Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Money Well Spent - The Logistics of Our Spring Vacation

For this post I’m primarily focusing on the England & Scotland part of my vacation which was entirely spent with my husband, Greg. I also was in Holland for eight days, where I spent some time with my best friend, Amy, and with my Dutch family in Emmen.


Newcastle is the nearest airport to Alnwick, our home base in northern England. It is an easy 34 mile drive north on the A1. Flights to pretty much anywhere in Europe from Portland are over $1100 round trip, almost always with two stops. The only nonstop flight is to Amsterdam on Delta. Thankfully we both had accumulated enough miles on different airlines to cover this trip, as long as we were flexible with our travel dates.

Greg redeemed 40,000 AAdvantage miles plus paid $377.90 in taxes & fees, most arising from his connections at London Heathrow, which was unavoidable. I tried to create his itinerary online but, since we were using miles, the flight combinations were pretty much impossible to coordinate. On my first call to American Airlines, we came up with a decent itinerary with the exception that Greg would have to layover one night in Chicago. With a few more calls over subsequent weeks I managed to eliminate that layover. His final itinerary ended up being PDX-ORD-LHR-NCL, with no more than a three hour connection time between any two legs. The return was similar: NCL-LHR-PHL-PDX. Still, both comprised almost 24 hours of travel each way.

I redeemed 97,500 Delta Skymiles plus paid $61.50 to fly nonstop from PDX-AMS round trip. I lucked out and was able to book a First Class seat for the same miles as coach on the way over, but was stuck in the back of the plane on the way home. I also paid $166.61 to fly round trip from AMS-NCL on KLM. After some online research, I discovered that if I joined KLM’s frequent flyer program I would get my first checked bag free, saving about $20 each way.

Ground transportation

We would have loved to take trains throughout England & Scotland but their rail system is one of the most expensive in the world and would only get us to a few of the places we wanted to go. Thus I reserved a car through Hertz, my preferred rental company. I tried numerous discount codes but the best rate came from a targeted email I had received from Delta Air Lines (up to 40% off plus bonus miles). I was also able to save money by prepaying the entire cost of the reservation - $305.62 for 15 days. I waived all insurance (covered by my credit card) and add-ons. We ended up with a 4-door Nissan Note manual transmission diesel with free GPS. It was perfect with the exception that the right front tire kept losing air. It only took me a couple of days to get used to driving on the opposite side of the car and road as I am accustomed to in the U.S.

I drove just under 1500 miles in two weeks. With the average cost of diesel at 1.37GBP per liter ($5.19/gallon), filling up is an expensive undertaking. Our total fuel cost was $230.04. Most parking lots, even at national parks, charge a hefty fee so we were very careful about booking accommodations that had free parking. We also found that there are great park & ride facilities just outside of the city center in most larger towns. Parking is free and then you pay a small fee, typically around 2GBP per person round trip, to ride the bus into town. We only spent $31.75 in that category. The only other transportation expenses were our day trip from Oban to the Isles of Mull & Iona (40GBP per person or $135.22 total for ferry/bus/ferry and return), and our day passes on Glasgow’s subway (4GBP per person or $13.50 total).

During my 8+ days in the Netherlands, I took public transit except when Martine & Jacco were driving us around Emmen. I used trains to cover longer distances, and buses, trams & bikes for local sightseeing. My total transportation cost for that portion of the trip was only $140.55.


This is an area where Greg & I typically try to save as much money as possible. We stayed in hostels and couch-surfed for the majority of our around-the-world trip in 2010/2011. On U.S. trips we often stay in budget motels, or for longer stays, look for an inexpensive vacation rental. While the bigger cities we visited on this vacation did have hostels, the smaller towns did not. And while the hostels were a bit cheaper, most did not have free parking or include breakfast, so we would end up spending the same amount of money as a mid-range B&B.

I have already previously written about how we came to stay at the flat in Alnwick. We researched B&B’s and other accommodations listed in the Rick Steves guidebook but most were out of our price range. So we ended up using to make most of our reservations, although we cross-referenced TripAdvisor and other websites to price-check and read user reviews. For the nine nights we were traveling around Scotland, we spent an average of $100 per night.


Like accommodations, this is an area where we typically try to save money, even though I think enjoying the local cuisine is an important part of the travel experience. The traditional Scottish breakfast served at most B&B’s is a very filling way to start the day. It typically includes a fried egg, sausage, ham, potato scone, haggis, black pudding & toast; coffee or tea, juice, cereal and fresh fruit. Thus we saved money by eating only two meals a day - the breakfast that was included in the lodging price and then an early dinner.

We also saved money by buying groceries and cooking breakfast & dinner at the flat in Alnwick. We made peanut butter & jelly sandwiches almost every day to help hold us over until dinner. We also carried snacks like granola bars or fruit in our day packs. We took our refillable water bottles everywhere so we never purchased bottled water, soda, etc. - just beer. And yes, that precious beer accounts for more than one-third of our entire food & beverage expenses (total $761.38 for 15 days).

As we both knew from previous travels in Great Britain, some of the best places to eat are ethnic restaurants, particularly Indian food. This trip was no exception although I did enjoy my dinner of haggis, neeps & tatties in the tiny town of Moulin, near Pitlochry. And we both loved our fresh seafood platter and steamed mussels from the shack on the pier in Oban!


We could have a spent A LOT more money in this category. After all, it’s part of the reason for taking this trip, ie Greg’s interest in history and wanting to visit the sites he has been reading about his whole life. We seriously considered purchasing the Scottish Heritage Pass which is valid for seven consecutive days and costs 47GBP (almost $80 per person). But in the end we decided not to due to the time required to visit so many places to justify the expense, plus many of the sights we wanted to see were not included with the pass. Note that the cost of visiting just one attraction, for example Edinburgh Castle, is 16GBP or $27 per person!

Since I had previously visited several of the places on Greg’s “Must See” list, I killed time in a bar or at our B&B while he was out sightseeing. We also focused on visiting places with no entry fees, like churches, and we hiked around castles instead of going in them. Thus we spent only $130.85, which includes a distillery tour, doing laundry, using public toilets, and the purchase of the 2014 edition of Rick Steves’ Great Britain (which we now have for sale on

The Grand Total

The total cost of our England & Scotland vacation was $3118.40 or $3418.40 if you include the money I bid on the flat at the theater fundraiser last year. I only spent another $688 for my eight days in the Netherlands. That grand total is what we expected to spend on this trip even with our fairly aggressive cost-saving measures. The average couple who is less willing to eat PB&J’s every day would easily spend another $1000-$2000, not just on food but also on better accommodations and more sightseeing/entry fees. With the exchange rate at 1 GBP = $1.68 and 1 euro = $1.38 plus 20% VAT factored into most prices, Great Britain and Europe as a whole can be tough for penny-pinching travelers.

One final note about money - We already knew from our previous world travels and extensive research that we might run into problems using our standard U.S.-issued credit cards. First, we both have cards that do not charge foreign transaction fees. We also have debit cards that reimburse us for any ATM withdrawal fees. But most of Europe uses chip & pin cards and many places say they don’t have a machine that will accept a “swipe” card. Also, many businesses charge a fee for using a credit card. For example, in Dutch train stations, you will pay an additional 0,50EUR per transaction. Bottom line, we made sure to always have plenty of cash on hand. Besides, we found that, overall, it was much easier to settle our bill(s) with cash anyway!

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