Europe On $8 A Day? Yes, It’s Possible. We’re Just Not Sure It’s Legal
How one man spent 65 days in Europe for less than the cost of a Starbucks run
Article originally published on Debt.com, Nov. 2017
Ever heard of the book Europe on 5 Dollars a Day? It was written in 1957 by Arthur Frommer, and it’s become one of the best-known travel books ever written.
Obviously, it’s outdated — $5 in 1957 is $44.71 today. Who can do anything in Europe, the art and food capital of the world, on only $45 a day?
I did. On $8 a day, for 65 days.
I hitchhiked more than 2500 miles, went dumpster-diving for dinner in Copenhagen, slept under a park bush in Budapest, squatted in an abandoned bicycle factory in Ljubljana. (That’s in Slovenia.) And somehow through all that, I gained 15 pounds.
I’m not saying you have to do everything the way I did, but I’ll share my best advice. If you’re looking to do the cheapest, most adventurous backpacking trip though Europe since 1957, read on…
Getting Around, or How Everyone Isn’t an Axe Murderer
First things first: If you really want to travel far and wide, you need some wheels. Those usually don’t come cheap, but there are two options I used. One’s a little more ethical than the other, so let’s start there.
Hitchhiking has led me to sprawling villages in the mountains of Switzerland and sweet Italian villas deep in the countryside.
But it has also caused me to lose feeling in my fingers from freezing rain, and sit at the side of the highway for 16 hours. And to spend five hours in 90 degree heat getting flipped off by Italian drivers. I also met drunk German bicyclists who were biking across Switzerland and I ended up in six more countries than I anticipated.
Thumbing is free, but it’s an art. And as an artist, you suffer for your work. The art comes from getting people to pick you up: You have to look them in the eye as they drive by, have a sign, look like a hitchhiker. I also dance a little as I stand there, you need to look kinda interesting of a person. Also: Smile. No one wants to pick up a grouch.
Not surprisingly, the people who pick you up will also be some of the most interesting you meet. Most will be hitchhikers and travelers with impressive stories of their own, but the ones I enjoyed the most were the people who’d never picked one up before.
They were always a little nervous, didn’t talk much. You’re a curiosity, a risk. By the end of the ride, though, they thanked me. You change attitudes by being a joyful person when they expect you might be an axe murderer.
If that sounds either too boring or too dangerous, here’s option №2: illegally cheating public transportation.
In my experience, you didn’t pay to get on, but you were expected to be carrying a ticket. So every time I got on a bus, train, tram, anything, I’d analyze every person on the train. Most systems have a conductor disguised as a civilian. He waits for the doors to close, then whips out a badge and demands to see tickets. Every time new people came aboard I had to be on alert again, ready to run or have an excuse if a conductor caught me.
In two months and 14 countries of cheating rides, I only ever got caught once, in Budapest. I had five conductors in a semi-circle blocking me and a friend from leaving. But I lucked out, only getting a fine of $50. That’s still a lot for someone with a budget of $8/day, but seeing as these were not conductors to take bullshit, verbal or physical, I had no choice but to pay.
This is an even more extreme art than hitchhiking, and in my opinion it’s a bigger risk. Obviously, it’s illegal, and most cities had a fee of about $200 if caught without a ticket. The most common advice I got was to just run. Normally they are not allowed to physically stop you, unless they are cops. Running is a more common practice then you might think.
Where to Sleep: With Strangers… but not like that
For 62 of the 65 days I traveled, I slept only on strangers’ couches, spare mattresses and beds. For the other three days, I slept under a bush in a park once, and spent two nights in two hostels when I had extra money.
About half the time I used CouchSurfing.com. If you’ve never heard of it, the site pairs strangers with a couch to sleep on to strangers who are travelling. How do you know who to trust? Reviews, just like of hotels. There are essentially reviews of the person on their profile from people who stayed with them before.
I’d message someone asking if I could stay, they’d say yes and give me an address, and in the evening I’d find their place, introduce myself and stay the night. When I was lucky they’d show me around town the next day, other times I’d leave to move to the next city. Most of these people I’m still in contact with, as they are almost all amazing people.
When I couldn’t find a place couchsurfing, I’d just talk to random people on the street. I stayed with a guy who gave me a lift in Croatia. A street musician in Vienna got me a place with one of his friends in the city — I stayed with them a week. And a homeless teen in Slovenia brought me to a hippie squat where I stayed with some college kids on a spare mattress.
I would have slept outside a whole lot more often if I didn’t find so many strangers willing to give me a place to sleep.
Food; or How Dumpsters and Other People’s Kitchens Keep You From Malnourishment
This became, in retrospect, one of the most worrisome parts of my travels. I became malnourished about 40 days into my trip.
My diet consisted of fruit and vegetables, bread, and sometimes nuts. Not because I’m a picky eater, but because I had no way of storing or cooking anything more. About two thirds through my trip I felt constantly tired, slept 12 hours and still felt sleepy and weak after. At one point, I almost fainted with my thumb stuck out for a ride.
I kept a box of pasta in my pack to cook at hosts’ houses, but most of the time they’d make me a meal or two. It so happened that this stretch of my trip consisted of little more food than my own. After having four slider burgers forced upon me by a friend, I suddenly felt like I woke up, and noticed how bad my food intake had become. It didn’t happen again.
I learned how to dumpster dive to prevent it. It’s an almost unlimited free food source to be found everywhere, but also a bit of a grey area in the law, too. It can be considered trespassing, so I decided it would be better to go late at night.
I was hesitant at first of course — because of the sanitation of the dumpster food, not the law. But two college kids I stayed with showed me the ropes: What packages to look for, fruits to save, everything I needed to know. In the end we made a fine dinner.
You could say I had so little money I was digging through the trash, or, you could view it as making use of the grandiose waste of modern people and grocery stores.
The Importance of Being Social
Hitchhiking across Europe is not for the faint of heart or the hopelessly introverted. The single largest savior of my trip was being social.
I was fed, transported, given money, entertained, shown secrets of cities, brought to towns far away, and introduced to people I’d never think to find and enjoy, all by talking to strangers. I literally would have slept outside in the street, in the cold, and never gotten out of my first city if it wasn’t for the kindness of strangers.
Many gave me food or led me to places to sleep. I could have ignored the homeless teen yelling to me, but instead, I found a community and home for a week. I could have not talked to the couple on the ferry to Denmark with me, but then I would have slept outside in the cold instead of getting a lift all the way to Copenhagen.
People are amazing. There are kind people everywhere — and unfortunately, there are jerks everywhere too. There were many times where I had people try to take advantage of my apparent kindness as a traveler by incessantly asking for money. Fortunately, I was more broke than most of them. My budget of €8 a day wasn’t much more than two meals.
All these kind people, though, made this little money enough. In the end I met the real people from where I went. I didn’t meet tourists, I met the people who live there, who know the little places and the culture and language. I lived in these places when I went, which you don’t get to do on a big budget whirlwind tour.
Many don’t like the idea of relying on strangers, but people loved what I was doing and helped, and I loved every moment. It made me break down crying near the end. It made my stomach shrink, it made my heart break as I left home after home, but at least I wasn’t a tourist.
Also, those 15 pounds I gained? It was all muscle from carrying a 50-pound backpack around.