Vacation Or Debt Repayment?
Big and I didn’t think we’d be able to travel abroad until my $100k in student loans were paid off (so 2018 at the earliest). After all, traveling is just another liability, and I had a tiny budget. However, I was able to pick up overtime shifts at work and refinance my loans for a significantly lower interest rate, effectively putting me ahead of my repayment schedule by a few months. Around May 2016, Big found a great deal on flights to Milan, Italy. Hello, fork in the road – continue aggressive payments towards debt or take a scenic Italian detour?
Italy on a Budget
We were going to Italy!
This was our logic:
- We were moving into our first apartment together in August, saving ourselves $200-300/month in rent
- We calculated that refinancing my student loans would save me roughly $13,000 in interest, or a little over $1,000 per month
- We furnished the LilBig Apartment gradually with Craigslist finds and repurposed estate sale furniture, saving hundreds on decor over time
- $500 per person for a roundtrip flight from NYC to Milan, Italy was a great deal in and of itself!
- Big follows the currency market in his free time – the USD was and still is very strong compared to the Euro – our trip was approximately 20% cheaper in 2016 vs if we traveled to Europe in 2014.
Based on our monthly savings on rent and discretionary expenses, we budgeted out $1,000 each for our Italy trip. We also agreed that this vacation would be our combined birthday and 1 year anniversary gift to each other.
[perfectpullquote align=”full” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]We’re big believers of collecting moments over things.[/perfectpullquote]
The deal was through Emirates, where the cost of 2 tickets for a roundtrip flight from JFK to MXP was $1003, versus the cost of 1 ticket for the same flight was $600+. We opted to fly Delta, because they offered the same promotion, and JFK’s Delta Sky Club is one of the best in the country, and maybe the world (which we had complimentary access to thanks to Big’s American Express Platinum card). Also thanks to Big’s 50,000 Chase Ultimate Rewards points bonus from his chase sapphire preferred, both of us flew for free (80,000 points used, 1.2 cents per point value).
TOTAL OUT OF POCKET COST: $0
Big and I did a lot of research for this trip, and transportation was a huge chunk of it.
From MXP to Milan – we took the Trenord train for 12 euros per person (purchase at the station)
From Milano Centrale to Florence – we took the train for 37 euros per person (purchased in advance)
From Florence to Rome – we purchased train tickets in advance for 23 euros per person
From Roma Tiburtina station to our hotel, we had to picked up 2, 48-hour metro card for 12.50 euros.
In terms of cabs, Rome has a service called mytaxi.com – we spent $13.87 on the way to dinner from the hotel since we were so far from city center.
Only Uber black cars are available in Rome – we spent $20 on our way to the Roma Tiburtina station from city center.
MISTAKE OF THE TRIP: We didn’t account for construction and a below-average Uber driver, so we ended up missing the train from Rome to Naples by seconds. We had to pay $86.12 total for 2 new tickets, but luckily, we only had to wait 20-30 minutes and had enough time to explore Naples before catching our hydrofoil.
We walked from Napoli Centrale to Napoli Beverello to catch our hydrofoil, which cost $30.02 total.
From our “home base” of Sorrento, we would take the Septa buses to Positano and Amalfi. We paid in euros for these at tabacchi (tobacco/convenience) stores, which ended up being about 4 euros per person one way to Positano, and 8 euros per person one way to Amalfi.
We took the hydrofoil back to Naples, which cost $29.65 total. From the station, we grabbed the Alibus for 4 euros per person (purchased on board the bus) to get to Naples Capodichino (NAP) airport.
Our Alitalia one-way plane tickets cost $97.60 for the two of us. We opted to fly so we could spend a good part of the day exploring Milan before flying back to the US the next morning.
Once we arrived at Milan Linate airport, we grabbed a bus to our hotel (ticket purchased outside of the terminal for 3 euros).
On our last morning in Italy, we purchased two train tickets to MXP airport for $28.76 total.
TOTAL OUT OF POCKET COST: ~$465.02
Credit card points also helped us out a lot with hotel stays.
We stayed at the Arizona Hotel for 2 nights for 19,436 of my Chase Sapphire Ultimate Reward points or $242.95, 1.25 cents per point value). This included breakfast each day and central location but was pretty basic in terms of amenities.
We stayed at the Roma Sheraton with the SPG points Big had leftover from his days as an auditor at PwC. We used 8,000 points for the 2 nights, or $260, 3.31 cents per point value, but were reimbursed 250 points for opting out of room cleaning – so we spent 7,750 SPG points total). This hotel was much bigger and cleaner than our Florence one, but was a little far from city center and did not include complimentary breakfast.
For Big’s Bday, we splurged a little on our first hotel – Maison Tofani. We used 9,827 Chase UR points and paid an additional $97.58 out of pocket at the time of booking, so $244.98 for 1 night. We stayed in the Pandia Loft and rave about it to this day.
[perfectpullquote align=”full” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]Sometimes, you gotta just treat yo’self! [/perfectpullquote]
The facilities were clean, charming, and the epitome of Italian culture. We could see Mount Vesuvius from our private deck, soak in our hot tub while gazing at the stars through the skylight, and feast like royalty in their meticulously restored 19th century dining room.
Our second hotel in Sorrento was, obviously, less amazing – the 2 nights we spent at Mignon Meuble cost 17,280 UR points or $216, 1.25 cents per point value. Perks included complimentary breakfast and private balcony.
Our final hotel in Milan, the Crowne Plaza, cost 7,104 UR points plus $15.21 out of pocket, or $106.56 for 1 night. It was my birthday, and my only request was a big soaking tub 😛 It was very clean, modern, and corporate like the Sheraton Roma, but had a more central location.
Each hotel collects a city tax, roughly 10-12 euros per day at time of checkout; bring extra Euros, because some hotels will only accept cash.
TOTAL OUT OF POCKET COST: $183.04 (including ~$44 in city taxes paid in cash)
In Florence, we paid for tickets to the Uffizi Gallery in advance, which cost $37.17 total.
In Rome, we paid $22.02 for two tickets to the Castel Sant’Angelo. The 360 degree views from the rooftop were worth the price of admission – watch the sunset!
We also paid $100.78 for a private, early access group tour of the Vatican Museum and Sistine Chapel. This was our second favorite splurge of the trip. General admission is 12 euros, but the lines are obscene and the crowds, once inside, are suffocating. With these tickets, we were able to freely walk through the museum with our guide before it opened to the public.
TOTAL OUT OF POCKET COST: $157.97
Below is a pie chart of our overall expenses by category, including points redeemed and cash out-of-pocket.
This includes flights and trains between cities and can be more or less depending on your itinerary. We could have spent significantly less on transportation if we had limited our stay to 1-2 cities versus 7.
These are another big chunk of expenses. There were a number of incredible Airbnb listings available all over Italy and could have saved us $20+/night in accommodations and food. However, we opted to stick with hotels, because we could pay with credit card points. We wanted to stretch these points to cover a significant portion of our accommodations, so, aside from our first night in Sorrento, most of our hotels cost around $100 per night.
You can see that Big and I value dining experiences over other activities. As hinted at in the previous paragraph, we could have saved $40+ per night if we had a kitchen and cooked more. However, we were blown away with all of the restaurants we went to and don’t regret spending 23% of our expenses on dining out. List of restaurants with reviews in a future post – check out our Instagram account for sneak peaks of dishes we had in Italy 🙂
This makes up only 5% of our expenses, but I think we chose the right amount of museums to check out. We spent hours in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence and saw so many famous works for only $38. We decided to forgo the Accademia Gallery (for this trip), because there are several of Michaelangelo’s David replicas around the city – be sure to see the bronze replica at the Piazzale Michaelangelo, along with panoramic views of the city.
Miscellaneous expenses included a couple of grocery store purchases (more wine and snacks), a trip to the laundromat (we packed lightly since we’d be traveling to multiple cities), and small gifts for family and friends.
Of the $3,805.31 that we spent, MORE THAN HALF was paid for with credit card points! We spent $1,829.40 out of pocket, which works out to be $914.70 per person. SUCCESS! We managed to squeeze in 7 cities in 9 days for under our $1,000 per person budget.
Click here for our sexy spreadsheet of our Italy trip’s expenses.
- Consider spending a little extra if you have the budget to stay closer to city center. The time, energy, and cost of traveling back and forth was more than I anticipated in Rome. I would have gladly paid an extra $50 or more out of pocket to have a hotel closer to the attractions.
- This was our first trip to Italy – as such, we were able to ‘save’ on sightseeing as most of our sightseeing was free as we wandered around the cities, markets, parks, gardens, etc. Future trips to Italy we may spend more on sightseeing as we explore the country side and other hard to reach areas.
- We set a budget for this trip as Lil still had college loans to pay off. We were both thrilled at how far we could stretch our dollars and points with some planning and compromising.
- Know yourself and know your significant other. Lil and I both love to eat at restaurants when we travel. Italy did not disappoint. I don’t regret allocating most of our budget to dining out.
- To me points are like cash – consider how you redeem them to maximize their value. For instance the Chase UR have a very nice travel redemption rate of 1.25 cents per point vs gift card redemption which is as low as .8 cents per point. Also waiting for flight deals and researching hotels went a long way.
Let’s be friends!
Here’s to health and wealth,