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My Favorite Splurges as a Budget Traveler - Solo World Wanderer

The View of the Serengeti (and the other hot air balloon) from above, in a hot air balloon

When I travel, I do so on a budget. Five stars, fancy meals, ultimate luxury are not really my style. No, I am not always looking for the cheapest of the cheap.  And I have certain must-have amenities (ie air conditioning in Southeast Asia).  Dorm rooms in a hostel are no longer an option either; at my age I require a private room (or to share a room with friends, but never random kids at a hostel). But I am constantly thinking about the price verses the experience, and deciding where to spend my money and how to save it. Since I want to travel a lot (ok, pretty much all the time), I try to keep my expenses abroad within reason.  But once in a while, I will throw down the big bucks for a special experience, a good meal, or swank accommodations.  And I tend to view splurging as an art form, knowing that, if kept to a minimum, I can still splurge once in a while and stay within a reasonable budget.

Everyone is different.  Some people like to practice the art of the splurge on luxury hotels, top rated spas, Michelin star meals, or expensive purchases (I’ve known people who have had rugs shipped home from Turkey and Morocco).  So take my recommendations as you will.  But here is my list of my favorite splurges thus far in my travels abroad:

5. Dinner at a Fancy Spanish Restaurant (Thailand, 1.5 hours, $40)

While $40 does not sound like a big splurge, for someone who has been traveling in Southeast Asia, living off of street food, $40 was huge.  My average was $1-2 per meal in this part of the world.  But I had been in Asia for over a month and was seriously missing wine and food (cheese!) from my soul home.  Knowing that Bangkok has everything, and would probably be the most cosmopolitan city I visited, I researched Spanish restaurants before arriving in Thailand’s capital.  To my joy, I found one that not only was Spanish owned, but offered my favorite cheese from Spain on the cheese plate (San Simón, from Galicia).  I did not care that it was a fancy restaurant and that I would be dining alone (that does not bother me.)  As soon as I arrived to Bangkok, after making myself presentable backpackertrash, I headed out from my cheap guesthouse to Tapas Y Vino.  At first the staff was intrigued by me, a solo dinner at a fancy restaurant ordering an entire cheese plate for herself (as well as wine and other assorted tapas), but they quickly became endeared to me.  For a blissful hour and a half, I stuffed my face with all of the Spanish food I missed so much, drank the fruit of my people (Spanish wine), and finished off an entire cheese plate by myself.  I spent more on that meal than I did in over two weeks worth of meals combined in Southeast Asia.  And my bill came out to be more than my three nights of accommodation at my Bangkok guesthouse.  But I was not bothered, as that food made me ridiculously happy.  And after that, it was back to my diet of Thai street food.

4. Five Star Barcelona Hotel (Spain/Cataluña, 2 nights, $350)

I never stay in fancy hotels.  I much prefer guesthouses, cheap hostals in Spain (family run operations like guesthouses), beach bungalows, Airbnb apartments with a kitchen (especially for long term), and private rooms in family homes.  But after a weekend in Alicante with friends, where I came down with the killer stomach flu, my choices upon returning to Barcelona for my final two nights were a) stay with a friend and burden him and his family with my illness b) try to find a budget Airbnb listing for two nights, or c) search for a hotel.  Since I will still quite ill, I opted for the anonymity and ease of a hotel, where I could just lock myself in my room and drown in my own misery for two days.  As luck would have it, I found a five star hotel for the budget price of $175 per night.  Yay for last minute deals!  My two nights in luxury were just what the doctor ordered.  After the first night, I felt so much better that I was actually able to enjoy my final day in Barcelona.  For some travelers, $175 is their average per night, but I tend to spend much (much) less than that, so treating myself to a five star hotel at a semi budget price was a perfect splurge.

3. Walk with the Penguins (Argentina, 4 hours $180)

I have seen penguins all over the Southern Hemisphere, but usually there are so many people around and you can not get anywhere near the birds.  So when I heard about PiraTour, an ecologically minded outfitter based in Ushuaia, Argentina, I knew I needed to investigate further.  Ushuaia is as close as one can get to Antarctica without actually being on Antarctica.  And there are a number of “penguin tours” around town.  But PiraTour is the only one that has a license to land on Martillo Island, aka Penguin Island. They can do this because they have a strict limit on the number of people they take per day.  And they also brief everyone going to the island, and make visitors sign a code of conduct about respecting the penguins’ natural habitat.   But what PiraTours promises is a chance to be up close with the penguins, without a million people around.  The price is steep, much steeper than the other penguin tours that simply circumnavigate the island without landing on it.  But I am a wildlife enthusiast, and this type of experience is a chance in a lifetime.  And it was money well spent.  For a blissful hour, I was a guest in penguin territory.  I got to observe the funny little birds on their own land, unbothered by us strange humans watching them.  They sang and danced for us, and waddled right over to me.  These sweet birds made my journey to Tierra del Fuego everything I hoped it would be.

2. The Galapagos Islands (Ecuador, 5 days $1500+)

When I first started toying with the idea of spending three weeks in Ecuador, part of the lure was that Ecuador is a budget destination.  For just a few dollars, you can take magnificent bus rides across the country through the Andes, see (very) active volcanos, and hang out with llamas and alpacas.  But I also knew that If I was going to go to Ecuador, the Galapagos Islands, Ecuador’s anthesis of a budget destination, would have to be included on my itinerary.   I love animals (see above) and there is very little that I enjoy more, while traveling, than seeing wildlife in the wild (see below).  And after up there with Africa’s Serengeti (again, see below), the Galapagos Islands are the wildlife lover’s dream come true.  These islands are home to animals that can be found nowhere else on earth.  And while there are more budget conscious ways to visit the islands (ie independently instead of on a boat tour), a few days in the Galapagos will hurt your wallet more than a few months on the Ecuadorian mainland. But I have zero regrets about my five day side trip to the islands.  Because, hello, I got to stand a few centimeters from blue footed boobies, observe sunbathing land iguanas, meet a 100 year old giant tortoise, snorkel with fish found nowhere else on this planet, and watch the marine iguanas dive into the Pacific Ocean.

1.  Hot Air Balloon Ride over Ngorongoro Crater (Tanzania, 4 hours $500) 

Seeing the price tag for this optional activity on my G Adventures itinerary, I laughed out loud.  But as we got closer and closer to the Serengeti on our adventure, I gave this idea a little more thought.  Some of my friends had already signed up for this, and the idea of soaring over Tanzania’s open Serengeti at sunrise, the world’s premier wildlife viewing destination, in a balloon, appealed more and more to me.  When I learned that the trip included more than a balloon ride, but also a few early morning game drives as well as a champagne breakfast on the plains of the Serengeti (not THE selling point, but cool), I decided to eat nothing but instant noodles upon my return to Spain, and sign up for this. They charged my credit card $500, and I was all set to fly over Tanzania in a balloon the next morning.  This was to be my first (and to this date, only) ride in a hot air balloon, and I somehow knew that it would be epic.  And I was right, it was amazing.  We took of just as the sun was coming up over the vast East African plains.  Flying over so much wildlife, the coolest part was when we flew directly over a herd of elephants, with the elders protecting the young.  And I am pretty sure it got hot air ballooning out of my blood, because nothing will ever top this.  A huge bonus were the game drives to get to and from the launch site (and breakfast).  We were on some major Serengeti backroads, and this was the only time during this stint in Africa where I saw a leopard in the wild – and so close to the safari truck too.  Yes, this was a huge wad of cash to spend, but it was 100% worth it.  And I can’t say I would do it again, as this was really a once in a lifetime experience.  But if you ever find yourself in the Serengeti, I highly recommend that you spend the extra money and do a ballon safari. (East Africa is not exactly a budget destination by any means).

My current non-budget bucket list includes going to Antarctica (so expensive), spending a night at a parador in Spain, and journeying to Madagascar.  There is a time for everything, and I am confident that one day, I will be able to say I did all of that.  Of course I need to work for it, so if you need any help planning your own travels, hit me up.  Help me spend a night AT the Alhambra, and I’ll gladly help you make your travel dreams come true!


My name is Karen & travel is not only my passion but also my profession.