Travel: Cheap or Smooth? (Part 2 of 2)


Lengthy post…did not think you’d want a Part 3 🙂

Last time, I wrote about travel arrangements including luggage, transportation and lodging. Now I’ll turn to meals, entertainment and organizing trip details.

Chi-chi meal at Vanilla Black

Chi-chi meal at Vanilla Black

When I’ve travelled with other people, both lodging and meals have been divisive. It’s hard to agree on a price range that works for everyone. Sometimes budget-conscious travellers will spring for a costlier hotel to be “close to the action” or experience a bit of luxury, but then make up for it by eating cheaply.

I lean toward being a foodie, but on a budget. Rom is rather less concerned about food so I tend to take the lead. I don’t go for places with Michelin stars, celebrity chefs, or massive wine lists. For example, I declined the chance to eat at the Jules Verne at the Eiffel Tower (€105 to €190 per person for lunch). So far, the most we’ve spent on a lunch for two was about €45 per person – and worth every cent – hmmm…! When we travel, I research restaurants in advance, look at their menus online, and often plan a day around a meal I’m looking forward to.

I look up the local vegetarian and vegan spots. Since we’ve been eating vegetarian 95% of the time for the last 4 years, we’ve noticed a huge difference in our travel wellness. Even though we eat different and delightful things, it’s all vegetables and grains, like we would have at home (only, you know, better). When we eat at non-veggie restaurants, especially in the UK, the usual veggie option is something like a goat cheese and leek tart, so we try not to eat them daily! I also make a point of having a big salad every day to make sure I get lots of actual vegetables. If we eat at a chain restaurant or fast food place due to lack of time or options, I try to order something I think is “better” like a veggie burger or veggie tacos.

I don’t usually book rooms with a kitchenette (self-catering room) because I don’t like to take time to shop for groceries, prepare meals and clean up. If I took an extended vacation, I would enjoy doing that, but it’s not on my radar right now. I mentioned last time that I like to stay in B&Bs, and I love breakfast. I’m also an early riser. So if my host wants to make me strawberry waffles at 8 a.m., you can bet I’m there!

The owners of an Italian café near me offer an annual package tour to Italy, focusing on their food, wine and coffee knowledge, with all meals included. It’s on my wish list!

I like to have a big breakfast, a big late lunch, and something lighter in the evening. Most nicer places have similar menus for lunch and dinner, but lunch is far less expensive and it’s less likely to require reservations. We have eaten at some nice places that have a prix fixe menu either at lunch or dinner.

One reason this works for me is that I often go to museums at opening time. After 2 or 3 hours, the only option for lunch is the museum café. Some are cafeteria-style and crowded. While there are many fabulous ones, they can be expensive, have slow service, and long lineups. A big cooked breakfast helps to get me through the lunch hour and have full choice of food options when I leave the museum.

If we go out to a play or concert in the evening, we can have something simple rather than settle in for several hours of fine dining, or go early for a pre-theatre special (again, a prix fixe menu or an express menu).

On vacation, I am always really tempted to have lots of lattés, or more recently flat whites, and café treats (muffins, cookies, or pastries) but I limit myself to one a day of each! Rom doesn’t drink alcohol and I don’t like to drink when he doesn’t, so I only ever have one drink with dinner, if that. Although last time we were in the UK, I developed a taste for fruit ciders! We have desserts, but not every day.

Even though I still gain weight, my days of eating fried entrées and fast food and junk food in the hotel room are over – if I do, I know I will lose at least a day of prime vacation time due to feeling sluggish or unwell. I like to keep a few items at the hotel, like Kind bars and fruit, in case I wake up hours before breakfast! (For flights, I usually carry on trail mix, pretzels and fruit).

Shakespeare's Birthplace

Shakespeare’s Birthplace

Besides food, the other “point” of our vacations is entertainment. I like plays, museums, art galleries, historic sites, parks, scenic vistas, landmarks, and geographical features (especially rocks). Also, rock concerts and interesting shops. When I book a trip, I always play around with the dates to see if we can get the timing right for a show or exhibit. Sometimes we book the flights first then look for events, sometimes the other way around. My number one source for both restaurants and events is TimeOut, but we check multiple sites to ensure we don’t miss something major! On a 7-10 day trip, we usually have 2 or 3 ticketed events, so we plan the day to end at the show site. We decide what time we need to arrive at the venue, then work backwards to allow for transit, dinner, and activities earlier in the day. And of course we have to work out the transport back to the hotel so we don’t get stuck. For example, when we went to see Muse at the O2 in April, we travelled by subway and were concerned about all the fans racing for the Tube after the show, so we did leave a few minutes early (and just made the last connection to our hotel, without having to take a cab).

If we want to see an exhibit with a separate or timed admission, like the David Bowie exhibit at the AGO, we often buy advance tickets just as if it were a concert. I failed to do that on our recent trip to London and was very disappointed that the Rolling Stones exhibit at the Saatchi Gallery was sold out on the day we hoped to attend. On another trip, we lined up early to buy tickets to see Buckingham Palace, and were only able to get timed tickets for 4 hours later, so we bought them and re-planned our morning to fill in the gap.

It’s tricky to book tickets for a bunch of events, knowing you could be slogging around and queuing up in the rain or cold or blinding sun to access them. It really requires a firm rain-or-shine commitment. I would much rather deal with some discomfort than miss out, though. For days when no events are booked and the weather is sub par, we join the seething masses indoors at museums and art galleries. If all else fails, I am left with shopping and cafés. Hardly a consolation prize! But sometimes I am disappointed when I can’t trek through parks or gardens or sculpture courts instead.

At Disney World, I bought a multi-day pass to “the parks.” I purchased it online through a discount broker and I was terrified I’d lose my money to a shady company, but they delivered. When I was living near Boston and I showed visitors around, sometimes we’d buy tickets for the hop-on, hop-off tours that run all day and allow you to resume your tour after spending as long as you like at any stop. Due to the restaurants and shows we work around, we don’t see as many paid tourist attractions as usual, so we don’t benefit as much from “City Pass” tickets for bunches of attractions.

I haven’t stood in line for rush tickets to plays and TV show tapings – one possible outcome is standing in line for hours and not getting in. Given that our vacations are on the short side, I’d rather not use my time that way. I’d need to know more to be able to play the system properly! Here’s a quick rundown from Leslie Beslie.

We always travel in the Spring or Fall, so we don’t usually encounter families and students on their long term breaks. During the school year, it’s always possible we’ll be touring a museum or art gallery along with busfuls of children on their school trips. We do make a point of visiting family-type attractions on weekdays rather than weekends, and arriving at opening time. Except for major attractions like the Museum of Natural History, we lean toward adult-oriented stuff like plays, concerts and dining; so tend not to mix with young’uns much!


Finally, because we have a lot of ticketed events and specially selected restaurants to visit, I pay a lot of attention to keeping track of everything. I unreservedly recommend the Ulmon CityMaps2Go app (not a paid promotion). They had apps for most major cities, but have now merged them into a master travel app. I prefer it to Google Maps because the user-tagged content is reliably available offline. All maps are very detailed and zoomable, with loads of attractions marked, accompanied by profiles, pix and reviews. Like any map app, you can check the transit or eating options near any destination. You can star any point on the map and add your own notes.  I use a colour for each day’s itinerary: red stars for Monday’s attractions, blue for Tuesday’s, and so on. I add the hours and admission prices for each place in my notes, and other details (such as phone numbers for reservations).

I have copies of my travel docs in my email, and ensure one or two people back home know how to reach us every day. So as long as my iPad is charged, all my info is in one place. Rom and I used to share a travel charger / outlet adapter but now I have bought a second one. We are both device dependent!

In the event of a dead device, I do keep paper copies of flight tickets/itineraries, hotel reservations, event tickets, and one emergency paper map. I record the street addresses of every place we stay, because at border crossings I am usually asked the full address of our destination. I keep receipts for everything I buy, and keep a running list of the items and amounts. Canada Border Services is strict about the value of goods that can come back with us. In the past I have used the Evernote app for my lists, but now I am partial to Trello (review coming soon).

I keep a wallet with local currency with me, along with ID, my hotel key card and my local transit pass. I leave a second wallet with a small amount of home currency at the hotel along with my passport (I have never stayed anywhere I’ve had to worry about them). I take a debit card and credit card with me but rarely use them except to pay for a hotel room.

When I’m out for a day, I bring a small purse/bag with my wallet. I bring my iPad Mini if I need to refer to my maps and notes, or if I want to read e-books on the train. Some days I leave it at the hotel if I don’t need it to navigate, or if I just want to travel lighter. On days when shopping is likely, I bring a tote bag, and keep my essentials in a little pouch inside, for easy access. And yes, because of my usual destinations, I bring an umbrella!

What do you centre your travel around: Food? Attractions? Events?


  1. I love the idea of the app where you can colour code destinations on the map!

    We plan our trips around experiences, both man made and natural. So, bushwalking, parks, lookouts that sort of thing. And museums, walking main streets looking at buildings, shops. And food. Love food and drink.

    • Hi L, You can do that on your saved Google Maps as well, but the last time I checked, you needed wifi to access them (no offline viewing). Travel for experiences is the best way to put it.

  2. Fiona

    That is an amazing set of organisational skills! I love all these tips, especially since my holiday plans often involve hasty last-minute packing and a messy list of post-its!

    We do tend to go for the default heavy meal at the end of the day but it definitely does lead to an energy drain. I’m not sure I have the discipline to moderate my eating to lighter options on holiday – that’s when we usually really over-indulge – but I can see how many benefits there would be.

    That app is amazing! I just downloaded it and looked up my local area. Mind-boggling! So detailed. I usually end up on holidays with scribbled notes, random booking emails that are tricky to find etc. That app is fabulous. Already bookmarking things for our next road trip! 🙂

    • I really do love that app, and find it more accessible than Google Maps. Food wise, I don’t deprive myself – I can easily have a heavy breakfast and a heavy lunch, so something has to give! There are definitely daily treats, just not all types every day. Well, OK, maybe some days!

  3. Thanks for the advice. We tend to center our trips around all the above. Sometimes it is scenery or location, sometimes it is an event and sometimes it is food. We do love local restaurants and stay away from chains which are similar in every city.

    • Sounds like you travel for the experiences, too. I will go to chains if they are the only healthy option in a neighbourhood (e.g. a big salad at the Hard Rock or Boston Pizza!)

  4. I’m right with you when it comes to eating when I travel. I do like having a small kitchen in my room or at least a coffee maker because these days I usually look for a bakery when we’re out and get myself a pastry and coffee – that’s enough for me these days. We avoid chains that we can find here in the U.S. (although I used to make an exception for McDonalds in Japan – they make a teriyaki burger that I loved) and try to eat at smaller, local spots – like you I do a lot of research before we travel just so I know what’s available. But, nothing is written in stone; if we see something we like and want to try, we’ll do that. As far as picking a hotel, I look first at location and then try and choose something in the middle price-wise. I have also come to greatly enjoy AirBNB for longer stays somewhere.

    Most of my pre-travel planning is done to create a solid foundation, but once we’re there we tend to be fairly spontaneous about what we see and do.

    • I’d say I make some definite plans (ticketed events and destination restaurants) and then look at the layout of the city to plan groups of things to see and do in a neighbourhood, to make a day of it. Depending on the weather or the events, I might swap out one day for another. Kind of like meal planning, really – something that doesn’t get done, gets “carried over.” I am spontaneous to a point (that probably means I’m not!) but I have some non-negotiables, and the rest can flex.

  5. Lane

    This looks like an APP even I could use! In general, I don’t care for computer maps ( looking at you Google) as you can’t get far enough “out” with all the places marked. I don’t have an Ipad or a Kindle, but I am considering one for this year as hauling guidebooks has become cumbersome and orthopedically ! Would you advise one over the other? Can you do books on Ipad as you would a Kindle? I know, so not techie…

    I would say we are more sightseeing, walking around type travelers, not so much for events. Food– yes! But I find I simply cannot eat the quantities I used to, so big formal meals are not my favorite. Must be why I love Italy so much, you are rarely overserved! In Rome this past fall, we got tickets for guided tours of the Vatican museum and of the Colosseum and Roman senate, well worth the money. We ask locals where they like to eat and have rarely been disappointed( never tripadviser). We are venturing to Japan this year, but with an alumni small group, so we don’t have too much to figure out except free afternoons and meals. I am trying to do a lot of background reading about the culture and history.

    What part of Italy would your food/wine trip visit? I don’t think you can miss!

  6. The Italy tour is Umbria and Tuscany for 11 days. The next one is in Sept this year which is far too soon for us. We will need a couple of years to save up! A Japan trip with a small group sounds wonderful.

    I love my iPad and would recommend one unreservedly. I don’t have a Kindle because Amazon will not negotiate with Canadian public libraries to allow Kindle users to borrow free Kindle e-books (as they do in the US). So I don’t really know if the Kindle Fire (etc) is a good tablet for other apps like Ulmon or Google Maps. However, on an iPad, you can download a Kindle app, so if you already have Kindle books, you can read them on an iPad. I would also watch out for buying used Kindles because the oldest ones are only e-book readers and not tablets as well.

  7. jbistheinitial

    Since getting together with Thomas I have become accustomed to trips being planned around food. He loves food, loves to eat, but as he’s vegan often our days are entirely planned around where to eat – sometimes in a positive way (so for example Berlin has so much amazing vegan junk food – the kind of stuff you usually can’t get easily as a vegan because people assume you always want to eat salad! – that we planned our days around areas which had well-rated vegan burgers/pizzas but always had too much choice. Alternatively, in Paris four years ago we were limited by where he could eat so our planning ended up being somewhat easier, if frustrating because we had to be in certain areas at mealtimes in order for him to have options.

    I’m afraid to admit that, were it not for Thomas and the planning around food, my biggest planning influence would probably be shopping! Especially bookstores and vintage shops, but really I just love to find the cute districts with independent shops and wander around for hours.

    • I would say food and going to see bands/shows are my favourites, but also of necessity because we try to stay vegetarian on the road. We were in Paris last year and found the options limiting (although we didn’t get into the neighbourhoods that did a lot of North African). I always scope out interesting and independent shops – although I buy a lot less these days, I’m still happy to spend time shopping – my favourites are museum and art gallery gift shops.

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