As a sane human being, I am not at all embarrassed to admit that I have declared fealty to House Stark since the first season of mega-hit TV Series Game of Thrones. Time and again I have been called Arya by friends and acquaintances due to apparently bearing a physical resemblance to Maisie Williams, the actress portraying the character. I have, of course, used this to my advantage multiple times, quipping “A girl has no name” or “I am not a boy” whenever appropriate.
In reality, GRRM’s A Song of Ice and Fire has taken over my life. Thus, I have made it a travel goal or more aptly a true life’s goal to visit as many Thrones filming locations as I possibly could. Call it life imitating art. But really, it’s just that the locations look so stunning even with heavy CGI, one can only wonder how naturally beautiful they must be.
In light of my aforementioned goal to travel to as many real-life filming locations for what is arguably the best TV show around, I have decided to make this a work in progress and list down every location as soon as I visit them. Seriously, less few things have made me more excited.
SPOILER ALERT: Some descriptions may include spoilers so read at your own risk.
1. Island of Dragonstone in San Juan de Gaztelugatxe, Bermeo, Spain
Imagine my frustration when I found out that my ultimate crush, Kit Harrington/Jon Snow, and I were breathing the same Basque air when he was in Spain to film the now famous “Ben D. Knee” scenes with Emilia Clarke/Daenerys Targaryen some 50 kilometers from where I was living. Frustration because it was the epitome of the saying “so close yet so far”. Anyway, I got to finally visit the hermitage of San Juan de Gaztelugatxe a few months later not really knowing for sure how they were going to incorporate it in the show and just a couple of months shy of its first prominent feature as “the new and improved” eponymous Dragonstone castle a.k.a the Targaryen stronghold yet again in Season 7 of Game of Thrones.
How to get there: San Juan de Gaztelugatxe sits in the middle of two towns and can be easily reached by Bizkaibus to either Bakio or Bermeo from Bilbao in the Basque Country of Spain. Be ready for a hike filled with beautiful scenery!
2. Dorne and the Water Gardens in Real Alcázar de Sevilla, Sevilla, Spain
I had the exact same experience with the Southern region of Dorne. I was there yet again a few months after filming concluded and a few months before Season 5 premiered. Thank goodness I was spared the feeling of missing out on Oberyn, RIP. While many fans just absolutely hate the way the Dorne plot line played out on the series, I would have to say that the location scouts knocked this one out of the park. The Real Alcázar de Seville, a royal palace in Andalusia featuring mudéjar architecture, serves as the seat of the ruling House Martell of Dorne. The location itself, in all its vitality and vibrancy, is the best, if not the only good part about Dorne in the whole show (not including Pedro Pascal).
How to get there: There are several ways to get to Seville, the easiest ones are from Madrid. Flights and trains are frequent as well as bus schedules if coming from neighboring Andalusian cities. Seville itself is such a beautiful place worth visiting even sans the Game of Thrones aspect.
3. King’s Landing in Walls of Dubrovnik, Dubrovnik, Croatia
Anywhere you go in the city of Dubrovnik you are bound to be offered to join a Game of Thrones-inspired tour around its city walls. Such has been the lasting effect of the show on an otherwise quaint city along the Adriatic coast. Even without all the CGI, traces of King’s Landing are so easily recognizable when you wander around the city. Sturdy orange roofs, clear blue waters, ancient grey walls – these are the sights that make Dubrovnik a beautiful place on its own. True to my anti-establishment nature, I went around Dubrovnik without a tour but with a friend I made at the hostel. We visited the usual sights such as the stairs leading up to the Great Sept of Baelor but we also went to [Tommen’s] cat-infested corners that people would otherwise miss. We even hiked all the way up to Srd (instead of taking a cable car, how anti-establishment can you get) for amazing views of King’s Landing.
How to get there: There are now several direct flights from major cities in Europe to Dubrovnik and so it’s a pretty easy place to reach. There are also a lot of busses going to and from neighbouring cities in the Balkans, particularly along the coast.
4. Long Bridge of Volantis in Roman Bridge of Córdoba, Córdoba, Spain
It’s no secret that Thrones has a special affinity for the South of Spain. This extends to tapping even just bridges as film locations, as is the case of the Roman Bridge of Córdoba standing in as the busy Long Bridge of Volantis. We haven’t really seen much of Volantis on the show, save for a few scenes involving a Red Priestess preaching about Daenerys as their saviour and minutes later a prostitute dressed as the Dragon Queen herself. Regardless, the Roman Bridge of Córdoba is such a sight to behold that I can believe, while walking through its busy passage and over to the other side, that it could truly be the Long Bridge of Volantis.
How to get there: There are many ways to get there such as via direct trains to the city from Madrid. Andalusia enjoys a vast system of busses that makes going around the cities very convenient. Córdoba in itself is one of Southern cities in Spain not to be missed.
I can still remember the first time I stepped on European soil like it was yesterday. After a relatively long but definitely comfortable flight via Singapore Airlines, I finally made my way to Barcelona, a city that to this day, possibly hundreds of cities later, remains a personal favourite. That day, despite my most vivid memory of it being how inadequately dressed I was for the cold (read: Spain is all sun and flamenco, they said), would mark the first of so many things for me. Not only was it the first day of my first six months living in Europe, it was also the first day of my dreams finally coming true.
Countless budget flights, bus rides, and train journeys later, it still feels surreal to realize that Europe has indeed become my second home. I have been to all four corners and yet have only seen mere glimpses of most of the continent. And naturally, I keep coming back for more.
Why Europe Travel Is Worth It
Europe really does look and feel like a dream; but one that anyone can very easily live out at that. The continent as a whole boasts a wide array of cultures and traditions that in my honest (and possibly biased) opinion only Asia can rival. And contrary to popular belief, Europe can actually rival Asia in terms of prices. I’ve never [actually] worked a day in my life and yet even I can afford to make it happen. To misquote the one and only Dragon, Dale Doback, “It’s all about who what you know”.
Things To Consider When Planning Your Trip
1. The Basics: Visa Application, Budget, and Itinerary
For Philippine passport holders, the biggest thing you’d have to worry about when planning a budget trip to Europe is obtaining a visa. Given that most of the countries to visit are members of the Schengen Area, a Schengen Visa is in order. This visa allows you to enter and exit the continent through any of the member states of the Schengen area, and thereby travel in its bounds, within the validity indicated and number of entries allowed. In addition, there are non-Schengen areas that can be visited with a valid Schengen visa and/or resident permit in a Schengen member state. For good measure, double-check with the specific country you want to visit (as was my experience inquiring with Croatia, they are very responsive). For instance, the United Kingdom, as with other non-Schengen territories, requires its own visa.
I don’t have any personal experience in obtaining tourist visas because each time I go to Europe I am required to apply for a student visa and then a resident permit which allows me to stay there throughout the duration of my program. In 2014, I applied for a short stay visa in the Spanish Embassy that was valid for around six months, which was the duration of my Junior Term Abroad program. When I returned to Spain in 2016, I applied for a long term visa under the Auxiliares de Conversación program, which expired in 90 days. This then required me to obtain a residence permit valid up until the last day of my program. I would say the easiest way to obtain a Schengen visa is to apply to the Embassy of the member state in which you will be traveling or staying the longest. It makes sense, especially in consideration of your itinerary. The process and requirements are the same across Schengen member states. Just make sure you follow them thoroughly and there should be no problem.
Budget on the other hand would largely depend on your itinerary and personal preferences. A lot of people are still surprised when they find out that Europe, if you choose the places correctly, could be a relatively cheap continent to visit. Prices of food, accommodation, and transportation are what the budget is usually comprised of. Staying in the Nordic states (e.g. Norway, Sweden, Denmark) would definitely be a lot more expensive than visiting the Southern countries (e.g. Spain, Italy, Greece). Eating and getting around in the East (e.g. Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, Turkey) is vastly cheaper compared to the West (e.g. France, Belgium, The Netherlands). Central Europe (e.g. Austria, Czech Republic, Hungary) is basically at the midpoint in every aspect. Conveniently-located accommodation is getting cheaper by the day thanks to Airbnb, which has also become an experience in itself. And if you’ve ever seen the Hostel trilogy, well, don’t worry so much. I’ve had my fair share of youth hostel experiences in Europe and they have all been awesome.
2. Language, Culture, Etiquette
As a native English speaker, I have never had a problem communicating anywhere in Europe. Well, it also helps that living in Spain has allowed me to be fully conversational in Spanish, studying French for five years has given me a conversant background for reading signs and understanding guides, and enrolling in an introductory German course back in college has equipped me with enough knowledge to order eine bratwurst. Europe is the continent in which my professed love for languages has bore the most fruit, so to speak.
What I love most about Europe, however, is how despite the geographical proximity of neighbouring countries, one can feel precisely at which point a border has been crossed due to an evident change not only in scenery but also in atmosphere. Europe is so rich in culture and history that wherever you go there is something new to be learned and to be tried.
The biggest lesson I have taken with me however is to never generalize a country based on its stereotypes. For instance, being based in Northern Spain, I’ve learned that the country isn’t always so warm and sunny and not everyone knows flamenco. Likewise, don’t expect everyone in Amsterdam to just be out smoking in the streets; there’s actually a very organized and strict system of coffeeshops for that, which impressed me very much. My experience there reminded me of when I visited Christiania in Copenhagen which gave me a new and inspired view of Denmark. And spending days by the Adriatic coast in my lonesome, I learned not only that the Balkans are no longer war-torn (hello, it’s 2017) but that the people there are some of the nicest I have ever come across.
3. When to Go, Where to Go, What to Eat, What to Do
Having experienced all four seasons in Europe, I would highly recommend traveling in the fall and avoiding summer at all costs. Fall weather is nice and pretty much everyone is back to school and/or work and so crowds tend to be smaller. Winter in Europe can also be a lovely experience (as long as you don’t have to brave the cold to go to school or work in the dark mornings, it’s all lovely). My experience in spring has been mixed and as unpredictable as the still transitioning weather. And summer brings on too many people, which is bad news for my social anxiety.
For first-time travelers to Europe I do not suggest going on whirlwind Eurotrips if you really want to get a solid feel of the places and not end up getting the first train back to your friends in Paris after a crazy last night out in Amsterdam (trust me, you don’t want to be like me). It’s easier to travel by region as well, this way you can take your time and take advantage of lower transportation costs. For the purposes of this post, I will be dividing the continent into five although each of them can still be broken down into even smaller regions.
North: I haven’t really been around the Northern part of Europe primarily because as a perpetual island girl, the cold is not really what I’m used to. I did however enjoy Copenhagen which proved to be a hip albeit expensive city. My wish is to visit the northernmost parts of the Nordic states, such as Norway and Iceland, specifically to see the Northern Lights before they dim out. Likewise, this region is probably not the first you’d want to visit if you’re on a budget.
West: I have the best memories in this part of Europe because I have always felt like this is where my personality and interests fit best. Although the weather is a bit colder and wetter and perhaps the food not as spectacular as in the south, Western Europe has a lot to offer. I particularly love France; although I can never get enough of Paris no matter how many times I have been, which does not seem to run out of sights even for multiple visits, I also intend to see its many cities and provinces. Belgium and the Netherlands are also personal favourites and really great places for young people to enjoy. Don’t miss out on the beer museums in Belgium and the seafood in the Netherlands. Prices here are almost as high as their neighbors in the North but definitely worth it.
South: If you’re into the more laid-back side of Europe, the South is definitely the place to be. Everything is cheaper down south. Everything seems slower, too. Spain and Portugal in the Iberian Peninsula as well as Italy are my top picks for travel because you really get your money’s worth wherever you go. One can easily spend months in Spain alone and not get bored. Breath-taking sceneries, perfect weather, and amazing food – especially if you’re coming from the North and West, you’d be shocked at how [relatively] cheap the prices are. Definitely the region to visit for budget travelers. Check out the tapas culture in the South of Spain and the pintxos, its northern counterpart. Gelato should not be missed anywhere in Italy as it is unlike any other in the rest of the world. And if you’ve found yourself all the way in Portugal, might as well overdose on their delicious custard tarts.
Center: This region for me stands out as the most beautiful in all of Europe, based on the number of audible gasps per square meter, even for a budget traveler. Filled with magical small towns and equally awe-inspiring capital cities, central Europe is the region for sight-seeing and Instagram-worthy snapshots. My favourites are definitely Austria, Germany, Czech Republic, Hungary, and Switzerland. Dine in beer gardens wherever possible in Germany. Swiss Potato Rösti should find itself on your list of must-eats. Make a sidetrip to Salzburg and relive The Sound of Music wherever you go. The general rule is that the closer to the East you get, the cheaper the prices are so keep that in mind as you move along your map. It also helps that countries in this region have cultural and historical backgrounds in common.
East: As mentioned, it gets cheaper and cheaper the farther in the East you get, which is awesome because this part of Europe is another one that is rich in culture and history. I haven’t been around this region that much but I already like it based on what little I have seen. The Balkans are a great place to start not just due to the beautiful coastal area but also because it is relatively easy to navigate, and not to mention perfect for budget travel. As a huge Game of Thrones fan, I particularly enjoyed visiting Dubrovnik in Croatia, which also allowed me to visit nearby cities in Montenegro and Bosnia and Herzegovina.
4. Tips & Tricks
Divide and conquer. Like I said, Europe is easier and more convenient to travel if you divide them up into regions or small trips. Doing it this way, you give yourself more breathing time for smaller cities you would have otherwise missed visiting only capital cities on a whirlwind. The real Europe, I would argue, is hidden in towns and villages. For instance, you can go on a two-week trip around the Balkans, a two-week trip around Southern Spain, a two-week trip around the former Austro-Hungarian Empire all on a budget. You name it.
Book tickets in advance or really late. I am a fan of both air and land travel so I don’t think I am the best person to advice against one or the other. They both have their pros and cons and in all honesty I have found that doing a combination of flights, trains, and busses is the most holistic way to get around anywhere in Europe. I will, however, urge you to book your tickets way in advance or really late to score cheap prices. For example, I booked a really cheap plane ticket to Copenhagen to see the Christmas markets way back in July. Similarly, I booked bus tickets to Andalucía about a week prior to my trip on a flash sale.
Don’t book roundtrip tickets. If you’re coming all the way from Manila like me, it’s a good idea to divide your inbound and outbound trips and book them separately. This way, you don’t have to go back to the same starting point just to go home. Another advantage of this is that ironically enough, with the flexibility, you can cover more ground and it forces you to keep going until you get to the end of your trip. It’s an experience! Also, what I like about this is that I get to try so many different airlines, so much so that I have a secret ranking of them in my head.
Free walking tours. I absolutely enjoy these ones especially when I travel alone. A quick Google search of “place + free walking tour” should direct you to tours with reviews; all you have to do is pick one and then show up. These tours are a great way to get an introduction to the city for only a couple of hours. My favourite walking tour is one conducted by an Australian guy in Prague. He was so entertaining that I felt as though I was in the city for weeks when really, I was only there a couple of nights.
It pays to be a student. Seriously, I don’t know how many perks and free stuff I have gotten due to my student status. I don’t even have an international student card. Often my student visa and school ID are enough when asked to present documentation for discounts. Also just being young in general (and young-looking, at that) is a good thing because you can save a lot of money (e.g. youth hostels, discounts on transport cards, people automatically assuming you’re a broke millennial). You’re only young once, relish in the moment!
Even at a very young age I was already exposed to different types of cuisine, thanks to my late father who probably had one of the best palates and definitely had the most adventurous attitude when it came to food. Some of my fondest, most vivid memories of my dad include him eating tuna sashimi while enjoying his San Miguel Pale Pilsen in the afternoons, him taking us to Tagaytay to eat real corned beef with cabbage, him stocking up on pickled and fermented vegetables from kimchi, to sauerkraut, and atsara, him preparing marshmallows and cutting up fruits for our Toblerone Swiss fondue at home, and him serving up my favorite Spanish tortilla when we have nothing else to eat for dinner.
While most kids around me lived off the classic hotdog and white rice combination (literally the most Filipino thing, ever… not going to lie, I was a big fan), I was having salmon sashimi as my preferred merienda at home and making pastrami sandwiches when hunger would strike at midnight.
This kind of upbringing that I am very grateful for definitely influenced the kind of traveler that I would then become. Whenever I travel, food and drink always take precedence over just about anything. A trip would not be complete without having tried something new and something typical of the place I was visiting. And more often than not, if I end up liking a dish or a drink, no matter how strange it is or how hard it is to find, I would have it as many times as humanly possible before I have to unfortunately leave.
While Filipino cooking still holds a very special place in my heart (Tofu Kare Kare is life), I have decided to come up with a definitive list of places worth traveling to, if only for the culinary experience. Here I outline my favorite food and cuisine, out of those I have had the privilege of trying thus far while on the road, all of which I think everyone should experience at least once in their lives.
All photos were compiled and taken from my two Instagram accounts (defunct and current), for anyone who might be wondering.
I don’t think it’s possible for me to stop gushing about how even the food you find in convenience stores and street stalls in Japan is so damn good. Get a couple of negitoroonigiri from Family Mart and you’re set. Try takoyaki and okonomiyaki from any of the stalls in Osaka, even the ones outside of Dotonbori, and see if you don’t fall in love. Eat at a random ramen stand or the vendo ones in Tokyo Station and you’re bound to have a good time either way. Don’t even get me started with the freshest chirashi bowls in Tsukiji Fish Market (with all the different types of tuna and salmon, my mouth is watering right now) and just Japanese beer in general. Kanpai!
Why do you think I chose to live in the Basque Country? If my dad were still alive, I’m sure he would pat me on the back for choosing to live in the region that holds the record for most Michelin-starred restaurants per capita in the world. Imagine being surrounded by world-class pintxos wherever you go and relatively cheap but very good quality wine (shoutout to the Basque txakoli and all the good times we’ve had). We haven’t even reached the topic of paella yet which I believe deserves its own post. And I can’t believe I’m saying this, but really, we all have to admit it: 100 Montaditos is basically a god-send.
3. Hong Kong
I cannot count how many times in my life I have paused, in times of distress and in times of lonesome (for fear of looking ridiculous), and tried to remember the distinct smell of roast duck that basically screams Hong Kong. From the street food down in Mong Kok to the noodles up in the Peak, Hong Kong offers an incredible culinary experience that is unlike any other. I will never forget the mismatched adventures of going all the way to Lan Kwai Fong in Central for classic milk tea and back to Yau Ma Tei in Kowloon for world-renowned dim sum and dumplings. Thank goodness Hong Kong is a mere 2-hour flight from Manila.
Whether it’s pizza in Rome, risotto in Venice, or steak in Florence, Italy does not seem to run out of timeless choices to offer. But my best memory would have to be that time I literally chased after my passion and rode my way across Italy by train to taste all the best gelato, also known as man’s greatest invention, that the country has to offer. I don’t even know how many times I ate ice cream in the span of one week, definitely several on some days, just so I could maximize my time there and the seemingly countless flavors that exist. I actually cannot wait to do it again.
I can still remember channeling my inner Anthony Bourdain and finding my way to The Lunch Lady by the Saigon river to try her world-famous phở like it was yesterday. Setting aside my pescatarian sensibilities for a moment, I wolfed down everything in that bowl of life because it was just so flavorful and so authentically Vietnamese. The rest of the time, if I wasn’t overdosing on Vietnamese coffee and bánh mì, I was desperately on the look out for gỏi cuốn and sugarcane juice. The best part was that my 23-year old self didn’t seem to be running out of money. What I would give to fly back there soon.
My memories of Belgium are definitely hazy and I have pints of delicious Belgian Hoegaardeen beer to thank for that. But the culinary experience was so vivid that to this day I haven’t forgotten the richness of Belgian chocolate, the sinfulness of Belgian waffles, and the deceptiveness of Belgian fries. I went to Belgium knowing practically nothing about the country, on a short weekend trip to meet up with friends, and went home a Belgian cuisine convert and a completely changed person, with boxes and boxes of truffles, of course.
I used to just marvel at photos of colorful floating markets on magazines and websites but when I finally visited one in Bangkok, I was not disappointed at all. In sampling endless plates of Thai pancakes, drinking glasses of Thai iced tea one after the other, gobbling down hot bowls of tom yum and cold servings of mango sticky rice, one realizes that Thai cuisine is the most faithful reflection of how rich and vibrant the country’s culture is. Not to mention the coconut ice cream, fresh fruit shakes, and pad thai to-go scattered all over Khao San Road. I wouldn’t mind getting lost in dark alleys again if it meant having these food in my life.
Imagine wandering aimlessly in Munich hoping to find a place where you could eat after a rather tiring train ride and then at the perfect moment of hunger stumbling upon the actual beer garden of your dreams. Such was my experience in Germany. To this day, I still question whether or not that experience was real because it turned out to be the best 20-euro meal I have ever had in Europe, if not just simply the best. Period. A wide selection of wurst and bier, sauerkraut, pretzels, and good vibes from amazing German people: this is the stuff dreams are made of.
It’s safe to assume that we all have that one friend who ventured abroad, probably got burned (in the many ways that one can get burned) on his or her first few months, decided to go back home to recover, and reflected on the experience from a perspective only the comforts of familiar territory can warrant. I’m that friend for my less than 200 Facebook friends who wondered, as I suddenly updated them with a silly photo of me chilling in HKIA, why on earth I was back in Asia so soon when I seemed to be having the time of my life in Europe.
Even before graduating from college I had already made plans to leave. Perhaps I left Manila too soon. It was a hard decision to make but wide-eyed and hopeful as I was, in the name of independence, I made it anyway. Now the tide has brought me back home indefinitely, and I figured this is the time to look back and make the most of the experience that left me with nothing to show for but a set of battle scars and a dire need for change. Here are the most important lessons I picked up immersing myself in a culture wildly different from my own, falling in and out of love multiple times in a few short months, and getting my first dose of reality after being sheltered far too long.
1. Things will inevitably get lost in translation.
It’s tricky enough to live in a country where the majority does not speak your mother tongue, let alone live and work in a region where they are adamant about promoting their own language, which has nothing to do with any other. Such was my experience in the Basque Country. At work, I was surrounded by people who would on occasion blurt out Basque phrases at me out of habit, because I happened to be the only non-Basque and non-Spanish speaking person in the whole school. After all, I was the English conversation assistant, what did they expect? Well, the experience sucked, but it also forced me to learn. I came to Spain with a meager B1 to B2 level of Spanish, enough to order pintxos on my own. I left the country being able to express all my frustrations about living there to native speakers themselves. And Basque? Let’s just say I tried but for now I’m convinced I have other things to learn in this lifetime.
2. Love hurts.
Man, oh man. I don’t even know where to begin! The thing I learned about love is that while it comes in many forms, it will always, at some point, hurt. That’s just how you know it was true. I fell in and out of love so many times in the span of eight months, I often wonder how my bruised up heart is still beating. I’m not just talking romantically here – I fell in love with work, with friends, with animals, with lifestyles, even with 100 Montaditos and bottomless pints of Radlers. Everything was as foreign to me as I was to them. I fell in love with everything and everyone new, with the feeling of being in love with them, with the feeling of falling out of love with them. As soon as I fell out of love it became hard to fight my first instinct, which is to simply love. When you have as much capacity for love as I do, it feels almost like breathing: if you stop, you die. That is why I was burned out: I gave and gave and gave for everyone around me to reach their own potential expecting nothing in return. But after this experience, I learned to always guard my heart – that way I can love right, starting with myself, and show it properly.
3. Home is where the heart is.
Strangely enough the last time I was ever homesick was also the first time. It was back in eighth grade when I went on a beach trip with new friends and felt completely out of place. I have since traveled to so many places without my family and even lived in Spain twice, but I never felt genuinely homesick again, not for even a second. What I did realize is that whenever I missed home while I was away, it was due to a longing for the good things I was lucky enough to have experienced. It was never a bad thing. In the first place, I left primarily to become more independent, both financially and emotionally, and came back having done exactly what I sought out to accomplish. It was just a matter of slowly realizing that home wasn’t as bad as I always painted it out to be; I only needed distance to come to terms with that fact. I know one day that I will have that same realization about Spain. The important thing is that now I know from experience that home is always where my heart presently is, wherever in the world that may be.
Would you honestly believe me if I told you I spent a total of PHP 25000 (around 500 USD as of writing) during a two-week trip from Vietnam through Cambodia to Thailand? How about how I recently spent less than PHP 25000 during a week-long stay in Croatia (with Dubrovnik as my home base to be precise), during which I also got to visit Bosnia and Herzegovina and Montenegro? Would you believe me if I told you I slept, ate, and lived like a modern-day princess regardless? The last part probably not, but amazing times were definitely had without having to break the bank nor sell my soul to the devil. Fulfilling budget travel is so possible; and I am living proof.
The key to a successful attempt at this godsend millennials refer to as budget travel a.k.a. being able to go out there without sacrificing the little things we need to distract ourselves when we’re not out there (read: “I want to travel because it sets my soul on fire… but I also want to have money for things that dull the pains of daily life such as bottles of cheap wine and cute things I don’t need but keep popping up on my Instagram feed. I guess whatever little amount of money I have isn’t going to spend itself”) is striking a balance between having rigid boundaries and going a little crazy. When you master getting the right mix, you’re in for a good time, every time.
Here are some travel hacks and tips that I, as a self-proclaimed seasoned budget traveler, would like to share with you, another soul who should be convinced that broadening one’s horizon does not have to come at such a great price, literally. Unfortunately, I cannot tell you how exactly you can earn the money to travel but I can help you spend it. Heh. I mean, teach you ways to spend it. Or in the case of the last one, NOT spend it.
1. Plan ahead
I know, I know. Where’s the spontaneity in that? Well, guess what: if you know when exactly to be spontaneous and when exactly to plan ahead, you’re basically doing yourself a huge favour. One should learn how to at least think about the basics of a trip. I know it’s so tempting to just “yolo” (putting those in quotation marks makes me feel old), book a flight at the last minute, and play everything by ear. But hey guess what 2.0, you’re on a budget! You literally cannot afford to do that because of a financial constraint. Boo reality, always getting in the way of things.
Always remember that in budget travel, one must be flexible with the journey but stubborn about the destination. You are certain you want to go to Boracay during the Labor Day weekend? Well, maybe the best thing you can do is book your ticket and accommodation as far in advance as possible, and then go walwal (read: funny Filipino word for crazy) when you’re there. This will save you a lot of money and non-hangover induced headaches in the process.
2. Know your needs
We are all built differently. We are all built with different capacities with regards to tolerating different things. For instance, are you the type who prioritizes comfort over anything? Then maybe you should spend the bulk of your budget on accommodations that are not only conveniently and centrally-located but also don’t make you dread using the bathroom. Are you the type who places a lot of importance on privacy? Then maybe you should avoid hostels and shared spaces at all costs, especially if even just the thought of having any unnecessary interaction with other travelers is literally making you want to slit your own throat.
Or are you the type who doesn’t care about any of those mentioned above? Then great! Congratulations! You can literally stay anywhere which is very good news for your wallet because every penny counts. Let me rephrase that. Good news for your tummy because every extra penny saved should count towards your food and drink budget! The gist is this: know what you absolutely need out of and during a trip and don’t be cheap at all when it comes to that. In budget travel, everything else can suffer, relatively. Just don’t die. That’s not how millennials do it! Instead, just think about all the extra pints of Radlers you can have.
The best memories actually come in the form of being able to enter the Mezquita in Cordoba just to hear the afternoon mass (and cry in a corner), couchsurfing for the first time in a hip neighbourhood in Amsterdam to save a little cash (and spend it on some hash, okay just kidding, the joke was waiting to happen), getting randomly lost in a dark alley in Bangkok with your two best friends (this one was scary as hell but super funny), and spending one whole day around Dubrovnik with a friend you made at the hostel the night before (cue Taylor Swift’s Enchanted). These are the unforgettable experiences that don’t make it to your feed (or get linked to on your blog post) and that no amount of money can buy, figuratively because they are priceless and literally because they are free, which is especially important when you don’t necessarily have the money to spend in the first place.
When people commend me for being so ‘brave’ and ‘fearless’ for traveling solo to the most random cities imaginable, I usually just nod politely, fake a smile, and wonder to myself why what I am doing is a grand feat in everyone’s eyes. And then I go back to that same truth that plagues my daily existence: I look like I’m 12.
Here’s the thing: if a perpetually baby-faced, petite 24-year-old Asian girl, standing at almost five feet tall (I say almost because in my heart and in some official grown-up records I AM 5 feet tall despite what you might say) can travel solo from Manila to Barcelona (and back) with two maletas bigger than her and then eventually to countless cities in the European and Asian continents (thus far), then I don’t see why anyone else can’t.
Don’t be fooled, however. I have obviously had my fair share of stranger danger incidents (funny at times, but more often horrific) and travel anxiety/burnout episodes (more on the last two issues much later – yes, they exist, and no, they aren’t as elitist as they sound) but they obviously did not stop me from conquering some of the most fascinating and culturally-diverse continents in the world, with no other hand to hold but my own (#bitter – I never actually held hands with myself, that’s just weird).
While I absolutely love traveling with family and groups, I have developed a soft spot for going out there alone given that I have experienced some of my most unforgettable memories while doing so. Here are just SOME of the reasons why solo travel is ultimately worth it:
1. You get to do everything at your own pace.
You don’t have to wake up at 8 am to catch the winter sunrise in Pamplona if you would much rather sleep in and catch a later bus to the city. You don’t have to eat at that fancy hamburger restaurant in Lisbon if you would much rather share a hearty meal with your new friends at the hostel. The beauty in solo travel is that you can do whatever the bleep you want.
You are/should be the best company there ever is. You see, traveling is a lot like falling in love: you can’t expect someone to love you if you don’t love yourself (boom I be dropping some truth bombs like they’re Ecstasy tablets, omg what a distasteful joke, I’m sorry) in the same manner that you can’t expect to be the best travel buddy if you can’t even spend time traveling on your own.
2. You will always make new friends.
Here’s an unwritten rule in the world of solo travel: no one is actually completely alone. I can’t count how many new friends I have made on the road just by being in my lonesome. Ironic, isn’t it? When we meet people, no matter where they are from, whether or not a language barrier exists, regardless of it all, the world suddenly feels a little smaller. And that’s a great feeling – something that not all kinds of travel can warrant.
Whether it’s the American college student who took my photo in Segovia, the Korean high schooler who was lost in the same street as me in Seville, the Taiwanese backpacker who helped me buy metro tickets in Cologne, the Swiss lady who gave me two francs so I can use the toilet in Zurich, the French guy who talked to me in French the whole time I was in Lisbon, the Ecuadorian abuelo who told me to always respect myself and to never be in a hurry in life as he sat next to me on the bus to Madrid, or the Spanish tourist who said “Por fin, hemos llegado señorita” when he recognised me as the only twenty-something at the end of our 10-hour train ride to Santiago de Compostela – you will always make a new friend and will never feel alone.
3. You realise how interesting and unique you actually are.
How often are you really going to meet a Filipina who left the comforts of her own warm home to teach English in the Basque Country and to immerse herself in Spanish culture, who finished her degree in Economics because she wants to become a diplomat and/or a social entrepreneur to focus on education in the Philippines one day, and who considers travel (read: going to new places, picking up the language, immersing self in culture) as the ultimate, if not the only way of life there is. Not very often. Probably once in your life. If you’re lucky. No, it’s not being obnoxious – it’s realising that in solo travel, as in every other aspect of life, you are both your greatest investment and your greatest capital.
Don’t get me wrong – I am absolutely NOT an extrovert who loves making friends. I usually hate people. I am an INFJ (emphasis on the Introvert and also, we make up around 1% of the human population – you can’t possibly be RARER than that). But when you’re on the road meeting new people, your quirky and unique traits will inevitably shine through. After all, we’re all interesting because we’re all different. They say you can be whoever you want to be when you’re traveling (even more so when you’re traveling alone) but why be anyone else when you can simply be yourself. This is the good part. Embrace it. Wallow in it, even.