I love to chat about money and travel... but penguins usually aren't included in the conversation!
Have you ever traveled to see penguins? And, if so, did they teach you any financial lessons? It's a strange question! You see, a recent conversation about these cute birds unexpectedly shed some light on money and my travel decision making process. Let me explain....
I was chatting with friends about how there are some things I'll happily pay a lot of money for when I travel, yet I get really annoyed at some minor travel expenses. Why was it so easy to assign value to one activity yet be so aggravated with another? That's when a friend piped up and said that in her circle of friends, they summarize this quandary with one quirky phrase: "penguins or no penguins".
She told me about some acquaintances - known for being rather frugal - who had saved up for the trip of a lifetime. They cruised to Antarctica, truly an incredible voyage, and a trip that easily cost thousands of dollars. And while they were there, they had the chance to pay an extra $20 each to leave the cruise ship and board a Zodiac boat that would take them closer to the penguins. But they refused! They must have spent over $10,000 on their trip - but they drew the line at an extra $40 in travel expenses. And thus, the phrase "penguins or no penguins" was born.
"Penguins or no penguins" - Sometimes, it's a really hard choice.
I can see both sides of this situation. You don't get to save up a small fortune to cruise to Antarctica by being sloppy with money. $40 might be a drop in the bucket when you compare it to the overall high cost of the trip, but it's still $40. It's not like you get to cuddle with the penguins - you're just getting a bit closer to them. Does that $40 REALLY add any extra value to your trip or is it just a last minute cash grab from a captive audience?
On the other hand, getting a close up with penguins isn't exactly an everyday activity. That $40 Zodiac ride may just be the missing piece that makes an already good trip sublime. Is this really the time to worry about a bit of money and fret about travel expenses? And surely every trip should include a bit of wiggle room for moments just like this? Sometimes "penguins or no penguins" isn't always so straightforward.
(By the way, in case you stumbled upon this page while searching for penguin travel gear, I hope you'll stick around! Glad to have you! Also: you'll love this gorgeous powder blue penguin luggage protector.)
We've had our own "penguin" quandaries and tough travel decisions.
I'm still not sure if these people made the right call but their story has changed my value travel philosophy. "Penguins or no penguins" seems to embody my every travel dilemma. It's not a case of budget travel versus luxury travel. It's not a matter of money or time. It's all about penguins!
Sometimes, a "no penguins" approach has worked out extremely well for us. In Honolulu, we passed on an upgraded waterfront view hotel room for one which overlooked the city and a mountain. Turns out, turning down a Hawaiian waterfront view was a brilliant choice! We slept great and we loved the view of the mountain and the city, especially at night. No penguins!
We were also penguin free in Venice. We weighed the pros and cons of gondola ride carefully before deciding to pass. A gondola ride is truly an "only in Venice" experience - but at the end of the day, it just didn't hold any value for us. No penguins!
Meanwhile in Prague, we opted for a cooking class that cost a bit more but included a tour of the market, led by a chef. In a way, it seems silly to pay for someone to guide you around a market. After all, aren't farmers markets supposed to be free?! But this penguin was well worth it. It really rounded out our experience and made our visit all the more memorable.
Occasionally, we've had a penguin misstep. In Vegas, we were befuddled by all the ways you could up-size pool side beverages. So many penguins! So many choices! If we would only buy a pricey plastic travel mug, we could save more - and, of course, drink more. So we bought the "penguin", and regretted it. It wasn't that we couldn't handle the booze (hey, we're travel writers, after all!) But there's only so much icy sludge you can slurp down before you get shivers! Before long we were colder than the Antarctic itself. Should have gone "no penguins" on that one.
Why do these travel choices really get under a person's skin?
It's easy to look at "penguins or no penguins" as just another way to ask if you want to buy add ons or not. But I think penguins are more than that! It's not just about the extra little things you get offered at the last minute before making an online purchase (Flowers delivered to your hotel room? Lounge pass with you airline ticket?) It's about the choices that are best for you and reflect your own sense of value.
For instance, a private hot air balloon ride with champagne and breakfast might be very penguin-esque for some travelers (isn't it worth spending more to ensure this incredible travel experience is private, perfect, and not marred by annoying guests?) For other travelers, they're going for the cheaper group experience, with no added breakfast, and they'll cash in those "penguins" elsewhere - maybe the money saved equals a memorable wine tasting or a hotel room upgrade.
But while some of these decisions are fun - after all, choosing between two luxurious travel experiences isn't exactly taxing - there's something aggravating about a lot of "penguin" situations. Would it really be so difficult for the Antarctic cruise to just bundle the price of the penguin cruise in their overall price? Safaris are rather infamous for this as well. Relatively inexpensive activities like guided walks are rarely included in the overall cost of the trip.
Pondering "penguins or no penguins" has reminded me how important it is to read the fine print on all tours and packages in order to avoid irritating surprises. It's also encouraged me to build a slush fund into each trip budget so, should a "penguin" prove irresistible in the moment, our budget will remain intact.
Are elephants the new penguins?
On paper, Ryan and I have a very similar travel style and philosophy. But, of course, in practice it doesn't always work so smoothly. And looking back on past differences of opinions, I realize that it often really a debate about penguins. I tend to lean towards the "no penguins" side of things. I am always fretting over our budget, always afraid a small splurge here or there will be a slippery slope into financial Armageddon. Ryan often votes for "penguins", with the rationale that we've already spent a lot of money to make the trip happen - did we really do so to just sit inside and read every night? Turns out, there's a big correlation between how you feel about penguins and how you tend to view "sunk" costs.
And we've both been right - and we've both been wrong. I really regret not taking the opportunity to snorkel at night with the manta rays on Hawaii's Big Island. I've regretted it even more since we made a return visit and we just didn't have enough time. At the time, I suppose I was anxious because we were over budget and the activity came with no guarantees (wild animals don't exactly show up on schedule). If I had the chance to do it all over again, I would. Meanwhile, Ryan wishes he had gone penguin-free on a recent Caribbean cruise. Upgrading to a fancy steak dinner was delicious but ultimately wasn't great value once you considered a number of other factors. It's not exactly a regret, but more of a "now I know for next time" moment.
We're both in agreement that, on our upcoming trip to Southern Africa, elephants are the new penguins. We want to take in all the wildlife and nature experiences we can (with responsible, sustainable partners) and we want to savour every unique local moment possible. And sometimes the "elephants" aren't going to be actual animals at all but other, only-here, moments. Like eating baobab powder cheesecake or having local wine we would never find in Canada. We know just how special this trip is and we don't want to second guess ourselves along the way. We just hope no one gets confused if they overhear us talking about elephants and penguins and think there's some kind of strange new hybrid animal!
We'd love to hear your take on this. What "penguins or no penguins" situations have you encountered? Do you have any regrets? Do you and your travel partner have the same approach?
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