Working Travel into Your Budget

Working travel into your budget: ways to turn a travel dream into reality. You just have to want it bad enough.

 

The biggest reason people don’t travel is money. They look at pictures of tropical beaches or European castles longingly, thinking, “someday I’ll go there.” They may think they will travel after they retire. For a lot of people though, working travel into your budget can be a bigger hindrance after retirement than before. You also might not be physically able to do as many things when you are older as you think you will.

In reality, biggest obstacle in going somewhere may not actually be money, it is probably just planning and prioritizing. If you want to travel, here are some ways to do it on a tight budget:

 

1. Prioritize travel

This is the number one thing you have to do if you want to travel, and it is the most difficult. If you want it, you have to keep your eyes on the prize. Maybe those beat up shoes can get you through another year. Maybe you don’t need to upgrade to the new iPhone. Maybe you can cancel your cable package and stream Neflix and Hulu instead. Maybe you can eat dinner out with your sweetie at the bar during happy hour instead of a nice 5 course meal.

You won’t have room in your budget for everything you want, so you will have to pick and choose what is a priority and what can wait or isn’t necessary. Cut back your expenses in whatever way you can. If you’re single, consider getting a roommate. If you want it bad enough, you can work it out.

I’m a planner, and I plan our vacations way in advance and save for them. I did this even when I was working at a low paying job with no paid vacation right after college. I had to save up for the vacation, plus enough to cover my expenses for the week I wasn’t going to be working. I did it, and you can too.

2. Research your trip and get a savings goal together

Once you know where you want to go, research airfare on Expedia, Kayak, or other travel sites. Booking.com is my favorite site for booking and researching hotels, along with Tripadvisor. Get a ball park figure together of how much plane tickets cost for your destination. Next, figure out what you want to see and where you want to stay and get cost figures on those. Add on and overestimate a total budget for meals, souvenirs, tours, gratuities, and anything else you think you might spend money on. Add it together and you have your final figure.

If the figure is higher than you expected, don’t despair. It just means you will have to cut back your expenses a little more, or postpone your trip a bit longer while you save. If you want it bad enough, you can make it happen. Figure out how much you think you can save per month, and then divide your total figure by that amount, and you have an idea of when to plan your trip.  There are sites with nifty travel calculators that can help you with this as well, such as this one on IndependentTraveler.com.

 

3. Use your tax return as a savings plan

I’ve always claimed zero on my W-4s so that my employer takes the maximum amount out of my paycheck for federal taxes. Yeah, I could put that extra money in a savings account and earn interest, blah blah blah. But I know that won’t happen. I would probably just spend it. This is always how I afforded cheap spring break getaways in college. Every year, we get a decent amount of money back when we do our taxes and put that towards our next vacation that year. It’s a “bonus” we can always count on, and it helps.

 

4. Set up sneaky savings transfers

You can “trick” yourself into saving by setting up an automatic savings transfer for your paydays of a low specific amount, like $20.00. You probably won’t notice the money moving over when your paycheck hits, and it can add up. I do this in small amounts into what I call my “oh shit fund.” It’s what I withdraw from on a rainy day (or if I’m a bit short the day before payday). This can also work towards a travel savings goal. The savings are still there for emergencies, but if everything goes well, it will put you ahead on your savings plan.

 

5. Don’t be afraid of alternative lodging

You might need to adjust your travel plans if you can’t afford everything you want to do. Research budget hotels on Tripadvisor and check out Airbnb.com. Also consider hostels. Most hostels cater towards young travelers staying in multi-bunk dorm rooms, but many have private rooms  as well, some with private bathrooms. We stayed in a really nice hostel in Bangkok with a private room en suite for only $35 a night. Hostels also cater to those without a lot of money, meaning they often have free wifi, laundry facilities, kitchens and fridges for making and storing your own food, lockers for keeping your stuff safe while out and about, and helpful staff willing to provide info and sometimes book tours. We’ve stayed in some nice upscale hotels before and hostels, and we really enjoyed the hostels. It is easier to meet like-minded travelers from all around the world at a hostel–you might make some new friends and get some good travel tips as well. Not all hostels are great though, make sure you do your research and read reviews to find the right one.

 

6. Travel closer to home

Sure, Thailand is cheap when you get there, but flying there from North America is not. Distance = high cost. If the plane tickets are too much, you might consider another inexpensive destination closer to home like Mexico or Costa Rica. Don’t give up that dream of Asia or Australia though–you’ll just need to save a little longer for those trips. If you really want to go on a trip now, try one with cheaper airfare.

 

7. Travel in the off season

The best times to travel are right before the peak season starts or right after it ends. The rates are lower and the crowds are thinner. We went to Costa Rica during the rainy season in September, and aside from obsessively checking NOAA’s hurricane watch the days before departure, it worked out great. Tours had only a couple other people along with us, and we practically had the town of La Fortuna to ourselves. It rained every day, but in the afternoon and evenings only. We did our sightseeing and tours in the morning when it was sunny, and napped in the afternoon when it rained.

We did travel in the off-season in September again to Mexico, and it was a bit too hot for our comfort. We had the beach to ourselves, but had to tuck ourselves completely into the shade of a palapa umbrella like vampires. Do some research and see what time of year would be the best weather-wise for your destination as well as cost. Shoulder seasons in between the low and peak seasons are often a good bet as well.

 

8. Stay in one place or one city to save money on transportation

I always want to see everything, so when we go to another country I try to pick a few regions of the area we are going and spend a few nights in a few different places. It gives our trip diversity and more adventure.

However, transportation to all those places can add up quite a bit. If you need a vacation and are on a tight budget, go somewhere that has a good amount of stuff to do and see in one place. Hotels will often give discounts on online booking sites for extended stays as well.

 

Working travel into your budget can be tricky, but if there is a will there’s a way. We just became first time homeowners, so I’m sure we’ll have things come up that will throw a monkey wrench into our savings plans. Whatever happens, we will still find a way to travel. Prioritize your travel adventures over other non-essentials, and it will work out for you. Be patient and stick to the goal.

 

Culinary Adventures: Candy Cane Cookies

Old-fashioned candy cane cookies for Christmas: a classic recipe that is always tasty and fun to make.

 

These candy cane cookies are a classic recipe that turn out super cute and are fun to make. A word of warning though–you really have to be into making cookies, because they are a little more labor intensive. Easy to make, but they take some time. Don’t plan on making them if you are in a rush.

I used the Betty Crocker candy cane cookies recipe, but they are all pretty much the same. It is a basic sugar cookie dough with some added mint extract.

Before you get started, know that you have to make the dough and then refrigerate it for four hours or overnight before you can form and bake them.

Betty Crocker Candy Cane Cookies recipe:

Ingredients:

 1 cup sugar

1 cup butter or margarine, softened
1/2 cup milk
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 teaspoon peppermint extract
1 egg
3 1/2 cups Gold Medal™ all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon red food color
2 tablespoons finely crushed peppermint candies
2 tablespoons sugar
 

Directions

  • Stir together 1 cup sugar, the butter, milk, vanilla, peppermint extract and egg in large bowl. Stir in flour, baking powder and salt. Divide dough in half. Stir food color into 1 half. Cover and refrigerate at least 4 hours.
  • Heat oven to 375ºF.
  • Stir together peppermint candy and 2 tablespoon sugar; set aside.
  • For each candy cane, shape 1 rounded teaspoon dough from each half into 4-inch rope by rolling back and forth on floured surface. Place 1 red and white rope side by side; press together lightly and twist. Place on ungreased cookie sheet; curve top of cookie down to form handle of cane.
  • Bake 9 to 12 minutes or until set and very light brown. Immediately sprinkle candy mixture over cookies. Remove from cookie sheet to wire rack. Cool completely, about 30 minutes.

The recipe says “stir food coloring into one half,” but stir really isn’t the right word. I made a dent in the middle of the half of the dough I was making pink, dropped the food color drops in there, and then closed it up and kneaded the ball of dough until the color was evenly distributed.

When rolling the dough, I pinched and rolled a ball of each color to ensure similar size, then rolled it between my palms to start elongating it and then transferred it to wax paper to roll longer. You can roll adding pressure to parts of the dough to get it evenly sized down the length of the “rope.” Next, twist them together and form a cane and transfer to your cookie sheet.

Candy-cane-cookies 047
Candy cane cookies

The candy crushed candy cane and sugar didn’t stick to the candy cane cookies when they came out of the oven, so I scratched that step. I think they look great without the candy cane stuff on top, a bit more classic. The mint extract in the dough is a nice flavor without being overpowering.

I always cool on wax paper instead of a wire rack. It works out fine.

Candy cane cookies
Candy cane cookies
Candy cane cookies
Candy cane cookies

I liked the candy cane cookies recipe and would definitely make it again. I hope our friends and family enjoy them as well. Don’t forget to leave some for Santa…

Candy cane cookies
Candy cane cookies

What to Pack for a Trip to Iceland in the Winter

What to pack for a trip to Iceland in the winter: Iceland has some crazy weather, and most of its attractions are outdoors. What we brought on our trip to Iceland in the winter, and what is essential to staying warm, dry, and comfortable.

 

When most people think of Iceland, they probably think of snow and Ice. Iceland does have snow and ice in the winter, and some pretty spectacular glaciers, but it is also mostly green. I did a lot of reading online and in guidebooks to figure out what to pack for a trip to Iceland in March, and I’m glad we did.

Iceland in the winter is actually not nearly as cold as you might think. It is cold, but not as cold as places like the American Midwest for example. We didn’t have to worry about having exposed skin or forty-below-zero temperatures.

Snow is a factor, but the two main things to worry about in Iceland are wind and precipitation–rain, snow, or hail. Wind is the unique factor in Iceland’s winter weather, and it can make snow, rain, or hail pretty dangerous. If you travel to Iceland in the winter, we strongly recommend keeping on top of the weather report daily on http://en.vedur.is/weather/forecasts/areas/ and the road conditions at http://www.road.is/, especially on the southern coastal roads. Checking in with the locals before venturing out is also recommended. The wind can cause blizzard like conditions with snow that is already on the ground, making it very difficult to see. It can also blow your car right off the road, or rip the door off of your rental car (which you will have to pay for–hold tight to those doors when getting in and out of your car).

We were in Iceland for a week in March 2014, and these are the things we brought with us that we were glad we had:

1. Waterproof hiking shoes

Sturdy, warm, waterproof hiking shoes are essential for a trip to Iceland at any time of the year. Cold, wet feet will ruin any vacation, and whether it rains, snows, or you are walking through moss covered in morning dew, you’ll need waterproof shoes.

what to pack for a trip to Iceland in the winter
Waterproof shoes are essential for a trip to Iceland. At Reynisfjara Black Sand Beach

2. Down snow coats

It isn’t guaranteed to snow, but it will be cold in the winter, and our down coats with a water resistant snow layer and warm hoods were a daily necessity. Whatever kind of coat you get, make sure it is warm, water-resistant, and can stand up to harsh cold winds. Hoods are definitely recommended.

what to pack for a trip to Iceland
At Jokulsarlon Glacier Lagoon

3. Snow pants

We got snowed in when we stayed in our cabin in Hveragerdi, and we were glad we brought our snow pants. We stayed warm and dry while tromping through the shin-deep snow to the main farmhouse to check the weather report on their wi-fi, and we played in the snow and made a day of it. I wasn’t expecting a ton of snow when we packed and wasn’t sure if we’d need snow pants, but we were really glad we brought them.

what to pack for a trip to Iceland in the winter
Playing in the snow at our cabin in Hveragerdi

4. Snow boots

Lace up waterproof  hiking shoes will only stay waterproof for so long when submerged in snow. It’s a good idea to bring some snow boots as well in case you end up tromping around in the snow.

what to pack for a trip to Iceland in the winter
Southern ring road winter wonderland

5.  Rain coats

We had more snow than rain while we were there, but never go to Iceland without a rain coat any time of the year. Bring one loose enough to layer warm clothing under with a good hood that you can cinch up. You can spend a fortune on Gor-Tex rain gear if you want, but unless you are doing some major hiking, a decent raincoat from another reputable brand will be fine.

6. Rain pants

Sideways rain can happen at any time in Iceland. Bring rain pants, and keep them with you during excursions in case you need to throw them on over your regular pants in a hurry. Take them with you in the summer too. I found some really nice women’s rain pants at Eddie Bauer that were fitted and I could wear thin long johns underneath. I wore them most of the trip. I also had a pair of cheaper baggy rain pants I could put on over my other pants if I needed to.

7. Warm moisture-wicking hiking socks

If you plan on hiking, good moisture-wicking warm hiking socks are great. They are expensive, but you get what you pay for. Nice wool socks are good for regular days, and I got a little extra wear out of mine by putting regular socks underneath them.

8. Long underwear

I think long underwear is self explanatory. We brought some thin silk-style long underwear to wear under normal clothes, and one pair each of moisture-wicking long underwear for hiking. We didn’t do much hiking because of the weather while we were there, but if you do the moisture-wicking kind is a good purchase.

9. Leggings

I wore leggings a lot. I suppose this tip is for ladies…but they were great to pair with a sweater skirt or sweater dress or for lounging around the hotel/cabin/hostel when we were cozying up and watching the storm.

10. Nice sweaters and boots for going out

Iceland isn’t a place where you need really fancy clothes. Paddy brought a nice sweater and some nice black jeans for going out to dinner, and it seemed that the locals dressed similarly. Don’t bother with the suit and tie or swanky dress. I just wore a sweater skirt, leggings, nice black boots, and a nice sweater when we went out to dinner and felt right at home.

what to pack for a trip to Iceland in the winter
A nice sweater is all you need to wear out to dinner.

11. Winter hats and gloves

Winter hats and gloves are pretty much common sense. You may want to take a pair of thin gloves and a pair of waterproof snow gloves. Paddy also got a fleece head wrap that covered all but his eyes, and he said it really helped on windy days.

what to pack for a trip to iceland in the winter
Paddy with his fleece head wrap, trying to stay warm at Jokulsarlon Glacier Lagoon

12. Bathing suits

Bathing suits? In winter? Of course. Iceland has some of the best hot springs in the world and Icelanders LOVE swimming and soaking in pools and hot springs all year round. Many of the pools are heated and outdoors in the towns, and are used in the winter as well as summer. And don’t forget the Blue Lagoon–it’s touristy but definitely a must-see attraction.

Blue Lagoon
Blue Lagoon

13. Cold medicine

We brought some Alka-Selzter cold and flu packets, Emergen-C, and Nyquil with us just in case, and was glad we did. I got a mild case of the sniffles. It went on for two days, and then I took a shot of Brennivin and went to bed. The next day my cold disappeared. True story.

Brennivin Iceland cure for a cold
A shot of Brennivin–cure for the common cold?

14. A detailed road map

Always travel with a map while driving around Iceland. We borrowed a really detailed one of the south west part of the country from a friend of ours who has been to Iceland multiple times. I think you can buy them in most Icelandic gas stations. Take a guidebook with you that has maps at minimum. Stay off the “F Roads” in the highlands, they are not open for driving in the winter.

what to pack for a trip to Iceland in the winter
A good road map is essential.

15. Box wine

This one is optional (obviously), but wine and booze in Iceland is pretty expensive and has a high sales tax rate. We packed some decent box wine in our checked luggage and it lasted us most of the trip. A large box is usually about 4 bottles worth. Icelandic customs allow up to 3 litres of wine into the country without tax, but no one checked. Icelandic customs import regulations can be found here for spirits and cigarettes. If you want to take some Brennivin or other Icelandic spirits home, wait to buy it at the duty free store at the airport after you get through security–it is much cheaper without the hefty tax.

what to pack for a trip to Iceland in the winter
Drinking our box wine while snowed in at our cabin in Hveragerdi

16. Good books

Bring some good books for cozying up in the evenings or if you get snowed in somewhere. I was sure glad to have a good book with me for our snow day in Hveragerdi. It was nice to read in the cabin and watch the snow fall outside for a day.

what to pack for a trip to Iceland in the winter
Bring books.

That concludes our suggestions for what to pack for a trip to Iceland in the winter. Stay warm, be safe, and keep checking the weather report if you are traveling around the country. It’s a beautiful place to visit. Read more about our trip to Iceland here.

 

Tips for Throwing a Big Party in a Small House

Tips for throwing a big party in a small house: Don’t let the size of your house stop the fun. Ways to maximize your space and keep everyone mingling.

 

For the  eight years before buying our first house, Paddy and I rented an 840 square foot house in north Seattle, and we threw a lot of parties there. Summertime was easiest, because we had a pretty decent sized back yard (for city standards, anyways).

Our biggest party of the year, however was our annual white elephant Christmas party. Being a wintertime party, we had to get everyone indoors and able to move about and have a good time. The last year we lived there, we crammed 46 people in that house, and the party was the best one yet. Throwing a big party in a small house is possible. Here’s our tips for maximizing your party space:

1. People always congregate in the kitchen

Even when we lived in our small duplex apartment with the tiniest kitchen in the world, the couple times we threw a party people would still cram into the kitchen. It’s where the drinks are, and often the food. People go in for a drink and get caught in conversations. Therefore, expect your kitchen to be a main gathering area, even if that’s not what your intention is. Consider putting food or a bar in the living area to help people disperse a bit more if your house layout allows it. Always include paper plates for food so guests can take snacks with them to other parts of the house instead of hovering over the snack table.

throwing a big party in a small house
People will ALWAYS be in your kitchen.

2. Make sure there is plenty of seating in the living room or larger areas of the house

Folding chairs are great, you can store them in the garage the rest of the year, or rent them if you don’t have any. Put some around the perimeter of the living room, making plenty of places for people to sit and talk. Sure, it doesn’t look as nice, but people like to sit and converse almost as much as they love to cram in the kitchen (especially ladies in cute uncomfortable shoes).

throwing a big party in a small house
Have plenty of seating

3. Make an outdoor smoking area

You will most likely have at least a handful of smokers. We like to put up a 10×10 pop-up canopy outside the back door with Christmas lights or lanterns to provide a sheltered, ambient place for smokers to congregate.

4. Put a photo booth or activity in a spare room

Our last year we made a photo booth with an iphone (see my post about how to do this here) and put it in the guest room. It was a smash hit. Not only was it super fun and we got a lot of entertaining photos from it, but it dispersed people throughout the house a bit better. Don’t forget props!

iphone photo booth 032 iphone-photo-booth

5. Maximize fridge space with coolers

Put an extra cooler outside in the smoking area or next to your bar table with ice for beers. This will give more space for drinks and help with kitchen traffic.

6. Don’t forget logistics like extra TP, etc

Make sure you have plenty of toilet paper. This is something that is easy to forget when you have a small household, but is essential to having a large amount of guests at your house. Put extra rolls under the sink or in a basket somewhere where guests can find it if it runs out. Check the bathroom periodically during the party. Also, keep a trash can and a recycle bin in the kitchen or somewhere where they can be easily found.

 

Lastly, remember that not everyone you invite will show up. We usually get about a 30-50% turnout of who we invited. Paddy always had a mini panic every year at my Facebook invite guest list–“86 people?! What if they all show up??!!” Dude, they won’t all show up. That never happens. People appreciate that you invited them, even if they can’t make it. And you never know who will make it–we’ve had some long lost friends come out of the woodwork and get back in touch.

So don’t be afraid of throwing a big party in a small house. It was a tight squeeze at times in our old rental house, but people said they kind of liked it They said it was a little like a college kegger but for grown-ups.

Culinary Adventures: Mexican Chocolate Pumpkin Pie

Mexican chocolate pumpkin pie: a spicier and richer version of the classic fall favorite.

 

Paddy and I are both big fans of spicy chocolate, and I wanted to shake things up a bit for Thanksgiving this year. I found this recipe for Mexican Chocolate Pumpkin Pie in Better Homes and Gardens magazine, and decided to try it out. I changed it up a bit, using pre-made chocolate cookie pie crusts, dividing the recipe into two (the cookie pie crusts were pretty shallow) and tripling the chocolate ganache recipe. It turned out fantastic and our families loved it.

Better Homes and Gardens Mexican Chocolate Pumpkin Pie Recipe:

  • 1 recipe Baked Piecrust (I subbed out a pre-made chocolate cookie crust
  • 1 3.1 ounce disc Mexican chocolate or 3 ounces semi-sweet chocolate, chopped plus 1 tsp. cinnamon
  • 2 tablespoons butter
  • 3/4 cup packed brown sugar
  • 1 teaspoon pumpkin pie spice
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon mild chili powder
  • 1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper
  • 1 15 ounce can pumpkin
  • 4 eggs, lightly beaten
  • 1 cup half-and-half or light cream
  • 1 recipe Chocolate Ganache*
  •  Grated chocolate (optional)
  •  Chili powder (optional)

Directions

  1. Prepare Baked Pastry Shell; set aside. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. In a small saucepan heat the chocolate, cinnamon and butter over medium-low heat, stirring constantly, just until melted; set aside to cool. In a large bowl combine the brown sugar, pumpkin pie spice, salt, 1/4 teaspoon chili powder, and cayenne. Stir in the pumpkin and eggs until combined. Gradually stir in half-and-half until combined.
  2. Stir 1 1/2 cups of the pumpkin mixture into the cooled chocolate mixture. Pour chocolate mixture into baked pastry shell. Gently pour remaining pumpkin mixture over the chocolate layer. If necessary, cover edges of pie with foil to prevent overbrowning. Bake for 60 minutes or until edges are puffed and center appears set. Cool on a wire rack. Chill within 2 hours. Serve with Chocolate Ganache. Sprinkle with grated chocolate and chili powder, if desired.
CHOCOLATE GANACHE: (I tripled this recipe to make enough for two pie toppings)

Chop 3 ounces semi-sweet chocolate and place in a small bowl. Heat 1/4 cup whipping cream to a simmer and pour over chopped chocolate. Let stand 5 minutes. Stir until smooth. Immediately spoon over center of cooled pie.

The Mexican chocolate I used I found at the little Mexican tienda across the street from our house. We live in a pretty culturally diverse neighborhood, so it was pretty easy to find. If you don’t have any Mexican grocery/variety stores in your area, you could try using regular chocolate and adding in cinnamon and cayenne, but it probably won’t turn out entirely the same.

Mexican chocolate pumpkin pie
Mexican chocolate

The chocolate comes in disks inside the package. The recipe called for one disk.

Mexican chocolate pumpkin pie
Mexican chocolate

The filling wasn’t so different from a regular pumpkin pie, aside from mixing part of the pumpkin filling with the Mexican chocolate for the bottom layer, and adding a few extra spices. It was pretty easy.

Mexican chocolate pumpkin pie
Mexican chocolate pumpkin pie –the chocolate/pumpkin layer on the bottom
Mexican chocolate pumpkin pie
Mexican chocolate pumpkin pie –pumpkin layer
Mexican chocolate pumpkin pie
Mexican chocolate pumpkin pie –pies ready to go in the oven

The pies came out the consistency of a regular pumpkin pie, and when they were cool I made the chocolate ganache and poured it over the tops. Once the ganache was cool, I grated part of a chili chocolate bar and sprinkled it on top. I used the local Seattle Theo Chocolate chili bar.

Mexican chocolate pumpkin pie
Mexican chocolate pumpkin pie
Mexican Chocolate Pumpkin Pie
Mexican Chocolate Pumpkin Pie

Paddy says he expects Mexican chocolate pumpkin pie every Thanksgiving now. I will try to accommodate, but I do love trying a new recipe every year!