Far From the Madding Crowd in Europe

part of the BootsnAll Indie Travel Challenge Project

What have you done in your own visits to Europe to make it more budget-friendly or to get away from the crowds? If you were going to spend several weeks – or several months – in Europe, where would you go (and why)?

note: i wrote a more general entry about how i save money while traveling for the #indie30 project last year.

on the majority of my trips to europe, i’ve spent very little money either out of circumstance or necessity. they were either a) with my family (=i barely had to pay for anything, thanks mom), or b) as a fixed-/limited-income grad student in germany. while the former is perhaps the best way to go if you can stand your family, having limited means but the urge to travel really gave me insight on how to do it on the cheap (err, cheaper). that isn’t to say i haven’t splurged on trips from the states to europe basically just to see concerts (see that entry above), but i’d rather get a deal than spend a deal!

here are some things i’ve picked up:

  • hotels: don’t be afraid to stay outside of the city center/old town. depending on your travel style, you may enjoy this more since you get to experience something a bit more “real life”, and prices will undoubtedly be cheaper when comparing similar types of lodging. especially in large cities, the public transportation system is usually pretty good, so you will have no problem getting around. definitely do the research, though, to double check that the hotels you’re considering are indeed served by public transportation (check frequencies, especially at night) and that that’s an inconvenience you’re willing to deal with.

The view from a €55/night hotel in the 17th arrondissement of Paris. Not the most splendid, but it was clean, functional, and convenient to public transportation.

  • flights: there’s no way i could have traveled so much as i did when i was a student were it not for low-cost airlines (specifically Germanwings and TUIfly). beware: some of them fly to airports that aren’t the main ones/close to town, so you may be in for a relatively long bus or train ride once you arrive. you can find more information on discount european airlines and how to find flights on them on wikitravel.
  • trains: while most people think about getting a rail pass when going the train route, it may not be the cheapest option. many train operators offer discounts if you book early and can commit to taking a particular train: in the case of german rail (deutsche bahn, the sparpreis ticket), up to 50% off round trips. another example from germany (since that’s what i’m most familiar with): deals for regional weekend travel (schönes-wochenende) that will save a ton if you’re traveling in a group.
  • where: don’t be afraid to get off the beaten path. smaller cities usually mean cheaper and fewer crowds — there’s more to europe than london and paris and rome!

Fish drying in Nazaré, Portugal. The town was dead in the off-season (a good thing!).

  • when: as always, off or shoulder season is my preferred time to go. the weather may be a bit crappier, but the crowds are thinner and prices (for things like hotel) are usually cheaper. this worked best when i was a student since it was pretty easy to sneak away (heh) and there were a ton of random holidays in germany (if you look at this list, we [BW] got it pretty good!).

There may be a chill in the air and the trees may be missing some leaves, but winter or spring travel can be wonderfully tourist-sparse. Rothenburg ob der Tauber, Germany, early April.

  • make friends: whether it’s online or in school, the more places you can stay free and have a local host, the better. join twitter, make friends, reconnect with old ones that may have moved overseas.

My first trip to Luxembourg was a day trip from Saarbrücken, where I visited (and stayed with) some friends of mine from grad school.

  • try and time it right: if you can make it during a festival or other event you’re interested in, go for it and kill two birds with one stone (a vacation and an experience). don’t know what’s going on? even better — researching a destination is part of the fun, imho! this is definitely easier said than done, since few of us are so flexible (i know i’m not, especially with my job), but it can be worth it.

Granted getting to Berlin from Tübingen was pretty easy, but there was no way I was going to miss a chance to go to Love Parade (*sigh*, RIP)

  • become a resident: this was, hands down, the best thing i’ve ever done in terms of feeding my travel addiction. being a student in many european countries is pretty cheap (when i did my grad school in germany, it was pretty much free, just pay for room and board and living expenses). once you’re there, the continent is your oyster.

My admission letter to the MA computational linguistics program at the University of Tübingen.

now to quickly answer the second question — where would i go if i had time and money? let me count the ways. ireland (never been), scotland (visit some twitter friends), denmark (never been), norway (never been), romania (love the language, never been), ukraine (never been). there are other countries in europe that i have not been to, but these top the list.

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Tightening the (Money)Belt

part of the BootsnAll Indie Travel Challenge Project

Find one major expense to cut from your daily life. How much can you save for travel by cutting it? How many other expenses (large or small) could you reduce in order to put that money toward travel?

before we begin, i just have to say that i have, believe it or not, cut my starbucks habit down by 90%. rather than go once or twice a day, i go at most once every week and a half or so. (let’s conveniently forget that i have picked up a dunkin’ donuts habit ever since i’ve started going back east for work, but that comes in at a fraction of the cost of the mermaid.)

hmm. brainstorming here, what can i cut. what. can. i cut.

possibilities:

  • fast food? it’s definitely healthier if i cook for myself…if i spent $100 on groceries for two weeks (my share between me and the bf) versus spending perhaps almost that much per week on fast food meals…wow. my cholesterol would be happier too, i’m sure. i just know, though, that i’m too lazy to cook. i’ve/we’ve tried this before and easily slipped right back into the mcd’s habit.
  • gadgets? yes, i have tons of gadgets i don’t use (i should probably even just sell them back, come to think of it). i think i’ll estimate that last year, i spent $1,000? that seems like a fair amount, but i also think 2011 was unusually spendy.
  • coffee? wait, so i’d have to give up my tassimo? i have actually been toying with the idea lately, given how upset i am that all my favorite t-discs are out of stock due to the recall and they clearly have supply chain problems, but that’s another story for another day (and another blog). i spend maybe $50 a month on t-discs? i could switch to a french press or something…

not gonna happen:

  • car? ha, i’d love to be able to cut this out, but in suburban california, that’s highly unlikely.
  • internet? cell phone? (not like these are even on the table, but for the sake of being complete) luckily work pays for these.
  • cable? nope, the significant other would be significantly displeased.

the winner: clothes/shoes

this actually popped into my head soon after i thought of the coffee idea (my first instinct). i’m sure if any friends are reading this, it was the first thing they thought of. i have way too many jeans, t-shirts, and shoes (pretty much what i wear every day; i don’t dress up, i’m a simple man). the main problem isn’t the existing size of my wardrobe, it’s that i can’t stop buying, especially when i see a SALE sign. i’m not going to count, but suffice it to say that it’s gotten to the point that at the beginning of 2011 (or was it 2010?) my new year’s resolution was to not buy any clothes or shoes that year. i think that lasted all of a handful of weeks.

it’s not that i spend an insane amount, maybe $500-$600 a year, but it’s very clearly money that does not need to be spent. my clothes are not worn out, they are not going out of style (at least i don’t think?)…i just have a bad spending habit every time i come across a sale and the fact of the matter is, my closet is overflowing as it is.

the tally

assuming i make the changes listed above, i estimate i can save annually:

Fast Food conservatively, $150/mo = $1,800
Gadgets let’s say i buy half = $500
Coffee if i brew it myself, buying just the grounds ($10/mo? i’ve never checked prices) is a savings of $480
Clothes $500

the total: $3,280

wow. that would be one heckuva nice trip.

*gears turning*

To Splurge or Not To Splurge

this week’s USAToday.com/TripAdvisor.com travel survey asks:

What travel category is most worth splurging for?

  • First or business class flights
  • An upscale hotel room or room upgrade
  • Excellent restaurants
  • Luxury shopping
  • A premium rental car

i’m definitely not a picky traveler (see my Budget entry for details) and frankly, i would rather save my money than splurge on one of the above, either using it to stay longer (i.e., more hotel nights/activities), or put it towards my next trip.

if i had to choose, it’s more by a process of elimination:

  • upgraded flights? hm. i’ve only ever flown in first class domestically, and i’m sure first/business internationally is fantabulous, but i’ve made it to 34 countries flying in coach and i’m just fine, thankyouverymuch.
  • upgraded accomodations? i’ve stayed in five star hotels and in a hostel next to a loudly-snoring russian and as long as i have a clean bed and bathroom, i’m good.
  • luxury shopping? then you have to splurge to get an extra bag to bring your purchases home. that’s too much splurging for me, thankyouverymuch!
  • fancy car? take your fast car and keep on driving — i’ll stick to a smaller car that’s easier to park and has better fuel economy.

which leaves food. i’m always down to nom! like how they say the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach, one of the best ways to local culture is through its food. if you’ve gotten your fill of street food, might as well work your way up to the local fancy delicacies!

Budget

part of the 30 Days of Indie Travel Project

i’m a pretty cheap traveler. i mean, let’s face it. if you’re just a regular joe (or, in my case, a regular jon) and like to travel as much as i do, you can’t have champagne wishes and caviar dreams.

something i hardly ever spend money on: souvenirs. i used to get stuff, but really, it’s just going to take up extra room in your suitcase and i’m the type of person to let it just sit on the shelf for years and never look at it again (*eyeing dusty fez and cobwebby lantern from morocco*). that’s not to say i’ll never. if something really catches my eye, i will get it, but for the most part, they’re a waste of hard-earned moolah.

something i’m willing to scrimp on: lodging. when i was a grad student traveling around europe (shh, it was an easy program) i’d have no problem staying in hostels. traveling in winter was the best because they’d be virtually empty—i’ve had entire rooms to myself on several occasions (e.g., picture above). but even though i have a job that pays more than a Hiwi again, i prefer to stay cheap. if i didn’t have to tote my work laptop with me everywhere i went (and maybe have to work, even on vacation), i would still do the hostel thing. so, i now do the cheap hotel thing. well, the cheap-but-still-highly-rated-on-tripadvisor thing. 

many of you will gasp, but i’m willing to be stingy about food. i will have fast food for several meals if that means being able to get the occasional nice meal. i mean, yes, i could probably afford non-fast food meals, but i balk at spending so much money. so yes, that means i have eaten at quick more times than i care to remember. silver lining? sometimes the tastiest food is cheap street food. one word: döner. also, the best sausage i ever had (har har, all you people with dirty minds, i’m serious) was from some random subway station stand in prague. cheapskate or not, i’m traveling to explore, so i make it a point to at least have a nice, typical meal at least every other dinner, if not more often.

speaking of subways, it’s key to do research to see what sort of public transportation deals there are at your destination, like all-day transit passes or discount combination tickets, etc. if i can help it, i will not rent a car or take a cab. public transit all the way! it’s cheaper, you don’t have to deal with driving/parking/speeding tickets, and, most important to me, i feel more connected with the place i’m in.

and speaking of transportation, flights. do. your. research. kayak and hipmunk are your friends. imho, definitely just go cheap, with a caveat. i am willing to spend slightly more (my cutoff is usually around 10-15% of the ticket cost) to stick with a single alliance (in my case, star alliance) because i can accrue miles on one airline while flying different carriers to different parts of the globe. and once you get those miles? USE THEM. no point in hoarding (burn baby burn, as they say). and when you have an unpredictable work schedule like i do, miles are like gold. even at the last minute, off-peak travel is usually easy to get at the lowest redemption option, and the flexibility with an award ticket really helps. i’ve had to reschedule tomorrow’s trip to japan three times, but because it’s an award ticket, changing the dates has been free! (although costs are dependent on airline and any elite status, and are subject to availability, yadda yadda)

so. what am i willing to spend money on? experiences. i will, and have, traveled for the express purpose of one thing (usually a long weekend trip for a concert):

oh, the easiest way to save money on travel? be lucky enough to have a job that will pay for you to go places. i don’t travel much on company dime, but my boss knows about my wanderlust so i’ve been fortunate enough to go to milan (which i extended to visit germany and luxembourg), buenos aires, and south africa. at least that way you get the plane ticket for free! for the same reason, i don’t mind traveling with my parents (spain and portugal, france [no pics, was too lazy to upload], and china are the most recent). usually they pay for the plane ticket or the hotel, and either way, they almost always pay for food—and they eat well! yes, i’m 34 but hey, if you can milk it, milk it. 😉 (p.s. love ya mom!)

and there you have it. this blog post ended up being a lot longer than i thought (i was expecting one paragraph), but i’m procrastinating packing…

see all my #indie30 posts

Nothing Like a Hostel Room All To Yourself on Flickr.