good finally called it quits and promoted herself from part time work to full time retirement.

Mrs. Root of Good’s extra two years of work netted us around $120,000 after taxes and work-related costs in my estimate (she was earning $70,000 gross per year and we paid nearly zero federal income tax but we stilled owed payroll tax plus state income tax).  Toss that $120,000 on the pile and watch it grow!

Mrs. RoG enjoying her first day of sabbatical.

Mrs. RoG enjoying her first day of the flexible work from home arrangement that doesn’t include working on Fridays.

 

Who knew you could make money blogging?

I always wanted to do something “internet-y” and finance related while working but never found myself in a professional role that fit that desire.  About two weeks after retiring, I started looking into this whole blogging thing.  Mr. Money Mustache had a pretty sweet site so I figured maybe it would be fun to do something similar.  I spent the weekend reading and googling and youtubing all about how to start a blog.  How great is it to be able to jump into a new exciting project head first when you don’t have to deal with work all day?!

Two days after I started the intense blog research I figured out enough to register the Rootofgood.com domain name, set up my hosting service, and then I sat staring at that blinking cursor waiting for me to start typing.  The first couple of words I typed were “HELLO WORLD” (of course).  My little homage to all things programming/internet-y. Then I deleted it and got down to business (first ever real blog post and ALL THE BLOG POSTS EVER).

Almost four years and three million pageviews later, this blog is a little dynamo.  Root of Good currently receives an average of 50,000 to 60,000 visits per month.  In late 2015 I started offering Early Retirement Lifestyle Consulting.  Since conception, the net profit from the blog and related activities was:

  • 2013 – near zero
  • 2014 – $12,000
  • 2015 – $29,000
  • 2016 – $31,000
  • 2017 – roughly the same as 2016

Toss another $72,000 on the pile plus whatever we earn this year.

Though not all early retirees start a blog, many early retirees have a side hustle.  Some early retirees turn a hobby into something profitable.  Others retire from full time work while keeping the door open to very part time, flexible work arrangements by only accepting those projects or clients that fit into their early retired lifestyles.  I did both when I started a blog for fun that turned profitable within the first year and I started consulting an hour or two per week (less when the weather is nice outside).

When planning for early retirement many years ago, I occasionally used a “part time income in retirement” line item for forecasting purposes.  At the time I used a tiny annual income for this part time work.  In one model, I assumed I might earn $6,000 per year doing something one day per week for $15 per hour.  This was based on a little side hustle related to engineering data collection that I had some success with during college.  But more generally, $15 per hour represents a pretty broad swath of potential jobs and hustles, and eight hours per week isn’t a huge impediment to otherwise enjoying one’s leisure time throughout the week.  I could mow lawns, start a handyman business, repair appliances, run errands for the elderly and disabled, or drive for Uber (which wasn’t a thing when I was completing my early retirement models and forecasts).

The very part time work for $15/hr was more of a Plan B “what if” scenario.  Adding $6,000 income per year to supplement withdrawals from an investment portfolio means you can get by on a smaller portfolio using the four percent rule.

As fate would have it, I’m blowing that $15/hr threshold out of the water (ER Lifestyle Consulting rates are currently $125/hr and I’m considering raising those given the demand).  Total earnings from my side hustles are running in the $30,000 per year range right now.  And I don’t think I’m putting in eight hours of effort per week.  Life is good as is the financial solvency of my early retirement plans.

 

Spending is in line with budgeted amounts

We started out budgeting $32,000 per year for 2014 and increased it to $32,400 in 2015 to account for inflation.  In 2016 we bumped the budget to $40,000 in light of all the extra side hustle income and better than expected investment results.

Actual spending since 2014 remained pretty close to our annual budget:

We were over budget in 2014 by a few thousand dollars but under budget all other years so far.  That underspending comes in the face of an almost $9,000 major renovation in 2014, an $8,000 minivan purchase in 2016, and paying for the bulk of a $10,000 nine week trip to Europe in 2016 and 2017 (along with several other multi-week or multi-month trips in previous years).  In other words, we have a rather robust spending plan to fund a whole lotta living and the budget seems to be working out perfectly fine.

Four months of spending at just under $10,000 (Personal Capital screenshot).

Four months of spending in 2017 at just under $10,000 (Personal Capital screenshot).

And this is with three kids!  They are now age 5, 10, and 12 years old.  I’ll admit that we’re still a year away from the oldest starting the typically more spendy teen years, but so far we haven’t noticed a significant spike in spending as the kids get older.

Since we’ve already replaced the exterior siding and the windows, and we’re in the middle of replacing the roof right now, we don’t have a lot of major home improvement projects planned for the near future, so spending on the home should remain modest.  We just replaced the car last year, so that should last us quite a while too.  Those big house-related capital replacement costs are amortized and included in our annual budget.

Another area that can bust a budget is healthcare and dental expenses.  We’ve been fortunate to spend very little in this category other than a few doctor’s visits and routine dental checkups (plus a few minor procedures at the doc and dentist).  We haven’t used up our whole healthcare/dental budget in any year of retirement.

We track all our monthly spending in Personal Capital.  It’s a free, easy to use, and automatically pulls transaction data from credit cards and bank accounts so you don’t have to spend any time inputting transactions manually (or maintain another spreadsheet!).  Review of Personal Capital.  It’s also a great tool to consolidate and track your brokerage accounts, IRA’s, and 401k’s so you can track your asset allocation and keep an eye on mutual fund expenses automatically.  Tracking spending is in my opinion the best way to stay cognizant of where your hard earned money goes and what expense categories are dominating your budget.

 

College won’t cost as much as we initially budgeted

By most objective metrics, we are wealthy.  I assumed we wouldn’t qualify for any need-based financial aid for the kids’ college.  I was wrong.  I found out the FAFSA financial aid form doesn’t include the home value nor does it include retirement account values in determining financial aid.  As a result we look relatively poor on paper due to having over 75% of our financial assets in retirement accounts and a modest adjusted gross income around $40,000 per year.

Upon entering early retirement in 2013, I expected to pay around $100,000 in total just for tuition for 3 kids and almost triple that amount if we cover room and board, books, transportation, and other living expenses.

After crunching some numbers on college costs using a few different assumptions, it looks like the worst case scenario will have us paying around $162,000 total while the best case scenario (which isn’t that far-fetched) has us paying just $31,500.  Those are totals for all three kids.  The updated forecasts come from better assumptions about scholarships and grants our children might qualify for given their academic achievements to date, along with a better understanding of how financial aid formulas work.  When I first retired, our oldest two kids were in second and third grade, and we really didn’t know how well they would do in school once the academics grew more challenging.  Several years later and they are doing great!

yale-university-doorway

 

Great stock market returns

Since I retired early, the stock market has been on fire!  As measured by the Vanguard Total Stock Market Index Fund (VTSMX), returns including reinvestment of dividends are:

  • 2013 – 33.4%
  • 2014 – 12.4%
  • 2015 – 0.3%
  • 2016 – 12.5%
  • 2017 (year to date through May 12) – 7.0%

International investments haven’t performed quite as well over the same period.  Our portfolio still managed to swell from around $1.1 million right after I retired up to $1.65 million today.  That’s a $550,000 increase in value.  About $100,000 of that increase can be attributed to Mrs. Root of Good’s extra two years of paychecks and my blog earnings (after subtracting the roughly $100,000 spent on living expenses during early retirement).  That still leaves us with roughly $450,000 of investment gains in the past four years.  Thanks Mr. Stock Market!

The returns have been so great that since the start of 2017 I have moved $90,000 from equities into the Vanguard Total Bond Market Index Fund (VBTLX).  Those bonds plus the $30,000 we have sitting in money market accounts will provide a multi-year safety blanket should the market decide that the party is over.  A six figure low-risk fixed income portfolio will help me sleep at night regardless of market volatility.

 

Successful travel hacking continues

I’ve been scoring huge credit card sign up bonuses and collecting points and miles from credit cards for over a decade.  Upon entering retirement in 2013, I fretted over the eventual end of all these easy bonuses that translate to free trips all over the world, even for our family of five.

It turns out I had nothing to worry about after earning 1,265,000 points and miles from sign up bonus offers in the almost four years of early retirement.  This gravy train keeps rolling down the tracks and shows no signs of stopping!  Some of the rules of the game have changed (Chase’s 5/24 rule is a key example) but there are still plenty of fish in the sea. So cast your net wide and don’t let all these delicious morsels slip past you.  Our credit scores remain a killer 800-something (out of 850 points) and card issuers generally don’t bat an eye at extending us even more credit.

All these free points and miles explain how we’re able to travel the world for weeks or months each year on a modest $5,000 to $10,000 annual budget.  Without free points and miles we would be incurring an extra $5,000-$10,000 expense per trip based on the past few trips.

two-years-early-retirement-mexico

 

No more work = no more work related costs

I’m sure we save a small amount on lunches out and simpler wardrobes (shorts and polos just don’t cost that much, guys).  But the biggest work-related cost that disappeared was our second car.  We questioned whether we could cut back to one car and it turns out it’s not a problem at all with our current lifestyle.  It’s been almost a year since we dropped to one car and there have been just a few times where it would have been nice to have a second car.  But we made it work with just one car.

This one car does it all for us.

This one car does it all for us.

We walk, we can take transit, Uber is always a few clicks away (though we’ve never used it so far).  Postponing or combining trips and smartly scheduling appointments help.  We also enjoy spending time at home or within walking distance in the neighborhood, so there are multi-day stretches were our car doesn’t leave the driveway (but our feet still do!).

The money savings are unquestionable – maintaining one car costs half of what it does to maintain two cars. One set of tires, one set of oil changes, one set of routine maintenance, one set of inspections, registration/licensing, insurance, and taxes.  The time savings are even more important – fewer trips to the auto shop for repairs and maintenance.  It takes less time to check the tire pressure and fluid levels in one car versus two cars.

For us, simplifying saves time and money without being a detriment to our lifestyle.  Of course others’ experiences might differ.  We only drive about 300 miles per month (unless we’re on the road completing a multi-thousand mile road trip).  Many destinations are walking distance in the neighborhood. Our kids aren’t overloaded with after school and weekend activities (though we stay busy!).

 

The Bad:

I feel like we need a counterpoint to “The Good” so I’m sticking “The Bad” in here.

 

Health Insurance in a Post-ACA World

The future of health insurance is our biggest unknown going forward.  There’s a new sheriff in town and he’s adamant that the Affordable Care Act is horrible and must be repealed and replaced.  The replacement bill, the AHCA, recently passed the House and now sits with the Senate for further sausage-making.  What will we end up with?  Your guess is as good as mine.  The following is an excerpt from my April 2017 Financial Update article where I opine about the current health insurance situation in the US:

“Let’s look at the details of the AHCA as passed by the House.  Here’s the best summary I’ve seen of the current version of the AHCA compared to the ACA (courtesy of the non-partisan Kaiser Family Foundation).

Main takeaways:

  • ACA premium subsidies continue through 2017, 2018, and 2019 (so it’s not an immediate “repeal”). Your subsidy declines as your income increases up to 400% of the federal poverty level.
  • Starting in 2020 those buying individual coverage get a $2,000 to $4,000 tax credit per person for qualifying insurance (and policies don’t have to be purchased through the official Healthcare.gov Marketplace to qualify for the tax credit). Tax credits vary with age (older = larger credit) but not with income, however there are income limits where the tax credit phases out
  • Cost sharing reduction subsidies disappear in 2020 (currently available to those earning under 250% of the federal poverty level – it’s what makes my deductible $100, max out of pocket $1,200, and my copays $5-20)
  • In 2018, HSA contribution limits double to $13,100 for family coverage.
  • If a state chooses to allow it, insurers can charge more for pre-existing conditions for those that have a lapse in coverage. Possibly much, much more. Maintaining continuous coverage seems to be the way to go to avoid paying a lot more for pre-existing conditions.
  • Increase the age banding of premiums so that the premiums paid by older people aren’t capped at three times the premiums charged to the youngest people (under AHCA older people will pay five times what younger people pay – while only getting an extra $2,000 in tax credits)
  • No more individual mandate to have health insurance retroactive to 2016

Those are the basics but trust me, I’m leaving a lot out.  Medicaid and Medicare are tinkered with too.

The Senate will most likely make significant modifications to the AHCA, so it’s pure speculation as to what we’ll actually end up with once all the sausage is made.

My main takeaway as a 30-something early retiree that will be 40 by the time the ACA premium subsidies go away in 2020 is that I’ll be paying more for health insurance that will come with higher deductibles and copays.  Mrs. Root of Good and I will each get a $3,000 tax credit to use toward insurance that will probably cost $4,000-$5,000 per year per person for a basic plan, and possibly much more if healthy people choose to go uninsured (since the individual mandate will be gone and many people will pay more for health insurance, making it less affordable).  I don’t know what the kids’ policy pricing will look like or if they’ll end up on Medicaid (if that’s still an option given the possibility of AHCA-related changes to Medicaid), but I understand they’ll be eligible for $2,000 tax credits too (based on their age) if we purchase individual policies for them.

In conclusion, I’m mentally penciling in an extra $4,000 or so for health insurance and healthcare costs starting in 2020, but also accepting that a lot can change with the AHCA before passage (or it might fail altogether).  There might be a subsequent health care bill passed later on in 2018 or 2020 as the political winds change that could put our costs back in line with where they are currently under the ACA.” (end excerpt)

If this bill passes then the near-term damage of this law won’t be horrible.  But it’s still a lot of uncertainty in our early retirement financial plan.

A silver lining of the Republican controlled White House and both houses of Congress: tax cuts.  I’ve heard mutterings about higher child tax credits and larger standard deductions, which could save us some money on taxes to partially offset higher health insurance costs (or, rather, lower health insurance tax credits versus what we get under the Affordable Care Act).  Tax cuts can potentially benefit the economy depending on how they are structured, so it’s possible we’ll see investment gains too.

Stop and smell the roses

Stop and smell the roses

 

Have we reached the top in the stock market?

I’ll be the first to admit I have no clue but I know it’s been on a winning streak the past four years.  That’s not to say it can’t keep going up for several more years.  However, there’s a lower chance of strong continued gains year after year simply because there’s less room to grow when the market is already at high valuations compared to long term historical averages.  It’s the exact reason you would have expected big stock market gains in the long term back about 2009 when the market was valued at a third of what it is today.  From deep valleys rise tall mountains.

Our portfolio might experience several years of sideways movement or suffer a double digit percentage decline.  Either of those scenarios are fairly common in the recent history of investing and it’s most certainly not different this time around.  That’s not pessimism speaking but rather realism.  It won’t mean the end of everyone’s early retirements but it will certainly mean we will keep a closer eye on expenses and income.  However our $120,000 of bond funds plus money market funds will provide a lot of stability for several years in the event of a market downturn.

 

Spending more on travel

I roughly doubled our travel budget from $5,400 when I first retired to $10,000 today.  We didn’t really know how much we would travel since our working lives were filled with work work work and just a few weeks of vacation time each year.  Travel is our safety relief valve – when our portfolio fills up to the top, this is where we let out the monetary steam.  We spend more on travel.  If we have to tighten our belts we can cut back in this area.

We’re also taking advantage of geographic arbitrage by traveling to places where the foreign exchange rate makes everything cheaper.  In 2015 that was Mexico (though we would have saved even more by waiting till 2017!).  In 2016 that was Canada.  2017 is a perfect time to visit Europe with the euro trading at the cheapest levels of the past decade.  If foreign currencies grow significantly stronger (= overseas travel becomes more expensive) then we might knock a few US destinations off our bucket list.

And if our portfolio drops by a half million dollars, we can cut out a huge chunk of spending simply by traveling less or choosing less expensive destinations.  I’m sort of looking forward to spending a lazy summer at home at some point in the near future, and a financial reason to skip a summer filled with travel wouldn’t be entirely unwelcome.

Spending more on travel is a good thing because it’s so easy to trim this spending versus other areas of the budget that are more rigid like housing costs or transportation costs.

Wouldn't mind a summer hanging around our house at all. :)

Wouldn’t mind a summer hanging around our house at all. 🙂

 

Almost four years into retirement, where are we now?

In a few months I’ll celebrate four years of early retirement.  From a financial perspective we are doing great.  We earned close to $200,000 extra that wasn’t anticipated due to starting this blog and Mrs. Root of Good working a couple years longer than expected.  Our investments have grown by an even larger sum.  And we’re keeping our spending generally at or below budget.

Our living expenses in retirement are funded from roughly $10,000 dividends and interest per year plus $30,000 income from Root of Good.  That means we don’t really have to sell any investments on a routine basis for living expenses.  Nor do we have to worry about withdrawing investments from IRA’s, 401k’s or my 457 account.

It also means the Roth IRA Conversion Ladder I planned to set up is partially on hold for now.  I still managed to convert around $4,000 from traditional to Roth IRA in 2016, whereas my Roth IRA Conversion Ladder plan called for conversions of $24,000 per year.  However, I was able to contribute $18,000 to my solo Roth 401k and $11,000 to his and hers Roth IRAs during 2016.  Yes, I have a Root of Good 401k plan and I play a shell game by living off the income from Root of Good while shuttling taxable funds into the Roth accounts.  You could say I’m “living off my portfolio like a real early retiree” and saving the $30,000 Root of Good income, which is also a legitimate way of describing my early retirement finances if one wanted to downplay the significance of the side hustle income (I don’t).  It’s a game of semantics.

The net result is $33,000 of additional Roth assets from conversions and contributions during 2016.  In other words, I didn’t follow my original plan but I accomplished a similar goal – increase the amount of funds in the Roth space so I can withdraw the contributions/conversions penalty free and tax free well before age 59.5 should that be necessary.

The unexpected income from Root of Good also means my decision to choose the Roth IRA Conversion Ladder over the competing 72(t) Substantially Equal Periodic Payments method of withdrawal was a sound one.  The 72(t) method is extremely rigid in the amounts you must withdraw each year once you start your initial withdrawals.  However, I knew going into early retirement that my income needs would vary year to year and there was always the chance I would have earned income (or get bored and go back to some form of work).  As a result, I rejected the 72(t) withdrawal method mainly because of the lack of flexibility in withdrawals.  I would really hate to be taking $30,000 of 72(t) taxable IRA withdrawals while earning another $40,000 between this blog and dividends and interest.

 

Now where are we headed?

Things look pretty rosy.  I took my financials and dumped them into the wonderful early retirement calculator at cFIREsim.com and determined that we could spend somewhere around $65,000 per year with almost zero chance of running out of money before age 90 even when we make conservative assumptions about income from the blog and other side hustle income.  Helping shore up the forecast is roughly $25,000 of expected Social Security income that we’ll start drawing in a little less than 30 years.

I don’t know that we’ll spend $65,000 per year but it’s reassuring to know that money isn’t a real constraint to our lifestyle.  We could increase our budget by 50% to cover a lot of unknowns such as higher health care/insurance costs and higher kid-related costs during the teen years.

Four years into retirement and our potential standard of living is approximately double what it was when I quit working.  It’s not entirely surprising given the conservatism of the worst case analysis performed under the “four percent rule”.  Most of the scenarios modeled in the four percent rule (which is closer to a three percent rule for very early retirees) leave the retiree with several times their initial portfolio value.  End result: a growing net worth in real terms for most very early retirees.

However I keep in mind that we might be at the top of a stock market bubble that’s about to burst and that we might see hundreds of thousands of dollars of our net worth disappear in a short period of time.  In that case, I’ll have to revisit what we are able to spend.  Until then, I’m not gonna worry about money and I’ll keep an optimistic but flexible attitude toward the future.

 

 

Any early retirees in the audience that ended up with substantially more than they started with?  Or did early retirement lead to new ventures or interests that turned profitable?  For those planning on retiring soon, do you have any plans to hustle on the side?  Let me know!

 

 

Summer Vacation for 5 in Europe: 9 Weeks, 8 Countries, 14 Cities, $10,000

The Root of Good family is ramping up for an epic adventure across Europe during the summer of 2017.  The five of us will spend nine weeks traversing an all new (to us) continent by train, plane, bus, car, and foot.

We really struggled to narrow down the itinerary to something feasible for a family with three young children.  As a result this trip will NOT include London nor Paris nor a dozen other cities we would have loved to visit.  What we will see are museums, parks, castles, palaces, cathedrals, caves, mountains, seas, rivers, lakes, and canyons scattered about the rest of western and central Europe.

Many will view this as a “trip of a lifetime” or a “dream trip” but I choose to view this as just another cool vacation in a series of vacations we have already taken and will continue to take.

However, this Europe trip is in some ways the realization of a dream.  As a wistful traveler / college student yearning for adventure before embarking on my 10 year corporate grind, I ordered a stack of maps from AAA back in the dark days before the invention of Google Maps.  What better way to think, plan, and dream about where you want to explore than a pile of maps for all the countries in Europe?  For 15 years I kept these maps in a shoe box in the closet.  Now I’m figuratively dusting them off and planning on hitting the road soon (I’ll leave the maps at home since I’m going all digital with Google Maps on my computer and phone!).

Dreams fulfilled. Finally getting to bust out these maps of Europe.

Dreams fulfilled. Finally getting to bust out these maps of Europe.

This Europe trip is unique compared to our typical budget travel two months in Mexico and road trips through the US and Canada.  We’ll spend two or three times as much as we usually do on our grand summer vacations. And it’s Europe – a place we have never visited before, and in a cliché way, a must-have on every legitimate traveler’s resume.

 

Where are we going?

In mid-June we depart Raleigh for a flight across the Atlantic to Lisbon, Portugal where the adventure begins.  From Portugal we fly to the Andalusia region of southern Spain for a bit over a week before flying onward to Italy for a week.  After landing in Italy we travel overland through Slovenia, Austria, Germany, and the Czech Republic before arriving in Amsterdam where our vacation ends with a flight back to Raleigh.

The itinerary for nine weeks:

  1. Lisbon, Portugal 5 nights
  2. Malaga, Spain 2 nights
  3. Granada, Spain 3 nights
  4. Seville, Spain 4 nights
  5. Milan, Italy 4 nights
  6. Venice, Italy 2 nights
  7. Ljubljana, Slovenia 7 nights
  8. Bovec/Bled, Slovenia 4 nights
  9. Salzburg, Austria 2 nights
  10. Munich, Germany 7 nights
  11. Prague, Czech 7 nights
  12. Berlin, Germany 7 nights
  13. Koblenz (Mariaroth), Germany 7 nights
  14. Amsterdam, Netherlands 3 nights
  15. Back to Raleigh!

 

 

Transportation: Getting around town. And country. And continent.

To get around Europe, we’re relying primarily on buses and trains.  We are also taking a pair of flights for those travel segments that are difficult, expensive or take a long time on ground-based transit.  Overall, transportation in Europe is quite a steal IF you can snag the advance purchase cut rate fares.  Budget airlines aplenty such as Ryanair and EasyJet offer tickets for USD$10-20 in some cases.

Buses and trains can be even better deals for families with kids since children’s tickets are often heavily discounted or free altogether.  I looked into rail passes and quickly decided purchasing tickets a la carte would be much cheaper and easier than understanding the rules for different regional rail passes and days of validity versus days of travel.

All together, we spent 300,000 United Airline miles plus USD$544 cash for plane tickets.  More than half that was taxes on our transatlantic flights from Raleigh to Lisbon and Amsterdam to Raleigh.  The other bit is a roughly 1,000 mile flight from Seville, Spain to Milan, Italy on Ryanair at just under USD$40 per person (and a meager 2.5 hour flight time).

The flight from Lisbon, Portugal to Malaga, Spain was free since we booked an award flight to Europe.  You get a one way flight within the region you’re visiting with United Miles redemptions.  The award flights that we booked for 300,000 miles plus $350 in taxes would have cost $6,000 to $7,000 had we paid cash.  In the end we obtained between 2 to 2.2 cents per mile of value out of these points, which is pretty good for United miles.  All thanks to travel hacking some credit card sign up bonuses over the past few years.

To add to the value, we picked up the Chase Sapphire Reserve card earlier this year which gives us free Priority Pass Select membership.  Priority Pass admits us to certain business/first class lounges in the airports we’re traveling through so we can stop in and grab drinks (alcoholic or non) and some basic grub before and after our flight in lieu of paying for the same at an overpriced airport restaurant or rushing to get to a food establishment before the kids starve OMG literally to death (or so they would claim, literally).

Plane Tickets: Points Cost
United: Raleigh, North Carolina to Lisbon, Portugal x5 150,000 $175
United: Lisbon to Malaga, Spain x5 0 (free 1 way tix with United miles award booking) $0
Ryanair: Seville, Spain to Milan, Italy x5 0 $194
United: Amsterdam, Netherlands to Raleigh x5 150,000 $175
TOTAL 300,000 $544

 

For buses and trains, we spent between USD$40 and $69 for all segments with travel times between roughly two to four hours.  One exception is the Berlin to Koblenz train trip which is closer to six hours.  Since it was a longer duration than other trips, we decided to indulge in a little luxury and spring for first class tickets on Deutsche Bahn for $32 more than second class tickets (that’s $32 total for the entire family!).

Though second class seats on German trains are more than adequate, we opted for the upgrade to get comfier more spacious seating (including a private compartment) and more importantly, first class lounge access for the day.  We’ll be feasting on the all-inclusiveness with pastries, fruit, coffee and hot chocolate for breakfast in Berlin.  After a four hour high speed train ride from Berlin, we’ll grab a quick bite and pop some champagne during the 35 minute layover in Frankfurt before transferring to another high speed train bound for Cologne, Germany.  We have a three hour layover in downtown Cologne to explore on foot and have lunch with some beer or wine (and maybe an early dinner if time permits) in the first class lounge before heading a few minutes down the tracks to the airport for our rental car pickup.  A day on the rails in first class, three snacks or meals in their lounges, plus a quick city tour for $84 for the five of us.  That’s how you travel in style on the cheap!

Bus/Train: Cost (total for 5 tickets)
Bus from Malaga to Granada, Spain $41
Bus from Granada to Seville, Spain $40
Train from Milan to Venice, Italy $49
Bus from Venice, Italy to Ljubljana, Slovenia $69
Train from Bled, Slovenia to Salzburg, Austria $41
Bus from Munich, Germany to Prague, Czech $40 (estimate; not yet purchased)
Bus/train from Prague to Berlin, Germany $53 (estimate; not yet purchased)
Train from Berlin to Koblenz/Cologne, Germany (higher cost due to 1st class tix) $84
Train from Koblenz/Cologne to Amsterdam $40
Total $457

 

We’ll be renting cars for three different periods during our trip.  I’m unable to drive a manual transmission vehicle so I’ll be paying the 20-30% markup for automatic transmission vehicles.  The extra $100 will be recouped dozens of times when I don’t stall the car or inadvertently roll into oncoming vehicles or back down the hill onto the hood of an about-to-be-angry driver.  The frugalist in me says “learn to drive a stick to save a few bucks”. Then the realist shouts “This is why we saved up all this money. To afford small luxuries and conveniences.”  Though learning to drive stick while destroying someone else’s clutch does have its merits.

I’m shocked at how cheap the rental rates are since we are doing one-way rentals for at least two of the rentals (and possibly the third rental in the Koblenz area if I can find a decent one-way rate).  Another lesson learned is the lack of rental office availability on Sundays (note: never plan on conducting business or shopping for groceries on Sunday in Germany).

I’m also shocked at the opaqueness of rental car pricing. It jumps all over from hour to hour and day to day. And there are quirks.  Sometimes the price to rent for seven days is the exact same as for five days. And sometimes the total price DROPS if you extend the rental period.  Our Ljubljana, Slovenia rental was $20+ cheaper for a 13 day rental compared to a 10-12 day rental.  Ummm, okay, I can store your car for you for a few days in exchange for $20.

Rental Car: # Days Cost Cost Per Night
Ljubljana, Slovenia to Bled, Slovenia 13 $161 $12
Salzburg, Austria to Munich Germany 4 $113 $28
Koblenz, Germany (Via Cologne) 7 $181 $26
Total/Average 24 $455 $19

We will be taking public transit during about two thirds of our trip.  Most cities have multi-day or weekly transit passes and discounts for children (or they ride free with an adult pass), so transit costs should be fairly moderate overall.  Except in Venice where it’s $8 per person for a boat-bus called a vaporetto!  I’m sticking $750 in the budget for all transit costs.  Other miscellaneous transportation costs include parking and tolls at $75 and gas for the rental car at $250.  The gas cost is based on 1,375 miles at 33 miles per gallon with gas at $6/gallon.

Gas for Rental Car $250
Parking, Tolls $75
Local Transit $750
Total $1,075

To sweeten these deals, I’m always checking online cash back shopping portals like Ebates.  In this case, I didn’t have much luck finding the European train and bus companies on Ebates (but there are some travel consolidators that sell train tickets and qualify for cash back).  However, most rental car companies qualify for 4-5% cash back (like Hertz and Sixt) and the big travel sites like Expedia and Travelocity offer a couple percent cash back on rental car reservations.  I booked two out of three rental cars through Ebates so I should get another $10-20 cash back once the car rental is complete this summer.

If you’re interested in getting cash back at hundreds of sites where you are already shopping online, check out Ebates.  And click through this link for $10 bonus cash back for new members!

 

Lodging

At first we planned on a combination of hotels for short stays of two or three days and apartment rentals for longer periods.  After digging in to available hotel and apartment offerings, we quickly discovered that apartment rentals offered a much better value even for short stays.  Most hotels in Europe offer standard rooms that sleep two or possibly two plus a kid.  And you pay extra for guests in the room beyond one or two people, including kids.  For our family of five this put us in large hotel suite territory (think $$$) or paying for two rooms, the second of which might come with extra person fees for the third kid.

We moved on to Airbnb, our choice for vacation apartment rentals.  I’ve used VRBO in the past when I couldn’t find anything on Airbnb.  But this time around, the inventory and options available in all the cities we are visiting was simply overwhelming so I didn’t need to expand my search beyond Airbnb.

I love their search tools because you can filter out properties that don’t meet your criteria and then save your favorite properties on a map so it’s easy to see where your most desired properties are located.  Once you know exactly what you’re looking for, the thousands of properties in a city drop to several dozen or several hundred.

My typical search criteria was:

  • Whole house rental (not “shared room” or “private room”)
  • 2+ bedrooms (unless there aren’t many properties or they are super expensive or we’ll only be there for a couple nights, then 1+ bedroom)
  • 4+ guests (many times there’s an extra bed or couch where a small kid can sleep or a huge bed where multiple kids can sleep; 5+ guest weeds out too many perfectly acceptable rentals)
  • Air conditioning if it’s hot (summertime anywhere in Spain, Portugal, Italy)
  • limit price to a max of 60-80% of the average for the city (and increase price limit to show more properties if nothing cheaper looks appealing)

Though not included in our search criteria, we highly desire:

  • washer, and preferably dryer
  • internet
  • non-smoking
  • pet free

I find that limiting a search based on these latter four factors will eliminate nice properties that will work for us with some flexibility.  Sometimes there’s a washer available on site for free or a small charge that isn’t included in the listing.  One place we booked charges €3 per washer load, for example, but costs $40/night less than other comparable apartments!  If the cost savings are huge (as in $100+), or the property is really luxurious or in a sweet location, it might be worth making a trip to a laundromat a couple times to make the apartment work for us.

airbnb-montreal-2

Pretty decent bedroom (with a VERY firm bed) in our airbnb rental in Montreal a few years ago. We booked nicer places during our 2017 trip to Europe.

Internet is another weird one. Almost all rentals that aren’t absolute bare-bones have internet these days, but some don’t list it or only list “wireless internet” or “internet” (they are two separate check boxes on Airbnb’s search).  However, virtually all that have “internet” have a wireless router.  The key is reading the description or asking the owner if it’s in doubt.  Again, if the cost savings are huge or the property is otherwise wonderful we could forego internet.  However, I can’t recall seeing a really nice property that didn’t have internet, which is why I ignore this as a search term but double check that internet is available before booking.

We also looked for places that had ratings of 4+ stars with at least a few written reviews.  There’s no way to limit this with the search terms, but I would often skip over properties with poor ratings or no ratings.  Too many other polished gems out there to research!  However, if you’re on a very tight budget or not able to find much availability, there are certainly hidden gems waiting for you to find them.  We’ve had to stay at a few places with zero or one review due to reservations falling through at the last minute and suddenly needing to book a new apartment on short notice.  They all worked out fine after discussing the properties with the owner.

Amazing last minute booking in Mexico City with only one review. It was around USD$45 per night and beautiful inside and one block from the subway.

Amazing last minute booking in Mexico City with only one review. It was around USD$45 per night and beautiful inside and one block from the subway.

If you haven’t tried Airbnb yet, you should do so on your next vacation.  It’s an incredible way to save money, stay in a much larger, nicer accommodation than a hotel room (especially relevant to families!), and end up in a cool non-touristy neighborhood surrounded by locals (part of the reason you’re traveling, right?).  Right now you can take $40 off your first Airbnb stay through this link.

Here are all the apartments and houses we booked for our nine week trip:

Destination Nights Cost Cost Per Night
Lisbon, Portugal 5 $389 $78
Malaga, Spain 2 $124 $62
Granada, Spain 3 $201 $67
Seville, Spain 4 $252 $63
Milan, Italy 4 $343 $86
Venice, Italy 2 $332 $166
Ljubljana, Slovenia 7 $600 $86
Bovec/Bled, Slovenia 4 $180 $45
Salzburg, Austria 2 $260 $130
Munich, Germany 7 $618 $88
Prague, Czech 7 $351 $50
Berlin, Germany 7 $697 $100
Koblenz (Mariaroth), Germany 7 $383 $55
Amsterdam, Netherlands 3 $517 $172
Total/Average: 64 $5,247 $82
20% savings w/ gift cards   $4,198 $66

We booked 14 different properties for a total of 64 nights at a cost of USD$5,247, or $82 per night.  Most are apartments with two bedrooms, a full kitchen, a living room, and one bathroom.  A few places are three bedrooms with multiple bathrooms.  All but one place booked for three or more nights have a washing machine.

Our goal isn’t to stay in the cheapest lodging possible, but rather to balance cost with comfort, luxury, convenience, cleanliness, and location.  We could have saved 20-40% in most cities if we were traveling on a bare-bones budget and didn’t mind making sacrifices.

We have enjoyed a half dozen very positive Airbnb rentals and only one “rental from hell”.  Feel free to read more about the latter experience.  We learned to be wary of the lowest price properties and go with our guts when it comes to Airbnb places.  If there’s a hint that a place is unclean, it doesn’t make it on our list.

I amplified the cost savings on apartment rentals through Airbnb by buying Airbnb gift cards at a 20% discount through Giftcardmall.com.  Lots of them.  Roughly $5,800.  I clicked through Ebates to make the purchases at Giftcardmall, thereby adding ANOTHER 1% discount to the deal in the form of cash back.  Sadly the Giftcardmall promotion ran for just a few days in December. However, keep your eyes open at discount sites like Slickdeals and you’ll occasionally see Airbnb gift cards on sale for 10-20% off face value (usually in limited quantities).

And don’t forget Ebates for cash back on hotels if you don’t go 100% Airbnb.  Most hotels qualify for 3-6% when booked directly at the hotels’ website (12% for Hilton!!) and about the same if booked through Travelocity or Expedia.  If you go the Hotels.com route (possibly with discounted gift cards from somewhere like Raise.com), you currently earn 6% cash back through Ebates on hotels.com purchases.  Sign up for Ebates through this link for $10 bonus cash back for new members.

To summarize, you should be able to take at least a few percent off the cost of lodging using Ebates, and possibly 10-20% by combining discounted gift cards and shopping through Ebates.

In my case, I paid $4,198 cash for the gift cards used to purchase $5,247 worth of Airbnb rentals, a 20% cost savings (plus I got 1% cash back through Ebates).

 

Eating all the food

Most of the other areas of our trip are pretty well planned out, booked, and paid for.  Food is the one area where we’re going to make it up as we go along.  Belly rumbling means it’s time to eat.

Since we’ll have a full kitchen in all the Airbnb rentals, we have the option to cook essentially all meals.  We (and specifically the kids) enjoy basic breakfasts including cold stuff like fruit and yogurt or cereal and milk.  Sometimes we might get fancy and make some meat or eggs.  Or get pastries from a nearby bakery or grocery store.

For lunch we’ll grab lunch on the go while we’re out sightseeing during the day.  Some days we might pack a picnic lunch if we happen to have good ingredients on hand.  Otherwise, it’ll be a mix of street food and sit down or casual restaurants and cafes.

Dinner will be a mix of cooking at the apartment and getting take out, with some dining out mixed in.  You can’t go to Spain and NOT enjoy some tapas with wine or beer, right?

I know lunch is usually less expensive than dinner at restaurants, and we’ll naturally be consuming a higher proportion of lunches at restaurants given our schedule as tourists.

I found an app called “Too Good To Go” that I’m excited to try. The concept is simple – for a heavily discounted price, you purchase unsold food from a restaurant at the end of their meal service for pickup at a pre-determined time (usually around 3 pm or 8-9 pm).  The price is generally USD$3-4 for a take out plate.  I gather that sometimes it’s a mystery what they give you, and other times they give you a takeout tray to pick from their selection behind the counter or from their buffet.  Definitely an interesting concept, but it leaves me wondering how fresh the offerings will be by the time you pick them up.  So far the app is confined to a handful of countries in Europe plus 10 or so restaurants in New York City.  Of the places we are visiting, the only city with a major Too Good To Go presence is Berlin with 50+ restaurants offering dirt cheap surplus food.

As far as groceries, I always enjoy visiting new grocery stores to see what’s new and different versus our experience at home.  I’ve scoped out a few sales circulars for grocery stores near our rental apartments and confirmed that (1) Europeans do indeed buy food at grocery stores just like us Americans and (2) the prices are roughly the same on average, with some things a little more expensive and many things the same or cheaper.

A grocery run from our last Canada trip

A grocery run from our first trip to Canada. Pastries, fruit, bagels, and yogurt for breakfast or snacks. Broccoli, fries, salmon, tuna, and beef steaks for lunches and dinners.  And jello.

For budgeting purposes I’m making an educated guess that we’ll spend an average of $20 per day on dining out and $20 per day on groceries (with the understanding that we can greatly exceed this budget if we find awesome places to eat!).  That works out to roughly $1,250 each for restaurants and groceries, or $2,500 total for food.

We won’t dine out every day but we might end up dining out twice per day for several days in a row while we’re on the fast paced segments of the trip that find us staying in each city just two or three days at a time.  We’ll have access to free food and drinks on some of the travel days at the airport lounges and the first class train lounges, so we might spend next to nothing on food for a few days of the trip.

 

Having fun

We’ll be on vacation for nine weeks and don’t plan on packing in the museums, castles, and tourist attractions every day we are overseas.  But when we do venture out for the day, we’ll inevitably buy numerous tickets for those museums, castles, and tourist attractions.  I am pleased with just how cheap admission fees are in general.  Many cities have castles, museums, and churches open for free visits all the time or on certain days of the week.  We also enjoy walking around the historic districts, taking the kids to the park, and exploring natural parks and waterfronts (most of which are free or have nominal admission fees).

I’m budgeting $750 total for the various attractions that cost money.  There are a few “must sees” on our trip that cost $40-100 for family admission:

  • El Alhambra in Granada, Spain
  • Postojna Cave and Skocjan Cave, outside Ljubljana, Slovenia
  • Dachstein Ice Cave near Hallstatt, Austria
  • Neuschwanstein Castle (admission is part of Bavaria pass)

We haven’t nailed down every single place we want to visit, but these locations stood out in our preliminary research as places we have to go.  We’re brainstorming fun stuff to do and see in each city and we keep track of all that info in a spreadsheet. Then once we arrive in a new city we’ll dig through our list of local attractions to see what we’re up for at the moment.

 

Packing

Our goal is to pack light.  By light, I mean everything should fit into regular size bookbags.  The idea is we’ll be agile and mobile. We can hop on trains, toss the gear in lockers for a couple hours if necessary, stick the bags in overhead compartments (and carry them on board planes for free), and walk a mile or so with the bags on our backs (remember, we have kids including a soon to be five year old) to get from intercity train/bus station to public transit to our apartment.

The family with all our gear on our backs. Pack light and a mile or two is nothing!

The family with all our gear on our backs. Pack light and a mile or two is nothing!

We’ll probably take three changes of clothes since we’ll have a washing machine in every apartment and can do laundry frequently.

We will keep electronics gear to a minimum.  Phones for the adults, Amazon FIRE tablets for the kids.  We have a pair of ultralight laptops for the adults (the 13″ HP Probook 430 G3 at 3 pounds).  All travel guides, leisure reading books, and entertainment will come from our tablets, phones, and computers.  For photography, we have a basic DSLR, the Canon EOS Rebel T5i with a few lenses including a 75-300mm zoom lens.

Beyond clothes and electronics, we’ll have the regular assortment of toiletries and travel meds, snacks, water, and travel documents.  That plus a spirit of adventure is all we’re taking, folks.

I admit it feels weird to walk out your front door for a two month journey with nothing more than a bookbag slung over your shoulder, but we did exactly that in 2015 when we spent nearly the whole summer living out of our bookbags while traveling around Mexico.  It worked out just fine before with only 52 pounds of gear between the five of us.

This is all we packed for seven weeks in Mexico.

This is all we packed for seven weeks in Mexico.

The only tricky part about this trip is cold weather gear. It’ll be mild to warm in most destinations but the ice cave in Austria is supposed to be around freezing even in summer.  I hate to bring a heavy coat and winter gear for this one cave visit, so I need to figure out a solution.  So far I’m considering wearing socks on my hands, a long sleeve shirt, and accepting that it’ll be cold temporarily.  Or find a thrift shop somewhere in Slovenia or Austria then ditch the clothes after the ice cave visit.

 

Challenges

We are traveling with our three kids who will be five, ten, and twelve during our trip.  The pace of the whole trip takes that into consideration which explains why we’re going pretty slow.  We’re big fans of slow travel and loathe the idea of “popping off to another country for a quick weekend away”.  Slow travel and kids go hand in hand.

The whole idea is to spend a relatively small proportion of the trip on a bus, train, or plane and most of the time relaxing or enjoying the places you are visiting.  Initially we laid out a bold plan to visit 12-15 countries including 25 cities in the same nine week period.  After realizing this was idiotic, we started amputating amazing destinations from our itinerary.  Places like Paris – nope. The French Riviera – nope. Switzerland – nope. London – nope. Rome – nope.  Belgium – nope.  Budapest – nope.  We eventually settled on eight countries with stays in 14 cities.

We designed our itinerary with plenty of time in most cities so we can take a day off every second or third day.  This means we won’t see everything in every place we visit and that is okay, as long as we have a generally good time and all get along.  Nine weeks on the road with exhausted children and frazzled adults is not a good time.

These “do nothing days” are golden.  What a luxury to travel half way across the globe and NOT have to spend every waking moment sightseeing.  It’s like a rainy Saturday back home when you don’t go out and spend the day reading, relaxing, catching some Netflix, and maybe an afternoon nap.  Great way to battle travel fatigue.

Homesickness is a related issue we’ll face.  We crave the familiar and the routine as much as we crave uniqueness.  Sometimes you get tired of arguing with the guy behind the car rental counter or stressing out that you’ll miss your train.  I find the “do nothing” days help it feel a little more like home as much as they provide relaxation and a day of respite.  A nice juicy burger or a familiar home cooked meal helps too.

Along with homesickness is the yearning for people who just speak plain ole “regular” English.  Conversing in a foreign language is tricky and mentally exhausting.

Foreign languages are challenging too.  We are proficient in Spanish which will help for the nine days in Spain.  I’ve completed a few dozen modules of German on Duolingo but I’m nowhere near being able to carry on a conversation.  Otherwise, I’m hoping Italian and Portuguese are close enough to Spanish to let me catch a few words here and there.  We’re totally screwed in Slovenia, the Czech Republic, and Amsterdam since languages spoken there aren’t familiar to us at all.

I hope what they say is true – that everyone speaks English in Europe.  For those that don’t, we have Google Translate on our phones along with mad charade skillz to mime what we need.  I’d like to spend some more time on Duolingo learning the basics of Portuguese and Italian and refreshing my very rusty and basic German.

 

How we planned the trip

We started planning this trip in September of 2016 so that we could book plane tickets as early as possible in order to get the best flight schedules with convenient layovers.  Our transatlantic flights are only 7.5 hours to Lisbon and 8.5 hours returning from Amsterdam (plus a one hour hop from the Washington DC airport to Raleigh here in the States).  Seven or eight hours in coach isn’t ideal but overall our transatlantic flight itinerary is hard to beat.  It’s only two hours longer than flying to the west coast from here and people do that without hesitation.  And they still give out those tasty bags of peanuts, right?  We might even get two bags on the transatlantic flights.

Once the flights were booked we had our trip bookends. We are flying into Lisbon, Portugal in mid-June and flying out of Amsterdam a bit over two months later.  Then we had to figure out where exactly we wanted to visit in Europe and how we were going to travel between cities.  Portugal and southern Spain made it on the list as did northern Italy, Slovenia, Austria, Germany, Czech Republic, and the Netherlands.  The biggest jump of the trip is between southern Spain and northern Italy, so we decided on flights between these two points.

Other cities were close enough together that buses and trains offer reasonable transit times.  As a form of due diligence I checked the prices between cities along our route to ensure that a bus or train link was available at a reasonable price (it was).  Then we started booking Airbnb apartments in all our destination cities before all the cheap and good places were reserved.

Once the lodging was finalized, the train and bus schedules for our specific travel dates opened up and I booked most of the intercity bus/train tickets.  All intercity travel is booked at this time except the segments into and out of Prague which go on sale at the end of April.

The only remaining bookings are a few of the most popular tourist attractions like El Alhambra that can sell out a month or more ahead of time.

In general, we booked the big ticket items first to lock in good prices and options, then drilled down to smaller details on the itinerary once we knew for certain we were staying in a particular city and traveling by a certain method.

This method has worked out well so far except for the rental car pick up in Germany.  We are doing four one week stays across Germany and the Czech Republic and switching apartments on Sundays.  The apartments are already booked and paid for, and come with cancellation fees to change the dates.  We are stuck with Sunday travel days.  Many rental car offices aren’t open on Sundays or open for just a few hours so we’ll end up driving an hour longer to pick up the car at the rental company’s airport location instead of their downtown city locations.  A lesser inconvenience is the German grocery store. It’s closed on Sunday so we’ll have to make do for our Sunday evening meal and get some groceries on Mondays.

To economize on the trip, we used a few tricks:

 

Conclusion

There you have it.  That’s how you do a nine week vacation in Europe for a family of five for around $10,000.

Trip Budget Cost
Planes $544
Buses/Trains $457
Rental Car – 24 days $455
Misc. Transportation $1,075
Lodging – 64 nights $4,198
Restaurants $1,250
Groceries $1,250
Admission Fees $750
TOTAL $9,979

Most of the trip is already booked and paid for, so the hardest part is done.  Now we get to enjoy the fun part of reading about each destination and figuring out what we want to do while we are bumming around Europe.

In some regards, this will be a budget trip because we’re not staying in fancy five star luxury hotels nor dining in three star Michelin restaurants (well, probably not).  In other regards, this really IS a luxury vacation because it won’t be rushed and the itinerary is customized to our interests and tastes.

As this post goes live, we have just under three months till we leave for Europe.  Soon we’ll be packing our meager possessions in our bookbags and bidding farewell to home so we can spend the summer exploring the world.

 

UPDATED!  Check out the whole series (so far) of our nine week European family vacation:

 

Are we crazy?  Can this be done?  Any suggestions on the cities we are visiting? General tips on travel in Europe?  If you’ve been to any of these places, what is number one must see on your list?

 

Want to get the latest posts from Root of Good? Make sure to subscribe on Facebook, Twitter, or by email (in the column to the right) or RSS feed reader.

Cruising the Caribbean aboard the MSC Divina

What’s the best way to fight off winter’s chill?  Spend a week cruising the Caribbean of course!  Right before Christmas the Root of Good family did exactly that. I wanted to share a few pictures from our eight day, seven night cruise aboard the MSC Divina sailing out of Miami, Florida.

After two lazy days at sea, we reached the island of St. Maarten where we watched airplanes zip by just feet off the beach.  The next day we docked in San Juan, Puerto Rico where we explored the city and toured the Castillo San Cristobal fort.  Then we enjoyed another relaxing day at sea before we reached Nassau, Bahamas.  We didn’t get off the boat in Nassau since we seem to visit the island on every cruise we take.  Relaxing on the ship while everyone was on shore proved to be the perfect way to spend the last full day of our vacation.

Since this is a finance blog, I’m compelled to share the numbers for our trip.  We spent about $2,100 total on this cruise.

  • Cruise tickets for five: $1,600
  • Gas to/from Miami from Raleigh: $150
  • Hotel on the drive down: free with Marriott points (travel hacking)
  • Parking at South Miami Park and Ride lot: $40
  • Local bus in St. Maarten: $14 round trip
  • Mandatory gratuities for housekeeping/dining staff: $294

MSC offers a “kids sail free” promotion on many of their Caribbean cruises for kids up to age 10 or 11, and a steep discount for older kids up to age 17.  Their mandatory gratuities are also halved for kids ($6 per day compared to $12 for adults).  MSC served up an incredible experience along with great value for our family.

It’s also worth mentioning that we’ll get around 10% cash back from buying the cruise at Expedia after clicking through the Ebates online shopping portal. After factoring in the cash back, the final cost will be closer to $2,000.

 

The Beautiful MSC Divina

The MSC Divina is your typical monstrosity of an oceangoing cruise liner.  At almost 1,100 feet long and a displacement of 140,000 tons, it’s big. The crew of 1,388 works hard to make things happy for the more than 4,300 guests on board.  Built in 2012, it’s the newest cruise ship we have sailed on.

Our ship, the MSC Divina, sits to the right while docked in St. Maarten.

Our ship, the MSC Divina, sits to the right while docked in St. Maarten.

The kids' balcony room, sleeps four.

The kids’ balcony room.  Sleeps four.

The Atrium connects all the interior common areas of the ship.

The multi-story Atrium connects all the interior common areas of the ship.

Main pool deck

Main outdoor pool deck

Indoor pools if you like a bit of shade

Indoor pools if you like a bit of shade

Formal dining room. Fancy eating!

Formal dining room. Fancy eating!

Enjoying the view!

Enjoying the view!

 

Entertainment options – How to never get bored

Every night we saw a wonderful show in the theater. Mostly singing, dancing, and acrobatics.

Almost every night we saw a wonderful show in the theater. Mostly singing, dancing, and acrobatics.

The hula hoop guy performing in mid-air while dangling from a rope strapped to his head. Seems safe.

The hula hoop guy performing in mid-air while dangling from a rope strapped to his head. Seems safe.

The guys on stage enjoyed throwing this lady 20 feet into the air.

During the “Pirates” show, the guys on stage enjoyed throwing this wench 20 feet into the air (look for the upside down lady hovering above the skull if you missed her at first glance).

The Italian opera night reminded me that opera isn't my thing.

The Italian opera night reminded me that opera isn’t my thing.  They were pretty good though.  It’s also the first time I have seen a cruise ship performance troupe with a pair of dedicated opera singers.

Other musical options: piano music in the Atrium (occasionally accompanied by a violinist)

Other musical options: piano music in the Atrium (occasionally accompanied by a violinist)

Or you could listen to Greg jamming out classic hits

Or you could listen to Greg jamming out classic hits.

Or check out the Black and White lounge for more live music and dancing

Or check out the Black and White lounge for more live music and dancing.  Not shown are several other live music venues on board.  My only complaint is they mostly performed in the evenings.

Or you could order up most major newspapers in a variety of languages.

Or you could order up most major newspapers in a variety of languages.  This selection caters to the wide range of international guests on board.  I never did figure out how they delivered newspapers while we were in the middle of the ocean.

Not a bad view sitting on deck watching the ocean

Not a bad view sitting on deck watching the ocean

For the kids, there's constant fun in the kids' club. Ours didn't participate as much since they are getting older (and the little guy wanted to do everything his sisters did!).

For the kids, there’s constant fun in the kids’ club (and it’s free!). Our children didn’t participate much since they are getting older (and the little guy wanted to do everything his sisters did!).

 

Time to eat!

Overall, the food on the MSC Divina was great.  Possibly the best we have enjoyed at sea.  Compared to the past few Carnival cruises, the buffet restaurant was amazing.  The formal dining room wasn’t as impressive this time around.  Since most of the formal dining room’s appetizer and entree choices appeared in the buffet restaurant, we tended to dine in the self-serve buffet restaurant for most meals during this cruise.

Many of the dishes reflected MSC's Italian heritage.

Many of the dishes reflected MSC Cruises’s Italian heritage.  And then there was the seafood fried rice.

For display only, but technically food. The Caribbean's warm, balmy weather made us forget it was almost Christmas.

For display only, but technically food. The Caribbean’s warm, balmy weather made us forget it was almost Christmas.

Fancy some caviar?

Fancy some caviar?

It pairs well with the free champagne at the "Welcome Back" cocktail party.

It pairs well with the free champagne at the “Welcome Back” cocktail party.

Pool-side ice cream for dessert.

Pool-side soft serve ice cream for dessert.

 

Port of Call: St. Maarten

This was our second time visiting the island of St. Maarten.  We hopped off the ship and walked about a mile into the center of town where we picked up a local “bus” (minivan).  Then we made our way to the nearby Maho Beach.  The beach itself is pretty but not great for swimming.  The airplanes landing a few feet away made up for it.

The St. Maarten city "bus"

The St. Maarten city “bus”

The "not great" Maho Beach

The “not great” Maho Beach

maho-beach-plane

The airport runway is immediately adjacent to the beach. Most inbound planes were smaller than this Delta jet.

View from the bus

Mountain view from the bus

Just another day in paradise!

Just another day in paradise.

All the customers' yachts

Nice boats!

 

Port of Call: San Juan, Puerto Rico

The last time I visited San Juan twelve years ago I didn’t have time to visit the massive fort watching over the harbor entrance.  During San Juan round #2 I finally got to tour the fort!

Castillo San Cristobal fort. Since Puerto Rico is a territory of the United States, the US National Park Service maintains the fort.

Castillo San Cristobal fort. Since Puerto Rico is a territory of the United States, the US National Park Service maintains the fort. My mom was on the cruise with us and she bought the $10 lifetime admission Senior Pass for all US Parks which admits her and three other guests.  Score!  The rest of us avoided the $5 park admission.

Our view from the cruise dock.

The fort from the cruise dock.

Man the cannons!

I bet the soldiers loved defending the island while enjoying that view!

The view from the fort's bathroom.

The view from the fort’s bathroom.

This cruise ship was slightly cheaper but we opted for the more luxurious and modern ocean liner for this cruise.

This cruise ship was slightly cheaper but we opted for the more luxurious and modern ocean liner for this cruise.

A friendly San Juan caterpillar.

A friendly San Juan caterpillar.

The streets of Old San Juan.

The streets of Old San Juan.

 

Port of Call: Nassau, Bahamas

Our cruise stopped in Nassau on the last full day.  Being lazy, we decided to enjoy a day on board the ship (which is basically a floating luxury resort) instead of muscling our way through the throngs of tourists and touts in the port terminal.  We have probably visited and explored Nassau a half dozen times in the past, so we’ve seen most of the noteworthy destinations on the island.

Our home for the day

Our home for the day next to the world’s second largest cruise ship, the Oasis of the Seas.

Junkanoo beach, minutes away from the cruise terminal (taken during a previous visit)

Junkanoo beach, minutes away from the cruise terminal (taken during a previous cruise in January 2016)

The mighty vessels of the Bahamian Navy

The mighty vessels of the Bahamian Navy

The sun setting on our neighbor

The sun setting on our neighbor

City lights of Nassau as we sailed out of port

City lights of Nassau as we sailed out of port

 

Miami and the drive to Raleigh

The sobering reality of dawn: we're back in Miami and it's time to get off the ship.

The sobering reality of dawn: we’re back in Miami and it’s time to get off the ship.

The Raleigh-Miami drive is about 800 miles. At least we enjoyed distractions like this!

The Raleigh-Miami drive is about 800 miles each way along I-95.  At least we enjoyed nice distractions like this sunset.  Our minivan once again proved its worth as a great “road trip” vehicle after rocking it on this summer’s Great American Canadian Road Trip.

 

Land ‘Ho!

We had a great time as a family and really enjoyed the MSC Divina and the warm weather. Cruises are our time to relax and enjoy some modest luxuries.  That’s why we saved all this money, right?

Although $2,100 is more than we typically spend for a week of vacation, it would be hard to beat that price for the five of us at a land-based all-inclusive resort.

Interested in cruising? Check out all the posts in my “Going on a Cruise” series:

Going on a Cruise Part 1: Overview

Going on a Cruise Part 2: Getting the Best Deal

Going on a Cruise Part 3: Save on Board and on Transportation

Going on a Cruise Part 4: The Food!

 

 

Ever been on a cruise?  How did it compare to a land-based resort or other kind of vacation?  

 

 

Trip Report: Toronto, Mammoth Cave, and Niagara Falls Road Trip

The Root of Good family made it back from our 3.5 week road trip a couple weeks ago.  Here’s an after action battle report on our trip including highlights from all the places we visited plus a complete cost breakdown of our trip budget.  Skip to the end for some travel hacking tips to save big bucks on your next epic vacation!

 

Trip summary

We traveled for 24 days with stays in the following cities:

  • Between Charlotte and Asheville, NC – staying with family 3 nights
  • Nashville – 1 night
  • Bowling Green, KY (Mammoth Cave) – 3 nights
  • Detroit, MI – 2 nights
  • Toronto, Canada – 12 nights
  • Niagara Falls (Canadian side) – 2 nights
  • Washington D.C. – 1 night
  • Back home in Raleigh!

When I describe this summer’s big crazy road trip to people, their first reaction is to drop their jaw, drool, and say “wow, sounds like an awesome trip!”.  Their second reaction is to scrunch their eyebrows, and ask in a puzzling way “wait, Nashville and Toronto – those… aren’t anywhere near each other are they?”.

They aren’t.  But we’re not complete geography noobs either.  We wanted to visit Nashville and Niagara Falls (near Toronto), and decided to embrace the triangular path between those two locations, with Raleigh forming the third vertex of the triangle.  And visit some cool places along the way (some of which you, dear gracious readers, suggested!).

For more detail on our trip planning, check out “The Great American Canadian Road Trip – Summer 2016 Edition“.

 

Nashville

We only spent one night in Nashville, so we had to play the role of stereotypical tourist and see what we could during our limited time in town.

Honky Tonkin' - It's what Nashville is all about, right?

Honky Tonkin’ – It’s what Nashville is all about, right?

 

Nashville riverfront

Nashville riverfront

 

Who put the Parthenon in the middle of Nashville?

Who put the Parthenon in the middle of Nashville?

 

Tennessee State Museum

Tennessee State Museum

 

World's largest iPad (at Nashville Public Library).

World’s largest iPad (at Nashville Public Library).

 

Who has time to visit places that cost money when libraries are free and come with bridges and skyscrapers?

Who has time to visit places that cost money when libraries are free and come with bridges and skyscrapers?

 

Lunch.

Was it the #1 Cheesesteak in the world?  Probably not, but it was good.

 

Grand Ole Opry Resort. One of three hotels we visited in Nashville because the interiors are mind-blowing.

Grand Ole Opry Resort. One of three hotels we visited in Nashville because the interiors are mind-blowing.  They have a boat. In a canal. Inside the hotel lobby.

 

Bowling Green, Kentucky and Mammoth Cave

We only spent one night in Nashville so that we could spend two full days exploring Mammoth Cave.  We stayed in the city of Bowling Green about 30 minutes from the Cave entrance.

Airbnb rental in Bowling Green, Kentucky. Way better than a hotel!

Airbnb rental in Bowling Green, Kentucky. Way better than a hotel!

 

The descent to Mammoth Cave

The descent to Mammoth Cave

 

mammoth-cave-1

 

Mammoth Cave in Kentucky. The reason we only spent one night in Nashville.

 

mammoth-cave-4

 

mammoth-cave-3

 

mammoth-cave-2

It’s hard to capture the scale of these rock formations but they were about 50 feet tall.

 

A rainbow wished us well as we departed Bowling Green.

A rainbow wished us well as we departed Bowling Green.  Also symbolic of post-retirement life.

 

Dayton, Ohio (Air Force Museum)

Thanks to all the commenters and Root of Good friends that suggested the Air Force Museum in Dayton, Ohio.  It was a perfect break from our seven hour drive from Bowling Green, Kentucky to Detroit, Michigan.

Before the museum we stopped for lunch at Gold Star Chili. Considering the tiny portions and food that's not that great, a more accurate name would be Bronze Star Chili.

Before the museum we stopped for lunch at Gold Star Chili. Considering the tiny portions and food that’s not that great, a more accurate name would be Bronze Star Chili.  Don’t get me wrong.  The chili itself was pretty good.  Both tablespoons of it.  My hand isn’t abnormally large in the pic.  It’s an optical illusion because the plate is tiny.

 

dayton-air-force-museum-1

 

"Oh, that's just a thermonuclear bomb, son. Move along."

“What’s that? Oh, that’s just a thermonuclear bomb, son. Move along.”

 

Kennedy's Air Force One.

Kennedy’s Air Force One.

 

Detroit, Michigan

Exactly zero people got excited when I mentioned that we were spending two nights in Detroit.  It’s not exactly the kind of place you visit while on vacation apparently.  My perception of the big D included active gang warfare, rounds flying overhead, and houses going up in smoke as the innocents suffered collateral damage to life and property.

We needed a place to stay half way between Toronto and Bowling Green, Kentucky, and Detroit was almost in the middle.  And they have one of the only four Category 1 Starwood Preferred Guest hotels in the nation (the Four Points By Sheraton Detroit Airport was beautiful, by the way).  So it was settled.  We would pause for two nights, rest, relax, and possibly test out the thickness of the sheet metal on the minivan as we drive through the inevitable war zones.

Sadly, there was very little going on in Detroit.  It was very quiet.  No people.  Almost eerie.  Mid-day on a Saturday and there were basically zero people in downtown.  Traffic was light.

We rolled around town to check out the blighted areas and they didn’t disappoint.  Through the window, block after block rolled by.  We saw more cleared or reforested lots than abandoned houses.  Most blocks had no more than one or two inhabited houses.  We didn’t see any crime probably because there were no people.  Zero corner boys slinging their trade.  No one running from the non-existent cops.  No gunfire.  Just a very peaceful drive around a mostly deserted part of town.

Upsides included the Renaissance Center on the waterfront and the burgeoning Mexicantown (which was booming!).

I bet this place was a beauty 50 years ago. Where did the neighbors go?

I bet this place was a beauty 50 years ago. Where did the neighbors go?

 

Looks more like a country house than what used to be densely packed center city blocks.

Looks more like a country house rather than what used to be densely packed center city blocks.

 

The Renaissance Center. The only place we saw a bunch of other people in Detroit.

The Renaissance Center. There were some people here, but not a lot.

 

Hey, look kids. It's Canada across the water! We're going there next!

Hey, look kids. It’s Canada across the water! We’re going there next!

 

A buck fifty each for some authentic chorizo street tacos from Taqueria del Rey in Mexicantown. Amazing.

A buck fifty each for some authentic al pastor street tacos from Taqueria del Rey in Mexicantown. Amazing.  Who knew you could get these in Detroit?

 

Toronto, Ontario Province, Canada

We spent 12 nights in Toronto in an Airbnb rental in the Roncevalles neighborhood a few miles west of downtown.  Since we had our van, we skipped the streetcars and subway in Toronto and chose to drive or walk everywhere.  Downtown was about 15-20 minutes away by car.

 

Very cool Airbnb rental in Toronto. Probably the nicest one we've stayed in.

Very cool Airbnb rental in Toronto. The nicest one we’ve stayed in.

 

Full kitchen and dining area.

Incredibly well appointed kitchen with eat in dining area (pic taken from the living room).

 

A second living room in the upstairs bedroom/loft area let us all have our own space at times.

A second living room in the upstairs bedroom/loft area let us all have our own space at times.

 

Enjoying the rooftop patio.

Enjoying the rooftop patio.

 

 

We made use of all that space by hosting lunch for dynamic blogging duo and fellow 30-something early retirees Kristy and Bryce of Millennial-Revolution.com fame.

We took advantage of our Airbnb’s spacious layout by hosting lunch with dynamic blogging duo and fellow 30-something early retirees Kristy and Bryce of Millennial-Revolution.com fame.  Bryce is the weird one not wearing pink.

 

A city perpetually under construction. The orange traffic cone must be the city's mascot (at least for the six weeks of summer when construction goes gangbusters).

Toronto, a city perpetually under construction. The orange traffic cone must be the city’s mascot (at least for the six weeks of summer when construction goes gangbusters).

 

You like the pretty buildings at sunset, eh?

You like the pretty buildings at sunset, eh?

 

View of downtown skyline from the Centre Islands ferry.

View of downtown skyline from the Centre Islands ferry.

 

The Lake Ontario beachfront on Centre Islands.

The Lake Ontario beachfront on Centre Islands.

 

Familia Root of Good

Familia Root of Good

 

Public art in City Hall. A sculpture made from tens of thousands of nails. Why didn't I think of something like that?

Public art in City Hall. A sculpture made from tens of thousands of nails. I don’t think you’re actually supposed to touch them though.

 

A metropolitan city, full of culture and life. The Art Gallery of Ontario proved impressive (and free on Wednesday nights).

A metropolitan city, full of culture and life. The Art Gallery of Ontario proved impressive (and free on Wednesday nights).

 

An art gallery of another breed. Graffiti Alley (a few blocks south of Chinatown) is more my style. You can see (and smell) the strong influence of the medical marijuana dispensaries located just around the corner.

An art gallery of another breed. Graffiti Alley (a few blocks south of Chinatown) is more my style. You can see (and smell) the strong influence of the medical marijuana dispensaries located just around the corner.

 

Don't worry, it's not really a pot shop for kids.

Don’t worry, it’s not really a pot shop for wee little kids.

 

The massive High Park was walking distance from our house.

The massive High Park was walking distance from our house.  We visited several times during our stay.  High Park has it all.

 

Beautiful wildlife.

Beautiful wildlife.

 

Castles for a playground.

Castle playground.

 

Comfortable park benches for weary travelers.

Comfortable park benches for weary travelers.  Possible food coma in progress (see following pics for explanation)

 

Chinese pastries from the Ding Dong Bakery (great name by the way). This mother lode was just under $15 USD.

Chinese pastries from the Ding Dong Bakery (great name by the way) in Chinatown. This mother lode was just under USD$15.  Some sweet, some savory, some meaty.  All delicious.

 

Vietnamese vermicelli noodles with pork and spring roll from Bun Saigon in Chinatown. USD$8

Vietnamese vermicelli noodles with pork and spring roll from Bun Saigon in Chinatown. USD$8

 

A heaped up plate of Korean bbq pork ribs, chicken, and beef. Plenty for two hungry people. USD$14

A heaped up plate of Korean bbq pork ribs, chicken, and beef with tempura zucchini, potsticker dumplings, and rice. Plenty for two hungry people. USD$14

 

A homemade creation. The salami bagel.

A homemade creation. The salami bagel.  One of the benefits of staying in an Airbnb is having a full kitchen so you can cook big meals (or toast a salami bagel, in this case).

 

Niagara Falls

After leaving Toronto, we headed south to spend two nights on the Canadian side of the falls.  On the way down we stopped at Welland Locks to watch a ship transit the canal up river.

Once we arrived in Niagara Falls, we planned to do the Maid of the Mist (also called Hornblower Cruises on the Canadian side) but learned that the wait to board the boat can be two hours.  Poor planning on our part because we visited during the busiest time of year on the busy weekend.  Instead, we explored the falls on foot and by bus from the US and Canadian sides.

 

Looking up river from the observation deck

Welland Locks, about 30 minutes from Niagara Falls.  Looking up river from the observation deck.  The ship in the lock to the left waits for the water level to rise even with the upstream water elevation.

 

Niagara Falls from the American side.

Niagara Falls from the American side.  We took a day trip to the US to get a different vantage point of the falls.

 

View of both falls from the Canadian side.

View of both falls from the Canadian side.

 

Falls at night.

Falls at night.

 

The Niagara River forms a massive Whirlpool a few miles downstream from the falls. Circling the Whirlpool are a number of (free) overlooks.

The Niagara River forms a massive Whirlpool a few miles downstream from the falls. Circling the Whirlpool are a number of (free) overlooks. Pictured is the not-free Aero cable car suspended above the Whirlpool where you can enjoy waiting in line and then, for a few minutes, get a slightly different vantage point compared to what we enjoyed.

 

Washington, D.C. (Smithsonian Air and Space Museum – Udvar-Hazy annex)

Washington, D.C. served as our last waypoint on the trip.  We spent the night at an Aloft hotel near the Dulles airport (free with SPG points, of course) then woke up, played some pool, and departed for our last bit of tourism of the vacation.  The Udvar-Hazy Annex of the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum.

It’s got a bunch of cool planes, missiles, rockets, and spacecraft of various types.  But the most awesome vessel in the hangar is the Space Shuttle Discovery.  This bad boy flew to outer space 39 times over the past several decades.  And we got close enough to almost touch it.

For anyone thinking of replicating our trip, the Air Force Museum and the Air and Space Museum had a lot of overlap (once you’ve seen several hundred planes from the various eras of flight, several hundred more planes don’t add a lot of marginal utility).  Air and Space is still an awesome museum because of the Space Shuttle.  The Air Force Museum stood out for having a few historic Air Force Ones that used to fly former presidents (and you can walk through the Air Force Ones).  Both museums are free except for a $15 parking fee at the Air and Space Museum.

 

The Space Shuttle up close.

The Space Shuttle up close.

 

'Merica!

‘Merica!

 

Not the space shuttle.

Not the space shuttle.

 

Something I could possibly pilot.

They let me in the cockpit.

After 2,432.3 miles and 25 days on the road we made it home in one piece.  Another great vacation on the books!

 

Trip Budget

We budgeted $2,100 for the whole trip.  We’re good at optimizing expenses on the fly and miraculously managed to spend only $954 for our 3.5 week road trip.  Of course we’re travel hackers, so that total doesn’t include several thousand dollars worth of free lodging expenses (including 4 room nights at a USD$300-400/nt hotel in Niagara Falls).  First I’ll show the travel budget with actual expenditures, then I’ll reveal some travel hacking tips so you can replicate some of my success.  All amounts in US dollars with the US to Canadian dollar exchange rate hovering around USD$1 to CDN$1.30.

Lodging – $157 (budget: $476) 

  • 12 nights Toronto Airbnb rental – $43 (after $345 airbnb referral discounts, $85 cancellation/rebooking credit and $500 Barclay Arrival Card travel rebate/bonus, plus a $56 damage charge for our kiddo breaking a fancy pants light fixture)
  • 3 nights Bowling Green, KY Airbnb rental – $47 (after $250 Airbnb gift card from Amex credit card reward bonus)
  • 1 night hotel in Nashville from Hotwire – $66
  • 2 nights x 2 rooms – Four Points by Sheraton Detroit Metro Airport – $0 (8,000 SPG points from Starwood Amex)
  • 2 nights x 2 rooms – Four Points by Sheraton Niagara Falls Fallsview – $0 (12,000 SPG points from Starwood Amex)
  • 1 night x 1 room – Aloft Dulles Airport North – $0 (4,000 SPG points from Starwood Amex)

We initially booked a two bedroom Airbnb apartment on the east side of Toronto.  The landlord cancelled a month before our trip so we had to re-book a different property.  Airbnb offers a rebooking credit of 10% of the amount you initially paid to help you find a replacement property.  The new rental was a big win because it was cheaper and nicer.

Now for the bad news.  Our four year old pretended one of the light fixtures was a steering wheel.  He drove it hard.  It broke.  We agreed to the landlord’s request for $56 in damages to replace the light fixture.  Otherwise the 12 nights in Toronto would have netted out to negative $13!

In other lodging snafus, let’s talk about the $66 Nashville hotel we purchased through Hotwire.  The room itself was okay, but the hotel had serious issues with management.  We showed up around five or six in the afternoon expecting our hotel room to be ready (check in time was three pm).  It was not ready.  We grabbed dinner nearby then checked in with the hotel.  Still not ready.  We gave up checking in at that point and decided to spend the rest of the evening touring around downtown Nashville.  Fortunately when we returned to the hotel around nine pm our room was ready.  The hotel had many cautionary reviews, but these weren’t visible until after we booked the room through Hotwire and they revealed which mystery hotel we booked.  Next time around I think we’ll either book a higher class of hotel through Hotwire or book directly with a hotel and not roll the dice.  Though at $66 for a room with clean sheets, clean bathroom and free breakfast in the morning, it wasn’t a horrible deal in spite of the six hour delay checking in.  I might be able to get a partial or full refund if I fought and fought and fought, but it’s simply not worth $66 to me.

 

Transportation $264 (budget – $500)

  • 2,432 miles – $148 (most gas was below $2/gal)
  • Tolls – $6.50 ($5 bridge crossing in Detroit; $1.50 bridge to US in Niagara Falls)
  • Parking and Transit – $110 ($18 for 24 bus pass in Niagara Falls; $92 for parking)

I used the Gasbuddy app to find the cheapest gas stations along the way.  Most were under $2 per gallon.  We filled up just before entering Canada because the average gas price north of the border is around USD$3/gal, so we only had to purchase a few gallons in Canada at those prices.

We somehow managed to avoid toll roads everywhere other than the one international bridge crossing from Detroit to Windsor, Canada (USD$5).  We also walked to the American side of Niagara Falls for the day and spent USD$1.50 for the privilege of making a pedestrian crossing on the international Rainbow Bridge.

We budgeted $200 for parking and/or transit and spent almost half that.  I used the Best Parking website to find the best deals for parking and frequently paid USD$3-5 for all day parking in downtown areas that might have been $20+ otherwise.  Except one day when there was a Drake concert and the “event rates” kicked in.  You win some, you lose some.  For us, driving proved cheaper than transit so we went with the less expensive option.

 

Food $435 (budget – $720)

  • Restaurants – dining out about once per day – $435 or ~$20 per meal
  • Groceries – slightly less than what we usually spend at home ($125-150/wk) – $0 extra (but $208 total, mostly in Toronto)

It seems like we ate out constantly, but looking at the numbers, we only ate out once per day on average.  At $19 or $20 per meal, this roughly matches our average from our Canada trip two years ago.  Some of the meals were very inexpensive at $10-15 (think fast food dollar menu or BOGO falafel wraps), other meals were closer to the $20 average (inexpensive take out from a “real” restaurant), while several meals were $35-45 at regular sit down restaurants.  We usually drink water with our meal and skip alcohol at restaurants.  That plus the weak Canadian dollar meant some really good eats for under USD$50 for our family of five.

 

Entertainment/Admission Fees $98 (budget – $400)

  • 2 days of Mammoth Cave tours – $96
  • Touristy stuff at Niagara Falls – $0
  • Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto – $2

The two days of Mammoth Cave tours was the only big museum or park admission cost during this trip.  So many other museums are free all the time (Air Force Museum; Air and Space Museum) or certain days of the week (like the outstanding Art Gallery of Ontario).

We also visited the Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto – a “name your own price” museum where I dropped two American $1 bills into the donation slot.  It was worth every penny (they had Shaq’s boot available to touch and smell!) but not a lot more.  Regular admission was crazy expensive so it’s unlikely I would have visited without the name your own price option.  The museum wasn’t crowded even on the day you can get in for free, so I imagine the regular admission days are really desolate.

 

Souvenirs $0 (budget – $0)

  • 5,024 pictures and tons of  memories – $0

I don’t like souvenirs.  Toronto’s City Hall handed out free TORONTO pins, so technically we received a few souvenirs but paid nothing for them.

 

Budget Wrap Up

  • Lodging – $157
  • Transportation – $264
  • Food – $435
  • Entertainment – $98
  • TOTAL: $954

At $954 for 3.5 weeks of life on the road for a family of five, I’d say we did okay.  Our goal wasn’t to travel this cheaply.  It just happened.  We also had several hundred dollars of Airbnb referral credit that brought costs down which might be hard to replicate if you don’t have a blog.

We saved about $200 on utilities while we were out of town primarily by setting the thermostat on 90 degrees and therefore using very little electricity.  We also consumed zero water and almost zero natural gas for the hot water heater.  Does that make our net vacation cost $754?

 

Travel hacking tips

When we plan a trip we try to leverage our existing stash of airline miles and hotel points for free flights and hotel rooms.  For stays over two nights, it’s often cost effective to stay at a short term rental located through a service like Airbnb or VRBO.

Large credit card sign up bonuses are our main source for miles and points.  Some cards entice new cardmembers by offering $400-500 reimbursement for any kind of travel expense (like the Barclay Arrival Card and the Capital One Venture card).  Other cards provide 30,000 to 50,000 hotel points or airline miles.  A third variety of cards, like the Chase Sapphire Preferred and Sapphire Reserve cards, offer points that can be transferred to a variety of hotel or airline programs or redeemed at the Chase site for 25-50% extra value (compared to redeeming for cash).

We slashed the lodging expense significantly by careful use of our credit card points.  We redeemed the $500 sign up bonus from our Barclay Arrival card on the Toronto Airbnb rental.

I picked up a $250 Airbnb gift certificate by redeeming 25,000 of the 150,000 American Express Membership Rewards points we earned when we signed up for a pair of Amex Business Gold Rewards cards in December last year.  That slashed the total price for three nights in an Airbnb rental in Bowling Green, Kentucky from $297 to $47.

We booked nine nights at Starwood Hotels (including Four Points by Sheraton and Aloft hotels) using 24,000 Starwood Preferred Guest points from a single Starwood Amex sign up bonus offer.  The most amazing redemption of the bunch was a $400 per night (in Canadian dollars) room in Niagara Falls for 3,000 points per night (and one of our rooms was upgraded to the Falls View executive room priced over $500 per night).

Overall, we slashed what would have been $3,000 in lodging expenses to under $200 using credit card reward points and hotel points.  Not a bad deal at all.

Travel hacking is how we traveled through Mexico for seven and a half weeks in 2015 for $4,500.  If you like free travel as much as we do and want to get some of these same cards, check out these credit card offers.

Airbnb is an incredible way to save money while on vacation, particularly if you’re traveling with a family.  We booked decent two bedroom apartments and houses for much less than the cost of a crappy hotel room suite.  The biggest benefit beyond having tons of space is that we get a full kitchen so we don’t have to dine out for a month straight.  If you haven’t tried Airbnb before, check them out for your next vacation and save $35 off your first stay.

Cooking at our house or apartment helps bring the food cost down.  This doesn’t mean you can’t try new restaurants and cuisines while you’re vacationing, but simple things like cereal, yogurt, fruit, and eggs for breakfast are much cheaper when prepared at “home” rather than purchased at a restaurant.  For lunch and dinner, we made a variety of wraps, sandwiches, and salads (on the easy end) while frequently delving into more complex culinary pursuits by cooking ribs, sausages, tortellini, spaghetti, and tacos during our two week stay in Toronto.

A few technological innovations helped us immensely.  The GasBuddy website/app shows the cheapest gas stations along your route.  The Best Parking website/app shows the cheapest parking for your area and time of day.  Google Maps is another great free resource and allows offline download of maps with navigation (we didn’t have data on our cell phone while “overseas” in Canada).

It’s worth mentioning the financial benefits of slow travel.  When you aren’t trying to hit all the bullet pointed sites in your travel guide within the typical American week long vacation, you can take time to relax and enjoy the trip more.  Schedule a “do nothing” day every two or three days of the vacation and spend the day strolling around the neighborhood, take the kids (or just you!) to the pool, catch up on your Netflix queue, or cook a big feast in your kitchen.  When you’re paying a weekly or monthly rental rate instead of a nightly rate at a hotel, it doesn’t cost much to take the day off from the sightseeing trail.

I also find tracking expenses and seeing where your travel dollars went to be a useful exercise.  I don’t really manage our spending against the budget while on vacation, but that could be useful if you are on a really tight budget or need to conserve cash for another upcoming trip.  Personal Capital is a great (and free!) app and website tool to track your spending automatically.  Then you can see where your travel dollars go without spending lots of time manually tracking expenses.

 

Where to next?

For 2016, we increased our travel budget to $10,000.  However we most likely won’t spend it all this year.  Year to date through August we have only spent $3,100 for travel.  That total includes our Canada road trip, $810 for a recently booked cruise in late November, partial payment toward another cruise in December, and some miscellaneous travel related expenses throughout the year.  We should spend another $1,000 to $2,000 for the remainder of the second cruise and other cruise expenses.  We will likely end the year with half of our $10,000 travel budget unspent.

Not to worry, as we are already talking about spending the summer of 2017 in Europe, so there’s a good chance we will use most of the $10,000 travel budget next year, and the $5,000 not spent in 2016 might come in handy too.

 

 

What epic trips have you taken?  Where do you want to travel next?  

 

 

The Great American Canadian Road Trip – Summer 2016 Edition

I dropped some hints about our big summer plans in my last post, and now it’s time to make it official!  We’re going on an almost month long road trip to Canada by way of Kentucky and Michigan.  For those following along with my early retirement journey for the past few years, you might be experiencing deja vu because doesn’t a month long road trip to Canada sound familiar?

You aren’t experiencing deja vu. In 2014 we did set out on what was supposed to be a month long road trip to Canada that turned into a two and a half week road trip when we came home early.  The exhaustion that comes from superintending a rambunctious two year old combined with a disappointingly dirty Airbnb apartment rental persuaded us that it was time to return back home to Raleigh for some true R and R.

The 2014 Canada trip included visits to Montreal and Quebec City.  After leaving Quebec City we intended to visit Ottawa and Toronto, then stop by Niagara Falls on the return trip south to Raleigh.  We never made it to Ottawa, Toronto, or Niagara Falls.  On this summer’s trip we are headed back to Canada to enjoy the mild summers and hit some of the stops we missed two years ago.

 

The Great Triangle

This road trip evolved from our desire to see Niagara Falls and Nashville.  Students of geography know those two cities aren’t near each other.  They aren’t even in the same direction if you start in Raleigh.  In fact, the straight lines from Raleigh to each of those two cities are approximately perpendicular.  For the record, Mrs. Root of Good chose Niagara Falls and Nashville as our summer destinations (she’s less a fan of maps than I am).

If we want to travel along two perpendicular lines, why not make a triangle spanning the eastern half of the United States (and extending into Canada)?  By combining my clever knowledge of geometry with Mrs. Root of Good’s shotgun approach to destination selection, the Summer 2016 road trip was born.

Instead of taking a 17 hour round trip to Nashville then a 22 hour round trip to Niagara Falls for a total drive of 39 hours, we decided to make a triangular shaped journey from Raleigh to Nashville to Niagara Falls then back to Raleigh that would take 30 hours.  By taking the hypotenuse of the triangle in a northeasterly direction, we shaved nine hours off of our total driving time.

Back in our working days with the constraints of a one or two week vacation upon us, we might be happy with seeing the booming city of Nashville and a natural wonder like Niagara Falls.  But we have all summer and wanted to add some value to this road trip.  If I’m driving 30 hours I’d like the trip to be more epic than “just” Nashville and Niagara Falls.

That’s when Toronto re-entered the picture.  Arguably the most metropolitan city in Canada, Toronto was on our wishlist during our 2014 Canada trip but it didn’t happen.  On Canada trip round #2, we’re going to make it happen.  It’s only two hours north of Niagara Falls.  A very logical addition to our road trip since we’ll already be “way up north”.  It’s also a destination with tons of stuff to see and do, unlike Niagara Falls which is mostly just a waterfall (though admittedly a very very big impressive waterfall with lots of water).  Nothing wrong with a two week layover in Toronto when you aren’t in a hurry, right?  Just another benefit of the slow travel mindset.

Along with Toronto, we decided to add two full days exploring Mammoth Cave in Kentucky.  We’re staying down the road in Bowling Green, Kentucky.  After leaving Kentucky, we will head north toward Toronto with a two night pit stop in Detroit.  On the return trip back to Raleigh from Toronto and Niagara Falls, we will stop for one night in the outskirts of Washington, D.C. to visit the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum near the Dulles Airport (the kids didn’t know what the Space Shuttle was, so we’re going to see one up close).

The trip will cover around 2,100 miles and 34 hours (assuming light traffic).

So far we don’t have anything specific planned in any cities other than visiting Mammoth Cave, Niagara Falls, and the Air and Space Museum in DC.  Eventually we’ll get down to business and find something cool to do in Detroit and Toronto (and feel free to suggest anything worth seeing in the comments!).

The whole trip will last 24 nights with stays in the following cities:

  • Between Charlotte and Asheville, NC – staying with family 3 nights
  • Nashville – 1 night
  • Bowling Green, KY (Mammoth Cave) – 3 nights
  • Detroit, MI – 2 nights
  • Toronto, Canada – 12 nights
  • Niagara Falls (Canadian side) – 2 nights
  • Washington D.C. – 1 night
  • Back home in Raleigh!

 

Trip Budget

We usually put together a rough budget for our big summer trips.  For the 24 days we’ll spend traveling through North Carolina, Tennessee, Kentucky, Ohio, Michigan, Canada, New York, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Washington D.C., and Virginia, we expect to spend around $2,100 after our valiant travel hacking efforts.  Numbers for the curious:

 

Lodging $476 

  • 12 nights Toronto Airbnb rental – $363 (after $220 airbnb referral discounts and $500 Barclay Arrival Card travel rebate/bonus)
  • 3 nights Bowling Green, KY Airbnb rental – $47 (after $250 Airbnb gift card from credit card rewards)
  • 1 night hotel in Nashville from Hotwire – $66
  • 2 nights x 2 rooms Four Points by Sheraton Detroit Metro Airport – $0 (8,000 SPG points from Starwood Amex)
  • 2 nights x 2 rooms Four Points by Sheraton Niagara Falls Fallsview – $0 (12,000 SPG points from Starwood Amex)
  • 1 night x 1 room Aloft Dulles Airport North – $0 (4,000 SPG points from Starwood Amex)

 

Transportation (Gas, Tolls, Parking, Transit) $500

  • 2,400 miles at 22 mpg and $2.50/gal. gas = $275
  • Tolls = $25 (2 international bridges; PA/NY going south toward DC)
  • Parking or Transit – $200 (10 days at $20/day)

 

Food $720

  • Restaurants – Once per day at $30 per meal average = $720
  • Groceries – No more than what we usually spend at home ($125-150/wk) – $0 extra
A grocery run from our last Canada trip

A grocery run during our last Canada trip

 

Entertainment $400

  • 2 days of Mammoth Cave tours – $96 (already booked)
  • Touristy stuff at Niagara Falls – $100
  • Random museums/parks/etc in Toronto and elsewhere – $200

 

Souvenirs $0

  • lots of pictures and memories – $0

 

All of the lodging and $96 of the entertainment expense was paid in March.  The other $1,600 we’ll spend in July and August during the trip.

 

Travel hacking our way to glorious savings

We slashed the lodging expense significantly by careful use of our credit card points.  We redeemed the $500 sign up bonus from our Barclay Arrival card on the Toronto Airbnb rental.

I picked up a $250 Airbnb gift certificate by redeeming 25,000 of the 150,000 American Express Membership Rewards points we earned when we signed up for a pair of Amex Business Gold Rewards cards in December last year.  That slashed the total price for three nights in an Airbnb rental in Bowling Green, Kentucky from $297 to $47.

We booked nine nights at Starwood Hotels (including Four Points by Sheraton and Aloft hotels) using 24,000 Starwood Preferred Guest points from a single Starwood Amex sign up bonus offer.  The most amazing redemption of the bunch was a $400 per night (in Canadian dollars) room in Niagara Falls for 3,000 points per night.

Overall, we slashed what would have been $3,000 in lodging expenses to under $500 using credit card reward points and hotel points.  Not a bad deal at all.

Travel hacking is how we traveled through Mexico for seven and a half weeks for $4,500.  If you like free travel as much as we do and want to get some of these same cards, check out these credit card offers.

Another travel hack of ours is renting apartments for a week or more.  Airbnb is an incredible way to save money while on vacation, particularly if you’re traveling with a family.  We booked decent two bedroom apartments and houses for much less than the cost of a crappy hotel room suite.  The biggest benefit beyond having tons of space is that we get a full kitchen so we don’t have to dine out for a month straight.  If you haven’t tried Airbnb before, check them out for your next vacation and save $35 off your first stay.

 

Hitting the Road

We are leaving in mid-July and returning home in mid-August.  We have our new (to us) minivan which will make for a very comfortable and luxurious touring vehicle for this road trip.  One of the goals of the trip is to skip the typical rush rush rush that accompanies the normal one week American vacation and travel at a slower pace.

Other than the hotels and apartment rentals, our daily routine is very flexible so that we can take a vacation from sightseeing if we’re feeling lazy or exhausted. We’ll have a swimming pool at our hotel or apartment during most of the trip.  The kids promised to make the pool an often used luxury.

The trip budget includes dining out once per day.  We spent an average of $19 per day on restaurants during our last trip to Canada, so $30 per day should let us dine out more than we did last time.  The Canadian dollar is about 20% weaker this time around so our USDs will go farther.  We’ll probably dine out more when we are staying in hotels and less frequently when we’re settled in to our Toronto apartment for almost two weeks (if Toronto’s amazing food scene doesn’t prove overly tempting!).

Maybe we go absolutely crazy and spend way more on dining out than we budgeted.  That’s okay too because we increased our travel budget to $10,000 this year.  Beyond the $2,100 budgeted for this trip and a little under $2,000 budgeted for our December Caribbean cruise, we won’t be spending much on vacations during 2016.  With around $6,000 going unspent in our 2016 travel budget, I think we can afford to live it up a little while on vacation.  Though we’re already talking about a big 2017 trip (Mexico again? Europe?) so any unspent money could be used next year.

 

 

Any tips or hints for the cities we’re visiting?  Any hidden gems?  Free family fun? Any can’t be missed favorites?  

 

 

« Older Entries