16 December 2012

8 tips for budget travel -- on a time limit

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You don’t always have the luxuries of money and time, especially when you’re a student on a single-entry Schengen visa. Though we all wish we could spend a comfortable number of days in any city, it isn’t always possible. This July, I travelled to 8 cities in 16 days, and it was quite an experience.

Here’s how I made the most of it -- some tips from me to you:

1. Keep moving, even when weather is not your friend

Rain it will, but you may not have enough hours to wait for it to pass. Rain brought magic: a girl laughing while twirling her midnight blue umbrella in front of Hôtel de Ville. Rain brought camaraderie: getting to know two lovely Mexican girls as we meandered through carousels (a detour caused by the usual route being barricaded due to the rain) looking for the Eiffel Tower.

2. Get a good night’s rest

Book hostels in advance if you can; the good (clean) ones always go early, especially in the summer. Overnight travel is a great way to save money, but don’t do it if you (a) can’t sleep on transport or (b) are going to be visiting the destination for 1-2 days. You will end up with an aching back and too exhausted to enjoy the place. London to Brussels on a bus was cheap, cheap, cheap but involved getting on and off ferries all night, and nodding off on park benches during the day.

3. Instead of GPS, get a paper map

It’s more personal and each city has a unique style of maps they hand out to tourists. In Bruges and Vienna, for example, I was given maps made by locals, with fun illustrations and lots of tips, favourite hangouts and pet peeves. Moreover, a paper map is not infallible: it will sometimes baffle you and you will then talk to locals or fellow travellers.

4. Don’t try to see everything

Spend some time in the morning marking out sights that you really want to visit. You can do a lot in one day, but it always helps if you know what you want to do. Alternatively, sign up for a walking tour: I have fond memories of a Harry Potter tour of London (who knew quaint Charing Cross streets were the inspiration for Diagon Alley?) and I owe most of my knowledge of Budapest to a wonderful Hungarian tour guide. Check out their rating and credentials though, as there’s nothing like a bad walking tour to make you waste your day. If you’re not crazy about touristy things, wander at leisure and sample local life, but keep a vague track of time.

5. Get lost

It’s the best way to find something new and off the beaten track, like the tiny café in Vienna where a scene from Before Sunrise was filmed. Be safe, though.

6. Travel light but carry the basics

Soap and towels (not all hostels provide these), plastic bags (for dirty laundry) and the right CONVERTOR (harder to come by than you might think and often at outrageous prices; we walked all over Brussels looking for one and finally found it at a corner shop where the Indian shopkeeper let us have it for the discounted price of €5).

7. Set aside ‘break days’ to recharge yourself

Sundays might be good for this in Europe, since many shops and museums are closed (check this though, you don’t want to miss out exclusive weekend events). Relax and unwind. I used break days to take advantage of my friends’ hospitality in Prague and Heidelberg: long aimless walks, catching up over coffee, no itinerary, and – to make up for youth hostel breakfasts – scrambled eggs.

8. Don’t despair if things don’t go the way you expect

Even the best plans go wrong. There will be times when you miss that bus or train because you misjudged the time, or because no tourist information office in Paris could tell you where Gallieni was (“I will find it for you, madame”, they would say sweetly, pulling down fat guide books and poring over maps). Each experience adds to the stories you’ll have to tell back home, and makes it uniquely YOURS.

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