Wednesday, November 24, 2010


We spent last weekend at the Walt Disney World Resorts in Orlando, while I went to the NCTE conference.  While there I got some free books, saw Gary Paulsen, had the line to meet Gary Paulsen cut off right in front of me, and did a lot of people watching.  English teachers are a curious bunch.

We also spent two nights walking around Downtown Disney, which is surprisingly adult and interesting.  Nora designed a T-shirt, and we ate twice at Cooke's of Dublin, a fantastic fish and chips shop.

Probably the highlight of the trip was going to Universal Studios Islands of Adventure, where of course they have the new addition The Wizarding World of Harry Potter.  This was the only reason we paid the $80+ each to get in to Islands of Adventure, but we did manage to walk around some of the other mini-parks there, and Nora rode a few additional rides.

We went to Wizarding World on the 19th, the day the movie was released in theatres, so it was a bit packed.  It's also a bit small, and there are only 3 rides -- only 2 of which I went on.  Still, Hogsmeade and Hogwarts were really cool to walk around, and the shops were interesting.  There was a great long line for Dervish & Banges, which I checked out while Nora road the Dragon Challenge roller coaster.  It was packed with people and full of useless bric-a-brac.

The ride that took you through Hogwarts was really cool, though I did get motion sickness about halfway through.  It's part simulation with screens, and part jerky, whirly ride through darkened horrorscapes.  It was great fun until the quidditch match left me trying to keep my stomach down.  The line for the ride trails through Hogwarts, and there are several really high quality holograms of Dumbledore, Harry, Ron, and Hermione.  You also trail through several classrooms and a hall of moving paintings.

The best part, however, was the food and drinks.  We had pumpkin juice--fantastic--and butterbeer, of course--also good.  For lunch Nora had half a rotisserie chicken and I had a smoked turkey leg--hands down the best turkey I have ever eaten in my life.  The skin was crisp and slightly chewy, with a salty ham-like flavor, and the inside was moist and delicious. I still think about that turkey leg, and I don't feel bad at all for having eaten it. [For those who don't know, I very rarely eat meat of any kind, and it had been weeks since I'd eaten anything other than fish]

We've been back a few days in TN now, and will be splitting Thanksgiving between Nora's family and mine.  I haven't seen my brother for over 15 months, so I'm glad he'll be there.  It should be a good weekend.

Hope your Thanksgiving is lovely, and full of food and cheer, and relaxing in the extreme.

Until next time,

Eat well and travel safely.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Expenses for 4 weeks in Tobago (A "Yes You Can!" story)

OK, so I hear it often enough from my friends: how do you travel so much?  How can you afford it?  They think there is some great secret that I'm not sharing, or that perhaps I have a rich benefactress.  As lovely as either of those situations might be, it's really quite simple: we save, we plan carefully, and we stretch our money.

To illustrate this principle in action, I have tabulated every single penny that we spent getting to and from Tobago and that we spent while in Tobago.  Here we go:

2 round trip tickets:      $1,247.80
4 week cottage rental:     $1,000.00
4 weeks groceries:         $398.91    [Small disclaimer: we prepared most of our food at the cottage rather than eating out.  Further disclaimer: we powered through five 3-liter boxes of wine, which aren't cheap.  Thus, individual expenses may vary.]
1 week car rental:        $245.00
ATM withdrawal:           $245.84  [Disclaimer: this was for petty cash for food and souvenirs, and includes all ATM fees.]
Other expenses:           $39.48  [This includes anything not covered in the categories above.]

Total cost of trip:        $3,177.03
Per week cost:             $794.26
Per diem cost:             $113.47

If we look back at the daily cost of our trip, again remember that this is for two people.  To derive the actual daily expense per person, one need only divide by two:

Per diem per person:       $56.74

Remember, that this is the total cost per person when there are two people on the trip, but there needn't be two people for this to be affordable.  Some things, such as car rental and cottage rental, can't be split because they would cost the same either way.  So if one were to do this on one's own, renting the same cottage and same car, and all other expenses being equal, the total cost for a single traveler would be $2,201.02, or a daily cost of $78.61.   Not a high price to pay for four weeks by oneself.

But of course not all of us like being alone.  Nora and I travel together because we enjoy it.  We also have traveled with friends on occasion, and invited a few people to Tobago (they unfortunately couldn't make it).  The cabin had 2 extra beds in it, and obviously the rental car could have accommodated, so if 1 or 2 extra people had come for just one week, that per diem cost of $56.74 would be even less -- closer to $50.

Now, you may point out, that's great in theory, and $57 a day I could probably do, but you had to come up with the $3,200 for the trip.  You're right, we did have to come up with that.  But surprisingly little of it had to come out of pocket.  You see, I work for an online university teaching American Literature.  During the 4 weeks we were there, I made $2,186.37 after all taxes and withholdings.  Thus the cost of the trip to our savings was $990.66.

Now the other matter that I think prevents most people from taking such trips is time: most people just can't get four weeks away from work to take a vacation.  [Those of you in school, teaching school, or working in restaurants really have no excuses here.]  Nora and I are really blessed in this area.  As I mentioned above, I work online, so all I really need is a consistent internet connection.  Nora is going back to school for her teacher's certification, and is taking 5 classes online through her alma mater this semester as well. This enables us to have a certain amount of flexibility in time that most people might not be able to have, I admit.  Most days I woke up 2 or 3 hours before Nora, and by the time she was out of bed I had finished my work for the day and read up on several news sites.

Twice during the vacation I had to set an entire day aside for grading, but other than that it was about 2 hours of work every day.  Nora had similar constraints: most days she spent a couple hours on her classes, whereas a few times she had to set an entire day aside for tests or projects.  Working on vacation might not sound like much of a vacation, but I can assure you -- when you are sitting on a deck overlooking the ocean, watching geckos run across the boards and the occasional rain shower spread a rainbow over the sea, you don't mind your work one bit.

Of course not everyone has such leniency with their time.  But anyone can get a minimum of a week away from work if they plan far enough ahead, so the only real question is funding your trip.  After several years of watching our own expenses and traveling overseas, here are some tips that we discovered:

- cook at home.  I know this is a no-brainer, but if you really track your food expenses, you'd be surprised just how much is spent on eating out here and there.  We don't abstain from eating out entirely, but we cut back to generally once a week or so.

- get rid of your cable/satellite TV.  Not only is this an unnecessary expense (you can watch any TV show you want for free if you know where to look online), but it is also a drag on your free time.  Rather than watching TV 5 nights a week and going out to eat the other two, why not invite friends over for a potluck?  Read a book, watch a movie, play card/board games.  These are all ways Nora and I spend our evenings.  And believe me, the $50-100 most people spend monthly on TV adds up.

 - buy clothes that are meant to last; do not think you are above buying second hand clothing.  I am right now wearing a pair of pants and a long sleeve shirt that I bought my sophomore year of college (that was 7 years ago).  I have clothing that is even older.  I don't buy clothes that often, but when I do I make sure it is something that I like a lot and that I will be able to wear for many years.  We also buy clothes at second hand stores, because you can get the same quality and style for 10% of the store cost.  Not only are they already comfortable and broken in, but once you wash them you can't tell them apart from anything else in your wardrobe -- and neither can anyone else.

 - stop wasting money on electronics.  This is the hardest category for me, as I have an undying love for electronic gadgets.  I have been planning for over a decade to own a digital SLR, and don't have one yet.  I get by just fine with my point-and-shoot camera, though I do plan on finally buying an SLR within the next year.  I have decided it would be worth the expense because I would get that much use and enjoyment out of it.  However, I have set myself certain goals and conditions that must be met before I can buy it.  You'd be amazed at how much money you don't spend if you wait to buy something until after you have the money to pay for it in full. Do not buy electronics with a credit card.  Ever.

 - prioritize.  A few years ago I was saving up for a solo trip to Europe.  I came up with a total estimated cost of the trip (I knew how much the flight was, and from past trips I could reasonably guess how much money I'd spend each day).  Whenever I wanted to do something that cost money, I'd ask myself how much it would cost, and if I was willing to sacrifice a part of my trip to do it.  For example, if my friends wanted to go out to eat and then see a movie that night.  Was I willing to give up a night in Venice for that?  The answer was no, so instead I'd either just go to the movie, or meet them at their apartment after they returned. Think practically, and remember that every dollar gets you that much closer to your destination.

There are many other things that one can do to save money, and many other things that Nora and I both do, but these are the broadest and easiest to cover.  Once you take a look at your own habits and expenses, I've no doubt there are many other ways you could think of to save money as well.  Try them out.  See what you come up with.

This is my challenge to all of you reading this: Try to cut back on a few different expenses.  Set that money aside, and have the willpower not to touch it for anything.  Remember, you are investing in your future.  If you are tempted to spend it, ask yourself: is this worth sacrificing two nights on the beach?  is it worth not seeing the Louvre? do I really want to give up seeing that landmark, eating that food, hiking that trail, or being with those people?  All too often, you'll find that the answer is no.  That means you don't really need what you thought you wanted, and you can do without it.  Pretty soon, you'll be ready to go on your own trip, whether for a week, a month, or even a year.  Let us know about it when you do, and we can swap stories.

Good luck, and happy traveling.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Back from Tobago

Our last day in Tobago was about as perfect as could be.  The weather was great, with just enough of  a breeze coming off the sea to not be too hot.  The water was as clear as glass, with not a wave in sight.  And on the walk back from the beach, there was a light rain to refresh us and keep down the heat and insects.

Our first morning back in Tennessee, and the fall colors are beautiful.  There was a fog throughout Franklin that lasted after 8 a.m., which helped set the scene with an ethereal, otherworldly glow. The air was crisp and cool, the scent of autumn in the air.  Without waxing too poetic, it's days like this that make me love Tennessee the most.  It's great to be returning at this time of year.