How to travel without it costing the earth: Holidaying in Hungary

Should I even be spending money on travel when I am trying to save for financial independence?

For the past two years or so I have been very much prioritising building financial stability over travelling. I was of the view that I have been extremely fortunate in my life so far to have had so many opportunities to experience life in different parts of the world. However, for most of my working life I have lacked financial awareness, and as a result I have had relatively little to show for the number of years I have worked. For the past 2 years or so since my financial awakening, I have been prioritising getting my financial act together over travelling for travel’s sake, possibly on some level attempting to overcompensate for the years of financial blindness.

Then, in June I took a few days out to go to Financial Independence Week Europe in Timișoara, Romania. This experience changed my view on this somewhat. I noticed how refreshed I was on my return, how having had the opportunity to see a place that was new to me, (even if only for a few days) was refreshing and inspiring. Furthermore, meeting and hanging out with a group of like-minded people for a few days was a very positive experience. Finally, I noticed that it had not cost me very much at all! For more on the expense breakdown for this particular trip, see this blog post. https://financialindependenceireland.wordpress.com/2018/07/15/financial-independence-week-europe

So, when the opportunity to spend a few days in Hungary hanging out with some of the friends that I made at Financial Independence Week Europe arose, I grabbed it with both hands. I knew that travelling anywhere in August was likely to be more expensive than at other times of the year, what with it being the school holidays across Europe. However, having realised that our need for friendship and a sense of connection is also important – (Mazlow would not have put it on his hierarchy of needs otherwise) – I went ahead and made my arrangements.

The trip

I flew direct to Budapest. Due to a shortage of Hungarian forints in Ireland I had not had the opportunity to acquire any before I left. On arrival at the airport I used my Visa Debit card to pay the cost of the airport bus in to Budapest. Doing so allowed me to avoid the airport exchange rate of Huf 253 per Euro, and instead to get about Huf 318 per Euro by exchanging in the city. I then booked my Metro and train ticket to Lake Balaton. The infrastructure is fantastic, not too expensive and easy to navigate.

Lake Balaton:

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Lake Balaton

On arrival at my hotel there was some confusion with my host maintaining that he had received a message from booking.com telling him that I had cancelled my booking. We soon sorted it out though as he had a room available for me in any case.

I arrived a day before my friends, and spent the day exploring the resort, walking the waterfront, and generally getting oriented. The lake was a popular destination for tourism behind the iron curtain, as well as being a popular spot for formerly West German tourists. Even now, I could hear a lot of German being spoken, along with what appeared to be a number of different Slavic languages.

By the time my friends arrived I was very familiar with the area and was easily able to find my way to join them at the beach. Other than a ferry trip across the lake followed by a gentle hike one of the days, the time was spent pretty much chilling on the beach, swimming, chatting and playing with the kids in the lake. Evenings for me were filled with going back to my hotel for my dinner (which, along with my breakfast was included in the cost of €55 per night). After dinner I would swing by the supermarket for some beverages or snacks, and take a leisurely stroll down to my friends’ apartment to hang out.

After 5 days spent on the lake relaxing, it was back to Budapest via train for 2 nights/ days. I had booked a studio in a fairly central location through booking.com. Subsequent to receiving confirmation, I got a message from the owner saying that the apartment was unavailable. While in Hungary I raised this with booking.com, who recommended an alternative at twice the price and agreed to pay the difference. This was a good start.

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Interior Courtyard in the building where I stayed in Budapest

Budapest:

I always try to avail of a free walking tour when I visit a city, and, after dropping my bags off at my apartment, I immediately departed again to join a Communist walking tour. Having first visited Hungary prior to the fall of Communism, I was keen to see what had changed and what remained. In a nutshell there was very little evidence remaining of Hungary’s 40 years under communism. The tour guide was probably too young to remember it first hand, but told some amusing anecdotes. There was a nuclear bunker which was declassified in 2002, and reference was made to an underground hospital/ bunker which I would like to have explored further had I had more time.

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Communist Walking Tour: Entrance to the underground nuclear bunker which was declassified in 2002.

Continuing with the same theme, I visited the House of Terror Museum which is housed in a building which was both the home of the state police under communism and also to the Nazi leadership in World War II. Unsurprisingly, this ominous building had a heavy story to tell, and I emerged after 3 hours emotionally and physically drained. For this tour, it is worth spending the additional money to get the audio guide which talks through each of the rooms. Hungary’s story during this time period (end of World War II to 1990) is told by means of Soviet-era propaganda films from the time period as well as interviews with individuals who lived through the 2 regimes. This would be of interest to anyone who is interested in learning about life in a Communist state. Most of the statues from the Communist period were gathered up and put together in a park known as Memento Park, which I unfortunately did not have time to visit.

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Entrance to House of Terror Museum: Documenting Hungary’s history under Naziism and Communism

An evening at one of the thermal underwater pools seemed to be the best way to wind down and mull over the many peoples’ stories that I had heard in the Terror Museum. Széchenyi was the spa recommended to me. Once again, the seamless transport system in the form of the Metro made it easy for me. I arrived at about 7:30 pm and stayed until they closed at 10 pm. This consists of many pools of different temperatures, as well as a few regular swimming pools, including a pool within a pool where you are propelled around and around in a circle, which was great fun!

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Caption on a segment of the Berlin Wall on display outside the House of Terror museum

This is what my expenses looked like for a week in Hungary:

Expense Breakdown

Flights

€ 547.82
Hotel Lake 5 nights, incl. breakfast & dinner € 282.50
Apartment Budapest: 2 nights € 70.00
Bus + Train + Taxi € 52.87
Food + grocery + gifts € 74.84
Entry fees / tourist attractions € 35.85
 Total Cost €1,063.88

Having analysed my expenses for this trip, I was surprised to find that it cost as much as it did. Looking at things another way though, I see the flights alone accounted for 51% of all costs, and flights and accommodation together represented 85% of all costs. Actual spending for the week excluding the flights and accommodation was just under €164, easily the cost of a night out in Dublin!

Hungary was good value for money, with a beer costing about a € 1 in the supermarket. A corn on the cob on the beach cost about €3. As you can see, this level of accommodation, food and transport costs makes Budapest an excellent choice for a city break for anyone travelling from Ireland. The infrastructure and the rich availability of things to see and do make it an excellent spot. The price of this trip could have been optimised further by 1) booking flights in advance and 2) either making sure to travel home on a day when there are direct flights to Dublin to avoid additional costs.

Conclusions

In general, things were more affordable in Hungary than they tend to be in Ireland. It seems that it is possible to practice some geographic arbitrage without leaving Europe!

Rather than just avoiding taking any holidays until I get my financial act together, there is no reason why I should not take planned trips where it is possible to do so without majorly impacting saving and investment goals. In fact, travel brings inspiration, and life could otherwise get a little dull!

When travelling, just like when staying at home, I have found that it is possible to proactively manage costs by just a little bit of forward planning. To use the example of my trip to Hungary, during my 2 day whistle-stop tour of Budapest where I was travelling alone, I saw limited value in taking myself out for dinner. In fact, given that I was travelling alone, I was more than happy to return to my modern, fully-equipped studio apartment to have a beer and a bite to eat in the evenings, watch some cable TV or browse the internet using the Wi-Fi where I could relax and feel secure after a long day of walking around the city. I discovered that I can get enjoyment without spending money all the time. I was quite happy to pick up a few groceries when passing an Aldi, and a pizza slice on my way home from the spa. At the same time I was more than happy to pay entry fees for attractions that are important to me.

Having the opportunity to hang out with some new friends in a beautiful lakeside resort in Hungary is something I was delighted that I did. These type of get togethers of like-minded friends are where ideas are hatched and inspiration is born! From this trip, a potential volunteering opportunity arose for me for next year, as well as a number of potential presentation ideas for future financial independence conferences…Watch this space!

Final Thoughts

The trip was a great combination of chilling with friends and exploring a city. I would recommend Budapest to anyone looking for an affordable city break, but suggest flying on days when direct flights are available if going with Ryanair from Dublin to avoid potential additional costs. On this occasion I found the best accommodation options for me on Booking.com. Airbnb also had plenty of options. I would recommend changing money in one of the kiosks in Budapest rather than Ireland, since these places were offering better rates than the Irish banks. Booking an apartment is a great way to go, since there are supermarkets all around in Budapest – (CBA is the local supermarket chain I used a lot). I think 3 or 4 days in Budapest would be preferable to the 2 I spent, particularly for anyone who has not been before, to take tome of the pressure off the travel itinerary and allow sufficient time to do more (like spending a full day in the thermal spa for only slightly more than it cost for the evening, or taking time to see the statues in Memento Park, or explore the nuclear bunker that was used as a hospital in WWII).

Great for healthy travellers who are open to doing a lot of walking. The height of summer may not be the best time to go for a city break, since walking around can be extra tiring in the heat. Also worth checking whether accommodation has air conditioning, and, if not, mosquito nets on windows, to avoid getting bitten at night when leaving windows open.

Budapest is a great city, easy to navigate and foot and by public transport. I found that the information being provided by Google maps was spot on for both Budapest and Lake Balaton. The lake is quite a nice train journey from Budapest (1.5 hrs.), and is basically a nice, holiday resort setup. I was happy with what I paid for accommodation in both places – my hotel in Balaton was € 55 and included both lunch and dinner, while the studio in Budapest was € 35 per night, in a very central location. Since I booked at short notice, my flights were more expensive.

I am considering returning at some stage next year, and will definitely book well in advance to secure a flight deal. I plan to spend at least a few days, and will definitely spend a full day in the thermal baths and and also take a trip to Memento Park next time.

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