ADEC gives us money for flights home once a year, and if we are careful and spend lots of time combing Expedia, Sky Scanner, and similar sites, we can find airfare that is cheap enough that we can afford to make a pit stop along the way. This is possible because the allowance is (supposedly) based on economy airfare for direct flights to teachers’ home ports. Those flights are more convenient in a number of ways, and as a result a little more expensive than those with multiple legs. Anyhow, if you recall, last year we spent two weeks exploring from Amsterdam, because we booked a trip with layovers rather than going home directly. This year we did something similar. We booked a flight with a stop in Milan. From there, we made a big circle, driving almost everyday for a couple hours or more, seeing six countries during 14 days. Then we hopped an airliner for Abu Dhabi and got ourselves back to Al Ain via rental car.
As I’ve said, we couldn’t afford to do this if we weren’t careful about finding affordable airfare. Or rather, we couldn’t justify spending the coin. After all, one of the overarching reasons for returning to Abu Dhabi for a third year is to beef up our savings account and IRAs. A third year’s bonus will be very useful in that, but we aren’t relying on the bonuses alone to set us up financially. That would be stupid, because wherever we go next, be it back to the grand USA or another country, we will need startup funds. So money must go into the bank all along the way or we will be no better off than before.
Now, bearing in mind my Money Monday introduction, I want to share about our trip through northern Italy and the surrounding regions. We saw beautiful scenery, met wonderful people, and learned new lessons about exploring as married parents of a toddler. How can we do it and not waste everything we have squirreled away into savings and/or plan to put to responsible use to make our futures brighter? I’ll try to answer that as I write.
Our first stop was Milan. Milan is remarkable in its humdrumness, if that’s a word. It’s amazingly ordinary. I maybe ignorant of other more interesting sights in the area, but in a couple days, we saw everything most people say is worthwhile: the Duomo and nearby Sforza Castle, as well as the canal area. We found the place pleasantly affordable, excluding the shops near the cathedral. It was possible for us to eat dinner for under 20 euros. We spent only one night, and that with a blog buddy of Jenia’s, so we didn’t have to pay anything for lodging. Hooray!
One way we try to save a few bucks is by using ATMs (Bancomats in eurospeak) to make cash withdrawals. If you’ve ever converted cash, you know that the conversion process isn’t simply an even, exact swap of $100 for the equivalent currency. Every exchange place and even banks charge a fee for changing money, and it’s annoying to search for a place which offers the best rates. In fact, some advise you not to worry about looking for the best rates if you are trying to convert money–just do it at the airport where it’s convenient and you’ll save some time and effort, they say, making it worth whatever small difference you pay. But less expensive, if you make large withdrawals at once, is using an ATM, because there’s no conversion fee. This is only less expensive if you withdraw a fairly good amount of money at once, though, since you’ll still pay an ATM fee, potentially from both the ATM and your home bank. Normally we don’t worry much about cash, and try to use our credit card. However, many places in Italy (as well as other places we visited) don’t accept credit.
This brings me to my next point: be sure you authorize your ATM card for overseas usage. I did that, but I did it two years ago, for a duration of two years (my expected ADEC time). So I couldn’t use my ATM card at all, and I couldn’t make Skype work in order to call the bank. Luckily, the wife’s bank card does still work, and we could use it. But in the meantime, before we’d sorted that situation out, we were limited to places that would accept credit. We stopped in a gelateria, delighted that the sign on the door said “Mastercard/Visa,” looking forward to our first taste of authentic Italian gelato in many years. Two very friendly brothers ran the shop, and as one of them rang up the total for our two cones, the other had just scooped the first cone for Jenia and was working on mine. Seeing the Visa in my hand, the guy said their machine wasn’t working.
“Oh, crap,” said Jenia, “Stop,” she told the guy who was just about to plop a scoop of frozen deliciousness onto my cone. “I’m so sorry, but we don’t have any cash. We saw the sign on the door about Visa, and that’s why we came in.”
The brothers exchanged a glance. The one finished my cone, and the other said, “For free!”
Our turn to exchange looks. How nice is that?
“Have a good night,” they said as we turned for the door.
“It’s a good one now,” I told them. We made sure to return the next day and pay for a couple more scoops.
So those guys were pretty cool, and in general, we found the people of Milan to be warm and friendly. In retrospect, there wasn’t the air of tourist fatigue that some of Italy’s touristy hotspots have (understandably enough).
Right, so update your bank about your travel plans so you avoid any potentially embarrassing run-ins like that, even though it worked out well and put a very good taste in our mouths (that’s a pun, get it?) about the people and place.
The next thing that we dealt with was obtaining transport at a reasonable cost. Everyone knows about Europe’s many trains and convenient network of railways. What is less common knowledge is that the price of train tickets is climbing yearly, making riding the rails less and less appealing for those traveling on a budget. For example, getting a Eurail pass for the two of us and the baby would have cost between 300 and 500 euros a piece, depending on the type of pass and number of days we wanted to spend on trains. That’s a pretty substantial number–if we wanted to travel a little each day, for example, for two weeks, then there wasn’t even a rail pass available that we could use. Another consideration was the toddler. Would Turtle stay put on a train, in his seat, minding his own business? Most likely he’d want to run around the whole time, a tiresome proposition. Last year we used Sixt, and opted to go another round with them. Our rental Fiat Panda 4×4 (!) ended up setting us back about 550 euros, including a carseat for the little one. The seat meant Turtle could nap when we drove, and it didn’t limit us in terms of where we could go or when we could go.
There is a funny story about finding the Sixt location in Milan that I’ll skip, but suffice it to say that my little trip to get the car ended up taking about 3 hours instead of the 1 we’d figured it would, and I had to go to a different location to pick up the car than the one I’d reserved it from. Advice: be careful to map out your destination location carefully ahead of time, and be sure to note what time that place closes.
A nasty fact about traveling Italian highways–they are toll roads, and the tolls are steep. We logged approximately 160 euros in tolls alone. Fuel is expensive, too, but the Panda diesel was economical (5.4 l/100 km, as opposed to the 13.1 l/100 km I’m used to driving the Chevy here in Al Ain) and we paid roughly another 175 euros for fuel during our stay. Diesel prices ran about 1.75-1.90 per liter while we were vacationing, just to give you an idea of what to expect if you’re plotting a similar trip. But still, even if costs surrounding it were high, the car afforded us more freedom and was cheaper than train travel, so we enjoyed it.
And we put it to good use. Here’s what our travel map looked like, more or less:
From Milan, we made a big circle, more or less like what’s pictured here, with a panhandle added on so we could poke around the Cote d’Azur a bit. Thanks, Google Maps, for making it easy to plot such courses.
Another way we kept costs under control was to use our cell phones only as wi-fi devices. There are some affordable options for SIM cards, but we didn’t bother. We took great advantage of wi-fi and used Google Maps for navigation almost exclusively.
Last year we couchsurfed fully half the nights of our trip, which cut hotel costs in half. This year beyond our first night in Milan, we had to pay, as there were no hosts available for us. Ah, well. So we used Booking.com to look up lodging as we went, only having reserved a couple days in advance.
We stayed in Perledo at a cool Bed and Breakfast with views of Lake Como, along scary narrow roads. A ferry took the Fiat and family across Lake Como to Menaggio, and we drove to Lugano, Switzerland, to meet another blog buddy of Jenia’s. The next day we were in Vaduz and more remote parts of mountainous Liechtenstein. Afterward we went to soggy Innsbruck, but the views were obscured by rain clouds, so we hit the road early and stayed along the highway in charmingly non-touristy Steinach, where pizza was affordable for a change. Next stop was Venice–an ever so romantic city, especially when you just wander the streets, rather than utilize the slow, crowded water taxis. A cool agriturismo called La Toretta in Siena was next, followed by a B&B in Casarza Ligure, not far from the beautiful (and wickedly crowded) Cinque Terre. Monaco and Nice rounded out the trip, and we returned to a hotel near the airport the night before our flight to Abu Dhabi, being sure to find one that offered a free shuttle to the airport so we could return the car the night before, thereby saving rental fees for an extra day just to go to the airport in the morning.
We had pleasant stays in all of the lodgings we selected, but the one place that most stands out was in Casarza Ligure, called Ca De Pria. If you want a nice base of operations from which to explore segments of the Italian riviera, that’s it. The owners treated us like old friends, and could not have been any more welcoming.
Of the many things we did, places we went, and little observations and lessons we gleaned, one was probably more important than the others: traveling with a toddler is different from being on the go with a baby. Our toddler has developed a certain schedule, and when that was too terribly altered, we all paid a price for it. So our evenings were generally kept fairly early, and we discovered that nap times were yet more important–if Turtle napped too long, sleeping too late into the afternoon, he’d be up too late that night. One night I was up with him until 1:30am, which was much too long. It ended up that he would be awake for 6 hours after his last nap, so we tried to make sure we adjusted things accordingly.
One more Money Monday note and I’ll dispense with the formalities and share some pictures. If you live in the UAE and you’re in Al Ain, finding a ride to and from the airport can be a factor when budgeting. Other than phoning friends to do us favors, we’ve found the cheapest, most handy way to get to either DXB or AUD is by renting a car from Hertz. Their least expensive Toyota Yaris or Mazda 2 offers enough room for us and our stuff (but not much to spare) and costs only 89 AED (or 110, including a child seat) for one day. Taxis set you back almost 300 AED, and most people who offer paid transport do it for around 200. Hertz is the best bet by a mile.
Now, for some more photos, one of the rewards we enjoy a great deal for spending money in the way we did. As usual, Jenia made excellent use of her Canon and has some amazing pictures to share, and I’ll get her to upload some soon. I have some that I like, too, and these are among them. Click on the images for full screen viewing.