Budget Travel: Baltimore

Summary: When most people think of the city of Baltimore, tourism is the last thing that comes to their mind. The Maryland city known for high crime, seedy neighborhoods and social stratification often falls by the wayside when travelers consider the hipper east coast cities — Boston, New York, Philadelphia or Washington DC.

But nestled deep in the grit of Baltimore lies a dark warm culture, a thriving food and nightlife scene and volumes of history. Coupled with its proximity to the coast, Philly and DC, Baltimore serves as an excellent budget destination and home base for day trips through the east. Come along as we show you around.
Getting in: Ever since Southwest Airlines set up camp at BWI airport in ’93, Baltimore has enjoyed budget airfares across the United States and to foreign destinations alike. Visiting from Detroit? Book far enough in advance and you can get flights for around $100. Visiting from London? You can get to Baltimore direct on British Airways.

From the airport it’s an easy ride on the light rail into the city for $1.60.

If the rail lines fit your fancy, Amtrak, where you can often find good weekend fares, serves Baltimore from all over the east. Or you can even take the MARC train up from DC for less than $10.

An even less expensive option is to use the Chinatown Bus, that despite dropping you off on the outskirts of the city, will get you all over the east for often less than a meal at Olive Garden.

Where to Stay: Unlike New York and Toronto, you can’t just plop down in most places in Baltimore and consider yourself safe. Crime, while in digression, is still a concern in the city and it’s best that you stay in safer neighborhoods during your visit.

That said, there are several excellent, rewarding neighborhoods, around the city that are both walkable and full of culture.

  • Right downtown is always the best bet if you’re looking for safety first. Adjacent to the Inner Harbor and a short hop away from Fells Point, the largely commercial region is a good central hub for attacking the city. You can get there in an inexpensive taxi from Baltimore Penn Station or via light rail for next to nothing, and there are a wide variety of traditional hotels available for you to use your points at. The Holiday Inn right downtown is always a safe, inexpensive bet.
  • Just south of downtown and on the waterfront is the Inner Harbor, the revitalized social and tourist hub in the city. It will be more scenic and you’ll have better access to the sights here, but it’ll subsequently be more expensive than downtown spots.
  • Fells Point (pictured) is just adjacent to the Inner Harbor and is the “bar and restaurant” core of the city (try the chowder.) With the wealth of activity in the area it’s also an excellent choice for accommodation, although hotels are not as numerous. As an alternative, there are a variety of delectable rentals that you can find on vrbo.com for a very good price.
  • Other neighborhoods including Towson and St. Charles Village host pockets of hotels and activity. If you do decide to stay in these areas though, make sure you do your homework and know how safe it is before you commit.

What to See:

  • Edgar Allan Poe’s grave: While the Poe House and Museum are in a seedy part of town, the poet’s final resting place is actually quite close to the downtown area. On the corners of Fayette and Greene Streets just west of downtown you’ll find Westminster Hall and Burying Ground, where the likes of Poe, James McHenry and Philip Barton Key are buried. Make sure you stop by Poe’s tombstone and drop off your pennies. Oh and the best part? It’s absolutely free.
  • The National Aquarium in Baltimore: One of the best aquariums in the nation, pictured, is at the far end of the Inner Harbor. The sprawling exhibit is host to 16,000 creatures with a multiple story shark tank, dolphin display and rooftop rain forest. Admission for adults is just over $20.
  • At the center of downtown’s activity, The Inner Harbor is the revitalized host to much of the city’s social and commercial activity. You can find all sorts of the standard big city accoutrements here, from the ESPN Sports zone to the Hard Rock Cafe, but be forewarned that it’s a very touristy and some say, less authentic Baltimore. The USS Constellation is also docked here.
  • Founded in 1876, The Johns Hopkins University is one of the oldest, most prestigious research institutions in the United States. Their Homewood campus, a quick cab ride north of down town, is set in a beautiful Federalist style where you can roam between campus buildings, stop in a cafe for a break and watch the students pass by. Walking east from the campus, you can sneak into the top of Charles Village where you can get some excellent pub food at the Charles Village Pub.
  • Take a day trip out to Washington DC or Philadelphia. For a mere few dollars you can slip into either of the more expensive cities for the day, enjoy the sites and take the evening train back into Baltimore for the night. You can usually catch the MARC from Penn station for a few dollars while the Amtrak to Philadelphia can be a bit pricier. Annapolis is also fairly close, but you’ll have to rent a car to get there.

Finally, remember to stay on your toes and practice good tourism in Baltimore. By the numbers, the city isn’t as safe as most on the east coast, but if you’re smart, attentive and logical you’ll love the city, its culture and you’ll even save a few dollars by staying in a Gadling Budget Destination.

Try the Fish Taco: Baja’s Favorite Food

Maybe it’s just me, but the first time I heard the words “fish” and “taco” together I felt rather nauseous. But, the ol’ fish taco is definitely Baja’s favorite and most famous meal — be it breakfast, lunch or dinner. Just about everywhere you look there is a taco stand accompanied by a sign with a happy looking cartoon fish encouraging you to come over and try this local specialty.

The customs officer who helped us with our paperwork in Tijuana was the first person to mention the fish taco. In fact, he recommended that we eat as much fish as we could in the Baja. I don’t mind fish but it seems like a risky food to consume at an outdoor stand…really how long can shrimp sit in the sun before it becomes a hazard to someone’s health?

Rumored to be a creation of Japanese fishermen, this meal was the word on everyone’s lips by the time we reached Southern Baja. “Try the fish taco” was pretty much a daily occurrence. Usually, I am game to try most foods but for some reason I pictured this dish as a soggy taco with undercooked fish coated in a slimy sauce. I hadn’t even seen a fish taco in actuality but already this figment of my imagination had turned my stomach against it. Soon, though, curiosity got the better of me and I wanted to see whether the fish taco was any good — so I came up with a plan. This well-devised plan was to get my husband Tom to try one and let me know how it was.
I caved once I saw that the fish was deep-fried. We ordered and sat down to enjoy this famous Baja treat. I finally understood what the hype was all about — it was absolutely delicious. If you visit Baja California Sur, eating a fish taco should be on your list of things to do.

“Tacos de pescados” (fish tacos) consist of your choice of fish or shrimp deep friend then wrapped in a flour or corn tortilla. A dollop (or smothering, depends on what your prefer) of mayo is added and then it is up to you to choose from all the fixings. Your choices include: red onion, three or four types of salsa, coleslaw, cabbage, guacamole, and cucumber. Top it all off with the juice from a freshly squeezed lime and you are are ready to experience the best food in the Baja.

A few things to keep in mind:

Eat on the Street
The best “tacos de pescados” are found at the small stands located on the corners of busy streets or tucked away in the middle of town. It might be dusty with only one plastic table to sit at and no ambiance whatsoever but these little vendors can create a meal that will put any five star restaurant to shame.

Pile up your Plate and Save Your Pesos
You can load up your plate with as much of the fixings as you want — it’s not only allowed it’s expected! The first time we ate at a taco stand we tried a little of everything, then we looked around and noticed that everyone had their plates piled high. This is a great way to save money traveling since fish tacos cost around $1.25 US (12.5 pesos) each. Get two and create a great meal that will see you through most of the day.

Eat Right Away

You have to eat them right away while they are piping hot — deep-fried anything doesn’t taste very good even twenty minutes later.

The Spice Factor
The green salsa tends to be way hotter than red salsa.

Get Messy
And, finally, eating a fish taco is a messy process. The taco falls apart, juices will run down your arms–if you haven’t used at least four napkins during this meal you might have missed the beauty of the fish taco.

“No Wrong Turns” chronicles Kelsey and her husband’s road trip — in real time — from Canada to the southern tip of South America in their trusty red VW Golf named Marlin.

How to do Europe for (relatively) Cheap: Some Tips

Ok, I’ll admit — I’m no expert on Europe but I’ve been there a few times and each time, I’ve been on a budget. And while it’s no Thailand price-wise, there are a number of things you can do to make sure you won’t end up having to sell of your belongings one by one to get home. Here are some tips:

  • Know where to go. England, France and Italy are really expensive. And while I know you’ve always dreamt of posing for a picture in front of Buckingham Palace/The Eiffel Tower/The Vatican, sometimes there are better way to spend your money. I found Greece and Spain to be fairly reasonable in comparison, and many parts of Eastern Europe, like Hungary, are a steal compared to these countries.
  • Also, know when to go. It’s no joke — the price of everything goes up in July and August. And by everything, I mean everything — not just accommodation and transportation. Food prices on menus are rarely fixed; this is so they can jack it up in high tourist season. The same goes for souvenirs, admission prices, and just about everything else.
  • Take the bus. I know, it’s not as quick as a plane, or as romantic as a train, but it’s the cheapest way to get around from place to place. If there’s an overnight bus option, take that one because although you’ll end up sleep-deprived, you’ll save a night’s accommodation.
  • Connect. I didn’t have any close relatives in England until I went there with my mom. She did some digging into the old family tree and she discovered many distant cousins scattered throughout Europe and the UK. While it seems a bit cheeky to contact them out of the blue and ask for a place to stay, the worst they can do is say no. In our case, we got to know our distant cousins quite well and now have a place to stay whenever we make our way across the pond. If you don’t have any relatives in Europe, ask around — some of your friends are bound to. Or, try couch-swapping.
  • If you’re staying for a while, rent a place with a kitchen. Eating is expensive. If you can put together your own meals, you’ll save a lot of money.
  • Do some research. There are lots of things you can do for cheap or free, even in the most expensive places in the world. The Tate Modern in London, for instance, is a great way to spend a day … and it’s free!

I could go on and on — there are many ways to save money if you do a bit of brainstorming — but I think you get the idea.

Boozing for Cheap: What To Drink Where

The average backpacker is typically always looking for ways to entertain themselves inexpensively. And whether we agree with it or not, the fact is that most of the time, drinking=fun. But also, drinking=expensive, in many cases. Unless, of course, you know what to get. Based on my experiences, here are the cheapest things you can get wasted on, depending on where you are:

  • When in Australia, drink the boxed wine. A box of wine will run you about $10 AUD for 4L. And 4L is alot when you’re talking wine. That’s enough for you and you close travel buddies to have a few really good nights on, not to mention a few really bad of days battling hangovers. Not that I have any … um … experience with that or anything …
  • When in Thailand, drink Thai Whiskey. Sure, Chang Beer is a favourite among many travellers and locals alike, and it’s fairly cheap, but if you’re going for the best value, Thai whiskey is where it’s at. Especially if it’s of the home-brewed variety and you pick it up from some random dude in a remote village. But … um … be careful ….
  • When in Greece, drink Ouzo. A couple of my travel buddies bought a 4L bottle of Ouzo for about 3 €. It wasn’t the best Ouzo I ever had, but it wasn’t bad when mixed with something, and it did the trick. We travelled together for a month and it seemed like every night was an ouzo night. Still, I don’t think we finished it …
  • When in Mexico, drink the tequila — from Wal-Mart!: I felt a wave of shame when I entered the Wal-Mart in Puerto Vallarta, but that passed when I got to the alcohol section. There was at least half a dozen aisles of just tequila, and it was so, sooooooo cheap. Did I mention so cheap? Now, if I could only stomach the stuff ….
  • When in Canada, drink … water? Seriously, I love my country, but based on my travels, I think we must have to most expensive alcohol in the world. It’s always a shock coming back from a trip and realizing that 4L of anything will cost me 10 times as much as that Ouzo … unless it’s homemade moonshine. What do you think — is Canada an expensive place to drink, or is it just in my head?