The old Fiat drove like a tank, with no power steering and at least one slipped gear, alternating between squealing and sputtering as we pulled into the parking lot of our hotel, a converted 19th century Austro-Hungarian palace. The doorman eyed us with a curiosity that edged closer to suspicion when he saw us pull out two big 70-90 liter travel backpacks from the trunk. As he opened the door for us to enter the grand reception hall, you could tell he was too polite to ask: “Are you sure you’re in the right place?”
We received more strange looks as we walked, our backpacks tasseled with a couple of plastic bags hanging from the sides, towards the reception. A polished young Croatian woman at the desk on the night shift gave us a skeptical look as if to say, “Are you sure this is your hotel?” as we rifled through our bags to find our passports. She seemed both amused and confused to see that we did indeed have a reservation at this fine 5-star hotel for the next three nights, that we were the people who matched the names written in her ledger.
She took us up to our room and opened the balcony door, revealing the old town of Dubrovnik lit softly in an approaching twilight. Today, we might say the town resembled something like footage from the Game of Thrones, but back then it just looked like a fairy tale, surrounded by thick medieval walls and ramparts. “Welcome to Villa Hotel Orsula. Is this your first time here in Dubrovnik?”
“Yes. It’s the start of our honeymoon.”
How did we end up here? Two budget backpackers honeymooning in a 5-star hotel? By making a few deliberate decisions about our money, time and priorities.
We didn’t have a ton of money for this trip and honeymoon. I had just finished a 27-month commitment as a Peace Corps volunteer in Estonia and had opted for cash instead of an airline ticket home to the United States. I pooled that money together with my modest relocation allowance (what is supposed to help you put a deposit down on an apartment and settle into your new life) to backpack around Europe for five months with my fiancé (now husband). Dan had certainly been earning more than I had in Peace Corps, but he had taken an unpaid leave of absence from his work at a startup in San Francisco to take the trip. We made the deliberate decision to travel simply and inexpensively so we could make our limited funds last the five months we’d planned to travel.
But a honeymoon is a honeymoon. And it only happens (hopefully) once. After our wedding in Tuscany, Italy, we opted to splurge for a few days at a Dubrovnik luxury hotel. For three days, we enjoyed lavish bathrobes, watched the sunset over the Adriatic Sea from our balcony, and consumed plates piled high with seafood.
One of the reasons why we were able to do this — to afford to splurge on a prime room — was that we chose to travel during the region’s shoulder season. It was the beginning of October. The hordes of summer tourists had already gone home, leaving Dubrovnik to return to its peaceful yet still-dazzling self. We never had to worry about finding a table at a restaurant and we had our pick of whatever activities we wanted to do, never having to reserve in advance. And although the number of tourists in the city had diminished in the shoulder season, there were still enough around to keep everything open. We contrast this to the true off-season when many businesses close down, thereby limiting one’s choice of restaurants, cafes and activities.
Our timing also meant off-peak prices for everything, including the hotel, rental car and other tourist services. These savings could be significant, sometimes over 25% off what we would have spent the month before. Traveling in the shoulder season also meant that we had more room for negotiating or bargaining, whether it was for a boat ride, souvenir or taxi. With a limited number of tourists about, we were in demand.
And perhaps the most notable benefit of spending our honeymoon in Dubrovnik this time of year: we pretty much had the old town and its marble streets to ourselves.
After our three days of luxury, soaking in views of Dubrovnik’s old town and the Adriatic sea from our bougainvillea-covered balcony, we again donned our backpacks, hopped into the rental car – a much newer and fully functioning replacement version of the clunky Fiat in which we arrived — and continued our way up through Croatia along the Dalmatian coast, turning pages in our extended backpacking honeymoon through Europe.
In the ensuing months, we decided to move to Europe by the end of the next year. After traveling through so many European cities during our honeymoon, we aimed to experience what it would feel like to live and work in one of them. This was a promise we kept by moving to Prague, Czech Republic the next December. Looking back, our honeymoon set in motion the wheels of the lifestyle we now know — one grounded in following our curiosity, prioritizing experiential travel, and avoiding regret, all aided by making deliberate decisions involving our money, values and priorities.
Images by Andy Card