#Goals: Bernina Express

Have you ever accidentally come across something, felt sudden chills running through your body, and thought, “Oh my gosh, I want this”?

Bernina Express in Winter_by Kabelleger_David Gubler_Public domain_via Wikimedia Commons

The Bernina Express in winter. Photo by Kabelleger / David Gubler (public domain).

I was just looking up how to get to Venice from Paris in Seat61 and it mentioned the Bernina Express, so I went to that page, and then just: chills.

I don’t know why — I’ve never actually even dreamed of going to Switzerland before. But I make a lot of my travel decisions this way: based on whether or not the thought of going to a place gives me chills. (Wait, is the proper term chills or thrills?) And it’s not just because I’ve never seen snow yet, I don’t think.

So: #goals.

How do you decide where to go?


© Small-Town Girls, Midnight Trains. All rights reserved. 

Where to stay in Inverness: Jean and Bill’s

[SGMT] Where To Stay in Inverness
Airbnb_Inverness_Jean and Bill

During our two nights in Inverness, we stayed at Jean and Bill Munro’s home, which we booked through Airbnb, and it was perfect. Jean and Bill are both retirees and they have a spare room in the second floor of their home which they rent out to visitors. The room had a double bed, a telly, a washbasin, a well-stocked fridge, an electric kettle, plates, utensils, the works. We had our own bathroom right next door, which was also stocked with everything we might need. And there was WiFi, of course. The house itself is only a 5-minute walk from the Inverness train station and 10-15 minutes’ leisurely walk to all the pubs, shops, restaurants, and other establishments along the River Ness. If you are ever in the Inverness area and need a place to spend the night, I would highly recommend staying here.

For more photos and details, check out the Munros’ Airbnb listing.

If you’ve never tried Airbnb before, here’s a quick introduction:

A Beginner’s Guide to Airbnb

For more about Inverness:


And for tours around the Scottish Highlands, I highly recommend Andrew MacDonald’s Hame Tours. You can read about our experience here:

The Highlands of Scotland


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Save for a trip to Europe in 1 year

if we wait until we're ready we'll be waiting for the rest of our lives

I went on my first trip to Europe with a Nokia 1110 in my pocket.

It’s a story I’m fond of repeating, especially when people tell me they wish they can afford to travel. To be honest, most of the people who say that to me actually can afford to travel. Most of you reading this can afford it — some of you not right away perhaps, but within the next few months or years — if you want it badly enough that you’re willing to make saving for it a priority.

Nokia1110In the case of my first European trip, I worked out a ridiculously intense savings system that left me practically penniless the day after pay day. No more eating out, no more coffee dates, no more new shoes…and definitely no fancy phones. It was tough forgoing those little things that were my reward to myself for working hard, but eventually that’s how, on the very week the fifth generation iPhone was released, I was in Paris with a humble 4-year-old Nokia 1110 in my pocket. (I held on to it for 2 more years too.)

This year, I’m going into extreme savings mode again. I’m hoping to be able to save enough to take my entire family on a nice trip next year. It will mean drastically cutting back on travel and other non-essentials this year, but I think it will be worth it.

Care to join me on my savings journey?

Below is the blueprint I’m using to save PHP 100,000 in one year. It’s a weekly savings plan — the amount to be saved each week is in the middle column, while the right-hand column will tell you how much savings you’ll have accumulated per week. There are 5 “cheat weeks” which you can move around where you like. The amounts to be saved descend in value each week. That means the first month will be bloody — in fact, I’m using two of my cheat weeks this January alone! — but come December the savings amounts will be much, much more manageable.
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Paris. Is. Possible.

On the third anniversary of my first ever European trip, I thought I’d go back to the basic, underlying message of this blog: you can do it too. And what better place to feature than Paris, where this love affair with travel (and writing about it) all began.

Paris_Gaya_SGMTIt was exactly three years ago that I first stepped foot in Paris. Before that day, I’d thought European trips were only for rich people so I hadn’t even dared to dream of Paris or Rome or Venice. But one day my sister found a seat sale to Paris and, on a crazy impulse, we decided to go for it. In the months between the day we bought the tickets and the day of our departure, we scrimped and force-saved every extra cent we had. The day after every payday, once the bills were paid, I would literally have no money left for non-essentials. It was difficult to give up the little luxuries that had made ordinary life more enjoyable but in the end it was worth it: I was there, in Paris, on the 6th of October, breathlessly climbing up the steps of Champ de Mars station, and catching my first ever glimpse of the Eiffel Tower.

If there’s one thing I would like to share with anyone who also dreams of going to Paris, it’s this: it’s possible.

And not only is it possible, it’s very doable.

It starts with a dream. You have to tell yourself that you are going to Paris. And you have to set a goal date for it, otherwise it will remain one of those dreams that are always dancing just beyond the horizon of reality.

Next: you have to start. Now. Start saving at least for the airfare, which will probably take up the biggest chunk of your budget. Save for your airfare first because airlines regularly have seat sales and the best way you can snap up cheap tickets is if you already have the means to pay for them — luck favors the prepared. Once you have the tickets, you can slowly pay off or save for other travel expenses: this month, accommodations; next month, food; etc.

And then…you just gotta do it. Once you spot an opportunity, go ahead and grab it. Say YES to the dream and, if necessary, figure out the details of how you’ll do it later.

one week paris_php50000

The budget

Some people say there’s no point in going to Paris if you’re not going to spend freely and enjoy — as if happiness is measured by the price you pay for it. Other people say that PHP 50,000 will only cover hotels — that it will not include food and certainly will not include airfare. And that’s fine if they think that way. (Ssshhh…the benefit of some people having that mindset is that the rest of us have less competition for the low airfares. But don’t tell them.)

However, if you’re willing to open your mind a bit, and you’re not too particular about the thread count of your bed sheets or the number of Michelin stars in your food, a 1-week Paris vacation is possible for only PHP 50,000.

Here’s the breakdown:

7 days in Paris for php 50000_updated 06Oct2015

The details

. As mentioned above, airfare will be your biggest expense and you will have to keep your eye out for promos and seasonal price drops. What I do is I check Skyscanner every now and then for low fares. Right now, for example, Skyscanner shows flights from Manila to Paris for only PHP 21,169 (via Oman Air). You can’t book flights on Skyscanner but they will give you links to the booking websites — such as Expedia or the airline website itself — that are offering that price. (See this article for other ways to stay updated on seat sales and promo fares.)

Skyscanner prices as of 06 October 2015

Skyscanner prices as of 06 October 2015

Schengen visa fee. This is a standard fee that the French embassy charges for processing your visa application. (See this article for a step-by-step guide in getting a Schengen visa at the French embassy.)

Travel insurance. This is required to get the Schengen visa you will need to enter France. The price of PHP 1,135 for a 7-day trip to France is offered by Blue Cross, which I personally use because it’s so easy to get (see details here). Other travel insurance companies might charge more or less for the same coverage.

Schengen travel insurance_Blue Cross_as of 06 October 2015

Blue Cross prices as of 06 October 2015

International travel tax. This is standard as well. Sometimes the travel tax is even incorporated into the airfare so that’s one less thing you will have to budget for.

Accommodations. It goes without saying that you can’t expect a 5-star hotel for this sort of budget but if you’re not too choosy, you can find fairly decent lodgings at this price. (A friend stayed at the OOPS! Hostel for only 30 euros per night, including breakfast.) What I do is I search for accommodations at Booking.com and filter the results based on my budget. Low-priced options with fairly good reviews include the Generator Paris and the St Christopher’s Inn Paris – Gare du Nord. If you’re willing to spend a bit more, I can personally recommend the Grand Hotel du Loiret, the Hotel Terminus Lyon, and the Hotel Le Notre Dame Saint Michel.


Food. Again, you can’t expect multi-course meals at Michelin-starred restaurants at this budget but you can still eat reasonably well. Of course, you’re in France and it would be a shame if you don’t get to try classic French cuisine at least once. What I usually do is I splurge on 1 or 2 good meals and eat frugally for the rest of the trip. See this article for tips on how to save on food while traveling. (Hint: supermarkets are your best friend.)

Transportation. Ideally, you should stay near the city center so you can walk to most of your destinations for the day. When you must take the Metro, you can save by buying a “carnet” — a book of 10 tickets — for €14.40. (A single ticket costs €1.80 so you save €3.60 when you buy a carnet.)

Miscellaneous expenses. You’ll notice that the PHP 50,000 budget does not specifically include things like admission to the Louvre or the fee for going up the Eiffel Tower. You can use the miscellaneous expenses budget for those costs. Do keep in mind, though, that there are many free things to do in Paris. Even the Louvre is free on certain days. (See: 3 Things That Will Surprise You About Paris.) A simple Google search could save you tons of money.

Entrance to the gorgeous Notre Dame cathedral is free

Entrance to the gorgeous Notre Dame cathedral is free

And that’s it

…a one-week PHP 50,000 budget for Paris. Of course, it’s a very basic budget so it would be great if you can save more than PHP 50,000 for your trip. But definitely you don’t need to be wealthy to fulfill your Paris dreams. If you want it enough, and you’re willing to make a few sacrifices for it, Paris is definitely possible. Happy travels! 🙂

Paris is possible: 1 week in Paris for only PHP 50,000 | This is an updated version of an article previously published in this blog. | © Small-Town Girls, Midnight Trains. All rights reserved.  




small-town girl travel_you can do it too

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Hampstead Heath

SGMT_London_Hampstead Heath_04

There isn’t really much I can say about Hampstead Heath except that it’s beautiful in an intentionally not-totally-tamed sort of way, and that, if I lived in London, I would probably come here a lot. Londoners are so lucky to have such a wealth of green spaces that they can visit for free — actually, one of the things about London that surprised me was how many park benches remain empty, even on weekends. Well, Londoners probably have better things to do with their time than sit on a park and enjoy the sun, I don’t know. What I do know is that we have one park near our house that isn’t even a tenth as beautiful as any park in London and we have to pay for admission (nothing backbreaking but still) and yet it’s always full of people on weekends. That’s why I think Londoners are lucky.

There are several Tube stations near Hampstead Heath — you can see this page for detailed information on how to get there. We took the Overground line from Clapham Junction and got off at the Hampstead Heath station, where the entrance to the heath is only a very short walk away. Some of the first things we saw:

SGMT_London_Hampstead Heath_07

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Horses = Love (The Royal Mews)

London Pass_Royal Mews_CoachmanAfter painstakingly mapping out an itinerary that would let me make the most of my one-day London Pass, I bailed and went to a place that wasn’t even on my short list: the Royal Mews, the Royal Family’s stable/garage/carriage house right beside Buckingham Palace. And while most other people there flocked to the grand and fancy state coaches — there’s a free guided tour for everyone — after a cursory glance at the royals’ rides I went straight to what I was really interested in: the stable.

I can’t accurately call myself a horse afficionado because honestly I’ve only been around them a couple of times in my entire life, but I’ve always found the idea of them fascinating. I’m a big fan of Dick Francis books and horses almost always figure prominently in them. They seem like such strong, noble creatures and it’s interesting how they can form the closest bonds with humans.

The Royal Mews doesn’t stable all the royal horses but I got to meet a few of them.

This is Meg:

London Pass_Royal Mews_Meg

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