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Travel on a Budget

Short term vacation or long term stays in Spain & Portugal

With a little work travelling the world doesn’t have to be an expensive proposition. It just takes a little planning and the willingness to book things yourself.

Last year we wanted to take a vacation to escape some of the Canadian winter, we wanted something different and we had a budget.

The first destinations that come to mind for many are Mexico, the Caribbean, the southern US or Hawaii. All provide an escape from winter, they are easily accessible and most, except for Hawaii, can be fit nicely into reasonable budget. Some of these are great beach destinations, others are great golf destinations and some are both but we wanted to broaden our horizons.

The first item to check was a reasonable climate. Baking in the sun wasn’t our goal so we looked for more moderate climates where we could be outside and be active without sweltering.

The Costa del Sol in southern Spain and the Algarve in Portugal caught our eye. Daytime temperatures in December hover around the 20o Celsius mark, almost exactly what we were looking for.

It is a huge summer time vacation spot for Europeans but the winter months are off-season. That meant we had our pick of accommodations at dramatically reduced prices.

With our destination in mind we began to see what the area had to offer. A bit of searching brought us to www.andalucia.com where you can learn almost everything about southern Spain and what it has to offer. It didn’t take long for us to decide that there would be lots to do and see.

Our first task was to check flights. We were leaving from Vancouver which is a long hike from our final destination and we were expecting our flights to be prohibitively expensive. The resource we used was www.kayak.com.

We entered the approximate dates for our vacation and monitored prices for flights over the course of a few weeks.  Our patience paid off. We were able to fly Air France from Vancouver to Paris with excellent connections to Malaga, Spain for less than $900 Canadian return. There are undoubtedly more options available if you are flying from Toronto or Montreal.

Once we had our flights booked we began our search for accommodation. In the past we had used www.homeaway.ca and once again, it proved to be a good choice. If you have a smart phone or a tablet, I highly recommend downloading the Home Away app. It manages your bookings, tracks your payments and provides you with contact information for the accommodation you booked.

On average we paid less than $90 per night for fully stocked one and two bedroom condos during our vacation. All were very clean and well managed.

Most accommodations have WiFi (or ‘wee fee’ as it  is pronounced in Spain). If you don’t have Skype I would suggest downloading it on your smartphone or tablet and paying for a few minutes of talk time which will cost you about $10 to $15. It is great to have for calling home; however you still need WiFi for Skype to work.

Because of that I recommend getting a local phone for emergency use. With many smartphones you can simply buy a SIM card when you get to Spain and swap it for your Canadian SIM card to give you a local number. It is less expensive to buy your European SIM card upon arrival than buying one before you leave. Simply have the card loaded with pre-paid minutes which are available in €10 increments in most places.

If you prefer not swapping SIM cards you can buy an inexpensive pre-paid phone for use while you are in Spain. SIM cards and phones are available at numerous kiosks and stores in Spain.

We kept our vacation affordable by shopping at the local markets and grocery stores which are like walking into any Canadian supermarket. There is a lot of choice; the vegetables are fresh because they are locally grown and the price of food is similar to what we pay here – often less expensive.

For comparison costs you can check www.numbeo.com. Enter the cities you want to compare and a detailed list will display a wide variety of items. For Spain, a good choice of cities to use would be Marbella or Malaga. You can compare costs there with your home city or with an alternate destination like San Diego, Orlando or Honolulu.

While in Spain we primarily shopped at Carrefour, Supercor, Hipercor and Mercadona for groceries. In Portugal in was Continente or Pingo Doce. All were excellent.

If you want to enjoy a glass of wine with your meal, local wines are inexpensive. We found one that we liked for €2 (approx. $3) per bottle. Local beer is also inexpensive. A one litre bottle can be purchased at a grocery store for about €1.

The last major expense that we wanted to pin down was car rental and www.autoeurope.com made that easy. They search the rental agencies for availability and you can book your car directly through them. We rented a Renault Megane (about the size of a Honda Civic) for about $22 per day. Our credit card covered our car insurance needs so no additional costs were involved there.

You may want to check your credit card coverage or with your local auto insurance agency to see if coverage can be expanded to include a rental in Europe. An international driver’s license is not always necessary but is good to have. Check with your motor license issuer for the application process. No test is required.

Hint: If you can drive a car with a manual transmission you can save $$$ over renting an automatic.

The highway systems in the Costa del Sol and the Algarve are great but the city streets can be a twisting, turning labyrinth.

For first time visitors, a GPS is an absolute necessity for driving particularly if you plan to drive in any of the cities or towns. If you are taking your own, be sure it is a GPS with European maps loaded. The other option is to rent one with your car. If you have a local data package on your smartphone or tablet, you may also be able to use Google Maps in place of a GPS. We did not pursue that option.

While a car is handy, public transportation is convenient in the Costa del Sol. There is a commuter train that you can pick up right at the airport. It travels as far as Fuengirola (about 25 km). If you need to go farther, bus transportation is well organized and inexpensive.

A combination of travel may fit best; public transportation for most of your needs and a car rental for a day or two here and there for special excursions or for going to the golf course with your clubs. Numerous car rental agencies are dotted throughout the various cities and towns.

Most communities on the Costa del Sol feature long paved promenades along the seafront. Not only do they provide beautiful views of the Mediterranean and the mountains of Africa, they serve as great bike paths that often link communities. We cycled from Benalmadena through Torremolinos and on to Malaga, stopping at some of the seaside cafes for a cappuccino and a snack.

The Alagarve has fewer developed bike paths but with a little research you can find what is available.

If you tire of driving, day tours to many historic destinations including Granada, Cordoba, Gibraltar and Tangier, Morocco are available from a variety of providers. One of these is Gray Line Tours.

Golfers have their choice of over 70 courses in the Costa del Sol region. When it comes to golf, it is the Florida or California of Europe. If it is a golf vacation that you are planning, bringing clubs with you can be expensive and awkward; an alternative is a weekly or monthly rental when you arrive. High quality clubs at a reasonable price are available right at the Malaga airport and various golf centres throughout southern Spain.

Our stay was just over 3 weeks but the Costa del Sol can be ideal for those who want longer winter getaways. You can stay for up to 3 months without any special visa required and prices for your accommodation drop even further – sometimes an additional discount of 25% or more can apply. Condo owners are anxious to rent for longer terms in the off season. You can choose from luxury to basic.

Between historic tours, unique shopping experiences, golf, walks along the beach or simply enjoying the laid back atmosphere of the cafes in the quaint ‘old towns’ you will always have something new to do without feeling rushed. A quick browse through www.andalucia.com will reveal an unending list of experiences that you may want to enjoy.

Because the area caters heavily to British tourists, knowledge of the Spanish or Portuguese languages is unnecessary. If you speak only English you can easily get by and make yourself understood. The locals are used to dealing with English speaking tourists and many pubs, cafes and shops employ British ex-pats.

Before you go, remember to have adequate health care coverage in place. Medical insurance for travel is available from providers such as Group Medical Insurance www.gms.ca/ or CAA www.caa.ca/.

The Costa del Sol and the Algarve are a great alternatives to Arizona, California or Florida for long stay vacations and winter getaways.

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