Thursday, October 4, 2012

Northern Italy

On our most recent trip, we decided to take the road less traveled in Italy, skip all of the major cities, and head to Parma, Alba, and Cogne. Italy is hard to visit on a budget, but it can be done. What we found while doing research was that hotels and apartment rentals for September were about the same price in the towns we visited, around 80-100€ a night. This is above our regular budget, but we would not have saved much money staying in private rooms in hostels. Also, for budget reasons, we did not rent a car which added to the convenience pricing of staying right in town.

The first thing I need to explain/share is the idea of aperitivo in Italy. I googled this before we went and the information I found was not as accurate as I would have liked. Aperitivo or aperitivi (plural) is when bars and some restaurants give you a small plate of snacks with every drink you order. Generally, this takes place between 5pm and 9pm. Sometimes, the drink is more expensive because it comes with food, but others charge the same price, about 3-5€ per drink. With each drink ordered, another small plate of snacks (potato chips, small sandwiches, etc.) come to the table. But, unlike what I read before we went, we saw no “buffet” from which we could eat. Aperitivo is a great way to have a few drinks and snacks and therefore be able to eat a smaller dinner or no dinner at all. Watch the drink prices because it could become more expensive than just going out to dinner.

On to the trip itself. In Parma, we rented an apartment on the west side of the river. Nothing special but the kitchen came in handy for breakfasts and snacking. We were lucky enough to be in Parma for the Prosciutto Festival. We toured the Fontana Ham factory which was very informative and interesting. The town itself was beautiful and full of great restaurants (a foodie’s dream). The prices were not out of control and we never felt pressured to order both a first and second course as is sometimes the case.

Fontana Ham Factory tour.
Alba was a lovely little town with a wonderfully preserved city center. It is also in the heart of the Piedmont wine country. Surrounding Alba in every direction are towns that must be explored and visited for their sites as well as their wines. We went to Barolo, Novello, Barbaresco, Guarene, Roddi, Bra, and Grinzane Cavour.

Here are my warnings about the wine region of Piedmont. Attractions (castles, museums, enoteche) are closed on odd days and at odd times of the year that are not always predictable. Also, while I was very excited to visit the enoteche (wine tasting centers) around the region, I was disappointed in what I found. I read that the enoteche were great places to try different wines from the region without having to make reservations at the actual wineries. (click here for website I referenced). While the enoteche regionale were nice and usually housed in historic buildings, they only offered a few wines for anywhere between 1-4€ per tasting. Knowing this, I recommend looking around town for the privately run enoteche, as well as visiting the enoteche regionale. Also, look for the sign “gratis degustazione.” We found shops that offered free tastings in hope that you would buy wine from them.

In Cogne, we were able to rent a small apartment for about 60€ per night right in town. While we waited for the bus in Aosta (the only public transportation to Cogne), we made a quick trip to Billa (grocery store) and picked up meat, cheese, bread, etc. for breakfasts to come. This was cheaper than buying food in Cogne. We took full advantage of the Gran Paradiso National Park while visiting. Entrance is free and, while the trail distances are a bit misleading, the scenery is beautiful. We took sandwiches and some fruit with us and had a picnic at the waterfall near Lillaz.

We also took a journey (two buses and a one mile walk) to see the castle in Fenis. While we had heard it was one of the better castles in the area, I would recommend seeing other castles closer to where you are staying. The castle in Fenis was fine but it was a hassle to get to without a car and the guided tour that you must take is only offered in Italian. Valle d’Aosta has a great tourism site with a list of all the castles in the region.

Finally, here are my last two recommendations on visiting Italy and trying to save some money while doing it. When wine tasting in northern Italy, drink everything. But if you are on a budget, check out the Nebbiolos, the local Pinot Noirs, and the Torrettes. They are, in my opinion, delicious bold, red wines but are cheaper than Barolo. Also, in our experience, the public transportation system through smaller towns and cities is not great if you are (a) on a tight schedule (b) are not comfortable with Italian, or (c) have little patience. Most trains don’t run into the mountainous areas. For this, you must rely on buses and most inter-city buses don’t run during lunchtime (approximately noon – 3pm). Buses also don’t seem to run very often, on average less than once an hour. Meaning, if you want to go somewhere, do so early with the understanding that you might be there until the afternoon. If you are one with little patience (as I sometimes am), I would recommend looking into renting a car especially if you want to set your own schedule and move from town to town freely. That being said, the buses were extremely affordable, on average 2-3€ per hour on short bus trips. While we got lost, almost stuck, and accidentally rode the school bus to the wrong town, the views were amazing and well worth the money saved and the time “wasted.”

Monday, July 2, 2012

Eastern Canada

I recently took a roadtrip with girlfriends to Canada. We flew into Bangor, Maine then drove through Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Prince Edward Island. We were there in late May which is just before the high season. So we were able to save some money on hotel rates but this also meant that some businesses which cater to tourism were not yet open.

While I was not generally impressed with St. John in New Brunswick, I really enjoyed my time at Rockwood Park just outside of St. John. We went horseback riding in the park. It was $30 per person for a one hour ride and was worth every penny. Our guide Mike was a wealth of information on Canada and kindly answered all of our questions about the horses.

Halifax was a great stop over for a few days but is definitely not as budget friendly as I was hoping. If on a tight budget, I would recommend skipping the Citadel. While it's interesting, its not amazing. I would, however, recommend strolling through the Public Gardens. There is a little cafe there called Sugagh. It has great snacks and delicious ice cream for about $2.50 per scoop. The cafe also has local coffee and chocolates. For affordable breakfast in Halifax, just do a google search. There seems to be a lot of places to grab eggs, hash browns, and a coffee for around $4-8. And, there is always Tim Horton's. For a delicious, though not incredibly cheap, check out the Wooden monkey for great organic food. Entrees range between $11 and $20.

We also made the drive to Prince Edward Island (also known as PEI). I loved it for the outdoors and the breathtaking scenery. My friends loved it for the Anne of Green Gables museums. Charlottetown seems big and touristy compared to the small towns we saw while driving around the island. Here is one thing we didn't know before going. There is a toll to get off the island of $44. There is a ferry you can take but with a few people and a car the cost is about the same. Still, I would recommend that if you are going to go to PEI, make sure it's worth the time and money to be there. While the groceries and gasoline on the island seems to be cheaper than the mainland, nothing is close-by to anything else which means a lot of driving and a lot of gas going in the tank. We wandered the countryside and the parks and it looked like there were cabin rentals everywhere. We went another route and booked a place to stay on It's a site were people rent out their spare bedroom or entire apartment. We rented this lovely little cottage with a view of a lake for about $100 a night.
Overall, I really enjoyed my time in Eastern Canada. And If I were to give only one piece of advice it would be this; If you are driving in from the U.S., purchase alcohol (and fill up the tank while you are at it) before you cross the border. Each person can take one bottle of liquor or two bottles of wine without penalty. It will save you a lot of money.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

New York City

I recently spent a few days in New York. I wanted to wander the city but also see some of the major sites.

I went to Ellis Island and Liberty Island. Now, I made the mistake of thinking that since summer had not started, that I would have no problem walking up, buying a ticket, and getting on the first ferry to the islands. Boy was I wrong. So, I recommend purchasing tickets ahead of time so you won't have to wait in the same line as the rest of us poor schmos who waited in line for a full hour before getting on a ferry. Reserving tickets is no more expensive. You just have to know what day and time you will be there to use your tickets.

I also went to see a play on Broadway. Instead of paying full price, check out for discounted theater tickets. One of the ticket booths is on the South Street Seaport. There is another ticket office in Time Square but I recommend avoiding that booth along with the area at all costs. It's way too crowded. There will be a board with all of the shows that offer discounted tickets. There will also be people you can ask questions of and get descriptions on what the plays are about. Get there early, at least 30 minutes before the booth opens to try and ensure you get tickets to the show of your choice. See the website for more information.

Last, but not least, I went to New York to eat. I highly recommend checking out the food trucks in the city. Food trucks are not the same as the street food vendors. Food trucks are usually trendier foods with better ingredients (think braised beef tacos with pickled onions). But, since they are competing with the food vendors and nearby restaurants, their prices are very affordable. This is a great way to eat something tasty and keep your costs down. It's also a nice way to enjoy all of the public parks New York has to offer. Assuming the weather is good, you can sit outside and enjoy the view while eating delicious food. If you have a smartphone, look into downloading one of the many food truck apps that are available. Also, you can follow most of these food trucks on Twitter.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012


Budapest is a beautiful city and we really enjoyed our time there. Here are a few things we found that made the trip even better. The further you get away from the Danube, the better the food and the prices get. Yes, the view of the river is breathtaking but the restaurants are there for tourists, not for their ability to make great food. There are great restaurants in the Jewish Quarter that are affordable and give you a lot for your money. Also, there are great restaurants and bars up near the Oktogon metro stop like Menza, Also check out ruin bars which are bars usually set up in old buildings, or shells of old buildings. The drink prices are cheaper than other bars and they stay open later. They are all on the Pest side. Check out this website for locations and more information. 

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Hallstatt, Austria

Hallstatt is a picturesque town in Austria, the one most people have seen online or on postcards. During the day, tourists come by bus and by boat to see this small town right on the lake. But by nightfall, the town becomes peaceful again. We wanted to really enjoy Hallstatt and the surrounding area so we stayed for a few nights. We rented a room at Haus Lenz which was 26€ per person for room with a private bathroom. It’s up the hillside a bit but the views are well worth the climb. We went to the Prehistoric Museum for 4€ which had very interesting information on the Hallstatt area over time. All off the information is in English and German as well as many other languages. We also visited the Beinhaus (Bonehouse) where the bones of past Hallstatt residents are displayed. Due to a lack of space in the cemetery and in the town overall, burials are only temporary. After 10-15 years graves are opened and the bones are cleaned and placed in the Beinhaus. This practice ended some 40 years ago and is a very interesting way to spend 1€. When we were in Hallstatt in September 2011, the town was just putting together a self-guided walking tour. It was not up and running yet but there were already numbered plaques all around town. For 5€, you get an MP3 player and a set of headphones.
During one of our days there, we took a bus over to Obertraun to do some hiking. The tourism center in Obertraun was very helpful in providing maps of hiking trails. We hiked for about an hour to get to Koppenbrullerhohle which is a cave you can tour. The cost was 7.50€ and is only open May through September. While I did not think the tour was worth the money, I thoroughly enjoyed the hike which got us there. It was a great way to spend a day.