Bitten by The Trabelle Bug: A Beginner’s Guide to Europe On A Budget

Bitten by The Trabelle Bug: A Beginner's Guide to Europe on A Budget
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Visiting medieval towns with stunning views like Burgos, Spain

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

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Just like a fairy-tale in dreamy Bruges, Belgium

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

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Admiring the Marienplatz in Munich, Germany

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

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Loving the view of the Danube separating Pest from Buda in Budapest, Hungary

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

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The sun is out and so am I in Lisbon, Portugal

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.

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Cold but still having lots of fun in Copenhagen, Denmark

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.

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Let them eat cake for a day in Versailles, France

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.

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Like going back in time in front of the Colosseum in Rome, Italy

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.

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Feeling like royalty in Schloss Schönbrunn in Vienna, Austria

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.

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Waiting for the men to jump off the bridge in Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina

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

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Pointy spikes and fluffy clouds in Prague, Czech Republic

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.

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Wondering how I found myself in Zurich, Switzerland

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.

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Clearly enjoying myself in Amsterdam, the Netherlands

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!

Budget Travel 101: Tips From The Most Frugal Traveler Ever a.k.a. Me

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

My brother and I smiling wide and enjoying Coron, Philippines knowing we paid less than 200 USD for everything

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

Thai Iced Tea is just really a necessity whether or not you’re in Bangkok, Thailand

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.

3. Go for free and authentic experiences

Making friends and hiking mountains make for great memories in Dubrovnik, Croatia

As a budget traveler, I know first-hand how tempting it is to go to those places you never thought actually existed outside of Instagram. I know first-hand how much you want your feed to look p e r f – gotta have that amazing photo with the torii in Fushimi-Inari or that display picture worthy snapshot with Nhyvan – but really, they’re hardly ever the best part about travel. The best part is food/alcohol. But we’re here to talk about budget travel a.k.a. not spending money so…

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.

How Travel Changed My Life

In the last quarter of 2014, I unwittingly found myself in the most decisive crossroad in my life yet: I was 21, in my third year in university, and eager to go on a term abroad in Spain while my dad was 52, still young and healthy, when he suddenly passed away due to a heart attack.

Anyone who has experienced this particular kind of loss knows there are no words to adequately express the intensity of what follows. I was enveloped in guilt, anger, sadness, and just about any negative feeling in the full spectrum of human emotion. Somehow I was expected to stay strong through it all; to fake it until I made it.

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Accepting and appreciating life’s own pace in Kyoto, Japan

But how could I even begin to feel excited about what I had dubbed “the trip of of a lifetime” when one of the few people I was eager to tell all about it was no longer? Not only had I lost one of the most important figures in my life, a person who loved me unconditionally and vice versa, but I had also lost myself in the process.

On the surface, moving to Europe for six months was the perfect excuse to heal and to find myself. How could grieving in winter and blossoming in spring be unattractive to anyone? Life, being the epitome of irony that it is, had granted me the opportunity to wallow in distractions and to run away from reality, so to speak. Nothing could have prepared me better for all that was to come than hopping on that plane to Barcelona.

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Lifting all up in Montserrat, Catalonia, Spain

What took place as I stepped foot on European soil was a kind of rebirth. I drowned in the darkness of my own sorrows and in the depths rediscovered the vitality of life. I was surrounded by scenery that was unlike anything I was used to back home. I was immersed in experiences I would have never in my life imagined finding myself in. I was even adding a fourth language to my arsenal. Every weekend I found myself in a different place. In half a year I had traveled to tens of countries around Europe and it didn’t matter one bit that I did most of it by myself.

For the first time, I was bitten by the travel bug. And I haven’t stopped traveling since.

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Going broke in pricey Copenhagen, Denmark

When I got back to the Philippines,  I was a completely different person. From going on familiar beach trips with friends from high school to backpacking through unfamiliar Indochina with friends from university: I seized every opportunity to pack my bags and just go. That burning desire to travel has also led me back here to Spain shortly after graduating: no longer as a student of Spanish, but this time as a teacher of English.

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Falling in love with breath-taking Prague, Czech Republic

Despite all the difficult challenges and tragic events that I have had to weather thus far, I have never looked to travel as a mere outlet to escape life but rather as an earnest way for life not to escape me. I travel to all these places, both old and new, to live in the triviality of my worries and in the profundity of my adventures.

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Tank top and short shorts in Singapore, Singapore

Instead of warranting me answers in life, travel has generated even more questions. At the time of writing, I find myself in yet another crossroad, perhaps a lot less rocky than the one I have just finished passing through but difficult to traverse just the same. Whether or not I stay in Spain for another year is up in the air. The past winter has shown me that home calls every three months or every time the temperature dropping below zero makes this island girl appreciate the humidity coupled with torrential rains back in the tropics, whichever comes sooner.

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Hiking up for majestic views in Dubrovnik, Croatia

While travel is essentially about being in the present, it is also about being in a constant state of departure. This type of travel has made me appreciate home, realizing that it is also possible to have one in a corner of the world that is the complete opposite of where you come from. I have learned the hard way that missing what you are used to does not equal being miserable where you currently are. It just means you are striking the right balance between staying true to yourself and welcoming any change that may arise for the sake of your growth as a person.

Home is where the heart is in El Nido, Philippines

Similarly, in spending the past couple of years living in and traveling between Europe and Asia I have accumulated memories to last a lifetime. From experiencing the joy of having the freshest fish in Tsukiji in both summer and winter to the bliss in enjoying chocolate con churros in Sol in fall and spring: these memories may be years and seasons apart but they are never the same experience. I may travel to the same places but I am a different person each time.

But more than giving me all these precious memories to look back on in the future and allowing me to meet all sorts of people along the way, travel has made me realize that my life in itself is a journey that continues to unfold with each delayed flight and each scenic train ride. Whether the story is set against the backdrop of the Basque mountain ranges or the busy streets of Manila, life continues to be an adventure.

And through it all, I never felt alone for I know my dad continues to keep a watchful eye on and is with me every step of the way.

This is an entry to the How Travel Changed My Life contest by Traveloka: www.traveloka.com/en-ph/how-travel-changed-my-life-blogger-contest