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We Don't Speak The Language Deferring life, student loans, and responsibility in general Sun, 25 Oct 2009 01:44:11 +0000 en WDSTL dot com: making browsing easier Fri, 19 Dec 2008 15:48:00 +0000 Christopher Wink

Sean and I almost always got the same two responses when we told people the name of our podcast and blog: We Don’t Speak the Language.

They laughed. It was catchy and they remembered it, but, they almost always added, it is long, isn’t it?

Yeah, not only do we have to brand, we have to do it in five words or less. You’re welcome, then.

It is probably among the more clumsy acronyms, but now we own, so use that for your visiting pleasure.

That’s right, come visit We Don’t Speak the Language at Yay short domain names!

One chapter of WDSTL closes Fri, 19 Dec 2008 00:33:38 +0000 Christopher Wink
Sean and Chris in Stockholm before leaving for the airport to return home on Nov. 4, 2008.

Sean and Chris in Stockholm before leaving for the airport to return home on Nov. 4, 2008.

We may have gotten home six weeks ago and completed our last podcast last month, but I am still recovering.

Thus far, has been home to our video podcast and travel blog, chronicling five weeks backpacking Europe. That portion is done, though a new incarnation of this successful project may be seen.

For now, below, see our most popular and favorite posts and videos. Thanks for following us!

Most Popular Posts

When the hell do you tip in Europe?: a continental conversation on gratuity history and convention abroad Mon, 24 Nov 2008 12:44:42 +0000 Christopher Wink

I came to Europe staunchly under the impression that I didn’t have to tip.

That’s supposed to be an American conception. You know the tired old argument: Americans like letting the market dictate wages, so you have to hustle for your dollar, while the Europeans believe in a base standard for everyone. I’m not here to argue which is better.

I was just psyched on seeing something in a menu, ordering it, getting it and peacing.

Boy, did things get a lot more complicated than that.

If you go to a place with an English menu in Europe, your receipt will almost certainly say “Tip is not included.” Oh, those smug Europeans.

See, in the United States tipping is a $26 billion annual social abstract - read a pretty fascinating history of tipping by Northwestern University economics professor Ofer H. Azar here (PDF) - where folks “voluntarily leave money for service already provided.”

If you are as interested in the development of this social norm as I am, read on. If you’re game for European-specific advice, skip to the next section. Or get a much briefer run down right here.

Brief history of tipping

Azar’s work places the beginning of modern tipping in 16th century England: “where brass urns with the inscription “To Insure Promptitude” were placed first in coffee houses and later in local pubs. People tipped in advance by putting money in these urns.”

Tipping spread through the European continent, but wasn’t readily present in the United States until after the Civil War, Azar said, because the U.S. economy lacked large servant classes: people who dealt directly with consumers and whose service could vary if a little more money came their way. Azar writes that in the 19th-century, “European travelers wrote about their amazement finding that they are not expected to tip in America.”

Later that century, affluent Americans who traveled abroad took to tipping waiters and other people in the servant class. It was a clear way to show they knew of European culture.

As U.S. tipping customs took hold, some wild stories came out, according to Azar (PDF - page 14).

“Under these conditions, one might expect that the tip takers would try to increase tipping by different means. Often, these means included hurting non-tippers in various ways. Servants in hotels sometimes made small chalk marks or other small signs on a non-tipper’s suitcases, warning servants in other hotels not to assist that man, or to drop his luggage “by mistake.” In restaurants, the revenge on non-tippers or poor tippers was by insulting them or by giving them slow service in their next visit. Maybe the most extreme form of revenge took place in Chicago in 1918, when a hundred waiters were arrested because they used certain powder in the dishes of known opponents to the tipping system. In many establishments, however, good service was always required from the employees, and giving poor service to a non-tipper could result in the dismissal of the employee.


By 1895, the average tip in European restaurants was 5 percent of the bill, while in the United States it was 10 percent, even though waiters in the United States were paid well. Such average tip rates mean that waiters derived significant income from tips (the same applied to several other occupations, but for concreteness I discuss the case of waiters). When waiters have a total income from tips and wages that exceeds their reservation wage, they earn an economic rent that the owners have an incentive to extract in order to increase their own profits. One way owners can do so is by taking the tips to themselves, at least partially. Another way, if minimum wages do not exist, is to reduce the wages paid to waiters, possibly even to negative wages (that is, charging the waiters for the privilege to work and earn tips).”

Indeed, some expensive restaurants in the United States, Aza wrote, tried charging waiters for the chance to serve, which also happened in some French restaurants.

In the case of American railroad porters of the time - a trend that followed into restaurants - Azar writes (PDF, page 17) companies took advantage of tipping and paid the porters low wages that were accepted because tips complemented the porters’ income. Often the customers felt obligated to tip because they knew the porters were paid low wages and counted on the tips to supplement their income. The employers abused this compassion of the customers to lower the wages they pay.”

Contrary to today’s conception that tipping is a result of the free market, “Gunton’s Magazine (1896, p. 16-17) called tipping offensively un-American, because it was contrary to the spirit of American life of working for wages rather than fawning for favors (Azar 19 PDF).

“In 1909, Washington became the first state with an anti-tipping law, making tip receivers and tip givers guilty of a misdemeanor. Mississippi, Arkansas, Iowa, South Carolina, Tennessee and Georgia also passed anti-tipping laws in the next decade. These laws, however, did not survive for many years, and were repealed between 1913 and 1926 because of the persistence of tipping, which led to the common belief that attempts to abolish it are useless, together with pressure from employers, who benefited from tipping by having to pay lower wages.”

Of course, now tipping is a given in American restaurants. Moreover in any service related job under the sun, customers at least engage the thought, “am I supposed to tip this guy?”

American tipping

Meanwhile, during the 20th century, Western European countries took on heavily socialized senses of government welfare. Living wages gave way for less a need to tip. Still, the habit lingers from the past and only blossomed as traveling Americans regularly over-tipped.

So, your receipt in Berlin or Paris or elsewhere is setting a trap for you. The word “tip” strikes fear in a good American, born and raised amid social norms teaching us to not shortchange “hard work.”

In the United States could never leave a restaurant without tipping. …I couldn’t - I’ve had too many tip-based jobs. For terrible service, I’d leave 5 percent, something I’ve only done once in my life. I’ve only left 10 percent in a U.S. restaurant twice, that I can think of, but more normally give a 15 percent minimum on basic service. Better than that, I leave upwards of 20 percent and have done better still for smaller bills, at places I return to - and when I am feeling well-funded.

In Canada and Australia - other countries with U.K. roots - 10 percent is a somewhat stringent basic, like the American 15 percent, but no country, of which I know, comes near to the American necessity of tipping.

So what about in Europe today?

Sean and I couchsurfed in Switzerland with Dule, a Serbian academic working in Zurich. He lived in the largest Swiss city for more than two years. When we asked him when to tip, he looked at both of us, sat back, lifted his head and laughed.

“I have no idea,” he said. In Serbia, he told us there was never a concentration on tipping - though he left his native country when he was still a teenager.

Indeed, the very obsession with tipping seems an American one. Assuming you’re obsessed too, I collected the best knowledge I could for all the places we visited and some more.

  • London: Check your receipt. I went at least one place where tip was included. Otherwise round up to the nearest pound, and don’t give more than a pound or two at a restaurant. At a bar, just leave leftover pence for your first drink.
  • France, Germany, Spain, Netherlands, Belgium: Never more than one or two euro. More usually, just leftover change. I was hounded by Sean’s brother to leave 10 percent of the small bill at a Parisian cafe. The waiter told me twice in French, “C’est trop” - it’s too much. Still, at a full-out restaurant, if you’re feeling like a big spending, you might go to 10 percent. But, again, this is an American influence and fairly large. If you’re using a credit card, try to leave the tip in cash because I was told by more than one party that credited tips often don’t make it to the server.
  • Italy: I am told this also goes for Finland, a 12.5 percent “service charge” is very often added to your bill. Make sure of it. In Italian, that might look something like “spesa per i servizi,” but it’s often in English. It’s also my experience that in Venice particularly, some restaurants will charge a fee to sit down. This covers the tip, at least in my mind.
  • Switzerland: Look, everyone is wealthy here. Alright, that might be unfair, but it seems Dule’s confusion was so real because you really don’t necessarily have to tip in Switzerland. If you do, just round up to the nearest Swiss franc, give a warm smile and call it a day.
  • Hungary: Peep this, because Sean’s youngest brother didn’t clue me in: “In countries like Hungary and Egypt it is normal to tip almost anyone and everyone who provides service for you (even including professional jobs like doctors). It’s still though fine to round up, without percentages and such.
  • Czech Republic: It isn’t so strict - my friend Richard, a native whom I asked, seemed confused by my worry about it - but in Prague particularly, he said, roughly 10 percent is a good guide. When I tried to give the tip to the young woman who served me, she thought I wanted change. Tip is not something that socially compulsory.
  • Denmark: No tipping. Seriously. I can verify the same for Japan.
  • Sweden: Five to 10 percent, but this is usually done, like other Euro countries, by rounding the bill.
  • Taxis: “Round up the fare, letting the driver keep the change or 2-5€ for longer journeys is sufficient,” according to Contiki. But more important, be super careful about cabs abroad. In many countries, you negotiate, so if you don’t settle up before you get inside you can get yourself in trouble. I saw this played out for another American in a hostel we visisted in Prague. Find out before you go.
  • Restrooms: Oh good God. In almost all of Europe there is a set charge, and Sean and I hate it. So pay that. If there’s a tip tray, instead, never give more than small change.
  • Tour Guides: Well, other than a free tour in Prague where I tipped the equivilant of $8, I never much do tours, so I am going to let this old guy I found tell you that, “each traveler tip $6 to $7 a day for the tour guide, $3 a day for the tour bus driver, and $2 to a separate local tour guide for each half day of sightseeing.”

OK, so the rule, as they say, is there is no rule. But, if you are doing a bit of jetsetting and get caught somewhere without knowing, then the rule is to round up. Give an even amount no more than a few bucks over the bill. If you’re going somewhere fancy, oh, well, that’s somewhere I can’t help.

Yes, and seriously, you can tip me for this post via my paypal account.

Photo courtesy of Savingadvice.

Cheap travel tips: how to travel the world cheaply, our lessons and more Fri, 21 Nov 2008 12:35:08 +0000 Christopher Wink
Sean standing in front of an East London sign. He is a pathetic victim of situational poverty, but he likes to travel. What does he do?

Sean standing in front of an interesting "Hell" advertisement in East London Oct. 4, 2008. He is a pathetic victim of situational poverty, but he likes to travel. What does he and others like him do?We set out to blog about cheap travel.

I fell madly in love with Couch Surfing, which can save you some money and give you some real cultural lessons. In Brussels, we spoke to Ian, a New Zealander who had taken to hitchhiking - which can get one of your biggest expenses, transportation.

There are about a million and five ways to travel cheaply. Sometimes it’s a mentality. Sometimes it’s knowing a local. But, more often, it’s meeting a local with the right mentality.

Here are a handful of the best ways to travel for cheap - or free - that we didn’t even get to on this trip.

Why not start with a helluva quote from Kurt Vonnegut, which I stole from a righteous post on changing one’s mentality to cut travel costs.

As Kurt Vonnegut wrote, “Peculiar travel suggestions are dancing lessons from God.”

  • Travel jobs - Well, silly billy, if traveling is the most important thing in your life - (and make sure it is, because it doesn’t have to be; it isn’t, for instance, at the top of my priorities, and you could be miserable if you miss that) - then get a job that requires you to travel. Get a gig with a big company or a sales job, or, easier than that, check for travel and adventure jobs around the world.
  • Teach English as a second language - For a shorter term spot up in one foreign place - three years or less often - thank your lucky stars that you speak English. Much of the world clamors for English-speakers to teach their kids the language - so they can take on the world of competitive markets and likely usurp our country’s business hold. Eek. Hey, but you get to travel, right? I know three people at this very moment doing this: one in small town Japan, one in rural Ukraine and another in Argentina. Be an English language teacher abroad!
  • Travel Writing - Establish a fine freelancing career in which you travel, write interesting and compelling copy and magazines, newspapers and other media pay you for your product. …Figure this out and then tell me how. There are oodles of blogs catering to folks who wanna break into this genre - like the Written Road - but, believe me, this is a tough go. Hire me to travel write, folks.
  • Service Work - A lot of international jobs are competitive. Indeed, most are - particularly less commitment, high reward, like service work abroad. Programs like Peace Corps, work with Earthwatch and volunteering with groups like Panya Project involve a huge investment of time, energy and commitment - if not money. Still, they offer powerful opportunities to see a part of the world and see it well.
  • World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms - Very cool organization that lets you Couchsurf, essentially, on organic farms in exchange for volunteer work. It can be hard, grueling but is almost always rewarding. I only know of one chap who has done this, and it’s certainly something I’d like to give a go. Travel to a foreign organic farm, work and lodge and eat for free.

You’ll notice the theme that the cheapest ways to travel well involve longer stays in one location. On your jetsetting trip, you can cut into costs couchsurfing, hitchhiking or finding cheap eating tricks while traveling but the faster you move the more it’s going to be. Better figure out what kind of traveler you are and decide whether quality of stay or quantity of stops is more important.

Use Mass transit! Thu, 20 Nov 2008 11:59:34 +0000 Christopher Wink
In the London Tube, Oct. 6, 2008

In the London Tube, Oct. 6, 2008

Oh my goodness. Get out of that cab.

Yeah, renting a car, I suppose, is cool, though gas is so much more expensive in Europe than even cliched notions you might have could suggest.

And, sure, those stories of a cabbie ripping you off in the Czech Republic - decide on a price before you even get inside, folks - are great for your friends.

But if you are only spending a few days in a city, you have to, have to give the city’s mass transit system a spin.

Now, I have a bias because I would say the same thing about U.S. cities - how can you visit Philadelphia or Boston or Pittsburgh or Los Angeles and not give a go to how the common locals get around - but it becomes even more important abroad.

London and Paris have some of the largest subways systems in the world - use the Paris Viste pass in the French capital - but you should also get on the trams in Amsterdam and the trolleys in Prague. Did you get a bicycle in Zurich?

Some locals will tell you that you shouldn’t even pay for a ticket to get on the trolleys in Budapest and maybe not even the metro. Have you been on the red double decker buses in London or a ferry to Copenhagen? Man, now that is one big part of exploring a city.

Even if you only do it for one day, any new city you visit, you have to try out mass transit.

How to eat on the road for cheap, while backpacking, traveling Wed, 19 Nov 2008 12:01:10 +0000 Christopher Wink
Stuffing my face with a delicious Belgian waffle in Brussels.

Stuffing my face with a delicious Belgian waffle in Brussels.

So you’re backpacking to train-traveling for a couple weeks, a month or lots longer.

You end up with the same problem. Trying to eat healthy while keeping costs down.

I spent almost half a grand on eating during a month of backpacking - less than my train-travel and housing costs - which I think is pretty darn good, considering I had to eat every local delicacy we could find.

Let me throw some suggestions at you.

Every city you visit, country you lounge in or region you travel through, I say you gotta accept it. Give yourself at least one dinner out. Now, if you’re really worried about costs, don’t make it an expensive one, but figure out some food locals take pride in and get it. Like dagens rätt in Stockholm or all the dumplings of Prague.

But then, get on the streets. Every self-respecting city ought to have street food of its own. Something you can get from a stall or a stand or a cart or a window or some dude. Like a delicious Belgian waffle or the Parisian crepes that made a brief debut in our final episode or those juicy sausages in Zurich.

Those are two necessities. If the food that you desire is cheap enough, double dip. Food is the best part of travel, I’m here to say.

Otherwise focus on getting those nutrients. You don’t want to get sick traveling, so pay more attention to your health than normally. Yeah, wash your hands. That’s why should walk. Drink lots of water. And, think of your diet.

When you do go out, think vegetables and fruits. You likely won’t be able to get these traveling cheaply and actively. Apples and broccoli doesn’t travel well. So, when you’re ordering that meal, if it comes with any fruits or veggies eat them, eat them, eat them - if there’s a choice, go with them. This is more important than your potato or carbohydrate fetishes. So, in Vienna, I devoured my picked veggies along with my wienerschnitzel.

To close Episode 5, during which we talked shop on Eurorail, Sean and I showed you our habit of killing foreign currency we didn’t need anymore. Taking a tour of a grocery to pick up some foods that could cover us during train travel or help us skip more expensive restaurant meals.

Here’s another opportunity to get those fruits, vegetables and otherwise cover your bases without getting sick.

Start with Nutella or a similar spread. While Nutella is a chocolate spread, it’s a great base for a cheap, solid breakfast or dessert. Take a hit and buy bannanas or strawberries with the last of your currency. Plop them on your spread on bread or rolls - which can be purchased fairly cheaply in any European city - and you have a declicious, fairly cheap breakfast with some fruits. These spreads also, of course, keep. So bulk up if you end up with too much leftover currency. (Peanut butter isn’t so common abroad, but some Western European cities have faced the American influence).

Buy some fruit juices. I have never found an orange juice that did it for me abroad, but apple and pineapple seem to work just fine on all four continents I’ve had them. Spend a little extra for 100 percent juice, which is almost always easy to understand, no matter the language. Great for the morning and often fairly cheap. Often a liter was cheaper than soda, and you need those natural sugars.

Beans! Great protein, and in a flip-top can, they can be carried around in your bag. Grab some flat tortillas. If you could get your hands on a little cheese you have a delicious, fairly nutritious, energy-providing snack - snag some produce from a market and go nuts.

If you have a weak stomach and are worried about getting sick during an extended stay in a new place, I have heard eating local yogurts help your body adjust to local bacterias in water.

Finally when it comes to costs, my father has told me it since I was 10. Drinks and desserts. That’s where the money is made, particularly in restaurants. Bring a water bottle for travel and just get water if you sit down for a meal - or nothing and have some of your fruit juice later. Or figure out how to ask for tap water - I got some in London and Paris but it’s a no-go in some Eastern European countries, as I was told in Prague. Water’s free, and you should be focusing on it, anyway - unlike fueling a Coke habit.

Anyone else have tips for healthy and cheap eating on the road?

Multilingual countries Tue, 18 Nov 2008 12:41:51 +0000 Christopher Wink

I was very caught up in the idea of a single language for a single nation, at least in the developed world.

English. Spanish. German. French. Japanese. Chinese.

A monolithic people speaking a single language in a single place. Of course it gets more complicated, but I didn’t think I would come across those complexities in Western Europe - the mother of much of mainstream American culture.

These damn multilanguage countries confused me.

I thought I would only get a passing reintroduction into my high school French in Brussels, being the capital of Belgium - which has three national languages - and home to much of the European Union governmental infrastructure.

But I was surprised to find very nearly the entire city running on French. This turned out great for me, with my little French language ability, but it was also my first real lesson in language politics and how inaccurately one city can portray an entire country.

Almost two-thirds of Belgian people speak Dutch - many of them clustered in the Flemish-dominated northern half of the Maryland-sized country.

Brussels is a major northern-half exception, so if you didn’t know better I doubt you could believe that the 40 percent of the country’s population who speak French (largely in the southern half of the nation) are in the minority.

In the country’s southwest region there is a German-speaking population, but that makes up just one percent of Belgian people, so legally, the country uses Dutch and French, according to the CIA World Fact book. I am stunned how different that is than my experience in French-heavy Brussels.

Very nearly the opposite happened to me in Zurich, Switzerland.

I thought I could coast on my French in Zurich, but I didn’t find a lick of it.

Switzerland has four official languages - German, French, Italian, and Romansch - but Zurich is German through and through, though one in five Swiss folks speak French. Just six and a half percent of Swiss people speak Italian now, and Romansh-speakers represent just half a percent of the Swiss population, but they got official status, too.

Never would thought it from the brief stays in those country’s largest cities. Remember, remember, remember that if you’re taking short stays - which is fine - you will not have real cultural or national understanding. You just saw some stuff. …Freakin’ tourist.

Image from Mulvio.

Live or travel: quality versus quantity in adventure Mon, 17 Nov 2008 13:01:19 +0000 Christopher Wink It becomes a question of quality of stay or quantity of stops.

Do you want to join the Peace Corps or study abroad or use any of the other of wonderful ways that give you a chance at an extended stay in a single place. That’s how you come to know a foreign place intimately.

Or, do you want to see as many of the world’s great sights as you can in the time and with the money you have? That’s how come to visit the thousands of famous spots and locations we know.

Much goes into the decision, what kind of traveler you want to be, what you want to learn, and what you’re willing to sacrifice.

After this trip I have even more thoughts on the matter.

I spent a summer studying at the University of Ghana in West Africa. I studied abroad in Tokyo for a semester, too. Even my shorter international experiences before this backpacking trip had the sense of singular focus - a couple weeks in eastern China and a week in Italy and one in Tijuana, Mexico. While I was moving and they were certainly brief, they were within one country.

In the case of Ghana, I had a couple months to take on the capital of a leading West African nation. I still left conflicted and lost. I had six months in the largest city of Japan. I still probably took more from an interview I did with famed author and film critic Donald Richie than my day-to-day experiences.

As I mentioned in a post last week, I’ve lived in Philadelphia for four years. There are worlds of that aged metropolis I haven’t discovered, and I know it. I hope you know that, too. Don’t confuse visiting with coming to understand.

So, will you take a month or a few, year or more to live in a single place and begin the process of coming to know it? Or will see as much as you can in as little time as you have?

Many haggard travelers will criticize the latter, the jetsetting, so often attributed to careless, disinterested Americans. I think that’s unfair.

I say that as long as you understand a few days in a city isn’t enough to know that city, and certainly isn’t enough to know much of anything about the country, it’s fine. We spent six weeks traveling Europe and never spent more than five days in a single place. I saw some amazing sights, ate some delicious foods and met some great people, but I leave it at that. I can speak for my experiences, but won’t go beyond that.

If you are willing to give up the ability of sensibly speaking with any authority on a subject, then jetset, and see as much as you can.

If you are willing to give up seeing more than a country’s or a region’s worth of sights and sounds, then hunker down, learn a language, meet a people and come to begin to know a culture.

There’s great rewards in both, so I’d say try both methods at times in your life. But which will be your first?

T-Shirt from Fashionista.

The finances: costs of a month of backpacking Europe Sun, 16 Nov 2008 13:13:53 +0000 Christopher Wink

Sean and I each went to Europe with $4,200. Between the two of us we returned with more than half of our total - what’s left of mine is seen in my online bank statement seen above.

For both of us, that was very nearly everything cent we had in savings. We each returned to find jobs and homes and begin payment on student loans (Sean’s thoughts, too). Though a lot of ground needs to be made to begin our lives, fortunately we returned with some savings.

How’d we do it? After some budget crunching abroad and some more on my own, I have figured out my expenses. Get a rough sense of the costs of a backpacking trip like ours, using the totals from my $4,200.

My total costs: $2,879.35

Initial flight to London: $350

Return flight from Stockholm: $580.50

Eurorail pass: $821.59

Accommodations (Hostels and hotels): $583.47

Food: $487.82

ATM charges: $24.50

Credit card, reservation and entrance fees: $57.43

The sum of the categories does not equal exact total costs because of exchanges and rounding.

$2,879.35 of my $4,200 estimate is 69 percent.

ATM fees Sat, 15 Nov 2008 13:53:17 +0000 Christopher Wink

Six weeks of $3.50 ATM charges? Complete and regular frustration. Constantly wanting to avoid taking money out if I didn’t have to. That worked out to a grand total of $24.50.

It does help to work with a buddy on your budget and reduce your trips to foreign banks.

Watch out for those credit card fees, too, kids.

Photo from FirstNYFCU.


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