Friday, November 13, 2015

How to travel on a €20 per day

When I tell someone about my gap year, the first response I almost always get is, "Isn't that expensive!?". The inquisitor normally then casts me a skeptical, maybe even slightly indignant, look (probably thinking "this spoiled little 19-year-old brat...") and asks "How are you affording all of that!?". Well, contrary to what a lot of people believe, traveling doesn't have to cost a fortune (and no, I'm not that spoiled). 

P.S. I sprinkled a bunch of pictures from my loner sightseeing adventures in Helsinki throughout this post!

If you remember from my first post (you probably don't), this gap year was an unexpected, pretty last minute decision. I started planning in the end of April, after being rejected from NSLI-Y, and left for Italy just 3 months later. So you may wonder, how the heck did I have enough money to spontaneously just travel the world!? Well for starters, ever since I was 8, my parents forced me to put a portion of my allowance, birthday and christmas money, etc. into savings. They said I'd thank them one day (and I'll admit it, they actually weren't wrong... so thanks mom and dad!). After 10 years of saving I had $3,500.

Loner sightseeing selfie! 

My next very small fortune was accumulated during my senior year. I got a job babysitting everyday after school for 2-3 hours and was paid $10 an hour. I was determined to spend as little of this money as possible because by September I had already applied to NSLI-Y (full merit scholarships for high schoolers/recent grads to be exchange students in critical language countries) and wanted to have some spending cash while I was in South Korea (the country I put as my first choice on my application).

In December, I decided to get another job because I wanted to save up even more spending $$$ for my exchange year in Korea (ha, the thought never even occurred to me that I'd be rejected). Honestly, I'm kind of a freak when it comes to money... I always get stressed that I'm not saving enough and so naturally, my philosophy for Korea was to have more saved up than really necessary, just in case. Rather be safe than sorry, I thought! Plus, I wanted to have enough to eat as much kimchi and Korean BBQ as I wanted! ;)

There's a lot of parks in Helsinki; Finns love their nature!

Anyway, my second job was at a local grocery store making minimum wage and working 8-hour shifts almost every single Saturday and Sunday and also some weeknights after babysitting. Not going to lie, my senior year was a little bit stressful, trying to balance 20-30 hour workweeks in addition to school, clubs, 5 AP classes, sleep and a social life. I didn't play lacrosse, stopped exercising as much and was basically always tired. But it's okay, it all ended up paying off because look here I am, currently in Tokyo, writing this post right now!

The National Museum of Finland

A model of an old, traditional Finnish log cabin

I saved up a lot of my pay, which wasn't too hard because I'm super stingy. I hate spending money on dumb things. I don't like shopping, I buy most of my clothes from secondhand stores, love searching for bargains and try to eat at home/pack lunches. Once I was rejected from NSLI-Y, I was more determined than ever to travel and realized I had a decent amount of money saved up to do so but not quite enough so I picked up more shifts and worked almost full time during the summer. In total, I saved a bit over $3,200 from both of my jobs.

Next, comes the part where I'm a little bit spoiled. From my grad party, I was given $2,000. I'm really lucky to have so many generous family members and friends; if you're reading this right now, you guys all know who you are, thank you so much!! I hope you realize you made this year possible for me!

Helsinki ranks #8 on the list of the most prosperous countries so it makes sense they have a lot of construction

Finland has a lot of new infrastructure due to it's thriving economy but also due to the fact that 109 buildings were destroyed, 300 damaged and 111 set on fire during the Great Raids of WWII

 So if you did the math, after my grad party I had a total of $8,700 for my gap year. I spent days and I mean days deciding where I wanted to travel and making hypothetical budgets. At first I wanted to go to Nepal instead of Ghana because it's a lot cheaper to fly from Japan to Nepal but my parents were worried about the possibility of future earthquakes so they said they'd give me $1,100 to compensate for the travel costs if I went to Ghana instead (yay thanks again mom & dad!).

So there you go, the grand total for traveling the world for 9 months.... $9,800. Bet you thought it'd cost a lot more, right? Or maybe you think almost 10 grand is a lot of money? Well to me, it’s well worth it to travel to 3 continents for 9 months. The average cost of one year of American private high school is $12,875. And the 10 months I spent in Italy with AFS back in 2012/2013 cost $13,500 tuition (it now costs $15,650). Not to mention, plenty of people blow 5k on a 2-week long extravagant vacation. Plus, I'm visiting 3 of the most expensive cities for tourists to travel to, rated by U.S. News Travel (Finland #8, Tokyo #6 and Copenhagen #4) so I'm spending a lot more money than someone who would travel throughout southeast Asia, Africa or south America. 

The biggest reason it costs so little is because I’m not paying for accommodations (except while volunteering in Ghana, the IVHQ fees are $1,000 for 2 months but that's still relatively cheap considering I'm provided with room and board). Once again, I am SO lucky to have friends/families, like Sabrina in Italy, Victoria in Copenhagen, Sanni in Helsinki and my great aunt in Tokyo, that are willing to host me. But just because you can't be as cool and me and know so many people around the world doesn't mean you can't travel on a budget ;) There's plenty of other options! For example, I didn't know anyone in Germany so I did a Workaway (my next few posts will talk more about this). I've probably mentioned workaways a million times in my blog already but basically it's a craiglist-stype website where budget travelers can find hosts (families, farms, hostels, etc.) and work part time for them (housework, babysitting, construction, etc.) in exchange for room and board. When I explain this website to people, they're normally sketched out. You met these people online and then you just go and stay with them!? I mean I guess when you put it that way, it sounds a little shady but you just got to trust your instinct. You can e-mail, call or even ask to Skype with the hosts to help you feel more comfortable. Another option is to be an Au Pair. I've also mentioned this before in another post. Au pairing is when you work as a full time nanny in exchange for room, board and sometimes spending money (depending on the family). I know a lot of people who've had au pairs and who've also been au pairs; it seems really cool and I hope to do it one day too! Last but not least, you can always try out couchsurfing, in which people around the world offer up their homes (usually for a week or so) to travelers simply because they want to make new friends. No work necessary here! I haven't tried couch surfing yet so if anyone has done it, let me know, I'm curious because honestly it seems a little questionable to me. 

Another way I cut down costs on my gap year is by using discount flight sites aimed toward students. As long as you have a student ID and some other proof of identification as a student (I used an acceptance letter), you can use StudentUniverse to find flights that are can be around $20-$100 cheaper than usual. Extra hint, make sure to choose "flexible" on your dates because it gives you the price ranges for each day (which for some strange reason, vary a lot). In regards to when the best time is to buy a plane ticket, I'm still not quite sure. Online I read that about a month and a half prior to your departure is the best time but from personal experience I think the earlier the better. Another good trick is to use StudentUniverse to find out which airlines/dates are the cheapest and then go directly to the airline's website. Since StudentUniverse is a third party website, they tack on a little extra for handling costs, etc. Sometimes it's cheaper on StudentUniverse and sometimes it's cheaper to buy directly from the airline so just check out both! If you're not a student, a good discount flight-finder website is Skyscanner.

The University of Helsinki library

There's only two drawbacks to my style of budget travel. Well, actually, I really don't think the first one is a drawback but whatever it might be a problem for some people. You can't really just zip around the world to a million different cities in one year because with workaways and au pairing the hosts normally want minimum of a 1 month stay. I see a lot of posts on social media from other travelers/backpackers who just jet from city to city, staying only a few nights or a week in hostels. I guess this is nice for them because they get to cover a lot more ground but I don' think it's as in-depth of an experience. For starters, I can't even afford to stay in hostels but I honestly don't want to either. Staying with a local family allows you to really immerse yourself in the culture and gain a richer experience compared to just staying in a hostel, seeing the best sites, eating the best food and leaving. That's not really an accurate representation of a country. 

Helsinki Cathedral

The other drawback is that I'm not living a life of luxury; I'm on a $22 (20 euro) budget per day. Which can get pretty difficult at times. Especially in Helsinki, which (as I mentioned before) was ranked #8 by U.S. News Travel for the most expensive places to visit. Bus tickets from Sanni's town, Numrijarvi, to Helsinki cost 8 euros just one way. Think about it, just to go to Helsinki for the day costs 16 euros and then say I want to buy a sandwich or something for 4 euros. Bam. All of my money is gone for that day, just like that What if I get hungry again? Or what if Sanni wants to go to a bar/club? 20 euros seriously disasters so quickly without even realizing it.

Thankfully, I quickly learned to adapt to the high prices and develop my own tricks on how to survive off 20 euros a day! The buses offer discounted student tickets (5.70 euros instead of 8, whoo!) but these are technically only meant for Finnish students. I decided I would try to flash my Ole Miss student ID to the bus driver and see what would happen. Probably around 70% of the time they just gave me the discounted price! Probably because I'm clearly foreign. However, Sanni wasn't as lucky... she's Finnish but doesn't have a Finnish student ID since she goes to college in Italy. she tried using her Italian student ID but since her name, Sanni Karppanen, is clearly Finnish, the bus driver must've thought she was using a fake ID or something and made her pay full price. Sorry, Sanni. 

Instead of buying overpriced sandwiches from little shops, I started doing my own grocery shopping. I'd buy a bag of these dry, brown bread rolls that only cost 50 cents, cheese spread for 1 euro and a pack of bologna for 70 cents. Not the tastiest but it lasted me 2 meals, meaning that I only spent 1.10 euros per meal compared to a 4 euro café meal. I'm not proud to say it but I even once succumbed to McDonald's and bought a cheeseburger for 1 euro... It's so difficult being healthy on a budget! Ugh. Another time, I packed cold, leftover pizza to eat for lunch. Ew. Traveling on a budget makes me seriously miss and appreciate a home-cooked meal.

Really cool store that sells healthy snacks (dried fruits, nuts, etc.) in bulk! Of course I can't afford it though.. way too expensive

Another tactic Sanni and I used to save money was by becoming homeless. Okay, not literally homeless but pretty much. Since it's so crazy expensive to go to and from Helsinki, Sanni always tried to find friend's houses that we could spend the night at and extend our stay as long as possible. We'd go to Helsinki early in the morning, stay all day, me sightseeing alone while Sanni worked, then go out at night, sleep at a friend's and spend the whole next day in Helsinki again. I did feel slightly homeless because I had to carry what seemed like all of my belongings (two days worth of clothes, food, phone & charger, alcohol, Nikon camera, makeup, toothpaste, etc.) and go without a shower for two days. But carrying such a heavy backpack helped me burn some calories! Yay! At least I'm not going to gain weight from all the McDonalds! 

To avoid the steep public transportation costs, Sanni and I almost always walked everywhere (more good exercise!). But we'd always end up being late so it'd turn into an extremely face-paced, sweaty walk carrying our enormous backpacks. When we went to Estonia we bought a lot of bottles of alcohol and then hard to carry all of them for the rest of the night when we went bar-hopping... I feel like we were probably a funny sight; tired, disheveled and lugging around so much crap, compared to the chic, freshly made-up girls carrying slim clutch purses. Eh whatever, I bet they weren't saving as much money as us. 

Speaking of alcohol, if you're traveling on a budget do not buy many drinks from pubs/bars/clubs. It's the biggest rip off! I can't stress this enough. Buy alcohol from a grocery store (or in Estonia) and drink it on the street before going inside, then just get one overpriced drink and nurse it for the rest of the night. However, sometimes this practice backfires and you end up getting so drunk and blowing all your money inside the bar... Be careful! 

Europe is cool and all but the fact that water isn't free from restaurants really sucks. Oh yeah, and you have to pay to use public bathrooms. I always carry a water bottle with me and refill it from bathroom sinks (and then it somehow always ends up leaking all over my stuff; make sure to buy a reliable water bottle!). Instead of paying to pee you can normally find free bathrooms inside shopping malls. But don't even bother with McDonalds; in order to use their bathroom you have to buy something because the bathrooms require a passcode that's printed on receipts. I get so angry about the whole bathroom thing... peeing is a fundamental human need!! I think I might invent a GPS app to tell people where the closest free bathrooms are located. 

Even with all of my thrifty tricks, being on a 20 euro per day budget in Helsinki was still difficult. I often found myself freaking out and stressing about money instead of having fun. I counted every cent. One night I even called my boyfriend in tears complaining that I was $15 over my budget. Slowly, I started to realize that I needed to stay calm. $15 isn't something worth crying over. What's more important, staying under your budget or having a good time on your gap year? I don't want to look back on my time in Finland and only have sad, stressful memories. That's why it's a good idea to leave yourself some room to breathe. Try to over-budget so that you have extra money just in case. Who knows what could happen; flights could end up costing more than expected, you could take unplanned trips (ex. Finland was spontaneous, thus not in my original budget) or find yourself in a super expensive city. Also it's helpful to keep track of how much you spend (maybe not down to the cent though... that's a little insane). I have an excel spreadsheet so I can keep track of my budget surpluses and deficits for each week. That way if I go way over budget one week (Helsinki), I know that I just have to try and stay under budget by the same amount the next week (Germany). It's all about balance. tHe most important thing is to remember not to let money control your happiness. After all, you're still traveling around the world! So what if you have to eat some cold, leftover pizza for lunch one day? ;)

The coolest, most unique chapel I've ever seen; Kamppi Chapel

I hope this post helped you realize that traveling is within everyone's reach. Yeah, I'll admit it, I'm a bit luckier/spoiled than most (money from grad party/parents plus my friends/family willing to host me) but I think I could still travel without those advantages and so can you! If you plan ahead, take some time to work and save up a decent amount of money, find yourself some hosts (and be willing to work) through workaways, au pairing and couchsuring and be smart with your money, you too can travel! :) 

Watch out for my next posts about my month spent in northern Germany visiting my boyfriend in Kiel! <3 Oh & here's some pictures from a loner day trip I took to Suomenlinna (a really pretty sea fortress island founded in 1748 that first defended Sweden then Russia and lastly Finland; now home to 800 residents). If you go to Helsinki, I think Suomenlinna should be the first thing on your list, I loved it! Ferry tickets are only a few euros too so that's a plus ;)

20 minute ferry ride

The Great Courtyard

The dry dock, one of the oldest operational docks in Europe

Someone's home

The sign says private property; imagine living here, I think it's so nice!

King's gate, the icon of Suomenlinna

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