From East To West in Ninety Days
TEN WAYS TO SAVE MONEY TRAVELLING CONTINENTAL EUROPE
A female traveller can expect to receive all manner of advice/warnings from people about backpacking Europe alone. Mostly along the lines of ‘be safe, be organised, don’t trust strangers.’ Whilst it’s important to carry street smarts, being unorganised and trusting strangers was the best non-decision I ever made.
Soon it will be a year since I sheepishly handed in my letter of resignation and boarded a one-way flight from Sydney to Berlin. Going straight from school to university and having spent a year functioning as a real adult with a full-time job, I developed an insatiable restlessness to pack up and go traveling. So I made big plans to move to the UK and fulfil the proverbial backpacking trip.
During preparations, I piggybanked all that I had earned. I pocketed leftover food from client meetings, sold awful paint stained clothing to idiots on Ebay and, if I was drinking, it was strictly two-dollar cleanskins, all for the cause of funding an unforgettable summer in the north.
Despite my efforts, a year’s savings on a graduate designer’s salary does not entitle you to Moet showers overlooking the Eiffel tower. So needless to say I had to be the thriftiest backpack slinger this side of the hemisphere and plan my way carefully to figure out how to make my money last.
….NAHHHHT! ! ! As like with any spontaneous creative; planning, diaries, diets and weekly yoga classes are things that get talked about in the first week of January but then quickly forgotten. I had a flight to Berlin, vague agreements to meet my sister in Paris two months after that and nothing in the middle. So what happened in those three months? With Europe having so many varied and lovely countries to conquer, unless you’re rolling in it you probably won’t be able to cover half the continent. But there are some methods to get as close as you can to a whirlwind tour.
Now I’m living in the Scotland and as I plan for how I’m going to spend my second summer in Europe, I’ll take the time to share how I managed to get from East to West on a shoestring. The best part is that I went in completely naïve, having done no research and I was generally geographically uneducated. The proximity of Hungary to Czech Republic was a myth to me. The size of the West of Europe as opposed to the East, couldn’t tell you… and the fact that they speak three different languages in Spain, really?
My knowledge and attitude to travel changed as I went along thanks to the insights from locals, and drunken sunrise situations I found myself in. If it wasn’t for the people passing through my trip… I would have never made it from the Czech Republic to Portugal with the spare change in my pocket.
1. Couch Surfing: A cultural exchange for the low price of a global friendship
Video courtesy of my Parisian Couch Surfing host, Cinematographer and dear friend Stanislas Parmentier
I had not heard of Couch Surfing before heading overseas. Although you shouldn’t approach this initiative from an economic point of view, it really was the number one saviour of money. I first heard about it when I was invited on a road trip with three Germans I had met in Weimar. The idea is that you make an online profile describing yourself, much like Facebook. You write things like how you’re not a creep and you can kind of cook and tell jokes and are generally good company… then you look for a host that similarly is not creepy/has a couch/can juggle.
A lot of people ask me if I ever felt unsafe or threatened staying in a stranger’s house. My answer was always “not more than living in a hostel with 12 strangers”. Couch Surfing enabled me to get away from the hostels and into the homes of locals, experiencing the customs and secrets of their town, city or country. I was able to live in Montmartre and drink champagne under the Sacre Coeur, surf a lake in Salzburg and hike Bohemian Paradise in Czech with ten other surfers from countries all over the world. These are experiences given to me in exchange for some help with the washing up, ridiculous stories of Australia and a global friendship. The only catch is that you have to promise to not be an asshole. Unfortunately for everything else, like beer and that… yeah there needed to be Mastercard.
2. EuRail ten day pass:
This one really does depend on how you would prefer to travel, but there are many different Eurail tickets you can get to suit your plan. I decided to buy a ’10 trips in two months’ ticket. If you’re wanting to do big trips in more of the West, trying to conquer as many countries (or cities, rather) as you can, I would highly recommend this. But if you think you will want to see more of fewer countries or you’ll be spending more time in the East where travel is cheaper and countries are closer at hand, it’s probably not as lucrative.
What I will say though that it can be worth it to save a lot of hassle. As train tickets become more and more expensive the later you leave it, I was able to casually hop on a sold-out sleeper train from Bilbao to Porto the day before departure. This is because a selection of seats is specifically reserved for Eurail riders and If you’re frightfully unorganised, hopeless and spontaneous like me, you’ll probably benefit from a Eurail pass.
3. Mitfahrgelegenheit: or as I got to know it, “Mit Far Gen Gilligans Island”
It is a real word, yes. A real German word that is. Translated in Enlgish to “Car Share” but my friends that are fluent in both languages say that it means so much more. It’s basically another car share initiative like Bla Bla Car. It will save you a whole lotta cash and precious Eurail tickets. Also…you get to ride on Das AutoBahn and see what it means to legally drive 240km on the freeway. Leaving your stomach behind in Berlin.
4. Air BnB:
You don’t have to book an expensive tour to get out of the metropolis of each country and see some wilderness. Although Air BnB can be expensive in the major cities, especially during the summer, many small gems can be found in remote areas. There are a lot of people who live in rural areas happy to take in travelers. Sometimes it’s an empty nest or people with a spare room. I was in Bavaria and staying with a family in the small town of Ramerberg near the medieval fort town of Wasserburg Amm Inn. It is in between Munich and Salzburg, I had my own bedroom looking over the Bavarian countryside with a library of both English and German books to pour over. Every night I was welcomed to join the family for traditional German food and good wine. I spent the days exploring the fields and it was a welcome respite after a week partying in Budapest. This was for a small fee of 15 Euro’s a night, and I even got a free ride to Munich from my host mother at the end of my stint on the farm. If you’re looking for some fresh air, it’s a cheap and safe way to get lost in between cities.
5. Try and find hostels with free breakfasts and/or free bicycle hire.
For the times I wasn’t surfing couches or AirBnBing I did find myself in hostels. One perk that I looked for when picking my hostel was the all you can eat breakfasts. Some hostels throw it in for free or you might have to pay a small sum. If you’re going for a day sight seeing and wot-not, packing your bra with a bunch of baguettes, fruit and plastic bags filled with museli will ensure you’re well nourished all day, leaving money for the more important things like beer.
Another was bicycle hire. Many European cities are small enough to walk around but if you want to see a lot of things in one day it could be worth getting a set of wheels. Some hostels will charge for this or at the very least have a discount to offer for a city service. Not only did it save me money I would have spent on the train, I chanced upon so many things I would not have going straight to my destination.
Controversial to the safe traveler and generally not advised for a girl traveling on her own. Fortunately though there is quite a safe hitchhiking culture in central Europe. Not entirely legal but it’s pretty common. If you do chose to hitch hike make sure you make a friend first, like someone in the hostel heading the same way. Also, be sure to pick a safe part of the road to stand on where you’ll be seen clearly, in a place where the driver can pull over safely and collect you.
7. Look at the pretty castle on the hill but don’t touchy touchy.
Many European cities have pretty castles, but most often than not ‘they are a full on Monet. From far away kind of ok but close up just a big old mess’. They are extremely expensive to get in, suffocating with tourists and generally a let down. Salzburg was probably the best example of this. There is an amazing bush walk surrounding the castle which takes you past scenes from ‘The Sound of Music’, through forest and finishes at the modern art gallery. Inside, however, it was a cesspool filled with overpriced drinks, an abundance of school children and one incredibly disappointing exhibition of string puppets. You will fall in love with them from afar though… I attribute the decision to settle in Edinburgh primarily to the fact that it has a castle.
8. Make friends in transit. Sometimes being outgoing and swallowing your pride can be really helpful and lucrative…
I was saved not once, twice but thrice by Americans. Two I had met on trains and one on a bus. They can be rather loud and shrill in packs but never have I ever met people so willing to help a lone traveller in a crisis. My favourite memory is when I was visiting Hitler’s Eagles nest in Berchtesgaden, Germany. I really did a number on myself… my phone was out of battery, I had no cash on me (and there’s of course no ATM’s on the mountaintop)… mist had taken over the mountain and the sun was going down. I needed to get back to Salzburg that night to meet my couch surfing host. I had planned to hike to the nearest town but risked black riding on the last bus heading down the mountain. I got chatting to an American couple about my situation. They just so happened to have a hire car and were heading straight to Salzburg that evening. If you’re willing to sound pathetic and push the fact that you’re a lone traveler, people are generally quite helpful.
9. Camping can save you a lot of money, but pick your sites carefully.
I had this grand Idea to camp in the Italian Dolomites as it was exactly halfway between where I was and where I wanted to get to. Feeling accomplished and self righteous for finding my way there, I managed to hop on a bus from the town of Bolzano up to the mountains and discovered a camp ground situated within walking distance of hiking tracks, lakes, mountain treks and cable cars. It was a romantic night in the mountains indeed, but the site was definitely one to be enjoyed by the well off and well organized. You pay a pitching fee and although it works out cheaper the longer you stay, it ended up being more expensive than a hostel. In hindsight I would have been just as happy finding an abandoned spit of land… Mountains in the middle of Europe are free of large and small dangerous creatures, so you’ll be fine. As long as you pick an inconspicuous part that will not be chanced upon by a ranger it could be an unforgettable night!
10. Never catch a taxi on the street, if you need one find a number from someone local.
At the time of my travels, the Danube was flooding and trains connecting major cities in the east were delayed. Henceforth my train got into Budapest at 1am and all public transport was asleep. Luckily enough a family took me under their wing, got a number to call for a cab and dropped me off at the door of my hostel.
If you’re arriving in a new city in the wee hours and would feel more comfortable getting a taxi than skulking the streets, find some fellow lone travellers and split a fare. Chances are they’re heading to a hostel in the heart of town as well.
To save your pennies though, its worth asking a train warden if they have a number to call. You will be insanely ripped off by the taxis banking up at the ranks near the train station.
Words, illustrations and photographs by Sophie Metcalfe