March 25, 2014

Top Five Before 35 - International

I love lists.  In fact I love them almost as much as traveling, so it shouldn't be surprising that I've got at least half a dozen travel wish-lists.  When I'm not on vacation (or even when I am!), I'm envisioning the next destination and adding places to my list of where to go, what to do and see.  Although my body may be confined to my office desk, my mind may be thousands of miles away at one of my wish-list destinations - touring Roman ruins, or sipping a Mai-tai in Polynesia, or watching cloggers in Wales. 

Now that's not to say that I've accomplished even half the lists I've started!  My very first travel list was my "Top Five Before 25" destination list, composed when I was fifteen.  Unfortunately, I only went to one place on that list before I turned 25, and that was our honeymoon trip to Germany in 2010.  However, I've made some progress, and by my 27th birthday this August, I will have visited three more places on the list: Italy (July 2014), London (February 2014), and Prague (August 2012).  Wish-lists don't have to be realistic - they're just fun to make and give you a general goal!

Up until recently, Mr. Gypsy and I have only been able to afford one international trip every other year with several regional or domestic trips each year, but that doesn't stop me from adding more destinations to my list.  My current wish-list is quite extensive (pretty much the whole world is on it!), but I've been narrowing it down for my "Top Five Before 35" lists - an international version and a domestic one.  I'll write about my domestic list in a later blog post.  For now, here is my wish-list for international destinations!

"Top Five Before 35 - International"

1.  Sweden:  I am of Swedish descent on my father's side, and I have always identified strongly with my Swedish heritage.  I grew up in southeastern Massachusetts, an area that at one time was populated by many Scandinavian immigrants and to this day has many Swedish heritage gift shops (Dala horse, anyone?).  I love celebrating traditional Swedish holidays like St. Lucia's Day or Waffle Day (aka, Our Lady's Day), and I was tickled pink to discover that my wedding day was the same day as Victoria, the Crown Princess of Sweden.  From the beautiful coastal scenery to the cities, the woodlands to the mountains, I have a plethora of reasons why I would love to visit Sweden.

Jerusalem - Picture from

2.  Israel:  The Promised Land.  History.  Culture.  Where do I start?  As both a Christian and a history buff, there are so many reasons for me to put Israel high on my wish-list.  I want to see the Temple Mount, walk in the Gardens of Gethsemane, reflect at Golgotha, and rejoice at the empty Garden Tomb.  I want to float in the Dead Sea, experience the vibrancy of Tel Aviv, and marvel at the fact that I am standing in the same places where so much history took place!

3.  The United Kingdom & Ireland:  What can I say - the United Kingdom is the mecca for English majors (such as I was!).  My weekend trip to London this past February merely whet my appetite to see and experience more of what the UK has to offer.  From the lochs and highlands of Scotland, to the mountains of Wales, to the castles of England, and the green allure of Ireland, I want to see it all. 

4.  Greece:  Whenever I think of Greece, I envision white-washed houses perched on a cliff overlooking an azure sea.  How stunning.  Again, the history factor draws me to Greece; I studied classics in college as a minor, and I'd love to see Grecian ruins in person rather than just in my history books.  The Parthenon.  The Temples at Delphi.  Myrtos Beach.  There is something just divinely exotic about Greece.  Besides, Mr. Gypsy really wants to stand in Sparta and proclaim: THIS IS SPARTA!!! 

Picture from Adventures by Disney.

5.  New Zealand:  Adventure is the name of the game for New Zealand's placement on my wish-list!  (And visiting the film sites for The Lord of the Rings may also be a contributing factor.)  New Zealand has such a wide variety of natural beauty, and invariably any "most beautiful places in the world" list features at least one place from New Zealand.  My ideal trip to New Zealand would include back-packing, camping, kayaking, boating, and maybe even a horse-back tour (if I can convince Mr. Gypsy!).  Unfortunately, New Zealand is one of the most expensive places to reach from the east coast of the U.S., but a girl can dream, can't she?!

Bonus Destination:  Caribbean
Because... beach!

"Some beach....somewhere."

Now it's your turn!  If you were to make a "Top 5" list for international sites, what places would be on it?

Linking up with Van for #TravelTuesday!

Updated July 29, 2014

March 24, 2014

Flying Isn't Just for the Birds

Aerial view of western Egypt
Taken August 2007 en route from Amsterdam to Uganda
(c) Thrifty Gypsy

Airfare.  It's the one aspect of traveling that can wreak havoc on any planner's budget, particularly transatlantic or transpacific flights.  But instead of dreading the search and purchase of a plane ticket, turn it into a competition with yourself to find the best price possible.  The time you spend researching will be well-worth the money you save on the ticket.

When To Buy

There are a lot of articles floating around the web regarding the best time to buy your plane ticket.  Even BuzzFeed has a fun infographic about the best time to book your vacation based on what region you'll be visiting.  According to a study by CheapAir released in March 2014 which was then reported by everyone from the Huffington Post, FOX News, and the Daily Mail, 54 is the "magic number" of days before your departure for when you should book your flight.  That is, on average, booking your flight exactly 54 days before take-off resulted in the cheapest flight.  While this may be true in general, actual results may hinge on the time of year you're traveling and how popular your destination happens to be.  In my opinion, the sooner you book, the better.  It's better to have your tickets bought and confirmed than to wait, especially if you're going to a popular destination.  My personal experience has been that prices only go up the closer you get to departure, not down, and unless you have the luxury of being able to shell out money for a ticket no matter what the price, then it's better to buy it as soon as you have the money. 

How to Find the Best Deals

Just like with hotel hunting, I use a number of different websites to compare prices and flight times, and I also check the airline's website against the discount sites to ensure that I'm really getting the best deal.  Orbitz is my go-to for all my travel plans, although I don't always end up booking through them.  Currently I'm looking to travel to Boston from Richmond for a family member's wedding the first weekend in May, but with my upcoming trip to Europe this summer (and various mechanical problems on all my vehicles right now!), saving money is my top priority.

A quick search on Orbitz shows the cheapest round-trip flight priced at $160, but a closer observation reveals the departure times to be 6:30 on Friday and 8:45 on Sunday both on JetBlue.  This is problematic for me as I need to work a full day before flying out and getting to the airport by 8:45 on the day after an evening wedding sounds painful!  After changing the parameters of the search, I'm now looking at a 18:50 departure on Friday, but the price has jumped to $174 per ticket.*  Now before I settle for paying that price, here's where I roll up my sleeves and see if I can find a better deal on another website.

So I turn to my next favorite flight deal website: SkyScannerSkyScanner is similar to sites like Kayak in that they search all airline's websites and other search sites to compile the best possible options for your search parameters.  SkyScanner also offers an app for all phone operating systems - iPhone, Android, Blackberry, and yes, even Windows.  (This may be why I'm such a fan of SkyScanner as there aren't nearly as many app options for Windows phones!)  Once I enter my flight dates and times, my extra effort to shop more than one website pays off: $160 for the 18:50 flight out on Friday on JetBlue and a 20:18 touchdown in Richmond on that Sunday with DeltaSold!!!

You cannot book directly on SkyScanner, so once I select my flight plan, I am directed to another website to complete the purchase (in this case, it was, but you could be directed to any number of third-party booking sites).  As with any purchase, triple-check the details to make sure you're purchasing exactly what you want, and make sure you understand any fine print (such as additional fees for carry-on or checked luggage, etc).  Once you're fully satisfied, buy with confidence! 

Discounts for Students

For those of you who are currently full-time or even part-time university students, you should also use StudentUniverse as a reference for cheap flights.  StudentUniverse showcases deals offered exclusively to students; they even require that you upload a photocopy of your student identification card and one other proof of current enrollment such as a class schedule from your university.  Their prices generally tend to be only a few bucks cheaper than other sites, but they proved to be a pot of gold when I bought a last-minute ticket to London.  All other sites were showing $1600 for a next-day departure from Dulles International Airport to Heathrow; however, I bought it for $880 on StudentUniverse.  Now that is what I call being thrifty and knowing where to shop!

Cheap Transatlantic Flights

Last week I learned that Norwegian Air Shuttle is joining the market for cheap transatlantic flights, offering service to various European hubs and destinations from JFK in New York City, Ft Lauderdale, Florida, and Los Angeles and Oakland-San Francisco in California.  Their "Long Haul" routes boasts a price of $1066.50 for a New York to London flight in the middle of high-season tourism for July 2014.  Flights listed on Orbitz, Expedia, and Priceline for the same dates of travel were listed at $1166 and higher.  Their prices for the shoulder months of tourist season offered even higher savings with one-way November flights to London priced at only $244!  What a steal!

These prices make me want to leave right now!!!

Now keep in mind that these long-haul flights come with a few caveats - you have to pay additional money for in-flight meals and entertainment; there may be extra fees for checked luggage, and unless you're paying with a debit card, there may be a credit card processing fee.  However, because I rarely even eat half of the in-flight meals, I'd rather save money on the ticket and bring my own snacks and entertainment!  I haven't yet used Norwegian Air Shuttle, but will definitely keep them on my radar for future bookings.

Frequent Flyer Programs

Don't pass up the opportunity to make your miles count!  Even if you use a different airline on each trip, sign up for their frequent flyer miles programs.  It's usually free to do, and you never know - one day you may rack up enough miles on one airline to get yourself a free or discounted ticket!

~ Just a Thrifty Gypsy

*As Americans, we are spoiled by relying on a twelve hour clock representation of time.  However, most of the world uses the 24 hour clock (a.k.a. "military time" as we Americans say), which eliminates any confusion should the author forget to specify whether it's "a.m." or "p.m."  When referring to transportation, I will almost always use the 24 hour clock.  To figure out the corresponding 12 hour clock time, simply subtract 12 from any number higher than 12 (e.g., 16:30 is 4:30 pm).

Now if only there were an easy way to convert from the English to metric system or Fahrenheit to Centigrade!

March 21, 2014

Destination: Uganda

The Nile, Murchison Falls National Park, Amuru, Uganda
View from the top; August 2007
(c) Thrifty Gypsy

For those of you with an itch to experience the best of the African continent, I would strongly encourage you to visit Uganda, a small country in east central Africa.  Although landlocked, Uganda offers many geographical variations, from jungles to savannahs, marshlands to mountains, rural towns to hilly cities, affirming the reputation of Uganda as the "Pearl of Africa."  But as undeniably beautiful as Uganda's landscape is, I feel that the real attraction is their people; I have never felt more welcome, more at home in another culture, than what I experienced in Uganda.

Sunset over Lake Victoria, Kampala
(c) Thrifty Gypsy
I visited Uganda in August 2007 while on a twelve day mission trip with Grace Community Baptist Church.  It was my very first international trip, and even the nearly twenty hour plane ride couldn't dampen my spirits!  While our primary purpose in Uganda was to host True Love Waits camps for youths and young adults in the capital city of Kampala and to minister with other programs through Kampala Baptist Church, we were also afforded the opportunity to do some sight-seeing in the general area and take an overnight trip north to Murchison Falls National Park to see where the Nile pushes through a 23-foot wide gap to plummet 141 feet below.  It is a powerful, exhilarating sight!  We viewed the falls both from the top which is accessible by automobile and from the bottom on board a riverboat.  Our experience was all the more enhanced with the occasional bump from a submerged hippo and with sightings of crocodiles sunning themselves along the waterfront.  There was no better way to spend my twentieth birthday!
Other memorable sights in Uganda were the markets, both open-air and indoors; exploring Garden City mall; devouring an absolutely delicious tilapia dinner on Lake Victoria; watching Ugandans weave in and out of traffic on their boda-bodas; savoring a delicious community-cooked meal of goat meat, cabbage, beans and yams; laughing unsympathetically as my brother had a mild allergic reaction to jack-fruit; having an authentic "African experience" in a fly-infested dormitory on Lake Victoria; and being in absolute awe at the physics-defying loads people would carry on their bicycles!  In future posts I hope to go more in-depth with individual attractions we visited and experienced.

True Love Waits
(c) Thrifty Gypsy
 But to get back to the heart of Uganda -- its people -- for a minute, again I would attest that they are the most friendly, generous, and hospitable people on this planet.  There is something infectiously joyful about Ugandans, manifesting itself in song, smiles, and the simple pleasures of life - a tasty meal, the camaraderie of good friends, and the love of family.  While there are still many financial and economic challenges to be faced in Uganda, I believe their people will continue to improve themselves so long as they keep their motto - "For God and my Country" - close to their hearts.

~ Just a Thrifty Gypsy

P.S.  Shout out to Ray, Isaac, Prosper, Chris, Carol, Pastor Andrew, Faith, and all the others I met while over there!  We shall meet again.

View of one of Kampala's Seven Hills
Taken from Tank Hill, August 2007
(c) Thrifty Gypsy

Lake Victoria
(c) Thrifty Gypsy

Elephants on parade!  Bugungu Wildlife Reserve
(c) Thrifty Gypsy
"Pumbaa" looking for a snack amongst unsuspecting campers
(c) Thrifty Gypsy

(c) Thrifty Gypsy

Terrace at the Emmaus Guest House
(c) Thrifty Gypsy

Kampala Marketplace
(c) Thrifty Gypsy

March 20, 2014

Destination: Denver, CO

Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge, Commerce City, CO - November 2013
(c) Thrifty Gypsy

Ah, Denver.  The Mile High City.  For an East Coast dweller like myself, there's just something about the West that beckons you to visit and dares you not to fall in love.  Last November I had the opportunity to visit a friend in Denver for a weekend, which provided a wonderful opportunity to get a basic orientation to the general metro area and the sights and activities which set Denver apart.

I arrived in Denver International at noon on a Friday and was picked up by an Advantage Rent A Car bus.  The car rental process was smooth, relatively inexpensive, and very swift.  I'd made a reservation through Orbitz for the cheapest option available for the weekend and was presented with a 2012 Chevy Malibu.  Smooth ride.  

From the airport I proceeded to my first stop: Rocky Mountain Arsenal Wildlife Refuge just east of Denver itself in Commerce City.  The refuge is a unique oasis of wildlife, boasting over 15,000 acres of prairie, wetland, and forest and providing a home to over 330 species of animals, including bison!  You can spend a very pleasant hour or two driving slowly throughout the preserve, stopping occasionally to watch the prairie dogs playing or the bison stoically munching away on the prairie grass.

Why, hello there, Mr. Bison!
(c) Thrifty Gypsy

Suburban Oasis
(c) Thrifty Gypsy

Prairie Dog Kisses
(c) Thrifty Gypsy

"Home, home on the range, where the deer and the antelope play..."
(c) Thrifty Gypsy

It was so peaceful.
(c) Thrifty Gypsy

Can I live here?!
(c) Thrifty Gypsy

Harsh beauty.
(c) Thrifty Gypsy

Mule deer
(c) Thrifty Gypsy

After getting my fill of the prairie wind, tumbleweed, and mule deer, I proceeded to Westminster, CO., to my friend's place for the evening.

On Saturday we walked through various parks in the area before heading out to a tour of the Coors Brewing Company in Golden, CO.  This place is a mecca for any beer connoisseur - even if you're not a fan of the particular beer brand itself!  The tour itself is free, but be prepared for long lines on weekends and beautiful days.  Parking is offsite, and Coors will bus you in to their actual brewery location just a few blocks away, giving you a brief history of the company's founding by German immigrant Adolph Coors in 1873.

The copper vats were pretty cool.  And the smell?
It was... interesting.

(c) Thrifty Gypsy

Once on-site, you're stopped to pose for a cheesy, cardboard-Coors hat photo, handed an audio guide, and released into the self-guided brewery tour.  I'm no beer snob, so I tended to flit rather quickly through the various stages of the tour until I reached the ultimate goal: the free beer tasting at the end!

That's right.  At the end of the tour, you're allowed three FREE 8 oz tastings of several beers offered on tap.  Be forewarned - three beers may not be enough!

If your thirst isn't quenched, you can walk into "downtown" Golden, Colorado, where there are many different restaurants and bars along the main roadway.  We chose to eat at the Golden Hotel, which is situated beside Clear Creek.  Our waitress was personable, friendly, but not overly intrusive - she provided excellent service. The meal was also great, and I just loved the ambiance of the restaurant and the beautiful decor of the hotel lobby. I wish I could come back to visit in the summer and eat outside; it appeared as if they had outdoor seating for the warmer months. A wedding was in progress in another part of the hotel, and it was a beautiful location for a reception.

The rest of my time in Denver was spent socializing with my good friend, whom I hadn't seen in over a year.  The weekend merely whet my appetite for Denver and Colorado in general, and I hope to return to spend more time in the outdoors, preferably in the summer!

~ Just a Thrifty Gypsy

I'll be back, Colorado.
(c) Thrifty Gypsy


Rough Costs:
$367   Plane Ticket, Richmond to Denver (booked only 2 weeks prior, so not the best price)
$60     Rental Car for three days
$25     Food for the weekend

March 19, 2014


Every savvy trip planner should have Groupon added as a favorite in their internet browser.  If you haven't already, you must sign up so you can receive their deals in your e-mail inbox! 

Screenshot of 03/19/14 deal to Ireland.
Sometimes instead of creating and planning your own trip, you might want to consider a package deal that includes airfare, lodging, some (or all) meals, and entertainment -- but do so without it being grossly expensive.  Groupon's Getaway deals cover all parts of the globe at pretty affordable prices!  Did St. Paddy's day put you in the mood to visit Ireland?  Check out their $999 deal to stay in Ireland for eight days!  But hurry fast, because this deal is only offered through the end of the day.  Or maybe you're in the mood for a warmer clime?  A four night stay for two in the Dominican Republic at an all-inclusive resort could be managed at deeply discounted prices if booked through Groupon.

As with any purchase, be sure to read the fine print and understand exactly what you're purchasing.  There may be restrictions as to what times of the year you may visit or an expiration date on the deal itself.

Happy traveling!

~ Just a Thrifty Gypsy

March 17, 2014

Travel Fever & St. Patrick's Day

March comes in like a lion here in Virginia; one day you'll be sunning yourself on the back deck, and the next you're bundled up like an Eskimo with snow and sleet stinging your face. 
(c) Jossie Blount
It's a lessen in patience as you're waiting for the world to melt and wake up from its winter beauty rest!  This year has been no different, and thanks to temperatures reaching a high of 73° on Saturday, many of us have been struck down with that annual affliction known as spring fever.  But a less commonly known ailment, but no less capable of making you itch to flee your desk for the appeal of the outdoors, is travel fever

Today was St. Patrick's Day, and social media has exploded with pictures from "the old country," leprechauns, and bonnie lasses and lads.  Ireland is on my top five list of countries that I want to see in the next five years, and today did not help soothe my impatience to get there!

What places are on your Top Five Destinations to see in the next five years?

~ Just a Thrifty Gypsy

March 14, 2014

Destination: Atlantic City, NJ

Revel - Atlantic City, NJ (April 2013)
©Thrifty Gypsy

Revel - Atlantic City, NJ (April 2013)
©Thrifty Gypsy

Caesar's- Atlantic City, NJ (April 2013)
©Thrifty Gypsy
      2 Nights
      3 Days
+   4 Cars         
      9 Girls     =     A Weekend to Remember                    


-Drove from Richmond, VA, to Revel Resort in Atlantic City, NJ (stopping to pick up a friend in D.C. along the way!).  
-Late dinner and drinks at The Village Whiskey.

-Enjoyed an overpriced (what place in AC isn't overpriced?!) breakfast at The Alcove.  Lounged at the heated indoor/outdoor pool then explored the boardwalk (palm readers, anyone?) and played the penny slots at various casinos on the boardwalk.
-Dinner at Casa di Napoli at The Showboat.  (Excellent!)
-Dancing, drinks, and VIP service at Ivan Kane's.

-Go home.  (Sad face)


Base Costs
$1176 for two nights at Revel
$70.50 (approx.) for gasoline per vehicle
$30 tolls
$10 parking for the whole weekend
Total: $182/person (based on 8 paying attendees and 2 people per vehicle)

Additional costs:
Food: $50
Drinks: varied ("free" if playing the slots)
Cover charge: $20
Other: $50

Basically, I paid $300 to cover transportation, lodging, meals, entertainment, souvenirs, and unforgettable memories with eight classy ladies for my best friend's bachelorette weekend.  In my opinion, it was money well spent, although admittedly not the "thriftiest" trip this gypsy has ever planned!

But even us penny-pinchers need to live the high life every now and then!

~ Just a Thrifty Gypsy

Creating Travel Magic

So you've got a great idea for a weekend getaway just a few hours drive away... your bags are half-packed, you can't wait to get there, but you haven't worked out any of the logistics yet.  Where does one start?!

Before you start panicking, take a deep breath, pour yourself a glass of wine and use the tips below to create some travel magic:

 1.  Establish a base-line budget.  How much do you have available for your weekend trip?  Instead of going on the first weekend in May, should you wait a few more weeks to have a little bit more cash on hand?  Once you know how much you can comfortably spend, start opening those internet browser tabs!

This photo of Candlewood Suites Harrisonburg (VA)
is courtesy of TripAdvisor. Photo taken by SvenskaSvea1987
in February 2014.
2.  Book your hotel.  Other than airfare, lodging will most likely be your biggest expense whether it's a domestic or international trip.  Finding the perfect balance between the cost of a hotel and its quality is truly an art form.  Typically, I use Orbitz to scope out the options for my destination and then compile a "Top Five" list of lodging preferences, or simply search for hotels on Google Maps for that location.  Depending on where you're going, a hotel, motel, campground, hostel, or even a bed and breakfast may be your most cost effective choice of accommodations.  Take your Top Five list and check out the guest reviews on a site like TripAdvisor to gain a unique look into  other travelers' experience with those particular businesses (*see note at bottom of post regarding guest review sites).  For a more unconventional approach, but potentially cheaper, check out Airbnb.  You could rent a room in someone's house or flat, stay in a guest house on an estate, or a cabin out in the woods for an one-of-a-kind experience.  I've had many friends and relatives book rooms through this site for trips at home and abroad.  Once you've settled on a hotel, check out their website to see if you can get a deal by booking directly.  Otherwise, I've had great experiences booking through third-party sites.

3.  Arrange the events and entertainment for your trip.  If you're going to a popular attraction, see if you can make entrance reservations in advance so that you can skip long queues.  Research fees and other costs for your planned activities.  If there are any dress codes or banned items, take note of it so that you won't be turned away when you arrive.  Be sure to budget enough time for each activity so that you don't end up feeling rushed.  Again, you can glean a wealth of information from sites like TripAdvisor regarding other travelers' recommendations for how much time you'll need for any particular attraction.

Enjoying a street vendor's gyro in the Old Town
Square, Prague, 2012
©Thrifty Gypsy
4.  Decide on a meal "itinerary."  What will your budget allow for food?  Will you be eating out for every meal, and if so, where?  Again, use Google Maps to scout out local eateries.  If you're in a region renown for, say, their seafood, you might want to splurge a little and enjoy the local cuisine.  Otherwise you might be better off saving your money for other expenses and just grabbing a quick bite at a small diner, chain restaurant, or even from a street vendor.  Or you could plan to eat picnic style in a nearby park.  This can save you a lot of money and can add to your overall experience.  While visiting places like Gettysburg National Battlefield and Prague in the Czech Republic, my husband and I have often packed our own meals and or bought a cheap sandwich from a street vendor to enjoy on the go.  We saved time and money!

5.  Make back-up plans for your back-up plans.  "The best-laid plans of mice and men oft go awry," as Robert Burn's poem is so famously paraphrased.  You might arrive at your destination and discover that the hotel has caught on fire.  Or you show up at the Smithsonian and the one exhibit that you just had to see is closed for renovations.  What are you going to do instead?  If you've made a back-up plan or two, you can ensure a successful weekend no matter what curve-balls are thrown at you!

I've found that these five simple steps result in travel magic.  Practice due diligence in your research in every step of your planning, and you will be rewarded with fantastic experiences.  


~ Just a Thrifty Gypsy

Paulaner Weiβbier enjoyed in Füssen, Germany,
July 2010.© Thrifty Gypsy

* End note: Remember that all reviews found on TripAdvisor  and similar websites are the sole opinion of the user and may not necessarily reflect the actual conditions of the attraction or lodging.  What one person may find absolutely intolerable, may be perfect for your budget, purposes, and/or traveling style.  Take all reviews with a grain of salt.  Don't expect the Motel 6 in Virginia Beach to meet the same standards as the Ritz in New York City.  But in general I have found the reviews helpful in determining what may or may not work for my trips.  If you're interested in reading any of my reviews on TripAdvisor, my user name is SvenskaSvea1987.