05.12.10

Traveling with money

Posted in Travel at 1:43 by RjZ

Generally, I’m a budget traveler. On business I scale up to ensure that the computer is safe in the hotel room, that I don’t waste time getting to a client meeting and that I can be clean and pretty when I arrive, but even then, I wince at high price hotels next to exhibition centers and figure out ways to avoid the $20 breakfast and $10 internet charges whenever I can.

So when I say I spent money on a recent trip to Prague, we understand, that it’s only relative. Prague is very expensive these days. I visited there twenty years ago, just before the Berlin Wall had fallen. It was a very different place. Quiet. I remember the very awkward feeling I got when a disheveled soldier, his sidearm holstered on his belt, sat slumped outside a bar on the main square and begged some money from me. I didn’t want to make the guy with a gun unhappy.

My traveling companions and I discovered too late how to order another beer, how easy they are to drink, and how friendly the locals can be. At a beer hall in downtown, guests sit together at long tables as is the custom in most of Germany as well. Two working class Czech men sat jovially next to us and, struck up a conversation of broken German (theirs and ours) and asked us where we were from. “America is O.K.” in unison, four thumbs up in the air, is the only English they could muster. We bought each other beers and kept getting new ones every time we finished the last. A tall glass of beer was $0.25 to $0.50 (!) The waiter would tick your coaster with a pencil when he set the glass down. Once drained, he’d take this as a sign to bring another without asking. I was barely conscience when I realized you can’t finish the last beer until you’ve paid to stop the flow.

Today, the waiters mark the coasters with pens and ask if you want another one before assuming you’re familiar with the local custom, but they look poised and ready to bring another one if you even hesitate. Beer is still relatively inexpensive at $2 – 4 depending on how touristy the location. Prague is still as beautiful as it ever was and there’s much more to do if you like dance-clubs and Irish pubs. It’s easier too. English is everywhere; it’s more clear what Bohemia has to offer (apparently, Russian nesting dolls and Bohemian crystal). There are tours meeting next to the old astronomical clock every couple of hours. Tourist choose them by choosing guides holding out distinctive umbrellas indicating where they take you. They’ll show you the castle, the ghosts, the underground, the communists. They take you around Prague and its sights in busses, antique cars, horse drawn carriages, or on foot. They’ll drive you to a church decorated in human bones or on a spelunking trip outside of the city, including traditional Bohemian lunch and a free beer.

Prague is flashier too. In 1989 there were tourists; I remember Charles bridge was pretty packed even then; today the old town is nearly overrun. In some order of frequency: Russians, French, Italians, Germans, Americans, and Spanish. All of us in high tech travel clothing, or completely impractical high heel shoes. Together, quite a bustling scene. There are billboards and neon lights. The chic discos are advertised along with mobile phone and new cars. Radio stations have ads on the sides of trams rumbling along the streets.

With only a short visit planned we did some upgrading. Instead of the youth hostel for $5 a night, we graduated to the penthouse suite. Actually, it was a budget hotel by Prague standards at around $150 per night and the room, while large and with a bit of a view, was not much better than any business hotel I normally stay in. Instead of scrounging meals of bread and cheese from grocery stores and market stands, we ate where ever the mood and setting struck us. Beer at house breweries, coffee at Café Kafka, Bohemian specialties at Café Orient, tastefully, and historically decorated, above the Cubist museum.

I didn’t avoid pricey entrance fees, (and I didn’t back in 1989 either, I’d come all this way to see this stuff after all) but I did skip the tours. Informative signs in all the tourist languages were widely available. I didn’t buy any expensive souvenirs (and there were few cheap ones) but because they really weren’t worth what was being asked for them, regardless of whether they were bought at home or while traveling. In the end, the strange thing is how little difference it made to travel with money. It was more relaxing, obviously, to eat whenever and where ever I finally got hungry but prices in the tourist center don’t vary as much as expected from cheap eats to expensive ones. Lodging was much more money, of course, but for a short trip, tolerable. Above all, both Prague and how I chose to visit it have changed much since my last trip, and yet, its attraction remains constant. There’s a reason there are so many tourists there driving up the prices. No matter how you choose to visit it, it’s absolutely gorgeous.

Check out my flickr stream as I’ll be adding some selected pictures to prove it.

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