Backpacking is quite often a budget activity to begin with; the adventurous among us seeking the cheapest sleeps and biggest eats on the smallest of budgets.
That being said, backpacking at 20 and not-so-far-from 30 are completely different scenes. As I get older, it’s less about bragging rights on how awful the hostel you stayed in was (I swear, I haven’t proudly told the story of how I woke up with a cockroach on my pillow in Cambodia for at least three years now), and more about getting the best you can for a reasonable price [Ed: B-but…#roachmotel #blessed?]
It was with this in mind that I began planning for what was meant to be an epic Eurotrip – an overnight bus from Moscow to Vilnius, Lithuania, a bus to Warsaw, Poland, overland from Krakow, Poland to Prague, Czech Republic (or Czechia if you want to be both technically correct and laughed at by locals) to catch a budget flight to Bordeaux, where days of fine wine and remarkable restaurants would ensue. Followed by a train to Lyon, then a bus to Milan, and ending with a ride through to Munich, where I’d catch a return flight to Moscow. Sounds pretty sweet, right?
A day or two before the grand adventure began, I got an email from my company’s HR department (you probably already know where this is going). “There’s been a delay, you won’t get paid until the 15th, sorry!” it cheerfully declared. The 15th, as these things go, was to be the last day of the trip.
And just like, that I found myself on a bus to the Baltics with a 10 to 15 Euro a day budget. “Here’s how you can do Milan on just 200 Euros for the weekend!” the Internet said.
“LOL!” I replied, and set out to do Europe on a rather ridiculous budget. In case you’re ever in a similar situation, here’s how you can do the same.
1. HOSTELS THAT FEED YOU WELL
It isn’t uncommon for hostels to offer free breakfast – but cereal and toast do not a poor traveller sustain. Look in advance for hostels that not only offer free breakfast but free dinner as well. I found more than a couple on this route, and if you play it well you can get away with a late breakfast and an early dinner, perhaps a snack in between. That’s your food for the day taken care of.
If you’re ever in Krakow, head straight to Greg and Tom’s hostel. They will not only keep you fed throughout the day, they will make sure you’re shitfaced every night that you’re there, and on their dollar too.
“Want some vodka?” you’re gleefully asked.
“Sure,” you tentatively reply and before long, jugs of vodka cocktails are carried out.
“How about shots?” the chirpy staff cry. And before you have a chance to answer, an entire tray of vodka shots sits before you.
You are now sitting in a room with your wallet safely out of your spend-y clutches, surrounded by strangers who are about to become your best friends.
2. BUSES AND TRAINS
Every night spent in a train or bus is a night saved on accommodation, and on this Euro budget challenge I’ve had the pleasure of some real classy busses like EcoLines which came equipped with power sockets, WiFi, and even in-bus entertainment catered to the wandering soul.
You could be both saving money and zipping though the night watching The Beach. It’s all very romantic in a wanderlust-y way. Of course there are also the buses where there’s no room for you to stretch out, or trains where you wake up to the creep next to you staring at you while you sleep, so a good night’s rest is a pleasant surprise rather than a given.
But the intrepid traveller knows that’s all good and well; you can sleep when you’re dead.
3. BREAD FOR THE ROAD
No surprise in the fact that Western Europe is hardly the cheapest place to travel (she thought as she shook her fist at the HR and Finance gods), but there are a couple of things you can do really well with and for super cheap: it’s the land of bread and cheese.
There’s absolutely no need for restaurants or even cafes. Grab a baguette and a slab of cheese and you’re sorted for lunch and possibly dinner for the day. With all the locals enjoying their own riverside picnics, no one will even know that you’re as poor as a church mouse and counting every cent. Devour that cheese, fill up on bread and say you’re living the #laissezfaire French way of life. This will be true, whether or not it was your plan.
Get serious about your budget and plan ahead with carefully chosen pastries and snacks for the day’s journey – there’s no room for error if a mid-afternoon craving strikes, and a 4 Euro Quiche Lorraine from a fancy café won’t do your daily budget any favours.
With all this budgeting, I’ve found great joy in having just one solid meal for your trip. Splurge one night on a slightly fancy restaurant that has TripAdvisor stickers as wallpaper and it’ll likely be a meal you’ll remember for a long time to come, as I will with the spectacular Le Bouchon Bordelais, in Bordeaux. While you’re at it, get a little dressed up and order the wine that the waiter recommends. Who cares if you’re off budget for a couple days after – know that you likely got to appreciate the meal far more than someone who fine dines every night.
4. HAPPY HOUR AND RIVERSIDE DRINKING
Speaking of fine dining, there are few things finer than a bottle of bubbly with a good view. Good news for me: wine could be bought for cheap, public drinking was allowed; everyone else was doing it in Bordeaux, as they were in Lyon.
Both cities offer spectacular views of the city, or the river. Add that to the wonderful communal feel of sharing a public space with strangers who have similar interests and it’s an excellent evening for cheap. When choosing your wine, don’t even pretend by buying something fancy. In places known for their wine, even the cheap supermarket wine is going to be good. And don’t waste your time with going for second cheapest, a habit I too had once fallen into. We all know you’re skint; just go for the cheapest you can find and save your connoisseuring for another time.
Another godsend came in the form of the Bordeaux Wine Council, who heavily subsidises prices at the Maison du Vin. Become a local wine taster for as little as 2 Euros a glass and indulge in an equally reasonable cheese platter. Think of it this way: You’re not just drinking, you’re helping to develop the regional wines that bring joy to winos around the world.
5. MUSEUM ADJACENCY
Aren’t museums a thing of beauty and splendour, filled with gorgeous things and history, information and art? Yeah, they generally cost money too.
Unless you’re around for a last Friday of the month free entry deal, or have access to a free national gallery, museums are generally just as pretty from the outside. Go ahead and tell the world you’ve been to the famous sights of the city you’re on; it’s up to you whether or not to omit the detail that you were, in fact, museum adjacent.
I’m gonna go right ahead and say that I’ve been to the Louvre, and let no man tell me that I wasn’t – at least technically – there.
6. KEEP WALKING
I won’t lie – at times it can make you feel a bit like a hobo with a bindle. But walking great distances to avoid the subway and taking no taxis at all saves so much money, and lets you see the city in a way you never would have otherwise. Cutting through shortcuts, snacking on aforementioned bread and cheese, capturing your best photographs, and stopping for a glass of wine can be the best sightseeing you’ll ever do.
So I didn’t do any of the Top 5 Must See Sights in Milan, or sample any of the Michelin stars of Bordeaux. But I know the best spot for a riverside picnic, or where to find 1.50 Euro beers after a long day of calculated, careful but spectacular adventure.
Tomorrow’s the 15th and the adventure (and anxiety) ends here – a relief to be sure, but on hindsight? I wouldn’t change a thing.