February 29, 2016

Europe 101: Tips, Tricks & Being Thrifty

It's no secret that travel from the United States to Europe can be expensive. Stupid expensive. While there are some things you can do to help mitigate some costs, others - such as airfare - can't be avoided. However, there are a few tips and tricks that can make your dollars go further when planning a trip to Europe!

While the idea of a grand European tour sounds exciting, hopping from one country to another will put a hard hit on your wallet. Transit and lodging costs are the biggest expenses for any trip, so if you can limit your transit, you can limit your bills. In other words, touring Rome, Milan, Florence, and Venice (Italy) is most likely* going to be a less expensive trip than visiting London, Paris, Berlin, and Athens. So when developing your itinerary, pick a region or country and concentrate on seeing all the highlights rather than trying to see all of Europe in ten days. Always tell yourself that there will be another trip or you'll drive yourself crazy thinking about all the other places you didn't see!

Due to our family connections, all roads lead to Germany for us. So we concentrate on one city or one region for our sightseeing portion of vacation before heading to Bavaria for our family time. 

*If your travel dates are flexible and you check airfare prices constantly, you may find good deals to make country hopping affordable!

If your budget is particularly tight, visit Europe in the off season to save money on airfare and lodging. Not fully convinced? Look at the price difference quoted on Kayak.com shown to the left for flights from Richmond, VA, to Paris, France, in April versus July.

Traveling in the shoulder month of April instead of the high season of July represents a $327 cost savings on airfare - no small change when it comes to flights! You may not be able to go swimming in the Aegean in April and may still need to bundle up when touring castles in northern Europe, but traveling in the off season will also afford one other plus: smaller crowds at the popular sites.

When we visited Neuschwanstein Castle in July 2010, it was swarming with tourists compared to my father-in-law's October 2015 visit.

While it may be convenient to fly out of the closest airport to home, consider driving further for better prices. We live within an hour of the Richmond International Airport in central Virginia, but we almost always drive the two hours north to Dulles International Airport outside Washington D.C. for our flights. Using the same travel dates as above, flights out of Dulles are $882 in April and $955 in July. That's a sizable difference! That cost savings is well worth the extra drive, and even the airport parking fees don't eat up that difference. Additionally, consider what airport you'll be arriving at. For example, on our visits to Bavaria, we compare the prices for landing in Munich versus Frankfurt to determine the better deal.

Many people are familiar with London's Heathrow Airport, but did you know there are a total of 5 airports in London? Many of Europe's discount airlines (Ryanair, Easyjet, etc) operate out of these lesser known hubs.

Don't be afraid to shop around on third party websites for airfares and lodging. I regularly use Kayak, Skyscanner, Orbitz, and Priceline in addition to checking the individual websites of specific airlines. For lodging, consider services such as Airbnb, which not only may save you money but provide a more intimate experience as opposed to staying at a hotel. But when using hotels, oftentimes you can receive a better rate by reaching out directly to the hotel, thereby saving the hotel from the fees owed to the third party booking site. And finally, be sure to clear the cookies from your internet browser when shopping around. When sites see that you're consistently looking for information on specific travel dates or locations, they may budge their prices higher, figuring that you're already sold on the site/location and would be willing (or forced) to pay the higher price.

Unless you're planning to spend a week lounging on the French Riviera as opposed to hardcore sightseeing, keep in mind that you won't spend much time in your hotel room beyond sleeping and bathing. As such, there's no need to stay in a four or five star hotel (unless you're loaded, in which case it's doubtful you're reading a blog about being a thrifty gypsy!). Read reviews or take personal recommendations for a clean but cheap hotel in a safe location of the city you're visiting. Avoid the main drag and very popular tourist areas as hotels will be at a premium. Instead find a location a little more off the beaten track with good connections to metro stops or a doable walk from the sites you're interested in seeing.

For a few more specifics on how I find the "perfect" hotel for us, read more here.

While you may think it's counterproductive to your budget to take a longer trip, consider this: is it worth spending nearly a thousand dollars per ticket (or more) for just a week long trip? At least two full days will be spent in transit, leaving only five at your destination(s). In my opinion that doesn't justify the cost of getting yourself there into the first place. When it comes to Europe, I recommend a minimum of 10 days unless you're visiting the United Kingdom or if you've snagged an incredibly good deal on airfare.

With these tips in mind, planning a budget-friendly trip to Europe is more than possible! Stay tuned for a follow-up post on how to save money once your feet are on the ground in Europe!

Do you have any other tips or tricks you use when planning an European vacation?


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February 27, 2016

"I Actually Louvred It!" ~ What Up, Swags?!

Whether you've had it on your bucket list since high school or you only recognize it due to its iconic glass pyramid, the Louvre is one of Paris' must see attractions. Sadly, our weekend visit to Paris last spring did not afford us enough time to visit the Louvre beyond a quick walk-through of the courtyard. 

Thankfully, I can still share some highlights of this world class museum through the eyes of Christy Swagerty, fellow blogger, American expat, and avid Francophile, blogging at What Up, Swags?! Up until her recent move to Germany's state of Bavaria, Christy lived and worked in the general metro area of Paris for four years, and she recently authored the ebook "Four Years in Paris" detailing her life in the city of light. Her blog is an array of humorous anecdotes, witty escapades, and earthy adventures as an expat in Europe, and she has graciously permitted me to re-blog her account of her first time at the Louvre!


This day was a long time coming.

Spiral stairs inside the pyramid 
I started visiting Paris in February 2011, then moved to the lovely suburbs later that year in August. I have walked by and around the museum monolith countless times - but never inside - until yesterday.

The Louvre was understandably intimidating, and I did not want to be negatively overwhelmed with walking, crowds, and more than enough art I may not appreciate. But in regularly putting off my date with one of the largest museums in the world, anticipation replaced the initial dread I had experienced. It slowly changed from a tourist chore to an absorption of culture (it helped that I changed from tourist to expat, also). I'm so glad I waited until I was ready.

Stairs inside the Sully (oldest) wing
First misconception: the Louvre is a museum.
Truth: the Louvre is a collection of CASTLES. I fell in love within seconds of grasping this new reality.

Second misconception: it's impossible to find anything.
Truth: the maps and room markings are made for dummies; I never got lost, and I found everything I wanted to easily.

Third misconception: the Richelieu wing has nothing interesting.
Truth: Only if you despise the history of humanity.

Fourth misconception: it takes a full day at insane speeds to see what you want to see.
Truth: Two hours, leisurely pace.

Some Art:
Venus de Milo (Greece, ca. 100 B.C.)
In a word: peaceful.

Mona Lisa (Leonardo Da Vinci, 1500s)
Everyone always complains about how "small" the painting is - it really isn't as tiny as I thought it was going to be. It's just a normal painting, about life-size. It maybe appears smaller because it has its own entire wall space?

The Coronation of Napoleon (Jacques-Louis David, 1800s)
This is the zoomed in version so you can see what's at the center of the action. The glowing woman on the left background is actually Napoleon's mom, and he had David paint her there even though she wasn't at the ceremony. In the middle is Napoleon crowning his wife, Josephine, the empress. And behind him in the red cap is the angry pope because Napoleon had just previously taken the crown from him and placed it on himself. I don't think Napoleon told David to paint the pope mad, so maybe it was his way of retaining some reality in the piece.

Madame Juliet Récamier (Jacques-Louis David, 1800s)
In a word: elegant.

Winged Victory of Samothrace (Greece, ca. 190 B.C.)
This statue is so beautifully intense! It apparently used to stand on a mountaintop, celebrating a war victory at sea. It is huge, dramatic, and owns a great top-of-the-staircase location in the museum.

(Liberty Leading the People by Eugène Delacroix was unfortunately out on loan to another museum.)

Some Awesome History:
Apollo Gallery

"The Louvre Museum, founded September 16, 1792, by decree of the Legislative Assembly, was opened August 10, 1793, in execution of a decree rendered by the National Convention."

The Apollo Gallery is lined with ornate portraits of sculptures, architects, writers, and other French art contributors.

Also in the gallery were some of the crown jewels from the French royal family, "dishes" (more like the crown jewels than something from Ikea), and abalone shell goblets.

The well-traveled wings of the museum are Sully (east, perpendicular to the river) and Denon (south, next to the river). But the Richelieu wing had two things I really wanted to explore, the first being Napoleon's apartments.

An excellent decision.

The rooms were loaded with every royal fancy, and the only thing missing was an elaborate library. Every inch of the place was decorated; ceilings, walls, doors, windows, corners, floors, furniture, handles, lights, you name it! It still stands to wonder why on earth Louis XIV "needed" to remodel Versailles.

Hammurabi's Code (Babylon, ca. 1760 B.C.)
This was the other grand and fabulous item in the Richelieu wing. I always remember something about this set of laws from the few rounds of world history I took throughout school because every book started with the "Cradle of Civilization," Mesopotamia...and Hammurabi's Code.

The best part is that I had no idea this was in the Louvre, let alone existing, and I nearly dropped my museum map when I read it had been here all along. Seeing this ancient form of government and humanity precisely drawn into rock from thousands of years ago? This is not an exhibit that can be skipped over! I spent more than a few moments here, and this was far and away my favorite "piece of art."

The font-size 6 cuneiform inscribed stone
Some Unexpected Highlights:
The Line I Didn't Stand In
Thanks again to Rick Steves, I entered instead through the underground mall, waltzing right through security and into the rooms. The entrance these people are waiting for is on the opposite side of the pyramid, and another hour or two away.

How tourists spend Free Museum Days
The Ceilings

Someday I want to return to the Louvre and just look up the entire time. These ceilings are just the ones that came out best with my iPod camera - there were too many to count. The shapes, textures, materials, colors, and designs all combined for some epic 3-D room toppers.

The Louvre was filled with surprises, and almost all of them (the only exception was the missing Delacroix masterpiece) were perfect!

As if I didn't have enough to smile about already, this guy TOTALLY made my day. This is definitely the most entertaining thing I've ever seen in any museum anywhere.

The Great Museum Detective

In a word: MAGNIFIQUE!

Final misconception: I would hate the Louvre.
Truth: I can't wait to go back!


Want more Swags? Check her out at the links below!

February 23, 2016

Impressions of Paris

Oh, Paris...

Nine months have elapsed since our spring weekend trip to your pretty boulevards and crowded metro stations, and I'm long overdue to share a few thoughts about our time wandering your arrondissements. There's so much I have to say about you, but a busy life and then senseless tragedies on your streets have prevented me from posting much beyond a few photo essays or mentioning you in passing.

Paris, you were... exactly what I expected and exactly what I didn't expect. I was overwhelmed by the grandeur of Notre Dame, giddy to pinch the Louvre's pyramid between my fingers, and awed by the Arc de Triomphe and the Champs Elysee spilling down from it. Your buildings were bright even in the gloomy weather, and the green trees lining your streets lent an air of suburbia rather than the huge metropolis you are. The sun peeking through the clouds long enough to smile upon the cafe patrons on Montmartre and the blue skies framing Eiffel's Tower are mental postcards I'll carry for the rest of my life.

But I never caught the joie de vivre of which so many gush about finding on your streets or while walking along the Seine. I was nervous in your metro stations, harassed and chased by the street sellers at the Sacre Coeur, and experienced the stereotypical Parisian attitude from all but one Parisian restaurateur (who seemed to have been only a recent settler in the city). Perhaps it's not entirely your fault. After all, we were only there for a weekend, and I was struggling with the exhaustion and nausea of first trimester pregnancy. And beyond a few hours of breaking clouds, the weather left much to be desired, too.

So perhaps the second or third time will be the charm for me. I will definitely return someday to revisit your world-class sites, see those which I missed, and to try to catch some of that joie de vivre for myself, perhaps over a fine Parisian wine or while giving my taste buds an adventure of escargot, foie gras, or steak tartare. I'll return not naive to your problems, but cognizant and open-minded to see past them and hopefully improve upon my last experience.

Until then, I remain respectfully yours, etc.


Have you ever had a return visit that improved upon your first impressions?

Stay tuned later this week for more Paris insights with a guest post from Christy of What Up, Swags?! and co-host of Travel Tuesday!

Linking up with Bonnie, Christy, Diana & Anna!

February 21, 2016

A Love Affair With Glasgow ~ Adventitious Violet

Hello, dear Thrifty Gypsy’s Travels readers! My name is Camila, and I blog over at Adventitious Violet about my travels and my life as an expat in Scotland. It’s my pleasure to be guest posting for Katrina today! Here’s a little piece from Scotland!

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I fall in love regularly with places I visit - even with places I only see in photos! I just love travelling and there is nowhere that I have visited that didn't make me happy or impress me in some way. I definitely never thought Glasgow was going to be one of those places. If you would have told me 2 years ago, much less 6 months ago, that I would go to Glasgow and love it, I would have laughed - actually pretty sure that has happened in the past. Glasgow gets a bad reputation for being the blue collar, more rough part of Scotland, it's industrial and less sophisticated than Edinburgh. And I believed those things. I passed through Glasgow only once and wasn't much impressed, so I stayed with that impression. But we now live about 30 minutes from Scotland's largest city, so the other weekend, the Brit and I headed there for the day. Almost immediately I was shocked by how right it felt to be there. It felt like I belonged super quickly - like it was familiar. And I quickly realised why - it made me think about Montreal.

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We did nothing special, we mainly walked around and enjoyed the sights. The temperature was very changing - something to expect in the UK but even more so on the west coast of Scotland. It was almost snowing around noon when we got there and then around 2h later the sun was shining, before a shower surprised us one more time.
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After walking a little bit in the centre, near Buchanan street and George Square, where the train had left us, we decided to get on the Glasgow subway! The hot and weird smell of the underground reminded me of home a little haha and we had the best laugh when we saw the 'clockwork orange' arrive to the platform.

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It has to be the world's smallest subway! I mean look at how small it is! That man standing next to it is NOT a giant - the Brit could barely fit in! We had a great laugh coming out as well when we saw that the system for knowing if it was okay to close the door was the driver popping his head out and then popping back in to drive away - like a marmot! Absolutely amazing! I decided the thing I wanted to see most was the University of Glasgow - hello you can tell I'm obsessed with higher institutions - and so we stopped at Kelvinbridge and walked down toward the campus.

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Just walking down to campus - I could almost see myself living there in that little neighbourhood. They had small shops with fruit/vegetables stalls outside, there was an old bookshop, the buildings were a mix of modern and old. Then we got to campus and it was amazing! It's up there with St Andrews in my book - the main building is absolutely beautiful and it has an amazing view since it's on top of that hill!
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Afterwards, we decided to pop down to the Kelvingrove Art Gallery & Museum. My boss is from Glasgow and she mentioned it was worth the visit, so we walked down the hill to make it just on time to avoid being drenched again by the sudden rain.
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We weren't able to stay that long since it was about to close (the awkward moment when you realise you spent more time walking around a uni campus than visiting the art gallery #nerds), but we will definitely be going back to explore more of it! We wanted to make it to the Riverside Museum - the museum of transport and travel (how fitting) - but again it was too late to visit more on that day. We ended up taking the subway back into town and then walking to get a look at the Glasgow cathedral. We had also heard that the necropolis of the city was a must and so hoped to catch a glimpse before it was closed down for the night.
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Sadly by the time that we made it all the way back there - it's a good 20-25 minute walk from the nearest subway station - it had shut so we could only take a few photos from outside the gates. Again - it will be worth another visit to see more I think! Finally, we came back into town and sat down at a Japanese restaurant to relax and enjoy some sushi. It really wasn't the best sushi we had, so we decided to leave the sushi experience for our visits to Edinburgh instead. But the day in Glasgow couldn't be ruined by a couple sushi pieces falling apart! We took the subway back toward the train station and then walked around George Square one last time before taking the train home. All in all, an excellent day and a clear win for Glasgow!
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Did you ever go to a place you had previously judged to realise how wrong you'd been all that time?xx

Want to read more about Camila's adventures as an expat in Scotland and her other travels? Check out her blog and her social media accounts listed below!