Accommodation

Planning

Dollars & Sense: 10 things to note when budgeting for a trip

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The problem of trying to figure out how much cash to bring on a holiday is something that typically doesn’t have a good solution. Overdo it and there’s so much excess cash that sometimes tempts you to spend it on things you don’t need just so you don’t have to convert them back to your own currency. Under do it and you’ll be searching out another money exchange counter in no time, which frankly, wastes precious time.

When I used to do bi-annual 2-week trips to Europe about a decade ago, I went on a strict budget and told myself that no matter what, this fixed amount – do or die – was going to have to see me through. It clearly didn’t always work, particularly when I sneaked in a purchase or 2 with a credit/debit card in some seedy places.

Most people go about budgeting like this:

  • ask someone who went to the same place you are going how much they thought they spent
  • (in cases where nobody is around to ask), start asking on online forums
  • wait till the last minute, panic, come up with a random figure to bring and just wing it

None of these methods are very helpful (the last one even more so). And you find yourself either trying to do stupid things to save costs near the end of your holiday (“Who needs to spend on laundry? I will wear the same pair of underwear for 3 days – I know I can do it!”), using a credit card in some seedy venue, then fretting about your card getting cloned or trying to change money at a money changer when you can’t speak the language and don’t recognise the currency properly and so are almost guaranteed to get cheated to some degree.

I figured that there had to be a practical way to get an estimate of how much money to bring on a holiday. After nights of desperate browsing and calculating, it seems I somehow hit upon a sort of method of doing just that.

The general idea behind this is to:

  • note down any costs which are fixed
  • try to estimate those costs which are variable (in foreign currency)
  • total the whole lot up
  • figure out how much you need in your home currency to change for that amount of foreign currency

What you are trying to do is to make sense of madness, so some boundaries must exist. Please note that this will only work when some basic conditions of your trip are met before you go on it :

  • you know where you are going (the exact location)
  • you know the length of the trip
  • your accommodation is booked ahead of time
  • activities/side trips are mostly booked ahead of time
  • you spend responsibly while on a holiday

If you are backpacking to a general region, aren’t sure exactly which countries/regions you will be in or how long your trip will last then this won’t work for you. Or if you are the sort who likes buying a round for the entire bar in every bar, this isn’t for you, either.

But if you meet the conditions above, here then, are a rough series of steps to figuring out how much to bring. First, though, figure out the fixed expenses, such as air tickets, pre-booked activities and tours, hotel accommodation charges, transportation and prepaid SIMs.

1. The length of your trip

This is the first thing you figure out since this determines how many days of expenditure are involved. Even if some of the days are partial, note those down since you will need to spend money on those days as well.

2. The number of meals needed

Food is one of the most straightforward expenses you will need to budget for. Although this is a variable (who knows what you will eat for each meal? – more on which, later), you still know how many meals you will need to have. A few things to keep in mind here :

  • Is breakfast is included as part of your stay at your place of accommodation?
  • Are meals provided on flights? (assuming you can stand airline food, of course)

These may be meals you don’t have to budget for as they are already provided.

What you will end up with is a list resembling this :

e.g. for 4 nights
Incoming flight at 10am, outgoing flight at 2pm
4 breakfasts (breakfast provided on incoming flight)
5 lunches
4 dinners (dinner provided on outgoing flight)

3. Planned activities

Any planned activities such as tours are fixed costs. Note these down.

Some of these will insist on payment in cash only, not necessarily in the currency of the country you are visiting (e.g. some tours ask for payment in US dollars only). Remember to take these into account when changing currency!

4. Other fixed costs

There are typically some other costs which you will know of ahead of time, or at least have a rough idea of. Classic examples are transportation costs to/from the airport and possibly mobile phone card costs. Note these down as well since they are generally known values. A google search like ‘prepaid SIM card cost in [insert place]‘ will bring up many threads that will give you an estimate cost.

5. Estimating daily costs

This is where things get a little tricky – you have pretty much removed the costs which are static. Now we try to estimate the variable costs as best we can.

To do this, we need an estimate on the daily costs of living in the places you will be visiting. You can find this on websites such as Expatistan (www.expatistan.com). The information there is crowd-sourced and should give you an idea of the daily costs for various activities on your trip.

6. Meals

The easiest variable cost to deal with is meals. You already know how many meals you need for each meal (breakfast, lunch, dinner). Using the information taken from the website, you should be able to calculate an estimate of how much your meals should cost. A few tips here :

  • In some cases (typically dinner) you may find more than one cost option listed on your cost estimate website (e.g. a meal at a budget restaurant vs a 4 course meal at an Italian restaurant in an expat area). Always use the more expensive choice in your estimates. Overestimating is good.
  • I find that budgeting dinner for 2 people is a good idea, since this puts you in a position to pay for a possible partner or date. At the very worst, it will mean you can manage a more fancy dinner or have a bit of spare cash on hand, never a bad thing. Think about those lovely seaside dinner places on holiday.

7. General daily activities

The next is a list of general daily activities you might undertake. This can be a bit tricky but typically, there are few things that will get done every day on a holiday. Examples of these are :

  • a cab ride
  • a museum trip
  • sitting down for a coffee at a cafe

Of course, this varies from person to person and you should tailor this for the sort of things you might do daily while on holiday.

The general idea is if you think you might do it, then factor it in. Err on the side of caution. Multiply this estimated daily cost against the number of days your trip is and you have another estimated cost dealt with.

8. Daily spare cash

This might be the hardest thing to estimate but looking at the rough costs of various things the website gives you for the place you are going to will give you an idea of how much this can be. Multiply this by the number of days you are spending in the place and you should have a buffer of spare cash, just in case.

9. Adding it all up

Add up the fixed and estimated costs for your trip and round up to the nearest. Again, overestimating is good. You now have the estimated amount of cash you need in foreign currency.

10. Currency conversion

The final step is to calculate how much you will need of your own home currency in order to change for the foreign currency or currencies you will need. I use currency conversion websites for this (e.g. Oanda) and then add another about 15% on for the amount of home currency I should exchange. This is to take into account getting a crappy exchange rate at the money changer.

Hopefully, this should give you a workable sum of cash to use at your destination. In practice, I typically end up with a bit of extra cash which I have to change back to my home currency. While this isn’t terribly efficient since I almost definitely lose some value in changing currencies back, I’d rather have extra cash at the end of my trip and be prepared for contingencies than find myself short of cash.

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AccommodationDestinationsFoodGeorgiaHealth and SafetyItineraryPlanningThe Caucasus

Tbilisi for the Uninitiated

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The Caucasus is a region I had absolutely no clue about, except that it is where Europe and Asia converge, and where ancient man, as anthropologists and linguists posit, first walked out of Africa and into this part of the world. Georgia seemed like the logical choice when I planned this trip, along with Azerbaijan or Armenia. Time and costs narrowed it down to only Georgia and well, Doha, given the logical stopover that Qatar Airways offered. The Travel Companion (TC) bought his tickets separately a few weeks later after suddenly deciding that he wanted to come and truth be told, I was glad for his company. Georgians are hyper-social creatures; no one eats alone and a foreign woman going at everything alone would make it doubly odd—after the wary but blatant stares I kept receiving, I’d say TC helped in some ways to make me feel less like a specimen under a microscope.

We were only in Tbilisi for about a week and with this limited amount of time, day tours seemed like the most logical option. Even so, there was so much we couldn’t cover without a car. I decided on this post simply to make planning somewhat easier for idiots like me who bumbled about and probably made tons of mistakes getting around. But I’m hoping this will be a useful source of information for anyone planning a short, compact stay that wouldn’t take too much out of you.

How we got around

By taxi

This was our primary mode of transport. A taxi is pretty much any guy with his own car and a lit sign that says ‘Taxi’. Completely unregulated, you simply haggle for a fare before you hop in. We’ve taken a few through Tbilisi, using fingers and body language to negotiate and the taxi drivers typically range from grumpy to grumpier. Saying ‘Hello’ and ‘Thank you’ in Georgian helps a lot. The general rule I’ve learnt is that a trip around the city centre should cost no more than 5 GEL, which anything outside can be anything between 7 and 10 GEL. The airport is a completely different story though, so be prepared for inflated prices that would cost about 35-40 GEL, be it a taxi, a hotel car, or a pre-arranged driver from one of the tour companies.

By metro

Tbilisi has just 2 metro lines, tunnelled so deep into the ground that you can probably develop claustrophobia and vertigo just by riding the long, long escalators. The Avlabari and Rustaveli stations have long, long ones that take at least 2 minutes to clear them all, which can be a horrifyingly unpleasant experience. Built in the Soviet era, they retain that grim, bleak look that made me wonder if Tbilisi really left that bit of their past behind yet. 1 GEL takes you anywhere, for a single trip. 2 GEL for the reusable Metro card, which can be returned at a ticket office after showing your passport.

Bus & Marshrutka

We didn’t try this at all, finding the Georgian script and the general lack of English rather daunting. There are designated routes and stops for buses, but only designated route for Marshrutkas, which pretty much stop wherever people want to get down. But there are numbers on these little yellow things and there’s also a website explaining the routes, but there’s only Georgian on it.

Where we stayed

Hotel Piazza

Just a couple metres off Avlabari metro and in the heart of the old Armenian district, the location and its breakfast are pretty much the hotel’s perks. The staff were lovely and incredibly accommodating. In their 24-hour shifts, I think we bothered them the most with questions and odd requests and all of them had no problems with what we asked for. But it was impossible to open our room window without getting a fragrant whiff of the constant cigarette smoke that swirled around the ashtray just outside. Workmen came on the third day and worked till late at night and tons of (loud) tourists who were mostly Russian came back drunk and loud late at night—clearly not the best thing we could have hoped for when we were already so much in need of uninterrupted sleep. Breakfast started at 9 am (!), so early-risers, you’re straight out of luck if you want to start out early for your day trips.

Automated/self-service laundromats were impossible to find, but the hotel did laundry for us for 5 Gel/kilo, and it was amazing how much we actually spent washing our dirty clothes.

Tours we did

Free Tbilisi walking tour

At noon every day at Freedom square, there’ll be a guide who will walk you around the city for about 3 or so hours, explaining Tbilisi’s and Georgia’s history. These guides survive on tips, so give what you think they deserve.

Colour Tour Georgia

We booked 2 tours with them—one into the Kazbegi mountains and the other into the Kakheti wine region. Both tours were very different in their own ways and the driver/guide are always accommodating to what you want to do on the way. Another driver/guide we considered was Makho (sourced from Tripadvisor), who has a Facebook page. Colour Tour’s slightly lower costs won out in the end.

Culinary Backstreets

Trust Paul Rimple to take you around. If anything, you’ll get an expat’s view of Georgia and Tbilisi but he has been living in Tbilisi for so long that he’s practically one of the Georgians. Paul’s interesting stories help make the hours fly past, and you get to sample all the food he shows you in the Deserter’s Bazaar.

Places we ate at

It’s difficult to find bad Georgian food really, or we’ve been incredibly lucky for most part, to get what we wanted. We normally try to stick to local cuisine as much as we can, so there’s quite a bit of Georgian food where we’re concerned. It’s easy, however, to overload on Khachapuri and Khinkali, and then feel a little sick for a while as the cheese and meat start to take root.

You can eat cheaply, if you rely on fried food, or bread with cheese from the numerous bakeries (Tone) that could be found around the city.

The smoking ban in enclosed places hasn’t reached Georgia, so cigarette smoke in restaurants can be a problem if you’re particularly sensitive to it, as I am. Some of the places listed below do have a view over the old city; others don’t.

These are the places we visited and they’re mostly around Avlabari or the old town which we could easily reach on foot.

Pasanauri
Oat gallery & Art café 144-stairs (right below the Cable cars, but do not use the path leading up to the Fortress for it. It’s through one of the tiny backlanes called Gomi)
Ezo
Culinarium Khasheria
Saamo (Avlabari, near the Trinity church)
Zakhar Zakharich
Vino Underground
Café Flowers

A place we were recommended but didn’t make it: Machakhela, Organique Josper Bar, g.Vino

Other things we did on our own

Gulo Thermal spa

One of the best and worst decisions I could have ever made. The hammam experience was really not bad—steam from the sulphur baths helped unclog my nose and pores—though it was overpriced, with, well, rather bad service. Be prepared to face a chaotic mess at the reception as Gulo the proprietress attempts to sort out your reservation or walk-in booking with minimal English. I tried making a booking through Facebook and ended up with a heated argument between Gulo and someone called Zura when Zura didn’t manage to get my reservation down with Gulo at all. We had to wait an hour for a larger bath to be available—no apologies made—and was doubly charged until we managed to convince an English-speaking ‘bather’ that we’d already paid for our 15-minute massage and scrub, which in truth, was shoddily completed in about 5 minutes.

Visiting all the churches

See Orthodox Christianity in full swing, marvel at the richness of Christian Iconography and look at faded frescoes that are centuries-old. Walk the crumbling battlements of fortresses, step on stones that have weathered conquerers and enemies and soak in the haunting melodies of the liturgies. We walked up the Narikala Fortress (1 GEL brings you straight up there from the other side of the river) and it was a relatively easy climb and a good way to see the city in the setting sun.

Medical emergencies

I’m sort of embarrassed to say that a skin condition forced me into a private emergency clinic off the Medical University Metro stop late one night. MediClub Georgia has staff who are English-speaking, though I was tended to by residents who triaged their patients before handing them over to the main doctor on duty. Never having been in an emergency ward, I spent most of my time waiting, feeling both curiosity and dread at the somewhat dated setup, then wondering how much it was going to cost me. I got prescribed strong antibiotics in the end, something I couldn’t get on my own in a pharmacy.

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AccommodationDestinationsEuropeIcelandItineraryPlanningScandinavia

When the weather forces its hand

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Breakfast in Egilsstaðir Guesthouse is a curious affair. Waking up too early has no merits here (at least on the day we were there) because the cook who was supposed to prepare the first meal of the day was still asleep by the time we got to the breakfast room. Instead, the owner of the property, an elderly farmer by the name of Jónas Gunnlaugsson, regaled us with tales of driving through thick snow in Mjóafjörður, his theories of the missing Malaysian Airlines plane and his efforts to learn about money and currency after Iceland economic crisis while we waited for breakfast.

The worsening weather threw a spanner into our well-laid plans when the roads to Mývatn stayed closed for the whole day. The next 2 days we’d planned to stay up north in Mývatn and Varmahlíð would have had to be redesigned around South Coast driving. A few desperate calls later, we had a night booked in Volcano Hotel (the same place we stayed in 3 nights ago) and another in the Blue Lagoon (and hopefully throwing in some time around the Reykjanes peninsula as well) before heading back to Reykjavik.

Getting a refund from our pre-paid accommodation up north was another story altogether.

Daniel, the very helpful receptionist in Egilsstaðir Guesthouse, commiserated with us in a repetitive outpouring of sympathy.

“Something more should be done about this,” he said emphatically. “Many tourists come at this time of the year and are frustrated when their plans don’t work out because the roads are closed with no warning. All you hear is ‘Come visit Iceland, come anytime’ but no one is told that these things will happen. And when they come, this is what they get.”

To say that I’m terribly disappointed is quite the understatement, even though it’s probably yet another excuse to return and visit the northern part of this fascinating country.

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We headed out into the heavy rain at around 10.45 am and spent the entire day covering 3 days’ worth of driving distance in awful weather conditions. There was heavy fog in many parts and ice in others and after several near-collisions and losing traction on slippery surfaces, we finally stumbled gratefully into Vík after 8 hours on the road, happy to be alive. Vatnajökull’s many glacier tongues had disappeared completely from sight and the landscape that had been breathtaking in the sunlight now came straight out of the Norse myths of old.

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