Travel

How to travel long term: Tips and tricks from a tight-arse

I’m not good with money, never have been, probably never will be. I don’t understand the stock market, the housing market or any other market except the supermarket, where I blow my budget almost every week, so maybe I don’t understand that either. At one point my bank staged an intervention because I’d lost seven eftpos cards in two years, which was why I was pretty stoked with myself when my partner and I saved enough money to quit our jobs and travel around Europe and North Africa. We visited 22 countries and territories over nine months (280 days), and the one thing everyone asks when I tell them what we did is, “how did you afford it?”

Our trip was an even mix of living it up and it and barely living, we ate a lot and ate pretty well most of the time but we also lived in an abandoned beach hut until the local kids asked if we were homeless which, technically, we were. We spent around $50,000 NZD (including the purchase of a car) on our cross-continental journey, which you might think is incredible or pathetic depending on how frugal you are. Either way I’ve written some tips on what helped us reach our financial goal and what we would have done differently if we had a second go at it.

Before you leave

1. Lock that shit up

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Alhambra, Grenada, Spain

It’s a cold, hard fact of life that your existence is going to be absolute misery in the lead up to any kind of big travel adventure. We saved for our trip for five years, and we went about it in a pretty half-arsed way until the last year, which was grim. No going out, no eating like a grown up. When you’re saving, the rule for leftover food is that if it’s not moving on its own, it’s good to go. This means that before left my job I had committed at least twelve unforgivable workplace lunch sins.

Remember that scene in the original Charlie and the Chocolate factory when Charlie Bucket’s mum is stirring that giant pot of boiled cabbage and they’re all very depressed about it? I ate like that, to the point brown rice and cabbage became my signature dish. Things really reached breaking point with my colleagues when I thought I could swing my leftover fish curry for one more day. I was wrong. Would I have preferred to toss that fish curry violently into the bin and go get Wishbone risotto? Hell yea I would have, but every payday I put practically every cent of extra cash into a locked account that would hit me with a $20 fee if I took anything out of it, and no Wishbone risotto is worth 25 bucks.

2. Embrace looking like crap

Unless you have a huge budget, your standards of personal beautification are going to drop dramatically once you are on the road, so you may as well get yourself used to it beforehand.

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A self portrait after 9 months on the road

Here is a detailed but by no means exhaustive list of things that you do not need to spend your money on:

Nails
Waxes
Massages
Eyebrows
Eyelashes
Hair cuts/colours
Any hair products other than shampoo and conditioner
Tanning
Fancy clothes
Fancy make-up

You are beautiful and flawless and also fuck the patriarchy. Your face will look the best it’s ever looked after a few weeks of not slathering flesh-toned goo all over it. It’s a win all round.

3. Sell your stuff

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Amsterdam, The Netherlands

It’s amazing how much I don’t miss having stuff. Carrying everything you own on your back is a great incentive to not buy a bunch of useless things, so trust me, you won’t be wishing you’d kept that decorative cardboard stag head when you finally return home. Fortunately, there are hundreds of Kiwis on Trademe who would all love to take your pointless DVD collection off your hands, and pay you for the privilege. Recycle Boutique will sell your good quality clothes and give you 50% of the profit back. Or you could take it all to your local secular charity shop of choice and hope that good karma will mean you find a $20 note on the ground.

4. Sort your money out

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London – home of the Monzo card (and some other weird stuff)

Unless you want to find yourself breaking out in fee-induced stress hives at a foreign ATM, it’s best to get your cash cards properly sorted before you leave. If you’re planning on travelling around Europe like us, Westpac is the New Zealand bank to go with. Westpac is part of the Global ATM Alliance, which means you can get money out in the U.K, Spain, Italy, France, Poland and Germany and only pay the 3% transaction fee instead of the often hefty ATM withdrawal fee. They’ve also got you covered in large chunks of Africa, Asia, the US and Canada. If you’re starting in the U.K or visiting early on in your trip, you can also get a Monzo card, which will cover you for the countries not included in the Global ATM Alliance. You can get the equivalent of £200 cash out for free at any foreign ATM per month, with a 3% charge thereafter. Although free cash withdrawals were unlimited when we joined Monzo, this is still a pretty good deal. In countries where card machines at restaurants, hostels and supermarkets are plentiful, you can pay with your Monzo card and not pay a cent in fees.

When you’re there

1. Set a daily budget

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Italy’s Cinque Terre – pricey but worth it

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Feasting on the cheap in Kalamata, Greece

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Paris, France

If you’ve been living like a hermit with bad eyebrows who only drinks Double Browns on their occasional ventures out of the house, you’ll be wanting to spend up large the second you step off home soil. “I fucking deserve this” you’ll say as you spend $80 on dumplings at Shanghai airport, “this is totally reasonable” you think, handing over 10 pounds for a vodka soda at a London bar, “I bloody love wax figures of the worlds hottest celebrities and political figures” you chant in your head as you weep into your dwindling pile of cash. I am a big fan of the treat yo’self mentality, but it’s easy to get carried away at the start of any trip. Try to set your daily spend at a reasonable half way point between point A) making it rain and point B) eating anything that involves boiled cabbage. We had a daily budget which we altered depending on the priciness of each country, and did an OK job of sticking to it. The less you spend, the longer you’ll be able to travel, which brings me to my next point.

2.The best things in life are free

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Sunset at Poulithra, Greece

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The Highlands, Scotland

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The Rif Mountains, Morocco

I hate most quotes, I especially hate travel quotes. Seeing empty platitudes in swirly writing posted against a desert island backdrop sends me into a fit of completely irrational rage, but if there’s one idea I do believe in, it’s that you don’t have to pay to see beautiful things. Even the greatest museums pale in comparison to a stunning view, and when I think of the best times I’ve had overseas so far, all of them have involved being in the wonderfully cost-effective outdoors.

Keep this in mind when you’re considering joining the queue to see a castle, church or gallery. You will come across literally thousands of paid tourist attractions and half of them will leave you feeling extremely ripped off ( I’m looking at you Sistine Chapel), so try to pick just a couple that you want to see in any given country.

Half an hour on good old Google can also save you heaps, as you can often get into otherwise expensive attractions for free at certain times or on certain days of the week. Barcelona’s Parc Guell for example would have cost the two of us an outrageous €30 ($47NZD) during the day time, but if you visit before official opening or after it closes (hours vary depending on the time of year) it’s completely free.

In London, we were desperate to see a West End show, but didn’t have a West End budget. We entered the Monday night raffle for Book of Mormon (just show up at the theatre and put your name down) and won front row seats for £25. Score.

3. Buy a car

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Brasov, Romania

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Theth, Albania

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Saorge, France

If you’re travelling for more than a few months, and you don’t mind roughing it, buy your own set of wheels. While car rental is cheap in some countries, it’s borderline daylight robbery in others, and the rental companies might give you a silly list of rules like “don’t take this Fiat Punto off-roading in the mountains” or “don’t use your coal barbecue in the boot”. You don’t need that kind of negativity in your life.

While using public transport is usually cheaper than paying for gas, it’s boring, time-consuming, and you have to smell the farts of 50 other people. Having a vehicle is not only quicker and more scenic, but it also cuts out other major expenses. Having a car big enough to sleep in or camp out of meant we only paid for accommodation for about two out of seven days of the week, and having a boot full of food meant we only ate out when we couldn’t find a place to pull over and cook a bowl of pasta. We would have saved thousands on food and accommodation in the six months we were travelling in the car and that was despite spending way too much on its purchase and upkeep. (See next point)

4. Buy a good car

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Friendly Albanian mechanic

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Somewhere in Greece

While this point may seem like straight-up common sense, I’m going to explain it anyway. We bought Monty the Monterey and his rusty trailer in Spain for a cool €2,500. If we were smart, we would have bought another car, not because we don’t love Monty, but because buying a car in a country where you don’t speak the language is a special kind of hell. After being passed around dozens of different council offices in three different Spanish cities, we were able to legally buy the car. Within three months of buying Monty, he had broken down in a pretty serious fashion on three separate occasions in three separate countries, something that would have been covered by the car dealers warranty if we had insisted he translated the entire contract from Spanish to English instead of a few select bits. Don’t buy a car that is massively uncommon in most of the areas you are travelling to, unless you want to be stuck in Albania for a month while you get parts shipped by a grumpy old man in Leeds. (Side note, Albania is actually wonderful and I wouldn’t mind being stuck there for six months, you can read more about it here)

5. Camp everywhere

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Borsh, Albania

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Botev Peak, Bulgaria

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Shack, Nea Kios, Greece

I have never understood the idea of luxury hotels. Why hand over your hard earned cash for a room you’ve got your eyes closed in 90% of the time? You’re travelling to see the world, not a nicely painted ceiling, so harden up that wimpy back and get used to sleeping on any and all surfaces. Searching for camping spots is a great way to get deep into the boondocks, and you’ll inevitably get woken up early by the dew, the sun or an Italian cop pointing a gun at you, so you’re bound to get the most out of your day. Apps like iOverlander and park4night have thousands of free camping spots submitted by fellow travellers complete with co-ordinates and details about amenities. We also used the furgovw website which lists heaps of free camping spots in Spain and other parts of Western Europe (just translate it from Spanish).

6. Get yo’self a side gig

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Reporting on the Barcelona terror attack for TVNZ

If you want to indulge in the occasional cheesy fridge magnet or novelty tea towel you might want to get yourself a bit of freelance work. This may be a little tricky if you’re a bricklayer, but super easy if you’re trained in something you can do on your laptop. I earned around $7000 from freelance journalism work while we were on the road, and given it was all up to me whether I did it or not, I really enjoyed it. Hours of stoned chit chat at hostels will turn your brain to mush if you’ve got nothing else to think about, so it’s good for your noggin. What’s extra great is that if you do your work for New Zealand companies, you can apply for a special tax rate, meaning you pay zero dollars and zero cents of tax while you’re overseas. Sites like Upwork post thousands of jobs a day for professions from computer programming to lawyering. If I’m honest, the writing jobs on Upwork are mostly ridiculous – “I need a ghost writer for a 10,000 word Mormon erotic thriller and my budget is $15” – but if you’re a web developer you could make some decent money, or if you’re simply desperate, you can dig around to find ok jobs that require nothing more than a reasonable understanding of the English language.

7. Cheap countries are the best countries

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Legzira Beach, Morocco

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Krakow, Poland

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Lake Koman, Albania

Maybe it’s the tight arse in me, but I find that spending excessively on food/accommodation/fun just for the sake of being in a trendy part of the world diminishes the enjoyability factor by a minimum of 85%, by which point you may as well be somewhere else. We visited a good chunk of the European capital hotspots  but were still more awe-struck by the rugged beauty of rural Morocco , the time-warp paradise of Albania, the delicious food of Bulgaria and the fairytale castles and villages of Romania.  Your money will go twice or three times as far in those countries, and the relative lack of tourism means people will treat you better too. Want to make your money last longer? Go where the tourists aren’t.

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Monemvasia, Greece

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Lisbon, Portugal

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Rila Monastery, Bulgaria

Side note: It goes without saying that I wouldn’t have been able to do all this if I didn’t lead an incredibly privileged life in New Zealand. I had a good job, I didn’t have to financially support my family and I didn’t have any costly mental or physical illnesses to deal with while I was saving. I also haven’t spent any money on proper grown-up things like a house, a wedding, or paying back my student loan (sorry IRD). You will see people living in all sorts of dire situations on your travels, so, to quote whoever makes up all those annoying travel quotes, always remember that you are #blessed.

 

 

 

 

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Europe, Travel

How to spend a week in Bulgaria

Want to travel to a few different countries in a week? Don’t do that. Go to Bulgaria instead. Part ancient village and part cosmopolitan city, a week long driving tour will take you through such dramatically different spots you could be doing a multi country trip. The regional towns and villages are all little old ladies in headscarves and big blue trucks covered in frost, while effortlessly cool Sofia is brimming with trendy bars and highly aspirational winter fashion. Bulgarians themselves are helpful, direct, and fiercely passionate about their country (get them talking about yoghurt or roasted peppers). The best part is that Bulgaria is so cheap you’ll be able to live like an actual human and not a sad and dirty little travel rat. Here’s where you should go to make the most of what Bulgaria has to offer:

Day 1: Melnik & Yagodinska

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If you’re coming from the south, Melnik is a great place to get a first impression of Bulgaria. Cute, compact and full of outstandingly photogenic brick-roofed houses, it’s a cracking place to spend a couple of hours before you kick off the rest of the trip. Fuel up with the first of the dozens of ginormous meals you will eat over the next 7 days. Bulgarians eat a lot and their standard fare is the definition of winter comfort food, try kavarma (meat stew in a clay pot), banitsa (delicious filo pastry pie stuffed with cheese) and feta on fries (self explanatory). You could spend hours eating and drinking in a local tavern or restaurant and spend less than €20. It’s heaven. On the way to your Day 2 destination, stop off at the Yagodinska cave, a delightfully Bulgarian tourist attraction where you can take a guided tour through the stalagmites in Bulgarian with exclusively Bulgarian tourists. There’s a Christmas tree in there and to this day I have no idea why, but it’s very nice.

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Yagodinska cave (Source: Google)

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Russian GAV truck common in the Bulgarian countryside

Day 2: Plovdiv

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Plovdiv Old Town

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Knyaz Aleksandar I – Plovdiv’s main pedestrian street

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Musicians practice near the Roman theatre

Plovdiv sounds cute and looks cute and the people dress their dogs in little puffer jackets which takes all the cuteness to its absolute peak. Take a wander through the multicoloured and cobblestoned Old Town and get ready to be befriended by the local artists. If taking photos isn’t your strength, you can imprint Plovdiv permanently in your memory by buying some of the extremely affordable local sketches of the museum or the Roman theatre. Take in the best view in town and another one of those preposterously sized Bulgarian meals at Rahat Tepe before checking out the colourful pedestrian street and all the adorable jacketed dogs.

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Zucchini fries and stew at Rahat Tepe

Day 3: Central Balkan National Park

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Haute cuisine near Botev Peak

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If you’re sick of adorable things after two days in Melnik and Plovdiv, get ready for a remedy in the form of fog-shrouded forests and the possibility of being attacked by a bear. The Central Balkan National Park is a real stunner, and seeing as you only have a day there you’ll get to see a lot more if it than those motivated exercise people seeing it by foot. If you’ve got a half decent 4wd (you can rent one from Sofia airport for about €35) you can make it almost up to Botev Peak and picnic among the clouds. There are some lovely fluffy horses up there which the bears will probably eat first, so you can relax on that front. Unless you’re on a 10 kilo sack of rice kind of budget, you’ll never have to worry about overspending on accommodation in Bulgaria, but if you’re intent on camping, living al fresco in the national park is the ultimate in peaceful yet freezing solitude.

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Day 4: Koprivshtitsa

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House museum in Koprivshtitsa

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Ok, it’s more colourful old houses, but Koprivshtitsa really is worth a visit. While Plovdiv is only part old town and part metropolis, entering Koprivshtitsa is like driving through a seam on the time/space continuum and popping out in 1845. Horses and carts are still a common form of transport, and you can really get to know the town by visiting the house museums, the former dwellings of local heroes which have been restored and now hold exhibits. Koprivshtitsa lies in a valley which means it’s icy cold for about three quarters of the year, but never fear, Restaurant Chuchura is the place to go to warm up and guess what EAT SOME MORE. You can safely expect to gain a minimum of 8 kilos (one for each day) while in Bulgaria so you’d better have some elastic waisted pants.

Day 5 & 6: Sofia

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Alexander Nevsky Cathedral

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The Russian Church

I’m not much of a city slicker, but even I grew pretty fond of lively, soon-to-be hipster destination of choice, Sofia. Full of well utilised parks, underground bars, museums and extremely trendy eating spots, it takes a while to run out of things to do. Locals have capitalised on the unpretentiously hip nature of the city, and have crafted tours to match. On day 1 treat yourself on the Balkan Bites food tour, where you sample everything from burgers to traditional yoghurt soup. Payment for the tour is a tip and you don’t have to pay for the food. The New Sofia Pub Crawl is (mercifully) a far cry from the usual traipse through starkly inauthentic Irish bars. Sip raspberry wine in a converted apartment with themed rooms, or look down at the jazz pianist from the rafters of Hambara, a hidden bar that doesn’t advertise at all, but is consistently full. The pub crawl will cost you 20 lev (€10) but you get a decent sized drink at every spot, which means you’re guaranteed to make friends as you bond over pretending to enjoy rakia.

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Sweet wine and cheese samples at Hadjidraganovite Izbi

On day 2, if it’s a weekend, hunt for bargains at the Sofia ski market, it’s held every Saturday and Sunday near the Vasil Levsky stadium and, like everything in Bulgaria, is outrageously cheap. You can buy skis for 10 lev (€5) and we bought two pairs of Goretex ski pants, a ski jacket, hat, gloves and a head torch for about 350 lev (€175). While most cold country dwellers dress head to toe like they’ve emerged from the crypt, women in Sofia love colour, fake fur, fake leather, diamantes, pom poms, big hair, perfect make-up and every other accoutrement you could typically find on RuPaul’s Drag Race. It’s amazing. Consider this on your shopping excursions, then if it’s snowing, take your pompommed self up to Vitosha mountain to one of Europe’s cheapest ski fields. If it’s too warm for snow, take a hike through more spooky forest. It’s an all-season win.

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Dirt cheap gear at Sofia ski market

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Mt Vitosha

Day 7: Rila Monastery 

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Rila Monastery is not only Bulgaria’s most famous attraction, it’s also a top contender for World’s Holiest Building That Looks Like A Gingerbread House. The monastery was founded in the 10th century by a guy who lived as a hermit in a cave, which seems like a shame given how good looking it is. The candy cane stripes provide a welcome break from the usual Victorian cathedral drudgery you see around much of Western Europe, and even the most church-weary traveller is bound to feel a bit emotional watching the morning cloud lift over the turrets while monks shuffle around the courtyard. Admire the beautiful and occasionally terrifying frescoes (there’s a lot of devil stuff) then head just outside the monastery walls to the local bakery. Start your Bulgarian adventure how you began it (by eating) and grab some mekitsa (fried bread with icing sugar) for 50 lev cents a pop. What’s not to love.

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Mekitsa at Rila Monastery

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