The Cheapest Thing I Could Find

So since I have gotten to Italy, everyone has been telling me that I just have to go Lucca, a small city that is only a half an hour from Pisa and thus, pretty close to Florence. Everyone says that it is a classic Italian town that hasn’t been destroyed by tourists yet, and sits on top of a hill, almost like a plateaued town, with a wall built around it that is great for wandering about.

According to Rick, there is a bus to Lucca from the outside wall of Pisa, right behind the Field of Miracles. Actually, it is a miracle that I found this 3.50 euro bus at all, which just happened to be cruising by as we left the Field of Miracles on a Friday afternoon.

Anyway, we got on good ol Vai Bus and took the half an hour journey before arriving in Lucca and then disembarking and beginning to see the city, courtesy of the Rick Steves map. Unfortunately, Rick was a little drunk when he made this map, because all it did was get my boyfriend and I hopelessly lost in a town that is as small as it is precious. This gave us a good chance to spot some of the sights, of course I had no idea what any of them were because I also had no idea where we were.

We miraculously found a station for renting bikes about an hour before it closed, so we happily forked over three euros a person to get on the rickety bikes and cruise along the Ramparts, which is the wall that lines the city, as the sun went down. What a great view of the Tuscan countryside, all from… bike! Hanging out on the Ramparts, surrounded by trees and dogs and grass, made me feel right at home all over again.

You Better Make a To-Do List.

As soon as July hit, I made a pact with myself- it was time to kick my studying abroad planning into first gear and stop being such a baby and actually accomplish something besides playing with the cat all day and making late night visits to Friendly’s ice cream window. Being that I was supposed to be on vacation July 22-27 and again from August 3-13 but I would be leaving for Italy the 28th, I figured this would make the sense.

(Me: “Dad, PLEASE let’s go on vacation earlier. I can’t only have two weeks and some to get ready to live in another country for four months.”

Dad: “No way. Life is hard.”) End of conversation.

Anyway, point is that I figured I would start getting ready in July. First off, I made a to-do list of all the things that I had to do (there were like thirty things. frick). and then I just very slowly yet steadily ebbing away at them until now I only have the super hard stuff left (what a surprise). Here is a condensed version of a few things that you may forget (and should definitely do) while venturing across the pond.

1. Make a list of places you want to go. It’s a little scary at first to go through the endless lists of things to do and places to see, but this is’t a concrete list. It’s just nice to get you thinking and get planning (just a little) of what you want to do. All childhood dreams are welcomed. Example: I have always wanted to go to Transylvania. No one I know has ever been there and I don’t even know of any cool sites. But I want to go there. So it made the list. After naming a few other general sites and cities, I felt a little more settled in my own adventure. This also makes it easier for step two (see below).

2. Call the damn bank. I WANTED to go in and speak to them myself about the places I would be visiting (kind of like what grandparents do) but apparently Bank of America doesn’t do that, although Wells Fargo does. Whatevs. I called the bank and told them the countries and dates I would be visiting. WRITE THIS DOWN. Because if you end up going to a country you didn’t name (which you probably will) you’ll be up the creek without a paddle once the ATM takes your card because it thinks you’re a thief. When you call, they’ll also give you an international number and a collect call number for once you’re away in case you run into problems. This is a beautiful thing.

3. Buy a guidebook. I love Amazon– I live 30 minutes from civilization and buying online is almost always cheaper, plus you can sell it back later. Utilize the “look inside this book” feature to make sure the book is what you thought it would be- are the maps comprehensive? Does it cover the countries and cities you want to hit? Is there detailed information about the sites (so you can give tours to yourself)? Are there nifty traveling tips that aren’t common sense? Getting the book early will also give you something to do when you get bored on the plane (i.e. read). Highlight and make some notes of the must-see sights.

4. Make copies of all your stuff. Your plane tickets. Credit cards. Student IDs. License. Passport. EVERYTHING. Make two copies- one to leave at home with fam or friends and another to keep with you in case something gets stolen.

5. Buy a money belt. They look super lame (like a small fanny pack) and they hide under your clothes where you can keep some money and your passport in case you get pickpocketed. They also have ones that are like a cross body bag (but als0 go under your clothes). Cheap and worth it.

6. Get some ear plugs. You’ll be glad you did once you’re on that 12 hour bus ride.

7. Exchange your money at the bank. Don’t you dare count on those exchange stations unless you HAVE TO. You’ll get the best rates at your own bank and you’re better off arriving with cash, since many European destinations aren’t huge on debit and credit cards.

8. Get an iPod converter. I love my Mac and my iPhone dearly, plus they’re the only things I own of value. So I’ll be damned if I waited this long to get this stuff (thanks Dad!) and then it blew out when I got there. Do yourself a favor and get the real Apple converters. Apple makes a World Travel Kit with all the adapters for all the continents, but it’s $40 and you don’t need them all. Just get what you need on eBay and save some dollars.

9. Send out a mass text and gather everyone’s addresses. Write them down or put them in your phone so you can send out postcards (way better than receiving or having to carry a magnet all day).

10. Credit card. Boom. If you’re like me, no one will give you a credit card. And even if they do (God bless) the limit is probably like $300. Get a co-signed one with your parents if you’re a young’n so if you need an emergency plan ticket or something, you can buy it and pay them back later (like over five years throughout the course of your life). You’ll be glad you did when you don’t have to spend Christmas in an airport because your flight got delayed.

There. That’s it. I think I have carpal tunnel now. THANKS. Anyway, please comment if you have any questions or suggestions to add to this list!

How to See the World Before 65.

In my closet, you will not find a sparkly Juicy Couture handbag or chic dresses by Michael Kors. You won’t find leather Coach wallets or Gucci sunglasses. But instead, you might find some piles of maps, an old purple suitcase, and some postcards.

This is because I would much rather spend my hard-earned cash on trips to Rome, London, Paris, the Bahamas, or Oslo than on a pile of fabric from the Monmouth Mall.  Unfortunately, when traveling, I’m still on a student’s budget, also known as the budget of someone who asks for ten dollars of gas at the Exxon on Second Avenue. Even with an $8.25 hourly wage, however, it is still possible to see the world while you’re still young enough to enjoy it. That is, if you know when to save and when to scrape as you go about planning your next big excursion.

If you’re planning a big trip across the pond, a travel agent is a great tool and starting point that many wrongly see as a silly luxury. According to “When Using a Travel Agent Might Be a Good Idea” from preferredconsumer.com, “While they may use many of the same web sites as the ordinary consumer when planning a trip, they do have the added advantage of having access to the latest sale and promotional information.  Travel agents generally have a cache of upgrades and other perks at their disposal that they can offer to their clients. This is especially true if you are a repeat customer. And, many of these perks are not advertised or available to those booking their trip via the Internet.”

Budgettravel.com suggests making sure you book an agent that is certified by the American Association of Travel Agents and is one who works close to you so you can meet face-to-face rather than over the web. This is also helpful when the time comes for your next trip: you want your travel agent to be your friend and want to help you get the best deals down the line.

Also, you have to figure out what’s worth the extra buck when traveling and what you can save on. For example, you shouldn’t be taking taxis unless you absolutely have to. Always search out the bus and subway stops when you hit a new city. It cost $28 to get from New York Penn Station to LaGuardia Airport, when in comparison it would cost $2 by subway. And, if you can, walk to that museum a few blocks down instead of getting a ride at all. This is also a great way to experience the hidden gems of a city while saving money, too.

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Another thing that you can save on is city tours. How many times have you sat through a boring, unenthusiastic tour by a kid about your age? It’s much more fun (not to mention time-efficient) to give yourself your own tour. “Frommer’s New York City 2012” guidebook, consistently given five stars by Amazon.com users, cost about $15, while the price of an “All New York Tours” guided walking tour is about $100 per person. Who wants to be led around like a bunch of third-graders anyway?

Rick Steves, author of several European guide books, said on his website, “Before buying a book, study it. How old is the information? The cheapest books are often the oldest — which is no bargain. Who wrote it? What’s the author’s experience? For whom is it written? Does the book work for you or for the tourist industry? Does it specialize in hard opinions — or superlatives? Is it readable? It should have personality without chattiness and information without fluff.”

Everybody likes getting new stuff. Everyone likes funny t-shirts, cheap jewelry, and cheesy magnets… right? You’ll be doing your wallet, and your friends, a favor if you scrimp on the lame souvenirs and send out some handwritten postcards with what you’ve been up to instead, even if you’re only gone for a few days. Postcards are much more friendly and personal than yet another shot glass. Postcards will cost under $5 for quite a few, while souvenirs will cost more than $10 per item and they will take up space, and possibly break, in your bag when it’s time to journey back home. Donna Roth, frequent recipient of my own postcards, said, “Getting postcards makes me smile and laugh and they’re something nice to look back on as the years pass, while souvenirs tend to be kind of useless and just collect dust in our house.”

Sometimes when looking forward, going on trips and seeing what the world has to offer can seem like an impossible dream in the face of tuition, rent, and bills. However, if you do a little research before you embark with your travel agent and think outside the box in order to score some great deals, you’ll have much more to show for your summer than a pile of tank tops in the closet.