In the run up to my travels, I heard a lot of people saying that it was something they wanted to do too, but they just didn’t have the money. I’d been working as much as I could for the four months prior to leaving and was curious to see how long I could make the £2000 I had managed to save last me.
First, I looked into package travels in exotic places like Thailand, but was disappointed to discover that what I had saved wouldn’t even cover three weeks, once I’d factored in flights and travel insurance. Next, I looked at volunteering, and was shocked to discover that dedicating time to help people or animals was surprisingly expensive. I liked the idea of spending my time off trying to make a difference, but emptying my entire savings to do something worthwhile for only a couple of months seemed a bit extreme.
Eventually, I decided my best bet was to stick to Europe, as travel would be much cheaper. A lot of people recommended buying an interail pass for £365, which would allow me to travel by train around Europe for a month. I liked this idea, but as a female travelling alone I wasn’t too sure about jumping between cities, not knowing where I was going to stay that night. Feeling disheartened, I scoured the internet one more time, and that’s where I found the answer: www.workaway.info
For those of you who are unfamiliar with Workaway, it’s a work exchange website where, for a small fee, you can contact hosts looking for volunteers all around the world. Volunteering can include anything from gardening in Tuscany or helping round the house in Canada, to language practice in Japan or working on a llama farm in Berlin. The average expectation is that you work for 25 hours a week, and in exchange you receive accommodation and meals. I began contacting hosts immediately.
The first Workaway I did was in Maraxi in Mallorca, which was 15 minutes from Palma – the island’s capital. I stayed with a German family in a lovely apartment, and to earn my stay I helped them promote their business using social media and taught guitar to their daughter. Not only did the family provide my meals, but they showed me the island and gave me lots of advice on where to go on my days off. During my stay, I got to see a surprising amount of the island, taught many of my guitar lessons on the beach and even had my own room to relax in during the evenings.
I spent two weeks in Mallorca and it cost me just under £60. Most of this was on the flight, which I got very cheap with Ryanair by buying in advance, and the rest was on museums and travel around the island. I remember my time on the island very fondly and still miss the family I stayed with. I would really recommend staying with locals when travelling, because you get to see so much more than you would as a tourist and learn a lot more about the culture. With regards to the risk factor of staying with strangers, make sure you set up a Skype meeting with them before you leave, and give the address of where you are staying to friends/family.
After Mallorca, I flew to Brussels on a £29 flight, including taxes and checked luggage. I couldn’t believe my luck! I stayed with a girl I’d met last year at college, who was kind enough to let me stay for the week, which again meant I didn’t need to worry about finding somewhere to stay… or food. I wasn’t sure how much I’d enjoy Belgium, as it’s often the butt of jokes for having “nothing to do”. This was in fact not the case, and I found myself busy and entertained for most of the week. The museums were very cheap (on average, about two euros each) and there were lots of art exhibitions as well, including a spectacular underground exhibit about David Lynch, who is my favourite film director.
The nightlife was also better than I expected. On one night, we went to a carnival-themed rave, which was probably the best organised party I’ve been to. On another night, we went to a light festival in Ghent, which by coincidence was happening while I was there, despite only being celebrated once every three years. The festival was free and displayed light art around the whole town, including: videos on buildings and above the river, neon lights down the street, and even a shadow circus in an old theatre. My week in Belgium cost me about £60 as well, and the majority of this was on alcohol when we were out, so could have been avoided if I’d needed to.
After a week in Brussels I caught the train to Antwerp – a Belgian town by the river where I spent a few days staying with a mutual friend I had met that week. He showed me round the town and took me to a gathering on my last night, where I met some of the lovely locals he was studying with. This was one of my favourite nights and didn’t cost me a penny, because you can’t put a price on good company!
My flight to Barcelona was also a bargain, costing around £30. I stayed in hostels with a friend during the two weeks I spent there, but each one only cost a fiver a night and we did our food shopping very cheaply in Lidl and cooked in the hostel kitchen. My advice to anyone doing this type of travelling would be to change hostels if you can after a few days, as it’s nice to change location, and it gives you the chance to meet more people.
In our first hostel, we met an 18-year-old boy working the night shift, who invited us out on our second week to meet his friends. We stayed up all night, then watched the sun rise on the beach; a moment I will remember forever. Another person we met at that hostel told us about a carnival happening nearby, which was meant to be based on the Brazilian carnival in Rio. This was also a brilliant night that cost us nothing but train fare and a cheap bottle of wine – a decision that resulted in me getting up and dancing on one of the floats – something to cross off my bucket list!
It really goes to show that you don’t need to have a stack of cash to have a good time; your budget can go just as far (if not further) by talking to other travellers and locals to find out where things are happening. The most money I actually spent in Barcelona was, ironically, tipping our guide on a free walking tour, because he not only showed us some of Gaudi’s most spectacular works, but answered all my questions and then showed us where the cheapest bars and restaurants were in the city centre. If there are ever free walking tours in a city you’re visiting, do them – and ask questions!
The last place I visited was Prague, where I did another Workaway. The work here was renovating an old railway station the host had bought to turn into a hotel. Staying at the railway was a wonderful experience; it was like our own private retreat, but we were just a train ride away from the centre of Prague. The work was quite heavy, but it was only for a few hours, then we had the rest of the day free. I fell completely and utterly in love with Prague and, despite the fact there were lots of museums and things to do, I was content just walking about admiring the gothic architecture and the unique atmosphere.
I went out a couple of times while we were staying in a hostel in the centre (which our Workaway host kindly paid for) and had a lot of fun. My friend ended up accompanying me for this trip, which meant I could relax more when I was out, as being a drunk 5ft female in a new city alone is definitely not the most sensible idea in the world. On our first night we went to an eccentric bar called Cross Club, and while my friend was in the toilet I heard the people on the table next to me speaking English, so introduced myself.
“Are you here for Let It Roar festival, by any chance?” one of the men asked. I hadn’t heard of it but when I looked it up, I learned that it was one of the biggest drum and bass festivals in Europe (rather out of my price range) and was happening that weekend. It turned out, however, that the guy I had randomly spoken to was Gridlock, one of the famous DJs playing, and, after warming to my friend, he put us on his guest list, so we got to go for free anyway!
When I got back to London a week later and checked my card to see how much I’d spent, I was amazed. I had had so much fun and done something almost every day and night, but hadn’t even got through half my savings. The truth is, I probably could have spent less if I hadn’t spent money on alcohol, but considering I was staying in some of the party capitals of Europe with a credit card, I think I did pretty well!
To conclude, if you’re travelling on a budget: use Workaway, travel off peak and pack light so you pay less for checked luggage, don’t drink too much, talk and be friendly to everyone, take advantage of free events, ask questions, avoid tourist hotspots as these are more expensive, buy supermarket food rather than eat out and, most importantly, plan ahead whenever possible.
I really do think being on a budget actually helped me have more fun, because I made more of an effort to find things to do and meet people, than I might have done if I could afford to spend my evening relaxing in a nice hotel. Either way, I had a fantastic trip and discovered I love meeting new people, particularly other travellers, which inspired me to do my next Workaway volunteering in a hostel. As I still have over half my savings left, I will be doing this in San Francisco.
Words and photos: Abi Prendergast