How we afford to travel

People often as us how we afford to travel to Europe from Australia so often. They assume we must be very wealthy, leading a lavish lifestyle. Nothing could be further from the truth.

We are just two ordinary Australians, semi-retired in part time jobs to pay the mortgage, bills and day to day living expenses. We simply prioritise travel and tailor our lifestyle around our next trip.

Having three of our children living overseas in Berlin, there is a huge incentive for us to save to visit every couple of years.

We are also at a stage of our life when we are still young, fit and healthy enough to explore the world and we want to take advantage of this time.

We’ve often looked at Australian holidays.  Five days on the Ghan, two weeks in the Kimberley.  But the reality is we can have a month in Europe for cheaper.  So overseas travel is our priority at this stage of our life.  Australia will come later when we hitch up the caravan and travel off to explore.

Saving for travel

We save money each week towards our next trip in a few simple ways. We lead a simple life, not buying things we really don’t need. We have learned to distinguish a “want” from a “need”, so no longer accumulate “stuff”. If it doesn’t need replacing, we don’t buy it.

  • We take a cut lunch to work each day- $10 each per day to buy a meal is $100 per week. That’s $10,000 saved over two years towards our next trip- a huge amount. A very simple thing that adds up to the bulk of an overseas trip.
  • We don’t have the latest “gadgets”. When Ian dropped his old Iphone 6 when fishing recently, we were amazed to find that a cheap $89 phone works for us just as well as the latest $1,200 Iphone
  • We don’t have netflix or cable TV. OK, so we both work nights and don’t watch much TV, but it is an expense we can do without because we want to travel.
  • We don’t drive late model cars. As long as our cars are sound and getting us to work each day, we don’t need to trade in on the newest model every two years, because travel is our priority. When we do need to replace, we look for late model second hand vehicles or demo models. A shiny new car decreases in value as you drive it out of the showroom, whereas our travel memories last forever.

Budget accommodation

  • We have realistic travel goals and are flexible.  We don’t aim for luxury travel, preferring to see more of the world on a budget.
  • We are very fortunate to have children living in Berlin, and we certainly haven’t enjoyed our stay there any less sleeping on our daughter’s sofa bed,  than we would in a luxury hotel. Not everyone has this option, I know, but there are other budget accommodation options available.
  • When our daughter suggested a hostel when we were travelling to Prague, we were aghast at first. But by choosing the right hostel, we were pleasantly surprised. We actually had a private room with a spa bath for a fraction of the price of a hotel. Far from rowdy young backpackers, we found a mix of travellers in our hostel which made for a very enjoyable stay. An option we will certainly investigate in the future.
  • There are also well established “house swap” sites where you holiday in someone’s home in London, for example and they come and stay in your home. Not something we have ventured into, but I do know others who do this regularly and have travelled to some amazing places through the program.

That said, the money we save in accommodation has enabled us to “splash out” on the occasional night’s hotel accommodation along the way.

Road tripping around Germany, France and Switzerland with our family was a very economical way to travel. The B&B’s we stayed in actually cost less per night than a budget motel in Australia.

Renting a holiday house for a week was cheaper than in Australia, with the advantage that we could go to the local supermarket and self-cater. We also got a better cultural experience than if we had stayed in a hotel, at a fraction of the cost as we were living in a local community for a week.

Have a look on some of the local tourist sites, and you will be amazed at how cheaply you can get accommodation.

Flight savings

We are flexible with dates and days to travel.

  • Flying out of Sydney, Tuesday is usually the cheapest day and we also found with a trip planned for early June, bringing our plans forward to May saved us thousands in airfares.
  • Travelling in the “shoulder season” also offers significant savings in accommodation and entry into attractions, with the added advantage that there are less crowds, so smaller queues.
  • We look out for great flight deals – these are by far the costliest part of our trip. While we are not interested in a multi-stop flight on a budget airline where we pay for food, baggage and a cramped seat, with a few 10 hour airport stopovers along the way,  there are still significant savings to be had if you look carefully.  For example on our last trip to Berlin, it was significantly cheaper to fly into Frankfurt than Munich.
  • Also look out for some of the great package deals offered by the airlines. When we were planning our first trip to Berlin, flying through London Heathrow, we actually saved money by taking a package deal of five night’s accommodation in London and two day trips. The deal was cheaper than we would have paid for the airfare to London and then onto Berlin.
  • We never fly business class. Yes cattle class is long and uncomfortable, but we could never justify the phenomenal added expense of flying business class – the fares saved pay for the rest of our trip and then some.

To give you an example, I searched a theoretical return flight to London this May.  The return fare for two in economy is $2,600 (a great deal by the way). Travelling on the same plane in business class would be $21,166 return for two. That would pay for two entire holidays!

  • We take opportunities. When my sister invited us to go on a four week road trip with their family last year, the cost savings we would make by travelling in a group meant the new carpet we were saving for could wait until next year.

Do your research

Once we have decided on a rough time frame, we research. Websites like webjet and skyscanner are great for finding the flights available, but we then find we can often book these just as cheaply by going directly to the company.

Our “extravagance” is that we do tend to fly with the major airlines – you can save even more if you are prepared to go with the cheapest flight available.

For example, last trip  it was going to cost us around $6,000 return to fly economy to Europe with Qantas, and we then had to pay around $1,200 for flights to Berlin and back to Munich through an internal carrier.

By doing a little research, and flying a few days earlier. our Lufthansa flights were only $4,400 including the internal flights. This was in peak season, I might add.

Pre-paid tickets

We pre-purchase travel cards before our trip. The London Oyster Card is cheaper to buy before you leave, gives you prepaid travel on the Tube and Thames ferries and also gives you discounts into the London attractions.

Most major cities have a similar card in place, so it is worth investigating. For example the Swiss Pass gives you some great discounts on rail, cable cars and entry into attractions.

Watch the Australian Dollar

If you are getting close to your trip, and the Australian dollar goes up, that’s the time to load your foreign currency onto your travel card and prepay your overseas accommodation. You will be amazed at how many hundreds of dollars you can save.

So what are you waiting for? Start saving to make your dream of an overseas holiday a reality and do some research into how you can make it happen.

 

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Money saving tips for London

London is expensive. We knew that. But before we left, no one could really tell us just HOW much we would need. “it depends on what you want to do” or “just make a budget and stick to it” doesn’t really help.

So below I have listed some of the money saving tips we picked up during our trip to London in 2016 in the hope that it may help others planning a similar trip.

We wanted to see most of the major attractions, a good meal each night without spending hundreds of dollars, but didn’t want to scrimp unnecessarily either.

Food and drink

Throughout our week in London, we found the most economical lunch option was to pop into one of the many ready made sandwich chain stores, where you can quickly grab a sandwich, salad or ready made lunch and a drink for around £10 each (AUD 18) Still not cheap by Australian standards, but the cheapest option when you consider that an average counter meal will cost around £25 (AUD 45) without drinks.

We enjoyed the typical counter meals – pie n chips, burger n chips, fish n chips at the local pubs, but were disappointed to find that there was no variety – the menus were standardised by the same franchise in every pub we visited and were around double the cost of a counter meal in Australia (AUD 45 without drinks). A glass of wine and a middy of beer cost around £12.50 (AUD 22)

We also grabbed a few essentials – bread rolls, cheese, water, fruit and wine from the local supermarket and packed snacks in our backpack each day.

Tours

Our one extravagance was to book two guided tours – one a whole day in London and one to Windsor Castle, Bath and Stonehenge. At AUD170 each these were not cheap, but we felt we got our value for money, as these also provided entry into the main attractions we wished to visit, as well as transport to those out of London on the second tour.

A hop-on hop-off bus provides a cheaper option if you want an orientation of London.

Purchase a London Pass before you leave home, which will give you significant savings on the local attractions.

A ferry ride along the Thames from Westminster is included on your Oyster card and can provide an economical alternative to a designated tourist cruise.

Transport

The Tube Navigating “The Tube”may sound daunting at first, but is surprisingly easy and very cost efficient. Purchase a prepaid Oyster card before you go – we bought two £30 cards, travelled multiple trips per day and did not run out of fare.

Walk. Get fit before you go and walk as much as you can. London is very flat so walking is easy. We came across many interesting things we would have missed if we were in a cab or travelling by Tube or bus.

Cheapest isn’t best. The worst mistake we made was the cheap flight from Stanstead airport to Berlin. Yes, the flights were a third the price. But by the time we got up at 2am, paid £200 for a two and a half hour shuttle to Stanstead airport, paid the excess baggage, paid for lukewarm coffee and a soggy croissant, I honestly think we would have been better off opting for the 10am flight from Heathrow, with tea, coffee and a snack provided.

Read Also:Budgeting for a week in London
First time in London

Accessing your money overseas.

One of the most important things to consider when planning your trip, is how you will access your money overseas. There are a range of options available, so you need to look into what is going to work best for you.

When travelling we use a “mixed money” wallet, which we find has always worked very well for us.

  • A little cash in local currency – don’t be tempted to take cash only.  If you lose your wallet, it’s gone.
  • Credit card – most hotels and hire car companies will require a credit card and will “reserve” an amount on the card to cover any damage. A credit card is also a good backup for unseen emergencies.
  • Travel money card – to withdraw local currency at ATM’s and make eftpos purchases
  • Debit mastercard – as an emergency backup if we do need to access more cash from our Australian bank accounts.

Credit cards

Most places will charge you an international transaction fee of around 3% every time you use your card, so this can be an expensive way to access your money.

However, most hotels, accommodation providers and car hire firms will require you to pay with a credit card.  On top of your bill, they will also place a “hold” on a portion of your available balance in case you have raided the mini bar or trashed the room.
With car hire firms in particular, it is a good idea to check how much this hold will be up front, as it can be several weeks until this hold is lifted. The amount is not actually charged to your card, but you will be unable to access these funds until the hold is lifted.

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Debit Card

Most banks now provide either a debit Mastercard or Visa card with a chip. These can be used at ATM’s and to make purchases overseas, but as with credit cards there will be an international transaction fee, and an ATM fee of around $5 per transaction, so they can be an expensive way to access your money.

Some hotels and car hire providers will accept these cards, however as with the credit card, a hold will be placed on your available funds, sometimes for several weeks.

Debit cards that do not contain a chip are no longer widely accepted around Europe.
They can still be used in ATMs, but most Eftpos machines will require a chip, so it is best to check with your bank several weeks before you go.

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Travel money cards

There are a wide range of travel money cards available through banks, airlines, Australia Post and other providers. These allow you to load a number of currencies onto your card, locking in the exchange rate available on that day.

These can be used at ATM’s and for Eftpos purchases in many places. The benefits of a travel card is that they do not attract the international transaction fees, as you are paying in the local currency, and ATM fees are often much lower. You are also not affected by fluctuating exchange rates.

Do be aware when using ATM’s overseas to select “without conversion” and also “local currency” if asked, otherwise you will incur additional unnecessary fees on your transaction.

It is worth shopping around and doing your research, as with anything, the cheapest may not be the best.

Important questions to ask about any of these cards include:

  • What are the full fees?
  • Can I transfer unused funds to my account when I return?
  • Is there 24/7 support if I have trouble overseas?
  • Is there a duplicate card in case I lose one overseas?
  • What did you use when you travelled?

The last one might seem like a fairly odd question, but the sales person may never have travelled outside their hometown and could be just telling you what is in the sales brochure.  It may not be correct information.  For example, when working in the finance industry, I often heard colleagues telling people they could use their debit card without a chip overseas. Well yes, you can, and the brochure says so, but not everywhere and they can become a problem – I knew this as I have travelled.

Local currency

It’s a good idea to have enough of the local currency to buy a coffee and take a taxi when you arrive.

Before you leave, purchase a little local currency from your local bank.  If possible, try to avoid the  Cash Exchanges at the airports which are much more expensive – they know you have no other option so charge top rate.

If you need  to exchange currency overseas, go to a bank.  Do not be tempted to use “currency vendors” on the street – they are often a scam and you will not get a good rate.

Also check what currencies are best for each destination.  You will often find one currency will be accepted in multiple locations, For example, Czech Krona are the official currency in Prague, but Euro are also accepted.  US dollars may be a better option in countries in Asia and Africa.

What you lose in paying slightly more by using these currencies, you will often gain in exchange rates, so it is worth researching.

Travellers cheques

Yes, they still exist, but they are not widely accepted,  and can be quite costly to change in a local bank. The person being paid the commission to sell them to you will tell you they are widely accepted, but do some research into travellers’ cheques in the area you will be visiting first.  Not an option I would recommend.

Online banking

Many people are still wary of online banking, but it is the safest and most convenient means of accessing your funds overseas. Either from a secure wifi in your hotel, or from your phone, you can transfer funds between your accounts, reload your travel cards and it makes it much easier to contact your bank if you do have problems overseas.

As with all travel plans, it is well worth researching your options for accessing your money overseas. This will ensure that you have the right products to meet your needs and call also save you money to spend on more important things.

accessmoney

 

A taste of the Coonawarra wineries

No  road trip to South Australia is complete without visiting their excellent wineries to sample the local produce. Located on the South Australian Limestone Coast, the Coonawarra wineries have been producing Cabernet Sauvignon and Shiraz for over 120 years.

Coonawarra wineries

On our road trip to the South Australian Limestone Coast, a morning at the wineries was not only a pleasant activity for ourselves, but a chance for the “Pawesome Foursome” to enjoy a sniff around a few gardens.

Driving along the last 20 kilometres of the Riddolph highway towards Penola, the rolling green vineyards were reminiscent of our time in the Burgundy region of France. Row upon row of grapevines, heavy with ripening red grapes as far as the eye can see. The vineyards, like the gardens within are meticulously maintained.

The fertile red brown topsoil lying on top of the limestone base has long provided ideal grape growing conditions. Resplendent rose blooms also line the roadside. The colourful blooms are not just for display, they also provide a surprisingly functional purpose.

The roses also provide an early warning system for the wine growers for pests and diseases which could devastate their crops.  They are susceptible to the same fungal and insect infestations as the grapevines. If a rose bush shows sign of disease, the growers can take action to prevent it spreading to the vines. A great example of mixed planting.

Over a century of Cabernet Sauvignon

John Riddoch planted the first Cabernet Sauvignon and Shiraz vines in 1890. Since then winemakers have been carefully nurturing their grapes in the rich terra rosa soil. Once harvested and wine production is complete, the wines are still patiently aged in the very same cellars. Today the region has become known for producing some of Australia’s best reds and a major tourist attraction for wine lovers.

Sampling the Coonawarra wines

The 20 kilometre stretch of  Coonawarra vineyards has smaller, boutique vineyards alongside some of the most well known Australian wine producers.

Not all the vineyards are open to the public, however there are 24 cellar doors available where you can sample the local produce. The region also holds a number of festivals and wine tasting events throughout the year

Many of the vineyards service the larger wine manufacturers and are closed to the public, but many do offer a cellar door where you can taste and purchase the local produce.

The local tourist information centre can provide you with a map, as can all the cellar door operators.

Coonawarra
Coonawarra vineyards

Relax and enjoy the scenery

We spent a pleasant morning exploring the vineyards,  sampling the produce and enjoying some of the beautiful gardens.

We are by no means wine conniseurs and don’t pretend to be. But we do know what we like. It was interesting to learn about the wine production from planting, through cellaring to the cellar door and drinking.

The owners are keen to discuss every aspect of their wines with you and the “Pawesome Foursome” were welcome to enjoy a walk on leash around many of the gardens.

The local winemakers seem to have a strong sense of community and were more than happy to recommend other wineries that we should visit that morning.

Roses coonawarra
The Pawesome Foursome smelling the roses

The wines are predominantly red, which isn’t always to our taste. We were pleasantly surprised to find a few smooth, enjoyable reds and a rose, which I particularly enjoyed. However we did also find a couple of Riesling and Chardonnay worth bringing home as a souvenir.

Like me, Mandy is partial to a glass of Sauvignon Blanc if you don’t keep an eye on her. Today she had to be satisfied with the doggy water bowls provided at some of the cellar doors.

A number of the wineries offer restaurants or cafe’s where you can pair your wine with an excellent lunch. You are also welcome to sit and relax in the sun while you enjoy a bottle of Coonawarra wine.

Coonawarra
Relax by the dam with a red

Even if you are not a great wine drinker, a tour of the Coonawarra wineries is a very pleasant morning’s outing on the Limestone Coast. Learn how the vines are cultivated and wines are produced, then enjoy a relaxing lunch at one of the eateries.

Read also: Beachport
Southend Robe  Penola

Explore Mary MacKillop’s Penola

We found so much more to Penola, on the South Australian Limestone Coast than just the famous Coonawarra wineries. The  historic pastoral town also has a well preserved history and a number of notable former residents. These include St Mary MacKillop, Australia’s first saint.

We had run out of time to explore the history of Penola during our previous visit. We had only visited the park commemorating Mary MacKillop’s first stable-yard school. So on our most recent visit, we were keen to spend a morning walking the Penola Heritage trail with the “Pawesome Foursome”.

Scotsman John Riddolph planted the first Sauvignon grapes in the region,  establishing the Coonawara wine industry.  However it was his kinsman, pastoral squatter, Alexander Cameron, who established the township of Penola in 1850. Both names feature prominently in the town’s history.

Petticoat Lane Penola

Petticoat Lane is a little piece of history we stumbled upon almost by chance. We were  looking for somewhere to give the “Pawesome Foursome” a good walk on the way to the Mary MacKillop Centre, when we turned into the historic laneway.

The heritage listed laneway preserves the history of some of the earliest homes in the district.  Visitors can stroll by the collection of stone and timber homes, some dating back to the 1850’s. Here we found a number of the homes  preserved as a living museum. Period furnishings and story boards depict the day to day life of the original Penola settlers. Even the heritage gardens still grow the herbs, vegetables and lavender from that era. There were very few creature comforts for these early settlers.

We were amazed to find that you could simply walk in and explore many of these cottages free of charge. There were no guides, just walk in as if you were going for a “cuppa” with Granny Sharam.

A number of the historic cottages now also operate as unique bed and breakfasts, while others sell souvenirs, antiques and bric-a-brac

Sharam’s Cottages

Sharam’s cottages are the oldest of these original homes. The slab cottage dates back to 1850, when Alexander Cameron asked Christopher Sharam to come to Penola to work as his bootmaker.

Petticoat Lane Penola
Sharam Cottage on Petticoat Lane, Penola
Petticoat Lane, Penola
Kitchen of Sharam Cottage

Sharam built this first blackwood slab cottage in 1850. The fireplace was the centre piece of the home, where family members gathered. Here meals were cooked and baked, with chairs and couches to gather around the fire. Family members continued to live in the home until 1941, when the National Trust acquired the building.

Herb garden
The herb garden at Sharam Cottage

The heritage herb and vegetable plot to the rear of the cottage has been maintained as it was during the 1850’s. Visitors are free to help themselves to the produce for a gold coin donation. It would seem the honesty system is working, as the garden is flourishing.

miners cottage Penola
Sharams cottages

A second timber slab cottage was built adjacent to the original cottage to house the Sharam’s growing family. I suppose building a second house was easier in those days than extending the original.

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Sharam’s second timber slab house

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The parlour or “best room” was reserved for guests and not used on a day to day basis. Granny Sharam apparently never lit the fire in this room, using the fireplace to store butter to take advantage of the chimney’s cool draught.

Wilson’s Cottage

Petticoat Lane, Penola
Vintage nightgowns hanging on the prop clothesline give an authentic air

Walking along the laneway, vintage petticoats hanging on the old prop clothesline give an authentic feel.

Penola cottage
Historic limestone cottage on Petticoat Lane

Surrounded by a two acre lavender garden, Wilson’s cottage was built in 1856 from Mt Gambier stone and local mud. In the day’s when kitchen fires posed a danger in the old slab cottages, pressed metal was used to minimise the risk of fire. The neighbouring home, Gammon Cottage actually built a fully detached kitchen away from the main house.

Today it is home to an antique and bric a brac store, where the smell of lavender products still permeates the air.

Gammon cottage
Wilsons Cottage, Penola

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Detatched kitchen at Wilsons cottage

Petticoat Lane Penola
The “Pawesome Foursome” enjoying a walk along Petticoat Lane

At the end of the laneway we come to the town’s main historic tourist drawcard, the Mary MacKillop Centre. Here you find the old 1860’s schoolhouse, Cameron’s original farmhouse, the current church and the Mary MacKillop Centre.

About Mary MacKillop

Mary MacKillop and Julian Tenison Woods co-founded the Australian order of the Sisters of St Joseph in Penola in 1866. Fr Woods and Mary shared a concern for the lack of education in South Australia, working together to establish Catholic education across the southern state.

Mary had spent a number of years working as a governess, firstly with her uncle Alexander Cameron on Penola Station. Returning to Penola in 1867, she  was ordained as the first Sister of St Joseph. Together with Fr Woods, she began her mission to bring education to all children, regardless of their family’s income.

Mary and her sister, Anne initially established a school an a disused stable. Before long, their schoolroom was built in the chapel grounds, taking their first pupils in 1867.

The Sisters of St Joseph were committed to providing education for under privileged children. By 1869 more than 70 sisters had joined the Sisters of St Joseph and were educating children in schools in Adelaide and across South Australia.

Mary’s work to assist the poor took her to many remote areas around Australia. Her ongoing fight for her cause saw her excommunicated in 1871, a ban which was lifted a year later. St Mary MacKillop was declared a Saint in 2010, a century after her death.

The Josephite order she founded are still continuing her work today.

Mary MacKillop’s Penola

The Mary MacKillop Centre houses exhibitions detailing the work of Mary MacKillop and Fr Woods. We wanted to enjoy our long walk around town with the dogs, so we opted out of the centre itself.  But there was still much to enjoy.

Fr Wood’s 1859 stone chapel was built on this site. Before this services had been held in the local courthouse. The current church is not the one from which Mary commenced her work, however it is still significant to her story.

St Joseph's Penola
St Joseph’s Catholic church, Penola

In the grounds of the Mary MacKillop Centre stands the original Cameron Homestead. Here Mary taught as a governess for her uncle, Alexander Cameron from 1860. The building was demolished on Penola Station, and relocated to the centre in 2009, forming part of the displays depicting Mary’s life.

Like many of the slab houses we had seen on Petticoat Lane, we found it incredible that such large families were raised in these tiny homes. Not just the physical space, but the searing summer heat and freezing winter cold would have been very uncomfortable.

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Cameron Home, Penola

The Presbytery also served as the convent for Mary’s growing order of Josephite nuns.

Limestone building Penola
St Joseph’s Presbytery Penola,

St Joseph’s Church, Penola

The current St Joseph’s church, built in 1924, stands on the site of the original 1859 stone church.  At the rear of the church a shrine to St Mary MacKillop was completed in 1998.

I was somewhat in awe to visit this shrine to someone who fought so hard for the education for our children we take for granted today.

Penola catholic church
St Joseph’s Penola

 

Church Penola
St Joseph’s Church Penola

Mary MacKillop’s Schoolroom

Mary and her sister taught in this 1867 schoolhouse not far from St Joseph’s chapel. The building today houses an interactive display of the schoolroom during Mary MacKillop’s time. From 1866 the sisters established a school in an old stable to educate children regardless of income or social class. Within a few years the sisters had established 24 schools across South Australia to continue their work in educating the disadvantaged.

Schoolhouse Penola
Mary MacKillop’s Schoolhouse
Mary MacKillop
St Mary MacKillop
dogs in Penola
Maya and Stella enjoying a browse through Penola

Penola Heritage Walk

Once we had explored the Mary MacKillop centre, it was time to discover a little more of the history of Penola. It was a sunny winter’s day, so we grabbed a map from the tourist centre to take the “Pawesome Foursome” on the Penola Heritage walk. A one hour walk takes you past many of the interesting old buildings in Penola.

Many buildings are listed on state heritage register and some are owned and maintained by National Trust.

Presbyterian Church Penola
St Andrews Presbyterian Church

John Riddolph built St Andrew’s Presbyterian Church in 1872. The architecture of the stone building seems to be reminiscent of his Scottish heritage.

Penola streetPenola’s heritage streetscape

The walk takes you past many private and public buildings, many now listed on the state heritage register. These include the old 1850’s Cobb and Co station which now operates as bed and breakfast accommodation.

Taking the “Pawesome Foursome” for a stroll through the leafy parkland, we came across two significant local buildings, currently under restoration with the National Trust.

The 1850’s Bond store was used to house liquor in the days before Federation when taxes applied to goods arriving from Victoria.

Limestone Building Penola
Old Bond Store

Adjacent to the old Bond Store, Ulva Cottage was built in the 1860’s for the daughter of Alexander Cameron.

Cottage Penola
Historic cottage

We could have spent all day exploring the history of Penola, so a good reason to return on our next visit south.

Read Also : Coonawarra Wineries Millicent Robe Beachport Southend

 

 

Planning our first European trip

Planning your first European trip can be both exciting and daunting.

As first time travellers, we sought answers to many of the obvious questions when we were planning our first European Trip

  • What is the best flight?
  • Where do we find the best accommodation?
  • How much spending money do we need ?
  • What attractions do we want to visit?
  • How do we travel between destinations?

All of these questions can be answered simply  by booking a package tour through a travel company. This has many benefits, as your trip is pre-planned and pre-booked, providing an attractive option for many travellers.

The downside  is that it is a much more expensive way to travel,  your schedule is pre-determined,  taking much of the spontaneity out of your trip and you will tend to get a more “sanitised” experience, lacking the interaction with the locals which provides you with a rich cultural experience.

We opted for a mix of the two for our first trip, and I hope these pages will help you in planning your trip of a lifetime, as well as providing some inspiration for your next destination.

travel plans

Our first visit to Europe was in May 2016. The children had all not only left home, but three of them had left the country, settling in the “hip” metropolis of Berlin, a base from which they have taken the opportunity to visit much of Europe.  Berlin with an initial visit to London, was therefore our first destination,  rather than the popular Paris, Rome, Venice itinerary we may have chosen otherwise.

While we were fortunate to have “local guides” there was still much planning and preparation to be done.

Booking your flights

Booking your flights should be the first step, as your departure and arrival dates will define your itinerary.

  • Be Flexible  It can pay to be flexible with your dates, as you will be amazed at the cost savings to be had.  Flying on a Tuesday for example, is often significantly cheaper. Even a few days either side of peak holiday times can make a huge difference in cost.  We initially chose early June for our trip as I don’t “do” freezing winter.  We found however that by changing our plans by a few weeks to May we were able to make significant cost savings on our airfares.
  • Research: There are many websites where you can Research flights and get comparison fares across numerous airlines. Do look closely however at the cheaper fares. Do they include baggage? Meals? Can you cancel or rebook if necessary? These essential “extras” can make a cheap flight not so economical.
  • Timing: Look also at the number of legs in the journey and layover times. A 24 hour flight can be harrowing enough without adding in four plane changes and a 17 hour wait in Dubai airport.

Researching itinerary

There are many websites and publications available to help you plan your trip. From accommodation to local attractions.

  • Research your itinerary When planning your itinerary, it is worth checking the opening days of any must-see attractions. No point being in Dresden on a Monday, if you want to see Zwinger Palace, for example. Hop onto the tourist website for your chosen destination for information. You will probably also find some great accommodation options here.
  • Consider distances: While many organised tours offer multiple countries and cities in the itinerary, it can be more relaxing and enjoyable to spend more time in one place and see “more” of “less”
  • A travel guide for your chosen destination is a must. These will provide you with wealth of information ranging from accommodation, maps, local attractions and transport options, to practicalities such as currency, weather, local etiquette and some basic foreign phrases
  • Trip Advisor will provide you with details, reviews and pricing on everything from accommodation and attractions to car hire and transport options. There are also forums where you can ask questions of other travellers. There are a number of other websites such as Expedia, Webjet and bookings.com where you can do similar research
  • Book accommodation close to town. When researching accommodation, do consider the proximity to the places you want to visit.  On the London leg of our trip, we could have booked considerably cheaper accommodation in the outer suburbs of London. However our Kensington hotel was within a five minute walk of both Earls Court and Gloucester tube stations and a few minutes ride to anywhere in central London. Well worth the extra cost
  • Visit the local tourism websites, where you will find valuable information on transport, seasonal events, weather and local attractions. There is nothing worse than arriving at a “must see” attraction on Monday morning, only to find it is open Wednesday to Sunday, or closed for maintenance.  Simply google “Visit…your chosen destination”.
  • Here’s a great checklist to help you with your planning.

Budgeting your trip

The question “how much do I need for a trip to….?” is like asking “how long is a piece of string?” Basically you need to work out how much you can afford to spend on your trip and budget around it.

Having said that, I have found a useful site Budget your trip ,which provides you with estimates based upon other travellers experiences. The site provides you with options for low, midrange and high range budgets, taking into account accommodation, food, travel, and incidental expenses. We have also provided information on the costings for our trips to London, France and Switzerland.

Fine details

In the excitement of planning your holiday of a lifetime there are some fine details you need to attend to:

  • Passports and visas. Most countries will require your passport to be valid for six months after your departure. Smart Traveller will provide you with up to date visa requirements for your chosen destination, as well as providing you with up to date travel alerts. While you are there, don’t forget to take a few moments to register your trip.
  • Vaccinations. Check with your GP on vaccination requirements and ask for a copy of your health record in case of an unforseen emergency. At the very least a Fluvax is always a good idea, given that you will be in a confined space on a plane for at least 24 hours. Nothing worse than arriving at your dream destination with the ‘Flu.
  • Copy documents. Leave a copy of your passports  and original birth certificates etc with a friend or relative in case you need to replace your passport. Trust me on this – my children have taken passport loss to a professional level.
  • Travel insurance. If you can’t afford travel insurance you can’t afford to travel. Many credit card providers offer free basic travel insurance. Be sure to compare these with the insurance offered by your travel provider, as this can save you several hundred dollars.
  • Money matters. How are you going to access your funds overseas? Travel Money Cards, which allow you to load multiple foreign currencies are a good option which help you to minimise the international transaction fees you will incur on your credit card and debit cards. Travellers cheques are no longer widely used and may not be accepted in your destination. Make sure you have internet banking access to your accounts before you leave.
  • Phone plan. Are you taking your phone overseas? Check with your carrier about the international roaming plans available. Simply turning your phone on when you get overseas will result in a costly bill shock when you return home. Prepaid international sims are also available, but these cannot be used on all phones – check with your provider.
  • Packing.  When choosing your luggage, take into consideration both your airline baggage limits and how you will be travelling when you get there. Navigating two large suitcases, two carry-ons, backpacks and handbags on and off buses and trains is not fun.
  • Local transport. Pre-purchasing your local transport tickets before you go will provide you with some great cost savings. I purchased our Opal card for the London tube from Visit Britain and Europass tickets are readily available online

Hopefully the above has provided you with some helpful tips to planning an enjoyable holiday.

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Natural wonders in Mount Gambier

Our tour around the South Australian Limestone Coast brought us to the city of Mount Gambier., Midway between Adelaide and Melbourne the city is famous for its crater lakes. The Blue Lake in Mount Gambier is the city’s most famous attraction. There is also so much to explore. From historic buildings to unique gardens, caves and of course the lakes. With only the day to explore we chose to visit a few of Mount Gambier’s natural wonders.

Mount Gambier’s blue lake.

The Blue Lake in Mount Gambier inhabits one of the extinct volcanic craters. During the summer months the change in water temperature transforms the colour of the lake to a vibrant cobalt blue. There are a number of  conflicting theories as to what causes this phenomenon.

We were fortunate to visit on a day when the lake was certainly living up to its vivid reputation. During the colder months, the water turns to a steely grey and would be fairly unremarkable.

As this is also the region’s water supply, the Blue Lake  is strictly “view only” with water sports of any kind strictly forbidden.

Blue Lake
Blue Lake Mount Gambier

Blue Lake Mount Gambier

It is possible to take a 3.6 kilometre walk  past a number of viewing platforms around the lake. However as we were visiting on a searingly hot 38 degree day, we chose to pass on that opportunity. Instead we took advantage of the viewing platforms closest to the visitor’s centre.

Valley Lake Mount Gambier

The Blue Lake is only one of a number of crater lakes surrounding Mount Gambier.  The nearby Valley Lake however offers scenic walks, swimming and picnic areas and a nature conservation area on the site of Mt Gambier’s original Botanical Gardens

From the lookout carpark, a short, but steep walk brings you to Centenary tower and spectacular views over the surrounding crater lakes

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Valley Lake Mount Gambier

A short drive brought us to the scenic lakeside picnic areas. A boardwalk takes you along natural bushland walking trails. There is also a free wildlife conservation park. However clearly the “Pawesome Foursome” weren’t allowed in this area.

Being a weekday, the park was fairly deserted, giving us the opportunity to let the furkids cool off in the swimming area without annoying anyone.

Even in 38 degree heat the water was freezing! But certainly very refreshing.

Dogs Cooling off with a swim at Mt Gambier
Dogs Cooling off with a swim at Mt Gambier

Umpherstone Sinkhole

In the middle of Mount Gambier we discovered the most amazing garden. A true collaboration between the forces of nature and human cultivation.

The Umpherstone Sinkhole sunken garden is a truly amazing oasis. Once a limestone cave, the sinkhole was formed when the chamber roof collapsed. Initially the 40 metre diameter sinkhole was taken over by natural foilage.

Located in the gardens where one James Umpherstone built his home in 1886, he began to cultivate the sinkhole into a magnificent terraced garden. Greenery cascades over the walls of the garden. Ramps and stairs take you down to the terraced garden beds, planted with ferns, hydrangeas and vibrant garden displays.

All you can hear is the tinkle of the fountain in this lovely, secluded garden.

By night the gardens are floodlit, enabling you to watch the resident possums who emerge at dusk to frolic through the gardens.

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Sunken gardens Umpherstone sinkhole
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Umpherstone sinkhole Mt Gambier
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Greenery cascading into the sinkhole

We certainly look forward to spending some more time exploring the City of Mount Gambier in the future.

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