by Life Anthem on December 1, 2012
On a recent visit to Argentina, I spent two weeks seeing the capital, the north and the 2nd largest city of that country. Those couple of weeks flew by because I was having so much fun, but also because I was well prepared and traveling smart. Being clever is key to traveling authentically and saving money and there is so much advice that you won’t find, even after months of scouring the web and guidebooks. Here are 5 points of advice that helped me travel smoothly, while staying under budget.
- Get a Passport Card
Go to the same place on the web that you would to purchase a passport or extra pages for one, and pay the $30 for a passport card. This card was meant for Americans traveling by land or boat to the Caribbean, Mexico or Canada, presumably so that they don’t have to carry their entire passport book with them. It comes in handy when you’re in Argentina too:
If you weren’t aware, Argentina has placed strict monetary controls on its citizens. These controls not only make it harder for Argentinians to get U.S. dollars, it also means that the government keeps watch over how much Argentinians spend using their credit cards. While these controls may not have much affect on Americans in Argentina for tourism purposes, I found that having this card with me in my wallet served me well while there.
Anytime you use your credit card, whether it be at a restaurant, a drug store, a hotel, you name it- you are going to be asked for your documents. For the merchant this means they want to take down your ID number so that the amount you’re spending using your credit card is tracked. And for Argentinians there are restrictions. The merchant specifically asks for your DNI, but for foreigners, they’re just mixed up in the whole process and can show any ID so that the merchant can take down a number to complete the transaction. I knew that it was easer to give over my passport card because it served as both a way for the merchant to identify who I was, that I was a foreigner and it gave them a number in lieu of a DNI (which I don’t have). I could see no real potential for fraud here and it also kept me from having to carry around a folded copy of my passport book’s ID page; or even worse…my actual passport book. Don’t fret too much over this aspect of your trip. I got the impression that even if I had no ID at all, the merchants would have let this little aspect slide. Not so much though when making a large purchase or at a place such as a mobile phone store.
Tip within a Tip: Before you go, be sure your passport book has plenty of pages. Especially if this is your first time to Argentina. An American citizen entering Argentina might not need a visa before hand, but airport customs will charge you a fee that is comparable to the cost of a normal visa, and they’ll paste the receipt into a full page of your passport book. It’s worth a call to your local Argentinian consulate to ask for quick advice on this before going, whether you’re a U.S. citizen or not. Check with your country’s Argentinian embassy, if you’re not a U.S. citizen, and see if they offer a small compact passport card. Their portability and multiple uses really come in handy.
- Take the Free Tour
All my life, it seems I tried to be the rebel that avoids the guidebooks and the prepackaged itineraries. In the beginning I thought having a cool, carefree attitude involved less planning. I would forget a jacket, or pack too much. I would end up returning home without having seen cool places, simply because I didn’t want to do what everyone else was doing.
These days I don’t plan more, I just plan smarter. I figure out what I want to see, and only schedule in what I know I have the time to see. I know that I can’t do everything, but that doesn’t mean that I should skip it all just to wander around aimlessly. Sure, go to a club and party until dawn, especially on your last weekend. Not all fun has to be constructive; but remember that it is cool to do the touristy thing too. Just know what you’re getting into and budget your time so you get in the cultural exploration, while having a ton of worry-free fun.
There is a level of cowardice lower than that of the conformist: the fashionable non-conformist. – Ayn Rand
Therefore, my advice to you is to take the Free Tour. The Buenos Aires Free Tour that is. It sounds like a gimmick, but it’s not- and it is free. Well, sort of. At the end, the guide will suggest a tip of about 50 pesos (10 bucks). It’s just a suggestion. The tour is great and the guides work hard. There are two tours per day, every day, except Sunday; and they rarely take holidays. The 11am tour is said to be more touristy, while the 5pm tour will focus more on the architecture of the city and give you lesser known stories about Buenos Aires. They are walking tours and you’ll meet in a public place. Look for the guide in a green shirt who always has a crowd of other tour participants around them. I talked about what I learned for days after and was really glad I went.
- Take the Bus
Before arriving in Argentina, an overwhelming amount of people from forum posts to Argentinians themselves brought up rampant crime in Buenos Aires. I did everything I could to figure out the reality of the situation, aside from staying to live there. When it comes down to it, you’ll realized that aside from having classic street smarts and a careful demeanor, you can’t do much about petty street crime that comes on a case by case basis. It can be nearly impossible to know if the seemingly normal task you’re doing is going to make you a target for crime.
What I do know is that I took every mode of transportation available to me in Argentina, apart from riding along with a pizza delivery guy on a motorcycle. No matter the perceived level of security. If it were only up to price, I’d enjoy taking the cheapest modes of transportation out there. Sometimes I needed to get somewhere fast and was willing to spend the money so I took a plane, while other times I needed to save money and had time to gaze out the window so I took the bus. It didn’t matter whether it was the city bus in Buenos Aires or Tucuman, or the long distance, luxury overnight sleeper bus I took from Tucuman to Cordoba: they were cheap and comfortable. And in Argentina, bus travel is the norm. There’s a huge selection, and great resources like Omnilineas to help; Omnilineas is a great site that’ll help you find Buenos Aires city bus routes, as well as busses going to other cities in Argentina.
To give you an idea of the money you can save: when I first arrived in Buenos Aires at EZE International airport, I took the city bus from the airport into the city. I did this on the strong advice of a local. Bus number 8 was only 8 pesos. Compare that to more than 150 pesos to catch a taxi, and to the over 100 pesos it could take to use the popular charter bus, Manuel Tienda Leon. As you can see, the ride into town, though it can take about an hour and a half with the cheapest mode, is worth it. I simply walked out of the airport after talking to the person at the multilingual information booth, waited a moment for the #8, and had a really relaxing ride into town.
Tip within a Tip: before leaving the airport, change some money you have on you to Peso coins at the Bank of Argentina location in the airport. The busses, a.k.a. collectivos, only take coins.
This type of travel may depend on your comfort level with Spanish and how adventurous and savvy you are, but if you pay attention to where you’re going, it’s really not that hard to save money by putting in a little extra effort.
- Get out of Buenos Aires
I met people on my trip that came to Argentina just to visit Buenos Aires. Even natives of Argentina and friends who grew up in surrounding countries tell me they haven’t been to many places outside of the capital. Buenos Aires is a great city and there’s a lot to do, but Argentina is incredibly diverse. There are many interesting places that aren’t very far from the city. You can even take the Buquebus for a day or weekend trip to visit places in neighboring Uruguay. But if you’re willing to take a night bus or a domestic flight from the Aeroparque in Buenos Aires, you’ll be pleasantly surprised at how different things are in other parts of the country. Some even opt for the incredibly out-dated and slow train that occasionally leaves from Retiro station.
I visited Tucuman Province and Cordoba Province. You may want to go to the southern most city in the world, Ushuaia. Or the city famous for wine: Mendoza. While in Tucuman Province, I stayed with a family that I met through Couchsurfing.org (see tip #5). Their son, a guy my age, runs a store attached to the front of the family home in San Miguel de Tucuman. He was able to take a couple of days off and we went to one of his favorite places, a little town in the mountains called Tafi del Valle. We took the bus a couple of hours west, late the next afternoon, and arrived after dark, driving in pitch black through the mountain roads. The next day we awoke and I was surprised by mountains all around. It was as if they had decided to come out from behind a curtain. A departure from the big city of Buenos Aires and even, as I would find out the next week, the urban feeling of the city of Cordoba. Little things, like the accent of the Spanish speakers in these parts, and the small town curiosity most people have, was a nice clue that you had stepped outside of the area where many tourists go.
So, you do have the option of taking a plane, bus, car or even a train in Argentina. Each has their own vastly different price, speed, level of dependability and security. My advice is to encourage yourself to just go, because the moment you try something different, you’ll congratulate yourself for it.
- Don’t Stay in a Hotel
I don’t like to phrase this advice so forcefully, but after my experiences using hotel alternatives, I can’t easily go back to the knee jerk reaction of booking a room the old-fashioned way.
Of Note: I’ll preface this advice by saying, yes I did stay in a nice hotel for two nights on this recent trip to Argentina. It was after taking an 8 hour, overnight bus from Tucuman Province to the city of Cordoba. It was my birthday and I was arriving in Cordoba early in the morning to a cold and rainy city. I just really wanted to splurge on the hotel experience. Just a couple of nights out of two weeks of free, cheap, shared, budget or nearly free accommodation was a valiant effort, I’d say.
First let’s talk about Couchsurfing.org:
Couchsurfing is a community where you can find forums full of advice on just about any topic. Travel related or otherwise. Some forums are more active than others. For Argentina, the Couchsurfing community is very active, especially in Buenos Aires. There’s really little reason that anyone, of any age, will have trouble finding a free place to stay in Buenos Aires after tapping into the Couchsurfing community. And you’re not just sleeping on a couch. I stayed in a very nice house with a bed-and-breakfast style atmosphere, for free while in Buenos Aires. The owner offered to let me stay there for two full weeks, and I accepted; only leaving for my planned trips to Tucuman Province and Cordoba Province. Then I happily returned. Two others guys my age were staying there, all of us in our own rooms; one studying and the other on sabbatical. One sporting executive even offered up his new Palermo apartment. Both handing me keys to their homes with total trust and altruism. It was a great mind opener in a world that can be so suspicious. But don’t get caught up in the money. This is free, but at its heart, Couchsurfing is about cultural exchange. So be grateful. Don’t use a person’s place as a crash-pad.
But for most, the site’s forums are the big value. I take advantage of them before, during and after a trip. You’ll find priceless information from locals and seasoned travelers. Ask questions, and help others by thoughtfully answering questions as well. During my time in Buenos Aires I found meet-ups through the site for things like bar crawls and language/cultural exchanges. Jobs can even be found.
But what if you’re not finding what you’re looking for through the Couchsurfing world?
Turn to Airbnb:
You’ll be amazed at the fantastic vacation rentals on this site. You’ll even find longer-term abodes if you decide to stay. Even if you’re paying in U.S. dollars, when you factor in that full kitchen, a possible washer and dryer and even sharing the cost with friends, you can get exponentially more than you would in a luxury hotel for a fraction of the cost. I don’t hesitate in saying this anymore: if you’re not open to using Couchsurfing or Airbnb these days, you should just stay in the cities, beaches and mountains of your home country during your vacation. What’s the sense in traveling across the world just to stay in a uniform hotel for minimal interaction with the locals. I can’t see much of a point in that anymore. (I still wish I would have taken this advice, even after great hotel experiences).
These photos taken with my Panasonic DMC-GF3 that I brought instead of a rather large Canon 5D mark II.
Enjoy the photos. More soon.