Category Archives: Travel

Exploring Caves and Castles in Ljubljana, Slovenia

The seventh stop on our nine week summer vacation across Europe brought us to Ljubljana, Slovenia.  If you’ve never heard of Ljubljana or Slovenia, then you are missing out on a hidden gem of Europe.  We randomly stumbled on this country while looking at pictures of Europe and decided it was a must-see destination. It did not disappoint.

While in Ljubljana, we explored the city for several days and visited the castle atop the central hill in town.  We took a few day trips to two caves and a castle.  In addition to the sightseeing, this was our first opportunity to take it easy since we had a full week in Ljubljana (after six previous stops on our trip with only two to five days stay in each city).  We embraced the slow travel lifestyle and spent a couple of days “doing nothing” and relaxing.

Ljubljana is a mouthful. It’s pronounced LOOB-LEE-ANNA and rhymes with the performer Rihanna. Now you can tell all your friends about LOOB-LEE-ANNA!

Fun facts: Slovenia used to be a part of Yugoslavia. It was a communist country for several decades.  Slovenia tops the ranks of the Gini index, a measure of income equality.  It only has two million people, about the same population as the state of New Mexico.  It’s tiny. If it were a US State, it would be the fourth smallest in size, falling between New Jersey and Connecticut. Our First Lady Melania Trump is from Slovenia (though her name at birth was Melanija – the “j” sounds like a “y” in Slovenian).

We didn’t see Melania or visit her home village, but we did see a bunch of friendly, laid back people in Ljubljana and the rest of Slovenia!

Here’s a recap of our trip in Europe so far.  We started our journey in Lisbon, Portugal, then flew to Malaga in southern Spain before taking a bus to Granada, Spain.  After Granada we visited Seville, Spain.  From Seville, we flew to Milan on a super cheap two hour Ryanair flight. After a two hour train ride from Milan, we arrived in Venice.  Then we took a four hour bus ride to Ljubljana where our story picks up today.

 

This river runs through the middle of the old historic center of town. You can take the riverside walk into town.

 

Or head into town along the cobblestone streets between these centuries old buildings.

 

Getting Around Town

After a 4.5 hour bus ride from Venice, we arrived at the main bus station which is adjacent to the main train station. Most of the local buses traversing Ljubljana connect at the main bus/train station, so it was easy to hop on the right bus to take us the 1.5 miles to our Airbnb.  Bus fares are collected electronically so a €2 Urbana transit card is required (for sale at kiosks around town and at the main bus station).  Rides are €1.20 each and five year olds ride free.  As it turns out, a taxi probably would have cost about the same as the bus fare times four plus the €2 Urbana card purchase.

We didn’t take the bus any more after that first bus trip because we booked a rental car for the remaining 10 days of our stay in Slovenia (4 days of which we stayed in the village of Podkoren in the northern part of Slovenia – more on that in the next article!).

A rental car isn’t a requirement to see all of Slovenia, but it’s a huge convenience. Otherwise we would have to rely on guided tours or somewhat infrequent intercity buses to the more far-flung destinations we visited.

If we only visited Ljubljana itself, a rental car wouldn’t be necessary at all as the buses are comprehensive and the taxis cheap.  Slovenia didn’t have Uber when we visited but they did have some kind of taxi app that I didn’t try.  The central tourist section of town is easily walkable if you’re staying in the center.  We stayed on the edge of downtown and could walk to everything within 5-20 minutes.  Some streets are pedestrian only, so we left the car in the driveway when venturing down the cobblestone streets of downtown Ljubljana.  There was a small grocery store and a playground two blocks from our Airbnb house.

 

This bridge over the Ljubljanica River was only a few minutes walking distance from our airbnb rental.

On the morning of our first full day in Ljubljana, Sixt dropped off the rental at our Airbnb at the scheduled time of 10:00 am without much delay.  We declined the extra car rental insurance because our credit card provided full coverage. Sixt required us to put a $4,000 hold on our credit card to cover any damage or losses to the car.  The rental car attendant told me it was 15% of the car value, which would make it a $26,000 car.  It was a brand new Audi compact car, so the small price tag surprised me.  The total rental price for 10 days was €151 or about USD$170.  We could have saved quite a bit by booking a manual transmission car, however I’m no good at the stick shift so I went the easy route of automatic transmission and paid a premium.

This was our first rental car in Europe and it turned out to be an okay experience but there were some bumps in the road (more on that in the next article on northern Slovenia).  It wasn’t a matter of extra unexpected charges or problems with the car, but rather miscommunications with Sixt staff.

This little Audi sipped the diesel very carefully even up and down winding mountain roads. It only cost about $20 to fill up the tank which we did a couple times while in Slovenia.

The stereotype of tiny compact cars in Europe was confirmed with our little Audi. It was a tight squeeze to fit our five bookbags (all we traveled with for nine weeks) in the hatchback trunk area, and adding a few bags of groceries on top really stretched the cargo limits to the max.  The kids complained of being “literally crushed to DEATH” in the back seat though none of our children were injured or died on this particular sojourn in Slovenia, whines and complaints notwithstanding.

Driving was easy once I figured out the European road signs. Everyone drives on the right hand side of the road (as all continental European countries do). The one weird difference I noticed was country-wide prohibition of “right turn on red” at traffic signals. I violated this particular law without thinking, then luckily bumped into a fellow American at the grocery store who informed me of this nuance of Slovenian road rules.

Navigating the countryside was simple with offline Google Maps and GPS on my phone.  We didn’t get lost on small backcountry roads nor on the winding narrow alleyways in ancient villages.  Though there were a few times when we questioned whether we were driving on a footpath or a real road. I think we messed up just once or twice.

The national language is Slovenian but almost everyone speaks English to some degree. The one notable exception was the cashiers at the grocery stores. Many were older ladies that graduated high school before the fall of the Iron Curtain, and as a result were less likely to learn English in school.  So if you ever need to find a proficient English speaker in Slovenia, just look for someone under 40.

Car free streets in downtown Ljubljana. Leave the car at home and take a stroll through the city.

 

Lodging for a week with Airbnb

We stayed in a centrally located house on the edge of the historic downtown area of Ljubljana for USD$86 per night.  There were cheaper Airbnb’s available, but we decided to live it up a bit in a three bedroom apartment that occupied the entire second floor of a large house. The house had two other apartments – one above and one below us. The owner lived in the first floor apartment and was always available if we had any questions or issues.  Since we had a car, the fenced in parking area was convenient though it was an extremely tight squeeze.

Large dining table for 6 and a big living room. Home away from home!

 

The bathroom with bathtub/shower, bidet, and washing machine.

 

The Airbnb offered plenty of space to relax in the large living room and dining room. The kitchen was larger than ours at home in Raleigh, and almost as well furnished.  The bathroom situation was a bit weird as it was advertised as two bathrooms though it was more like two half baths. The main bathroom was huge and came with a large bathtub/shower, bidet, vanity area and laundry area but no toilet. The second bathroom was possibly a former coat closet refurbished by squeezing in a toilet and small sink.  The apartment was perfect for our one week stay.

If you want to give Airbnb a shot, click here to take $40 off your stay.

 

Food in Ljubljana

We cooked several meals in Ljubljana and packed sandwiches and snacks for picnics around the countryside.  A Mercator grocery store two blocks from our apartment provided all the staples at very reasonable prices.  Once we got our rental car on day two, we made a big grocery run to the Hofer grocery store a mile away. Hofer is the trade name used in Austria and Slovenia by Aldi grocery stores.  Store layout and product offerings were surprisingly similar to the products on shelves in the US version of Aldi.  Prices and quality were great, too.

Restaurants and bars were incredibly cheap in Slovenia. Like Mexico cheap.  We found one of the nicer restaurants in town and stopped in for lunch. Druga Violina, or Second Violin, offers a rotating menu of two or three course meals for €4.50-5.00 (USD$5.00-5.60 at the time) that includes a salad, a main course, and sometimes a dessert.  We tried a couple of those meals. We also got several stews and desserts to try plus some fries for the kids (so they won’t “literally starve to death”).  The bill came to USD$29 and none of us left hungry.  The restaurant also does a good deed by hiring special needs young adults to bus tables and serve food. The special needs staff struggled with the details a little when bringing out our order, but you have to applaud a restaurant that makes a difference AND serves a good meal in a nice atmosphere for less than the cost of a fast food combo back in the US.

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

 

Mrs. Root of Good’s penne pasta, part of the €5 fixed price 3 course meal menu. Yeah it’s Italian food but that IS Slovenian food too since the Italian border was under an hour from Ljubljana.

 

In the center of downtown Ljubljana there’s an open air market with a couple dozen food vendors. Perfect for a family with varying tastes (including kids who count french fries among their favorite foods). Mrs. Root of Good indulged her desire for seafood with fried squid ($8). I ordered “one of everything” at a different food truck and ended up with cevapcicis with ajvar sauce, fried cheese, french fries, and stuffed Slovenian pizza.

The Slovenian pizza has a fairly normal yeasty doughy thick crust filled with cheese, meat, and sauce.  Cevapcicis are little beef sticks served on big, crusty on the outside, soft on the inside rolls (like huge English muffins but way better).  Ajvar (remember the j sounds like a y) is mashed up roasted peppers (and it’s also delicious!).

Fun story on grocery shopping while abroad.  We accidentally bought ajvar at the grocery store thinking it was Slovenian for “pasta sauce”.  Nope. But it does taste delicious on pasta when mixed with tomato sauce or “real” pasta sauce.  I also found that you can buy frozen cevapcici meat sticks at the grocery store and they are delicious. I guess it’s the US equivalent of frozen meatballs or hamburger patties.

Slovenian street food lunch for USD$20!

 

Downtown Ljubljana is a fun place to visit, and we did so on several days. There’s always a strange mix of public performances going on. Live bands giving impromptu concerts. Mimes or actors in costumes looking for tips.  Gymnasts and jugglers showing off their extraordinary coordination. One guy used the expanse of a large open square around a fountain to practice his bullwhip cracking skills.  And in a rare deviation from the typical European experience, the downtown area felt like it was designed to encourage visitors to linger with free drinking water fountains and free public restrooms (most places in Europe charged $0.50 to $1.50 to answer the call of nature).

On the stroll back to our Airbnb after an afternoon of exploring downtown, we stopped by the Cat Caffe Ljubljana to watch the cats inside.  Cats and coffee! How can you not love that combo?  I didn’t risk going in with the kids since one of the girls has a bad cat allergy.

 

Ljubljana Castle

We visited a castle in almost every city we visited in Europe. Ljubljana was no different.  The Ljubljana Castle is perched atop a hill that forms the western border for the downtown historic district. Given the high vantage point, I can clearly see why the original castle builders decided to put a defensive fortress up there 1,000 years ago (and why new rulers continually upgraded the castle throughout the centuries).  You can see half way across the country in every direction.  Invaders would have had a terrible uphill climb to get to the outer walls.  Fortunately we had a rental car to take us up the hill to the castle entrance.  Another alternative is the funicular that runs from the from downtown center up the hillside to the castle.

There is a small admission fee to see all the parts of the interior of the castle including a museum. We didn’t pay anything and managed to see the most interesting parts of the castle for free.  I’m not sure if we broke the rules by walking in for free but there was no one taking tickets at the main gate, and individual areas specifically asked for certain tickets available for purchase (which we didn’t buy).

The castle was very interesting and certainly worth a visit if you’re in Ljubljana, if for nothing more than the view of the surrounding country. I think we were starting to suffer from castle fatigue at this point in the trip since we had seen at least a half dozen impressive castles leading up to this one.

View of the castle from the main town plaza

 

Interior castle courtyard with special event setup

 

We crashed some kind of party and somehow managed to evade security. A screaming five year old running down the red carpet didn’t raise any alarms.

 

We told our five year old that they lock unruly children in this dungeon. Hyperactivity was NOT deterred.

This castle held prisoners of war during World War I, including US POW’s.  At the time, much of today’s Slovenia was controlled by the Austro-Hungarian Empire, an enemy of the US and Allied powers during WWI.  I’m kind of a history nerd, and WWI/II are of particular interest so this was way cool to see. Scattered elsewhere throughout Slovenia we saw plenty of places of significance during WWI including battle sites, memorials, and graveyards.

 

Castle aglow with the orange of sunset

 

Family time enjoying the sunset over Ljubljana.

 

View from the hill of Ljubljana Castle. We will visit the Julian Alps (those mountains in the far distance) in the next travel article installment.

 

Caves of Slovenia

Slovenia is a small country which makes it perfect for day trips out of the centrally located capital of Ljubljana.  We took day trips on two occasions to see the huge caves near Ljubljana. The Skocjan Cave is more rustic and raw and feels like you’re exploring it yourself instead of being led on a guided tour.  The Postojna Cave feels a little Disney-fied with the train that leads you into the most impressive part of the cave.  Our Airbnb host tried to deter us from even visiting the latter cave, however we ignored that advice and are very glad we toured both caves.

The two caves offered very different scenic opportunities. The Skocjan cave was massively impressive in size and scale.  Like incomprehensively massive – my brain couldn’t really process how big it was or the fact that a 50 story skyscraper could fit within some of the underground chambers.  And an underground river runs through the bottom of these massive chambers.  I’ve never seen anything else like this in the world.  The Postojna cave (the Disney-fied one) was impressive not due to its size, but because of the stalactite and stalagmite formations and mineral pools packed into the dozens of cave chambers we passed through.

Each cave tour cost just under USD$100 for family admission which is quite a steep price given how cheap everything else was in Slovenia. It’s well worth the cost of admission.  These two caves were probably the most impressive sights in the entirety of our Europe trip.  A must see if you’re in this part of Europe.  The Postojna cave was rather crowded, however the Skocjan cave wasn’t that packed with tourists in spite of us being there in July in the middle of peak tourist season.

The caves were both a short 30 to 45 minute drive and not too far off the main freeway connecting Ljubljana with Trieste, Italy.  Both caves are in the same general direction, so it’s certainly possible to see both cave complexes in one day. However I’d allow at least four hours, possibly six, to explore all of the accessible areas of the Skocjan cave which would have you rushing to see the Postojna cave. To see both main parts of the Skocjan cave, expect to walk or hike for 3-4 miles, some of which will be on uneven steps and steep, rough terrain. It’s not rock climbing but it’s a lot harder than a leisurely stroll.

If you’re not in top physical shape or traveling with children, definitely plan on doing one cave per day. Postojna Cave is much less physically demanding as you ride a train into and out of the cave, and are only walking on foot for about 40 minutes to one hour.

Near the Postojna Cave is the Predjama Castle. It’s neat to see a castle built into a cliffside but not worth a separate day trip if you aren’t planning on visiting the Postojna Cave at the same time.

Skocjan Cave

Skocjan Cave and its underground river

 

Near the entrance to the self-guided part of the cave tour.

 

One of the gravity-defying bridges traversing the chasms on the Skocjan cave walk.

Postojna Cave

We rode the train a couple of miles inside the earth to tour the Postojna cave.

 

Video from our train ride into the Postojna Cave

 

Layered stalagmites in the Postojna Cave.

 

Impressive columns and stalagmites in the Postojna Cave.

 

I wasn’t sure whether to include this pic under the “Castles” or the “Caves” heading. Predjama Castle built into a cave in the side of the hill (just a few minutes past Postojna Cave).

 

Thoughts on Ljubljana and Slovenia

We all loved Slovenia in case you can’t tell already. It’s a beautiful country in a beautiful part of the world.  Full of mountains, lakes, rivers, waterfalls, caves, castles, and history but without a big price tag usually attached to these luxuries.  In other words, it’s a perfect destination for this frugal travel blogger/early retiree.

Unlike many other tourist destinations in Europe, Slovenia isn’t swamped with tourists. Even in the capital city Ljubljana it seemed to be a largely local crowd with some tourists from nearby Italy and Austria (which are both within an hour’s drive from Ljubljana).  Slovenia is relatively undiscovered today however I’m afraid articles like the one you’re currently reading will bring waves of tourists that will jam pack the streets and take up all the seating at the quaint sidewalk cafes.  I’m conflicted as I want to jealously guard this secret gem from everyone and keep it for myself.  However, I feel compelled to share it’s beauty with all of you so that you can enjoy it before future crowds wreck its splendor.

Who needs Venice when you have Ljubljana’s canal-like river running through town?

Of all the fourteen cities and eight countries we visited in Europe last summer, Slovenia stands out as a favorite for the whole family. It has a slower pace of life that we could embrace.  Everything works. It’s clean and convenient. The people are friendly.  It’s a bit like many other cities and countries we visited in Europe except without the crowds, commercialism, and higher prices usually associated with tourist destinations.

We have Ljubljana and Slovenia on our list to re-visit for a longer period of time whenever we make it back to Europe.  I wouldn’t mind spending a whole summer there in fact.

 

 

Admit it, this is the first time you’ve ever heard of Slovenia and Ljubljana, right? 🙂 What do you think? Should the Slovene Tourist Bureau hire me?  

 

 

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

 

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The Meandering Canals and Bridges of Venice, Italy

Stop number six on our nine week summer vacation across Europe brings us to Venice, Italy!  After a two hour train ride from Milan, we arrived in Venice’s main train station around noon.  Quick trip recap leading up to Venice: we flew to Milan from Seville, Spain on a super cheap two hour Ryanair flight.  Earlier in our trip, we visited Lisbon, Portugal, then flew to Malaga in southern Spain before taking a bus to Granada, Spain.

Venice is one of those cities that everyone has heard about. Mostly good stuff. Some not so great stuff. It routinely appears in articles like “Top 5 European Destinations Everyone Must Visit”, so it’s a must see if you find yourself in Europe with time to spare, right? I’ve also seen Venice on several “Most Overrated Destinations in the World” lists.  How does one reconcile these two starkly contrasting ideas? Could Venice appropriately fit on both kinds of lists? I wanted to judge for myself so I made sure to book a couple nights in Venice so I could experience all the good and the bad that this canal-filled enclave has to offer.

Two nights seemed like a good bet.  I figured if I love Venice, I can always visit for a longer period on subsequent trips to Europe. If I hate it, I’ll be moving on to the next city in under 48 hours so the downside is limited.

You’ll have to read on to get a full report of my feelings on the city, but in summary I have concluded Venice fits best on the “must see” list due to the unique presence of canals and architecture that we didn’t see elsewhere in Europe.

 

The Grand Canal runs right down the middle of Venice.  It’s like a road paved with water.

 

Lots of canals, lots of bridges

 

Getting Around Town

Venice has to be one of the most pedestrian friendly cities in the world. There are no cars in the city because there are no roads! While there are tons of canals, the boat traffic on the water is physically separated from the pedestrian thoroughfares.

As a result, getting around town is a simple affair if you have two feet and the ability to walk a mile or two at a time.  From the train station, the Piazza San Marco and surrounding tourist attractions are only about a 30 minute walk (that will take you an hour or two because of all the cool buildings and canals you’ll have to admire along the way!).  Another 30 minutes and you’ll be at the far opposite side of Venice.

One of the many canals only accessible by boat.

Given the winding ways of the sometimes-dead end streets and the narrowness of some alleyways, you’ll get lost along the way. Which is half the fun of exploring Venice.  And you’ll undoubtedly struggle to find a way to cross the canals that frequently appear in your path.  Google Maps Walk Mode with GPS enabled is your friend in Venice.  And gelato. If you get tired, stop for some gelato and life gets better.

We chose to walk everywhere since we had a decently located Airbnb not too far from the main attractions of the Grand Canal, Rialto Bridge, and Piazza San Marco.  Dining was a breeze since there was a good takeout pizza place exactly 34 seconds walking distance from our Airbnb (I decided to time the walk after making several trips to this particular restaurant and thinking how short it was).  Kids love pizza; dad is therefore awesome.

Piazza San Marco. The largest open space in all of Venice.

 

The Rialto Bridge connecting the two main islands of Venice.

 

For those not up for walking, there are a few other ways to get around.  The water taxis will take you wherever you want to go but they are super expensive compared to land based taxis.  For a short trip you’ll pay USD$30-40 and there are upcharges for extra passengers, luggage, and waiting.  Slightly cheaper than water taxis but still expensive are the vaporettos, or water buses.  A single fare is USD$9 while a day pass with unlimited rides is slightly more affordable at USD$24.  If you’re staying for extended periods, multi-day passes work out to be almost reasonably priced on a per day or per trip basis.

Gondolas are another option to tour around the city but aren’t explicitly designed to transport you from point A to point B.  Fares vary but expect to pay USD$80-100+ for your group for 30-45 minutes.  This was a tempting use of $100 until Mrs. Root of Good reminded me about her and the kids’ severe motion sickness.  Boats and calm stomachs do not play well together in our family (and motion sickness meds lead to drowsiness).

Gondolas waiting to give you a tour on the Grand Canal.

 

The Bridge of Sighs. A popular spot for gondola-based sightseeing

 

Lodging for two nights with Airbnb

Lodging in Venice isn’t cheap.  Hotels for two or three people were $125-200+ per night and we would need two rooms for the five of us.  And those aren’t the really nice hotels nor are they conveniently located.

We managed to find a small one bedroom apartment with good reviews for USD$166 per night through Airbnb.  The living room came with a sleeper sofa (where we slept) while the bedroom offered a large king size bed for the kids. The bathroom was nice and spacious.  I don’t know if it was the fault of the owners, but we noticed a lingering sewage smell during our time in the apartment. It could be the city’s public works or it could be the apartment’s plumbing issues.

Bridge across the canal right next to our apartment.

Although the apartment came with a full kitchen, we didn’t cook while there. Instead, we relied on easy to prepare foods from the nearby grocery store (yogurt, fruit, pastries, cheeses, meats, and bread) plus ample takeout from the nearby restaurants.

Overall the apartment was a decent place to stay for a couple of nights, and proved to be a good value versus hotels (but very expensive when measured against the other places we rented in Europe).  If you want to give Airbnb a shot, click here to take $40 off your stay through this link.

Just another alleyway on the short path from the train station to our Airbnb. With my bookbag on, I had a hard time turning around in this passageway.

For budget travelers, one alternative to staying on the island of Venice itself is staying on the mainland. Hotels and restaurants are much cheaper just across the bay on the mainland’s “Mestre” district.  Trains run every few minutes from the mainland Venice Mestre train station to the Santa Lucia train station on the island and it’s only a 10 minute ride that costs less than USD$2.  You can wake up in a nice modern (inexpensive) hotel on the mainland, eat breakfast at a reasonably priced restaurant, then hop on a train to the island for a day of sightseeing.  Walk everywhere (or catch a water bus), see everything, relax, eat some gelato, and take the train back in the evening for a relaxing (and cheap) meal on the mainland away from crowds of tourists.  Rinse and repeat if you want multiple days touring the canals of Venice.  We opted to stay on the island itself for the experience, and I’m glad we did. But if you have a limited budget for a few nights in Venice you can really stretch your dollars by staying just across the bay on the mainland (where everything is half price).

It would be easy enough to stay on the mainland and come down to the waterfront in Venice on a day trip.

 

Grand Canal

Food in Venice

Though we stayed about 10 minutes away from the touristy parts of Venice, we were still within a few minutes of dozens of restaurants, bakeries and a small grocery store.  What can I say? It’s a small island so everything is necessarily nearby.

The neighborhood Co-op grocery store was our go-to place for fresh fruits and yogurts for breakfast and a container of gelato for dessert back at the apartment.  Prices were noticeably higher than everywhere else we visited in Europe but not out of line with the higher end grocery stores in the US.

The pizza place around the corner from our apartment was so inexpensive, convenient, and tasty that it quickly became our staple meal. I wouldn’t encourage eating pizza for most meals in general, but if you’re only in Venice for two nights and you love pizza, it’s a treat.  Just pretend you’re back in college.

Pizza from the corner pizzeria near our Airbnb. USD$12 for a mega-sized 18″ one topping pizza made from scratch (a few bucks less for the cheese-only version). More than enough cheese, pepperoni, and crust to stuff the five of us for under $25.

 

Mrs. Root of Good noted that we were near the water and therefore the seafood might be better than average in Venice.  She was busy resting her feet (we walked everywhere, remember?). Out I went in search of a restaurant that would sell me a few take out trays of some marine-based life form fried, sauteed, and/or steamed to perfection. This is harder than it sounds as apparently “take out meals” aren’t a thing at the fancy little cafes and restaurants lining Venice’s canals.  They have culinary standards and it would be insulting to stick their art-like dishes in a cardboard tray, or something.  To further complicate matters, it was only 5 pm and many restaurants close during the slow stretch between lunch and dinner with dinner starting at 6 pm or later.  Eventually I found a place that would stoop to my low cultural standards and slide their finest crustaceans into a to go tray in exchange for a few medium-sized euro notes (or a nice shiny credit card that offers reward points, in my case).

At USD$25 for the two plates, I think it’s still cost-competitive with US pricing for seafood and pasta though the portions were small by US standards. It was good but the pizza was better!

 

Gelato!! A trip to Venice wouldn’t be complete without a stop at a gelateria. We tried a half dozen flavors and thought some of them were outstanding. A large 3-4 scoop cone or cup was USD$3-4.

 

Nice quiet afternoon stroll along the Grand Canal.

Thoughts on Venice

First off, the negatives. Venice suffers from its own success.  It’s beautiful and everyone wants to visit which means you get to enjoy the company of tens of thousands of people, many of whom are just visiting for the day from one of the mega-sized cruise ships docked in the busy port.  The impact of the crowds is highly variable. On our first evening in Venice the crowds weren’t bad at all because everyone leaves in the evenings. It was almost quiet in places.  Even in the middle of the day, it was relatively quiet near our Airbnb since we weren’t in the middle of the main touristic areas and several minutes away from the Grand Canal that transects Venice.  But the most often visited sections of Venice were swamped with hordes of humanity walking penguin-style in the narrow canyons between the elegantly decaying buildings.

The Rialto Bridge area and the Piazza San Marco were the most cramped areas during the middle of the day.  We visited those places then moved on to quieter spots.  Some visitors chose to dine right next to the Rialto Bridge at one of the many sidewalk cafes. I don’t know how they enjoyed their meal given the urgency of thousands of people pushing their way along the sidewalk right next to them while the mild sewage stink of the canal danced a duet with the lingering clouds of cigarette smoke from the crowds passing nearby.

Looking down from the top of the Rialto Bridge. Both sides of the bridge are lined with shops.

The city is also slowly sinking into the bay (or is the sea level rising??) which makes the decay more evident. The ground level in many buildings is no longer habitable by humans (only by the canal water).  We didn’t notice any flooding when we visited but I understand it’s a big problem when high tide coincides with other environmental conditions.

What I’m saying is that I found the architecture and canals of Venice worthy of visiting in spite of the crowds of my fellow tourists making the experience less enjoyable for us all.  There’s nowhere else quite like Venice in all of Europe. Even the canals of Amsterdam (where we also visited) don’t compare to the sight of the tight-packed houses and shops lining the canals in Venice.

I’m 100% glad that we decided to spend a couple of days in Venice. It was one of those cities we considered cutting from our 14 city tour across Europe since it often made the “overrated tourist trap” lists.  I still think it’s a tourist trap in a way, but with merit. It’s amazing. Around every mundane corner is a picturesque winding alleyway with a narrow bridge crossing a murky canal. It’s definitely worth a 2-3 day visit if you find yourself in this part of the world.

Will I be going back some day? Yes. Hopefully in the off season when it’s less crowded.

How can you not love this place?

 

 

What is your preconception of Venice? If you visited, how did you like it? 

 

 

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

 

Castles, Skyscrapers, and Prosciutto in Milan, Italy

Welcome to stop number five on our nine week trip across Europe! This post covers the four days we spent in Milan, Italy at the end of June. We flew to Milan from Seville, Spain on a super cheap two hour Ryanair flight.  Earlier in our trip, we visited Lisbon, Portugal, then flew to Malaga in southern Spain before taking a bus to Granada.

This was our first time in Italy and I didn’t have a clue where to visit. I considered Rome but I figured it would be too ambitious to tackle in just four days so we decided to save Rome for later.  Milan, though still a sizable city, proved a good choice to fit in a four day slot in our schedule before we headed onward to Venice.

Milan offers a great mix of the new and the historic.  In a single day of sightseeing, one can take a hundred year old trolley line to go from centuries old castles and cathedrals to cutting edge ultramodern skyscrapers.  Both the old and new proved interesting to me!

The Old – Milan Duomo

The new – Unicredit Tower

 

Sforzesco Castle and Sempione Park

The main highlight of our trip was the Sforzesco Castle and the Sempione Park. These two attractions sit side by side in the central core of downtown Milan and are easily accessed by a subway, bus, and trolley.

In the castle courtyard

 

The castle itself offers free admission all the time. If you want to enter any of the several museums on site, there is a small admission fee.  We skipped the museums and explored the castle grounds extensively instead.

Inside the lower levels of the castle.

 

Walking out of the castle’s northwest entrance brought us to Sempione Park. It’s a big tree-filled leafy green nature preserve right in the middle of downtown Milan. Kind of like New York City’s Central Park on a smaller scale.

Green fields, trees, and a monument in the distance.

 

Walk all the way across the park and you arrive at the Arco della Pace.

 

Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II and the Milan Duomo

The Duomo (or “Cathedral”) marks the Catholic Church’s historically monolithic presence in Milan given it’s prime placement in the very center of the city.  Though started in the 14th century, the final touches on the cathedral weren’t finished until the last half of the 20th century.  This was one of the more impressive churches we visited in Europe.

The Duomo provided a stunning backdrop for some amazingly talented street musicians. They were rocking out Michael Jackson and Pachelbel’s Canon on their violins!

Right next to the Duomo is another mainstay of Milan tourist stops. The Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II is a high end shopping mall built in the late 19th century.  It’s the perfect place to pick up all your must-haves from Versace, Louis Vuitton, Prada, and Swarovski.  If you need to use the restroom, there’s a free one in the McDonald’s next door to the Galleria (and you can make a pit stop at the Ferrari dealer on the way to McD’s).

 

 

 

Getting Around Town

To get from the airport to the Centrale train station near our apartment, we reserved bus tickets for the five of us for €28 total (about USD$31). It was roughly a 50 minute ride from the airport to the train station. Once at the train station we tried (but failed) to catch a city bus to our Airbnb.  After waiting for more than 30 minutes we gave up and decided to walk the mile to our apartment.  We travel light (nothing but bookbags) so the walk wasn’t bad and the weather was surprisingly nice.  We also got an in-depth preview of our neighborhood.

Subsequent attempts to use local transit were much more successful (with one caveat – read on).  Transit tickets were surprisingly cheap considering Milan’s reputation as a high priced city.  The €1.50 (USD$1.70) single transit ticket is good for 90 minutes with free transfers between tram/trolley, bus, and subway. Kids 10 and under rode free, so we only had to use three tickets at a time.  One time on the way home from downtown we used the flexibility of the 90 minute ticket to make a quick stopover to revisit a cool plaza we were impressed with earlier during our stay.

The kids LOVED playing in the fountains at Plaza Gae Aulenti near the Unicredit Tower. I don’t know if this is the kind of public fountain you’re allowed to play in, but we assumed it was.

 

It was so nice we had to revisit on a second day.

 

I got trapped inside the subway once when my transit ticket wouldn’t scan properly. Their subway operates on the scan-in, scan-out method such that you can’t leave the underground without swiping your ticket a second time upon exiting.  I tried to explain in horribly broken Italian to the transit police that I really did pay for the fare and I’d really really like to be reunited with my wife and three children on the other side of the turnstile. With a smile and a wave, this nice officer let me through without further investigation or interrogation.

 

One of the wood-paneled historic streetcars. For €1.50 you can hop on one of these beauties for a tour around the historic center of Milan.

 

Lodging for four nights with Airbnb

We reserved a two bedroom apartment near the Milan Centrale train station.  The historic core of the city was roughly 2.5 miles from our apartment.  At $86 per night, this place was a steal!  We were on the fourth floor of a seven story residential apartment building and it even came with a rickety old elevator that must have been from the Mussolini era.

Full kitchen in our sweet Milan Airbnb apartment. Perfect for making some coffee for breakfast and ravioli for dinner!

Overall the apartment was great. Easy to hop on a bus to downtown. Two minutes from a discount grocery store. Comfy beds. Comfy couch. Nice but small balcony. However this was the one place we stayed out of fourteen apartment rentals across Europe where I took a star off during the review process.

Why did the apartment lose a star? The shower curtain was covered in pink mold (though the bathtub was super clean). And the internet stopped working for a couple days before returning to normal on the last day of our stay.  My theory is that we exceeded the usage limit for the month – though we didn’t know there was a usage limit.  On July 1st the internet miraculously began working once again.  Minor quibbles for an otherwise great apartment.  Let’s just say it was 1,000 times nicer than our Airbnb from Hell in Quebec City, Canada several years ago.

I’m still a huge fan of Airbnb due to the value proposition and comfort. USD$86 per night in Milan wouldn’t even get me a crappy hotel for five people, and this apartment came with a living room, dining room, and full kitchen plus nice tasteful decor throughout.  If you want to try Airbnb for your next vacation, make sure to take $40 off your stay through this link.

 

Food in Milan

On our first full day in Milan we set out in search of a local pizzeria. We found one within a five minute walk from our apartment.  It was right next to a Domino’s Pizza, the ubiquitous US-based pizza chain (that has really improved their pizza game in the past several years).  This was my first chance to muddle through ordering food in Italian (it’s kinda like Spanish, right??).  Pointing and nodding my head seemed to work since they had all the pizzas on display behind the counter.  We didn’t go hungry in spite of my lack of Italian language skills.

Our slightly racist Airbnb host (maybe he was simply honest?) told us all about the tiers of pizza parlors in Milan.  Don’t eat pizza at the pizzerias run by the Chinese – it’s not fit to eat. The Egyptians can make acceptable pizza – that’s where we ended up finding some good slices.  But if you can find one – and mind you they are rare – eat at a pizzeria run by real Italians.

USD$12 for all of this from a local pizzeria!

 

While in Milan, we mostly cooked at home.  There was a very convenient and inexpensive grocery store close to our apartment where I picked up the staples like milk, cereal, yogurt, fruits, fresh ravioli, meatballs, and gelato.  They had raw horse meat carpaccio on the shelf but I decided not to try the horse meat this time around (it looked old and withered – not that I object to eating horse meat in general).

We hit pay dirt with several local treats like prosciutto, smoked salmon, spicy salami, dried dates, local cheeses, and olives.  These items were 50-75% less than the prices we usually pay at home.

Wonderful grocery options = good eats at “home” in our apartment!

 

While at the Milan Malpensa airport, we were treated to fine wines and spirits and plenty of food at the VIP Lounge.  For free!  During our time in Europe, we definitely put to work our Priority Pass Select benefits from our Chase Sapphire Reserve card (check out that card and more in the credit card offers).

Top shelf liquor on the top shelf at the VIP Lounge at Milan Airport. Sandwiches on the bottom shelf became dinner.  Courtesy of the Priority Pass Select!

 

Thoughts on Milan

Milan is a big, wonderful, modern city in Italy. I thought it was a great introduction to Italy since it is more manageable than a larger city like Rome, especially if you only have a few days.  Transit is easy. The city is compact.  Prices weren’t bad at all.  People were nice.  There are plenty of old buildings mixed in with newer architectural marvels.

The crowds weren’t too bad in general, though the heart of the historic center was pretty packed.  We had a good time and managed to see tons of cool stuff during our brief stay in Milan.

Next stop: Venice!

 

 

Have you visited other big cities in Italy? How do they compare to Milan?

 

 

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

 

Cruising through Fall – October 2017 Financial Update

October was another great month for us!  We had a blast, blew some money on a quick jaunt on the high seas, and enjoyed the outdoors. And grew $42,000 wealthier while having all that fun.  No complaints here.

In financial terms, our net worth climbed to $1,978,000.  Income remained steady at $4,573 while total spending for the month of October remained modest at $1,748.  Given that we don’t even spend our current income, I’m starting to unravel the mystery of why our cash balance continues to grow month after month.  Spending less than we make – an old habit we can’t kick.

Fall is slowly descending on North Carolina. The leaves are finally changing colors and falling off the trees. Mornings are chilly while afternoons are mild.  We haven’t turned on the heat much this year, but that will change soon with forecasted highs in the 50’s and 60’s over the next week.  Thanksgiving is just around the corner which means lots of turkey and family time (and some family members that are turkeys).

Income

Investment income totaled $1,096 for the month of October.  This is the last dribble of quarterly dividends from funds that pay at the end of the third quarter.  Our equity 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.

About half of October’s investment income came from our taxable brokerage account investments which means we can spend the money without withdrawing it from IRAs or 401ks.

Blog income, shown as “other income” in the chart, remained steady at $2,568.  Not a bad figure given how infrequently I’ve been posting lately!

My early retirement lifestyle consulting income climbed to $845 in October after a big fat $0 for September. I can’t explain why this little side hustle ebbs and flows like it does.  If it remains this busy I’ll look closer at raising rates to reduce demand.

Nephew’s birthday party at the city park

 

Deposit income of $62 was cash back 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!).  I paid for a cruise in October (more details later in this article) which will lead to $40 cash back in the next month or two.

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).

Beautiful lakeside hiking this fall!

 

More stunning hike views

Expenses

Now let’s take a look at October expenses:


For the fourth consecutive month, our spending remained below $2,000 per month.  In October we spent $1,748.  That’s slightly more than half of our budgeted spending of $3,333 per month (or $40,000 per year).  Travel and groceries made up almost all our spending for the month.  Gotta eat and go to fun places, right?

 

Travel – $928:

We found a last minute cruise deal out of Miami on the MSC Divina.  So we booked it six days before the date of sailing.  Here’s the price breakout:

  • Cruise fare – $744 (we’ll end up with ~$64 refunded due to Ebates and the MSC Voyager club discount/refund)
  • Mandatory gratuities – $175
  • Miami light rail tickets – $9 (MIA airport to downtown, then free trolley to Port of Miami)
  • Flights RDU-MIA $0 ($330 each but we used 22,000 (x2) Chase Ultimate Reward points to get free last minute flights).

 

Sailing away from Miami!

 

Beautiful Bahamas

As a family, we sailed on the MSC Divina in December of 2016.  We loved it so much that we jumped on this deal when we saw it.  This time around it was just me and Mrs. Root of Good.  We call it a 13.5 year wedding anniversary present to ourselves because we’re awesome.  It’s the first time cruising without kids since our honeymoon 13.5 years ago.

Hot tub time in the adults only area. Stars. Wind. Waves. Solitude.

The airfare was expensive in points terms for a 2 hour flight, but it made sense to fly instead of drive and pay for gas and parking. Timewise, it’s about six hours door to door to fly versus 12-13 hours driving (which means overnight hotel at least in one direction).  We also used our Priority Pass Select card (a benefit that comes free with the Chase Sapphire Reserve card) to get a free meal and frosty beverage in the Miami airport plus $180 worth of to-go candy and beef jerky at the Corona Beach House restaurant/market.

In selecting expensive flights, we thought to ourselves:

We have money so let’s spend it to gain convenience and comfort because what are we saving it for after all?

I could have booked less convenient flights for a significant points savings that would have us leaving home at 5 am instead of 7 am the day of the cruise (and be dead tired by 3 pm!).  Or book flights with very little slack in the schedule to get to/from the airport and cruise ship (and freak out if the plane or the ship isn’t on schedule).  Or we could have waited six extra hours in the airport to save $80 worth of points (and arrive home at midnight).  In the end, we decided to go first class (well, still in coach but you know what I mean) with a flight schedule that got us to Miami at a reasonable time and got us back home without excessive hurrying or waiting.  Not driving twelve hours home was worth every point expended!

A relatively undiscovered spot of natural beauty an easy one mile walk from the port city of Ocho Rios, Jamaica. Here we are at Little Dunn River Falls/Beach. Climbing up the falls was fun!

 

Mmmm… Good eats! Best pizza in the world, which isn’t surprising since MSC is an Italian cruise line.  Pizza is straight out of Naples, Italy.  Paella, fried fish, asparagus, and veggie lasagna also good.

 

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!

Cruising the Caribbean Aboard the MSC Divina

 

We enjoyed several opportunities for free drinks while on board. This was the complimentary beverage assortment at the Cruise Critic meet and mingle where we got to meet a handful of fellow American cruisers and we got to meet all the ship’s senior officers.  Gin martini, pink lady, or champagne anyone?

 

Good times were had by all.

 

Groceries – $609:

Groceries were a little higher than average but nothing to be concerned about.  We spent around $150 at Walmart which gets lumped into “groceries” but routinely includes non-grocery items like clothing and random household or automotive stuff.  The same happens at Aldi occasionally. We bought a $12 ceramic frying pan that’s included here in “groceries”.  That’s the price we pay for automated, simple categorization at Personal Capital.

Prepping for beef/chicken/veggie stir fry. I cut up two batches of meat and veggies and put the second batch in the fridge so I could have freshly cooked stir fry in 5-10 minutes later on.  Mrs. Root of Good assisted with the wine selection in the lower right corner.

 

End result plus jasmine white rice and lo mein.  A healthy dose of chili oil paste and sriracha to keep the intestines purified from disease.

 

We made Banh Cuon wraps. Rice flour wrapping stuffed with beef and mushrooms.

 

Charitable Giving – $50:

We bought a $50 Walmart gift card and gave it to our kindergartener’s teacher so she can buy supplies and technology gear for the class.  The neighborhood school our kiddo attends was one of the worst schools in the district several years ago, but it’s been improving steadily over the years.  The gentrification of our neighborhood certainly helps.

Lazy day in the back yard with friends.

 

Education – $48:

$38 for a year’s worth of field trips for our kindergartener plus $10 for both of us to join the elementary school’s PTA.

 

Healthcare/Dental – $39:

$23 for lab tests for a routine physical. Theoretically this lab work would be covered for free with our insurance since it’s preventative medicine.  In practice, as everyone knows, healthcare billing doesn’t always work out like we think it should.  In order to avoid hour upon hour of phone calls, emails, scanning and sending forms, appeals, and other ugly nonsense to appeal this $23 charge (and possibly end up paying it anyway), I simply whipped out a credit card and resolved this issue in a couple of minutes.  Mental health has its price and it’s somewhere around $23 in this case.  Having plenty of money is nice.

The other $16 of healthcare spending was monthly premiums for our health insurance plan that’s mostly paid for with ACA premium subsidies.  ACA looks to be mostly intact going into the end of the year.  Other than the routine minor billing squabbles, the ACA is working out pretty well for us to provide good insurance at nearly no out of pocket cost.

FYI, open enrollment just started and runs through December 15 so head over to Healthcare.gov if you need to sign up for 2018.  I took a peek at our premiums for 2018 and they will be just over $1,000 per month however we’ll still pay less than $100 per month for the premium after the generous income based subsidy tax credit.

 

Gas – $36:

Our monthly visit to the gas station.

 

Restaurants – $15:

A box of fried chicken and biscuits for the family from Bojangle’s.  This is the In-N-Out Burger/Whataburger for fried chicken (and only available south of the Mason-Dixon line other than a sole location in Pennsylvania).

 

Cable/Satellite – $14:

$14.99 per month for 30 mbit/second download speeds and 4 mbit/second upload speeds with no data caps.

Bird watching in the backyard. Three white egrets floating over the lake.

 

Automotive – $6:

We spent $6 on a replacement key for our minivan.  The minivan only came with one key when we bought it used last year, so I figured a spare key would be a good idea.  Otherwise if we lose it, then we’ll be paying $150-200+ between locksmith fees and/or a new key from the Toyota dealership.  The key has an RF chip in the base of it for security, but I found a nifty Youtube video that allowed me to program it for free in a few minutes (something locksmiths charge $60-80 for) by cloning the existing key I have.  I’ll still have to drop a buck or two at Walmart or the hardware store to get the key custom cut to match the master key.  

Halloween scare house with our little pirate.

 

Year to Date Living Expenses for 2017

Ten months into 2017 and we have only spent $20,896.  That’s more than $12,000 below the $33,333 budgeted for the first ten months of the year.

The highest expense category is travel which is no surprise since we’ve spent 10.5 weeks on the road this year.

We’re taking baby steps to spend more (like that last minute cruise) but still not spending all that we could.  However there will be years with large unexpected expenses (or large expected, but lumpy, spending), so I’m okay under spending our budget potential in these early years of early retirement.

 

Monthly Expense Summary for 2017:

 

The North Carolina State Fair comes to Raleigh every year.

 

We went on “Can Day” where you donate 5 cans and get free admission. I picked up a ton of tomato sauce for $0.03 per can so the net cost of family admission was $0.60 (plus the food bank gets 20 cans of tomato sauce).

 

As we were walking to the exit gate, we found a free light show!

 

Net Worth: $1,978,000 (+$42,000)

October marks the twelfth consecutive month of net worth gains.  The last time we lost money during a single month was October 2016 when our net worth dropped to $1,618,000.  Since then we’ve been on a tear with five digit gains almost every month.  We’re up more than a third of a million dollars in the past year.

I’m hoping we avoid the fate of Icarus. For those not familiar with Greek mythology, I’ll save you the trip to wikipedia.  Icarus was a young man with wings crafted of wax and feathers.  “Don’t fly too close to the sun, son” said Icarus’ father Daedalus.  As kids are wont to do, young Icarus didn’t listen and soared too close to the sun with his “amazing” wax and feather wings.  Long story short, the wax melted, the wings fell apart and Icarus died.  As we glide onward and upward toward the mythical $2 million mark, I hope we can maintain altitude and stay at these levels for a while.  I hope our wings don’t melt this close to the sun.

In financial moves, I’m planning several things for year end 2017:

  • harvest capital gains – about $4,000 gains from selling a $14,000 mutual fund position
  • continue my Roth IRA Conversion Ladder – planning to convert ~$5,000
  • fund my solo 401k to create a tax shelter for income from Root of Good – $18,000 into Roth solo 401k; $6,000 into traditional solo 401k (for the RoG employer portion).
  • fund a his and hers Roth IRA – $5,500 x2 = $11,000

By the end of this financial fancy footwork I’ll accomplish the following:

  • reduce taxable holdings by $14,000
  • reduce cash on hand/money market balance by $21,000 (currently at $48,000)
  • increase traditional IRA/401k space by a net of $1,000
  • increase Roth IRA/401k space by $34,000

My initial Early Retirement financial plans were destroyed by this whole “Blog Makes Money” phenomenon.  As I mentioned in my article on the Roth IRA Conversion Ladder, I initially planned on converting $25,000 to $30,000 per year from my traditional IRA to my Roth IRA and use the proceeds from sales of equities in my taxable brokerage account to fund my annual living expenses.

As it turns out, this blog makes money.  That threw off the Roth IRA Conversion Ladder completely. Now I’m spending income that comes from the early retirement consulting and Root of Good, plus the dividends from my taxable account. Then, I use any excess funds plus some modest sales from the brokerage account to fund the Roth IRA/401k totalling $29,000.  On top of that I’ll still convert several thousand dollars from traditional IRA to Roth IRA each year.

I’m still achieving the same end goal as the Roth IRA Conversion Ladder which is to increase funds in the Roth space to allow tax free and penalty free withdrawals before age 59.5.

As part of this year end tax planning and shifting money around I might move more funds out of equities into bonds.  Throughout 2017 I have shifted $110,000 from equities into the Vanguard Total Bond Market Index. If the market keeps going up, I’ll take some more profits and continue this shift. I also moved $15,000 from a money market account earning 1% to five year certificates of deposit earning 2%.  That’s an extra $150 per year interest income.

 

Want to finish the year on a strong note? Here’s 11 tips to get you there.

 

 

How awesome has 2017 been for you?  Excited about the holidays coming up soon?

 

 

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.

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? 

 

 

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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!

 

 

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