Wednesday, November 3, 2021

If the cost of packaged tours keeps you from travelling, I have some news for you

In the latest CAA Manitoba magazine, there’s an ad for the SoloESCAAPES (get it?) club, a CAA travel thing. They have some travel packages listed for anywhere from $3300 to $9000 for single occupancy.

One in particular caught my attention: Spectacular Lake Como in Italy for 9 days - $5539.

Now, I get that they do everything for you. No tipping, a lot of meals included, all in-Italy transport, someone leading you around, etc. Here’s the link: well, never mind, they don’t have the link for that one on their site. Here’s a similar length one to Scotland:

For seven grand. To me that seems a little pricey. Eleven days, and the first two are just getting to Edinburgh.

I am assuming the Lake Como one is similar. Day one is travel, and day two is arriving and maybe a little looking around before you really get going on the third day, and then the last day may be just getting you to the airport. So $5539 for maybe six and a half days in Italy.

Again, solo travel is more expensive, so there’s that. But it really got me thinking. Clearly, people are choosing this method of travel. But if some people are left with the impression that that’s just what travel costs, they must think we’re made of money. Well, I’m an artist, so we’ll burst that bubble for you right off the hop. If you’d like to do some travelling, but your perceived idea of “what it costs” is holding you back, maybe I can help.

What Does It Really Cost?

Being on your own in St. Mark's Square? Priceless.

By way of comparison, Laura and I went to Italy in 2019. The entire costs, as far as I can remember, including:




transport around the country




was around $6000.

For both of us.

For fifteen days IN Italy. We left on a Saturday, arrived on Sunday before noon (to a beautiful, sunny 22º day in Venice, but no matter), and left for home three Mondays later. So for more than twice as long in the country, for twice as many people, it cost us a few hundred dollars more than a package tour for one. 

There is a detailed breakdown of the costs at the end if you’re interested.

To me, that doesn’t seem ridiculously cheap. But it’s substantially less expensive than a full-fledged tour, making it well worth my time to put it together myself. If you’re discouraged by the costs of tour packages to Europe, and are wondering if there’s a way to do it cheaper, the answer is a definite yes. And there aren’t really any big secrets, you just need to put in a bit of time. How much time may depend on how much you enjoy the “effort” (because it’s really just "sitting at your computer and looking at beautiful places"), and maybe how often you’ve done it. It certainly gets easier the more you do it.

The Strategy

Gondolas at the ready in Venice

So how do we do it? What’s the strategy?

A computer and the internet, and that’s pretty much it.

What’s your interest? Are you a foodie? Sit on the beach? History? Architecture? Being prairie people, we are drawn to mountains (anything more than a hundred metres high for us) and water. We also like old cities, churches, hiking (to a degree), and gelato. Where you will enjoy going will depend a fair bit on the things you like to do.

Just as a general activity, we spend some time here and there reading and watching videos about places just about anywhere, which helps us find and focus on places we are interested in. When we did our big trip back in 07-08, we did a lot of research at that time, which gave us a foundation of countries we wanted to go to, far more than we could see in a nine-month-long trip. And even though we did go to Italy for a month back then, we still wanted to see Venice. When we were ready to start planning a new trip, Venice was a priority, so that’s where I centred my search. 

Use your local library. It’s full of travel books for anywhere you can imagine. National Geographic Traveller, DK Travel, Lonely Planet, and more. DK books are full of photos and great illustrations, and give good quick overviews. Laura follows some Italy thing on Instagram and would get a lot of ideas for things to see from that. We also read a history of Venice ( that was absolutely fabulous, and helped us to understand a lot from Venice’s past, and what makes it tick today.

I get on Google Maps and see what’s nearby. We weren’t renting a car for this trip, so everything would be done by train. I used Loco2 for checking train schedules and prices (now raileurope), which tells me how long it takes to get from place to place and whether it’s doable or not. In a short trip of a couple weeks, I don’t want to spend a tonne of time sitting on a train, so I was thinking we’d keep this pretty compact.

RailEurope could not be easier to use. Enter your starting and end point (usually a specific station in or around your city of origin and destination), when you want to go, number of passengers, and hit Search. Train schedules are usually released a couple months ahead of time (sometimes longer), and if you buy tickets early, you can find dramatic discounts (see below for our train costs in Italy). My wife is a former drama teacher and I am frugal - believe me, I know dramatic.

This previous life as a drama teacher meant that Verona was on Laura’s to-do list, and I discovered through RailEurope that it’s less than an hour and a half from Venice. Perfect. We did not see Bologna when we were in Italy the first time and got scolded for it, so we definitely wanted to see that. And what’s close to Bologna? There’s Ravenna, that seems cool. Modena. Florence of course, but we were there for a week on the big trip. I really wanted to get to Cinque Terre, but it’s about four hours by train, and it’s not a place I want to rush through once I’m there. The first week of April is also not the best for hiking those trails, although, if the weather was perfect (as it was for our two weeks during this trip, sigh), it might be great. So, a little more searching around and I saw a picture of San Marino. When Laura got home from work and saw the pictures, we were going to San Marino. A check of the train schedule tells me it’s three hours away from Verona (to Rimini, then a short bus trip up the hill into town), and only an hour back to Bologna. Reasonable.

The castle at the top of San Marino


Coming down to Heathrow in the early morning

With these few places in mind, it’s time to start looking at flights. Since we are going at a specific time of the year and need to travel within that very tight window, I’m not looking for last minute things. I try to book a good four to six months ahead of time, and do a quick search of a few airlines. In 2017, we managed to get to Madrid, Spain from Winnipeg for $540 per person. Return. That flight has forever coloured my mind for what it should cost to get to Europe, but whatever. That flight was via KLM. A couple hours before boarding, one of the legs was cancelled, but before I had time to panic (well, to really panic), KLM had already rebooked us on a different route that didn’t use any KLM flights at all, and got us to Madrid only an hour later than originally planned. Their effort means that I always look at KLM every time I want to go anywhere. Good customer service goes a long way.

More often than not though, I end up booking with Air Canada (KLM flies directly out of Calgary, but not Winnipeg). I understand the site, prices are okay, connection times are generally well thought out. Sometimes, the aggregator sites show you a cheap flight that has, say, a half hour turnaround time at the Paris airport, but that’s crazy tight. You can google this to see what’s manageable (something like “transfer time Paris airport”). If you miss a connecting flight with Air Canada, my experience has been that they will make it right for you. Not sure how it would work if you booked with Expedia. I read a lot of comments critical of Expedia and their short connection times and missed flights. Most responses from other travellers were, “You chose the cheapest flight with the tightest turnaround times. Whose fault was that?” If you miss a flight, you will likely need to find a new flight on your own. I don’t know if Expedia would make up the difference for you, so buyer beware.

At this point, we’ve got Venice, Verona, Bologna, and San Marino in two weeks. That seems like plenty, especially since we’ve decided we want to spend one week in Venice, so it’s just a matter of how to organize that. This often goes hand in hand with figuring out flights. A bit of searching on the AC site showed me that I could fly into Venice and out of Bologna for a price of $940/person. I do a bit of back and forth - into Bologna, out of Venice; in and out of Venice, etc - and settle on Venice/Bologna. When appropriate, remember to tick the “My dates are flexible” box before searching flights. There can be quite a variation in cost from one day to the next.

Sometimes it’s cheaper to fly to or from a nearby airport, and in Europe, there are lots of nearby airports everywhere.  If you are flexible with your itinerary, you might uncover some good finds. (I tried Milan and Rome just for kicks, but found nothing worthwhile.)

With the flights booked, we Venice for one week, then Verona, San Marino, and Bologna for the next eight days. After some reading, I figure that we’ll stay in San Marino for two nights (I don’t often like to spend just one night anywhere, unless we can arrive really early, or leave really late), giving us three each in Verona and Bologna. Our flight leaves Bologna around 9:00 am, so the order is set: Venice to Verona, Verona to Rimini to San Marino, San Marino to Rimini to Bologna.

Now all we have to do is put some meat on those bones.


View from our apartment in Verona

I just love looking at places to stay, in old cities especially. If we’re staying for more than a couple days, I prefer to get an apartment with some kitchen facilities if possible, and a couch. I do not want to be lounging around in bed all the time, and even a nice chair in a hotel room is nice. You can go to or airbnb and search all kinds of things. Locate the tickers on the sidebar to help you narrow your search results. Apartment or hotel, private bathroom, accessibility, parking, etc. Use the map function to find places in the neighbourhood you’d like to stay. Read the reviews but remember that all reviews are given an artificially high score. If something on has an average under 7.5/10, there is likely something wrong with it, and you can probably find better. 

Once I’ve picked a place, I’ll try to find an actual website for it if there is one, as I’d much rather deal with the owners directly than go through a commission-charging venture. 

Be aware that in old European cities, stairs are par for the course and elevators are not. If a place is on the fourth or fifth floor of a building, do not assume this building comes equipped with a lift. 

A good part of the fun in staying at a hotel is meeting other guests. And the breakfasts. There seems to be some kind of unspoken arms race with respect to hotel breakfasts in Europe. I’d go back to Bologna just so I could have one of those pistachio-cream-filled croissants at Hotel Albergo Centrale. But yes, other guests too. Some hotels are perfectly set up for meeting others, like Hotel Alavera de los Banos in Ronda, Spain, with its great common area where they served their equally great breakfast. Or Hotel Santa Isabel in Toledo, with its idyllic rooftop patio to watch the sunset and share some food with other like-minded folks. 

Rooftop of the Santa Isabel

Now, there’s a fine line when it comes to appropriate lodging. I want to stay in a place that’s comfortable, but I’m not going to Venice so I can lounge around in a swanky setup (okay, maybe this one time*, but never again!) all day; I’m hopefully going to be spending my time out and about. At the same time, you want to make sure you’ve got a comfortable bed to sleep in, and aren’t worried about your personal safety when returning to your room. Having a place that’s right in the middle of the action allows you the opportunity to put your feet up during the day. Not a concern so much when you’re younger maybe, but trust me kids, there will come a time in your life when relaxing on a balcony overlooking the Mediterranean is your heart’s desire.

A room close by means you don’t have to pack for the day, carrying a bunch of stuff you might not necessarily need. The sun comes out and you don’t want to cart your jacket around? Drop it at your apartment. A little thirsty after all that gelato but you forgot your water bottle? No worries. Just imagine the convenience of having an apartment right in Venice, versus taking the train over from Maestre every day. Lots to think about, but understanding the type of traveller you are will speed up the process. Eventually, it’s just integrated into how you search for things without dwelling on it too much. Unless you’re like me and half the fun is in the searching. And the dwelling.

Moving on…


Let's just say we were a little hungry after our overnight train to Agra.

When it comes to how to acquire food, I use TripAdvisor almost exclusively. I’m not interested in spending a hundred euros every time I sit down to eat, so their way of arranging things works for me. Here's what the restaurant page looks like for Venice.

Scroll down and you will see “Fine Dining,” “Moderately Priced,” and “Cheap Eats.” Often there are some very good restaurants in the cheap eats (“frugal”) section. You’ll find restaurants organized by region, by fare, by Michelin star if that’s important to you. Read the reviews, and like all things internet, take them with a grain of salt. You will undoubtedly find some bad reviews written by people who are clearly unreasonable in their expectations, and some good reviews written by people who are more able to go with the flow. You'll need to learn to read between the lines on occasion.

If we are thinking about an apartment, how far away is the grocery store? If you’re in the downtown area of a European city, you will find lots of options. Our Verona apartment was a couple hundred metres from the Conad, and the Venice apartment was maybe a hundred fifty to a Punto Simply right on a canal. How cool is that?

In Bologna, we did a food tour with Delicious Bologna. This is not something I’d normally do, as it’s a bit pricey, but again, my idea of pricey is skewed by my fulsome frugality, but it worked out to around $250 for both of us. This got us a lot of food, and a nice tour of downtown Bologna over the course of almost five hours. Mattia is a great host and does the tour completely in English (for anyone not conversant in Italian, like me, this is ideal).

I found the San Marino restaurant Smaller on TripAdvisor. Reasonably priced, good food, but this: we went one day for lunch, and ended up back there again for supper. At supper, we were given a small discount because they didn’t have the right change at lunch. It was a minor thing, less than a euro I think, but the guy remembered well enough that it was important to him.

The view from Hotel Rosa. That's the roof of La Fratta at the bottom, a restaurant with almost as good a view from a lot of tables.

View from a Sevilliano restaurant

On the other hand, we walked into an unknown place in Paris before we went on a short river boat ride. It was terrible food, and they tried to charge us more than what the menu prices were. Just awful. A couple days later, the day before we left Paris, we had a wonderful meal at La Marine. Almost good enough to make me forget that awful meal at this $#!†hole

We had a great lunch at Osteria Alla Staffa in Venice one day, and sat beside a nice couple who had recently retired there - a nice fairy tale story for a lot of people, and nice dinner conversation for us that made being there for a time quite pleasant. It does take time and effort to prepare your own meals in your apartment, but consider too that eating in restaurants a couple times a day will eat up a lot of your time as well. [I crack myself up sometimes.]

What To Do in All These Places

Search things like “What to do in Venice,” “What to see in Venice” “top things to see in…” Very often you’ll see the same sites showing up in your search results, like TheCrazyTourist, or TheCultureTrip, and of course, TripAdvisor and the like. For individual blogs, I’ll read a bit to get a sense of the writer to see if their likes and way of travel align with mine. Often it’s just a style of writing that I find interesting or turns me off that directs me to or from a particular site. If someone is talking non-stop about the nightlife, I generally look somewhere else for my information. If someone talks about the unbelievable paintings on the ceiling of an unknown church, I pay attention.

EuropeForVisitors/Venice is an excellent source of pure information, and one of the least attractive websites possible for 2021. But if you want details, and I do like details, this is a good place to start. They have loads of info for other European cities too.

In all this searching, you’ll find a lot of junk, but a bunch of useful stuff too, like the Venice Museum Pass. And since we love exploring old churches, we got the Chorus pass too, and used it well.

We managed to hit up over 20 churches. Do not miss the Church of San Pantalon. And look up.

With a few days on the vaporetto, you can go to Murano and Burano, Torcello, the Lido and more places too. A one-week pass may be a better deal at 60 euros if you can make use of it. That's the equivalent of eight trips at full fare. The three-day pass is 40 euros.

Before we started researching, I didn’t know these things existed, but if they’re useful, someone will have written about it, and you will find it. Making these sorts of early studies a part of your leisure time will uncover a lot of great info. In fact, we do this sort of online exploration just as a matter of habit. Unfortunately, our list of places to see grows ever longer.

We always give ourselves lots of time to walk around and enjoy a place. Venice was no exception. In one week, we walked probably three-quarters of the city, and loved every minute of it. In Toledo, we made time to walk up to the lookout over the town from across the river - twice. Just about any city worth visiting is worth exploring far beyond the Top Ten Things to Do In (Wherever You Are). One of my favourite things in Bologna was the walk up to the Madonna di San Luca, on hill just outside of town, under a covered walkway the entire distance. These kinds of things are fun and free.

San Luca in the middle background, covered walkway to the left

Again, it’s important to understand the kind of traveller you are. Had I listened to pretty much everyone giving advice on TripAdvisor, we would have spent two days in Venice, rushing around like Bad Tourists trying to cram in everything in too short a time. But even after a full week, we were sad to leave. Like, maybe actual tears sad. Really sad. I-want-to-come-back sad. That full week is one of my travel highlights, and we’ve been a few places.

Lunch time in the theatre at Termessos, Turkey

Agra, India

Apamea, Syria

Chefchaouen, Morocco

The Alhambra in Spain

Exploring Preah Palilay in Cambodia

Climbing dunes in the Wadi Rum.

Visiting temples in Chiang Mai

Playing S.O.S. on the streets of Hoi An


Our travel lives were made infinitely easier the day we bought good backpacks/carry-on bags. When we’re on a two-week trip, we take those, plus my camera bag, and Laura’s purse. That’s it. No waiting for luggage to show up anywhere. No carrying heavy luggage to a hotel or up stairs. No bringing things you don’t need. I imagine we could use these for most of trips shorter than a couple months and be perfectly happy.

One of the best pieces of advice we've received was, “Anything you forget will be available at your destination. If you need it, someone who lives there needs it too.” Of course, this does not apply to a passport, money, and identification. Do not forget those.

There’s probably more that I don’t really think about at this point, but that’s all I’ve got for now. 

If you want to travel on your own, it’s very possible, and fairly affordable. 

If you have any questions about any of this, or need me to elaborate on something, ask away. Or if I’m just plain missing something obvious, let me know.

Somebody has been anywhere you want to go, and very likely loads of information about it is available. You just have to know where to look.

Good luck with your travel planning!

Italy 2019 Travel Expenses

(Keep in mind that this is Italy. Our two-week trip to Morocco was much less.)

Flights - $1900

Hotels - $2100 *

food and meals $750?

venice and verona passes - $180

food tour bologna $240

trains and bus -

to verona - $28

to San Marino - $55

to Bologna - $40

Day trip to Padua from Venice - $25

Bus from Rimini to San Marino - $20 to and from

(Total trains = $168)

Food tour in Bologna - $220

Vaporetto 3-day pass in Venice- $120

Water bus to Venice from airport - $30?

taxi to bologna airport - $20?

gelato - $50

Padua church - $45

= $5900

Add some miscellaneous fun and things I've forgotten, and we'll say $6300.

*Accommodations in Venice: well, ahem, I won’t get into that because we used credit card points to pay for a place that we’d never stay in normally, and likely won’t ever again, but you can get a hotel or a cheaper apartment for about $150 per night. That’s the price I’m using here. Maybe that’s cheating, but we would’ve been happy in a cheaper place too. Here's one (on airbnb and on right in that price range that looks excellent, lots of windows, great views. Here it is in street view. And with a little sleuthing (because they don't pay google like airbnb and booking do), I was able to find their website here, and they have more apartments in the same building. It's in a superb location - not far from the train station if you want to do day trips, close to the Rialto Bridge, but not too close; twenty-minute walk to Saint Mark's; literally steps away from the Frari church; and five minutes from a vaporetto stop. Great reviews on both airbnb and booking. My goodness, why didn't I see this one two years ago?

Verona - was a little more than $125 per night, for three nights, in a small apartment.

San Marino, Hotel Rosa, is now showing $150 per night. I don't think it was that much in 2019…

And Bologna, Hotel Albergo Centrale was similar, around $140 per night.

Both hotels had spectacular breakfasts, the kind of breakfast that made it difficult to go out and do some exploring, but never mind.

7 nights Venice = $1050

3 nights Verona = $400

2 nights San Marino =$300

3 nights Bologna = $420.

That’s 15 nights IN Italy. So what might be considered an 18 day trip, but we’ll say 17 just to play as fair as possible.

A 17-day trip planned on your own for two of you for, let's say you step out a bit more, $6500. 

Versus a 9-day trip for $5500 for one person, that would probably be close to $10,000 for two. What would a 17-day trip cost? I'd guess at least twice what we paid. The benefit of the tour is that you will do a lot in a short amount of time. And if you get along with the other folks, it could be a great time, too. You will be on someone else's schedule, but hey, you might be happy with that and welcome it. Your own tailor made trip will be far cheaper, and likely more relaxing, but will require you to do the leg work, both before hand and while in the country. 

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