Frugal Travel for Work (aka Attending My First Conference)

Earlier this month, I had the opportunity to attend my first conference for work in San Antonio, Texas.  I had never been to Texas or to a conference, so I was very excited, but also a bit nervous about striking the right balance between taking advantage of the travel experience and keeping the excess travel spending to a minimum.  Of course, the main reason for this trip was the valuable learning and networking from the conference itself, but I love to travel and wanted to make the most of my time in a new city.  Here are some ways I kept the balance and enjoyed my trip:

  1. Altar for Dia de los Muertos in San Antonio.

    Reach out to local friends. One of my best friends from high school lives in Austin, just an hour drive from San Antonio.  We usually only see each other when she visits her family back in Maryland–and even then it is usually accompanied by my small children, so it was a nice opportunity to have some quality friend time.  Even though she’s been in the area a bit over a year, she had not spent much time in San Antonio, so it was a good excuse for her to hit up some of the major tourist attractions.  I flew in a bit early on the Sunday of my trip with no events scheduled until that evening.  She picked me up from the airport and we enjoyed an afternoon exploring an outdoor Dia de los Muertos festival (with great street food), the Alamo (of course), and catching up.

  2. Know exactly what will be covered and how you will be reimbursed.  I was very fortunate that my employer covered all of my travel expenses, including meals not provided by the conference fee itself.  However, some of my travel companions had to save receipts (and split out any alcoholic beverages–if consumed–separately) for reimbursement.  I was fortunate that my employer used the IRS’s per diem for meals, allowing me to relax that while my dinner cost less than the allowed amount, my $5 bottle(s) of water from the hotel balanced that out.
  3. The Riverwalk, inspiration for Frederick’s Carroll Creek Park!

    Plan out what you want to see/do in your off time before you go.  The conference schedule was packed and full of great information and interesting conversations.  If I had not researched beforehand the Missions National Park, I would not have had the energy to make it there the one day our sessions ended before the park closed for the day.  I was very glad I planned in advance for that.

  4. Use frugal travel strategies.  By comparison to our typical family travel, this trip was very posh.  The hotel was very nice and full of amenities we normally do without.  I was able to dine out in nice restaurants (and ate lots of guacamole!).  It was very tempting to snap into “vacation spending mode.”  However, I still brought snacks and a water bottle for the airports.  I used the bus system and walked more than taxi/rideshare.  I did not check any baggage and pBeautiful church exterioracked light.  I drank the free hotel/conference coffee and water most of the time (see the one expensive water bottle purchase above!).
  5. Be open to experiences.  I tried a new restaurant at the urging of a local and didn’t know there were cruises on the river until I saw them operating.   Both proved to be great uses of travel funds–delicious food and a great, funny tour guide.  I did walk to a cafe that wasn’t open, never made it to the art museum I hoped to see, and couldn’t go inside a church that looked beautiful from the outside–that’s ok.  Open minded travel means accepting the trip as it is.

All in all, I had a very enjoyable time in San Antonio.  The conference was inspiring and gave me many ideas for our own work in Maryland.  I look forward to attending this conference again next year–in Salt Lake City!

How do you make the most of travel for work?

Spending Time

I took this picture as the sun set on Ha Long Bay in Vietnam, February 2009.  I remember many things about this trip, but most of the memories are atmospheric rather than specific at this point.  This trip was important to me because it was my first (only?) time traveling alone on a vacation-type trip.  The solitude and self-direction was powerful for me: I learned a lot about who I really am, what I enjoy, and what I’d rather leave for others.  I learned that I really love nature, art, culture, and history when traveling and don’t care all that much about shopping or spa-like “relaxing.”  I figured out I’m good with directions in cities and don’t get lost all that easily (probably because I’m deathly afraid of getting lost).  I enjoy meeting new people and hearing their stories and going for long walks that I don’t know where I’m going.  I don’t love street food or care if something is “too touristy” if it is something I really want to see or do.  I learned I still have no idea how to handle people who ask for money and obviously need it more than I do.  I learned it’s ok to pause and watch how people who are comfortable in a place do a thing (like cross a busy street) before you try it.  I figured out I loved Min Gi by how much I wished I could share these new parts of myself with him.

These are not the things I expected to get from my trip to Vietnam–and not the takeaways I understood in the weeks and months that followed my trip.  If I hadn’t allowed myself unstructured time in a new place without my usual fallback entertainment, I might not have discovered these things about myself.

I have been thinking about how I spend my time when I am “free” in that the time is unstructured.  Often, I will default to passive forms of consuming things I don’t enjoy and run counter to my goals and values, such as scrolling through social media, watching TV shows I don’t really care about, or eating unhealthy food. I find that if I can “choose” to do anything for a short time, I will often fall back on terrible habits that don’t bring me any real satisfaction.

Many personal finance writers will talk about mindless spending of money (a latte here, a lunch there, a tshirt over here) because it can be a major part of poor financial health.  However, I am starting to consider that my mindless expenditures of time are even more detrimental to my life and goals–financial or otherwise.  Jennifer T. Chan’s thoughts on solitude are contributing to this reflection, as is Cait Flanders’s discussion of enjoyable consumption.

How can I track my mindless spending of time?  I think meditation is helping this by bringing awareness to my actions, but I think I will make this awareness a focus going forward.

Budget Buster: Vacation Spending

We love family travel experiences, even though they are not the most frugal option for entertainment.  However, when returning from a trip or vacation, there is another challenge to the budget, one that is not always acknowledged or talked about: the vacation spending mindset.

When traveling, out of both necessity and desire to fully embrace the experience of a different environment, I often spend money on things I would not allow myself to in the day to day.  In our recent trip to Korea, we ate out frequently (of course–you have to partake of great food opportunities in foreign countries), bought unnecessary snacks (cheap Korean ice cream at convenience stores are worthy of their own separate discussion), and shopped for presents and goods unavailable (or much more expensive) back in the U.S.  We also paid for luxury transportation (taxis and trains), overnight accommodation, and entrance fees (museums, temples, and one spa resort) so often they became habitual.  All of these are part of great vacation and travel spending, but they can shift your mindset and habits when you return home if you are not careful.

Since our return, it has been quite tempting to go out for drinks with friends (like we did in Korea), take my kids to a venue with entrance fees (instead of the free place across the street), or shop for a few new items of clothing and shoes (to match my new Korean purse).  I must own that I have given into that temptation much more frequently than I should have these last few weeks–to the tune of about $300 in additional spending just because I had become acclimated to the increased spending when I was on vacation.  So, in addition to struggling this month with paying the credit card bill that covered all of our vacation expenses (no international fee), I have created a bigger problem for myself by maintaining that “vacation spending” mindset while I’m no longer traveling.

The reality is that I have no legit reason for spending like I’m still on vacation.  The restaurants I visited are ones I have access to at any time, the friends I’ve seen live within a 15 minute drive of my house, and the clothing and shoes I bought will be conveniently available to purchase once I’ve paid off the debt.  These are not experience purchases, they are raw consumerism.

Furthermore, I have a tendency to give up on healthy goals I’ve set if they seem unattainable because of one bad day, week, or month.  Therefore this vacation spending mindset, coming after the real increased expense of the vacation itself is a potential recipe for disaster.  I have definitely felt that pull of “why bother trying?” as I see the bills adding up and the debt not going down.  I have to remind myself that personal finance success is all about the long term.  I am getting back on track by writing this post; it’s always a work in progress here.

While I wish I had “caught” myself earlier in my self-destruction, I’m grateful that the damage is now limited to this lesson learned.  I am committed to getting out of the burden of this debt as quickly as possible so that I can have more travel and vacation opportunities in the future–this time the money budgeted and saved in advance and so I can spend it guilt-free!  I know that I can make progress on my debt through frugal living and be happy and healthy doing so with my family.

Back to the plan and attack the debt!

Summer time is particularly full of tempting spending “vacation” opportunities.  Do you have a vacation spending mindset that is stopping you from achieving your goals?  How do you get yourself back on track?

Korean Summer 4: Travel with Kids

One of my favorite places to visit in Daegu is the beautiful Palgongsan mountain area and Donghwasa temple (fun fact–where we had a friend take our wedding photos back in 2010).  When I enjoyed temple trips and mountain air pre-motherhood, the enjoyment was aesthetic and contemplative.  I examined the complex artwork and enjoyed the meditative air of a Buddhist temple.  I exerted my body in a demanding hike to savor the breeze of a cool forest respite.  These sites are what helped me fall in love with Korea back in my first year abroad (Min came along a few months later…).  J has visited the temple twice, but it was the first time we took H.  We also rode the cable car up to the mountain top and enjoy lunch at the little restaurant there.

J and H, ignoring the impressive tall Buddha statue in favor of collecting and then dumping water into the fountain.

Travel with kids is quite different.  They are impressed with entirely different things than adults.  For example, they found all the different water fountains to be endlessly fascinating.  Water is cool, sure, but have you (adult person) really, really understood how incredible water from a fountain can be?  No?  At least two solid hours of entertainment.  No lie.

Cable car set up. A bit scary, but incredible views!

You get your workout not from challenging mountain climbs, but from wrangling children away from the many dangers that face them in these unfamiliar areas–moving cars, rocky precipices, table edges.  I also found it personally challenging because I spent three years in Korea learning enough etiquette not to be labeled as the “uncouth foreigner,” but kids (well, my kids) don’t really care that much about following social norms–especially social norms in another country.  My usual embarrassment of my children’s wild behavior was intensified by my own feelings of standing out as a foreigner.  This trip was not the relaxing escape of my youth.

I was not lying about the water. Hours and hours of fun!

Travel with children is much more complicated and expensive than traveling alone or with another adult partner.  Even done frugally by seasoned world explorer-parents with boundless energy, enthusiasm, and patience (not us–but we certainly have witnessed many of those other couples with wonder and awe), it is quite challenging.  For example, we have used taxis and borrowed/rented cars much more frequently on this trip because it was more convenient and almost the same cost as bus/subway fare for all four of us.

One of the major prayer sites at Palgongsan, Wish Rock. J and H model the “heart” pose, ubiquitous in Korea.

Many young families choose to abstain from travel until children are a bit older because it becomes much less difficult logistically when kids can pack their own bags and entertain themselves a bit more independently.  Also, there is questionable return on investment in excursions that require expensive plane tickets, accommodation, car rentals, or “family entertainment” industry purchases that children may not remember or appreciate.  Example:  H’s favorite part of our camping trip to Niagara Falls last summer was riding the “Yogi Bear Bus” from the campsite to the visitor center.

Family selfie in the cable car.

Even with all of these drawbacks, I believe the rewards are much greater and worth the challenge.  This was one of the most fun family days we had in our time here in Korea.  Here are some great reasons travel with kids is totally worth it:

  1. Kids learn a lot from travel.  Just as adults do, kids learn about cultures and independence from visiting new places.  They learn how and why we travel.  They learn patience from waiting in lines, and how to see beauty in different things.
  2. Travel builds family relationships.  On this trip, the kids learned that Min is slightly afraid of heights, so H held his hand on the cable car to comfort him.  J and I had a little walk through some of the outlying buildings with art, lanterns, and wind chimes as we each took pictures and talked about why we took pictures of which things and why.
  3. Kids see that travel is possible, though it requires some planning, effort, and expense.  If we allow our anxieties about the inconvenience of travel with kids to interfere with taking trips, kids come to view travel as inaccessible or excessively challenging.  Although my parents didn’t take us abroad as kids, our camping trips and road trips taught me about packing food for lunch to avoid overpriced food at tourist sites and how to tolerate transit discomfort.  I think it is vital for kids to be exposed to these experiences and am willing to work harder to make it happen!
  4. The family stories are priceless When we talk about the travel we do, we reinforce the memories.  J especially loves to talk about how he was nervous or scared to try something, but overcame his fears and loved his accomplishments.  H likes to tell stories about the funny things that happened or that she saw.
  5. Kids make travel more fun.  The enthusiasm my daughter has for dancing and jumping in public helps me see her as a future performer.  My son loves learning new facts (that he repeats endlessly) and makes plans (“Let’s travel to a new country every year, Mom!”).  Kids ask questions adults don’t think to ask.  You discover the joys of a fountain.  (Or at least you can finally meditate for a few minutes while they distract themselves.)

What do you think?  Is family travel worth the challenges?

Korean Summer 3: Connecting with Relatives

H with Min’s brother (Jakkun Appa) and mother (Halmoni).

We have just one week left before we are on the plane back to the U.S.  I am trying to savor my time with the people here that I love and who love my husband and children.

Visiting Korea is enjoyable and relaxing like a vacation in many ways, but world travel alone is not the reason we come here.  I lived here for three years, so I’ve already seen and done much of what I’d want from a “travel” experience.  Korea is where all of Min’s family still lives.  We have tried to cultivate the relationships between our children and their Korean family as much as possible.  When we are here, the main goal is to connect with family and friends.

Gomo Halmoni playing “airplane” with H.

Including this trip, Min has visited Korea five times since we moved to the U.S. in 2010 (once with J and once alone, so I’ve only come back 3 times).  We also hosted Halmoni and Gomo Halmoni (Min’s aunt, and one of my favorite people in the entire world) for a month in the U.S. when J was an infant.  In fact, the emotional pull of remaining connected with our Korean family through frequent visits has almost certainly contributed to our debt problem, though I don’t regret a single one of those trips.  This trip is bittersweet because we are committed to not incurring debt for anymore travel, including Korea*, so it will probably be at least three years (all consumer debt paid off and adequate savings accumulated) until any of us are able to return.

Something about this trip feels different in other ways, a kind of subtle emotional shift.  The heat has prevented us from enjoying many of the outdoor activities we love to do in Korea (hiking, temple visiting, sightseeing, festival-participating, etc.). More of my friends have moved away from Korea (or even just Daegu) and our old swing dance club is defunct as of June this year; those that are here are in a similar phase of life and busy with the demands of young children and in-laws.  We went downtown, and my favorite restaurants there are gone (replaced by what seem to be great places, but they aren’t “mine”).  While I’m visiting old haunts and enjoying the familiarity of this foreign culture, it doesn’t quite feel as much like a second home for me as it has in the past.

At the same time, Frederick feels more like home than ever after J’s first year of school, and my enjoyment of my new job.  Min even mentioned this feeling, though it is making him feel more anxious than me.  We love our home (new roof and all) and our life there.  We will always miss our friends and family in Korea and other parts of the world, but I feel happy thinking about spending the next 5, 10, or even 20 years in the same place.  I’ve never really felt quite that way before; I used to yearn for the life of the postmodern nomad.

I want to grow plants and keep routines and deepen my friendships and community ties in my chosen hometown.  I want my children to feel grounded in being from Frederick.  I still want to travel more (when out of debt, with my family), but I want to come home when I’m done.

* The declining health of a Korean family member has forced us to discuss possible emergency travel situations for Min alone; we are making plans to increase the emergency fund while paying down consumer debt to accommodate.  However, should the worst happen before we have the full amount, we will do what we can, even if it means a setback to our financial progress.

Korean Summer 2: Sibling Bonds

When I first arrived a week ago, after missing my kids for the three prior weeks, I was struck by how very, very American (in the ‘Muricah kind of way) they seemed in a foreign country.  They were loud and exuberant when other kids were more shy and retiring; they were grumpy about adults correcting their manners and became almost belligerent about properly greeting their halmoni (grandmother); and they required peanut butter sandwiches and hot dogs almost daily.  I was horrified.  I mentioned it to Min, but he just laughed and said that they were just kids.  I relaxed a little and realized he was right.  And, of course, my children are American; why would I expect them to be otherwise?  But their “outsider”-ness has remained something I notice and contemplate on this trip.

Working side by side at an interactive art installation at the gallery opening we attended for a friend.

My children have transformed into really excellent playmates while in Korea.  Today on the playground, they were making up a story about the different colored areas on the pavement (red was lava, blue was water, etc.), running and jumping and swimming around–throwing in sharks and random objects and whatever else, and it struck my heart:

This is the summer I wanted for them.  A summer where they are imaginative and close and take joy in their relationship outside of competing for parental resources.

H doesn’t just follow J around, doing whatever he says, she contributes and objects with shocking independence.  J genuinely values her companionship, not just tolerates it with annoyed beneficence because Mommy said to play nice.  Don’t get me wrong, they still squabble and quickly get under each others’ skin in that way only siblings can, but there is a shift.

They are a team.

Something developmental is happening (I noticed this tendency to play together more for the last six months), but I think the trip has significantly contributed to this pleasant development in the following ways:

  • H was without Mommy for three weeks in a row for the first time ever.  This develops independence and deepens her relationships with the people she is near.
  • Korean kids are still in school, so almost none are around to play with during the weekdays (only babies and toddlers).  They have to play with each other or by themselves.
  • They have fewer toys here than at home, and what toys they have are new and different.  The experiences they have while traveling inspire creativity in them, just as they do in adults.
  • Finally, the way they stand out in Korea makes them more like each other than like the other kids around them.  For example, while they speak Korean, they are more comfortable and deft with English and most Korean kids don’t even try to speak Korean with them.  They are close because they share a powerful cultural connection in a strange situation.

On this last point, it was similar to the instant bonding of the expat community in Korea.  When I lived here (2007-2010), a common discussion among English speaking foreigners living in the country was how rare we were (less than 2% of the population of Korean is ethnically non-Korean), so those of us with white or brown skin were gawked at like celebrities in our neighborhoods.  I mostly found this amusing (like when one shocked middle school boy exited the subway in front of me, pointed, and said “David Beckham!”), but there were times it ranged from embarrassing (I bought my birth control far from my local neighborhood, where literally everyone knew who I was and where I worked and lived) to freaky (being followed for blocks by men who wouldn’t take “no” for a “coffee” invitation, if you catch my drift).  Some expats would be driven mad by the attention to waegukin (foreigners) and retaliate with bitter anger at Korean culture–often while still dating Korean people.  At the time I thought they were overreacting, but now I realize–they probably felt extremely lonely.  Their bonding over their “hatred” of the host culture was probably more desperation and sadness than the small-minded bigotry (as I once saw it).

I think my children are experiencing the above to a smaller degree.  They have family here, so they have greater insider status, but none of that family are young children and no one else treats them like Koreans.  (And being treated like Korean children is sometimes no picnic–J and H have both recoiled at relatives manhandling them to fix something about their appearance or manners without asking permission first.)

I wonder how they will recall this summer in their memories as they get older.  I hope (as a mother hopes) that if they remember nothing else, they’ll remember their friendship.

Korean Summer 1: Asan Trip

Living as an international, bi-cultural family is rich and rewarding.  However, one major challenge is that our family is spread about 7,000 miles apart across two continents and an ocean or so.  Video calling is great, but there is really no substitute for spending time with people you love and building those relationships organically.  Furthermore, J and H are bilingual, but their Korean language exposure is basically limited to their father–who is great at teaching them, but it’s not the same as immersion.  We try to travel to Korea as often as we can for those reasons, but it is quite expensive and time consuming.

This summer, Min took J and H to Korea in late June.  I joined them a few weeks later.  With our commitment to repairing our finances, this will probably be our last trip to Korea for at least a couple years.  While we are focusing on frugal travel practice, we are taking advantage of our time here to bond with friends, explore a different culture, and enjoy different experiences.  I will blog about some of those experiences here.

J and H with their new friends.

On Tuesday and Wednesday, we rented a van with another family (Min’s close friend, wife, and two daughters) to travel to Asan, a small coastal city famous for hot springs and for being a place where Admiral Yi Sun-sin lived for a time.

We spent most of the first day at a lovely water park, Paradise Dogo Spa. The kids loved the variety of pools, slides, and activities. Given how crazy hot it has been in Daegu (the city where we are staying), it was very refreshing to spend most of a day swimming.  Going on a random weekday when most Korean students were still in school meant that the park was not crowded.  I learned that J is a crazy daredevil about water slides and wave pools, like the younger daughter of the family we were with.  H passed out on the floor of the bathroom from exhaustion as we were preparing to leave.  It was amazing!

Model of a turtle ship with the dragon head (hiding a fire cannon) in the museum.

The second day, we decided to go to Hyunchungsa, a temple dedicated to Admiral Yi (the picture above is of the old temple).  Admiral Yi is one of the most beloved figures of Korean history.  In the late 1500s, Japan attacked Korea (as it was wont to do periodically), and Admiral Yi gained fame by improving the design of a kind of war ship called a Turtle Ship because it could tuck all the extra bits behind its heavily armored hull and smash other boats like a battering ram while suffering very little damage.

Battle configurations for Yi’s ships.

I knew that part already, but I was very impressed with the other reason for his hero worship status as a military genius–his impressive tactical strategies.  The display included extensive details from his personal diary where he designed formations that lured the enemy into a small area where the Yi’s Turtle Ships could circle around and destroy the enemy force with shocking efficiency.

It was scorching hot, so we only explored a small part of the beautiful temple grounds, but luckily the air-conditioned museum had lots of fascinating pieces from Admiral Yi’s diary and other artifacts.  There was also an animated 4D movie demonstrating how the ships and attack strategies worked in real life battles.  H loved it, declaring “Let’s watch that again!”  J was very impressed with the strategy involved and the engineering of the boats (and, of course, the famous swords).

Along the trip, we also indulged in some of my favorite Korean tasty treats–rest stop fried potatoes, spicy tofu soup (sundubu jjigae), roasted fish (seonsangui), and sushi buffet (chobap)! Yum!

Korean road trips are great fun.  When I lived in Korea (2007-2010), I frequently enjoyed this kind of trip, but with kids you see all of it in a new way.  The enjoyment of this experience is an awesome reminder of why I am so interested in pursuing my financial goals.  Our family is happiest when it engages with this kind of experience–building great friendships, learning about history, enjoying physical activity.  This is worth giving up some less fulfilling spending and getting out of debt.

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