With some time to kill at Hong Kong airport, I’ve decided to make a list of all the things I’ve learned which may help other potential independent travellers. The knowledge I’ve gained is from the perspective of being a forty-two year old single man who wanted to travel around Europe simply and cheaply. I went with the idea of wanting to combine notions of being a “tourist” and being a “traveller”. I also went with the idea in mind that I was willing to make some “compromises” in terms of my personal privacy (staying at hostels), but would also happily hop into a hotel or B&B when I needed a bit of space.
GETTING AROUND: Although it’s tempting to get a rail pass, for my trip I found it better and cheaper to catch cheapie airlines. I did the sums for a couple of trips and it was faster and considerably cheaper (one third of the price) to catch a cheapie flight than a regular train. With cheapies, you should go online, check that you’re travelling to and from the main airport and not something in the middle of nowhere, and make sure there are no baggage restrictions. That said, I enjoyed the train trips I did and they deliver you right into the middle of town which is good.
THE COST: Prague is still pretty cheap, especially if you like beer. Stockholm, Tallin and Berlin are on a par with Sydney, which surprised me since I’d always heard that Stockholm was really expensive. The expensive stuff seems to anything that involves a human doing something for you. Paris and surprisingly Riga, are both slightly more expensive than Sydney. London and Amsterdam are just outrageous.
CLOTHING: Even with my small bag, I still think I took too much clothing. I basically wore only two pairs of shorts and two pairs of jeans and about four shirts the whole time. A couple of items of clothing I’d packed remain unworn. I took a leather jacket which was good for both the cold and the rain. I only needed an umbrella or a raincoat on a couple of occasions. I took one pair of Blundstone-style boots which I wore every day, because they were comfortable, hard-wearing, and could look good equally well in a casual or dressy situation. I lost some underwear and socks (the process of packing and unpacking) along the way, so I bought some along the way from H&M. H&M by the way is great for cheap, but good looking clothing. I wish we had one in Sydney. My luggage weighed on average about 14kg, but I reckon I could have gotten it down to 10 or 11kg by taking less with me at the beginning and buying a couple of items along the way. Reducing your luggage size is especially important as you have to lug the stuff up and down often old and narrow staircases in many buildings.
ACCOMMODATION: Youth hostels are actually generally fairly ok, especially in Sweden, Germany and the Czech Republic. In those countries, they are generally clean, usually give you breakfast, and often have free wifi. Never stay in an old building converted into a youth hostel. Even though the idea sounds great of staying in an authentic 200 year old building that was formerly something historic, they usually try to squeeze too many people into a small space, and they usually don’t have enough bathrooms. Go for the purpose-built hostel, I say, or even better, the former Communist Party office building. Don’t stay too close to town, as the hostels closer too town are usually more expensive, in dirtier more run-down conditions, and are full of “party animals”. If there’s two or three of you, book a hotel and you’ll pay considerably less for a room that’s more private and in much better condition. You’re much better off finding a hostel on a train line a little further away from town. In a dormitory setting, go for the big rooms when you want some privacy, as smaller dormitories lead to a greater level of intimacy than you might otherwise desire. Always look for hostels with separate gender bathrooms and toilets and dormitories instead of the more popular combined gender facilities. Men always have much less stuff which they pack neatly away, whereas women always have too much luggage which they put all around the room. And let’s just say I never found long black hairs in the shower recess of single-gender facilities whereas I did with the combined genders. Ewww. Men’s luggage can be smelly, as they don’t wash their clothes enough, so if you’re staying in a room with men, make sure there’s good ventilation. If you’re in a hostel with bunk beds, go for the bottom bunk, as it’s a pain in the arse trying to climb up there in the middle of the night, and there’s often not enough room between you and the ceiling. And always leave your bed unmade so people don’t jump into it, assuming it’s there’s. This happened to me twice before I learned the lesson.
FOOD: You should never eat “ethnic food”, especially Asian food anywhere in Europe, with the possible exception of Paris. They always fuck it up with some local addition or variation, such as serving “Swedish salad” (comprising iceberg lettuce, tomato, cucumber and CORN) on the same plate as your Pad Thai tofu. My advice is stick to the local cuisine they’ve perfected over hundreds of years. And grazing all day on cheap bread-based and fruit-based meals is cheaper than going to restaurants. Go for the “all you can eat” breakfast or lunch and you often don’t have to worry about dinner. Have a glass of wine instead of an evening meal is my advice!
DAY TO DAY: Get rid of your day pack. Honestly, why do you need to carry around half your posessions with you every day? Backpacks also identify you instantly as a tourist which, in Hong Kong is a terrible thing because it makes it easier for the people who want to sell you suits and watches. Don’t carry a backpack in Paris, where everyone seems to be a potential pick-pocket, esp around major tourist attractions. A bag on wheels is much better than a backpack. They can be a bit of a pain on cobble-stone streets and in the Paris metro where there doesn’t seem to be much consideration of people in wheelchairs, but they’re easier to pack and unpack, and you don’t have to worry about falling over under the considerable weight of all the crap you’ve accummulated. By the way, don’t accumulate too much paperwork, as you can always find the brochure on later. Every day go through your paperwork and throw out the crap you don’t really need anymore.
PUBLIC TRANSPORT: The metro systems in Stockholm, Paris, Prague, Singapore and Hong Kong are excellent, as they’re easily navigable and cheap. I didn’t use much public transport in Berlin, as everything was fairly close. London’s system is too big (and expensive) for words, so only travel there with a friend. Public transport in Riga is virtually non-existant. The train system in Amsterdam is very confusing, and I ended up half way across the country on more than one occasion due to the complex nature of it all. Avoid cities with cycle-ways at all costs. Give em an inch and they’ll take a mile. Generally cars will slow down and stop for pedestrians, but cyclists won’t. In fact they will nastily ring their bell at you if you’re on a cycle-way, but show no similar feelings of guilt when they’re on a footpath.
ATTRACTIONS: Museums are a totally pointless boring way to spend your holiday. One or two every so often is okay, but only on a wet day, and only for something you’re really interested in. But worst of all, they’re full of tourists who do this terrible slow-stepped shuffle from painting to painting, from installation to installation. Walking tours are usually quite good, as they give you a good introduction to a city, helping you to identify places for further investigation. Bus tours, especially those ones with headsets are just too awful for words. Ten seconds at a building, take a photo and then you’re off again. The pre-recorded commentary can also be very basic… “On your left, the Louvre”.
GETTING TO MEET PEOPLE: To get to really know something about the country you’re visiting, it’s best to find yourself a good local bar, start chatting to the barman, and say yes to every invitation you receive. If you see another solo tourist, say g’day to them, as they’ll appreciate the warm smile. And if you see a fellow Aussie looking a bit forlorn, there’s nothing quite like the sound of a familiar voice and a smile to make their day.
BLOGGING THE TRIP: Keeping this blog has been a good way of making sure I live my life to the fullest by keeping myself accountable for my daily actions. It’s also a simple way of keeping everyone back home up to date with what you’re doing without having to write lots of cut and paste emails. For this trip, I bought an ASUS EEE PC at $329 Australian (cheap), spent an hour or so each night before bed writing down my thoughts and picking out some photographs, and then when I found a hostel with wifi simply uploaded the posts to my blog. It was simple and provided a great record of what I did for the future. Not as “romantic” as the idea of having a log book, but faster (as I type more quickly), interactive with friends, and you don’t risk losing it or leaving it behind. Free wifi is all over the place, esp at train stations and airports.
TAKING YOUR OWN PHOTOGRAPHS: If you’re gonna take a photo of the Eiffel Tower, make sure you’re in it. There’s also a good chance someone else has already taken a better, more artsy photo than you anyway. Most tourists will happily take your photo (I was never refused) and you just need to show a camera to people from some countries and they’ll jump at the chance of taking your shot. Ask people to take a photograph of you, though and not the monument, or you’ll end up being just a tiny spec against a big building. And when you take a pic of yourself, use the timer on your camera, because you’ll look much happier, and you’ll hold it much more steadily if you don’t have to worry about pressing the button at the same time.
THEY’LL NEVER SEE YOU AGAIN: Dress like a local is always good rule of thumb, within reason. Try not to dress like a tourist… the backpack, three quarter pants, and comfy shoes make you stand out like dog’s balls. And ask about cultural appropriateness. If you’re unsure about the cultural appropriateness of something, just ask someone because people will honestly tell you the answer. Eg: When in Prague, I went to the Jewish Cemetery and asked on entry if there was something I should be aware. The guide said I should wear the little hat thing if I wanted to and I did and all was fine. Just ask, don’t assume. And remember, how many tourists do you notice in your day to day lives and do you judge them? Do you remember them? Of course not. It’s your holiday. Have a god time and remember… “they’ll never see you again”.
AND IN CONCLUSION The rule of more money and less luggage is completely true. Walk five minutes further than you planned, as you’re bound to find something interesting, and if you see an odd little street walk down it, as you might discover something even more interesting.
These are my experiences, disagree if you will…