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Friday, July 20, 2018

The Solo Backpacker’s Survival Guide to Europe

You can do it cheap, but not without an Excel Sheet.

Written by Shruti Chakraborty | Updated: December 25, 2016 12:26:57 pm
europe-travel-mail_759_mithun-chakraborty-illo-ie As long as you have a plan in place, Europe can be done for a bargain! (Illustration by Mithun Chakraborty)

Thanks to countless listicles – “20 places to visit before you die”, “30 places you must see before you turn 30”, “10 things backpacking solo would teach you (you get the drift)” – I made up my own goal when I turned 29 – “Europe before 30”. It sounded fanciful but was it easy? Anything but. It involved hours of agony, poring over travel booking sites, figuring out accommodation, maintaining an expense sheet, charting out a safe yet interesting route. But cracking Europe on a budget is all about the planning. If you know exactly what you’re doing at least four months before your travel date, rest assured, you’d be doing this at a bargain price.

For me, the whole affair took about a year to completely chalk out. In six months of these, all I did was eat, sleep and breathe Europe. This was also my first solo trip, so I was particularly nervous. As my visa agent repeatedly told me over the course of two months, it also didn’t help that I was, horrifyingly, a single, Indian, unemployed woman– all red flags when it came to applying for a Schengen visa for several months. I was sceptical till the embassy kept my passport for 21 days. I got it a day before flying out.

But here’s how you can do it:

The Louvre in Paris, France. (Source: Shruti Chakraborty) Catching people poring over massive maps and planning their next destination is common at landmarks such as the Louvre in Paris, France. (Source: Shruti Chakraborty)

The Plan

It all starts with answering a bunch of self-posed questions (and I’ll answer these the way I answered mine for reference):

How long a trip can you afford?
After agonising over my savings, I thought 75 days was what I could manage without completely emptying my account.

What’s the budget?
I capped mine at Rs 4 lakh, with Rs 1 lakh for incidentals. I ended up spending Rs 3.8 lakh.

Which countries/cities do you want to cover?
This is important, because it sets the tone for the trip. Do you want to jet-set across the main cities and cover more ground or do you want to take it easy, cover less ground but soak in as much of a place possible? I chose the latter. My itinerary included France (because, Paris!), Spain (cheap, also four cities mostly in Andalusia), Portugal (cheap, wonderful coast, three cities), England (seven cities), Wales (three cities) and Scotland (one city and a day trip to the Highlands). Balance out the expensive cities with budget ones.

Why am I not waiting to get married and travel with my husband?
This was the most-oft asked question, so it’s always good to be prepared with an answer. Mine was: I will find him en route. I didn’t.

img_4387 Don’t always run. Sometimes, take the time out to breathe in the local flavours, like these guys in Seville, Spain. (Source: Shruti Chakraborty)

The Excel Sheet

Create a comprehensive Excel sheet of expenses (with cells in both INR and EUR/GBP). Before you know it, there will be an insane amount of calculations involved to make sure you’re within budget. You must tabulate everything to keep checking your total costs.

Flights: Bookmark all the flight booking sites and keep a watch for the best fares. When choosing flights, this is what I’ve learnt — 1) Never book over a weekend, airfare is always inflated; 2) Best fares are known to be 52 days before day of departure. Else you should book between Tuesday and Wednesday night, when the cheapest flights are up; 3) Fly on a Tuesday or Thursday, European flights tend to be cheaper on these days; 4) Sometimes, it helps to block a fare for a mere Rs 1,000-1,500 if you’re almost sure about your departure date if you get a great deal; 5) Keep checking fares from your browser’s incognito window; 6) Make sure you know how to commute between the airport to the city — cabs can be extremely expensive! (Tip: Rome2Rio.com is a great site for checking all available and affordable travel options between cities.)

Inter-city trains:
1) It’s best to have your inter-city travel sorted before you leave the country, because in countries like France and Germany, the train fare is much cheaper when booked months in advance;
2) Unless you intend to cover five countries in five days, don’t even think of EuroRail passes – they’re expensive and a waste of money even at a discount;
3) It’s worth the extra euros to buy refundable/flexible tickets when buying in advance – they’re only a couple of euros more, but give you a lot of flexibility on the go at no extra cost later;
4) Occasionally, try and check out the local language version of the train booking site — some sites offer special discounts only on the local language page;
5) Make sure you know the first and last train timing for all cities, you do not want to be stranded anywhere. (Tip: I’ve usually found Seat61.com to be helpful for checking train connections.)

Accommodation:
1) Forgo hotels and opt for either hostels or homestays (you can Couchsurf if you’re particularly adventurous. I didn’t);
2) Get yourself a Youth Hostels Association of India membership – it’s cheap and you get a discount at all HI properties across the world;
3) Only stay in the centre of the city, even if the room/bed rent is a couple of bucks extra – you will be saving a lot of money commuting around the city. If you’re a woman, it gives you flexibility to be out as late as you want;
4) Hostels versus AirBnB – I’d recommend the dorm in a hostel any day over a room in AirBnb, purely because you meet a lot more people in the former, and it’s much more fun. Tariff for both, when booking in advance, is comparable. Later, AirBnB rooms are more expensive;
5)Don’t be shy to ask people for help and tell everyone you know about your plan. There are those who give their houses to visitors when they’re out on holiday themselves, if you have a friend of a friend of a friend like that, you might score a room for free (I did!). Remember, six degrees of separation always helps!

img_0363 Walk through the local markets like this one in Paris, France. (Source: Shruti Chakraborty)

The Paperwork

#Get your visas done well in time. If for whatever reason your visas don’t come through as anticipated, you should have enough time to replan without upsetting the budget. (Mine went through a major rehaul, and it’s not a pleasant task.)

# Book the major points of travel and accommodation, research and keep the rest. An overplanned trip can be a buzzkill.

# Keep numbers of 1) Indian embassies of wherever you’re travelling; 2) local taxi operators for emergencies; and 3) local emergency numbers (it’s not 911 everywhere!)

# Keep three copies of all important documents in different places. You should always have one copy on your person, even if you don’t have the original.

# Get yourself travel cards for most expenses, and keep minimal cash in lower denominations. (Tip: Do not get American Express for the Schengen region).

On the Road

# Brush up on common words in the local languages – it helps when you’re on the road, it’s also a great ice-breaker.

# Travel light! Seriously. I started with 30kg, ended up with 47kg – all on my person! Europe has great flea markets and discount shops – splurge there. Not only do you get great stuff, but they’re cheaper than India. (Tip: I’ve found great markets in Paris, Barcelona, London and Florence.)

# But there are some things you should always have on you — a Swiss knife (or each of those components separately), needle-thread, pepper spray (if you’re a woman traveller), an additional purse/wallet to keep your cash hidden, a medicine kit with the basics and any personalised medicines you may need, one feature phone if it’s a longer trip and your smartphone battery runs out, pack of tissues (and some loose ones in your pocket), extra socks (it’s insane how handy they are).

img_6550 The Cardiff Castle in Wales, UK. (Source: Shruti Chakraborty)

Off You Go

Rule 1: Don’t sweat the small stuff. You’re there to enjoy. Incidental expenses will happen, which is why you kept a buffer.

Rule 2: Be careful, but allow yourself to trust your fellow travellers within reason. People feed off vibes. If you’re positive, people will respond to you similarly; if you’re distrustful and you show it, that’s what you’ll get.

Rule 3: Sometimes it’s okay to get conned. Makes for great stories later, as long as you don’t end up losing your passport, etc.

Rule 4: Always get a local number with Internet, and know how to read a map. When you’re travelling solo, this is of paramount importance.

Rule 5: Keep the visiting card of where you’re staying always with you, and even bookmark it on your phone map.

Rule 6: Keep buying small keepsakes for yourself everywhere. Ditch the family/friend souvenirs – too heavy to lug around and not worth it. Buy those at the very end, wherever you are.

Rule 7: Keep updating that Excel Sheet so that you don’t overshoot the budget. (I once did and spent a week on bread, processed meat and cheese to balance it off – Didn’t mind it one bit, though.)

Rule 8: Always ask people what you can do around a city – sometimes, forgoing a major landmark that you can check out on Google in favour of a local peculiarity is so much worth it. And always eat local! Please don’t go looking for an Indian restaurant.

Rule 9: Make friends, connect, pose questions on Twitter and travel fora when on the move, without divulging too much information. That way you get real-time suggestions, can meet new like-minded people, but be careful to not endanger yourself.

Rule 10: Same as Rule 1. Have fun!

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