Thursday, August 07, 2014

Vacation 2014 - Italy and Slovenia - A Quick Summary

Our vacation this year took us back to Italy for four weeks total, and finally to Slovenia for an additional ten days.  Here's a quick breakdown of our costs:

Car rental for 39 days, booked thru AutoEurope.                          
We requested and received a diesel, which made the fuel
a little cheaper.  We also included a zero deductible, which
raised the cost but eased our minds.                                                             $ 911

Road taxes, not included in the rental                                                           $  97

Gas                                                                                                           $ 523

Tolls, parking                                                                                             $ 143

Hotels/Apartments 37 nights total                                                                 $2894

Airfare $1622 EACH, plus $300 to upgrade to
business class for the flight TO Italy                                                             $3844

MINUS the airline vouchers we received last year                                       - $3000

Everything else:  food, admissions, souvenirs                                                $3962

GRAND TOTAL 4 weeks in Italy and 10 days in Slovenia                            $9374

(Without those airline vouchers our costs would have been $12,374)

The car averaged out to just over $25 per day, and the lodgings, a mix of apartments, hotels and B&Bs averaged out to $78 per night.  Although I know we drove 6,641 miles, I didn't track our fuel consumption, but as I mentioned above, the diesel fuel helped, and of course we had a stick shift which may have helped as well.

When I wrote about last year's vacation to Germany, our costs averaged out to about $288 per day when I excluded the (free) time we spend with relatives.  This year's vacation came in at $253 per day, but once again having that $3000 airline credit really made a big difference!  Is it wrong to say we were a little disappointed not to get bumped again this year?

Monday, May 05, 2014

THE COUNTDOWN HAS BEGUN!

SEVEN WEEKS AND COUNTING!  Who has tips for Volterra?  How far in advance should we book for our Modena lunch?  Oh, and will there be any festas in San Venanzo so we can watch our Italian friends line dance to the accordion of our friend Erika, and just for a little while imagine these people are still our neighbors?    BUT - I'm so excited for all the wonderful things we've planned to do, as well as all the wonderful, crazy unexpected things that just happen, the things you could imagine even if you tried - travel is truly magical!  Oh, and finally........Slovenia!  It's gonna be a good good time!

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Ten Days In Slovenia

I'm going to post our planned itinerary for our upcoming trip to Slovenia, then update once we get home, just to see what worked and what didn't.  Visiting any place for the first time is always a learning experience, and there are always variables on a trip, things like rain, or a train strike, or worse yet, a missed train connection.  Sometimes it just takes longer to get from point A to point B, sometimes  you forget that Monday is the day most museums are closed, and sometimes you just stumble into a situation that changes your day, for better or worse, and there's just not a damned thing you can do about it.  Some people might think I over-plan, but obviously that's not how I would phrase it. 

What I try to do is figure out what makes the most sense for the time we have.  I don't want to end up in a city full of museums on the one day of the week they're all closed, do I?  Nor do I want to end up missing a festival by one day if some quick research could alert me to that fact.  What I try to do is to minimize the surprises, while still allowing for surprises!  In my opinion, if I know of ten great things to do in an area, and one doesn't work out because of weather, or because we got lost, or whatever, then I still have nine other possibilities.  For me the most valuable commodity on vacation is time, and I don't want to waste one precious second!

Slovenia offers more of a challenge than other countries might, simply because there's not as much info out there, and not as many people to ask for practical advice.  Still, it's an amazing country and so far we've managed to put together an itinerary we hope will serve at least as a framework.

Here's what we've planned so far:

Day 1 (Friday):  we'll drive from Verona (Italy) to Lipica, which should take about 3 hours.  We'll have to stop and buy a sticker for the car - sort of a prepaid road tax, I guess.  So - we should arrive at the Lipica Stud Farm, where they raise and train the beautiful Lipizzaner horses, before lunch.  We'll stay here for 2 nights.  After checking in and having lunch we'll drive to the seaside town of Piran, about an hour away, for a wander, maybe even relax on the beach for a while.  Because the days will be long there won't be any rush to get back - we'll have daylight until after 9 p.m. 

Day 2 (Saturday):  We'll visit the nearby Skocjan Caves, about a thirty minute drive from our hotel.  After the caves we'll figure out lunch, then decide if we want to drive through the countryside, check out more seaside towns, or maybe just head to the beach if we didn't make it the day before - or maybe even if we did!

Day 3 (Sunday)  After checking to see what days and times the horse shows were offered, Sunday seemed to be our best bet, so we'll tour the farm, see a show at 3:00, then drive to Slovenia's capital, Ljubljana, which should take about an hour.  It's unfortunate that we'll be arriving on a Sunday evening because we won't be able to stock up on groceries for our 3 night stay in an apartment here, but I'm sure we won't starve!  We'll probably have plenty of time to wander through the old part of town on our first evening.

Day 4 (Monday):  Today we'll drive to Valinka Planina, about an hour north of Ljubljana for some hiking.  Hopefully we can put together a picnic lunch, but if not we'll find something along the way. 

Day 5 (Tuesday):  We'll see what Ljubljana has to offer, including either lunch or dinner up at the castle, based on a recommendation by friends who were here two years ago.  Our apartment here will also give us a chance to catch up on laundry, something we'll need to do after having been without a washing machine for 6 days. 

Days 6 - 9 (Wednesday-Saturday):  We'll drive north to Lake Bled, which will take less than an hour, and we'll settle into our apartment here for four nights.  For this part of the trip there are so many things we want to see and do that for now I'm just listing all the possibilities and we'll figure out the specifics as we go along.  We'll probably walk around Lake Bled, and take the boat out to the small island in the center of it.  We'll visit Lake Bohinj, and take the cable car up the mountain.  We'll also visit Triglav National Park and take the twisty, curvy scenic road, and another day we'll check out Kranska Gora.  We'll be in this area for four days, and I'm hoping we can have a nice mix of sightseeing and relaxing.  We'll take advantage of the washing machine here too, and try to leave with everything clean so that we won't have to worry about laundry for the remainder of our vacation (another four nights).

Day 10 (Sunday):  We'll probably drive to the Soca Valley and the Vrisic Pass on our way to our next destination, Nova Gorica.  I've read that this is a big casino town, so I'm not sure what to expect, but this probably won't be a cutesy, charming little village, but it's really only  a place to sleep, since we'll be driving and sightseeing all day.

Will ten days be enough time?  Too much?  Will we wished we'd spent more time in one place and less in another?  Luckily for us the drives aren't extreme no matter where we are, and we're just making the best decisions we can, based on what we know now.  Having a car gives us the freedom to come and go as we please without being tied to someone else's schedule, something that's especially important when you want to see sites that aren't all within walking distance as they might be in a larger city.  Having a car also means we have to figure out how to get there, where the one way streets are, and how to avoid the 'no traffic zones' where we might get a ticket.  Having a car can also present parking challenges, but I think Ljubljana will be the only place we might fact that problem, and I'm counting on our landlord to help us out.  Having a cell phone will prove invaluable for times like that, and having a GPS unit should also be helpful, at least to get us close to where we want/need to be!

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Friday, January 17, 2014

Friends Helping Friends

If you've read through my blog you might know that we made the decision to move to Italy after traveling there to visit my son.  Italy caught us in her web - a fact we didn't even realize until several trips later! - and we sought out more information on where to stay and what to see.  Luckily for us, just about the time we began travelling to Italy, Pauline Kenny was setting up a new website called Slow Travel.  The message board allowed us to post our questions instead of emailing Pauline, and allowed other to weigh in with their advice and opinions.  Once we started thinking about moving to Italy we'd become friends, both virtually and literally, with quite a few people who shared and understood our love of Italy, and our need to be there.

Eventually Pauline sold the ST website and, in order to allow the new owners to establish their own identity, stopped participating.  We still 'saw' most of our (old? original?) friends on ST but without Pauline as our queen it just wasn't the same. 

Today I'm happy to announce that Pauline has established a NEW website called Slow Europe, and the new SLOW EUROPE FORUMS is now up and running!  Many of the original ST members are there, as well as new members with new ideas and experiences to share. 

If YOU are planning a trip to Europe, check out the SLOW EUROPE FORUMS to ask all those questions you can't find the answers to, questions about transportation, about where to stay, what to see and even when to visit.  Right now we're a small community, just like ST was all those years ago, but the wealth of knowledge is astounding, and will only continue to grow.  It's like having your own personal European travel consultant on-call 24/7!  See you there!


Wednesday, January 08, 2014

FIVE WEEKS IN ITALY AND SLOVENIA

Yep, it's my favorite time of year - time to plan our next vacation!  Surprisingly, I'm ahead of schedule by anyone's standards, even my own, due to a series of fortunate events that happened last summer while we were on our Germany/Belgium vacation.  We were lucky enough to get bumped not once but twice last summer, meaning that we each ended up with $1600 to put towards our airfare for summer 2014!  As an added bonus, we decided that since the airfare would cost us less than $100/each out-of-pocket, we'd to upgrade to business class for the flight TO Italy, thus allowing us the chance to actually get some sleep and not arrive as zombies.  And because those upgraded seats are limited, we booked our flight as soon as we could - as in September - for a flight nearly 10 months away!  And that meant we had to decide on dates: when we wanted to depart, how long we wanted to stay, where we wanted to go, etc.  So, in effect, we had our entire vacation planned by the time we booked our flights. 

We'll be flying into Rome and out of Venice for this trip, and we'll finally get to visit Slovenia - a country that's been on our radar for several years now.  We'll pick up our rental car in Chiusi to avoid the ridiculous airport surcharge - which I hope was not a mistake.  The cost of the train to Chiusi isn't prohibitive, but now that I think about having to take the train from the airport to Roma Termini, then connect to the train to Chiusi, dragging our luggage with us, well, let's just hope those lay-flat seats in business class really are as comfortable as everyone says and that we arrive well rested.  UPDATE:  After realizing that we're scheduled to land at 9:30 instead of our 'usual' 8:45, and checking train schedules for various options, I changed our pickup to Fiumicino (the Rome airport).  My timing must have been good since it's only going to cost us an additional $53 - probably equal to what it would have cost us to get to Chiusi by train, so I'm very relieved!

We'll spend 3 weeks in Umbria, staying in a friend's apartment in Piegaro, not far from the A1 and the Umbrian/Tuscan border.  We'll be a little further away from most of our friends, but the days will be long and having the confidence of knowing our way around will allow us to travel to places both old and new.  We plan to explore much more of the Tuscan countryside during this trip, as well as make a visit to San Venanzo, hopefully for a festa or two. 

After Umbria we're heading north.  (another update:  we're spending one night in Volterra before driving on to Modena/Verona.  Art really wants to visit Volterra, but it was about a three hour drive from Piegaro - and three hours back - so we just decided to spend the night there.)  We'll stop in Modena for lunch at Hosteria Giusti.  We ate here in the fall of 2010 and honestly it was the BEST meal we've EVER had, and we've longed for an excuse to eat there again.  After that we'll drive to Verona, where opera will be in the air.  We'll spend two nights in Verona, seeing an opera in the Roman Arena, and taking a day trip to a place yet to be decided.  We thought we might drive up along Lake Garda, but now think we might just take the train to somewhere closer, like Vicenza, giving Art a day off from his duties as driver. 

After Verona we'll head to Slovenia for ten days in 3 different locations, then we'll head back to Italy for 2 nights north of Venice.  We'll drop off our luggage at our airport hotel, turn in our rental car and spend our last afternoon and evening in Venice before flying home.

So far, in addition to our airfare, we've also booked a rental car through AutoEurope, and taken advantage of a special promotion they had for GPS.  Although AutoEurope will match any lower price, so far we seem to have gotten the best deal, which, for Italy, means it's still pricey.  We looked at several options, considered taking the train from Chiusi to Verona, considered doing multiple car rentals, but so far I think we've picked the best option for us - except for that nagging doubt I have about picking up the car in Chiusi instead of the Rome airport.  Our rental for 36 days, with a small car, will cost $1280, which includes a $40 charge for the GPS.   That comes out to about $35.50 per day, but it also includes a zero deductible, just because you never know.  I'm still checking with AutoEurope on a regular basis to make sure the price doesn't drop.  Maybe I got lucky this time and started at the low end, but last year I changed rates 3 or 4 times, saving over $300 in the process.  UPDATE:  As of mid-March I've changed our car rental three times (so far!) and, as mentioned above, I've also changed the pick-up location to the Rome airport.  The car rental is now at $906, plus a $20 charge for the GPS unit - which is now ours to keep.  I'm sure it's an older model, but it'll be fine for us.  So, at $926, that takes our daily car rental down to $25.72 per day. 

The opera in Verona is prepaid - no sense waiting since we knew our dates, and we got the seats we wanted, or at least the seats I hope we wanted, based on the advice of several friends.  Our two seats cost an astounding (at least for me) $265, but everyone says this is an amazing venue, and it's our big splurge for the trip.

Three of our accommodations have been prepaid.  We've booked two apartments in Slovenia: one in Ljubljana for three nights, and one near Lake Bled for four nights, both through Airbnb.com.  The costs are $268 and $295, respectively, and our last night hotel will cost $66.  (Grand total $629)

I know the costs of our other accommodations, but the prices are in euro, so the final costs will be determined by whatever the exchange rate is at that time.  I'm not sure what our apartment in Umbria will cost because our host hasn't yet determined what our multi-week discount will be, and we don't know if we'll pay in dollars or euro, but I think we'll end up spending about €1200 for our three week stay.  So for the remainder of our accommodations we're looking at about €1700, more or less.  At todays exchange rate that €1700 equals about  $2326, plus the prepaid amount of $629 totals, let's say, $2955 for 37 nights, which averages out to around $80 per night.  I was hoping for a lower per night average, but that's the best I could do, trying for the best locations with the most affordable price. After our three weeks in Umbria our stays are at 3 apartments, 2 simple bed and breakfasts, and 3 hotels.

With airfare, car rental, some hotels and the opera, we've already laid out $3000!  My vacation savings account has been filled, emptied, refilled and emptied again.  Of course we'll have expenses while we're there, for gas (which won't be cheap!), tolls, and food, of course, but probably not much else.  We're not even planning to visit Florence this time, just because it'll be hot and jam-packed with tourists.  Instead we'll concentrate on visiting friends, making day trips to locations both new and old, and just enjoying each day as it comes.  We've tried not to structure this vacation too much, knowing that expecting the unexpected is what makes travel so fun!

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Just Say No

Age never bothered me.  I had friends of all ages, and I honestly believed that age was just a number.  I believed that up until the time that number was 60.  SIXTY!  Turning 60 really freaked me out.  It made me realize that my time here is finite, and that in addition to limited time I now also had to factor health into my equation.  Although I'm in relatively good health (I'll probably always be trying to lose those last 15 pounds), I feel the stiffness and achiness creeping into my joints.  My knees ache if I walk too much, and I had to give up the idea of jogging several years ago.  On the other hand, if this is as bad as it gets, I'd be okay with that, but once you hit a certain age (which apparently for me is 60), the chances of 'medical events' seem to increase, and even worse, the healing process increases even more dramatically!

Yes, I know this is the pessimist in me talking, and that the perky, cheerful optimist would say that having yet another birthday beats the alternative.  To which the realist in me would respond "possibly".   Personally I'd rather die at the top of my game than live to be 100 while in a nursing home/with Alzheimer's/fighting through chemo/any number of other sad, scary scenarios.

And so, having just celebrated the 2nd anniversary of my 60th birthday (which at least qualifies me to be PAID for being old), I've decided to just stop celebrating birthdays.  Maybe there will come a time in my life where I revel in my advanced age, but not right now.  For now I'm just going to concentrate on staying healthy and fit, and trying to pack as much fun into each day as I can. Which is really a pretty optimistic outlook for someone like me.

Tuesday, October 08, 2013

Tracking Travel Costs

The title of this article might make you think I'll have some helpful advice about saving money when traveling, but really, this article is literally about TRACKING those costs - then, after the fact, trying to figure out how efficiently the money was spent.  At least that's how it works for me, more or less.  For our planned 27 day trip to Germany last July, here's how the costs broke down, and my comments about those costs.

Airfare.  This is always a biggie, and deciding WHEN to buy is challenging at best, nerve-wracking and time-consuming at worst.  After heeding the advice of a virtual 'friend' from the Slow Trav message board we bit the bullet and paid $1550 per person for our tickets, departing in early July and returning at the end of the month.  That was in February or March, and when I checked the prices just 2 weeks before our departure (yes, I know everyone says just buy your tickets and STOP looking at prices after that, but I just can't do that),  the price was actually $50 LESS than what we had paid!  I wasn't upset, it was just $50 and I'd had peace of mind for all those months - and I probably got better seats - at least that's what I tell myself.  Total cost for 2:  $3092

Rental Car.  Another big expense.  For this trip we'd have the car for 21 days, and would drive over 2,000 miles.  I signed up for AutoEurope's newsletter and every time I saw a new offer I would check the prices to see if I had the best deal.  I also checked their Canadian site because I often got better prices for zero deductible coverage, and in some instances zero deductible insurance has NOT been available on the U.S. site but WAS available on the Canadian site.  I called back several times and had the price reduced from $900+ to $750+ down to just under $700USD, AND we also got a free GPS unit.  There was no additional charge to drop off at a different location - in our case both the pick-up and drop-off locations were just outside of Frankfurt, so I imagine demand is pretty strong in that area.  Had we wanted to drop off in a more out-of-the-way location I'm not sure if a surcharge might have been added.  Total cost for our 21 day rental, economy class (whatever that means - we had 4 doors and a hatchback area), including a small daily road tax that's collected at the time of rental:  $716

Gas.  Art wishes he had asked for a diesel, but I'm not sure that's even possible.  We will make sure to ask next time.  This car used regular gas and our total costs for our 21 day/3400 km journey rental was:  $480

Lodging.  We paid for lodging for 21 nights.  The rest of the time we spend with family, or, on our last two nights, our airline paid for our very comfortable airport hotel.  Wherever possible and practical I booked an apartment rather than a hotel or B&B.  I made sure that a washing machine was available in certain apartments so we could catch up on laundry.  The fact that it wasn't super hot and sweaty weather helped a lot - had it been warmer, doing laundry would have become even more important.  We stayed 4 nights in an apartment, then 3 nights in a B&B, followed by 5 nights in an apartment.  After that, 2 nights in a B&B, 3 nights in an apartment followed by 3 nights in a different apartment, then our (intended) last night at a motel near the airport.  A total of  15 nights in 4 different apartments and 6 nights in B&Bs/motels.  Total cost for 21 nights:  $1700  This averages out to €81/per night.  Please note that this cost is per room/per night and NOT per person. 

Everything Else.  Yes, I could've been completely anal about this and kept track of admissions, and miscellaneous bus/lift tickets, and how much we spent in the grocery store and how much we spend in restaurants, but honestly, you're going to eat what you're going to eat.  If you have apartments like we did you can save a few bucks by taking sandwiches for your day trips, and bottles with cold water, and by fixing an occasional dinner at 'home'.  There were plenty of lunches we bought at restaurants or bars or even gelaterias, and there were times we bought dinner out as well - and times when we were still full from lunch and didn't even bother with dinner.  So, unless you splurge on really, really pricey restaurants or really expensive bottles of wine, try to figure out a realistic budget and let the chips fall where they may.  There were also museum admissions, and boat rides.  We bought a few post cards for the grandkids, and one poster for ourselves, but no other souvenirs.  Total cost for food, drink, admissions, public transportation/parking/tolls and souvenirs:  $2163

In the end, the TOTAL cost for our 29 day vacation, (including five FREE nights with relatives and TWO additional nights at the airlines' expense) was $8151.  You could also use this as a rough estimate for a trip of 3 weeks, which would exclude our free nights - airfare and car costs would remain the same, as would food and other costs for the most part.  For our trip the cost per day for two people averaged out to $281 for everything.  If you figured this as a three week trip the average cost would be $388 - proving that having friends or relatives living in cool places can really save you money!

One good thing about planning as far in advance as we do is that many items are paid in full well before we actually take the vacation:  the airfare was prepaid, as was the car rental.  The five night apartment rental in the Black Forest was prepaid.  I knew what the costs would be for our other rentals, and also made sure I knew what (if any) deposit was required.  Before we left I transferred an additional $1000 from our equity line into our checking account so it would be available for cash withdrawal if needed.  I also transferred a large chuck of cash from our vacation fund, and hoped that my guesstimates were close - and they were!  When we got home I discovered that I was able to transfer the $1000 back into our equity line - and that for only a few (tax deductible) cents we'd had extra cash available just in case.....

I now hope to use this same model to help with cost estimates for our next vacation:  Italy and Slovenia in 2014.  Maybe you'll find it helpful when planning for your next vacation too!  Good luck, and buon viaggio!

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