Jan 12, 2012

Sappy's Eurotrip Guide: Budget Backpack Trip to Europe!

This is a story about how I traveled across 7 countries in Europe over about 20 days and lived another 50 days in Germany including all expenses (flights to and fro from India, accommodation, food, travel across Europe, entry fees, souvenir purchases etc.) for less than €2000!!!

Pre-Eurotrip Steps:
So you've got an internship somewhere in Europe? Or are planning a backpack trip? Now what? This guide will guide you step by step on how to save money and yet have a hell lot of fun! While there are a few tips specific to Indian residents, whether you're from US, Canada, Russia or South Africa, you'll find it to be extremely useful since it's primarily written in general.

Book your Flight: Start searching for the flights about 2-3 months before your departure. Go to some popular flight ticket booking websites of your country (for India, Yatra or GoIbibo are good choices). While putting the dates, you must put the tick the 'show +- 3 days' or 'my dates are flexible' option. Now, here you'll know which flight you want to take based on price and travel duration. While looking for the minimum price is important for a budget travel, but don't choose a flight where you have to fly for 10 hours extra just to save a few bucks! Now, don't book the flight right away from this website. This is just to find out the price comparisons.

Now, once you've selected your airline, go to that airline's website and find out the price they are offering and if there are any special offers (for example, Emirates offers 2 days special fare every month but you've to be subscribed to their list to know about it). Visit some other travel portals and compare the prices. Call up some of the local travel agents and find out what they are offering. But be careful about travel agents: they sometime offer you a cheaper ticket and say it'll be confirm and it's on waiting list now! Don't fall for that- it's not guaranteed that it'll be confirmed and if it's not, prices will be too high to buy a ticket at the last moment. Buy a confirmed ticket only!

Caution! If you've connecting flights in countries other than your origin and departure, you might need a transit visa. Ask the airline about it before you purchase the ticket. However, in case of Schengen Visa, none of the Schengen (23) European countries will require an extra transit visa. Still, better be safe than sorry!

If your arrival time is an issue or if you want to buy a ticket for a train after arrival, you'll need to know on-time performance records of your flight. Allow at least an hour between your scheduled arrival by flight and departure via train, considering minor delays, immigration etc.

Book onward Train to your city: (applicable for internship students only)
You'll need an international credit card to purchase your train ticket from airport to your destination city. Note, in Europe, it's mandatory to carry the credit card the ticket was purchased with along with the printout of the ticket. They swap it on board to verify your ticket. So you must carry that credit card (need not be in your name!). And buy the train ticket at least 3 weeks before your date of travel since in this way you can avail a discount of 50%! These Savings Fare tickets enable you to travel on that particular train only. If you want to keep it flexible, then buy a ticket on arrival. 

Buy an ISIC/ IYTC/ ITIC Card:
ISIC is International Student Identity Card. Similarly, IYTC is for youths (but not studying) and ITIC is for teachers. They get you a lot of discount in Europe. They can bought from your local agent, find out at here. Google a bit and you'll find your nearest travel agent selling these cards.

Buy an EuRail Pass:
These are best things that you can have while travelling in Europe! Buy an EuRail Pass before leave your home country. Why? I can give you a million reasons but I'll just give the best: they'll help you save more than 75% in travel across Europe!!! Now there are many available options as you can see in their website. A few very basic things you must know about the EuRail Pass:
  1. No. of countries must include your originating country and any country on the way from your originating and arriving countries. For example, you wanna travel from Germany to Italy but Switzerland is on the way, your pass must include Switzerland too.
  2. In Select Pass, you can select only countries which share common boundaries. For example, you can select Germany, Switzerland and Italy but cannot select Germany, Italy and Spain as Spain does not share a common boundary with these two other countries.
  3. A travel day in an EuRail Pass means 00:01hrs to 24:00hrs in one calendar day.
  4. The 7pm rule: If you board a direct, overnight train that departs after 7pm and arrives after 4am, then only the day of arrival counts as a travel day.
Sappy's tips on Pass selection:
  1. Germany to Prague (Czech Republic) has a few cheaper options! Don't include Czech Republic as one of your EuRail countries. Also, if you want to visit only Salzburg in Austria, no need to include it in your EuRail countries.
  2. Global Pass: buy if you want to travel to at least 6-7 countries or more.
  3. Select Pass: buy if you want to travel across 3-5 countries. 
  4. No. of days for each country will depend on how accurately you can plan your trip and save the travel days! Normally it's a standard practice to select double no. of days of no. of countries, eg. 4 country 8 days, 5 country 10 days. But if you want to travel a lot within these countries, you might need 1-2 more travel days unless you know to plan as well as I do or follow my advice!
  5. My choice (if you're staying in Germany): 4 country 8 days for Germany, France, Switzerland, Italy/ Netherlands OR 5 country 10 days for Germany, France, Switzerland, Italy and Netherlands.
  6. If you're 26 or younger, buy the super saver Youth version of the pass. If you're more than 26 years old and travelling in group, select the Family version.
Where to get your EuRail Pass?
  1. You can buy pass online from EuRail or find a cheaper vendor. In US and a few other countries, sta travel promises lowest prices. In India, the best option is to buy from your local STIC office. For ISIC card holders, they provide 5% discount normally. But if you're in a group, you can get up to 9% discount (yes I know my friends who got 9% as they had a group of 40 people). Also, you have to bargain hard for more discount.
  2. It's €50 costlier in Europe! Yes! And you don't even get any discount over there. So buy it before you head for Europe.
You might find EuroCheapo very useful for more detailed information on EuRail passes and more!

Get your Visa:
It's an easy step. Go the website of the embassy of your destination country and see the process for application for visa. For Germany, France and many other countries, it's free for students going on an internship/ research purposes! Awesome, isn't it?

Purchase Euro:
If your destination is Germany, France, Switzerland or Italy, Euro works just fine! So where to buy your foreign currency from? In India, the nationalized banks (State Bank group) offer the sweetest deals. Agencies such as Thomas Cook charge a lot more. BUT, if your institute can tie up with these agencies, they can offer a sweet deal too! For instance, in 2009-10, Thomas Cook tied up with our institute to provide Euro at 0.5% cheaper rate than that of the State Bank group, which is normally the cheapest.

Okay now, how much to buy? If you're going for an internship, I would suggest: First month's rent + Safety deposit + €80-100 if you are an intern and expecting scholarship money to arrive once you reach Europe. Ex. DAAD money takes about 2 weeks to arrive after you send your European bank account details.

Finally, when to buy? Forex fluctuates a lot and even a small change make a difference of hundreds to thousands of INR. Monitor the Forex graph of last 3 months, 6 months and a year and try to understand if the general trend is rising or falling. Accordingly, wait for the price to fall further or buy immediately. Same goes for while selling Euro post return.

International Debit/ Credit Card:
Getting an international debit/ credit card is important since you never know when you'll lose your cash or there'll be some technical problem. It'll also help you in case your scholarship money is delayed due to some unfortunate reason. However, it is not a substitute for cash and you must carry cash since in places, you'll find only cash is accepted. Also, in debit/ credit cards of your country, there'll be some heavy forex charges! So, card should always be the secondary choice.

For Indian students, you can get one such debit card from State Bank of India provided free of cost to students.

Rent a Flat/ Room: (applicable for internship students only)
Renting a flat/ apartment/ room is possibly the most difficult job. You need to google a lot for this. Request your Prof. to help you find one. If he can't or it's too expensive, try searching at apartment classified ads websites such as WG-Gesucht for Germany. Also, try at Studentenwerk. Try looking for your local Studentenwerk by googling. For Studentenwerk, you need to apply as early as possible as seats are very limited.

Staying connected:
International calls are expensive. Thus, if you're staying in Europe for a few months, the best option is to use VoIP calls using your computer. A cheap but good quality pay-as-you-go option is Localphone. Otherwise you can buy Skype monthly subscriptions if you plan to make a lot calls. Apart from that, prepaid mobiles of various operators are available, which you can use for local calls. International calls are expensive from these.

However, if you're travelling only, and that too for a few weeks only, it might be better to get a special sim card for that country from your home. This is way better than international roaming. Such services are provided by Matrix in India.

Take Off:
It's a long flight. You need to have the seats you want! So select your seat and check in online before your flight departs. This way you can also avoid the long queue at the airport. See SeatGuru to know the best seats in your flight. Moreover, Europe looks beautiful from flights. Hence, I would suggest you opt for a window seat.

Check luggage allowance in your flight and your luggage weights at home/ nearest weighing machine. Each extra killo can cost you a LOT in international flights. Also, some airlines offer extra luggage allowance for students. If you find any such document in the internet, carry a printout of it. Try to avoid any fluid (except small bottle of water) in your hand/ cabin baggage as in most airports they don't allow these.

Europe is quite cold, especially if it rains or you're arriving at late evening or night. Make sure to carry some warm cloth in your handbag that you can access easily.

At Europe:
Welcome to Europe! Let's briefly discuss some of the best travelling tricks and tips.

Traveling on Trains:
There are a few things you must know while using your EuRail Pass:
  1. Finding your train connections is easiest through the DB - Bahn website. Remember, in Europe trains are always on time. And on time means not more than 1 min late. So, you can plan with connecting trains with connection time of even 5 min. Yes, I've personally done it with a 3 min connection time- trains are that punctual in Europe (except Italy). Moreover, if it's delayed due to some unusual reason, you get complementary beverages at the restaurant counter. For exceptional delays, contact the ticket inspector. They'll help you plan your next part of the journey.
  2. Reservations are compulsory on some domestic trains and almost all international trains. Look that up.  For most of the domestic routes in Germany, there's no need to reserve your seat as trains have plenty of empty seats. However, a little googling will tell you if your route is a busy one or not. In case that's required, go to your nearest railway station and say that you've EuRail Pass and you just need the reservations. 
  3. You must write down the date of travel on your pass before boarding the train with pen! The ticket inspector (really handsome gentlemen and gorgeous ladies!!) stamps on the travel date while checking. While some people write in pencil and erase if the pass remains unchecked during the day, it's a highly risky and unethical business! If you get caught, there can be a hefty fine and it has happened to some people!! But if you get away with it, you can save a travel day. But other than in France, checking is quite strict across Europe.
  4. Remember, you can board any no. of trains at any no. of countries during your travel day.
  5. Make the most of them: As each travel day counts, try to minimize your travel days. For instance, try to arrive in morning at one city and depart to the next destination that night itself. In this way, you can combine two journeys into one travel day. Try taking overnight trains to make use of the 7pm rule (explained earlier).
German Rail Day-Tickets:
There's travel beyond EuRail Pass too when you're travelling within Germany. Some of the great group tickets you must make the most of while travelling within Germany:
  1. Länder-Ticket (Regional Day Ticket)For between €28-37 only, up to 5 people can travel together in any one German State in any regional or local train (not valid on fast trains like ICE). This ticket is State-specific, so buy for that State where you intend to travel. The price varies with State. Check the link for details. It works on any day of the week. This ticket is valid from 9am till 3am of the following day. A Night version of the ticket is also available for travel between 6pm and 6am.
  2. Schönes-Wochenende-Ticket (Happy Weekend Ticket): For €40 only, up to 5 people can travel together in anywhere Germany in any regional train (not valid on fast trains like ICE & local transports like trams). This ticket is valid from midnight till 3am of the following day. It works on Saturday and Sunday only.
  3. Quer-Durchs-Land-Ticket (Cross Country Ticket): This ticket is similar to the previous one, but works on Weekdays only (Monday to Friday). The price is €42 for one person, and addition €6 for each extra person (from 2nd to 6th person). Also, the ticket is valid from 9am instead of midnight.
Hence, while travelling within Germany, you can make the most of it by travelling in groups, preferably in multiples of 5 ;)

Alternate travel modes:
  1. Cheap FlightsRyan Air provides the cheapest airfares. And they're amazingly cheap, starting from €9! However, you need to plan way in advance for these flights and travel during weekdays to get these cheap fares. Also, their airports are always far away from main cities. So, while the flight might cost you only €15, more often that not, bus from airport to city will cost you around €15-20 on both departure and arrival, making the total one-way journey cost around €50. Thus it's useful only when you're planning to travel long distance that would take almost a day in train.
  2. CarpoolingCar sharing is a great option when you're travelling alone or with only one more friend. Mitfahrgelegenheit or MFZ are car sharing portals where you people post ads mentioning their travel plan/ itinerary, vacancy and charge expected. So all you got to do is find a suitable person, call him/ her and discuss the fare, time and pick-up point. The standard rate is as low as €5-6 per 100km. It's very common practice and quite safe. I would strongly recommend it for individual travelers.
  3. Luxury Buses: There are a few overnight luxury bus services as well. Eurolines is definitely one of the bests. Again, they offer 'promo' or savings fares. If you book well in advance, prices can be as low as €9!! Their services are very good as well.
Where to stay while travelling:
Try to take overnight trains or overnight buses so that you don't need to find a hotel for accommodation. However, if it can't be avoided, find a youth hostel or cheap hotel in your city. In some cases, you can spend the night at railway station itself. But some railway stations get closed at night. So check that before you plan! 

Another great alternative is Couch Surfing. It is a portal where the hosts - people who're willing to host guests free of cost - and the guests meet. Create an account, fill all your details, upload a photograph (yes, it's important to have a photo!) Find a host who's willing to provide you with a place to sleep! And it's a great way to meet new people, make friends and learn their cultures. However, to avoid any unfortunate incident, check the reviews and ratings of your host before you send a request to him.

What to eat:
If you want to save money, the cheapest way is to buy bread and some kind of spread (Chocolate or Peanut Butter depending upon your taste) along with some fruits. These will stay for long and reduce your food budget by up to 95-98%!! Also, you can buy pre-cooked food or packed food from convenience stores to keep it under your budget. If you want to have a little better and yet save your pocket, you can find a few more tips at EuroTripTips.

And if you're interning somewhere, staying in a city, try to cook yourself to save a lot of bucks. Every kind of food including Indian foods are available in supermarkets and spices in Asian shops. So, learn a bit of basic cooking before heading for Europe.

Most of the large cities such as Paris, Rome, Amsterdam, Prague, Berlin, Munich etc. have Free Walking Tours. Among these, Sandeman's New Europe are most popular and have the best guides. You'll get to see all main attractions of these cities in these tours and will also get to know the history. While it's not mandatory, at the end, leave some small amount of tips as a courtesy since these guides earn only the tips amount from these tours.

Other than that, you can buy local daily transport tickets to see around. Also, try to get a tourist map for free from local tourism offices. Some of the private tour operators also provide free tourist maps. They'll help you a lot in moving around in the city.

Also, very often you'll find free university trips conducted by your university. Keep checking the student portal of the university for latest updates. They are great fun and an excellent opportunity to meet and bond with others.

You'll find a few more useful links here. And that's all for now. However, I intend to update it from time to time to include more specific budget travel tips. I hope you find it useful. If you liked it, please spread it through social networking sites. If you have any question/ comment, please leave a comment and I would be happy to help!

Bon voyage.