in FS, Travel

A postcard from Europe: A mid-journey update on my travels

Greetings from Prague! I’m just over halfway through my European vacation, so I thought it’d be fun to share some of my adventures and to take a glimpse at the financial side of this journey.

This trip is unusual for me because I’m traveling with a party of six. My cousin Duane has terminal cancer and wanted to see some more of the world while he still can. A few family members decided to join him. We’re exploring Christmas markets as a group.

The Roth boys in Vienna

For the most part, Duane’s health has been fine over the past two weeks. He tells me that he’s felt great lately, and he’s hopeful he has more life left in him than the doctors say. (Who knows? Maybe he and I can squeeze in another trip before his time on this Earth expires.) That said, he did have to take a short rest yesterday because he became dizzy and disoriented as we strolled the cobblestone streets of Prague. He’s obviously not feeling 100%.

Our group doesn’t have a set agenda. We’re merely moving from city to city, exploring the Christmas markets and other touristy delights. Often when I travel, I’m a traveler not a tourist. Right now, I’m a tourist. I wouldn’t want to do this every trip, but I’m fine with it at the moment.

General Impressions

So far, we’ve been we’ve been to Vienna, Budapest, and Prague. I liked Vienna. I loved Budapest. But after 24 hours here, I’m ambivalent about Prague. I didn’t like it at first, but the city is growing on me. I think one problem is our location.

In the first two cities, we were a mile or two outside the downtown core. We stayed in residential neighborhoods. (In both cases, we were relatively close to university areas too, but that was pure chance.) We were directly across from metro stations each time, so it was easy to get where we wanted to go.

Here in Prague, however, we’re staying in the downtown core, which means we’re immersed in the tourists. (Yes, I realize that we ourselves are tourists and thus part of the problem.) There’s no escaping the crowds and commercialism because of our location. This is an interesting lesson to learn for the future: Stay close to downtown in popular cities but not in the downtown. If you’re close to a transit station, it’s plenty convenient to get where you want.

The Christmas markets have been festive and fun. They remind me of Portland’s Saturday Market, a craft market held every weekend in my home city. Vendors erect small stalls where they sell either food or wares.

A lot of the stuff being sold at the Christmas markets is the same from stall to stall — ornaments, winter clothing, jewelry, souvenirs — but occasionally there are vendors with unusual items, such as cookie stamps, wooden toys, and hand-forged knives.

Shopping at a Christmas market in Prague

I’m more interested in the food stalls. In each individual city, these “huts” are similar to each other. But the food offered varies from city to city.

  • Vienna food stalls sold wieners (“wiener” literally means “Viennese”), wurst, spaetzle, baked potatoes, toast with cheese, and roasted chestnuts. The drink vendors sold hot punch and glühwein. (Glühwein is mulled wine. It’s very popular in Vienna.)
  • Budapest food stalls sold paprika sausages — Hungarians love their paprika! — and pig knuckles and delicious goulash. The drink vendors also sold mulled wine and a variety of punch.
  • Prague food stalls sell chimney cakes, fire-roasted ham, toasted cheese (with jam), and a sort of potato-onion dumpling dish. Here they sell mulled wine too, but they also sell hot mead and cold pilsner. (Pilsner comes from Bavaria, and it’s available everywhere. I like the Czech word for beer — “pivo” — and I enjoy asking for it at the market: “Pivo, prosím.”)

A food stall at a Christmas market in Budapest

The one factor our group failed to consider was the cold. Actually, we considered it…but not enough. We prepared for Oregon cold, not central European cold. (It didn’t help that Duane emailed us from Paris to say that the weather wasn’t as cold as we’d feared.)

We all brought warm clothes, but each of us has had a turn getting chilled to the bone. One night in Vienna, I was the coldest I’ve ever been in my life. While the rest of the crew enjoyed ice skating, I made a brisk one-mile walk back to the flat so that I could take a hot bath. Everyone else has been equally cold at some point.

I’m a little worried about Switzerland. The forecast low for when Duane and I arrive in St Moritz tomorrow night is -25 celsius (-13 fahrenheit). Holy cats!

J.D. enjoying Christmas market food on a cold day in Prague

Financial Considerations

While I’m not pinching pennies on this trip, I’m doing my best not to be profligate either. It’s interesting to see how my travel habits have changed over the past decade. I used to spend a lot to buy a lot. Now, I buy very little. What I do buy is mostly food.

During my first trips to Europe almost a decade ago, I was very much a tourist as opposed to a traveler. I wanted to go to the tourist spots and to buy tourist goods. I talked to every tout. My compulsion to buy was very very strong.

Even in 2010, after writing Get Rich Slowly for nearly five years, I had some bad habits with money when I traveled. I remember when my ex-wife and I landed in Venice, the first stop on our three-week tour of Europe in autumn 2010, I found a funky used bookstore. I bought fifteen pounds of books on the first day of our trip. I had to carry that weight with me for the next twenty days.

On this trip, I’ve bought little despite spending hours and hours and hours in markets. (If I had to hazard a guess, I’d say I’ve spent sixty hours in Christmas markets. I’ve bought nothing but food. And glühwein.)

  • In Vienna, I bought a t-shirt as a souvenir, and I bought a Christmas gift for my niece.
  • In Budapest, I bought some warmer clothes and a Christmas gift for my ex-wife.
  • I’ve bought nothing so far in Prague, although I expect to purchase a gift for Kim before we move on.

We’re spending little on transportation (aside from connections to various cities). We walk a lot — about ten miles per day — and we take advantage of the fantastic transit systems in each city. We’re on our feet over twelve hours each day.

As a train nut, I enjoy riding the subway. I was particularly enamored with the Budapest metro system. The stations are beautiful, especially the old M1 (opened in 1896, it’s the oldest electrified underground in Europe) and the new M4 (whose stations feel like sets from a science-fiction film).

We’re not paying much for lodging either. Instead of spending $150 or $200 per night per couple on hotels (for a total of $450 to $600 per night), we’re renting rooms through Airbnb. This costs us between $75 and $150 per night for the group. That’s a huge savings!

J.D.'s Airbnb room in Vienna

Plus, renting flats gives us a tiny taste of what it’s like to live as a local.

For instance, my cousins have had to adjust to the idea that Europeans don’t use clothes dryers; they use drying racks. The light switches and outlets are different. The instructions on appliances aren’t in English. And here in Prague, our shower sprung a leak so we couldn’t use it for a couple of days. (And our internet connection doesn’t work, so I’m currently eating breakfast in a coffee shop so I can publish this article.)

Our food expenses are hit and miss. Left to my own devices, I’d eat restaurant meals now and then but not often. When I travel, I like to buy a few groceries — bread, meat, cheese, fruit, juice — to keep in my room for breakfast and snacks. I grab a quick lunch in the afternoon, then maybe eat a sit-down dinner featuring local cuisine. This is relatively cost-effective.

My cousins like eggs for breakfast, though, and they need their coffee. We’re frequently starting the day in restaurants. (They can’t always find their eggs, though, because egg breakfasts are much less common in Europe.) We frequently snack or lunch at the Christmas markets, which is less expensive than visiting restaurants, but our dinners are always restaurant meals.

One big factor in our finances is currency exchange. Most places took credit cards in Vienna but not the stalls in the Christmas markets. In Budapest, most places did not accept credit cards. In Prague, it seems to be variable. As a result, we have to carry cash.

Not every source of cash is created equal.

Here’s an example: We landed in Prague late in the evening. We needed some cash to buy tickets for transit (and to grab some food), so I offered myself up as sacrificial lamb at the airport. I was carrying 137 U.S. dollars, which I exchanged for roughly 2340 Czech crowns. The exchange rate was something like 1 to 19.2.

Yesterday morning, my cousins pulled money from a bank ATM. They got an exchange rate of roughly 1 to 22.4.

In other words, the airport cash exchange milked me for an extra 10%, which is a terrible deal. Lesson: When possible, never exchange money at the airport. (To be fair, I knew this already. In this case, though, I didn’t have a choice. We needed some cash, so I sacrificed about $14 to get it.)

The old town square and astronomical clock in Prague

Meeting the Money Bosses

I’ve had a lot of fun on this trip so far. I’m traveling in a very different way because I’m not the one deciding where we go when. My cousins are directing the decisions, and that’s fine. It allows me to see how other people travel and what their priorities are. All the same, I do hope to return to these cities in the future to do some “J.D. travel”.

My favorite city of the three so far has been Budapest — and by a wide margin. I loved the history, I loved the culture, I loved the food, I loved the people. I have no doubt that I’ll return for a more leisurely visit in the future (possibly as soon as August or October, the next two times I’ll visit Europe).

I feel like every vacation offers certain highlights that become the core memories I carry with me. Midway through this trip, I’ve enjoyed three five-star highlights, each of which was in Budapest.

The Labyrinth

One day, we walked across the Cable Bridge from Pest (on the east side of the Danube) to Buda (on the west side). We boarded a bus to the top of the hill, where we visited Fisherman’s Bastion, which offers a stunning view of the city. (Click this image to view a larger version.)

The view from Fishermans Bastion in Budapest

The weather was sunny, clear, and cold. We ducked inside a coffee shop for a few minutes. When we emerged, it was pouring rain. There had been no indication (or forecast) that rain was imminent, so we were unprepared — as was everyone else, tourist and local alike.

We took refuge in the nearby labyrinth, a network of natural underground caves that, over the centuries, had been expanded by local residents. We toured the labyrinth for nearly an hour while we waited for the rain to subside. It was amazing! (But take my rave review with a grain of salt. I love caves. I visit them whenever I can. Others in our group were less impressed. Online reviews are mixed.)

I enjoyed the caves themselves, of course, but also the history. The real-life Dracula — Vlad the Impaler — was supposedly imprisoned in the labyrinth for an entire year. Also, there’s a section of the tunnels that’s completely dark. It’s pitch black. For maybe 50 meters, you make your way by feel. (There’s a rope attached to the wall, if you want it.) So fun!

Fun with Ferenc

When we arrived in Budapest, we walked a mile from the train station to our flat. As we were puzzling out the intercom system, a man stepped up to me. “Are you J.D. Roth?” he asked.

I was surprised. “Yes,” I said. He handed me a bottle of wine and an envelope with my name on it.

“My name is Ferenc. I read your blog,” he said. Turns out, he had determined where we’d be staying based on an Airbnb screencap I shared a few weeks ago. He’d spent two hours parked in front of the flat, waiting for us to arrive. He gave us a warm welcome and some tips about his city.

Here’s a photo of me and Ferenc. I like this because it shows me carrying all of my luggage at the end of our walk. (You can’t really see my backpack, though.) This is how I travel:

Ferenc greeting J.D. in Budapest

Later, I wrote to thank Ferenc. “Thanks for greeting us. Do you want to grab coffee or beer?” I asked.

“Sure!” he said. “I have to work all day today. Later, my son has a soccer game, then I have dinner with friends. But I could meet you at 23:30.” I’m no longer a night owl — plus I’ve had bad jet lag on this trip — so this normally would be a no-go. But hey! This was a once in a lifetime experience, right?

Ferenc picked me up in his Mini Cooper at 23:30. As we sped through the streets of Budapest looking at the beautiful lights, he told me about the history of Hungary and about daily life in Budapest. He drove me to his favorite viewpoints so that I could snap photographs. Then, when we were finished sightseeing, he took me to a “ruin bar” named Szimpla Kert, which was started by one of his friends from high school.

Ruin bars are exactly what they sound like. They’re pubs that have been built in hollow, decaying buildings. Instead of remodeling these spaces, as we would in the U.S., the Hungarians have left them in a state of decay. Inside, they’ve added bars and stages and dance floors and other pub amenities. They are very, very popular among Europeans.

One corner of Szimpla Kert, a ruin bar in Budapest

Ferenc and I stayed out until nearly 03:00, drinking beer and chatting about life in our respective countries. (Naturally, much our talk revolved around personal finance.) To me, this experience is what travel is all about. It’s not the Christmas markets that I love (although those are fun), nor the cathedrals nor the castles. It’s connecting with real people and real life.

A Morning with Vica

Vica and J.D.The next morning, I was up early. At 09:30, I met another GRS reader for coffee.

Vica is a landscape architect who lives near Budapest’s main train station. She is warm and funny and engaging. As we sat in the basement coffeehouse, she told me about life in Hungary and about her goals for the future. She shared the places she loves to travel around Budapest.

When I complained about how cold I was, she volunteered to take me to a shop where I could buy a couple of quality items at reasonable prices. As we walked to our destination, she gave me a tour of the city. As a landscape architect, Vica seems fascinated by urban design. It was interesting to see things through her eyes. While we talked, she helped me understand more about the Hungarian language, which is quite difficult for native English speakers.

Vica and I spent more than four hours walking across Budapest, and I enjoyed every minute of it. As I said, when I remember this trip in the future, it’s my time with her and Ferenc that will come to mind first and foremost.

I’m eager to meet up with other readers on this adventure. On Sunday, Matthias will join me and Duane for our ride on the Glacier Express across the Swiss Alps. I also have invitations to visit readers in Cologne and Luxembourg, although I’m still uncertain whether I’ll be able to make those connections work. I hope to!

Final Thoughts

I’ve been in Europe for eleven days now, and I have nine days left on this trip. Four of my cousins fly home tomorrow morning. At that time, Duane and I branch off for adventures of our own.

  • First, we’ll fly to Switzerland to take the train ride through the Alps. All told, it’ll take us three days of travel just to enjoy that eight hour trip. We’ll spend very little time actually seeing Switzerland. On the surface, that’s ludicrous. But because Duane and I both enjoy the process of travel, it’s actually a worthwhile excursion. Plus, Matthias will join us with a bottle of whisky!
  • Next, we’ll spend a couple of days in Strasbourg, France, the ancestral homeland of the Roth family. Yes, we know there was just a shooting in Strasbourg that left three people dead. No, we’re not worried. We were aware of the potential for terrorist attacks before we left for this journey and it didn’t dissuade us. (I refuse to make fear-based decisions.) If anything, we feel that Strasbourg will now be safer than before. (True story: During the precise moment of the 2017 London Bridge attack, I was traveling on a subway train underneath the site. People were confused why the train bypassed the station. It became very clear later.)
  • Finally, Duane will branch off to Munich and I will…I don’t know. I have three days and no plans. I have those invitations to visit GRS readers in both Cologne and Luxembourg. The offers are tempting. But I haven’t yet seen anything of Germany, so I might simply make my way to Berlin (from which my final flight departs early on the 23rd). We’ll see.

As always, this travel has given me perspective on my life back home at Portland. It’s made me more mindful of my daily habits and routines, made me think about the things I need to change in order to become a better version of me. I always find it fascinating the way comparing how I normally live to how others live in different countries can be such a transformative experience.

Until I get home, this site will continue to host guest articles from some of my favorite people. I hope that you’re finding them worthwhile. After Christmas, things will return to normal around here. Until then, I hope you’re all staying healthy and growing wealthy. Happy holidays!

J.D., the grumpy elf (at the Naschmarkt in Vienna)

My biggest mistake on this trip? I grew a beard because I thought it would keep me warm. I always have a mustache and goatee, but I keep them relatively short. Now I have a full beard and I hate it. It itches. It makes me appear 69 instead of 49. And it gets in the way of my food and beer. There’s a barber just outside our flat here in Prague. Once I publish this article, I may ask them to shave me.

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  1. I remember the first winter after my (spanish) husband moved here to bavaria. After watching a soccer game he came home all panicked because he couldn’t feel his fingers and thought we had to go to the hospital 🙂
    So you’re not alone, but good call on getting better clothes before moving on to Switzerland. Keep having fun on your trip! And never, ever buy anything in Switzerland before checking the price…

  2. Loved this check-in, thank you for sharing! Stay warm (as someone who flies back home to Russia every winter, I hear you on being unaccustomed to a different kind and level of cold).

  3. Sounds marvelous! I’m a big fan of Atmoska in Prague — it’s a fun little basement cafe/bar just far enough from the center to not gouge you on price, catering more to locals than tourists. Glad to hear you’re mostly staying warm. Have fun!

  4. Czechs will *not* appreciate your saying Pilsner is from Bavaria — it’s not, it’s from Pilsen (Plze?) in the Czech Republic, and it’s an iconic Czech product.

    • Yeah, I just got a history lesson at dinner. I was on my own (first time on this trip!) and decided to read the Wikipedia entry on Bohemia. Very educational. For some reason — “the interwebs” — I was under the impression that this region was called Bohemia. It is called Bohemia, but Czechs prefer Czechia. (Is that right?) Fun to learn this stuff…but also fraught with accidental danger.

      • Bohemia is one region of Czechia, the other one is called Moravia. And then there used to be Slovakia, but this is a country of its own now. A rare example of a state being divided in two in a peaceful way.

  5. Sounds like Wisconsin. That isn’t just cold on the outside. It freezes your bones.

    I like to get something that speaks to me at major trips. It is like a ribbon tied around my finger: it reminds me each time I look at it. Often it’s a Christmas ornament, but I have plenty of random items as well, like a pen from Disneyland in my wallet.

    Narrowing it down to one item keeps me from buying everything that strikes my fancy. And it gives that one item more meaning.

    • I too like souvenirs, but I’ve learned that I like functional souvenirs. I still wear my Turkish underwear from 2012. (TMI?) Whenever I wear the wool socks or the base layer I bought in Budapest, I’ll think of my time with Vica. It’s fun!

      I have lots of non-functional souvenirs gathering dust. The functional souvenirs get used all of the time.

      At each individual Christmas market in Vienna, you can walk away with a different mug for about $5. I visited six or eight markets there. I’m carrying ONE mug…and I’ll leave it behind if space gets tight. Sure, it’d be fun to have as a memento, but I’d rather carry functional souvenirs.

      • Absolutely. My point was on the other side: don’t buy too much as it dilutes the meaning. As I said, I have a Disneyland pen. I’m not sure I think of underwear as a “souvenir” but if you think of your experience every time you pull it out, then that’s exactly what I mean. But if you bought a mug at each of those stalls not only would you have more mugs than you needed, but not one of them would have any individual meaning to you.

  6. I really enjoyed reading about your trip. Thank you for sharing and I look forward to hearing about your future adventures. Let me know if you plan to head to New Orleans any time soon and I’d be happy to meet and take you around the city.

  7. where do you put your valuables like passport, others …etc. when you go out? In the room? Stealing is one of the problems when you travel.

    • True story: I’ve only encountered theft ONE time in a decade of travel, and that was during the first ten minutes of my first trip…to London. (I didn’t get stolen from, but my mother-in-law did.)

      That said, I did have a cab driver in Lima, Peru rip me off during my first trip to South America. Quoted me a price in soles (about 1/7th of a dollar), then stopped halfway to my destination and demanded dollars now.

      Honestly, I don’t worry about theft. Some folks think I’m naive, and I get that. But I’d rather trust people and take my chances than live in fear. So, I leave my passport here in the flat in my bag. (Or, if I were to rent a hotel, which doesn’t happen often — I can’t remember the last time I rented a hotel when I traveled abroad (seriously) — I might leave it in the safe but probably not.)

      That said, the bags I travel with do have secret pockets, etc. I’m carrying $1000 U.S. with me, but it’d take a calm, collected thief with time to locate it.

      • I’ve been to 26 countries (and counting…) and never had an issue with something being stolen from a room or apartment. I’m much more nervous about carrying it around with me all day, honestly.

        I’m glad you’re enjoying your trip! Budapest is one of my favorite places I’ve ever visited–also in the dead of winter. The ruin pubs are something else, eh?

  8. Great reading about your trip. I lived in Hungary ( Mohacs, a small town in the south of the country for a little over a year back in 1992 after college) and found the country and the people to be absolutely wonderful. I tell everyone that Hungary is a must stop on any European trip. Prague is beautiful as well but I completely agree that it is overrun by tourists making it feel like a trip to Disneyland IMHO. Enjoy the journey and thanks for sharing this and causing a flood of great memories for me 🙂

    • Hey! I was thinking Prague was like Disneyland!

      I’ll admit that the last 24 hours have warmed me to it because I got outside of the downtown core. But I still prefer Budapest. I would love to spend, say, three weeks traveling around Hungary, both in Budapest and the rural areas. Perú is still my favorite country, but Hungary is now in second place.

  9. Long time reader, but first time commenter. I love your writing and enjoyed reading about your travel experiences. Really makes me want to use my passport. I love wandering through foreign cities and to me the best experiences are not the tourist sites, but when you get to experience something with or like a local. I remember being on a bus in Switzerland during morning rush hour. I was so happy to be just in that moment listening to different languages being spoken around me. It’s a bonus when you can communicate with people in their native language.

    • Yep. I love having a good handle on Spanish (although I’m not where I was five years ago) and a passing skill in German. Plus, Duane and I have had a lot of fun trying to parse Hungarian (haha — impossible) and Czech (which we can actually read a tiny bit of but speak not at all).

      I too love cosmopolitan cities, where you can hear many languages at once. New York, London, Paris — these places are amazing because of the cultural diversity. So fun!

  10. Wow this trip you are on is fascinating! I am inspired to do the same (but in warmer weather:) Experiencing different cultures really makes you think more. I was worried about you when the shooting happened in France so glad you were not involved!

  11. Thanks for the interesting update. I’m eager to hear how you like Strasbourg. I read a blog by the Occasional Nomads who spent several weeks of a yearlong journey in that area and loved it. Their description as well as reading about the Alsace region makes me want to spend some time there. In warmer temperatures, however.

  12. I’m really surprised to hear that you paid so much to exchange dollars to local currency. I’ve not actually “changed money” internationally either in the airport or anywhere else in about 20 years and bring very little US cash when traveling overseas. Using my ATM card from Schwab Bank is free (all fees are rebated for all US or international withdrawals.) There is almost always an ATM inside the airport which I use before leaving the terminal. You get the best/official exchange rate with very little mark up. I find it very easy and most convenient to just withdraw cash in reasonable amounts along the way and have never ever had a problem with this strategy, plus saved a lot of money in fees. There are plenty of articles about this on travel web sites/blogs.

    • This, exactly. Debit cards with no ATM fees are the way to go. Airports always have ATMs and Schwab reimburses fees. I have a Schwab account for this reason alone.

  13. Isn’t the blogging world great? When I went to the UK and Europe 3 years ago I blogged about my plans and 2 readers offered to show me around. I stayed in their homes for a few days – one in Scotland, one in England and we had the BEST times!

  14. “potato onion dumpling”? Could you have possibly seen knishes or pierogies? You can find both of them over here in the states; with knishes, particularly around areas with lots of Jews (NYC, some parts of FL, etc.). It’s one of the dishes European Jews brought to America with them. They’re delicious & also have other fillings (such as kasha). You can find both of them in the freezer section of some supermarkets if you’re lucky.

  15. A few years ago my husband took his cold weather clothes on a January trip. Unfortunately, Southern California cold weather clothes (sweatshirt, jeans, cotton sock and tennis shoes) was no match for a Philadelphia blizzard.

  16. Hey J.D., you should look into the Schwab debit card. It has zero foreign transactions fee and reimburses for ATM fees. Have fun!! I was in Europe in May and absolutely loved it!!!

  17. My two favorite things about this post: 1. the photo of you holding the beverage. 2. The fact that you mentioned buying your ex-wife a holiday gift. What a wonderful place this world would be if we all were mature and kind enough to maintain peaceful relationships such as this. Happy holidays to you and yours.

  18. To avoid all of those nasty bank charges when exchanging currency, you should get a Revolut card. Download the app on your phone and check it out. You’ll save $100s per trip. Revolut has become huge in Europe. You’ll love it!

  19. Looks like a great trip, Prague is a place I’ve heard great things about. If I can ever get over my distaste of flying, maybe I’ll go there. Sorry to hear about your cousin’s cancer, I know how difficult that is, as I’m dealing with my fathers terminal cancer.