This is the second installment in our series of posts in which we share our cost of living as we experiment with different FIRE adventures and travel to destinations around the world. The first leg of our trip, our three-month road trip around the western U.S., came in at $90/day.
It feels like ages ago that we boarded our flight to Istanbul and began our summer travels. After much debate about whether we felt safe traveling to Turkey, June’s horrific Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando reminded us that there can be danger everywhere. In spite of the country’s less-than-stable summer, I have no regrets that we went. The culture, scenery, and history were unforgettable.
The following months took us to Hungary, Zagreb, and Slovenia; the stunning Adriatic coastline of Croatia; two recently war-torn cities in Bosnia and Herzegovina; underrated and undersized Montenegro; bizarre but fascinating Albania; and the appropriately legendary Peloponnese peninsula of Greece. Even after three months of relatively fast-paced travel, we found ourselves asking, “Do we really have to go home?”
By the Numbers
- Trip length: 86 nights
- Airbnb: 53 nights
- Hotels: 31 nights
- Hostels: 1 night
- Red-eye flights: 1 night
- Countries visited: 8 (technically 9; we walked into Italy for about 30 seconds)
- Foreign languages butchered: 8 (technically 9; an Italian driver asked us for directions)
- Points used:
- Citi ThankYou: 44,760
- Starwood Preferred Guest: 8,000 (2 nights)
- IHG Rewards Club: 20,000 (1 night)
- Flights: 11
- Trains: 7
- Buses: 15
- Ferries: 7
- Rental cars: 6
- Total distance walked: 628 mi (1,011 km)
- Daily distance walked: 7.3 mi (11.7 km)
- Roman ruins gazed upon: 31,289
- Gyros and burek eaten: Too many to count
- Friend and family meetups: 6
- Blog meetups: 1
Even with the whole summer at our disposal, we hardly scratched the surface of places we would love to visit someday. “If only we had a little more time…,” we found ourselves saying continually, wishing we could have visited Serbia, Kosovo, Macedonia, Bulgaria, Romania, and northern Greece, among other places. It’s a slippery slope!
That said, we loved being able to see more than one destination in each country and occasionally getting off the beaten path. Based on this first experience with long-term international travel, our goal in the future will be to slow down, not to speed up.
How much did it all cost?
Back in March, we set an approximate budget of $100/day for our FIRE adventures, based on a spending level with which we were comfortable.
Here’s how this leg of our trip broke down in average daily expenses:
For our three months in the Balkans, daily variable expenses were $123 per day. With our minimal fixed expenses included, our all-in total was $129 per day.
There are a couple ways we could choose to look at these figures. From the perspective of our arbitrary $100/day budget, we’ve gone 20-30% over target. Budget: busted! I guess it’s time to go home and go back to work, because full-time international travel ain’t cheap.
But from a more positive point of view (and if you’ve been reading this blog long enough, you probably knew this was coming):
We just spent an entire summer living a life of luxury in some of the most beautiful places in the world, and it cost us around $5,500 per person.
Even better, we knew that this portion of our travels would likely be more expensive than road-tripping in the U.S. or traveling in lower-cost destinations like parts of Central America or Southeast Asia. Rather than being a big surprise, these expenses were just about in line with expectations.
Tracking expenses while traveling internationally was a pain in the butt, by the way! We made 90% of our transactions in cash, meaning no automatic record-keeping or categorization – plus we used six different currencies and had a bunch of shared expenses while traveling with friends. But it’s well worth the trouble to know where our money is going.
For the other number nerds out there, here’s the more detailed breakdown. As usual, numbers may not total perfectly due to rounding.
|– Air Travel (Round Trip from U.S.)||$1,230||$435||$14|
|– Air Travel (Within Europe)||$880||$311||$10|
|– Rental Cars, Fuel, and Parking||$898||$318||$10|
|– Public Transit, Uber, and Lyft (affiliates)||$790||$279||$9|
|– Hotels and Hostels||$893||$316||$10|
|Food and Dining|
|– Alcohol and Bars||$169||$60||$2|
|Other Variable Expenses|
|– Lost Wallet 😣||$195||$69||$2|
|– Sunscreen and Pharmacy||$64||$23||< $1|
|– Visas||$62||$22||< $1|
|– Health Insurance, Phone, and HSA Fees||$187||$60||$2|
|– Van Registration and Insurance||$104||$37||$1|
|– Gifts||$56||$21||< $1|
|Total, Variable Travel Expenses||$10,566||$3,737||$123|
|Total, All Expenses||$11,065||$3,912||$129|
Transportation was our biggest line item, accounting for around a third of total expenses. We saved $560 on our round trip from Seattle to Istanbul by using Citi ThankYou points, though the flights still cost us over $1,200 out of pocket. We keep an eye out for deals on flights, but they’re hard to come by during peak summer travel season.
Once we arrived, transportation was relatively cheap. Our flights from Istanbul to Kayseri (central Turkey), for example, were less than $20 each – and they even served coffee and sandwiches. Changing locations every few days, though, meant lots of buses, trains, and a few extra flights. We generally traveled on the cheap with international trains and buses, but we did splurge on a flight from Albania to Greece rather than sit on a 17-hour overnight bus. I’d happily make that decision again.
At an average of $35 per night, we were pleasantly surprised by how affordable lodging was during this trip – especially considering that we were there during peak season. We used reward points for just three nights and otherwise paid cash (why burn 10,000 Starpoints when hotels are so cheap?). Some of the more insane deals included a beautiful cave hotel in Goreme, Turkey ($17/night, including breakfast), and an awesome four-room Airbnb apartment in Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina ($15/night).
Airbnb ended up being the most affordable lodging option in most places we stayed, and having a kitchen enabled us to cook some of our own meals. Airbnb offers $40 off your first stay (and we’ll get twenty bucks off, too). Our willingness to walk also helped, with lodging 20-30 minutes outside the city centers of Zadar, Dubrovnik, and Athens costing us just a fraction of centrally located hotel rooms.
Food and Dining
We made a conscious effort throughout our trip to cook when possible and to find grocery stores and bakeries for cheap lunches. Groceries are crazy cheap in the Balkans, so that $293 figure actually represents dozens of trips to the store.
That said, dining out is our number-one favorite splurge, and we didn’t hesitate to try as much local cuisine as we could find. In cheaper countries, especially, we often gorged at the highest-rated restaurants in town – at a fraction of what they would cost at home.
The thousand dollars we spent on attractions covered everything from the ancient Roman ruins at Ephesus and Butrint to the Széchenyi Thermal Bath in Budapest to the Parthenon in Greece. Best-spent money of the trip.
We had several dumb financial mishaps in Turkey, including getting my tourist visa for the wrong date ($21 wasted), losing my wallet in the Kayseri airport ($150 in cash lost, plus the cost to replace my driver’s license and the wallet itself), and having to rebook two flights to meet up with a friend ($80 down the drain).
Other expenses were minimal. With the counsel of our physician friend, I picked up a few prescription pharmaceuticals at a Turkish pharmacy, expecting to shell out a couple hundred dollars (about what they would cost in the U.S.). Actual cost: $7.
My favorite expense of the trip, though, was for the haircuts we got at a barbershop in Tirana, Albania: 300 lek ($2.49 US) each. We haven’t yet taken the frugal leap into cutting our own hair, and if we lived in Albania, I never would!
We’re back on the road in the states now, making a giant loop from the Pacific Northwest to Michigan, then down to New Orleans and the Southwest before heading home again. If we’re coming through your ‘hood, let us know!