VISION to VOYAGE: Backpacking Europe on a Shoestring Budget

Where a traveller daydreams….

Do you spend hours daydreaming about travelling around this grand, ever-amazing world? Pass the time scouring travel magazines while your television is permanently tuned to the Travel Channel? Have you planned trips and even written itineraries that you’ve emailed or boxed for safekeeping until the right time? Do you often wonder if that time will ever come? 

Of course you do – if there’s anything we’ve mastered, it’s thinking and dreaming BIG! 😀 

Like some of you, I was that poor soul floundering in dreams of new vistas, exotic languages, fresh delicacies and an ever increasing collection of colourful port-of-entry stamps and visas. This was the case until I simply decided to throw caution  to the wind (along with the host of warnings I was ambushed with) and just fly.

And fly, ride, drive, backpack, hitchhike, walk and float my way across Western Europe is what I wound up doing one summer.

Now, you might be asking: how does a graduate student, studying for an MFA in Poetry of all feasibly impractical things, survive alone in Europe, far less afford to get there?

HERE’S HOW YOU DO IT (click on title to skip to section):

After hiking to the top of Mt. Rigi, Switzerland.

After hiking to the top of Mt. Rigi, Switzerland.


Don’t dwell on a lack of time or funds. Don’t focus on the possible (i.e very rare) hazards to your personal safety. Tuck all those niggling worries away and take a deep breath. Then get a pad and jot everything you’d like to do wherever on this great Earth you’ve decided to go OR create a vision board!  

That done, give yourself at least four to six months to properly plan. Travelling on a shoestring budget means cutting corners and knowing how you’d cut those corners before you even arrive at your destination. Money can be wasted when you don’t know your way around financially, geographically and socially. We want to avoid that.

Oneata and I in Nice.

Oneata and I in Nice, France.


Deciding who to travel with, and therefore plan with, is more important than you may think. Just like a romantic relationship – whoever you’re hoping will accompany you must dislike and love the same things that you do.

You must both have the same biorhythms. For example, a morning person does not want to wind up hitched to someone who believes that the day starts during Spain’s afternoon siesta. Neither does the cultural enthusiast want to spend the better part of their day trying to entice a shop-a-holic away from Italy’s fashion centres and to the ruins of the Temple of Venus.

Think about what you hope to accomplish by travelling. Will it be a moment of escape where you have time to think, meditate, observe life go by or write? Or would you like it be a whirlwind my-twenties(or thirties)-are-dwindling-away-and-I-need-to-live-a-little trip?

Figure that out. Choose a place that will facilitate satiating your specific desires. Then decide who you’ll travel with. Or elect to go alone, as I did. It certainly opens up opportunities to meet amazing people like my darling friend, Oneata, who is pictured above! 😀 

Colourful Swiss currency.

Colourful Swiss currency.


Let me break this down into a few minor steps:

  • Sign into your bank account:

Give yourself just a few minutes to sob at the sad state of affairs before you resolve what you can realistically do with what you already have.

  • Do your taxes early:

If it’s early in the year – say January – do your taxes as soon as you can. I was in the habit of plodding through my taxes on my own, but that year I made good use of TurboTax. And as promised, they found me money that I didn’t know I could claim!

  • Open a savings account…or any account separate from your checking:

If you haven’t already, open a savings account that is separate from your main checking account. Deposit your tax refund and plan on an amount you will save for each month until your trip. Lastly, tell EVERYONE about what you’re trying to do. If your birthday is coming suggest everyone contribute to your Travel Fund instead of taking you out or buying you a gift. Then think of other ways you can cut back – walking instead of taking the bus; cooking at home and not eating out; cutting unnecessary expenses (do you really need that magazine subscription?), and running errands for the elderly lady next door – anything! In just a few months, you’ll be surprised at how much you would have accumulated.


Fly for almost free!


So, you’ve settled on your destination(s), your travel companion, and you’ve enough money to, at least, purchase travel tickets if not tour packages and to book lodging. Now, BOOK EARLY to save!

Plane/Ferry/Train tickets:

To get the cheapest fares you need to do the following seven things:

1) search early

2) be flexible with your dates

3) set up a fare tracker or have a skilled agent track the fares for you 

4) book during off peak hours and seasons

5) take advantage of layovers and red eye flights

6) clear your cookies before searching and

7) book early!

I used the services of STA Travel to book my flights. They book cheap flights for students, teachers and young working professionals. My flights between D.C, N.Y and London, Rome and Barcelona, Barcelona and Madrid, and Madrid back to DC (the last two flights I booked myself) all came up to a SLIM $767.10!!! That was a tax refund well applied. 😀 

I also applied for an ISIC card. This card allows you access to over 40,000 discounts at home and abroad. With it, you can save on airfare, accommodation, shopping and so much more.

I was thrilled to have this on me while I travelled as I received free entry to most of the museums I visited and this would have cost me, on average, 10 to 15 Euros! This became money I could now spend on food and souvenirs.

Lastly, some budget airlines you can check out are RyanAir and Air EuropaFor affordable rail passes you may consult the Eurail website. 

Lodging and Tour Packages:

If you are travelling alone and would like to make friends there are a few affordable ways to do this:

Getting ready for the day.

Getting ready for the day.

“Couchsurf” it:

This almost literally means what the name implies. You pretty much befriend someone in a foreign country before you travel and they offer you lodging – on a couch or guest bed – in exchange for NOTHING or, perhaps, the favour being returned when they travel to your homeland. Essentially, you’ll be bouncing around, or surfing from one couch to another while you gallivant across new terrain.

Sign up at the Couchsurfing website – a volunteer-based worldwide network connecting travelers with members of local communities, who offer free accommodation and/or advice (you can never get too much advice!). This is also a great way to experience what is authentic to the place you’re visiting as you’d be paired with an insider. All inclusive hotel packages can’t beat that! 🙂 

View from the third floor of my hostel in Barcelona.

View from the third floor of my hostel in Barcelona.

“Hostel” it:

All those horror movies about unsuspecting travellers losing limbs and being kidnapped while at hostels could not be further away from the truth!

Hostels are simply inexpensive and supervised lodging establishments. Their facilities are often comparable to one or two star hotels, but at 1/3 of the cost! A night at a hostel, in a co-ed and large room is between 15 and 20 Euros per night. It’s pretty much dorm living — with just more people. If you’d prefer a single room, many hostels offer those options for about 10 to 15 Euros more.

My stay at all the four hostels I occupied totaled only $394.00 – that’s only $16 US per day!

Before booking, be sure to read the reviewsmany hostels have different reputations; just as some universities are considered party campuses and others more politically and service oriented. Make sure you book your stay in a place where you’d be comfortable and meet like-minded travellers!

Another good thing about hostels is that you can have all you’d like for breakfast! This meant that I packed breakfast away for lunch and spent money only once a day on a good dinner. Lastly, what’s great is that many of these hostels offer free or rather cheap tours of the townships around them – ensuring that you see the sites with fewer instances of getting lost on your own.

I stayed at a number of Equity Point Hostels. Check out this video of the Equity Point hostel in Barcelona where I stayed! 🙂

With a Topdeck tour group outside the Colosseum.

With a Topdeck tour group outside the Colosseum.

“Tour” it:

Another easy way is joining a tour group for parts of your trip. I moved about England, Spain and part of Italy on my own, but I joined a group of twenty and early thirty-somethings as we trekked our way through France, Monaco, and Switzerland.

Most tour groups offer different types of packages for those who’d like to “rough it” on a campground, those who don’t mind hostels, and those who’d prefer hotel stays. The convenience of these packages is that you book life-long friends, lodging, breakfast, some meals and tours all-in-one! You’re often paired with a roommate, tour guide and bus driver who soon become the coolest elder siblings that you’ve never had or ever thought you wanted!

The best packages I’ve found in my research have been through Topdeck Tours

Inside the Louvre Pyramid.

Inside the Louvre Pyramid.


Now that finances and itinerary are in order, apply for the Schengen Visa!

The Schengen Visa allows travellers the freedom of travel between all 26 Schengen countries as if a single country.  Woo! 😀 The Schengen Area is as follows:

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As a national of a country outside of the European Union, U.K, U.S, and Canada, I had to apply for a Schengen Visa in order to traverse Europe without hindrance.

Where to Apply: One must apply at the consulate of the country in which they’d spend the most time.

When to Apply: Visa applications must be lodged at least 15 calendar days before the intended visit and cannot be lodged earlier than three months before the start of the intended visit; I applied 3 weeks before my departure date.

What to Submit:

  1. Completed and signed “Common Schengen Application Form.”
  2. Passport, which must be valid for a period of at least 3 months after the applicant’s last day of stay in the Schengen states and not older than 10 years.
  3. Two recent passport sized photographs in colour.
  4. Proof of payment of the visa fee.
  5. Proof of sufficient funds for duration of stay. (I submitted a recent bank statement with Tax return included! Good thing I planned ahead!)
  6. Travel/health/accident insurance: a one-page document stating that the applicant is covered by a Schengen Travel Medical Insurance
  7. Accommodation: confirmed hotel reservation is requested. In case of a pre-paid tour, such as the Topdeck tour mentioned above, a proof of payment to the tour operator would be accepted.

Please note that fees, borders and rules are subject to change. Always check regulations before applying and flying!


Now, your tour guide, couch-surfing buddy and your friendly travelling salesman will not always have the answer to your questions about where to go, how to get there and how much that will cost. Do research about where you’re going before you head there!

Little things matter: How far is the airport from the hotel or hostel? Since you don’t have taxi fare to spend willy nilly, is the hostel within walking distance of the attractions you care to see? Do you need travel insurance? Vaccinations? Visas? There should be at least 6 months validity left on your passport before the trip and some visas can take up to six weeks to be processed! The exchange rate is also something you should factor in when budgeting spending money. The best answer to that question, by the way, can be found on the following site: .  

Familiarize yourself with the metro maps before leaving. Find out where you’d have to buy metro tickets and how you’d ask for them – in the local language! Always carry a phrase-book  or nifty translation app with you — know how to at least say “please,” “thank you,” “I would like,” ask for directions and “do you speak English?!” Buy maps of each city and map your trips per day and per hour.

Backpack packed and ready to go!

Backpack packed and ready to go!

When you’ve answered your necessary questions and collected the required documents – pack them into a waterproof folder, in the order that you’d need them and tuck it into your canvas backpack!

And speaking of backpacks, prepare to be doing a lot of running and walking – rolling suitcases are only going to become a nuisance! Only pack your essentials: travel documents, a conversion plug, washing powder, clothing, toiletries and a first aid kit. And ladies, essentials mean two or three pairs of comfy walking pants. You’ll be making good use of Laundromats or your shower rod at the end of the day when you wash what you wear and dry it for the day after the next.

The following clothing list is suggested, based on my experience:

1 pair of walking shoes

1 pair of smart casual shoes

1 pair thongs / sandals / flip-flops

2 pairs jeans / trousers

2 pairs shorts / skirts

1 shirt / t-shirt

2 sweaters / jumpers

Smart casual evening wear

1 rainproof jacket

1 warm jacket

Underwear and socks!

Get those packed and you’re ready!


Sailing under the Tower Bridge, London.

Sailing under the Tower Bridge, London.


Now, you’re ready to go on an adventure that will CHANGE YOUR LIFE as well as the lives of those that you’ll meet! If you followed the steps above, your plane tickets were under $800.00. Your hostel stays under $400.00. Your tour – if you choose to go on one – most likely costs in the ballpark of $800.00 to $1,000.00 and you’ve set aside what remains of your tax refund and Travel Fund for spending money. You know where you’re staying and you’ve already made friends ahead of time!

And now you are well aware that this is most likely less than you’d pay on rent, phone bills, utilities etc. in a month of living in the United States. Just think of the trip as using that money elsewhere! Cut your cellie for the 30-31 days (or longer *winks*), sublet your apartment, and your loving roommates will take care of the utilities – you weren’t there using them anyway. And even if you can’t work that out – you’ve been saving all this time.

Now, what was that about not having the time or money or it being unsafe? That little voice isn’t so loud anymore, is it? By silencing that voice I wound up picnicking under the Eiffel Tour on my birthday and thinking to myself – I really did it! Some days I still can’t believe it, but the photographs prove otherwise.

Dear Voyager, I hope I’ve given you a bit to mull over as well as jogged the memory of your multiple travel dreams. You CAN and WILL travel as often as you want to but with careful planning. As noted, the most important thing to do is simply DECIDE TO GO!


Madrid Train Station

Madrid Train Station

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