How to Travel Smart & Cheap

Have you always dreamed of seeing the Eiffel Tower sparkle at night as you stroll along the banks of the Seine river? Or how about mountain biking down volcanoes on ancient Maya trails in Guatemala? Have those trips seemed out of reach either due to budget or not knowing where to start planning? Whether you're a new traveler or would like some fresh tips on how to travel smart & cheap, I'd like empty my brain and share some of my tips & secrets on how to get around the world.

Being an airline pilot I'm quite fortunate to have the opportunity to travel and take photos around the world. Through my camera lens & travels I hope to inspire others to get out and see the world. Travel not only opens our eyes and erases stereotypes it also makes for life long memories that are irreplaceable. So aside from my typical posts on sharing my work & photography tips I'd like to change gears for a minute and post some useful info on how to travel smartly and affordably. So YOU can make that trip you've been dreaming of. Since I'm a pilot you might correctly guess that my wife & I pay very little airfare to get around the planet and that enables us of course to do a lot of travel. So while I can't help you with cheap airfare, I have plenty to share about the other aspects of traveling and saving money in order to make your dream trip a reality. So save up (or earn those miles) for that airline ticket and in the meantime I'll help you with the rest!

Exploring Ecuador by bike // Olympus Digital

Learning the Ropes

To start, planning for a trip a abroad can seem like a daunting task but worry not. A little smart planning and research will go a long way in helping your trip go smooth. My wife and I have always traveled independently and have never utilized any sort of travel agent or booking agency. Their fees and itineraries just aren't something we dig or believe most people really need, though a few speciality outfitters do offer some great trips but can come with a big price tag. Utilizing resources such as Lonely Planet, Wikitravel, Trip Advisor, travel forums, friends, family and good old fashioned common sense will help you get by just fine. We always like to learn some basic phrases in the local language as well to aid in getting around and the locals always appreciate the effort (especially Parisians). So using an app such Duolingo or trying out Rosetta Stone wouldn't hurt in that regard. 

One of my biggest money saving tips is to travel during the low or off season. While you may not get the best weather, the crowds will be few, the accommodations cheaper and your sanity better for it. We typically travel during the spring and fall (Europe in the winter is great too!) to avoid the crowds and still find good weather for the most part.

Once you get a general idea of where you want to go, I just say 'go'! Yes really, throw caution to the wind (mostly since you've done some research right?) and just go. To quote the famous Warren Miller of ski film lore, "if you don't do it this year, you'll be one year older when you do!" If you've never tried international travel before, I always suggest one of the large European capitals to start as most inhabitants speak fluent english and are used to tourists. Once you've warmed up a bit you can head out to the less traveled parts of the globe and get some truly amazing & unique experiences.

The Sacré Cœur in Paris' Montmartre neighborhood overlooks the city from above // Fuji X-T1

Where & How to Sleep Affordably

My wife and I are long over staying in hostels, save for the occasional private room with perhaps a shared bathroom in the right place. For the most part these days we frequent mid-range locally owned establishments when possible to help keep our costs reasonable and keep the money in the local economy. If you are up for the hostel experience, by all means share a room with other folks and enjoy the experiences hostel stays afford. Other than camping, it is most likely the cheapest stay possible and offers the ability to meet other travelers, swap stories and share tips. As a 30-something married couple we like a bit more comfort these days and seek out nicer amenities. We've stayed in camper vans, hostels, gross hotels, expensive boutique hotels, B&Bs, airport hotels, thatch huts, safari camps, etc. Finding the right place will likely be tailored to your adventure, so my best advice is to not simply revert to one of the big booking sites and blindly choose a brand name hotel. Rather, dig deeper and stay local when you can. 

Depending on where you choose to go, my best advice is to stay out from the city center and away from tourist attractions. You can save some big money by simply taking a train or bus (see Getting Around below) to get where you need each day. You'll also benefit from staying nearer where the locals live & work and will experience a bit more of the culture than you otherwise would in the tourist areas. We recently stayed in the Da Costabuurt neighborhood on Amsterdam's west side which saved us some money and had a much more local vibe which we loved.

How do we find our places? A mix of Trip Advisor, WikiTravel, Lonely Planet, knowledge from other globe trotting friends or simply doing an internet search for 'local stay Amsterdam' can yield excellent results. We've also started using the very popular Airbnb service in places such as Sri Lanka, Paris and even Crested Butte here in Colorado. All with great result in the budget, comfort and local flavor category. 

Our camper van otherwise known as 'Rehab' in Queenstown, New Zealand // Nikon D300

Eating & Nourishment

Aside from hotels, eating is usually one of our larger expenses when we travel. We absolutely love finding local high quality food and will pay a premium at times to enjoy the best a locale has to offer. That said, we are thrifty in this area in between those splurges and find creative ways to keep nourished without breaking the bank. In Italy? Grab some cheap local wine in a plastic jug, a loaf of bread, some prosciutto and cheese from the local market and lunch is had! While I feel like it is a silly endorsement, we do honestly bring Snickers with us to keep those 'diva' moments at bay in between meals. After we've hit a museum for instance they make for nice snacks while we find a worthy place to eat without settling and saves my wife from dealing with Cranky Travel Nick. Which brings me to...

Avoid at all costs eating near big monuments & museums. Without fail, prices will be hefty, the food less than great and the service mediocre. You'll pay a premium for less than memorable food in most cases. There are a few exceptions to this rule, but for the most part avoid the tourist trap places and seek out cheaper & better options away from the action. Sometimes it only takes a few blocks away from the madness to find some true gems that won't break the budget.

Lastly, take advantage of any free breakfast your hotel may offer and buy snacks from whatever local market there is to get you through the day. We typically don't spend much money until dinner time and that meal is usually well worth the wait!

Dinner waiting to be served in Amoudi Bay, Santorini // Nikon D300

Getting Around

Once your plane lands, the cost of getting around locally can really add up if you aren't careful. While it's tempting to want to just grab a cab and pay the price to get to your hotel quickly after a long flight, consider using the train, bus or shared rides. A cab fare from the airport in a big European city can cost upwards of 40-50 (euro) or more, whereas a train or bus ride is much cheaper. For our last trip to Paris the train fare from Charles de Gaulle airport to downtown was only 10€ per person. And you don't have to deal with traffic! It might add a little more stress and research to figure out local transportation, but the savings add up quick!

Aside from getting to and from the airport, local transportation during your trip can obviously add big costs as well. Best advice is to bring your walking shoes, look for multi-ride bus or rail passes and use cabs sparingly. There are some exceptions to this rule, such as Panama City, Panama where cab rides are ridiculously cheap and safer for skipping certain seedier neighborhoods. In most large cities trams, buses and metro rail lines are plentiful & cheap. Being a bit adventurous and trying to utilize the local transportation will help immerse you in the culture and save money.

Braving the rain slicked roads in the Sri Lankan mountain town of Kandy in a tuk-tuk as the driver's Buddha glows // iPhone 5S

Travel Smarter (useful apps)

Since there are a million apps out there, I'll just list a few favorites that we use most often. Since I'm an iPhone guy these apps will be iOS related, but most are cross platform so you should find them on other phones as well.

  • Trip Advisor City Guide - a downloadable (offline) guide that actually has a lot useful info and has a map that will keep track of your location even when your phone is in airplane mode.
  • Currency - handy app to check the latest currency data and exchange rates
  • Airbnb - allows you to search for local stays at good prices that will have that local flavor
  • Hotel Tonight - for the last minute traveler or emergency stay (missed flight) good deals for same day hotels
  • Flight Track Pro - great app for planning and knowing which airlines serve certain destinations, also has departure boards
  • WikiTravel - a free and expansive resource on travel destinations
  • Transit - a newer app that is building a worldwide database of local bus & train lines, good experience so far using it
  • Skype - cheap calls or free if the other person has Skype too!

While I'm on the subject of technology, if you don't have a data plan that covers other countries leave your phone in airplane mode! Data usage costs can be astronomical if used abroad. Instead, stop by a cafe and use wifi when needed or connect in your hotel. A lot of mapping apps will still know your location based on your last connection. So that little blue dot can know where you are even when you're not connected. A little 'big brother', but can come in handy if you are lost in the back alleys of Istanbul for instance.

Nap time in the back alleys of Istanbul, Turkey // Nikon D300

Spend Wisely

One mistake a lot of travelers seem to make is to want to spend big bucks on all kinds crazy expensive activities. While these can be fun (who doesn't want to bungee jump or power boat up the river in Queenstown, New Zealand) they can really add to the cost of your trip. I'll suggest to do activities on the cheap such as hiking, renting bikes, use free hotel amenities (bikes, kayaks, snorkels, etc.) and focus on one or two activities that you really want to do if the budget is tight. Museums and other attractions can add costs as well, so choose wisely and don't get caught in the trap of trying to do too much at once. Slowing down and enjoying your trip vs. running like mad to see the Mona Lisa in the Louvre (guilty) will pay dividends for your peace of mind and pocketbook. Paris will always be there and who knows, perhaps you'll be back to explore more once you're hooked on this travel thing.

Unless you've budgeted money for shopping, don't purchase lots of things you didn't plan to and don't forget you somehow have to get all that stuff back home! We don't buy many things when we travel for both budget and packing reasons. Most of our purchases will be limited to small items from local artisans as you can find many of the same things all over the world. Look for those unique items made locally that will easily pack in your suitcase.

Be sure to check with your bank before you leave as foreign transaction fees and ATM withdrawal fees can add up. There are several good credit cards and banks out there that don't charge for such things. The folks over at NerdWallet have some good data to share if you need help researching a new card. We don't worry about bringing travel cheques (a thing of the past) but rather simply withdraw money locally as needed. Just be sure to research where ATMs are if you travel to remote locations and plan ahead.

Lastly be sure to let your bank know where & when you'll be traveling. That way your cards don't get shut off while abroad. It's also a good idea to bring two different types of cards, MasterCard and Visa for instance as some places may only accept one over the other.

Zebras during 'rush hour' in Madikwe, South Africa // Nikon D40X

Zebras during 'rush hour' in Madikwe, South Africa // Nikon D40X

Just 'GO'!

Yep, just go. Stop thinking about it and make it happen. I hope you've found this little guide handy and inspiring without being too overwhelming. Stepping out of our routines and experiencing other cultures can seem daunting at first but you'll be rewarded with amazing experiences along with a new outlook on the world that just might keep you on the move. And of course, don't forget your camera! Check back soon for a fresh article on travel friendly camera recommendations to capture those new adventures. So do you have the travel itch now? Scratch it, go see the world and capture your own travel photos for your friends & family to see!

Yours truly and the better half kayaking in New Zealand's Abel Tasman National Park // Nikon D300

The "Post-Photography Hangover"

Ahh, the joy of jet lag.  Having been awake since 4am despite being back in the comfort of my own bed, I couldn't help but think of the photos I captured this week in Istanbul.  The first thing I did last night once we got home (as always) was to download my images to my computer, make further backups & import them to Lightroom.  Typically I then take a few minutes to scroll through my images to see if I captured any portfolio worthy shots.  And what did I see?  Nothing.  Nada.  Crap. How could that be?  My wife and I had just spent a week in one of the most beautiful cities on Earth - a UNESCO World Heritage Site at that - and I'm not happy with my photos?!  Something isn't adding up.  Frustrated, I went downstairs to enjoy a much needed breakfast burrito and thought about my images for a bit.  After clearing a bit of the fog from my jet lag, I realized I was experiencing the dreaded "Post-Photography Hangover".  I've experienced it before, but this time seemed quite accute.  Perhaps it was the fact that I was hungry and had essentially been up for about 24 hours, but I wasn't happy with what I was seeing.  Usually this occurs after a long day of shooting, weddings were typically my worst culprits.  It sometimes took me a few days after the wedding to get the creative excitement back to start the work on my edits and see the images in fresh light.

I'll define this "Hangover" as a loss of creative interpretation or burnout from your own work.  Sometimes even though you may have captured some great images, you just can't see their full potential until you sit on them for a few days.  I remember two particular events, one a wedding and one a day of wandering around the Pima Air & Space Museum in Tucson, that took me a bit of time to digest.  Once I saw the potential both sets turned out some of my favorite shots yet.  In fact, one of my favorite things to do is to re-visit images I shot months or even years ago.  Sometimes you see potential in images you had previously decided weren't worthy.  It is quite interesting the effect that time can have on the creative process!

So how do you cure the "Post-Photography Hangover"?  Likely no 'cure' exists, but I think the best idea is to give it a few days and clear your head.  Step away from the computer, go for a hike or just do something that clears your mind.  Give it time and you'll see good results.

So after having another quick look through my images from Istanbul this morning, the excitement is growing.  I happened on the image below and it really stood out to me.  It may take a few days or even weeks for me to digest the rest of the images and they may not ultimately produce my best work.  That said, it was a wonderful trip and I think I'll muster at least few good shots.  Now where is my coffee cup?


Which Camera Should I Buy? (Part III)

Welcome back for the third and final installment in my 'Which Camera Should I Buy?" series.  Previously we covered camera basics and higher end SLRs.  This time we'll focus on the 'middle road' of cameras, which are the more advanced point & shoots. If you are…somewhere between the two worlds I mentioned in my previous posts, you probably need an advanced point & shoot.  This style of camera is a great mix between the SLR and more basic point & shoot.  Portable, advanced, and ability to produce sharp pictures make this relatively newer entrant to the market excellent candidates for a wide range of photographers .  There are two subcategories that we'll discuss: some still have interchangeable lenses for even greater creativity while others rely on a fixed lens with digital zoom.

The 'Fixed' Lens Compact This is what I carry on each of my trips when I'm flying for the airline each week.  In fact, it rarely leaves my messenger bag just in case I find something noteworthy in my travels whenever I have my bag (which is quite often).  For the last few years I've been using two different advanced compacts that I love for different reasons.  One of my two is the beloved Sigma DP1, which has no zoom, a slow start up time, slow shutter speeds and mediocre low light performance.  Why do I love it then?  The Foveon sensor contained within the camera is utterly amazing.  The color production, hues, saturation and sharpness this little camera produces are unparalleled in cameras this size.  Case in point from a courtyard in Guatemala:

This camera is more for the landscape and street art photographer who wants to take the time to compose images and make beautiful shots.  While I won't recommend this camera for everyone, a camera of it's quality just might be worth your investment down the road.

Now that I told you about a camera that I won't recommend for everyone, I'll move on to the my current camera that is my go to choice for this category.  For the last couple of years, the trusty Nikon P7000 has been the 'daily driver' that fits my needs for a true travel-friendly compact camera.  It does everything my beloved Sigma doesn't.   The newer version is the Nikon P7700 which has been upgraded from my current model in several areas.  Portability, great zoom capability, good ISO performance (low light capability), shooting in RAW file format and wide angle format are some of my favorite features of this camera.  Of course, the portablity factor is huge for outdoor action sports capability.  I can strap the camera case on my backpack when mountain biking for instance and be able to create great images on the fly.  Case in point this shot from Horsethief Bench Trail near Fruita, Colorado:

Definitely check it out and consider purchasing one in the near future!  Other options in this category include:

Canon Powershot G12 Sigma Merrill DP1

Interchangeable Lens Compact This is a category that allows for switching lenses on the go and a wider variety of creative options.  However, the trade off is you might carry more gear along thus it won't be quite as an all-in-one as a 'fixed' lens compact.  This category contains the hot up & coming mirrorless cameras that offer some distinct advantages to their predecessors.  While I don't own one of these yet, the Nikon 1 J2 is high on my list to be a partner to my other compacts.  This trend of compact cameras with interchangeable lenses does seem to be gaining strength, so if you want the best of both worlds between portability and creative options with lenses definitely consider this category.  Two other options which have garnered rave reviews are:

Olympus Pen E-P3Panasonic Lumix GF5K

I hope this series has helped narrow down where you should start your search and what kind of camera to look for.  Remember, always head to your local camera store and try before you buy.  And of course, being local-minded as I am - support local business and buy it from the store!  The support & knowledge that your local camera store will offer will pay dividends down the road as you embark on your photographic journey.

Which Camera Should I Buy? (Part II)

Last time we covered the basics of camera buying and simple point & shoot options.  This time we'll focus on the high end of my recommendations in this three part series. If you are…wanting the challenge of stepping up to an SLR with interchangeable lenses, feel your old point & shoot just doesn't do it anymore, desire to shoot sports of any kind, want to expand your artistic eye, and don't mind carting around bigger equipment: then it's time for an SLR!  This will be the high end of my recommendations so be prepared for perhaps a little sticker shock.  While I won't recommend the SLR that the guy from Sports Illustrated uses, there are plenty of more entry level priced SLRs that pack a serious punch in both quality and features.  And of course the ability to change lenses pushes your creative senses to new heights!

There is a saying in photography to spend the money on the glass (lens) and not so much on the camera body.  In my opinion it is a very accurate statement.  One of my favorite images I've ever taken came from my 'lowly' Nikon D40X which at the time was an entry level digital SLR.  I had a very nice lens that I had rented which certainly made a huge difference.  See below for my testimony to this belief.

Zebras - Madikwe, South Africa

With that said, you can feel good about buying an SLR camera body on the lower end of the spectrum even if you plan to step up your game down the road.  Whichever camera you choose, you'll be on solid footing as you begin to explore the creative possibilities of owning an SLR.

Nikon D3200

My recommendation?  The Nikon D3200.  This is Nikon's latest entrant in the do-it-all SLR category.  HD video?  No problem!  Low light?  No problem!  Fast shutter speeds?  No problem!  I think you get the point.  At $700 MSRP (lens included) it might be a little bit of sticker shock for the new entrant into higher-end cameras, but believe me that price is worth it.  One of Nikon's perpetual strengths is the quality of the image sensor in their camera bodies, even the lower end cameras as evidenced above in my Zebra image offer excellent output.  The sensor found in most SLRs will make or break the image quality and Nikon simply gets it right.

Most DSLR camera kits come with one or two lenses, often a 18-55mm lens is common.  It gives a good range to start with a decent wide angle option at 18mm and a bit of zoom on the other end at 55mm.  Just enough range and quality to get you started on your adventure and education in photography.

Also consider:

Canon EOS Rebel T2i Sigma SD15 Sony a57 DSLR

Whichever camera you choose, be sure to test it out at your local camera store and ask lots of questions.  Be sure to check back soon for the final part of my 'which camera to buy' series!