10 Frugal Days in Europe

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.

Sweden in February.

Planning ahead

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.

 

One of the maps I used for the trip in Google MyMaps.
One of the maps I used for the trip in Google MyMaps.

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.

At a Paris St. Germain soccer match with a friend.
At a Paris St. Germain soccer match with a friend.

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.

Packing

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.

Parking

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.

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.

Sleep

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.

Eat

I enjoyed this surprisingly good burger in Stockholm.
I enjoyed this surprisingly good burger in Stockholm.

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.

Girl looks around inside the Berlin Holocaust Memorial Park.
Girl looks around inside the Berlin Holocaust Memorial Park.

Have fun

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.

Cost

Here’s a breakdown of the trip costs.

NYC-Stockholm-Berlin-Paris-Stockholm-NYC, $543

6 nights in hostels, $141

31 restaurants or snacks, $384

Non-air transportation, $218

Entertainment, $107

Various ATM Fees, $12

Total: $1,426.19

Subtract normal spending on groceries/shopping/alcohol ($27/day at home):

Total: $1156.

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.

Stop forgetting ideas, use this note-taking system

Are you always too “busy” to focus or plan? This is rarely the case. You probably just have too much going on in your head. Uncategorized to-do items pile up throughout the day. You might feel daunted attempting to sort through them. Simplifying your process for categorizing ideas and tasks that pop up throughout the day will vastly improve your life and your efficiency. It will allow you more time to focus on the task at hand. The perfect structure for you may not be identical, but it will probably be similar to the below. Take the time to test out these principles and you’ll be well on your way to becoming a more effective person.

 

Get ideas down

From now on, every thought that inspires any future action gets written down. This alleviates the anxiety of forgetfulness. If you can trust your notes, you won’t have to trust your brain nearly as much. You can complete your tasks throughout the day with only the normal stress of those tasks, not the existential stress of feeling your life is out of control. Quantify your ideas and tasks to stabilize your life.

Identify the locations you frequent during your day. Where do you come up ideas? Is there a place you often forget ideas because you didn’t write them down? Go out tomorrow and buy yourself cheap notepads (Dollar Store or WalMart) and a decent pen (Pilot V5 is a classic). Every place you could have a thought gets a pen and paper. Assuming you’re not deep in a peyote trance or comatose (relax, I’m kidding), you’ll probably get an idea that requires some form of action pretty soon. WRITE IT DOWN. “Action” is anything that affects the future in any controllable way. That could be a reminder to research the cardiovascular capacities of squirrels or an idea of what color of pants you want to wear to the beach this summer. It doesn’t matter. If you are involved in doing it, write it down. When you move locations, tear that sheet of notes and put it in a spot that you’ll notice later. I use my pocket. I compulsively check my pockets. I don’t forget papers in there. As you go throughout the day you’ll find ideas piling up. It’s cool. You don’t have to worry, they aren’t going to disappear like they would in your brain. You now have some time to get these ideas organized.

Note: For safety and ease when driving, consider utilizing a voice memo system like “OK Google” for notes. Just say “OK Google” on your Google-supported phone and then “remind me in x hours to look into that property on N High St.”

 

Get it into a system

These ideas on paper are items for filing. This should be done fairly quickly. Ideas wither like lilies in the desert sun. The intricacies of their context and application go beyond the notepad and lose relevance over time.

The destination for your idea/items will depend ultimately on the type of action they. Here are the rules I follow based on the categories most of my ideas fall into:

“Someday” items go into an Any.do (a cool app you should check out) list. This I reference occasionally to see if any ideas have become more relevant over time. For instance, I may note there is a particular Broadway show, Dogs, I’d like to see. This may not have been relevant last month,but now that I have a trip planned to Manhattan, it has become relevant. I may now see that idea on the “someday” list and include it on my optimized itinerary of NYC.

“Buy” items go into an Any.do list I name “Buy” I pull up every time I’m at the grocery store or Walmart. Do you see how this could help? I don’t forget to buy that mouthwash I just ran out of.

In Any.do I also have lists for restaurants I want to check out, books I’d like to read, expenses I’ve incurred with my roommate, time I need to ask off at work, and random tips that may be useful in the future (e.g. my bike tires’ tube size or the combination to my gym lock.) All these categories help me worry less about various cognitively and temporally disparate sectors of life.

“To do” items go into a slot on Google Calendar. This will automatically send me an alert email 24hrs before the time slot. I’m a believer that effective people schedule and act on their ideas frequently. Developing long lists of free-floating tasks is burdensome. Make an effort to practice wringing the action items out of your ideas. This aids in the natural progression of your life towards learning, failing, improving, and succeeding. A common trait of worriers and ineffective people is to have long wish lists with no action items.

If there are ideas in my notes that are more casual, like fun articles or Youtube videos, those don’t get a list. I email myself the next time I think I’ll be able to actually review them. 

I’ve gathered from “productivity experts” that if a task takes less than 5 minutes, you should do it right away. This cuts down the micro tasks that jam up the system and cause unnecessary cognitive load with respect to their level of difficulty. The feasibility of this rule depends on your current schedule, however. If you are saving a kitten from a tree and the idea pops into your head that you need to download a Norton Anti-virus update, please save the kitten first.

Following these rules will help you reduce a ton of stress over forgetting ideas. It will allow you to be more efficient and focused. It also gives you satisfaction that you’re not wasting ideas you have in meetings or in the car. Most people don’t suffer from a lack of ideas, but a lack of organized notes. Try this out and see if it doesn’t work. Don’t dismiss it as being too easy to work. This shift will have a massive impact.

I’m off to Europe next week on an epic adventure. It’s gonna be a wild combination of frugality, eating, partying, airports, massively blundered Germanic languages, and an old friend with a penchant for world travel and reckless decision-making. I’ll take notes.

Get control of your email inbox

Your email inbox is crucial, yet often neglected. It’s often an environment that is disorganized and difficult to navigate. Would you treat your real mail like that? Would you leave junk items there? A well organized inbox promotes productive and less stressed work. The items in your inbox should be new and they should be important. Everything else should be elsewhere.

Get GMail. It’s simple, free, and robust. If you don’t have an account, open one. Forward your current email to Gmail. We’re going to turn it into your virtual assistance machine.

Filter out the non-essential

To simplify things, you need to get all non-essential mail into a folder. Go into your settings (the gear icon in the upper right), and add a new filter. Filter all messages with the word “unsubscribe” to a new label called “optional.” Make this filter archive emails so they skip your inbox. Almost all emails containing “unsubscribe” are non-essential and don’t need to be delivered to your inbox, which we’re reserving only for important and/or action items. Only check this “optional” folder when you have the time. Your inbox is a sacred place for important stuff. Unsubscribe from newsletters and emails you don’t want. If unsubscribing doesn’t work, filter emails into the trash.

Stop the constant onslaught

You are probably constantly distracted by new emails. We don’t want this. We want to schedule emails. This will greatly reduce distractions and help you stay on task. Here’s the free tool I use to do this. It’s called the Gmail Timer. You can set how often you get emails. Most people think this will destroy their responsiveness. I have found, in a year using it at my work, no one has noticed. Email is not a chat line, nor is it the only form of communication. If people need to reach you immediately, there are other methods. Gmail Timer gives you various options of how long to delay messages. I’ve found the sweet spot for me is receiving emails around every 2 hours. 4x a day. This limits distractions but prevents missing anything that needs relatively quick attention.

Let Gmail remember things for you

Email requires follow up. You don’t want to have to remember that. Let the machines do the remembering so you can get down to the real work. For this, you’re going to need  Boomerang. Boomerang schedules emails for specific times in the future. For a follow up on a sales lead tomorrow, you can do it now, and let Boomerang send it out later. You can also send emails back to yourself in the future. If you send an email to Bob on Monday asking for the budget analysis you need on Friday, use Boomerang to send back that email to you, if you don’t hear a reply, on Thursday. You can totally forget about that report until then. Use Boomerang to remind yourself about conversations and tasks that you don’t need in your inbox now, but would like to remember in the future. This keeps tasks out of your head that don’t need to be there. Your inbox is a place for relevant and important items that need to be addressed right now.  

Sorting through what’s left

1)Do you want it sent back to you later because you are not quite sure what to do with it or the conversation is still lacking a clear action? Use Boomerang.

2) Does it involve a clear and specific task? Get it on your calendar. Free floating tasks and to-do lists are much more stressful and difficult to deal with than tasks assigned to a specific time. Setting a specific time to deal with something gets it off your mind. No, you can’t multitask well, nor can you multi-focus. Having a free floating to-do list, instead of a calendar, forces multi-focusing and gets us overwhelmed.

3)Is it junk? Delete it. Find a pattern in your junk and keep building filters until 90% of it never hits your inbox. Good filters block specific words, specific email addresses, or whole email domains.

This system will improve your email and simplify your work.

If you like this post, subscribe to this blog below. I’ll send you updates when I post a new entry. I write these for my friends and family to help them address specific practical issues of importance to most people.

Subscribe to the Optimized Now mailing list


Want monthly email insights on ways to travel cheaply but well, optimize your bedroom, hack your health, design food tours based on your preferences, and more random productivity/living improvements?

The Optimized Now is a travel hacks and practical productivity newsletter with the details I use to custom build my life.

%d bloggers like this: