For a long time, I’ve been dying to wander Europe. This past week, I finally did. I’d like to share how and why.
Though I strove to make this trip as inexpensive as possible, I didn’t restrict myself from having a great time. I slept comfortably, ate sumptuously, and enjoyed lots of local music, sports, and landmarks. Over 10 days, I explored Sweden, Germany, and France; ate at 27 different restaurants, slept through 5 flights, and met loads of cool people. I did it for just $1400. That’s pretty good considering the average person budgets $3,500-$5,000 for a 10 day trip from NY to Europe.
The greatest cost is airfare. I discussed this in detail here. I found the cheapest round-trip flight to any place in Europe possible, setting very few limitations. This happened to be Sweden in winter. Don’t worry, It never got colder than 27F. After booking the flight for $320 round trip, I carefully planned the 10 days I had in Europe. This will be the story of those 10 days.
I don’t believe in rigidly scheduled vacations because flexibility opens up so many unexpected surprises. Nevertheless, going on a trip without a plan will leave you unprepared. I’ve found the best way to plan, without scheduling, is mapping. I created digital maps with all the places I might enjoy seeing in Stockholm, Paris, and Berlin, my destinations. This helped me keep my bearings, allow for flexibility, and make planning each day a new adventure. I didn’t schedule anything in advance except a couple soccer matches I wanted to see.
A great tool for mapping is Google MyMaps. It allows for more impressive customization than Google Maps and can be easily shared with others.
There are a few online research resources that make map-planning easy. Yelp is by far the best for restaurants. Pick out the top 10-15 in your destination and get them on a map if that’s your thing. But who doesn’t enjoy good food? Scour Reddit and other travel forums for a couple hidden gems and unique tourist destinations. Those go on the map, too. Look at Chowhound for fancier “foodie” (cringe) recommendations if that’s your thing. Yelp has turned out to be the most accurate predictor of restaurant quality for me, however.
Explore the cultural habits of your destination. Go to local sporting events to feel the local flair. There’s nothing that quite compares to the thunderous roar of European soccer fans huddled together in a cold stadium. I went to two games with 35,000+ fans in attendance. It’s a pretty cool immersion experience. Don’t try to do too much. I’d say give each major city at least 3 days, and don’t try to eat at more than 5 restaurants or see more than 2 major tourist sites per day. Your stomach and legs will thank you.
If you’re visiting Europe, plan to do everything on your phone offline. Download all you maps (both geographic maps and the custom maps I mentioned above can be overlayed and downloaded separately) beforehand. Use GPS to navigate. GPS does not use data or wifi. I found a couple other apps helpful. HERE maps and Maps.me both work offline a bit better than MyMaps. I downloaded those as well and exported my custom Google mymap to both those programs using a simple feature in Google MyMaps. Between these three programs, I could always pinpoint my location and never got lost. I always knew which sites were around me, and never felt like I was missing out.
If you don’t speak your destination’s language, download the entire local language onto the Google Translate mobile app in advance. This allows you to read anything and get by with minimal stress. This app also read menus visually for you with your phone’s camera. That’s super cool. Google Translate can be used entirely offline and has an easy feature for downloading most of the world’s major languages. Crazy, I know.
I happened to love touring for food and famous architecture. Places like the Arc de Triomphe, the Nobel Hall in Stockholm, and Alexanderplatz in Berlin fascinate me. For nights, I mapped out the spots that people in their 20’s bragged about online. These are generally bars and clubs with the most eclectic vibe and best music. I’m a sucker for electronic music, so I tried to seek that out. Europe is a bustling EDM center so it wasn’t difficult. Every night was a different adventure generally subject to the whims of the hostel crowd with which I would spend my early evenings. Armed with my map, I was able to guide my fellow travelers to the must-see spots, during the day and at night. Have a map and know what you want to see.
When packing for your trip, plan to carry only personal items. No big bags or carry-ons. This will save you hundreds of dollars in baggage fees and lighten your mental and physical load. Pack very efficiently. Get your packing list to the bare minimum. Err on the side of packing fewer things. If you fear you’re not bringing enough, don’t fret. If you do forget something, you can buy most toiletries and clothing in a local shop your destination. Besides your passport, prescription meds, credit cards, & insurance card you can probably replace whatever you forgot within 20 minutes.
When you’ve whittled down the list, pack smart. The best method I’ve ever seen is “the butler method”. Lay big clothing as flat as possible. Fill shoes with socks. Once you’ve packed everything, fold in the arms and hanging items. This way fits much more. It’s kind of amazing. Once packed, you’re off to the airport.
Airport parking is expensive. JFK charges $120 at the cheapest lot to park a car. That’s more than 5% of the actual value of my car! There’s a solution. I found people who lived near JFK on Reddit and messaged them for their personal parking recommendations. They messaged me specific blocks that are relatively safe and parkable close to JFK. I used Google Street View to confirm these spots. This saved me $120 in parking fees. Beware, there is risk involved with this plan and people with nicer cars should probably consider public transit or long term parking lots when flying.
If the idea of flying sucks to you, it doesn’t have to. Get the Sleep Master eye mask, a neck pillow and a good set of earplugs. This makes a huge difference. Book the window seat because it ensures no one will need to wake you up. I don’t understand how everyone doesn’t use a mask and plugs. I also love using a running belt to hold my valuables, passport, and boarding pass to avoid stumbling through my pockets during the boarding process.
Upon landing, get from the airport to your hotel/hostel using the cheapest means. Find a traveler friend on the flight to split a fare with you if that will help. You also make a friend and can chat about travel. Travelers are generally super friendly and also looking to save a few bucks. Avoid convenience items like high-speed trains, airport food, and taxis where they don’t make sense.
I don’t think this should be news, but hostels are really cheap. If you bring those earplugs and mask, you’ll have a perfectly good sleep for $15/night in a central location. You’ll meet a ton of interesting, open-minded people, that often have cool ideas and insights about your destination that you never thought of. For solo travelers like myself, this is the way to go.
To keep costs down I avoid meals over $23. Upon analysis, I’ve found that nearly 50% of my restaurant spending has come from that top 20th percentile of meals over $23. I ate street food happily and handily. Know your spending patterns and use them to save yourself from frivolous spending. Of course, if you just need to eat at that amazing 3-michelin star restaurant in San Francisco, by all means do it. Eating has become my main activity on vacation. With the above-mentioned map, the days become adventures exploring unknown neighborhoods and little-visited strip malls in search of the best cheap eats. I end up meeting interesting restaurant owners, seeing locals enjoying their city’s best food and generally stuffing my face with incredible new palette-inspiring food. I explore corners of the city seldom seen by visitors. Here’s my Yelp profile where you can have a more thorough look at my snobby food opinions.
What I did
It’s worthwhile to describe the trip itself for some concrete examples. I visited Stockholm for three days, visiting the excellent old parks, Scandinavian architecture, and street food. Sweden has a penchant for cleanliness and quiet and being green and wild. It’s quite nice. The people are quiet, but friendly and happy, especially after they’ve had a few beers. Sitting in their cozy coffee shops with a nice cream puff was a pleasant experience. Stockholm itself had almost no tourists in February, so I saw the real life of the city.
Berlin is a much more post-modern, vibrant city with a few more tourists, though not many Americans. This I like because I insist upon cultural novelty on trips. Being surrounded by American tourists just isn’t a novel experience. The city’s architecture in Berlin is much more bleak and influenced by communism than the other two cities I saw. Seeing the Berlin wall and the extravagant architectural remains of the Habsburg empire in the same city is quite interesting. Berlin is a mashup of old and new. Its people are much more expressive than the Swedes. Berlin has a certain degree of funkiness reminiscent of Brooklyn or Portland. It’s a very ethnically diverse city which is apparent in their cuisine. I had the best Chicken Shawarma I’ve ever had there. The Lebanese have made their major mark in Berlin with the ubiquitousness of the Doner Kebab, a life changing crispy experience of porky joy wrapped in a pita, jammed with fresh sandwich vegetables, and smothered in a mayonnaise goop of slightly acidic ecstasy
Paris is refined. It’s joyful. It’s diverse. It was everything I expected. I can see why people would not like it, particularly Americans. The French take a certain pride in their language and culture. They don’t cater to Americans (or British, or anybody) who feel the need to bring their rowdiness to their city. With just a minimal effort to speak French, you’ll get by in Paris undetected. This is what I strive for. If I’m seen as a tourist, I’ve failed. Of course, there are some circumstances where you need to ask for help. Or you need to use tourist resources. That’s fine. I just don’t like looking or acting like a tourist when I can. Paris has been able to preserve their architecture, culture, and language in a way that simply hasn’t happened in Sweden or Germany. For better or worse, Paris is uninhibitedly and aggressively French. I can see why some Asians are so overwhelmed by this they develop psychosis. I really enjoyed it. Their joy in food and life is something that I think we could all learn from. Sites like the Eiffel Tower, Louvre, and Arc D’ Triomphe are good places to start, but there is clearly deeper diving to be done. Paris is currently in flux. There are many refugees. There is much cultural distress caused by the meeting of immigrants with the strong French culture. This makes Paris, in some sense, a melting pot. It’s a place worth exploring for sure.
Every day I’d wake up naturally, pick out 3-4 restaurants and tourist sites, plot a route on public transit, and cruise the city with nothing but a camera (safely stowed in my running belt), my wallet, and my phone for navigation. I walked a lot. I ate a lot. I saw a lot. I can’t think of a better way to travel for maximum exposure to a destination.
When traveling, embrace the moment. The little things are often the most impactful. I happened to meet a fun group of Irish university students on holidays in Berlin. I hit it off with a cool group of 6 hostelites from 4 different continents the next night. I swapped travel stories with an Aussie girl living in London. Another evening I went to Stockholm’s best club and heard a near-perfect assembly of EDM with two young gents from Sussex, England. I had an exquisite Ramen (restaurant ramen, not the dorm room stuff) dinner with an engineer from Montana, and snuck into a fancy club with a sommelier from Napa and a British guy on gap year. I braved the fog filled techno factories of Berlin with a fellow McGill alum I met by chance and attended two housewarmings in Paris. These are the glorious happenstance things you don’t get in a hotel. And you can’t plan for. They truly made my trip.
Here’s a breakdown of the trip costs.
6 nights in hostels, $141
31 restaurants or snacks, $384
Non-air transportation, $218
Various ATM Fees, $12
Subtract normal spending on groceries/shopping/alcohol ($27/day at home):
Travel can be a great way to challenge your assumptions about the world and learn more about your reactions to cultural adversity, such as language difficulties and societal standards like eating etiquette and voice level. It doesn’t have to be expensive. It is for this reason that I think every capable individual should travel to a new place at least once a year. I’m sure I will soon.