Europe in Style: Tips for the Cheap Traveler

by Jane Moneypenny

And with a whirlwind, I’m back. The rest of the trip in Florence, Venice and Milan moved quickly and also sluggishly due to the beginning of summer, so much time in the heat of the afternoon was spent hiding in air-conditioned stores and walking in shade. After a rough stay in Milan and a bumpy flight back, I now have to face the real world of everything I ignored for 3 weeks. Maybe I should have just lied and told people I was gone till July. 😛

While patiently enduring the woman punching my seat numerous times in the 11 hour flight, I compiled a list of lessons learned from Europe about traveling and myself:

1) Planning IS important and necessary, but always leave room for flexibility. R and I planned for months on this trip. On some days, up to 4-5 hours sitting on the phone/online researching the best places, the cheapest flights, hostels, tips, etc. We sketched the general schedule out with how many days in each city, booked all our hostels, but left the daily schedule completely open. The planning was torturous in the early months, but it paid off. We had little to think about when we arrived in each city in regards to lodging, and spent the day wandering the areas and really seeing Europe.

And although we regretted going to Milan (really, there is NOTHING other than the gorgeous duomo and a lot of expensive shopping and The Last Supper that has to be reserved months ahead of time to view) instead of Naples (a decision we made in February due to the time/money limit), we rectified the situation when we read a travel book in the store telling us about the lakes nearby. So in the middle of the afternoon on our last day, we grabbed a cheap ticket to Lake Como (we never did find George Clooney there) and had a great day away from the city.

2) Pack light, especially when backpacking. Everyone wasn’t kidding when they said this. When there’s often no chance of escalators or elevators, lugging a rolling suitcase is a nightmare. I’ve never been more relieved to validate the expensive backpack purchase. It was a mere 18 pounds so I made off great and if I could do it again, I would pack even lighter. When we hit the 90s near the end of the trip and had to walk a little bit to our hostel or train station, a light suitcase is your best friend (and sunblock)!

Don’t forget the little things, however. I got teased a lot for “being so prepared” with a makeshift ziplock bag of 1st aid and a swiss army knife, but it was used often for cutting feta, packages and opening wine at sunset. And as bulky as a queen sheet was, I saved $40 not buying a sheet sac from REI and just folding it over at night to make my own. Comfort from home, no bed bugs and instant lightweight cover.

3) The sites are important, of course, but the small towns and true Europe away from that are the most memorable. We lucked out in that my quarterlife crisis spit us out in June, because Greece was relatively light with tourism. Italy, however, was a mad house. We read up enough and talked to hostel owners to get enough tips to avoid most of the big crowds and found ways to see the real towns. Usually when traveling internationally, I’m with my family and we’re on a tour, but this time, it was all us and walking for miles and hating the large tour groups. Driving through the mountains of Naxos and seeing the small towns and old men outside talking is definitely something we would have missed on a bus.

4) Walking shoes will be your downfall or success. I fought for months not to bring my good running shoes; they’re heavy and hot and frankly, they look silly with a skirt. But my friend who spent the a semester abroad in Greece pushed forward, insisting that I would be walking up to 10 miles a day and climbing mountains. I laughed in her face, but guess what? I climbed a lot of mountains and hills and walked for 12 hours a day. And those shoes were awesome. As much as I wanted to bring the cuter lighter Sketchers, the thick padded running ones gave me pretty damn awesome calves and unshaky knees after a 588 step descent down.

5) Europeans don’t like the big bills. Anytime we went to an ATM, it would spit out 20s or 50s. Not a big deal in America, but try to pay for a 2 euro gelato with a 10 and you would get the look of annoyance from the vendor. They hated the paper and wanted the coins, but it proved to be difficult when no one would break anything. A lot of time was spent digging for change or someone paying for everything and trying to remember who owed what. Given that the dollar is bad right now, we struggled a bit with how expensive everything was. We went to the grocery as much as possible and picnicked on a bright pink dollar tablecloth we grabbed the night before we left. But it’s doable and all our parents kept saying, “You’re too young to worry so much about money. This is a trip of a lifetime! Don’t miss out due to worrying about money.” So we compromised what we spent money on. Near the end, we were museumed out and spent the money on riding the funicular up a mountain in Como or paying the extra euro to upgrade to first class on the train. And you know what? Once in awhile, it’s okay to grab McDonald’s. I feel no guilt in that. And I don’t even eat it in the states.

6) Water! Water! Water! Water is really expensive in Europe. No free water when you sit down for a meal. A lot of cities had free flowing fountains in the plazas with great drinking water, but some also had really bad tasting stuff (I grew up not drinking tap water and it’s a thing I’m trying to fix). But hydrating is crucial and some days, I drank 4-5 bottles.

7) Souvenirs are heavy and a bit cheesy, so send a postcard. I tried looking for gifts for people and myself, but everything seemed to fake and touristy. I ended up buying handmade jewelery for myself and was going to buy bags of pasta and chocolate for others, but the hotter the weather got, the less I wanted to carry more. So postcards was the way.

8) Group dynamics is more key than you realize. A friend’s boyfriend that had been traveling the world for months commented that if one person didn’t like a place, the traveling partners would end up not liking it either. Whether this was true or not since it seemed like an unanimous decision on dislike of Athens and Milan, I did find that group chemistry was important. One a leg of the trip that had 5 girls, cattiness and annoyance was highly possible, but never arrived and for that, I was relieved. Also, being an art school grad, my excitement level of finally see Santa Croce in Florence or Leonardo’s Adoration of the Magi at the Uffizi was higher than the others. So on occasion, we separated so I could fully take in what I had learned and read about for years. Other than that, there was no weak link and anytime we we would have a random insane idea, the entire group would go along.

As for the entire experience, I definitely have no regrets (except maybe Milan), but overall, one of the most amazing times of my life, and next April/May, we might just go to Ireland. Now I just got to find a job, get money, find time, get my life back together…