“The freedom of being a stranger in a strange place, knowing no one, needing to know no one, with no obligations, elicits deep feelings of liberation. The farther from the beaten path I go, the quicker my attachment to any idea of how I should be treated is discarded — I’m grateful merely that my needs are met. Without an agenda, or company to distract me, I invariably feel a certain hopelessness that can appear contrary to my aimlessness. Perhaps it’s just the simple joy of being alive.”
–Andrew McCarthy, The Longest Way Home (2012)
Finding yourself tired and achy after a long day’s sightseeing in Budapest? That can be easily fixed by indulging in one of the city’s great experiences—a long soak in the healing waters that residents and visitors have been availing themselves of since Ottoman times. Blessed by its location—it sits above numerous natural springs spouting warm water fortified with minerals—the Hungarian capital offers visitors some of the world’s great public bath experiences.
With over fifty baths, spas and public pools, Budapest wisely takes full advantage of the waters burbling up from its sediment. The experience of the spa/bath has become a way of life in this city, and integral part of its social fabric. Some baths date to the sixteenth century when the Ottomans first indulged in the bath craze, and others date from the early twentieth century. It is not unusual for a Hungarian physician to prescribe a visit to the baths, such is the strength of Hungarians’ belief in the restorative powers of the experience.
There are dozens of great thermal baths to choose from, but for the first-time visitor the popular Széchenyi offers a fine look into a top-notch Budapest bath experience. Housed in a grand old yellow building situated in the City Park, the enormous complex with the Baroque copper dome looks like every bit the grand nineteenth-century retreat it is; a recent renovation has given the historic building a fresh coat of gleam.
The brainchild of a Budapest mining engineer, Széchenyi was the first thermal bath on the Pest side of the city, with records showing that an artisanal bath existed on the spot by 1881. By 2014 a full panoply of options existed, including an outpatient physiotherapy department.
Upon entering, you’ll choose the options you want (children under 2 are free and there is a special student discount), rent your towel, and hit the locker room to change. If you get lost in the complex or just plain overwhelmed by the choices, attendants in white will try their best to assist, though many do not speak English. This being Europe, there are some swimsuit-optional areas, but the American visitor will be happy to know that most patrons are covered—minimally, by severely strained Speedos—but still covered.
Settling into the hundred-degree water, stress tends to melt away like an ice cube under a blazing summer sun. There is nothing to do but watch the other visitors, a great European pastime. An observant guest will find a feast of people-watching opportunities such as blissed-out regulars playing chess in their Speedos and local big shots discussing weighty political matters while struggling to stay awake in the relaxing water, their eyelids heavy as steam swirls around them. Don’t worry; you almost certainly be the only tourist there.
There are older, more historic spas and thermal baths in town (some of the Ottoman-era spas) and swankier spas (the Gellert Baths are justifiably popular) but for a locally-loved and affordable introduction to Budapest’s water wonders, spending a lazy afternoon relaxing under Széchenyi’s glimmering domes is a great way to start.
For a trove of information on spas and bath experiences around the world, visit http://findmesauna.com/ run by spa connoisseur and world traveler Sandra Hunacker.
Petrified, excited, invigorated, exhilarated, daunted…I felt them all in the weeks leading up to my first round the world journey. So many emotions, so little time. All the planning for this idea of taking a hiatus from the everyday was thrilling, yet frightening. From visa applications to inoculations (those weren’t fun) and new passport pages to hotel bookings the excitement continued to grow. But then it was six weeks before, one-month prior and days ahead of wheels up and the packing began. First world problem, no question; but all the worries came to a head with this-will I be okay without the ‘just in case stuff’ in the back of my closet?
You know that pile with the favourite t-shirt from university, the worn out jumper from sleep-away camp or those old standby jeans for the ‘I’m feeling fat’ days…where would you be without them? Was I really worried about ‘stuff’? We’ve all experienced that tug and pull in our own way. At this point, on this day, this was mine. Hindsight is twenty-twenty; was it really the stuff or was it something else? It’s what many who have made the leap to long-term travel have experienced with similar stories about managing on far less than in their pre-long-term travel days. But, I was stuck. Collapsing in a heap beside the flung open closet door staring at the ‘stuff’, I sat. The fashion consultants on What No To Wear would have thrown it out years ago since it’s been that long since I put my hand on it, but it was comforting to know it was there. Smaller after bouts of culling and donating, but, still there. I knew that pile held far more than clothes.
One backpack was all I allowed myself. If it didn’t fit it wasn’t coming. If it didn’t have more than one purpose or matched with three other things it wasn’t making it. I cried. Having looked forward to this journey for over a year, was I really crying over STUFF? Really? Wrapped up in this stuff were worries of everything and nothing. Would we be okay? What if something happened to someone I love? Who would keep in touch? What if everything changed when we were gone? The anticipation and worry manifested in that tiny pile in the back of the closet. The pile, that metaphor for the ‘what ifs of the world’ had taken hold and had me in its grasp. There were memories of time passed mixed with the notion of the unknown possibilities for a time yet to come. The crying continued. Logically, I knew how lucky we would all be if this truly was one of the most difficult decisions to make (perspective is a wonderful thing), but still, it was hard. On a precipice filled with greater meaning, this felt like one of those teachable moments. Either choice was fine, but I knew one led to a new journey in both destinations and personal growth while the other stayed stuck with the unchanging ease of ‘the devil you know’. Getting to the place to make the jump was a journey in itself and this felt like a turning point. Stay with the comfort of the pile or embrace the idea that you hold the key to the meaning of the pile? The rest is just that, ‘stuff’.
It didn’t make it into the backpack and after awhile I got up off the floor. I wasn’t yet ready to get rid of the pile but I was ready to close the closet door and leave room in the bag for the unknown future. The pile didn’t win. It remained, for the time being, in the back of the closet (to be revisited at a later date) and I took comfort in the knowledge that it was there. This journey to a place open to the risks and rewards of the frightening while slowly disentangling from the worries of the ‘what ifs’ is a continual one but each step does make a difference. Long-term travel was ahead with indeterminable adventure and experiences far greater than the stuff could ever hold. It is worth the risk. Maybe I wasn’t yet ready to discard the pile from the back of the closet entirely, but I was able to close the door and open a new one.
Traveler 1-Pile 0.
What’s your ‘pile’? What helped you make your leap?
Hometown: is not an easy one to answer so I will give you the place I was born: Johannesburg South Africa
Favorite Quote: “And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom” ~Anais Nin (more…)
Whenever someone has no frequent flier miles, no ability to get travel-rewards cards, and really wants a cheap domestic flight, I always send them to Kayak. Kayak.com is a popular travel search aggregator that scans all the other travel search aggregators and shows you the cheapest rates it finds. It does all the comparison work for you and that’s why so many people love it.
But what makes Kayak so lovable in my mind is its ability to help you get free hotels.
To explain this, I’ll have to explain what a “BRG” or Best Rate Guarantee is.
1.) Best Rate Guarantee Policies
The BRG strategy is one of my favorite tricks because not only does it often get us a room that costs no money, it won’t cost us points either. Furthermore, it’s a trick that anyone can use as it doesn’t require you to sign up for any kind of credit-card or promotion or anything.
So what is this BRG policy?
This is simply a promise a hotel makes that they will offer a better price for their rooms on their own website than they will on any search aggregator like Kayak, Travelocity, Expedia, etc. My guess is they set this up as an accountability system to make sure they keep on top of the prices they’re releasing to these aggregators, and that they’re correcting the price anytime an aggregator’s price is listed too low.
First, I’ll share with you the basic steps of applying for a BRG, then I’ll share with you a few hotels with the most generous BRG policies.
This is where Kayak.com comes in and shines.
1.) Find a hotel you’re interested in that advertises a BRG policy.
This includes so many hotels that I probably don’t need to name them, but the ones that are most likely to result in a free room are InterContinental and Hilton. We’ll discuss the specifics of their policies and others below. Here is the most complete list of BRG policies we could come up with.
2.) Find a cancelable rate on that hotel’s own website- a rate you think you’ll be able to match or beat.
We book cancelable rates just in case the hotel decides not to approve our claim- then we’re not left with an expensive hotel when we meant to have a free one.
3.) Use Kayak.com’s “search by brand” feature to find the EXACT same room.
This needs to be more exact than finding a “Hilton standard room” if you’ve booked a Hilton standard room. Depending on how picky the hotel is and how badly they don’t want to approve your BRG, you need to make sure no listed detail contradicts the hotel’s own website description. Check-out time, breakfast or no breakfast, etc.
We’ve been told that because breakfast was included on the cheaper rate we found on an aggregator, but not included in the rate on their own website, it wouldn’t be considered the “same room.”
This even goes for the currency the price is listed in. Luckily, Kayak has a country selection that will allow you to see only rates listed in that country’s currency. OR sometimes you can go to the site Kayak has pulled up for you and change the currency from there.
Really though, only some of the hotels are so picky about a matching room description and because you booked a cancelable rate, if you think the description is close enough, you can always try!
4.) Obviously, most importantly, make sure the room Kayak has shown you is cheaper.
This may take a bit of hopping back and forth from the brand’s website to the aggregators, but other times you’d be surprised how easy it is to find a cheaper rate.
5.) Now it’s time to submit your claim.
This is a simple process that happens online.
Hilton’s BRG claim form can be found here.
IHG’s BRG claim form can be found here.
Choice’s BRG claim form can be found here.
And Marriott’s BRG claim form can be found here.
As I mentioned above, our favorite use of the BRG strategy is with hotels whose BRG policies are generous enough to allow a free room.
Whose policies are the most rewarding?
InterContinental Hotel Group is a hotel chain that includes Holiday Inn, Holiday Inn Express, Crowne Plaza, IHG, etc. Their BRG policy states that if you find a cheaper rate for their rooms on someone else’s site, they’ll give you “your first night free.” Naturally, we take advantage of this by aiming for BRG’s at their nicest brand, InterContinentals, and by booking one night stays so our whole stay is free.
Hilton is a hotel chain that includes Hampton Inn, Waldorf, Conrad, Double Tree, and Hilton, etc. Getting approved for their BRG claims will either give you a $50 Amex gift card (for domestic stays) or a $50 price reduction (Internationally.) We take advantage of this by trying to book rates that are as close to $50 as possible.
Best Western basically offers a $100 Best Western voucher for approved BRG claims. So your initial stay won’t be free, but your next one would be as there are plenty of Best Westerns for $100 or less. Also, by the time you have one $100 voucher, you could submit a BRG claim for another stay, paying for that stay with a voucher and receiving another voucher for your next stay. And on and on and on. But there are a few more rules to this, which you may want to familiarize yourself with.
These are just a few of the most generous Best Rate Guarantee policies. But there are so many more Best Rate Guarantee policies out there.
Thanks to Kayak.com, the hunt for an approved BRG claim can be pretty easy.
What’s the strangest thing that’s happened lately?
Between my husband and my son, they were stung three times during the one week we were in El Salvador!
Describe a typical day:
We’re driving most days, exploring the coast and searching for a place where we could possibly rent a house. Stopping at towns along the way, such as El Zonte, San Blas and Liberia, we check out the beaches and rental prices.
The roads are windy along the coastline in the north, with cliffs that offer vistas of the sea. Sunshine reflects off the ocean. The breeze blows, the windows are down and our favorite tunes are playing on the radio. It’s great to be alive, exploring this big, beautiful world!
What do you like about where you are? Dislike?
Like: There are no speed bumps! After being in Guatemala for so long and their countless tumulos it’s refreshing to be able to drive without slowing down for speed bumps.
The people are super friendly, and love the children. They are constantly coming up to us every time we stop and asking questions.
We also found a great little place to hangout in El Cuco… a great campground with a pool and a short jaunt to the beach.
Dislike: We’re shocked with the prices here — food is about 20% more than Guatemala (we’d heard it was cheaper), and rental rates are outrageous! Prices are high, but the ‘niceness’ of accommodations are not. This was not at all what we expected. We can only surmise that rates are being driven up because the coast of El Salvador is very popular for surfers.
Describe a challenge you faced:
We’d hoped to find a house to rent for a month or two, but all rental rates were outside of our budget, and even if they hadn’t have been, nothing we found would work for our family of seven (soon to be eight.) Given my condition of being 6 months pregnant, I was disappointed by having my expectations unrealized.
What new lesson did you learn?
Expect the unexpected. You never really know what a destination has to offer until you hit the ground. Besides, everyone’s desires are different, so it can affect what their experience is like.
We’re heading to Nicaragua where we hope to find a house on the beach that we can rent for a few months.
On a basic level there are three general methods to simplifying your life: stopping expansion, reigning in your routine and reducing clutter. The easiest part of this process is stopping expansion. This means that in anticipation of vagabonding, you don’t add any new possessions to your life, regardless of how tempting they might seem….
While you’re curbing the material expansion of your life, you should also take pains to rein in the unnecessary expenses of your weekly routine. Simply put, this means living more humbly (even if you aren’t humble) and investing the difference into your travel fund….
Perhaps the most challenging step in keeping things simple is reducing clutter– downsizing what you already own. As Thoreau observed, downsizing can be the most vital step in winning the freedom to change your life: “I have in my mind that seemingly wealthy, but most terribly impoverished class of all,” he wrote in Walden, “who have accumulated fross but know not how to use it, or get rid of it, and thus have forged their own golden or silver fetters.”
–Chapter Three-Rolf Potts
Chapter three of Vagabonding: An Uncommon Guide to the Art of Long-Term World Travel is all about cultivating simplicity.
As I re-read this chapter the theme that jumped out at me was that simplicity is the key to freedom. That quote from Walden, at the end, that sums it up just perfectly: the struggle that so many people have with their “stuff” being at odds with their dreams.
It sneaks up on us, doesn’t it? Little decisions, small accumulations, tiny concessions that we justify along the way. We trade our big dreams for glass beads that glitter in the sun. Among the awakenings that come with Vagabonding is that realization and the determination to, “stop that right now!”
Vagabonding is a mindset, a way of thinking; one of the manifestations of which, is travel. Simplicity is part of what makes that travel possible in the first place and easier once underway. Possessions, debt, financial addictions, these are all things that keep us from taking off and traveling in the first place. An emotional dependence on the stuff that we think we have to drag with us, or “gear up” with as we go are the things that suck the joy out of the experience of walking through the world.
This chapter challenged me, yet again, to focus on cultivating the things that really matter in this life: time, passion and relationships. Instead of getting mired in the “stuff” around me and within me that results in golden fetters.
How ‘bout you? What does chapter three’s call to simplicity awake in you?
“So it’s plain to see what responsibility lies with our work, reportage. Plying our trade, we are not just men or women of writing pursuits, but also some kind of missionaries, translators and messengers. We do not translate from one text into another, but from one culture into another in order to make them mutually better understood and thereby closer.”
–Ryszard Kapuscinski, “Herodotus and the Art of Noticing,” Lettre Ulysses Award Keynote Speech, October 4, 2003
A good backpack can make or break a trip. Drenching rain, language barriers, delayed flights — you can weather all with humor and go-get-’em attitude.
But a good backpack is the foundation upon which your trip rests. It holds your entire life in one place. It protects it. Sometimes you wear it so often it feels like another appendage.
That’s why it’s important to take some time before your trip to figure out what kind of new appendage — or backpack — works for you. Next to figuring out which book to take with me, this decision was the most important on my two-week trip to Europe.
After lots of research, I decided on Osprey Packs Kestrel 48 backpack for three reasons:
But the true test came after wearing my pack for two solid weeks. Included in that time were some very long midnight wanderings in suburban Rome searching for our hotel, running through train stations and for vaporettos, and getting shoved under train seats.
How are you planning to use your pack? Will you be hiking or walking a lot? Do you need it to be water-repellant?
If you’ll be walking with it a lot, pick one with an interior frame and hip belt to redistribute the weight off your shoulders. Water-resistance is a good thing to consider, so check for a rain cover. You can’t always control the weather, but it’s nice to know your stuff won’t get soaked.
You want a pack that wears its age and travels well. You don’t want to deal with broken zippers or rips on the road.
Look for fabric at least 400 denier nylon packcloth with a urethane coating (aka water-repellant). Test the zippers. Do some Google searches on “broken zipper + pack name” to see how it stands up.
A good place to check out long-term durability is reading Amazon’s reviews on the pack; you get a wide smattering of opinions to help your decision.
Do you want to access the bag just from the top (top-loading pack)? Or from the top and bottom (called the sleeping bag compartment)? Exterior pockets or no pockets?
These are things to consider if you want to lock your bag. The more access points into your bag equals more locks you need.
Ah, the clincher. Getting a pack that’s too big will restrict your ability to carry it on the plane. Getting a pack too small will curtail your purchasing abilities.
It’s a really good idea to check out the bags in person. After all, this is gear that interacts with your body. Like shoes, how it feels on you will impact how you feel about the trip.
Play around with the packs. Try them on. Figure out how it feels on your back and do a few spins to check your bull in a china shop prowess. The empty pack should feel light and not too bulky on your back.
For me, the perfect capacity size was 48: still small enough for carry on, but large enough for clothes and extras picked up along the way.
Backpacks come in three sizes: small, medium and large. The sizes are determined by your torso length, not your height.
Here’s a general guide to figuring out the pack size from your torso length:
|Men’s and Women’s|
|Pack Size||Torso Length|
|Extra small||Up to 15½”|
|Small||16″ to 17½”|
|Medium/Regular||18″ to 19½”|
Generally, compared to men’s packs, women’s packs are:
But really, it comes down to how the pack feels on you. Even though I’m a woman, I picked a men’s pack based on how it fit me and what it looked like. Oh — and that it had good pockets.
Read more by Laura at Waiting To Be Read.
Whenever anyone asks me why I still travel on a shoestring at the ripe old age of 38, I usually tell them about the time I learned how to play the bagpipes in Havana.
Granted, I could probably relate a more typical story about the joys of budget travel - some tidy parable of money saved and experiences gained – but when I mention learning the bagpipes in Cuba it sounds like I’m going to tell a joke, and people like jokes.
The thing is, there’s no punch line. My encounter with Cuban bagpipers wasn’t memorable for its mere quirkiness – it was memorable because it illustrates how travelling on the cheap can offer you windows into a culture that go beyond the caricatured stereotype of what a place is supposed to be like.
If it sounds to you like I’m an ageing backpacker who never quite grew out of his shoestring ways, you’d be exactly right. In many ways, my travel sensibilities have grown out of a journey I took 10 years ago, when I quit my job as an English teacher and took a journey across Asia, Eastern Europe and the Middle East. I probably had enough money saved up to invest in a three-month trip. As it turned out, I learned ways to stretch my travel budget into a life-enriching 30-month sojourn – and in all those months of travel, my day-to-day costs were significantly cheaper than day-to-day life would have cost me back in the United States.
The secret to my extraordinary thrift was neither secret nor extraordinary: like many generations of backpackers and shoestring travellers before me, I was able to make my modest savings last by slowing down and forgoing a few comforts as I travelled. Instead of luxury hotels, I slept in clean, basic hotels, hostels and guesthouses. Instead of dining at fancy restaurants, I ate food from street vendors and local cafeterias. Occasionally, I travelled on foot, slept out under the stars, and dined for free at the stubborn insistence of local hosts. In what eventually amounted to over two years of travel, my lodging averaged out to just under $5 a night, my meals cost well under $1 a plate, and my total expenses rarely exceeded $1,000 a month. Instead of investing my travel budget in luxuries and amenities, I invested it in more travel time – and it never failed to pay off in amazing experiences.
It’s been almost eight years now since I finished that extended stint of vagabonding, but the experience is still very much a part of me. In financial terms, I have the resources to sleep in five-star hotels and eat in expensive international restaurants, but I’ve found I rarely choose such luxurious options. Given a choice between a $400-a-night hotel and an $18-a-night flophouse in Hong Kong, I tend to opt for the latter. Faced with the prospect of an all-inclusive dinner buffet in a Santo Domingo casino, I invariably find myself wandering outside to sample food from street vendors.
Ultimately, the charm of budget travel has always been less about saving money than making the most of my time on the road. Travelling cheaply has forced me to be engaged and creative, rather than to throw money at my holidays and hope for the best. Freed from a rigid, expense-laden itinerary, I’m more likely to be spontaneous, embrace serendipity and enjoy each moment of my journey.
Excerpted from Around The World On a Shoestring-The Guardian Feb. 6, 2009