7 Things We Learned During Our International “Warm-Up” Trip

A few weeks back, Daniel and I took off for a three-week trip to Ireland. In addition to all the sights and attractions, one of the things about which I was most excited was the opportunity for a “trial run” of slow travel and ultralight packing before we start a bigger adventure in 2016.

Here are 7 things we learned:

1. Ultralight packing was an ultra success. I am thrilled to report that our backpack-only packing worked out wonderfully. Even with formalwear and shoes for the wedding we attended, we managed to fit everything we needed in two ordinary backpacks. We could have taken more – especially given that we had a rental car for most of the trip – but this was an opportunity to try traveling with less. We specifically brought clothes that were flexible for a variety of weather conditions, easy to hand wash, and quick to hang dry. With a sink stopper and a squirt of soap every few days, we always had clean clothes without having to lug around a heavy suitcase. This was particularly awesome when our overnight flight arrived in Dublin and we had hours to kill before we could check into our room for the night. Rather than having to find a storage locker or trek across the city to the hostel, we were able to comfortably explore the city on foot for hours with all our possessions in tow. Without our wedding attire, I dare say our backpacks may even have quite a bit of empty space!

Everything we packed for a three-week trip

Everything we packed for a three-week trip

2. What we did was not slow travel. One of our goals for our upcoming travels is to enjoy destinations at a leisurely pace rather than rushing from one tourist spot to the next. Even with three weeks in one country, we didn’t experience slow travel at all. I figured this might be the case, but the frantic pace of our time in Ireland was still a bit of a surprise. With the exception of December 25th and 26th (on which nearly every single restaurant, pub, and tourist attraction was closed), we woke to an alarm clock and had a planned itinerary pretty much every day. A true slow travel experience would have required months. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but when I think of how small Ireland is compared to all the destinations we’d like to visit, it’s staggering to think how many years we could spend exploring the world.

3. I could easily work part-time while traveling. Three weeks was a long time for me to be away from my job, and I ended working on a few small projects and taking a handful of phone calls during the trip, mostly in the evenings. To my pleasant surprise, it didn’t feel like a big deal or a burden. As long as the work wasn’t high-urgency, we could enjoy a day of sightseeing, return back to our hotel in the afternoon, I could do a few hours of work, and then we could grab dinner or a drink in the evening. We’re still planning on quitting our full-time jobs before we start traveling (there’s no way we could keep our current ones remotely), but maintaining a “side hustle” income and doing some part-time work with friends and former colleagues is definitely a possibility.

4. We hemorrhaged money on food and drink. Though we managed to have a very affordable trip overall, we didn’t exercise our frugality muscles when it came to dining. I’m embarrassed to even write this on a blog that’s supposedly about living frugally, but in the spirit of transparency, I’ll share: we averaged $66 per day (!) on restaurants, pubs, and groceries. That’s more than we spent on lodging – a burn rate of $2,000 per month (!!) just for food, for those keeping score at home. So, what happened, and how can we better manage this line item in the future?

  • We ate out at least twice almost every day. We ate pretty much every lunch and dinner in a restaurant or pub – unsustainable for both my savings account and my waistline. Toward the end of the trip (once I did some mental math about how much cash we were burning), we started going to grocery stores more frequently to make our own lunches or at least pick up pre-made sandwiches – something we’ll have to do much more frequently if we’re going to travel for months or years at a time.
  • We failed to slow travel. With only one or two nights in each destination, we wanted to get out each evening to explore the nightlife in each place. If we had instead spent a week in each location, we could have enjoyed a few nights out in each spot while cooking most of our meals at our hotels, B&Bs, and hostels, most of which had kitchen facilities available for guests. If we were to travel even more slowly – say, by renting an apartment for a month or two – our spending would probably closely resemble what it is today at home.
  • We drank heavily. I’ll blame two contributors here. First, we’re beer lovers, and we wanted to try every craft beer we could get our hands on. We were also in vacation mode, rather than slow travel lifestyle mode, so every evening was cause for a few celebratory beers. At 5 euro per pint, the bill for alcohol added up quickly. Second, one of the biggest downsides of traveling during the winter was the lack of daylight. If it had been light until 7 or 8 PM and nice enough to sit outside, we would have been perfectly happy picnicking in a park for dinner. But with nightfall at 4 PM and most evenings marked by cold, wet, windy weather, we found ourselves spending a lot of time in pubs.  Speaking of which…

5. Daylight hours are at least as important as the weather. I went into our trip expecting that the low temperatures, high winds, and constant rain would make for a challenging travel experience. While I would have preferred summery days and clear skies, we came prepared with rain jackets, wool leggings, and Gore-Tex-lined hiking shoes, largely negating the impact of the winter weather. The bigger challenge, though, was the lack of sunshine: just 8 hours per day of daylight meant we were usually racing against both the sunset and many attractions’ limited winter operating hours. On the plus side, though…

6. Off-peak travel is a joy. In spite of Ireland being among the most expensive countries in the world to visit, our lodging and rental car were remarkably cheap thanks to low demand in December. But even beyond the financial component, we loved seeing popular tourist attractions with hardly another person in sight. We had heard horror stories about the number of wide tour buses driving the Ring of Kerry. Number of tour buses seen on our drive: two. Visiting the Cliffs of Moher on Christmas Eve, we bypassed the closed visitor center (and its €6 per person fee) and enjoyed the views all to ourselves. And though our guide book warned us that if the hundred-vehicle parking lot at a tomb in the Burren were full, we would need to park a few kilometers down the road, we didn’t see another car the whole time. It was such a pleasure to enjoy these sights without a mob of tourists at every turn.

The Cliffs of Moher, best enjoyed alone

The Cliffs of Moher, best enjoyed alone

7. We’re ready to go. By the end of our trip, we were getting burnt out on the action-packed full-itinerary days, but neither of us was ready to head home. We’re confident that at a slower pace, we could easily travel for many months at a time. If we had any lingering doubts about quitting our jobs to travel indefinitely, this trip quelled them. With a few lessons learned and a couple tweaks to be made (like our dining and drinking burn rate), we’re just about ready to take off. We couldn’t be more excited!

10 Comments

  1. I am always impressed with backpack travelers. After seeing how people can travel so light, I’ve realized I normally super over-pack. Sounds like you had a good trip!

  2. Excellent lessons learned! And backpack-only packing is impressive, especially for a wedding! (Did you have to do some ironing upon arrival?) I find we spend the most money on food whilst traveling as well and we don’t even drink! That’s a tough one because you want to experience all the local cuisine, but not spend too much money… another case where slow traveling would help a lot. You would still have time to go to all the great places to eat, but also make your own food most of the time.

    • Haha, yes, plenty of ironing was required — though I always have to do that with formalwear anyway even with a full-size suitcase.

      I probably wouldn’t be as fixated on the high dining expenses if we had enjoyed a great culinary adventure, but Irish food is pretty blasé. In spite of the price tag, we didn’t have many remarkable meals.

  3. So glad you guys liked the backpack-only travel! I am a huge fan of carry-on only, and travel with a backpack for all of my work travel (I get funny looks sometimes, but so what). I see people at airports all the time with these giant suitcases, and I think, “You might as well travel with an anchor.” Because that’s what big bags are. They prevent you from changing flights, they make you waste time storing or babysitting your bags, they complicate transportation, and they take up too much room in your hotel or hostel. Not that you needed any more encouragement, since you’re in the same camp as me. 🙂

    Look forward to hearing all about your slowed down travel adventures!

    • Yes, it was awesome! I’ve always done carry-on-only for all the reasons you mentioned, but this was even easier and more flexible. We’re believers!

  4. This is incredibly impressive! Way to be efficient with packing, especially considering you had a wedding to attend. What was your favorite craft beer that you tried while abroad? The food & drink costs of travel are always the most challenging. Finding the balance between experiencing new cuisine and frugality is one that’s got me. I also like to eat often (at least graze!), so I attempt to plan ahead with trail mix, bars, and dried fruit. Sometimes it allows for me to not spend so much out because I may have been starving without the snacks. The Cliffs of Moher look stunning!

    • We managed to find some decent craft beers along the way, but in general, it was rare that we’d see anything beyond Guinness, Smithwick’s, Carlsberg, Coors Light, and a couple other lagers on tap. One of our Irish friends told us that the distribution market isn’t very competitive there, which makes it challenging for the smaller breweries to get on draught, even in their hometowns.

      The best beer we had was probably Of Foam and Fury, a double IPA we found on tap at a Galway Bay Brewing-owned bar in Dublin. Really nice fruity aroma and flavors; modest hops. We also enjoyed the Pale Ale from Metalman Brewing in Waterford, which had really nice hop flavors and a bitter finish, and which we were actually able to find on draught around town. I had an amazing IPA (Buxton Axe Edge) at a beer bar in Galway, only to find out that it was from England, not Ireland. Also unclear if it was really that delicious or if I was just desperate for a beer with some hops.

      I think our biggest takeaway from beer-tasting in Ireland is that we are insanely spoiled with the quality and variety of beer here in the Northwest!

  5. Does anyone have recommendations on getting reasonably priced clothes that is easy to hand wash, and quick to hang dry. Thanks so much

    • I’m a big fan of merino wool items for easy washing and quick drying, though they do tend to be more expensive than other fabrics. I keep an eye on the clearance section at ExOfficio and Icebreaker.

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