As is no secret by now, I absolutely love to travel. ♡
I love the fun and adventure and magic of it all. I love how it gets me out of comfort zones I didn’t even know I had. I love getting to meet new people from new places, and learning about how they see the world. I love squeezing my way through bustling markets and lingering around café tables, getting to know the nuances of new cultures through their food. I love navigating bike rentals and squeezing onto crowded busses and sitting atop ferry decks and logging tens of thousands of steps a day to reach new destinations. But more than anything, I just love travel because I’m convinced that it’s one of life’s greatest teachers.
This planet we get to live on is simply — as we say in Spanish — una maravilla. And while I’m naturally a total hygge-loving homebody who really (really) loves cozying up and staying put, I have to say that I have never once regretted investing the time and money and energy to travel someplace new. This beautiful world of ours just has too many good places to explore, and more, too many good people in it with things to teach us. So whenever I have the chance to travel, I try to take it!
Which is why you may have noticed that we’ve been traveling more than ever lately. ♡ Both Barclay and I are keenly aware that this particular season of life that we’re in (good health, sans kids, living abroad, with flexible work hours, outrageously cheap airline tickets at our fingertips, and endless bucket list destinations just a short flight away) is probably the most flexible window of time we will ever have in our lives when it comes to travel…probably times ten. So for however long this season lasts, we’re excited to make the absolute most of it, with crazy-deep gratitude all along the way. It’s been a blast.
That said, we’ve definitely learned a lot these past few years especially about how to budget for, book, plan, document and navigate our way around our adventures. We’ve also come to understand our own unique travel vibe as a couple, and what feels good and meaningful and fun to the two of us. (And by contrast, what traveling “shoulds” we can kick to the curb!)
So today, I’m really excited to be chatting all about how we do travel! You guys sent in a record number of questions for this month’s “Ask Ali”, and I’ve done my best to answer as many as I could below and will also tune in to Instagram stories this weekend to answer some more. As always, just take whatever rings helpful and true to you, and disregard anything that’s not your style. Because when it comes to travel, what’s most important is that you do you. And of course, if you have any great tips or recommendations or suggestions to the questions below, please chime in because I want to know what you know! Always so much to learn when it comes to travel.
Alright, without further ado, here’s this month’s Q&A!
What websites do you use for finding airline tickets?
We mostly use Google Flights and occasionally Skyscanner when looking for airline tickets. I’m a huge fan of the “explore destinations” option on both sites, where you can type in your origin airport and available dates, and then see a map of potential destinations with airfare listed for each. (Super fun to explore, and often how we choose our weekend trips living here in Europe!) If you have semi-flexible dates for a specific destination in mind, I also love how Google Flights offers a calendar that clearly displays which dates have the best prices. Both websites also give you the option to set up price alerts, if you would like to track a specific flight to see price increases/decreases.
That said, after a few bad experiences booking through flight aggregators, like Skyscanner/Expedia/Priceline/etc., I would also note that we usually just use Skyscanner to search for flights. Then, if it points us to a good one, we will book the flight directly through the airline itself. Or if we are using points, we will book the flight through our credit card (Chase).
Any tips for finding good deals on flights? I’m in awe of the $30 round trip flights you guys keep taking!
I get so many questions about this! Honestly, most of our cheap flights are simply due to the fact that we currently live in a city with a major international airport and are traveling around the EU, where inner-European flights are outrageously cheap. (We still can’t get over the fact that a round-trip ticket here costs less than it did to fill up a tank of gas back in Kansas City!)
That said, I’m a total nerd when it comes to searching for good deals on flights, and always set up price alerts (usually just via Google) to keep an eye on potential flights and pounce once the prices drop.
I’ve also always been a total fan of discount airlines, especially since we’ve learned how to avoid their potential pitfalls and surprise fees. (More on that below.) I know that many people turn their noses up about flying Southwest or Spirit — or, in the EU, RyanAir or Vueling or Easyjet — but especially if it’s a short flight, I would sooo much rather spend our traveling budget on cool meals and experiences in our destination city, rather than investing in a few inches of extra legroom. And I have crazy long legs, lol, so that’s saying something. 😉
More than anything, though, the best deals we find on flights are when we’re able to travel on credit card points. I actually traveled for two full years entirely free on points (Barclay almost entirely free too) before we moved to Barcelona. And in our time here, I would say that we have booked probably 75% of our flights on points as well. I’ll get into more of how we work credit card points below, if you’re interested. But no pressure if you’re not — I know credit cards aren’t for everyone.
What are your go-to websites for cool hotels?
Hotel vs AirBnB?
Always a fun question — I love both!!! Nowadays, we tend to book one or the other depending on the vibe we’re going for and which fits best with our travel schedule. Generally, we book:
- AirBnBs if we are wanting to feel more like locals in a city, if we want to save $$$, if there’s a house that looks particularly cool, and if the checkin/out times work easily with our schedule
- Hotels if we want to feel a bit more pampered (I love coming back to a tidied up room each night) or have access to hotel amenities (hello, hot tubs and spas), if we’re going to be at all rushed arriving/leaving and want to be able to drop off bags easily, or just generally, if it’s a really cool hotel that I would love to visit!
Honestly, it sounds weird, but luggage drop-off has turned into one of our biggest factors nowadays with choosing between hotels and AirBnBs. We take quite a few 2- or 3-day weekend trips around Europe. And if we’re arriving at 8am in a new city and only have two days to explore, I’ve found it’s almost always easier to just drop our bags off at a hotel, versus trying to set up some sort of special arrangement to meet an AirBnB manager early to drop off bags before afternoon checkin.
That said, there are of course exceptions to all of these factors with different hotels and AirBnBs. But we love both, and enjoy staying at a mix of both.
How far out do you tend to plan your trips?
It totally depends! Whenever we have advanced notice about an upcoming trip, I will always start planning as early as possible to try to get the best deals on flights and bookings. But since we’ve been living in Europe, we’ve been having fun “doing what the locals do” and have been booking most of our trips spontaneously whenever we have a free weekend.
Do you tend to make an itinerary when you travel or wing it?
Hehe, this is more of a marriage question for us. 😉 If it were up to Barclay, he would just arrive in a new city with zero plans and follow his nose around exploring, asking locals for recs along the way. If it were up to me, I would choose to arrive with a detailed itinerary (in my dream world, that some cool travel agent had planned and vetted) for some stellar places to eat, plus one or two cool things to do each day. So…we’ve learned to compromise.
Before we leave on our trip (or if we’re running behind, while we’re on the plane), the two of us will work together to make a Google map for our destination full of all of the restaurants and sights that people (or the Internet) have recommended. Then we will talk and decide on one main sightseeing sort of thing that we want to do each day. But beyond that, the rest of our trips are usually pretty spontaneous, and we just consult our Google map while we’re out and about to see what’s nearby when we’re looking for something to do or our next place eat.
For us, it has been a nice balance of planning and spontaneity. And as someone who really values eating good food while we’re traveling (a bad meal on vacation is such a tragedy!), I always feel like the 30 minutes or so that I take to research a list of good restaurants is always 1000% worth it.
Any recommendations for (destination) ?
For all of you who asked specific questions about specific destinations, feel free to check out all of my trip posts here. Or of course, if you are coming to Barcelona anytime soon, be sure to consult our ever-expanding Barcelona Travel Guide! We try to update it regularly, and have lots of great travel tips in there as well.
Also, lots of you have been asking for travel recs from our trip last week to the Amalfi coast in Italy. It’s coming soon! ♡
Talk to me about what luggage you bring! Carry-on vs. checked? Backpacks vs. roller? Other details?
Total Team Carry-On!!! Literally the only two times that I have used my large suitcase in the past decade was (1) when we were moving to Europe and (2) when I returned to visit last summer and wanted to do a Target run. Otherwise, I am a passionate believer in bringing along the smallest suitcase you own for vacations. Carry-ons save considerable time at airports, they are far easier to carry around town (especially over cobblestones in Europe), and they force you to be intentional and pack only what you need.
I travel 100% of the time nowadays with just my tiny European-sized, carry-on roller bag and a backpack, in which I can also stash my purse if an airline has a hand luggage limit. Our roller bags here have exactly zero frills — they were a cheap impulse buy once we realized our American carry-ons were too big for European airlines — but we have been using them regularly for nearly two years now, and they have been perfectly fine.
Any specific tips for packing internationally?
- Please don’t bring a huge bag! Especially if you’re coming to Europe. We see soooo many tourists here (almost always Americans) lugging enormous bags through the streets of Barcelona, and they look downright miserable. In my opinion, a big bag is totally unnecessary for most vacations. Just pack light (with lots of layers), wear your coat and bulkiest shoes on the plane (saves room, plus planes are cold!), and save yourself the hassle (and fees) of dealing with a huge bag.
- Luggage size limits in Europe are smaller than the US. We tell everyone we know coming here — especially if they have booked any flights within Europe while they’re here — that the size for carry-on bags in Europe is considerably smaller than in the States. So either bring a smaller carry-on or be prepared to pay some extra baggage fees.
- Roll your clothes. Shout out to Marie Kondo — you can fit more clothes in that small carry-on if you roll, don’t fold!
- Bring comfy shoes. Unless you plan on taxiing everywhere you go, international travel almost always includes tons of walking. So ditch the heels and pack legit-comfortable shoes.
Do you bring your DSLR when traveling or just use your phone for pics?
I go back and forth. I’ve been bringing my DSLR along on more trips lately, simply because it has felt fun and creatively nourishing for me this year to get back to photographing other things besides food. But most of the time, I just rely on my iPhone along with my Moment Wide Angle Lens, which I really love and will often snap onto my phone case to take pics when we’re traveling.
I’ve heard mixed reviews about the cheaper European airlines. What has your experience been?
We get this question a lot. I’m definitely a big fan of the discount European airlines (RyanAir, Vueling, Easyjet, etc.) simply because they allow us to travel sooo much more than we could if we were paying full price. That said, we definitely learned a few lessons about traveling with them the hard way when we first moved to Europe, and it’s easy to get stuck with extra fees (or worse, miss your flight) with discount European airlines if you’re not careful. A few basic tips we regularly give include:
- Check in early. In Europe, checking in early isn’t about just guaranteeing that you get a good seat. With discount airlines, it can often be the difference in whether or not you even get a seat. Many European countries (including Spain) have laws that allow for insane overbooking on flights. So even if you paid for your ticket, they can legally turn you away in the name of overbooking if the plan is already full. To avoid this, check in early (as soon as it’s available, usually 24-48 hours in advance in Europe). Or better, pay the extra 5-10€ for priority or early check-in when purchasing your ticket to ensure that you will actually make it on the plane.
- Check in online. Most discount airlines charge extra if you check in at the airport in person.
- Again, read the luggage limits carefully. European carry-on sizes are much smaller than the US. Also, pay very close attention to limits on hand luggage, as those can vary from airline to airline.
- Expect zero frills. Most discount airlines that we fly in Europe don’t even offer free water on board. We always expect that nowadays, but be prepared to pay if you would like food or drink. Also, expect minimal leg room. 😉
Any must-have accessories for flights?
I tend to pack light when it comes to travel accessories. But I always bring a reusable water bottle (easy to fill up at the airport, helps remind me to stay hydrated, cuts down on plastic), some sort of small snack (lol, I’m always hungry), a good set of earbuds, an Anker to keep my electronics charged, and my iPad/Kindle for reading.
Favorite way to pass time during layovers?
I’m totally that girl who you will see awkwardly make a lap past you a few times, because I love walking and moving my body to get my heart rate up during a layover. But I almost always also use layovers to do some last-minute trip planning and work on my Google map (see above) so that I’m ready to go as soon as we land.
What’s your best recommendation for cell service while traveling abroad?
If you have room in your budget, I always highly recommend that people have some sort of cell service while traveling abroad. I spent years traveling without cell coverage, jumping from wifi to wifi wherever I could find it, and can vouch that it’s possible to do successfully. But it definitely also adds stress, especially if you get in a pinch needing directions without a wifi spot around.
I recommend either calling your phone carrier to see about adding on an international plan for the days that you are traveling. Or you can do what we do (our phones here don’t allow for international coverage outside of the EU) and just pick up a SIM card at the airport whenever you arrive in a new destination. SIM cards are getting cheaper and cheaper around the world, and most companies have great rates for travelers.
Any tips for jet lag?
Oof, yes. I can’t sleep a wink on planes and tend to get terrible jet lag when I travel across time zones, so I’m always sure nowadays to:
- Hydrate: I find that staying hydrated really helps with jet lag (and so many other things) when traveling.
- Don’t take naps the first day: Most of our visitors to Barcelona arrive in the morning, so Barclay and I are always intentional to plan a (physically) active first day to try and keep everyone awake until bedtime. In my experience, even if I’m crazy tired, it always helps to avoid naps the first day and try to go to bed and wake up at local times when arriving in a new city.
- Have a back-up of melatonin or sleeping pills: Since I know that my body doesn’t do jet lag well, I pretty much always go ahead and pop a melatonin or sleeping pill before going to bed my first 1-3 nights in a new location. Even if I feel exhausted and think I’m going to fall right to sleep, often I will just lay there for hours and hours getting frustrated, so I’d rather just take a pill proactively. That said, of course, I’m not a doctor and any medication decisions are 100% up to you. If you struggle at all with jet lag, I just always recommend packing some back-up meds in case you need them.
What do you like to do on your first day in a new city?
Always a fun question! Well first off, I have a thing about not starting off trips on a stressful foot when we arrive in a new city. Since I’m usually super-impatient/excited to drop our bags off and get this party started, Barclay and I usually splurge on whatever the fastest way is to get to our hotel or AirBnB (usually a taxi) so that we’re not lugging bags through trains and busses and across cobblestones and can just get rollin’.
Beyond that, our favorite thing to do on our first day in a new city is a food tour! We got in the habit of doing first-day food tours on trips about three years ago, and have been totally hooked on them ever since. First off, they are always fantastic and delicious primer on local cuisines. They are a great 2-for-1, in that you get a great overview of the history and layout of the city, while getting to eat lots of good food along the way. They also usually involve a fair amount of walking, which is always feels great after being on a plane. But mostly — they’re usually just really really fun!
Sightseeing & Eating
How do you research what things to do in a new city? Any good website recommendations?
I typically use a mixture of recommendations from:
- Friends: Including internet friends (!) who have great recs to share.
- Locals: Once we arrive in a new city, we do a lot of talking to locals (<– it helps being married to an extroverted husband who loves talking to strangers) to ask for their recommendations for places to visit and eat.
- Culture Trip: My current all-around favorite website for reliably awesome travel recs.
That said, I’m also a nerdy double-checker when we travel. So whenever we receive a recommendation, I double-check reviews (usually on Google) before we head that direction.
How do you choose where to eat???
My favorite question! ♡
I mainly consult all of the same resources mentioned above. We’ve also found that awesome restaurants tend to recommend other awesome restaurants. So if we’re having an awesome meal and want to go find a drink afterwards, we’ll usually ask our server for a rec. And more often than not, those places have been amazing.
I would also note that I do not use TripAdvisor for restaurant recs. In my experience, TripAdvisor is the hands-down worst for food recommendations, especially since almost all of their reviews come from tourists. (Our friends in Barcelona talk about TA often — it’s amazing how some of the worst tourist traps here often get rated the highest!) Unfortunately, I’ve found that Yelp isn’t very reliable for restaurant reviews abroad either. We loved using Yelp back in the States, but it has yet to really catch on with Europeans. So again, most of their international reviews seem to be from tourists. If I want to read restaurant reviews online, I will usually just consult Google.
Do you have any advice for avoiding the super touristy places and things to do?
As mentioned above, I always double-check reviews online for restaurants or places that we might like to visit. Usually you can get a pretty good sense of the cheese-factor there. But if in doubt, ask some locals and they will usually be happy to point you in the right direction (and steer you away from the tourist traps).
That said, “touristy” isn’t always a bad thing. Our European friends are always reminding us that most places become “touristy” simply because they are legit-awesome places that tourists should visit! For example, Sagrada Familia is statistically the most touristic destination in Spain, but it’s also my favorite cathedral in the world. So the lines and ticket prices and all of the buzz make sense to me.
Any tips for planning an itinerary that doesn’t leave you exhausted by the end of the trip? I love traveling and sightseeing, but always feel like I need a vacation afterwards to recover from my vacation.
Oh girl, I’ve definitely been there. A few thoughts I might offer:
- Trips vs. vacations: Years ago, a friend mentioned that he generally views traveling through the lens of either going on trips or vacations. By his definition, a trip is active travel where sightseeing is top priority, and you’re in it to do and see and learn as much as you can. And by contrast, a vacation is all about leisure where relaxation is top priority, and you’re there to kick back and chill and recharge. Now of course, trips can totally be a mixture of both. But sometimes personally — or as a couple — that language has been helpful just in clarifying what vibe we’re going for with a trip (or a specific day within a trip).
- Pick one main thing each day: When planning an itinerary, I always recommend that people pick no more than one main sightseeing thing to do each day. In our experience hosting 100+ days of visitors here in Barcelona, one thing is usually plenty! Of course, plan lots of good meals around your main activity. And if you want to squeeze in an extra activity or two, you can always plan them as backups. But resist the urge to overbook and squeeze too much stuff in, and I think you’ll be glad you did.
- Split up: If you’re traveling with someone who might want to go harder and do more things than you, don’t be afraid to split up and do some different things during the day! Traveling usually brings a major dose of togetherness anyway, so especially if you’re an introvert, it can be nice to split up for at least a few hours and do your own thing.
How has your traveling style changed over the years?
To quote an Instagram post that I shared last year, I would say…
- Less TripAdvisor, more trip advice from friends beforehand and locals once we arrive.
- Less waiting in long lines, more lingering around tables.
- Less packing for fashion, more packing for maximum comfort (especially with 👟).
- Less using my phone for emails/texts, more using it just for photos/maps.
- Less public transit, tons of walking.
- Less luggage, always always always carrying on.
- Less “shoulds”, more “this feels like us.”
Back when I first started traveling, I felt pressure to do All The Things, spending most of my time trying to “make the most of” my time in a new place by “checking off” as many sights as possible. Nowadays, I’ve come to find that I actually enjoy a much slower pace while traveling. It’s nice to see a few sights, but mostly, I usually just want to hang out and do whatever the locals do. I’m also firmly convinced, by the way, that you can usually learn as much about a new culture just by lingering in a cafe and people-watching and chatting with locals as you can by spending an afternoon in a museum. 😉
Who watches your dogs while you travel?
We have two lovely sisters who tag-team watching our pups here in Barcelona while we travel. They are amazing, and even call us their family now (so sweet!), and love our pups so well. We’re lucky to have them.
Tips for not going over budget on a vacation?
Always, always, always budget in more than you think you’re going to need! There are soooo many unexpected costs that can come up with travel — from fees and taxes, to transportation, to tipping, to exchange rates, to having to buy that umbrella or extra sweater during unexpected weather, and so much more. Beyond airfare and accommodations, we usually anticipate that a trip will cost 25% more than we expect — and that’s usually about right.
How do you guys afford to travel as much as you do?
First off, as I mentioned above, we’re lucky because travel around Europe is simply so much cheaper than travel around the States or many other parts of the world. (For example, total cost for flights/lodging for our 4-day trip to Rome last year rang in at a whopping $60 per person. Crazy.) So there’s that.
In general though, Barclay and I are both big believers in investing in experiences over stuff. So we’ve made it a point to avoid spending much money on clothes or house decor or other “stuff” (especially while we’re living in Europe). And instead, we save hard and budget most of our discretionary income on travel and experiences around Barcelona. It also, of course, helps that the blog earns a solid steady income nowadays. And that we don’t have to spend as much as we did in the States on things like cars and health insurance. Also — this is a big one — our apartment agency here in Barcelona allows us to pay our rent with our credit card. So we automatically get a big boost in credit card points each month while we’re living here, which has been awesome.
All of that said, everyone prioritizes spending differently. So I say wholeheartedly — to each, his or her own. But in general, I would say that we are able to spend more on travel because we choose to save in other areas of life.
Do you guys travel a lot on points? Any awesome travel credit card recommendations?
BIG YES. I studied up a bit on travel hacking years ago, and ever since, I have been a huge fan of working the credit card points system.
In a nutshell, we do so simply by putting every purchase possible on our credit cards. We just have two — the Chase Sapphire Reserve (for personal expenses) and the Chase Ink Business Preferred (for business). And we treat both like debit cards, paying them off in full each month. Both have significant annual fees, but at least in our personal experience, we’ve found that the rewards they bring in far outweigh the fees. I’ve used and loved the Sapphire card for years, especially because there are no foreign transaction fees, we receive an annual travel credit, and we get 3x points on travel and dining. We also recently bumped up to the “reserve” level because it gets us into lounges at pretty much every airport we visit, which — holy cow — has been a game-changer.
Back when we were in the States, I also did that thing where I signed up for both the Southwest business and personal credit cards at once so that I could hit the (then) 110,000 points qualification for their famous companion pass. And holy cow, it was amazing. That amount of points paid for a surprising number of my flights for me, plus Barclay was able to fly 100% free as my “companion” for an entire year. We cancelled those cards as soon as that year was over (especially since we’re not in the States flying Southwest anymore), but the companion pass was amazing while it lasted.
Anyway, there are all sorts of travel hacking sites you can consult for tips on which credit card point systems might be best for you. Plus tips for how to creatively hit the amount you need to spend in the first few months to quality for all of those bonus points. (For example, in order to qualify for the companion pass by spending a certain amount in the first three months, I took the tip to purchase large gift cards for stores that I knew I would frequent over the coming year, such as Amazon, Target or my neighborhood gas station.) There are, of course, endless other things you can do to save on travel via credit card points. But I don’t like to juggle multiple cards, so we prefer to just keep things simple in our house with these two nowadays.
That said, I am super-aware that credit cards aren’t for everyone for various reasons. So if you prefer not to use credit cards — or if you live in a country like Spain that (sadly) doesn’t offer credit cards with point systems — you do you. ♡
I can just vouch that, for us, working the credit card points system been really helpful for our travel budget.
Where are you guys headed next???
We’re actually not sure! 🙂 The crazy joy and privilege of this season living abroad is that — thanks to cheap flights, a less-busy calendar, and proximity to so many place on our bucket list — we’ve really enjoyed being spontaneous with our travel like our local friends do. So vamos a ver — we’ll see.
I do know for sure that I will be going back to Kansas City for my annual girls’ weekend in July. Then Barclay and I also just booked an additional set of flights back to KC for a good friend’s wedding that popped up in June, after which we’re going to buzz down to Mexico City for a few days to celebrate our anniversary. (It’s where we went on our honeymoon, and one of my favorite cities in the world!) Beyond that, we currently have Copenhagen, Morocco, Istanbul, Scotland, Croatia, Budapest, Porto and the south of France on our list. So hopefully we can squeeze in at least a few of those this coming year. Stay tuned!
If you have any more travel questions or tips to share, pop them in the comment section below. But as always, many thanks for reading. And cheers to new adventures ahead for all. ♡♡♡