For many travelers from Malaysia, or Asia for that matter, traveling in Europe is like the holy grail of all travels. Europe is not a cheap continent to travel in; once you convert the Malaysian Ringgit to the Euro, you lose almost half the value. So for many, it remains a dream.
Is it possible to travel around Europe cheaply? “If there’s a will, there’s a way”, it all depends how badly you want to it, and how willing you are to get out of your comfort zone to achieve it.
Here are some ways that can help you trim your budget for that elusive European trip.
Transportation can eat a huge chunk out of your budget if you don’t plan properly. But there are many ways to travel cheaply.
Budget airlines like Ryanair (www.ryanair.com), Easyjet (www.easyjet.com), etc. are the AirAsia of Europe. You can fly from London to anywhere in Europe for as low as €25 (RM104) if you buy in advanced. If you plan your trip well and know when you are going to where, you can pre buy these tickets months before your European trip. I once flew from London to Venice for a promotional fare of €15 (RM62).
Getting a rail pass is a good option if you are going to be traveling across a vast distances. The rail system in Europe is very good and extensive. The Eurail passes (www.eurail.com) are the most popular. There are many types of passes, depending on how many countries you want to visit. You can also use the overnight train to travel long distance, in this way you can save accommodation in hostel.
Hitchhiking is the most economical way to travel in Europe. I hitchhiked from Spain to Austria and that was one of my most memorable experiences in Europe. When you hitchhike, always trust your instinct, if you don’t feel right about getting into a car, then don’t, even if it’s a free ride. Also make yourself presentable when you hitchhike, nobody is going to stop for an unshaven hobo, or sloppily dressed lady with crazy hair.
In Germany there’s a website (http://www.mitfahrzentrale.de) for car-pool. You put down your location, destination, and date. If someone is traveling in your direction at that time, they will offer you a ride. You’ll have to pay a fee for the service as well as to the driver. But it’s definitely cheaper than taking a bus, or train, and safer than hitchhiking. In recent years, their service has extended to the rest of Europe as well.
There’s a wide range of hostels in Europe that cater for all budgets. Check out www.hostelworld.com and www.hostelbookers.com. Some of them can be dirty cheap. While traveling in Portugal in 2005, I stayed only in hostels operated by the Portuguese Tourism Board and it only cost €5 for a bed in the dormitory.
Another useful website is CouchSurfing (www.couchsurfing.org). It’s a website where locals offer to host travelers in their home. The idea is to promote cultural exchange while providing free accommodation. There are some security measures built in to ensure the safety of the host and surfers; such as the references and vouching system. But you still have to exercise cautions when you host or surf.
Make friends with locals. Some of my most memorable experiences are spontaneous invitation by strangers. I was invited to the house of the locals after making friends with them. I was genuinely interested in them and their culture, and they could see that and invited me to be the guest in their home.
Food in Europe is not expensive, if you don’t eat in fancy restaurants. Eat where the local people eat. Well, maybe I should be more specific, eat where the middle-class locals eat. Usually these places serve better food, larger quantity, than those overpriced restaurants. However, you usually have to walk out of the touristy area to find these gems. I had one of the best paella for only €3 in Spain when I followed a group of construction workers into a home-turned-café. It was also the most delicious paella I’ve ever had.
Most hostels in Europe have a kitchen where you can cook your own food. Buy your ingredients in supermarkets and cook in the hostel. It’ll save you some money and you’ll make friends with other travelers in the kitchen and dining area.
Some touristy sights have free entry day/hour. The Lourve Museum in Paris and the Vatican museum in the Vatican City are just some examples of some places that offer free entry on certain day. Google it or check their website to find out when do they offer free entry. And make sure you go very early, as you won’t be the only person waiting to go for free. So be prepared for long queue.
The ISIC Student card (http://www.isic.org/) is very useful in Europe. Many museums and tourist sites offer student discount for the ISIC student card holders. So if you are still a student, make sure you apply for one before you leave.
If you are daring, you could try to walk in without buying a ticket. I went to see the Pyramid of Giza mingled in the midst of a Chinese tour group, pretending to be one of them, and walked pass the guard without any problem.