Wednesday, November 6, 2013

How to Afford Three Months of Travel Per Year

(note: this includes updates)

I agreed to move to the middle of the woods in Alaska, outhouse and everything, as long as we could travel for several months in the winter. It doesn't have to be ALL winter – mind you, winter is l-o-n-g in Alaska – but I wanted time enough to escape some of the darkest and coldest months from what I fear could become a claustrophobic cabin.

And who would determine the travel itinerary? Naturally, me. After Bryan's history of travel decisions, which had landed me 42 miles from the nearest road at 61 degree latitude, and after several years of him-to-her gift giving such as a 9 mm pistol, a scope, and a propane powered flame thrower; after years of smiling numbly upon receipt of matching Husqvarna 455 chainsaws, I usurped travel arrangements. Bryan complied.

The idea of traveling for several months each winter initially seemed extravagant, but eventually seemed cost effective after several knock-on-the–head realizations that helped us reconfigure both our living expenses and our ways of conducting business.  

Below, I describe our logic, several useful websites, and some price points and hints).  Perhaps this will help armchair travel readers take a leap elsewhere themselves.    

Everyone knows where this is
One enlightening experience that motivated us to spend more time living out of suitcases was a wonderful 4 week trip to India, in which we stayed at maharajahs' homes transformed to 5 star hotels throughout the state of Rajasthan. The daily rate for a car and driver, accommodations, food and tours was less than we spent each day to own a home in TX. Hmmm. That was an eye opener.

 Another factor was the realization that, due to business, family, travel, and our increasing time working on our Alaska property, we had spent only 7 and 5 months respectively at our home in Houston. Meanwhile, we paid for 12 months of expenses. 

The third element was hearing a doctor friend bemoan that he couldn't afford to take vacations because his office expenses ran $1000/day whether he was there to earn money or not! As we ticked off the names of friends working in both corporate and entrepreneurial ventures, we realized how few travel because they felt so acutely the need to pay high home and business expenses, and maybe also felt a fear of losing their job or business if they took any vacations. These realizations launched us on a new lifestyle.  We decided to sell our Houston home to shed those expenses. We made our Alaska cabin (paid for, no expenses when gone) our only home and set a per diem maximum for travel, based on prior home expenses.  In addition, we adjusted our business practices, and started to utilize telecommuting services and equipment that enable us to run our businesses from anywhere.  

I believe that the travel information below is applicable to both retired people and those whose businesses can be conducted remotely, by Internet and cell phone.  A few comments, such as recommended website resources, are pertinent even to those planning short vacations. 

Everyone has certain times of year that are better for travel, due to inclement weather or business lulls.  The most useful resources have been websites that enable easy comparison shopping for various transportation modes, hotels, apartments and cruises in various places of interest. I rely heavily on (to compare flights), (to review client experiences), (for cruises, but it covers other travel, too), (to rent homes in other cities),, (to get better rates on hotels) and (for house sitting in others' homes around the world).    

May the following information be useful to you for your future travels!

Itinerary Summaries, observations, and some price points, for first and second winters of travel:

The first winter's travels: 
In October, we left the cabin for a ten day, 800 mile road trip around Alaska (5 – 30 degrees) (where it was already snowing in Interior locations).  During that "shoulder season" many lodges are already closed and those that are open often offer better prices than during the summer.  Even so, modest lodging ($100 - 130/nt), transportation ($50-75/day), in our own car (including one leg a 6 hour ferry ride from Valdez to Anchorage), and food cost $275/day.  This ten day trip cost more than a month in South America. 

Ending in Anchorage, we stored our vehicle for the rest of the winter and took a red-eye flight to Houston, TX (80-87 degrees), for two weeks, followed by a surprisingly balmy November in Chicago, New York, and Washington DC (40s-mid 60s).  With, I was able to get 3 star hotels in great locations in Houston and Washington DC for $70 each, 1/2 their "desk rate." (The following year, we couldn't get those low rates)  Through judicious research of time, day, and carrier, I secured cheap flights, too: a $60 flight from NY to DC and a $129 cross-country flight from DC to Oakland, CA, and a substantially cheaper flight from Houston to Milwaukee than to Chicago (smaller cities can either be much more or much less expensive than those nearby).  

December started in San Francisco (50s and 60s) at my childhood home followed by a 30 day cruise.  We left San Francisco's pretty port at sunset and sailed from there, along the Pacific coast of Latin America, around Tierra del Fuego to Buenos Aires (80s F). We booked our passage after watching prices drop steeply as the sailing date drew near.  Note:  long, repositioning cruises often offer steeper discounts than shorter, round trip cruises.  Through, we paid $100/day per person for an inside cabin (including tax and port fees).  I think cruises are a great way to travel, particularly in areas where food, hotels, and rental cars are expensive (like Alaska or Hawaii).  Think of it this way:  cruise ships include transportation, a "hotel room", gym, restaurants, entertainment, and great beauty in one tariff. Short, round trip routes rarely offer discounts.  

Through we rented an attractive apartment in the Las Canitas neighborhood of Palermo (Buenos Aires) for three weeks in January ($85/day).  I love that city and that entire stay, but that gracious country's 25% inflation in each of the past three years deters us from returning until we feel more confident of financial stability there.  (Recommendation:  read the U.S. State Department website on the countries you consider).  Our final stop in Latin America was ten days in Paraguay (hey, we were in the vicinity).  This was where we screwed up our budget, largely because we were attracted by the spontaneous invitation of a friend who lives in Asuncion, with terrific stories about Iguassu Falls.  Unfortunately, last minute international travel is never cheap, and we encountered fees for crossing borders and even for plane tickets that didn't work out.  Lesson learned: spontaneity can be great, but not for the big expenses of getting in and out of foreign countries.  From Asuncion, we flew back to the U.S. for two weeks in Chicago, and then back to Alaska.  

Overall, from this winter's travels, our road trip in Alaska and our jaunt to Paraguay cost far more and delivered less than I expected, while the 30 day cruise and time in Buenos Aires cost less and delivered far more than I expected.

The second winter's travels:  
We booked flights to several cities in the US  plus two months in Peru.  By booking the domestic flights as a single, multi-stop flight with one carrier, I secured a much lower price of $600 per person than if I had arranged them separately.  Rental cars are expensive in Houston (because there is no public transportation competition?) but, through, I was able to cut our day rate by securing 10 days at two 3.5 star hotels for $70 and $78 each, one in the Galleria area and the other downtown.  

For our South American segment, I was considering two months in either Peru or Chile. I picked Peru when I found a promotional price for a new route by Jet Blue of $600 per person to/from Peru's capital city: NY-Lima-SF.   My main goal for spending 8 weeks in South America was to enroll in an immersion Spanish school.  I picked Cusco (Cuzco) for its history and access to Machu Picchu.  As a major tourist draw, it has more schools, international restaurants and accommodations than comparable cities of its size (about 450,000).  Thus, I figured if I chose a bad school, it would be easy to switch.  In addition, I looked forward to many outings of interest, to Spanish, Inca and pre-Inca sites, and an excursion to Lake Titicaca.  In Cusco, we heard lauditory comments from Peruvians of a city I had not previously heard of, Arequipa, so we spent 2.5 weeks there, (a city of 1 mm) where I enrolled in a second school situated in a pretty hotel. was invaluable in both places for reviews of restaurants, activities, and hotels. 

Of the two cities, Cusco is more evocative, with its cobblestone streets and Spanish buildings built over and around Inca ruins, but Arequipa is appealing, too.  The latter city has better weather, offers higher quality restaurants and accommodations at a lower price point, and far fewer touts trying to sell you souvenirs.  It is also about 3,000 feet lower in altitude, so we both slept better and were less winded than in Cusco, which is not only 11,000 ft high but hilly, too.   In both cities, we paid about $300/week for school and a room. (Compare that to $275/day driving my own car around Alaska in the off season!)  Both cities offered a variety of tasty Chilean and Argentine wines ($7 for a bottle of 2006 Chilean sauvignon blanc) but Peru appears to be a beer wasteland and to serve instand Nescafe unless you look hard for a quality coffee bar.   In both cities, we found some favorite, hole-in-the wall restaurants with such prices as $3 each for a simple dinner of roast chicken, rice, and fried potatoes,  $1.50 for a breakfast of egg, tomato, plaintains, rice, and potatoes, and $7 each for a four course lunch with tall glasses of kiwi and pineapple juice. More formal restaurants of high quality, cost between $15-25/person.   Personal services, such as a hair cut and manicure, cost $7 and $5, respectively.

Third winter:
The third winter I was unable to find the airline deals I secured the prior two years. However, we saved money during our time in Ecuador where we enjoyed a few bonuses, too, primarily excellent coffee and a number of micro-brewed beers.  In contrast to the $85/day we paid for an apartment in Buenos Aires, we paid $20/day for a modest one bedroom apartment (with 3x/week maid service) in the attractive southern highlands city of Cuenca, which has an active English speaking ex-pat population.  Prices for meals were similar to those in Peru:  three course almuerzos (hearty lunches) ranged from $2 - 6.50.  Two, magnificent, seven course meals with wine cost $60 - 75 (for both, not each).  Service prices included $10 for a combination manicure/pedicure, $16 for a facial, $30 for hair cut and dye.  My school was more expensive (Escuela Sampere) but it included one on one language (3.5 hours per day) and arts/crafts with local artists (2.5 hours per day).  A wonderful resort on the edge of Vilcabamba, Ecuador charged $59/nt for a private casita, $16 facial, free yoga and hiking trails, and $4 for breakfast.  

Overall, I have found that it isn't as hard to live out of one suitcase for several months as I thought, especially if one plans ahead and has low sartorial standards!  If you do your research, you can find good deals on transportation and hotels in both the U.S. and in South America, enabling extended stays, at reasonable costs, and learn a lot about yourself and the world in the process.  We enjoy our learning about other places, and then are very happy to back in our own bed in our quiet corner of Alaska for the rest of the year.

Bon voyage!      

 If you enjoyed this article, please be so kind as to post it to or link it at your favorite social media sites.   -- Thanks,  Laura     

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