The Cost of Travel

After traveling around the world in 80 days (or, well, 73), I have finally returned to the United States and will be avoiding any significant traveling/touristing for a while until I finish and ship Splody. A number of you probably have a few quantifiable questions, like, how much did it cost to spend 2.5 months wandering around Europe? Or, how many pictures of cats did you take? Well, herein lies the answers to those, and many other metric-driven questions!

First off, the high level bullet points:

  • 24 trains taken (not including metros)
  • 11 flights
  • 72 nights in hotels outside the USA
  • $19,388 total spent ($269/day)

And the breakdown of all money spent while traveling:

Hotels $5,229 ($73/night)
Cats [1] $2,675
Cash (Mostly food and entertainment/admission tickets) [2] $2,277
Train and EURail Pass [3] $1,912
Airfare $2,703
Entertainment [4] $1,355
Moving/Storage/Mail $925
Insurance $700
Food [5] $498
Phone [6] $374
Visas $279
Uber/Car Rental $214
Transaction Fees $163
Steam Purchases $84

Remarks:

  • [1] Atari had a trip to the emergency room while I was gone (he’s fine now, don’t worry!), which was expensive (though cheaper than the cost pet insurance would have been for the time I’ve had my cats), which probably shouldn’t be included in a general estimate of cost to travel, but, inevitably, something unexpected always comes up on any long trip.
  • [2] When adding it all up, the total for cash withdrawn is higher than I expected, and I can’t even guess how much of it went to which categories, but I bet food was near the top of the list, as most restaurants did not accept my American Express card, and my Visa, which might have been accepted, had a foreign transaction fee that made it not as useful.
  • [3] EURail pass was not worth it. It might have been worth it for the added flexibility, except that a) all of the trains in Italy required advanced reservations anyway, and b) I actually lost the physical pass, so didn’t get the hop-on/hop-off flexibility (they will still cover most of the tickets I bought, but the cost of all of the individual train travel would not end up being more than the cost of the pass).
  • [4] Most of my “entertainment” costs was the guided tour in Turkey, and admissions to tourist sites and such (they almost always took credit cards), though I also included ongoing costs like my NetFlix subscription here.
  • [5] As noted above, most of my food expenditures were probably with cash, I think I actually spent around $20/day, usually eating out for one meal each day.
  • [6] This is both phone service costs as well as buying a new phone. The one I left with (Sony Xperia Z3 Compact International) started falling apart shortly into the trip. It served as an amazing international WiFi hotspot and great GPS, but the dead headset jack meant I needed a new phone to comfortably listen to audio books before my cross-Country road trip.

As I was rationalizing this trip to some people, I would remark on how I was “moving to someplace cheaper than Mountain View… like hotels in Europe”. My previous rent+utilities in Mountain View was $3100/month, and although hotels in Europe did not provide as good of (or, sometimes, any) internet service as I got in Mountain View, they were definitely cheaper ($73/night compared to $102/night).

Almost all of these numbers are for traveling alone. If someone was to travel with a companion, a lot of these would be a lot cheaper (although a number of hotels in Europe did offer rooms with just a single twin bed at a cheaper rate than a room that would fit two people). Also of note, the hotel costs (and other costs) in Turkey and China really helped bring the average down – I often got a very nice room or suite for less than $30/night in those countries, compared to usually paying a little over $100/night in Europe.

Other interesting metrics:

  • 210+ miles walked (as recorded by my GPS when I remembered to run it)
  • 8 Uber rides (plus a bunch of taxis)
  • 10 countries visited or passed through
  • 18 cities stayed in
  • 4 cities selling Mountain Dew found
  • 1970 total photos
    • 205 photos of food
    • 197 photos of ruins
    • 44 photos of cats
    • 13 photos of Dew
  • 40 blog posts posted
    • estimated 90 hours editing photos and writing blog posts
  • 9 pieces of clothing packed
  • 2 pieces of clothing destroyed
  • 1 toothbrush recharge
  • 1 credit card number stolen
  • 1 game Greenlit
  • 2 image processing programs written
  • 5 days coding
  • 58 hotel/flight/train bookings in my travel spreadsheet which became invaluable to know when I should be where
  • 7.9gb mobile data used
    • 180 hours downloading at 2G speeds, which means that 10% of the total time on my trip, my phone was downloading something

Things that I brought along and did not use:

  • A bunch of first aid supplies – thank God for that! I don’t regret bringing them though.
  • A scarf – it was pretty warm everywhere, even in the Alps, though a friend did use it to hide from the sun.
  • 2 of 4 Xbox 360 controllers – my plans of stopping by indie game gatherings were thwarted by them not being in English, so never played more than 2-player games.

Things that I brought along that were surprisingly useful:

  • A good knife – for cutting cheese, bread, packaging
  • Small pliers – worked as a bottle opener in a pinch, and useful in random repairs
  • International phone – works on the European cell phone bands
  • Inflatable travel hangers – both for drying clothes and for hanging things up when hotels did not have enough hangers
  • Duct tape – okay, maybe not “surprisingly”
  • USB Powered Speakers – I’m a bit of an audiophile; it made video entertainment sound so much better. A good pair of headphones would also have been okay, at least when watching things alone. If I was just being a tourist, and not living on the road, this would not have been as important, but even when traveling, having quality “down time” is important!

Some final thoughts on practical matters

I chose to take a smaller duffel bag instead of my larger suitcase with wheels. Though it was nice that I could fit it more easily in various places, I often found myself going long distances carrying a very large amount of weight on my shoulders. This was probably great exercise, but, in the end, I think I should have taken the same amount of stuff, but in my larger, wheeled suitcase, and then I could have put my laptop bag and/or backpack into the suitcase when walking long distances.  It would have been slightly more awkward, but I would have spent a lot less time catching my breath and resting my shoulders on long treks to/from train stations.

T-Mobile’s plans include free, unlimited, international data roaming, and this worked out really well. It helps that I had a phone that listens on all of the bands (US and European and Asian) – I was very rarely in a location without data service, so was able to rely on Google Maps almost everywhere I went. A couple hotels I stayed in effectively had no WiFi, and I was able to easily tether my laptop to my phone and use that to access the internet instead, so that worked great. However, T-Mobile’s unlimited international data is capped at 2G speeds (120Kbit/s), which means that loading Gmail’s web interface takes about 5 minutes, and loading Facebook is impossible (it simply times out and will never finish). I would make sure to only restart my computer or browser when I was at a restaurant or cafe with good WiFi, so it could reload all of my tabs quickly and, once loaded, things like Gmail work pretty great over any slow connection. In retrospect, perhaps I should have just picked up a European SIM card with a few months of unlimited (high speed) data – it would not have cost much, and might have made life a lot easier when I found myself without WiFi. Interestingly, though T-Mobile provided me with unlimited data when roaming internationally, during my 3 day drive from California to Minnesota, I discovered it only provides 50 MB of data roaming domestically! That data is not enough for even the passive data usage of my phone (checking Gmail and checking traffic as Google Maps navigates me around). This confirms my suspicion that the “free international data” is just a marketing gimmick that, in reality, approximately zero percent of their customers will ever take advantage of.

On the subject of Gmail and internet, at times I was quite happy that for one of my email accounts I still used a traditional email application, instead of using Gmail’s web interface. In the times where I had spotty or slow internet connections (especially on trains), it was quite convenient to be able to search through my emails while offline to find various reservation confirmations and such.

Having never written much narration before, I wrote most of my travel blogs in the present tense, which felt both odd and correct. I do wonder if anyone noticed, though I think tense only very subtly and subconsciously affects how we feel when reading something.

In most cities, they sold multi-day, unlimited use, metro or bus cards aimed at tourists. Sometimes these were slightly tricky to find (Rick Steves’ guidebooks always say where to find them though). Once in a while I’d try to do the math to figure out if they were worth purchasing, but, in the end, I think they were always worth purchasing. You might pay a little extra, but it is fantastic to have the added freedom of being able to hop on any metro, going anywhere, any time, without worrying about having the right kinds of coins and guessing at interpreting a ticket vending machine which only displays French. Because of these kinds of passes, I definitely explored some restaurants and areas that I would not have otherwise.

In the cities with good metro/subway systems, I chose to rely exclusively on the metro and avoid buses (I also almost always picked a hotel near a metro stop). It meant a little extra walking (which was good for me, and let me see other parts of the city), but it also meant I always knew exactly how to get anywhere with a glance at a metro map. Also, buses scared me – every place dealt with bus tickets a little differently, and I couldn’t always rely on finding a machine to sell a bus ticket at every stop, so it just wasn’t worth dealing with. A prepaid transit card in Beijing worked great though (worked for buses and trains and subways).

And, a final note, oh boy is the Great Firewall of China annoying. They block connections to Facebook and all Google sites (including sites running on Google AppEngine, like iskentonhavingalanparty.com). Earlier in my travels, I had been using an SSH tunnel to bounce off one of my servers in the USA to access some sites like Crunchyroll or Netflix, but China throttles SSH connections down to useless speeds, and DNS requests are also hijacked so that, even if all my web traffic is secure, they mess with the DNS so I can’t get to Facebook (though, interestingly, they don’t mess with any of Google’s DNS entries, as far as I could tell). Throttled SSH connections meant slow access to a number of things, such as my own code repositories for Splody development, or services like GitHub. Eventually, I spent most of a day setting up my own VPN server, however, even though the content is encrypted (the government cannot tell which sites I’m visiting), the Great Firewall is still pretty good at detecting VPN traffic and killing those connections. Apparently the only complete solution is to doubly encrypt the VPN traffic through, essentially, an HTTPS tunnel, so that it is indistinguishable from HTTPS traffic (e.g. make the VPN traffic look indistinguishable from visiting any secure website), but usually my VPN connection stayed up long enough to check Facebook so I didn’t get around to trying that. When first in China, I was momentarily glad I had my University of Minnesota email account, until I realized that it, too, was blocked, since the UofM migrated to using Gmail to host their mail -_-.

On a brighter note, since everyone and their grandmother has an Android device in China, a lot of Google APIs (specifically account services, Play Store, GMail and maybe Maps) are no longer blocked on the Chinese mobile networks, so my phone worked pretty well; I was always able to get my mail there, and sometimes able to use Maps. However, the fact that most Chinese businesses aren’t indexed in Google Maps and the satellite imagery is offset by random amounts due to some export treaty, meant that I didn’t get much use out of Google Maps in China.

 

After returning to the USA, I have made my way back to Minnesota where I plan on spending the rest of the summer, before heading up to Seattle for PAX Dev and PAX Prime. Without the distractions of tourism, I should be able to just focus on my development work for a while now (I’ve already done almost as much work in the past week as I did on my whole travels…), and hope to finish Splody before visiting Seattle (though I’ll avoid launching anytime around PAX Prime). After Seattle… who knows!

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1 thought on “The Cost of Travel”

  1. Jim, Your travels sound amazing! I was so glad I met up with your mom this summer at Kinzel’s anniversary party & she told me what you were up to & sent me the link to follow you. My daughter’s boyfriend who is a computer “nut” & likes to invent things was very interested in meeting you, which I mentioned to you mom earlier, & so we hope to be able to connect with you sometime in the next few weekends while you are home & be able to visit & maybe see & hear more about your travels & Matt would love to hear about the computer game that you are inventing (at least I believe that’s what it was – I’m not overly computer savvy). Hope you had a great 4th of July with your friends & I will plan to give your mom a call one before the end of the month to see if you will all be home one of these weekends. Your long ago babysitter, Kim (Gotti) Spencer

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