A mini guide to traveling on spare change

**To help you through this guide, remember that 1 euro now equals approximately $1.10.

As a language assistant in Madrid, I make 1,000 euros a month–ballin! Maybe a little more if I give extra English lessons, but that’s neither here nor there.

After my paycheck arrives in my account, this is where it goes:

Rent: 250 euros

Clothes (gotta keep up with these stylish Spaniards): 50 euros

Phone:  20 euros

Internet: 16 euros

Groceries:  80 euros

That leaves approximately 580 euros for everything else.

I’ve lived in Madrid for almost five months and I’ve explored seven countries on this budget, with plans for more. People always ask me how I can afford these adventures through Europe, so here they are…  my secrets for traveling on spare change.

Booking flights:

To begin, open your Internet search in an incognito window (on Google Chrome– File/New Incognito Window). The booking websites track your history and will show higher prices based on your previous searches. With an incognito window, they don’t have access to your search history and you’ll probably see lower numbers on your screen. I’ve done a comparison and it really can make a difference.

I also believe in checking the prices daily. In early December, we had a four-day weekend that was begging for an adventure, and although we couldn’t find decent prices due to the holiday, we persistently checked anyway.  One glorious afternoon, we unexpectedly found a roundtrip deal to Paris for 30 euros. THIRTY EUROS–that’s $41! There was nothing to Paris below 150 euros in the previous days of searching.

As for booking, I’ve found these websites consistently deliver great deals:

www.skyscanner.com

I like Skyscanner because you can enter your destination as “anywhere.” It then brings up all of the cheapest destinations for the dates you have selected. For travel within Europe and Africa, I’ve never paid more than 110 euros for a roundtrip ticket from Madrid.

www.kayak.com

Sometimes Kayak finds more options or slightly better numbers than Skyscanner. After figuring out where I want to go by using the Skyscanner “anywhere” tool, I like to put the destination into Kayak to compare prices. Sometimes the results aren’t very different, but it never hurts to check.

www.momondo.com

I think this is a good site for long haul travel. It brings up many options and ranks the routes 1-10 based on price, number of layovers and layover duration.

We normally fly the infamous budget airline, RyanAir… but I’m pleased to report that I don’t have a single horror story to share with you. If you read the fine print, you’ll be fine. Plus, RyanAir allows you to bring two carry-ons now. EasyJet, on the other hand, does not.

**Note: I haven’t used these flight techniques for non-European travels. Thanks to a dad who made a great career choice, I fly for free on American Airlines. 

Lodging

www.Airbnb.com

Airbnb is my first choice when searching for lodging. I used Airbnb for the first time in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, and it was outstanding. We have since used it in Paris (my best experience EVER), Brussels, Berlin and Marrakech.

For those unfamiliar with this trendy style of accommodation, Airbnb is a widely trusted site for travelers to rent either just a room or a whole apartment or house. I always book based on the reviews, and always stay away from pages that have none.  In Paris, we rented a room for FORTY euros per night (if you know Paris, you know that’s a steal), and we received five-star treatment. We ate homemade croissants for breakfast every morning, found chocolates on our pillows every night, had cookies and tea at our disposal and a bottle of wine and a plate of cheese for our final night. Plus, we were provided with advice and directions from locals and made great friends out of the deal!

**Her price has gone up a little, but it’s still an outstanding offer. If you want to stay in Paris with Nina, click here! I couldn’t recommend her Airbnb more.

www.hostelworld.com or www.hostelbookers.com

These sites seem to find the best prices for hostels. Hostels are never really my first choice for accommodation, but sometimes it’s a very cheap option and a great way to meet people. With most hostels, you have the option to book a shared or private room. I’ve always booked private rooms with community bathrooms. (I really don’t love community bathrooms, but sometimes it’s the only option, and when I remind myself how little I’m paying, I get over it pretty quickly.)  Although private rooms cost more than shared rooms, it’s common to find offers for less than 30 euros per night–maybe half that if you share. So far, my best hostel experiences were at Hostel Florenc in Prague and Isaac’s Hostel in Dublin.

www.hotwire.com

I have yet to use this, but I’m excited to and it’s another site I always check. This website gives you the option to view “secret hot rate deals,” which are extremely low prices listed without the hotel name. It tells you the amenities the hotel offers, whether or not it is on TripAdvisor, the area it is in and the type of well-known hotel it could be compared to.  After you book, you receive a confirmation with the hotel name and details. For doing this “blind booking process,” you can get a cheap stay in a nice hotel.

City transportation

Many cities offer transportation deals that can stretch over several days. It’s usually best to purchase those, as they are unlimited and a better deal than buying transportation every time you need it. The passes often include the buses, trams and metros. Some big cities have a really great metro system (Madrid, Paris, Prague), and it’s definitely worth buying a several day pass.

When looking for transportation from the airport, it tends to be cheaper to purchase a roundtrip bus ticket online before you travel. When you buy online, you also save time since you don’t have to wait in lines or try to find where to purchase tickets. But keep in mind, some airports (Madrid, Lisbon) are connected to the metro systems, and therefore, you shouldn’t have to worry about this!

If you bring your walking shoes, it’s possible to cover small cities, like Dublin, by foot. The only transportation expense could be to and from the airport.

Food

When we travel, we typically only eat our dinners in restaurants. For lunch, we try to buy sandwich supplies from a market and make it last during our time there. This can be a delicious option because, well, it’s Europe, and the bread and cheese even from the supermarket can be divine.

For dinners, we utilize TripAdvisor to find reasonably priced and well recommended places.

We also keep it to maybe one or two drinks if we go out. Sometimes, drinks can be ridiculously priced and when you’re a couple in, you tend for forget about the experiences or souvenirs you could be spending that money on. Besides, I would always prefer to feel good and able to explore the following day.

Et cetera, Et cetera

During the week, Spencer and I never eat out. On the weekends, we only eat out once or maybe twice. This means more money for souvenirs or cool activities in a new country!

Walking tours are a great and FREE way to explore most big cities. If you google “free walking tours in ______,” you will find the times and meeting location. They typically last about three hours and are a fascinating way to get to know a city. My best walking tours were in Berlin and Prague, and afterwards, the cities didn’t even look the same to me. Both were the best history lessons I’ve ever received.

One of my favorite “travel hackers,” Nomadic Matt, has a blog and book full of ways to see the world on a budget. I highly recommend looking into his stuff, especially for information about taking advantage of credit card rewards for free travel.

So, do I travel like royalty?

No, obviously not–unless you consider royalty staying in a private room over a shared room at a hostel. Sometimes things are a little dirty, sometimes I find expenses I never calculated for, sometimes my feet hurt and sometimes I’m a little hungry, but I’m traveling and that’s all I really care about. If you are willing to put in the time and effort to find good deals, I can promise that they’re out there.

What budget travel tricks do you have up your sleeve? Do you use some of these websites, or are they new to you? Now it’s your turn to spill!

Snapshots from Sintra

During our weekend in Portugal, we decided to take a day trip a little outside of Lisbon to a mystical town called Sintra.  We were told Sintra was nothing short of a fairytale. Similar to a Disneyland for adults. But I didn’t need to hear any of that… Google Images had already sold me.

Sintra is adorned with 8th and 9th century estates, gardens and castles. Set at the foot of the Sintra Mountains, this UNESCO World Heritage site shined like a green emerald engulfed in fog.

The main sites are the Pena Palace, the Moorish Castle, Quinta de Regaleira and the Monastery. We only had time for the colorful Pena Palace and the boundless Quinta de Regaleira. But yes, if you’re wondering, it was exactly like a classic fairytale, or Disneyland or some kind of land too enchanting to believe.

Pena Palace

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The Moorish Castle

View of the Moorish Castle

Quinta de Regaleira

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A story of what was: the abandoned Spreepark, Berlin, Germany

I don’t know what other parts of Germany feel like, but Berlin was not how I imagined Germany at all. It was quirky, hipster-y, cultured and eccentric. It had a grungy vibe, full of history and interesting stories, many of which I had never heard.

On our second day, we decided to go off the beaten path a little and do some “urban exploration.” We had no idea there was a name for this until we exited the metro and met a nice ex-pat family living in the Netherlands that inquired about our past “UrbEx” experiences. We had none, but attached ourselves to them anyway since they had a map and seemed to know more than we did.

After registering for the Spreepark guided tour online (the only way you can legally enter the abandoned park), I understood the tour would be strictly in German. Albeit the language barrier, I figured it would still make for great pictures and a unique experience, even if we didn’t understand a thing. Besides, it’s where the movie Hanna was filmed and I really liked that movie and its unique sets, so that was incentive enough for me.

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After walking about 15 minutes down a dirt path through a secluded, shadowy forrest, we found the big iron gates open and eagerly awaiting our entry. Upon entering, we saw an old map of the amusement park and large dinosaur figurines, some headless, with moss and plants growing over and through them.

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The tour began and, sure enough, not a lick of English was spoken, so Spencer, the ex-pat family and I hung around the back of the group taking photos and making guesses as to what they were talking about.

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Luckily, a young woman named Sabrina was standing near us and we overheard her say something to one of the park’s guard dogs in English. We asked if she could translate for us, and very kindly, she did.

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Turns out, she knew the story of the old theme park quite well. A story we never would have found buried in the unfamiliar German language or behind the lens of my Canon.

Sabrina’s parents were the owners.

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She explained that show business was her family’s business for many generations. The family was extremely wealthy and she and her siblings grew up believing they would never have to work a day in their lives. At its peak, Spreepark, which sits on the edge of Spree River in Plänterwald forest,  welcomed about 1.7 million people through the gates every year until the Berlin Wall fell in 1989.  After 1989, attendance dwindled, the government intervened by removing 3,000 parking spots, bad decisions were made and the park went bankrupt, closing for business in 2002.

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In an attempt to find a new beginning and dig themselves out of the $21 million hole in which they were trapped, the family moved to Peru with six of their rides. The plan was to open a new theme park upon arrival, but it was a bust. Her mother quickly realized what an atrocious decision they had made and fled back to Germany with four of her five  children.

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Nearly one year later, Sabrina and her family received shocking news.

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Her father and brother had been arrested for smuggling 67 pounds of pure cocaine (worth $14 million) into one of the family’s rides. Her father was kept in a low-security prison for four years, and her brother, who knew little to nothing about the cocaine,  still remains in one of South America’s most dangerous prisons. He has approximately seven years left.

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Because the park is tainted with so much debt, the city of Berlin was completely uninterested in paying for the upkeep and renovations and gave the rights back to Sabrina’s mother. The park has now become a hotspot for vandals that jump the fence (which is why three of the below pups are released every night to guard the premises) and destroy what remains.

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Although Sabrina and her mother held tightly to the park with hopes to make a comeback, she told us they have finally lost the brutal battle. She said we would be one of the final groups to see the Spreepark, as early this year, the government will demolish the remains and turn the property into riverfront housing developments.

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Sabrina told us she will hold on until the very last day. “This is where I grew up,” she said over and over again. “It is where my heart is and always will be.” She insisted that she will be the last one to let go, even if it means sitting in a tree or on top of a ride protesting the demolition with everything she has.

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Spreepark has a magical, mystical and slightly eerie energy pouring through it. Sometimes, I could almost see the colorful balloons that accidentally escaped from a child’s grasp floating beyond the rides into the abyss. I could almost hear the squeals and shrieks and thrills from people riding what were Berlin’s best roller coasters. I could almost smell the classic amusement park food near the remains of the concession stands.

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But then I would notice the vandalism, the wild wires, the rust and the weeds and suddenly I could sense the loneliness and sadness excreted by the park and its family as it endures its final days.

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I expected to get a few cool photos from this tour… nothing more, nothing less. But as the ex-pats, Spencer and I exited the iron gates, sun setting behind us, we couldn’t stop thinking about the park and family’s riveting story. And I couldn’t help but feel extremely lucky and a little bit sad to have been one of the last to hear the story and walk the grounds before it is Spreepark no more.


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2013: My biggest challenge & my greatest adventure.

Two thousand and thirteen.

That may have been the number of emotions I felt last year.

At the end of 2012, I remember writing several New Year’s resolutions for 2013. These were three of them:

  1. Visit at least two new countries.
  2. Challenge yourself and believe in yourself.
  3. No sweets, except for Sprinkles cupcakes.

Two thirds of my resolutions held true.

Here’s a little explanation of the roller coaster that 2013 was.

I started January off by watching airplanes land over Maho Bay in Sint Maarten with great camp friends and pops. This was a bucket list item and an experience I still can’t get over.

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Then it was back to school to start my final semester of undergrad. My last semester was full of joy, friendship and so much love.

We spent spring break in a killer lake house near Gruene, Texas. I’d never done the “traditional college spring break,” but when you’re with good people in a great place, it makes for the best memories.

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Then, March to May just kind of flew by in one huge blur.

For four years, I consistently felt like I had just arrived to UNT… then out of no where and when I was the least prepared,  it was like someone tapped me on my back and gave me the thumb over the shoulder, signaling the way out. March to May were full of emotions… Suddenly, my dorm room was packed up, my classes were over and I was walking across the stage in the colosseum wearing a funny costume and hat. Looking back, I feel like I was kicking and screaming and fighting graduation for months. I wasn’t ready. I wasn’t ready to say goodbye to the life I spent four years perfecting. I wasn’t ready to say goodbye to one of the best jobs I’ll ever have. I wasn’t ready to move on. I wasn’t ready to be a grown up. And most of all, I wasn’t happy, nor was I excited.

Despite the 2,013 emotions I was feeling, my graduation was filled with so much love. We had one of the best parties ever and I was surrounded by 65 of my favorite people. If this doesn’t remind you of how good you have it, I don’t know what will.

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Several days after this, I got to forget about my real world dilemmas and was given the greatest graduation present… A trip to Malaysia and Singapore with some of my best friends.


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Who knew that just hours after landing, we’d be spending the afternoon and night in a police station, helping to catch two of Malaysia’s most wanted criminals. Adventure is out there, people!

And… I even got to witness one of my best friends propose to the girl of his dreams! This may be one of my favorite days ever.


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Home again, home again… and now it was time for the real world. I began my job as a community relations representative for a global aerospace defense company, and somewhat gave up my dream of teaching in Spain. This was one of the lowest points in my life. I was challenging myself, but not in the way that I had intended to when I wrote my resolutions. June to August was a dark period, as I felt the things I wanted for myself slipping through my fingers. I didn’t even feel like “Erica” at camp–my favorite place in the whole entire world. Deep down, I was carrying so much sadness… so, I sought help.

After talking to a therapist several times, things became so clear.  I was ready to challenge myself and I was ready to believe in myself in the way that I meant when I wrote my resolutions.

So I gathered up all of the courage I could collect, quit my job and began one of the greatest adventures of my life. 

In September, I moved to Spain and began to teach English.

I was placed at the best school with kids and teachers that I adore.

I fell in love with Madrid all over again.

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I found peacocks in Lisbon.

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I got lost in magical gardens and castles in Sintra.


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I helped bring Thanksgiving to Spanish friends.


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I found out what all the Paris hype is about.


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I wandered through Christmas markets in fairytale-like cities in Belgium.


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I spent Christmas in Prague.

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I did walking tours through historical cities and received the best history lesson of my life.


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I got a bit of a reality check at a concentration camp in Germany.


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I was one of the last people to explore Planterwald, an abandoned theme park, before it gets torn down and becomes housing developments.


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And I ended 2o13 listening to fireworks explode for 24 hours in Berlin with my best travel companion.

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Needless to say, I found my adventure and I found my happiness. When you close your ears and your eyes from everyone and everything around you, and you believe in yourself and what it is that you want, it’s amazing the bliss you will find.

Two thousand thirteen, you were my biggest challenge and my greatest adventure and for that, I am forever grateful.