Wednesday, 28 December 2011

Montreal on a Student Budget:
7 Tips for Travelling with a Small Wallet

I’ve seen it happen so many times. My friends will all plan a weekend getaway to Montreal, New York, Quebec City, etc., and then come home with half the experience they wanted and twice as much money spent on it. The challenge is always ending up with a bank account statement that reflects your vacation and how much fun you had during it, instead of wondering where the hell $650 went after only four days away.

But I promise you it can be done. I’ve done myself, on a number of occasions, and have created some pretty unforgettable memories in the process. But – and here’s the caveat – you’ll need to dedicate a little more effort and utilize those planning skills! Lucky for you, I’ve created a quick guide to help you along the way, with a few interjections from a recent Montreal getaway that I planned with my partner a week and a half ago.

Tip #1: Do Your Research!

This is undoubtedly going to be where you’ll dedicate most of your pre-planning efforts! The internet is a great place to start – look for open forums where other travellers have input and avoid the ‘cheap deal packages’ which plan out your entire trip for you; these schemes usually have hidden costs and can restrict your experience substantially. Virtual Tourist, Lonely Planet and Trip Advisor are all great sites to get the ball rolling. I use these sites every time I plan a getaway to find the lesser known (and cheaper) parts of a city like Montreal that are the ‘hidden gems’ which make it all worth it. Put yourself in the driver’s seat and make your trip dedicated to who you are, your interests and what gets you excited. Personal trip planning is both cost-effective and fun!

Tip #2: Create a (Rough) Itinerary

Once I have some must-do activities selected, I create an itinerary of where I am going, how long it will take, when I am doing it, directions, costs and any other relevant information. When we travel, we often get side tracked doing things that aren’t really connected to the important parts of being there like discovering a culture or connecting with the environment. An itinerary is not only a helpful tool on the road; it also makes sure that you’re doing what you went there to do (especially if you only have a limited time to do it!). Also, make sure you are being realistic in your time management. Provide extra ‘buffer time’ in between activities just in case something takes longer than you think it does. I made the mistake of squeezing in too much on a four day stopover in Vancouver a year and a half ago, and it ended up being more than I could handle. Finally, make sure you’ve got it written out and accessible at all times. This your rubric for one of the best vacations you’ll ever have!

Tip #3: Create a Budget and Stick to It!

*slurp* Crepes and Lattes are a Montreal must.

Just like you made that itinerary, write out a mock budget that will include accommodations, transportation, food, entertainment and any other expenses while on the road. Keep that wallet on a strict plan, and try to only bust it out when you’ve planned to do so. One good way to do this is take out only the cash you intend to spend and make a personal promise to not dip into that bank account until after you get home. I don’t necessarily recommend using credit cards on domestic trips, unless it’s at a location that requires the use of one to book something (many hotels and hostels require a CC auth to get a room). If you do use a credit card for something, make sure you are keeping track of how much you spent and pay it off as soon as possible. Limiting yourself to a budget doesn’t have to take away from the experience. Make it fun! For example, try making a scavenger hunt out of finding an eatery in town that will cost under $16. Nikki and I found some amazing poutine in Old Montreal for $8, and it was a culinary highlight of our trip. A Budget is awesome, so let it be your friend with benefits.

Tip#4: Choose your Companions Wisely

This one might sound a little harsh, but just because someone is your best friend does not mean they will be a good travel buddy. The people you choose to travel with can have a huge impact on how much you spend and where. Conflicting interests and differing itineraries can pressure you into doing things that you really had no interest in doing in the first place. I choose to travel with my partner, Nikki, because of our similar motivations for doing so. I also know that she will push me in a healthy way to do some incredible things while we’re on the road, which ultimately enhances the experience. Travelling with someone else or a group does help split the cost on a lot of the big expenditures like accommodation and transportation, but it’s not worth it if that in turn takes away from your experience.

Tip #5: Avoid 'Tourist Traps'

The stunning interior of Notre Dame Basillica
The most popular destinations in a city like Montreal are usually the most expensive. Because so many people flock to these locations, an insane cost is justifiable as they are marketed as ‘the best’ attraction in town. This is not true! For almost every tourist activity, there is a better and cheaper alternative. You just have to look harder for it. Often, these alternatives will take more effort to get to and more time, but the payoff is completely worth it. Some examples Nikki and I did in Montreal: St. Joseph’s Oratory (without the museum) - free. Hike up Mont Royal - free. Notre Dame Basillica - $5/Adult. Vieux-Port - free. Instead of ‘clubbing’, we enjoyed Montreal’s incredible nightlife by going out to a Hookah Lounge one night with a friend we made at the Hostel who was from South Africa. Always look for those alternatives. They will make the adventure of going somewhere new completely worthwhile.

Tip #6: Get Comfortable with Being Uncomfortable

Restricting your costs will probably mean sacrificing a little luxury during your trip, but the faster you embrace the uncomfortable parts of travelling on a budget the quicker it becomes a real and exciting adventure. There are many alternatives to those expensive hotels and ‘armchair tours’ (I call them armchair tours because you literally never have to leave your seat). For starters, take a bus! I have spent many, many hours on a Greyhound going many places. It takes longer, but experiencing a landscape on the ground as opposed to in the air is way more fun. If you’re just hopping over to Montreal from Toronto, book in advance and get crazy deals on Megabus (I paid $37 round trip!). Hostels, despite their negative stigma, are awesome alternatives for accommodation. I almost exclusively book hostels when I travel, and have always come out of it with a great experience. These places are a mecca for travellers from all over the world, and they force you to push your comfort zone in a very positive environment. Nikki and I usually pay a little more for a private room, but it still ends up being very cheap in comparison. We stayed at La Maison Du Patriote in a ‘deluxe double bedroom’ that would rival a four-star hotel, located in the heart of Old Montreal. We paid a mere $105 each for three nights! The owner was really good to us and even had our room ready early (our bus got in at 6:30am) for no extra cost. Also, consider public transit as cheap transportation, especially in a city like Montreal. The STM (Montreal’s public transit system) is a fairly reliable way of getting around for the low cost of $3.00/Adult.

Tip #7: Be Adaptable

Sometimes, opportunities might not present themselves until you are on the road. Make sure you are prepared to tweak your itinerary for those unexpected adventures. This may require you to cancel plans or take out some extra money, but if you find an activity worthwhile, you have to grab it! Learn the art of flexibility and your trip can change from being a good time to an unforgettable experience.

Friday, 18 November 2011

I wish that I knew all I know now when I was younger.

A legendary chorus from a song written by a little-known 70’s band called The Faces. The track was popularized by Rod Stewart’s re-recording of the song a mere two decades after and has come to be one of our most cherished musical pieces on important life learnings.

I think that if I had more foresight I would have published this blog a long time ago, but I have never really been successful or skilled at documenting the more important parts of life. With that said, welcome to my new blog! I intend on keeping this a semi-professional forum where I can share experiences and reflect on the places I go and people I meet. For now, it is a creative outlet of communication on this vast expanse we call the internet, but who knows how far I can go! Maybe I’m launching a new career in media communications? (Those who know me are laughing at their screen right now).

One thing is for sure; the prospect of this blog both scares and excites me. For some reason, though, I have always gravitated towards new and scary things. I find that forcing yourself to do something that makes you uncomfortable but exposes you to parts of this world that are completely different and unique is the best way to achieve some form of self-discovery. So I cordially invite you to join me in my new endeavour
that will either crash and burn or become insanely successful.

Either way it will be entertaining.

Safe travels,

Aaron Turpin.