Budget Travels

How to have fun in Europe without spending (as much) cash...

So you've decided to hit a foreign continent, you want to have a good time, but you need to pay the bills again when you get home (don't you just hate that?) Now, if you're smart, you can have your cake and eat it, too. While traveling, I actually met a Canadian who manages this. During the warm half of the year, he lives in Amsterdam and makes a modest living as a tour guide. "The rest of the time," he says, "I like to go someplace warm and cheap. This year it might be Brazil."

(okay, I admit, his life is way cooler than mine, but what do you expect? He has dual Dutch-Canadian citizenship and lives in Amsterdam - short of being "The Dude" Lebowski himself, you really can't get any cooler than that).

Now then, survival on a budget. The key to having fun on a budget is planning. You cannot have fun or save money if you don't have a cheap place to stay, and those cheap places (the ones still clean enough to be worth staying in) get snatched up fast. So in order to save money, you need spend some. Your first purchase on the ground or before you travel should be a guide book. I highly recommend Lonely Planet guides - they're filled with helpful reviews and all kinds of interesting trivia. If you're only staying for a couple days, you can get by on a map and the free handouts you get at the front desk of your hotel or hostel, but you may well miss out on some of smaller, less commercial attractions. For example, the best "church" in Amsterdam is a tiny Catholic chapel that was hidden in a wealthy merchant's attic during the reformation - if not for the address in the guide book, I would have walked right past.

Guide books, of course, have their limits. They are published, at most, once a year, and the only book comprehensive enough to point out everything weighs enough to be a army training aid. And, of course, bound paper cannot reserve the room for you. This is where the internet comes in. If you prefer living free like a bird without a care in the world, then the internet can save your posterior end. While I was traveling, I used the internet to find last-minute deals on hostels a day or two before arriving in-city. This way, I didn't have to plot out my entire two weeks in Germany in advance - I could pick and choose which cities to visit, and I could change my mind when it suited me. During the first week, I made a return-stop through Cologne to see the Pope on his first trip back home to Germany. Later, in Berlin, the youth hostel I stayed at didn't have flyers for any German-language bike tours (Berlin, the capital of the German world, and all I get is English? Scary.) A quick google in German, and a friend and I had a bike tour all lined up for the next day.

Now you've used the guide book, you're staring at a flickering monitor in the recesses of the internet cafe, and you still can't decide what to do first. Go on a tour. No matter how many guide books I read, I never know what to go see until someone tells me. Tour guides, I think, really are the best source for inside information on where to go (no, my past life as a campus tour guide does not make me biased...I really am this cool). The Information Booth outside the Amsterdam Centraal won't tell you that the Anne Frank Huis is really an hour or two of waiting for fifteen minutes of cramped stumbling through a tiny attic (I tried to go on that tour, too - twice, in fact. However, the Secret Annex is as small as the book says and as well-known as Anne Frank herself). You can easily lose an entire morning trying to visit someplace that will sell out before you reach the ticket window. I'd rather reserve a spot on a relaxed walking tour, get the facts from a local resident who loves the place enough to show it off, and then go back to the good ones the next day.

Now, the other advantage to going on these tours is that you meet all kinds of people who are in the same boat you are - wandering around in a foreign land without a clue. Seriously, why would you visit someplace you're intimately familiar with? Unless you have resident family members guiding you by the hand, you don't know much about the city you're in, and you probably don't know hardly anyone living there, either. Myself, I'm a reserved person - I don't meet random people while walking through the halls of the Goethe's birthplace or while nursing a beer at the local biergarten. Aside from the roommates I met at hostels, most of the people I talked to during my trip to Europe were on the various city tours. After one tour, I ended up tagging along with two groups of Britons, and we headed over to an Australian pub that advertised "lowsy food and warm beer" (except for the beer being cold, it was pretty good truth in advertising). Maybe I would have found a better pub if I had been alone, what good are a couple steins of Guinness if you don't have Britons laughing at the Yank who is now too inebriated to speak in English or any other language? (Was I really that Yank? I'm not sure - it's all a little fuzzy).

This phenomenon also applies to staying in hostels. The two nights I stayed in hotels were pretty bleak nights. Yes, it's nice having your own bathroom, and it is safer locking your luggage in your own private room, but good luck meeting fellow travelers. Now this may seem counterintuitive, but I think it's easier to save money if you're meeting people. When you're busy talking, you have way more more fun than you would if you spent the entire day dragging yourself past museum exhibits, and you don't have to pay admission. (Keep some beer money handy, yes, but you can usually buy at least two beers for the price of admission to a museum). When you go out to eat with the friends you meet, you'll probably spend more than you would alone - you'll go to nicer places, you'll buy more food, etc - but the trip will be far more enjoyable. You won't have this urge to hit six museums in eight hours to give you this sense of having "toured" the place. And, to be honest, I think you understand a place better when you see it with others at your side. When I visited Dresden, I happened to be there during the Dresdner Stadtfest - the City Festival. My first night in, I'm exhausted from having spent the previous night on a train from Cologne. My German is shot, but that's okay - I'm roommates with an Australian and two Estonians (and the Estonians spoke English but no German). For good measure, the Australian spots a New Zealander friend of his in the hostel's ground-floor pub. As a merry band we wandered out to the festival. It was great - German singers belting out lyrics from the bottom of the American pop charts, fairy tales acted out on ornate streetside stages, and respectable quantities of cheap beer. If not for the folks I met at the hostel, I probably would have turned in early and missed out on all the fun (okay, so I'm sure I would have had less of a headache the next morning, too. But hey, you only live once, right?)

Yes, I know, I'm supposed to be explaing how to save money, not how to make friends and have a good time. But what good is saving money while you travel if your trip makes you never want to leave home again? You save a lot of money never leaving home, but it makes for a very boring existence. (Take it from someone deployed to Afghanistan - boring is good! Stay Home!)

A few more tips, and then you can hit the guide books. Figure out your transportation goals before leaving home, and then purchase a rail pass which allows you to meet these goals at a discount. My entire trip took place in Germany and Amsterdam, but it wasn't until halfway through my two weeks (after my third of several train trips) that I discovered a special discount for rail travel between Germany and the Netherlands. I'm sure a few keywords at Google would have revealed this before, but I hadn't even thought to check.

Finally, wherever you go, there will be the local equivalent of TicketMaster. Sometimes it's a small booth near the train station, sometimes you have to go online, sometimes its simply one of several functions filled by the cultural center. My personal favorite was "Last Minute Tickets" in Amsterdam. True to name, they had a same-night ticket to the Amsterdam Symphony for 9 euros. Not the best seat in the house, granted, but the music was beautiful (and, if you know a little German to go along with your English, trying to decipher a musical program written entirely in Dutch can be fascinating in a rip-your-hair-out sort of way). But hit the ticket office as early as possible - the sooner you go, the more likely you are to get a good deal or, more importantly, get tickets at all.

back to "Lost in Europe 2005"