This post is from staff writer Kristin Wong.

Last week, I got back from an amazing 10-day trip. Brian and I saw Stonehenge, sailed the Irish Sea, and I threw up three times. It isn’t a true vacation unless I’ve thrown up.

During our journey, we had a few money-related experiences, and I took the time to journal them. We were frugal. We learned about tipping. We talked to bartenders about taxes. I enjoyed these money highlights and financial reminders along our journey, so I thought I’d share.

More than money

A chatty cabdriver drove us from Dublin airport to our hotel. Once we arrived, he had a deal for us:

“Now, listen. I’m going home after this. If you want, you can drop off your bags, I’ll wait here, and then I’ll give you a ride to wherever you want to go. No charge.”

Immediately skeptical, we said, “Eh, we’re really tired. We’re probably just gonna take a nap.”

“Oh, come on,” he insisted. “It’s a free ride. Drop off your bags and let’s go!”

We were a little nervous about getting taken, but we went with it. He drove us to Temple Bar, talking the whole way about how he was looking forward to going home and sharing a bottle of wine with his wife.

“Yeah,” I thought. “That you pay for with the extra money you’re about to charge us.”

Once he pulled over and dropped us off, I noticed the meter read 30.00. At the hotel, it was 23. Here we go.

“Eh, let’s just make it 22,” he said. I was taken aback. That was a pretty good deal for the airport ride alone.

“You sure?” Brian asked. Our driver insisted. Brian then handed him a 20-euro note and a five-euro note. “All I’ve got is the five,” Brian said. The driver then insisted we just make it 20, refusing to take any tip. What then ensued was a shouting match, with Brian insisting on the tip, and our driver, Bob, yelling that we were giving him too much.

Bob finally relented, allowing us to take down his address to ship him a bottle of California wine once we get back home.

The experience made me realize I’m very distrusting of people when it comes to money. This guy was so kind, and I immediately branded him a scammer. Sure, it’s only natural (and necessary) to be wary in a strange city, but this was a good reminder that life is about more than money, as J.D. would say.

Frugality is satisfying

That Saturday, Brian and I rented a car in Wales. We learned how roundabouts work (I think) and took way too many pictures of sheep. We stopped in Cardiff, the country’s capital. Walking around Cardiff Bay, we came across a flea market, and one of the booths sold handmade bracelets for one euro.

“Oooh, pretty,” I said, and Brian took out some change and bought me a nice one with blue stones. We didn’t buy any other souvenirs in Wales, and I thought $1.29 was a pretty good price for a piece of jewelry that reminded me of a beautiful place. Because I also thoroughly enjoy frugality, the bonus is whenever I wear this, I’ll also always think: And it was only one euro!

But sometimes it’s OK to splurge

The next day, we got to Stonehenge. The whole experience was pretty amazing, despite a lady asking me to take her photo because “this needs to go on Facebook!” Really? We’re standing here, amid of one of the seven wonders of the medieval world, and you’re talking about Facebook? (Real talk: It only made me angry because I was thinking the same thing.)

In addition to the overall majesty, we were also impressed with our Stone Circle Access. You can see Stonehenge for free from behind a fence, and you can pay £8 admission price to see it behind a smaller barrier. For that price, you can’t walk up to the stones, but you can get fairly close. Maybe, like, 30 feet away?

But then there’s Stone Circle Access. With this, you’re able to get up close to the stones for an hour, before Stonehenge even “opens.” You can walk around them. You can walk under them. You can sit by them. The only thing you can’t do is touch them.

The cost for this access? £16 a person. Together, Brian and I paid $48. Sure, it’s double the price of general admission, but it was worth it.

(Note: Click here for more info on Stone Circle Access.)


The money customs of other cultures

Part of the fun of traveling is learning about other cultures. Throughout our trip, we noticed that tipping was inconsistent. Sometimes it seemed customary; other times it didn’t. We tried to tip at Temple Bar, for example, and our money just sat on the counter the whole time.

“I don’t think you tip bartenders here,” I told Brian.

“I just saw another guy do it. You’re supposed to leave one!”

“That’s not what Rick Steves said!”

When we returned to Dublin after our jaunt to the U.K., we decided to learn about tipping norms from a real Dubliner (as opposed to Google).

“If you’re at restaurant, you tip,” our bartender informed us. “Maybe 10 percent, or, if the service is exceptional, 15. But barkeepers don’t usually expect tips. Maybe if they go out of their way or something like that.”

He also gave us a brief lesson in Ireland’s tax system, which was interesting. For example, their value added tax (VAT) has different ranges, depending on what you buy. Books, children’s clothes and educational stuff have a zero percent VAT range. Most everything else is taxed at 13.5 percent. But retailers factor this into their pricing, rather than adding the “plus tax” like we do in the States.

“That’s partly why everything is more expensive here than it is in the States,” our bartender told us. “The tax is included.”

He then made us a free sandwich (the kitchen was closed) and chatted with us for the next couple of hours. We tipped him.

The importance of being prepared

The following night we logged into our account to see how much we’d spent. We budgeted for the trip, but we also used a credit card to avoid foreign transaction fees. The card we chose not only waives these fees, they also have a good rewards program.

Our spending was about what we expected: sobering enough to make us put down our pints and say, “OK, let’s try to cool it for the rest of the trip.” But one thing that gave us a little jolt: We racked up $130 in rewards. Our card offered a free $100 if you spend $500 within the first few weeks. I had forgotten about this perk, so that was a nice little surprise.

It was awesome being able to use this card and not worry about fees. We rarely had to take money out of an ATM. Before our trip, we had painstakingly planned and budgeted. Brian even groaned because I organized our planning into “Phase I, Phase II and Phase III.” It took some effort, but we figured out the most frugal way to splurge. This isn’t a budget vacation post, and I’ve already gotten long-winded, so I’ll sum up the details in a few brief bullet points:

  • The “Hotel Tonight” app has an awesome $25 referral deal. We both used it and got one room for $40 and another really fancy one for $60.
  • Before booking flights, I read that Tuesdays and Wednesdays are the cheapest days to buy airline tickets. This was true for me.
  • We nicknamed Ryanair “Lyin’ air” (hilarious) because of their notorious fees. But it was still a pretty low price to fly from London back to Dublin. We shared one checked bag and split the fee.
  • AAA discounts work on overseas car rental.

Overall, I thought the trip was a good example of how I’ve learned to manage my finances. I enjoy frugality, but I also enjoy a well-budgeted splurge. And now, I’m back to work and focused on earning more, fueled by the gusto of a thoroughly enjoyed break.

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