Running Away for the Holidays

Photo credit: Les Haines, CC BY 2.0.

Holidays are hard.

Actually, holidays are hell.

It’s weird how uncomfortable and painful eight hours with people you love can be. It’s not just me; I’m sure my parents and children feel the same way. So, in my quest for better mental health, I ran away for Thanksgiving. Far away. And I did it on the cheap. (I understand if your idea of cheap is a little different from mine.)

Here’s how I did it:

My travel plan: One-way ticket to Brussels from Dallas on Thanksgiving Day, One-way return ticket from Prague to Dallas two weeks later. Take trains city-to-city without much of a plan and get to Prague in time for my return trip.

I ended up spending one day in London on a layover, two days in Brussels, three days in Amsterdam, three days in Munich, one day in Salzburg, and two days in Prague. Two days were spent on airplanes.

Getting there: I used airline miles. 45,000 on American, plus $115 in fees.

Hotels: I used a variety of options here. I booked rooms on Airbnb (disaster), Expedia (hotels and a hostel), and Marriott Android App. The total lodging costs came to $1,486, or basically $100 per night. I could have gone about 25 percent cheaper without too much effort but I wanted to stay at a few nice places. I did pay for my last night in Prague with Marriott points.

Trains: Travel from place to place in Europe is super easy. I was tempted to buy the EU Rail pass ($606) before I left. (Actually, I tried to buy it right before I left and realized it would be mailed to me.) But skipping the pass worked out great. At the central train station in Brussels, I talked to a very friendly ticket agent. I discussed my vague plans with him and he advised buying tickets as needed.

Here are the tickets I bought:

  • Brussels to Amsterdam (2nd Class) – $55
  • Amsterdam to Munich (1st Class High Speed Rail) – $140
  • Munich to Salzburg (2nd Class Round Trip) – $45
  • Munich to Prague (2nd Class) – $55

What to do: In each location, I wanted to make sure I walked around and saw the city. To get the most of each city, I booked a three-hour “free” tour, Gilligan’s Island style. There are several on offer; I used the Sandemans New Europe app and it made scheduling the tours super easy. You open the app, chose the city you are in (or the city you’re planning to visit), and select the tour you want to take. Every city I used it had a free tour, but they have specialized paid tours as well. The free tour guides work for tips, so be generous.

I used the free tours to learn about the city and find the things I wanted to explore further. For example, in Amsterdam we saw a location with a hidden church from the time when Catholicism was illegal. I came back the next day and paid $6 to take the full tour. In Munich, in addition to the free tour I took the Third Reich Tour (yes, I like historical stuff). Based on this tour I took the next afternoon to go to the WWII Documentation Center to learn more about the years leading up to and through WWII. The walking tour in Prague gave a great historical overview and led me to visit the Charles Bridge and the palaces across the river from the old town center.

All in, I spent about $100 on tours and museums. I found excellent free museums and buildings in every city using a bit of Googling and the Trip Advisor app.

Food: I’m not much of a foodie. I ate the free breakfast if hotels offered, I bought from street vendors when it looked good. I spent, at most, $15 a day on food. In a couple of the cities I visited, I found small grocery stores and bought fruits and nuts that traveled well. 

Phone and internet: Without much of a schedule I wanted to make sure I had connectivity. I went to Amazon and spent $50 on a prepaid SIM card with 13GB of data, 1000 minutes and 1000 texts good for 30 days. Make sure to get your phone unlocked by your carrier before you travel or the SIM won’t work when you get there. I had an old unlocked Android phone laying around the house that I used. 

Total trip cost: $2,250

The same trip could be done quite a bit cheaper by staying in shared-room hostels, skipping the high-speed rail and sticking to just free activities. You could probably get it down to around $1,500 that way. But when I run away for the holidays, I don’t mind spending a little extra.

Robb Wagner is middle-aged, likes to see stuff, and is okay with being alone.

This piece is part of The Billfold’s Holidays and Money series.

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