Mystery (Data) Science Theater 3000… days on the road

3000 days! When we set out we envisioned a year or two on the road. We’d take in some sights, get a taste of different cultures and cuisines, and return to the States ready for a new adventure. We underestimated just a bit. It’s been 8 years and counting and we’ve now spent more of our adult lives doing this than living “normal” lives. We’ve seen and done more than we could have imagined (exciting!), and kept track of the figures and financials along the way (exciting if you’re a nerd!).

Thanks to Covid (and other… developments) the last 1000 days have involved a fair fewer relocations than the first two. So instead of another superlative-laden best of’s where we gush about Lithuania, let’s take a step back and try a more analytical, data-driven approach (to gushing about Lithuania).

Data

Thanks to Danielle’s meticulous financial record keeping, it was easy to analyze our expenses, look for trends, and find interesting details.

Just breaking down cost per day for each stay already shows some surprising results. Despite inflation, housing crises, and rising cost of living around the world, our average expenses have stayed remarkably flat. Both our overall average (total expenses over total days of travel) and the trendline above agree*.

High-priced experiences early in our trip are obvious outliers, dragging up the average. And the last couple years do show a slight upward trend. We live pretty modestly – cooking at home and rarely eating out, etc – but not too modestly. Recent stays like Killarney are some of our splurgiest and most eventful since our first years of travel.

Going forward our costs probably will increase though. If not from price inflation, then certainly from family inflation:

We have a new awayfarer✨! (But that’s a story for another time.)

Looking at distance travelled, we’ve become a lot slowmad-er over the years. Already by years 2 and 3 we were tiring of frequent relocations and expensive repositioning flights. Then in years 5, 6, and 7 Covid depressed our travelability to near zero. Borders closed and regulations changed so rapidly it was impossible to predict where we’d be able to go; we found it simpler (and safer) to stay put.

Even so, we impressed ourselves by weathering the entire pandemic abroad. We managed to survive and thrive through the tumult. But just as we were gearing up for a return to form, we were hit with another big life change: a baby was on the way!

We immediately started making plans for some sort of stability through the process, but didn’t want to abandon our existing reservations either, so had to weather a lot of scolding from doctors about blood tests and appointment notes being in four different languages. One doctor in Slovakia told Danielle flat-out that she needed to go home to be near family. Yeah, no, we didn’t take that advice. However, we did settle down in Zagreb for the second half of her pregnancy, through delivery, and then most of our son’s first year.

So where have we spent these 3000 days? It’s easy to see the outsize representation of favorite non-Schengen “resets” Croatia and Romania. Of course, Croatia joined Schengen on 1 January 2023, and Romania is set to join in March 2024, so the future will look different. Croatia wins handily as the only place we’ve had gotten temporary residency and spent more than a year in one place. It was our lifeboat during Covid and as mentioned hosted us for an even longer stretch of pregnancy and baby-raising this last year.

Armenia stands out as well. We’d booked a couple months there in early 2020. That turned into a few more months than expected – we were in Echmiadzin when the world shut down and locked us in place for almost half a year.

Lithuania and Portugal are notable as the two highest-ranking Schengen countries. Both have been Schengen as long as we’ve been visiting, but still manage to rank as our 4th and 6th most-visited destinations. We keep returning to Lithuania to enjoy its good beer, parks, and laid-back lifestyle. And as a cautious first step into post-Covid travel, we took a more leisurely exploration of Portugal during winter 2022 rather than risking a bunch of border hops.

Analysis


Now for some more subjective data analysis!

We both scored our stays in 5 categories – stuff to do (attractions and events), liveability (vibes, urbanism as preached by City Nerd↗, etc), food, drink, and “overall” (whether we said “this is really nice” every day / how much we were glad or sad to leave).

By doing a bit of regression analysis we could account for differences in our voting styles and combine them for a meaningful overall score. Then we could do fun stuff like stack rank all of our stays and find click-baity results like…


Top 5 (Score)

1. Vilnius
2. Porto
3. Seattle*
4. Tallinn
5. Wrocław

We had to institute a one-showing-per-city rule or else #1 would be Vilnius and #3 would just be a three-way tie between all the other times we’ve been to Vilnius. Obviously our favorite city of all time scored highly for both of us, but it was our second visit that took the crown. It was the perfect mix of comfort and familiarity, new and exciting, and relief that what we had in our memories still rang true in reality.

But we were a little surprised by the rest of the top 5. Porto and Wrocław were no doubt stellar stays but may be buoyed a bit by recency bias. Seattle scores highly in part because our visit was basically a greatest-hits tour that benefited from the domain knowledge of experienced locals while still being able to leave for cheaper, if not greener pastures. Tallinn cements the Baltic states as one of our favorite regions and gets a boost for being one of our most normal and livable stays during the pandemic.


Bottom 5 (Score)

5. Iași
4. Cruise
3. Skopje
2. Mokošica
1. Sarandë

Of course Sarandë scaring us away and the miserable time we had in Mokošica easily earn the dubious honor of our first- and second-lowest-rated stays. Skopje is a bit of a surprise because neither of us had strong negative feelings about it at the time. But so much went wrong that it looms lower in our memories than maybe it deserves. Surprisingly an attempted mugging in Montevideo or a rotting whale carcass in La Floresta weren’t enough for either to make this list. Which puts in context just how little we liked Iași (our worst stay in Romania) or that Patagonian cruise.


Most Average (Score)

Timișoara

Handily winning the distinction by earning perfect 3’s in all categories – from both of us! It says a lot about the high bar for our favorite stays that such a pleasant and charming place can fade into the background. Don’t feel down Timișoara, you’ve earned the beige medal of mediocrity, and a special place in our hearts:


Our financial data, while less subjective, gives pretty interesting results in its own right:

Top 5 Most Expensive (cost/day)

1. Cruise
2. Munich
3. Dublin
4. London
5. Killarney

The eye-watering expense of our cruise wasn’t why we hated it, but it sure didn’t help. The high cost of the British Isles demonstrate why we prefer to take our Schengen breaks in the Balkans. Notably though this stay in London was our incredibly short 4 day visit in 2019, not the 2 full weeks we spent there at the height of Covid in 2020. Munich was likewise more of a vacation, treating ourselves to ten days of Christmas markets at one of the most touristy and high-demand times of the year.


Top 5 Least Expensive (cost/day)

5. Playa del Carmen
4. Chișinău
3. Tbilisi
2. Etchmiadzin/Vagharshapat
1. Borjomi

Mexico, the Caucasus, and the poorest country in Europe (Moldova) were, perhaps unsurprisingly, light on our wallets in terms of living expenses. But the secret sauce for making this list is just not having all that much to spend money on. We spent a lot of time in all these places simply… walking around. Which is our favorite thing to do! But yeah, not a lot of expensive attractions in to blow your budget in Borjomi.


Most Median (cost/day)

Split

Since averages are distorted by prices that go way further up than down, we decided to look instead at the median price stay, or most “middle of the pack,” for this category. Split (during Covid) was the most typical stay on our trip, with exactly half of our stays being more expensive per day and half being cheaper.


We also combined the subjective and financial data to get a “value” that was a bit more scientific than “how cheap did it feel?” Granted we did self-police a bit by adjusting our lifestyle and expectations down in particularly expensive locations or up in particularly cheap ones, but overall it paints an interesting picture:

Top 5 (Value)

1. Vilnius
2. Espinho*
3. Porto
4. Chiang Mai
5. Chișinău

Vilnius naturally takes the top spot again, only this time it was our third visit that stood out. The second and fourth were spendier enough to drop them down to just “above average.” (Meanwhile our first trip to Vilnius would have been #2 on this list without the one-stay rule.)

Chiang Mai and Chișinău were surprises. We liked both, but the low cost of living in Moldova, and the complete-other-level low cost of Southeast Asia, really did some heavy lifting here. SEA wasn’t really for us (long term – we loved it as a vacation destination and would definitely go back and eat everything) but it’s clear why it’s such a popular nomad spot for folks who can handle heat and humidity.

Recent stays in Portugal scored incredibly well considering the country’s current reputation as increasingly popular and expensive. Despite the uptick it is still (at least as of the height of Covid), relatively affordable.


Bottom 5 (Value)

5. Munich
4. Żabbar
3. Mokošica
2. Sarandë
1. Cruise

The sheer cost of the cruise pushes it below Sarandë here, but Munich and Żabbar are interesting. Munich was certainly not a bad stay, but it was so expensive (exacerbated by being a short stay during Christmas with fewer economies of scale) that it falls into the “not worth it” category by this measure. Żabbar is odd because it was mostly repositioning and not a destination in its own right. We made the most of it (visiting the Ħal Saflieni Hypogeum) but would otherwise never had stayed in a boring suburb of Valletta.


Most Average (Value)

Prague

Incredibly, one of our favorite places ever is exactly in the middle when it comes to value, which goes to show just how important affordability is to us that half of all our of stays rank still higher in memories per dollar.


Closing Thoughts

Our travels have taken us to remote and far flung places, but with most of our time and stays in Europe it’s worth highlighting. Bad experiences in Dubrovnik, Skopje, and Sarandë make the Southern Balkans seem especially antagonistic. Central Europe is dense with data; negative experiences in Iași and Lviv and a mediocre time in Bratislava stand out among favorites like Poland, Prague, northern Croatia, and Romania. There’s a notable stretch of extremely positive sentiment forming a banana-shaped curve under the Baltic sea, a Baltic-banana-hammock if you will. (Editor’s note: I will not.) Seems like proximity to cold northerly waters has a positive correlation, while we’re paradoxically cooler on warm inland seas. But this visualization does a poor job of highlighting favorites like Hvar (camouflaged by blah scores for Split and Dubrovnik) and Chișinău (in Iași’s shadow).

Reading between the lines green blobs, Klaipeda, Lithuania might be the most up-our-alley place we haven’t been yet. Hopefully this year will give us a chance to find out.

We don’t yet know what our next thousand days will bring. With a toddler in tow, moving seems a bit more daunting. But spending a year-plus in the same spot felt restrictive. Perhaps we will travel at a slower pace to try on potential new homes while we lean into our new lives as a growing family.

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