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

What to do in Winter: Romania

Romania is a country of contrasts, candy coloured towns clash with castles fit for the nastiest of Disney villains. You’ll meet wait staff so rude they probably spat in your chips and locals who will invite you in off the street for a freshly slaughtered chicken to compensate. It gets mighty hot in Romania in the summer months, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t consider it for a winter escape, in fact, parts of the country look their absolute best covered in a dusting of snow. Here’s what you should do and where you should go to beat the winter blues in Romania.

Castles and History – Bran and Peles

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Bran Castle

 

There’s something about Romanian castles, all those spikes and pointy edges are a far cry from the squat and blocky English equivalents, and you can’t help feeling a bit more mysterious just standing next to them. I’ve lumped Peles and Bran together because of the (likely) possibility that you’ll be a tiny bit disappointed by Bran, Romania’s biggest tourist attraction, and therefore, Romania’s biggest rip off. At 35 lei per person, entry to Bran Castle costs more than most Romanian restaurant meals and you might be a little shocked to discover that despite the Dracula themed shirts/badges/pins/hats/masks/bedspreads/condoms that pile up on every stall in every corner of the town, once you’re inside Bran you’ll find no information on Vlad Tepes aka Vlad the Impaler aka Dracula whatsoever. In saying that, if you come prepared to see a beautiful castle and nothing more, Bran is hard to beat, especially with the bare branch, fog shrouded aesthetic of winter.

Peles Castle

If you like your castles sans vampire condoms, look no further than Peles castle in Sinaia, with its perfectly pruned shrubs, stone statues and towering turrets, it could easily be the castle that inspired the towering fortress on Beauty and the Beast. The palace, which housed King Carol and Queen Elizabeth of Romania is closed for renovations for the whole month of November, but the outside is so beautiful you can safely allot half an hour of gawking time for the façade alone.

Snow and Adventure – Brasov

Poiana Brasov

Given the Carpathian Mountains is home to a huge bear and wolf population, camping in Brasov isn’t for the faint hearted. It’s not for those that need to be constantly warm either, but waking up to an untouched layer of snow right on your doorstep is pretty special. If you prefer things a little fancier, head to one of the very affordable hotels in Poiana Brasov, a ski resort town that is gorgeous to walk through even if you’re not a skier/snowboarder. For an alternative hiking experience head to the Seven Ladders Canyon, or Canionul Sapte Scari. It’s a 40 minute walk through gorgeous pine forest before tackling the ladders and steel walkways that make up the canyon crossing. The walkways have recently been renovated so are much safer than they used to be, but thrill seekers can take comfort in the fact that there are still no harnesses, so death or serious injury is just a slippery rung away on the higher climbs. It’s only 10 lei per person to get in (a measly €2) but thanks to the wonderfully lax approach to security in Romania there was no attendant there when we did it, so we got in for free.

Canionul Sapre Scari

Colour and Christmas – Sighişoara and Sibiu

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Sighisoara

Itching for an antidote to Romania’s pointy castles and silent forests? Head to Sighişoara and Sibiu for cobbled streets so sweet they’ll make your teeth hurt. Start in Sighişoara, the smaller of the two, and spend a couple of hours exploring the old town. Every house is painted a different colour and if you’re really wanting to know more about the whole Dracula thing, it was the birthplace of Vlad Tepes, making it a much more legit Dracula nerd destination than Bran. Not far from Sighişoara is Sibiu which has got to be the most loveable city in Romania. It’s a mix of pastel-hued old school charm and hipster hotspots (check out City Burger, it’s amazing). Wander the alleyways before climbing the old council tower for a view of the city at sunset. From late November to December the Sibiu Christmas Market is in full swing. Complete with light projections, adorable toddlers in jumpsuits, and so much meat you’ll have the sweats for weeks, it’s one of the best Christmas markets in Eastern Europe.

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Sibiu

Ghost town charm and thermal baths – Baile Herculane

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Baile Herculane

Baile Herculane is, simply put, a photographers dream. Simultaneously ugly and beautiful, the former resort town was once the most cherished in all of Europe. Bad management in the post communist 90s led the once grand buildings to their demise. Many are boarded up, but you can still sneak through the Austrian Imperial Baths and admire the decaying hallways and chandeliers from the inside. Many parts of the baths are beautifully coloured and while you’ll have to dodge the beer bottles and faecal matter that cover some of the rooms, the grand hall has remained largely untouched. The surrounding hotels are more difficult to access, but wandering the empty pavements while plastic flaps from the windows is still an eerily magical experience. Baile Herculane still has the thermal springs it was once so famous for, and you can access these for free near Hotel Roman, one of the only remaining hotels in the old town area. Walk past the admittedly hideous communist exterior of the hotel to the side of the river, and you’ll find plenty of red-faced Romanians jammed into the two small baths on offer. If you get too hot, a dunk in the river will earn you the admiration of the locals and guarantees you a prime spot once you get back in the baths. Around dinner time the baths are practically empty and you can take a beverage or 7 to ensure you stay warm on your barefooted hobble back to the car.

Hot spring baths near Hotel Roman

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