Roman Adventures

Ali Bar

In less than three weeks, I will start my journey to Rome.  And I do mean journey. My Aer Lingus flight leaves from Miami, goes to Boston, then Dublin and finally arrives in Rome. It was the most inexpensive fare I could find when I booked, and now at least I can say I've been to Dublin. Still, at $450 one-way, I wouldn’t call the fare cheap. Once I'm in Europe, traveling should be a little easier to handle financially.  First off, there is Ryanair Airlines. Browsing their website, I found that I can fly from Rome to Paris for 10 euros or around $13.  Because Ryanair offers such inexpensive tickets, it means that weekend trips to other countries should be feasible and that makes me quite happy.  Another place to look for inexpensive flights is I also just got the news that I landed a job as a library assistant at Cornell University’s facility in Rome, so that means there will be some income available for short side trips – as well as food and other necessities.  Still, I have no doubt this will be my most expensive semester ever. It also will probably be the one I never forget. I will really need to watch my euros. If anyone has any tips about traveling in Europe on a budget or buying food, send them my way. It'll be great to start 2011 in a different country.  Hope everyone has a great New Year's. Ciao (practicing the Italian).

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Finding Warmth in the Cold

Ali Bar

Just before I left New York for Miami, I confess I engaged in a little splurge. It's one more thing that's going to make it more difficult to pay off my credit card in full this month, but I think it was totally worth it. The day I turned in my last assignment, I wanted to celebrate a bit and it was also really freezing outside. So a friend and I decided to head to the Wall Street Bath & Spa, a Russian bath in the financial district that had come highly recommended. It set me back $32.50, but had I wanted, I could have spent the whole day there defrosting. What does that $32.50 get you?  There is a Turkish steam room,  two Russian saunas, a plunge pool, swimming pool, and a jacuzzi.  Other spa services are available for an additional charge and you'll also find a restaurant and cafe area.  We spent around four hours there, which breaks down to about $8 an hour.  The smell of the stoves in the sauna was so nice, and the steam room smelled like eucalyptus oil.  We were warmed from the inside out.  I didn't even feel the cold when we left  despite the 30° temperature . I just felt toasty and relaxed. It's an experience everyone should try at least once. You end up feeling cleansed and all the stress that you've been feeling  build during  the week melts away.  That makes the price a bargain in my book. So if you're in one of the areas in the country where the snow is piling up this week, head to your nearest bathhouse. Your body will thank you.

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Thanksgiving Dilemma

Ali Bar

The big question -- how do I get to my grandparents’ house for Thanksgiving -- still looms. Although Buffalo is only about six hours away from New York, almost every option I’ve checked is EXPENSIVE. These are the times when having a microscopic income is really frustrating. But I've been doing odd jobs here and there so I’m optimistic my resource picture will be getting brighter. But let’s get back to the logistics of traveling to grandmother's house in the most economically savvy way possible.

First I looked at the bus, which was approximately $140 roundtrip. I found taking the train was a little cheaper, but my procrastination meant no train tickets to Buffalo were left. If I were smarter, I would have planned this out months ago and probably would have garnered some cheaper fares. The best, current price for air travel was $285, counting me out. That takes us to the last option: renting a car. Since I’m too young to rent one myself, this involved enticing a friend who is over 25, and therefore can rent a car, to make the trip with me. Since he had no plans for Thanksgiving, now he won’t have to spend the holiday alone and he’ll be fully stuffed by my grandmother's cooking and her abundant leftovers. With him on board, we started looking at rental car prices. Prices are absurd for a last-minute rental from an agency in the city. Try a day rate of $150. I saw my plans for a big Thanksgiving surrounded by family collapsing.

But my friend knew about a train to Poughkeepsie and suggested that taking the train and renting a car there might be cheaper. The train to Poughkeepsie is $30 round trip. The day rate for renting a car in Poughkeepsie is about $40, a much more agreeable number. We plan on leaving Wednesday and coming back on Friday. So if you’re following, that’s $120 for the car and $60 for two train tickets. I figure we’ll need about $100 for gas and tolls but I hope I’m overestimating this. That means the trip will cost $280 split two ways or $140 – the cost of the bus. But we'll get there much quicker than the eight or nine hours it takes on the bus and be more comfortable. Plus since we’ll have a car, we’ll be able to run last-minute holiday errands for my grandparents and do a little Buffalo touring. Yes, this trip will be something of a budget-buster but I hope by taking on extra jobs, I’ll be able to pay if off relatively quickly. Besides sometimes you just can't put a price on visiting family.  But just before I charge the rental car, I might see if anyone from the city is driving to Buffalo on Craiglist (this could be an extremely cheap option).  If nothing's up, then perhaps I'll put a listing on Craiglist to get some more people on board to help with the gas.

If anyone has any better suggestions, send them my way – quick.

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Advice for the Money Conscious

Ali Bar

I suppose to manage your money wisely, you need a little money. But right now I’m in student-pauper mode. That may be why I like the name of American Express’ website for Gen X and Gen Y:

As I’ve noted, I’m scratching to come up with money for daily expenses and school supplies (and why I’m going to demand a discount for a package of cardboard I ordered for model building that arrived with about $30 worth of material too bent up to use…ugh). At any rate, I decided to check out to see if there were any money-saving tips that could help me.

What you’ll find here: blogs, articles by leading financial writers and even an iPhone app that allows you to share purchases, sales and other shopping info with friends. There’s even a 25-minute course on managing student loans – complete with quizzes. I decided to check out the loan consolidation section. When you have a string of government loans with different due dates each month, I learned, sometimes it’s good to combine them in one loan. It generally won’t lower your interest rate much, if at all, but you can stretch out the payment terms and you’ll get one bill.

An article about four ways to save on holiday travel caught my eye because I’d really like to go to my grandma’s house in Buffalo for Thanksgiving dinner but am thinking I can’t afford it. I didn’t learn much I didn’t already know from this one: use travel sites like Travelocity and Expedia to compare air fares, travel either early in the morning or late at night to save or consider flying to a nearby airport – ie. West Palm instead of Fort Lauderdale or Miami – if fares are lower. Not much help there. The article also suggested that renting a car could be as expensive as a flight. Since I was going to look into this option, perhaps another article – “Hosting Your First Thanksgiving Without Freaking Out’’ – may be useful.

Just in case I have to do my own Thanksgiving, I did find an article about serving a cheese course interesting. It suggested serving three to five different cheeses – any more than that will overwhelm your guests, and serving cheeses of varying milks – cow, goat or sheep. I also found some of the suggested cheese pairings – blue cheese with honey and Manchego with quince paste – interesting.

So if I don’t end up going over the river and through the woods to grandmother’s house for a dinner with more courses than I can name, maybe I’ll serve cheese.

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Saving Money With Cash

Amanda Bar

My annual Disney trip was this past weekend, and I normally spend a lot of money between food and souvenirs each time I go.  This year, however, I tried to do something different - the room and Mickey's Not-So-Scary tickets had been reserved and purchased under my name, so when my friends coughed up their portion of the bill I had them pay me in cash as opposed to check.  While in the park I didn't pull out my debit/credit card at all, and instead used the $100+ in bills that I had.

By the end of the trip I had money to spare, and I hadn't put anything on my card.  I even managed to refrain from buying unnecessary knick-knacks to adhere to my cash budget!  History tells me that if I had asked for checks I would have ended up spending much more than I did by using cash alone, so I definitely plan on sticking to this option for future visits.

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Planning Ahead With Return Purchases

Amanda Bar

This weekend I'm going on my annual Disney Halloween trip and I really haven't been saving my money like I should for this vacation.  I try to keep a couple hundred dollars put aside for various spending purposes (not to mention the Epcot Food & Wine Festival is going on, and I can always spend a lot of money sampling the cuisine), but I've come in a bit under-budget this year.  The fault is entirely my own, but when it comes to Halloween time I can easily lose my head with various costume and decoration projects.

I'm not one to regularly return items to stores, but this month I've scrounged through my stack of recently bought merchandise and returned the "unnecessary" items to the store - mostly arts & craft items and Halloween accessories - just so that I can have that extra $20 or so dollars in cash at hand.  Returning merchandise can be a somewhat humbling process, especially when the sales clerk ask you that obligatory question of "What's wrong with it?", but it also serves as a learning experience.  I should really train myself so that I don't purchase extranneous items to begin with!

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Free for all!

Name barA long while ago, I pledged to try to spend a whole day doing only free stuff (that involved not sitting on my own sofa and watching my already-paid-for basic cable).

I never quite got around to that. But that's what friends are for. 

In celebration of her boyfriend's recent birthday, one of my astute friends ferreted out a least a half-dozen deals linked to the special day. They scored a free Grand Slam at Denny's, a free sub from Firehouse Subs and a free entree at Moe's. There are deals waiting to be cashed in -- some good for the rest of the month; some just a few days after the big day, including a free handcrafted burger at Ruby Tuesday, treats from Baskin Robbins, Cold Stone Creamery and Starbucks. The big cahuna of birthday meal deals: a coupon for $30 off a dinner check at Benihana. Discovery Cruise Lines offers a free cruise to the Bahamas during your birth month. (My sister and I once joined forces on this deal, snagging my dad and my brother-in-law, who share a birth month, free cruises.) And thanks to Real Simple magazine, I just learned about a host of other birthday treats, including from Aveda and IHOP. You can find more deals in their October issue along with tips on saving money every day, including taking your own cup to the coffee shop (Einstein Bros. will give you coffee for $1 if you bring in your own mug -- but I can't tell if it must be one of theirs in the first place) and taking your own bags at Target and Whole Foods, which can save you five to 10 cents per bag. Birthday money 2

Some of these deals require signing up online, getting an e-mail and printing out a coupon (all of which may be followed by all sorts of offers, deals and ads.) Denny's and Firehouse simply wanted to see an ID on the big day.

Whether or not it's your birthday, free stuff awaits us all, apparently. Every year, Kiplinger puts out its list of best freebies. This year, while there are some things you're likely to think of on your own -- including getting free books at the library, if only for a short while -- there are some truly innovative suggestions, including a tip on getting free (and not fugly) passport photos. Check out item 14 on this year's list. They also suggest visiting for deals on shipping when you're buying online, offer links to free deals for kids and free help with completing and filing your tax returns.

So whether it's a birthday or another occasion that sends you out eating or shopping, I'm guessing it's one you can save money on. Please let me know about other deals you know of -- birthday or otherwise.

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A Weekend of FREE Museum Visits Awaits

Ali Bar

When I was home in Miami at the beginning of August, I wanted to see an exhibit at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) in North Miami.  I was expecting to pay the $3 student admission price.  I handed the woman at the desk my debit card, which she promptly returned.  She then proceeded to explain the Bank of America Museums on Us program.  Every first weekend of the month Bank of America card holders can get in free.  So nice.  It not only works for MOCA, but I also went to a Latin American art exhibition I wanted to see at the Museum of Art in Fort Lauderdale -- for free. That would have normally cost $10.  I managed to avoid paying $13 for both museums.  Now that I'm in New York, the first weekend in September will be filled with museum adventuring. The program is available at various museums across the country.

Other South Florida places you can visit for free this weekend and subsequent first weekends include:
Miami Art Museum
Miami Children's Museum
Miami Science Museum
Bass Museum of Art (Miami Beach)
Young At Art Children's Museum (Davie)
Museum of Discovery & Science (Fort Lauderdale)

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Highway robbery

Name barWhen I drive home to visit family in Central Florida, I use the Turnpike. Paying the tolls is worth it, especially considering some of the longest stretches of the journey would otherwise be on local roads with stoplights and traffic.

The tolls, presumably, cover repairs, maintenance of the roadways and provide for the 24-hour service plazas that appear every 50 miles or so

It's handy to be able to stop at a service plaza, although traditional highways do have their share of rest areas, minus the access to five fast food joints, stores that sell Florida kitsch and gas stations.

It does appear that there is some kind of monopoly on who provides gas at the stops: All eight plazas feature Shell gas stations.

And nearly every plaza hosts a Dunkin' Donuts.

On my way home last weekend, I thought getting some caffeine would be in the best interest of myself -- and other drivers.

I stood in line at a Burger King for a soda and got out of line fast when I saw the price for a small drink: $2. I walked next door to another place. Soda: $2. At a third restaurant, where I caved in, the price -- which was listed nowhere; I had to ask -- $2. (Plus 7 percent sales tax.)

I rarely buy soda. But I am certain the average fast food restaurant does not charge $2 for a small soda. In the case of the rest stops, folks might get a refill, but many people are in and out in five minutes or less. They're not chugging a two-liter-bottle's worth of cola.

I felt like the price was fixed and I was annoyed. I'd have gotten a cup of coffee (I don't know what it would have cost) had it been cheaper, but the line was about 20 people deep at Dunkin'.

If I'm paying a toll and the restaurants already have a monopoly on customers since there are so few stops (there are eight plazas over 460 miles of the Turnpike) why are they further taking advantage of us by charging an absurd amount for a soda?

On top of that, I have a SunPass, which keeps the state from having to provide a human being to take my toll. But not everyone has one of these gizmos, since they pretty much require having a credit card. Using cash means replenishing the card in person and paying $1.50 every time you do so. (Nearly everything run by the Miami-Dade Expressway appears headed in the direction of, if you don't have a SunPass, we will ticket you because we are eliminating any ability to pay cash at the toll plazas which soon won't exist at all. Nice.) People who pay cash at a toll plaza generally pay more than SunPass users.

Boo hiss to all of this.

The Turnpike is apparently the road to expensive dining, which you've already subsidized with your toll money and by saving the state on paying for personal service. Next time I use it, I will travel with my own caffeine.

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A slick price

Name barAside from invading every minute of our lives, penetrating into our subconscious and clouding once idyllic images of the Gulf of Mexico, the oil leak could forever change our everyday spending habits.

And it doesn't matter if you don't eat seafood or vacation in the South or go to the beach or never drive a car, ride a bus or fly.

That's the message of this piece created by They mention that the price of seafood will rise -- and already, some types of shellfish, including oysters, are becoming scarce. As if Florida needed it, property values could take another deep-well plunge. Barrel-of-oil-and-dollar-sign

Never mind the environmental price tag, which I can only assume will be an unfulfillable debt, and breaks the heart of this admitted nature lover and vegetarian who has had the opportunity to see an endangered species of turtle lay eggs on the beach and kayak in the Everglades.

But the other side effects of the slick: Taxes could rise, gas prices could increase (though at the moment things seem cheaper than they have been) and everyday stuff could cost more because so much cargo is handled by ports in the Gulf.

Granted, the disaster is creating some jobs, but at what price?

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