When Your Bank Account Says You Can’t Go

pennywize-best-travel-sites-2013What can you do when you want to travel, to get up and go, but your bank account says “no way.”

Well, there’s plenty you can do until you can afford to travel again:

  • Dreams are free: Use your time to think and dream of the places you’d like to go, from general ideas to somewhere particular. Think about why you want to go there, what you want to see, what you want to do. Let yourself be open to places you haven’t considered before, or experiences you’ve never thought of trying.
  • Research is free too: There are a myriad of ways to research and find out more about how much it will cost you to go to places you’d like to go. You can become an expert on airfares to different locations, including the best times of the year to travel. You can explore hotels at your destinations, or B&Bs, or Airbnb and other vacation rentals and figure how much it might cost you to stay there. Would it make sense to book a package deal for your destination? How about a tour? A cruise? The Internet, travel magazines and the travel section in many newspapers are filled with ways to explore travel ideas, costs and also find reviews. Online travel sites like Expedia, Travelocity and Orbitz can give you an idea of what travel packages cost. Guidebooks for places from local to all over the world can be found at the library, packed full of information about places to see, places to eat, and experiences to try.
  • Discover travel blogs and websites: If you’re looking for anything travel-related, there’s a good chance you’ll find it in someone’s travel blog. Besides actual travel experiences, travel-related blogs also cover topics like places to go, reviews of all sorts of things related to travel, tips for how to save for travel, and ways to keep travel expenses down. There are also websites devoted to finding cheap airfare, lodging and all other aspects of travel.
  • Travel through books and TV: Finding and reading books and magazines that go beyond guidebooks can give you a deeper sense of place, and of the culture of places you want to go. Photo books, non-fiction travel experiences, or even fiction set in a particular place all have the potential to tell you about places or experiences that don’t or won’t get written up in the guidebooks, and give you a deeper understanding of the culture of a place. For example, Donna Leon’s mysteries set in Venice go way beyond the “whodunit” to inform about the culture and food of Venice. You can also discover what to eat (or avoid) through books or television shows, like the ones from Anthony Bourdain, and create your own “must-try” list.
  • Learn a new language: No matter where you want to go, you can learn a little of the local language while you build up your travel account. There are several free sites available offering language instruction, like Duolingo or Memrise, and you can often find free language instruction materials, like those from Pimsleur, at your library. Language learning is good for your mind and memory, and at the very least will help you get around your destination more easily, wherever you go.

Can’t go anywhere because you don’t have money right now for travel? Look for the upside, and become an armchair traveler for a while. Get yourself ready to actually travel. Use your time to dream and figure out where you want to go and how to do it the best way for you. No, it’s not the same as actually being somewhere, but it can eventually get you where you want to go.

And, while you’re armchair traveling? Save, save, save so that someday you can go!

How to Travel Solo and Fall in Love With It

RIshikesh, India, Parmarth Ashram, www.bartnikowski.com
Rishikesh, India, Parmarth Ashram, http://www.bartnikowski.com

Myth: it costs a lot to travel.

Yes it does if you stay in $400 a night hotels like I used to do.

It was fun.

The truth is I love to travel solo.

I don’t have to wait for a friend to break up with her lover, leave their job, or save enough money to go with me.

When I want to go to Nepal, Colombia, or Sardinia I put on my Van sneakers and go!

I can sit in a fancy pants bar/restaurant like I am now and write. And enjoy a superb glass of red wine and be at ease and comfortable.

You never have to negotiate where to go based on money.

I was backpacking in the Himalayas solo in 2009 in Sikkim, India and realized I was spending less money per month than I received for renting out my apartment in Palo Alto, California.

I was spending less than $300 per month to stay in guesthouses eating home made Tibetan soup and momos, traveling by share jeep in the Himalayas, and having a blast.

I came home from that 10-month trip with money in the bank.


Don’t go over your budget on lodging. Yes you can splash out for a few days. But you can also get budget accommodation and live it up at the upper crust lounge/restaurant like I am now.

Secret: you can often work/write in 5-star surroundings enjoying the incredible views and then go back to your Airbnb room, campsite, or rented home.

You’ll discover that having a set amount to spend on lodging will keep you kosher.

I often times suggest a lower price on a room when the price suggested is too high.

It’s called rich foreigner tax. Many countries, like India, have no set prices on their rooms, the price is whatever they can get.

So haggle wisely, you’re still most likely paying too much.


One of the best things I ever did was travel twice around the world with no itinerary buying one-way plane tickets along the way.

If I felt like staying in Bali another month I could, no discussion.

If I wanted to explore Burma for a month, I went.

First time I went round the world I spent $2900 on plane tickets, the 2nd time I spent $1800. No I didn’t buy a RTW ticket, it doesn’t give you freedom on your journey.

For example I decided to stay in Cambodia for 4 weeks when I couldn’t stomach the thought of leaving.

I was falling in love with Siem Reap, where Angkor Wat is located and so I stayed.

No heated arguments. I found an incredible local guesthouse: Rosie’s guesthouse. And another one, Ou Malay where the Cambodian owners and I had a love fest of laughing and daily camaraderie.

It was $7 a night, no wifi but so what?! We loved each other!

Cambodia, Ou Malay Guesthouse Siem Reap, www.bartnikowski.com
Cambodia, Ou Malay Guesthouse, Siem Reap, http://www.bartnikowski.com

You meet so many people!

When you’re solo, there’s no one to listen or talk to. You can be alone with your own thoughts and then Bam! you meet someone seriously interesting who lights up your world and you wonder how you ever would have met them if you were with someone.

This has happened to me more times than I can count. And I’m still in touch with many friends I met traveling from Spain, Korea, Australia, Nepal, India, Germany, and Argentina.

They shook up my world and invited me into a new portal of love and friendship. I never would have met them if I wasn’t solo.

Being solo you have to reach out. It can be intoxicating.

Traveling solo, I mention my thoughts to whoever is standing by, I don’t take offense if they don’t respond, I’m simply radiating aloha which means, I’m spreading good will and happiness which is what the Dalai Lama advises but I didn’t realize until living in Hawaii that this means Aloha.

Pay attention. You might meet your soulmate, best friend ever, or meditation master around the next corner.

Suddenly you’ll be in a new world that you had no idea even existed.

Burma, Shwe Dagon Pagoda, Yangon, www.bartnikowski.com
Burma, Shwe Dagon Pagoda, Yangon, http://www.bartnikowski.com


Yes you can be safe but you have to trust your gut. Don’t negotiate with the red alert warnings your instincts tell you. Pay attention.

Your body knows before your mind. Listen.

And while you are at it: don’t tell people you’re traveling solo. Don’t advertise your solo status by flagrantly drinking and carousing. Really.

Do make friends with families and women. Volunteer with humanitarian foundations that are educating and changing lives. Don’t be afraid to talk to people and smile.

A smile is universal. Yes it works in every country. Try it. It works.

Change Your Life, join Mary on Kauai July to December for a 3-day luxury private retreat, learn yoga and photography on the best island in the world.


How Do We Do It?


How do we manage to save and pay for travel? How did we manage to afford a week’s vacation at the Grand Canyon, or our upcoming getaway to Oahu? How can we even think of taking a trip back to Japan next spring?

Aren’t we retired and living on a fixed income? Don’t we have two, soon-to-be three, children going to college? Aren’t we living in one of the most expensive places in the United States?

The answer to all the above questions is yes. We do live on a fixed income. We will have two, soon-to-be three, children attending college. And the cost of living here on Kaua’i is higher than many places back on the mainland.

How are we able to afford to travel as much as we do and afford all of the above?

Here’s our big secret: We live below our means.

We have three sources of retirement income: 1) Brett’s military retirement, 2) our Social Security benefits, and 3) a pension Brett receives from the last company he worked for (I rolled my retirement into an IRA). WenYu and YaYu also currently receive a monthly dependent benefit from Social Security, but that ends when they graduate from high school, and we are required to provide proof that the money is used to support them (the cost of which is considerably more than what they receive from SS each month). All of it isn’t very much, but it’s more than adequate for our needs.

We live simply. We rent a small but comfortable house, less than 800 square feet. Although the rent is slightly more than we’d like to pay, it is what it is for Kaua’i. We are very careful with our energy use, and keep our utility payments low. We actually use and pay less here in Hawai’i for gas and electric than we did in Portland, but we don’t have heating bills any more, we cook outside more, and use the slow cooker more, rather than heating up the stove or oven. We dry much of our laundry outside. We’re conservative with water use. We have basic cable/WiFi, but mainly watch TV on Netflix or Amazon, and we still use the low-cost family phone plan we had on the mainland. The girls don’t have data plans for their phones (Meiling does, but she pays for it herself). We fix things when we can rather than replace. Clothing expenses here are less compared to what we spent back on the mainland because we don’t need as many clothes. Entertainment is free – we go to the beach, we go watch the sunset, Brett hikes, we get books from the library, and so forth. The girls stay busy with school clubs, sports as well as community service projects.

We don’t have any debt other than my student loan. We use our credit card to earn rewards, but pay it off every month.

We own one four year-old dependable car that gets great gas mileage, a 2012 Honda Civic sedan. We bundle errands so that we’re not driving all over the place (which is hard to do anyway on this island). Our monthly gas expense has also turned out to be less than it was back in Portland, even though gas prices here are higher.

We eat well, but we do it on a budget that we have been able to bring down by several hundred dollars a month since we first arrived here. We’re able to get great prices on produce at our local farmers’ market, and save by bulk shopping at Costco and Amazon Prime, and occasionally Walmart, buying just a few fill-in items at the local, but more expensive, grocery stores. Other than our weekly visit to the farmer’s market, we shop just once a month, and only step in a store otherwise for things like milk or eggs. Brett makes the girls a lunch every day; they often take leftovers. We rarely eat out, and if we do it’s usually at small “local” spots where we can get a good meal at a low price. If we do go to an upscale restaurant for a special occasion, we let them know we’re kamaaina (local) and usually receive a discount.

We take advantage of the benefits Brett receives because of his military service, which include low-cost car and rental insurance, military hotels and recreation services, and low-cost health and dental insurance. We don’t pay premiums or for prescriptions, but have to meet a deductible and pay a percentage of other costs. Brett is enrolled in Medicare, and I will join him next year; the military insurance will stay as our supplemental. We also have a less than negligible tax burden here in Hawai’i because of our income sources and because we rent (we still pay federal taxes though).

But wait! What about all those college expenses? Surely we have to be hiding something or scamming the federal government or someone in order to cover our children’s educational costs so we can spend our own money on traveling.

Nope, there’s no hidden wealth, no secret stashes of money, no undeclared or unreported income. Believe me, we have provided more financial documentation to the federal government and the colleges the girls applied to than we ever did for any mortgage. The total amount of federal financial aid both Meiling and WenYu will receive next year will be less than $4000, around 4% of their combined total college costs. They were both eligible for much more, but are turning it down because they won’t need it. All three of our daughters have known for many years that they would be responsible for their own college expenses, and they have worked incredibly hard (and are still working, in YaYu’s case) to earn scholarships to pay for college. Both Meiling and WenYu were awarded scholarships and grants by the colleges they (will) attend as well as outside scholarships, and Meiling currently works 20-30/hours week to pay for her room & board. We take care of some of their expenses (dorm room needs, luggage, clothing and such), as well as the girls’ travel between college and home, mainly using the frequent flyer rewards we have saved. Their brother pays for their books.

We budget and save for travel because it is important to us – we value experience. We would rather travel than buy things or live in a bigger house or own a home right now or drive a fancier car or go out to eat all the time. We put away money every month for travel; it’s a line item in our budget. It’s not a lot but it adds up month after month. If we spend less than our monthly budget amount in other areas, the leftover goes into our travel fund as well. We save all refunds and gifts, we use rewards from our credit card, and all those $1 bills and the change we save (about $1000/year) goes toward travel too. And, when we take a trip, we do it on a budget, and we stick to it.

That’s how we do it. Living below our means, and saving and taking advantage of the opportunities we have earned or been given allow us to get up and go somewhere else a few times each year, to see family, friends, and eventually, we hope, more of the world.

The Mystery Vacation: Changes Have Been Made

No, we're not going to New York
No, we’re not going to New York City

We are still going on the Mystery Vacation™ – that hasn’t changed. It’s still all paid for, non-refundable airline tickets purchased, etc.

But, a little over a week ago WenYu was awarded free airfare to attend one of the open houses for admitted students at Colorado College. She very much wants to go and check out the college before making a final decision, but she also doesn’t want to make such a big journey to an unknown place on her own. However, a trip for two to Colorado Springs, even a short one and with one airline ticket paid for, was not in this year’s family travel budget.

I could have taken money out of our savings to cover the cost of the trip, or used a credit card, but that’s not how I like or want to fund our travels. Trips are paid for out of funds saved from our regular income, after all bills and household expenses are covered. And, with a trip to Oahu planned for June and another trip to accompany WenYu to college coming up in the fall, this year’s travel budget was already maxed out.

All was not lost though. I realized there was some wiggle room in the Mystery Vacation™ budget because when I made hotel reservations, I booked two rooms for our stay so that Brett and I, and the girls, could each have our own rooms. I had also budgeted a generous daily amount to cover meals and other expenditures.

After crunching some numbers I found that if we all stayed in one room, and cut back our daily expenses by $50, we would have enough to cover costs for an extra trip to Colorado Springs. So, I asked the girls if they would mind sharing a room with their dad and me, and their answer was “No problem. How much time do we ever spend in the room anyway?” And, even with our daily budget cut by $50, we still will have more than enough to eat well, buy a few souvenirs if we want, and cover other miscellaneous expenses. All planned activities have already been paid for.

I made a quick phone call last Friday and changes were made to our reservation. We now have a large refund coming our way, and several hundred dollars have also been freed up in our travel savings. We may be a little more squeezed space-wise on the Mystery Vacation™, but it’s still all going to be very top quality, and a good time will be had by all.

Best of all (in my book, anyway), the destination remains a mystery – Brett and the girls still don’t know where we’re going!

I’ll be making reservations today for an April trip to Colorado Springs!

Where In the World Should We Go: The First Three Journeys

Early this month I posted a query: Where in the world should Brett and I go on an annual fall sojourn? Our goal is to stay for three months every spring in Japan to be near our son and his family, but we also want to spend two months every fall slow traveling in another part of the world.

We were given LOTS of good suggestions of places to visit (thank you!!), so Brett and I spent time this month talking about where we each wanted to go and why. It turned out we pretty much agreed on where we wanted to visit, but disagreed on the order we wanted to wanted to see them. We eventually worked that out, and came up with a list of the top three places we’d like to visit:Florence

1. Italy: Placing Italy at the top of our travel list was not as easy as one might think. Brett has been to southern Italy several times (Naples and Sicily) courtesy of the navy, but this would be a first-time visit for me. I was (and still am, to some degree) concerned about spending two months on our own in a country where we do not speak the language, but Brett feels that if we play it safe and initially go somewhere where English is spoken we might never be eager to venture to a place where it isn’t. He believes we need to takes risks earlier rather than later. We still haven’t completely decided on exactly where in Italy to stay as there are so many wonderful areas to explore. We have some ideas, but nothing definite yet. So, there will be lots of reading and research over the next couple of years to help us make a firm decision about where to stay and what to see. The target date for this journey is the fall of 2018.bath_CNT_12feb13_alamy_b

2. England/Scotland: I have wanted to visit England and Scotland for as long as I can remember – this is where my ancestors come from (and some of Brett’s as well). Again, Brett has visited some of England (Portsmouth and the surrounding area) via the navy, but it will be a first for me. At least for this trip we agree on where to stay: One month in Bath, and one month in St. Andrews. No, we don’t play golf, but St. Andrews is less expensive than Edinburgh, and it’s near enough to be an easy commute to the city for visits and touring. We think we’ll rent a car for the month we’re in Scotland so we can take drives into the Highlands. We’ll fit in a short visit to London when we’re in England, but the city of Bath will be our primary headquarters. It’s a fantastic location all on its own, but also convenient to Wales and other places in the southwestern part of the country that we’d like to experience.


3. New Zealand: A visit to New Zealand was high on both our lists, and we are definitely in a more convenient location for getting there. However, to take advantage of all there is to see and do there may actually require more planning than our first two trips and probably cost us more as well, so we will wait and see how our savings are holding up before we commit to a full two months down under.

If we decide to continue our travels after these first three years, then we’ll come up with another list. But we’ve got enough now to get us started and are feeling quite motivated.

It’s all very exciting to dream and make plans, but now the real work begins in order to make our dreams and plans come true. Until we leave it’s all about getting the girls off to college, saving, reading and researching, saving, saving, researching and reading, and more saving. We will continue to study Japanese to prepare for our annual stays there, but as we get closer to traveling to Italy we will try to learn a bit of that language as well.

Here we go!


Next Year’s Mystery Adventure: An Update

237cd67f07b897d3f14fcc00df30116cNo, I’m still not telling where we are going. Anyway, I couldn’t even if I wanted to because Brett now has access to everything I write here!

Except for one remaining activity, everything is set for our trip next spring! Hotel rooms, activities, tours, car and airline tickets have all been taken care of, and for the most part, paid for. Several of these things will pay back dividends that we can use for future travel. I reserved a car through Hawaiian Airlines (the same car at the same low price we would have paid through Costco Travel), so we will earn additional mileage for that. Two of three hotel reservations were done through Expedia, which means big Swagbucks earnings after we complete the trip (because Swagbucks was awarding four times every dollar when I booked the rooms). We have gotten and will be getting more rewards from our credit card.

I am thrilled that I was able to find our airline tickets at the price I wanted. With airline tickets it’s either buy early or buy late for the best price, and I bought early this time because Hawaiian Airlines had tickets at the price I was looking for. I know the price could go possibly go lower between now and when we leave, but then again, as someone I know who works in the industry always says . . . it might not. His advise is to decide how much you want to pay for tickets, and if you find that price go ahead and get them (and then don’t check prices again).

And, as I wrote in an earlier post we are getting three times the rewards from this ticket purchase: Swagbucks from booking through Expedia, Hawaiian Airlines miles, and rewards back from our credit card.

So, what’s left to do? I need to make reservations for one more activity/tour, but other than that all that we need to do is wait until next spring and in the meantime, save, save, save. So far it’s all coming along well though:

  • Rebates, rewards & gifts: Our travel savings is now $0, but our airline tickets and some hotel reservations for the trip (and Brett’s ticket for this fall) are paid for. We do have a regular savings allotment set up that goes into our account every month that will cover remaining expenses by the time we travel. Our credit card reward balance is up to $255 and some change. I’m thinking though that we won’t need to use it toward this trip, so will keep growing the balance for future travel.
  • $1 bills & change: We have nearly $800 saved so far. I am starting to think that we won’t need to use this bit of money either for the mystery trip, so we will just keep saving our $1 bills and change for Brett and my future travel.
  • Christmas money: We had transferred $900 of this into our savings account so it was used for the airline tickets. We will continue to contribute this to savings.
  • Swagbucks: Between Brett and I we have already earned nearly $900 in both Visa card rewards and Amazon gift cards from Swagbucks. And it’s only the end of June! I think we will be able to give the girls, our son and his family a very nice Christmas this year (Brett and I aren’t going to exchange gifts). Besides using Swagbucks for Christmas, I hope to earn enough in Amazon gift cards to buy a new camera before we travel.
  • Hawaiian Airlines miles: Not sure right now of what all our total miles are combined, but it’s getting up there. Brett’s trip in the fall will add more, as will the trip next spring. Later this year we will sign up for the Hawaiian Airlines mileage credit card which will give us a whole lot more miles (35,000 for signing up). By the time WenYu heads off to college we will have more than enough for at least two and maybe more round-trip tickets for her and Meiling.

Finally, here’s another clue on our mystery destination: it’s in the vicinity of somewhere that can be reached on Hawaiian Airlines!

About That Change Jar . . .

change-jarSome of you may have noticed that in my Feel Good Friday posts (both here and previously on The View From the Treehouse) I’ve noted how much we put into our change/$1 bill jar. It has fluctuated from a few dollars to more than $10 some weeks, but it’s been an easy and painless way to add to our savings. In the past five weeks we’ve put way $50.82; since last November we’ve saved $736.00 (and some change).

My mother always kept a jar of pennies in the kitchen that she called her “trip jar.” Whenever the pennies filled the jar, she would roll them and turn them in at the bank. The money she saved from all those pennies went toward the break we took every afternoon when our family took a road trip. We always stopped somewhere for pie, or a sundae, or some other snack so my parents could have a rest and some coffee before hitting the road again. Saving pennies was a great idea for the time, but as costs started rising over the years pennies just weren’t going to cut it.

I later noticed that the nickel-and-dime amounts in our checking account seemed to drain our balance quickly. In one of those lightbulb moments I thought if that were true for my checkbook, then small amounts of money set aside should also add up quickly, so I started my own “trip jar.” At first all we saved were the odd coins we got from turning in bottles and cans, or that we found on the ground. The amount in our jar never seemed to grow all that much because we rarely used cash. I did save 100 yen coins for a year when we lived in Japan and ended up with several hundred dollars that I was able to use toward a trip to Hong Kong. It was eye-opening. The reason I was able to save so much? Cash was king in Japan – we didn’t use credit or debit cards there.

We seriously changed how we saved our change several years ago though when I wanted and needed to put away some serious $$$ for a Disney World trip for our family. One day I was reading a list of tips for saving toward a Disney vacation, and someone wrote about how they saved all their change and $1 bills. They paid for everything with cash, and if they used a debit card, they rounded up to the next $5.00 (for example, if the total was $33.29 they would round up the total to $35.00 and put away $2.71 in change). This person made a rule that neither change nor $1 bills would get spent – period. If they got any they were to immediately be put away. No exceptions.

And that’s what we’ve been doing ever since. We use cash these days, or round up whenever we use our debit card (and get lots raised eyebrows or questions from the cashiers over the small, strange amount of change we want back). We never spend any of our change or $1 bills, with the exception that at the farmers’ market we allow ourselves to use up to five $1 bills because we get so many back in change. All change or $1 bills immediately goes into a jar when we get home, and when we have $25 in $1 bills we bundle them and put them into our saving account; we roll our coins and put them away as well. We cash out small refund checks (less than $10) and put that money into our change jar, and we put in the money we get from recycling cans and bottle (everything gets recycled here in Hawai’i). Found money goes into the jar. We also occasionally set aside $5 bills, but we found that doing it regularly took too big of a bite out our budget.

My goal for this year was to save $800, but it’s pretty obvious at this point that we’ll exceed that, and we’ve set a goal of saving $2500 from change and $1 bills before we head out for our first travel adventure in the fall of 2018.

It really is a painless, easy way to save. We did learn through trial and error that rounding up or putting the change away needs to become a habit. But, once the habit is in place the “small stuff” adds up quickly.