How to travel for a week on $20 and still have change

This week I decided to undertake a social experiment. After a week or so of dabbling in a bit of couch surfing and hitchhiking in the Balkans, I was utterly incredulous I’d ever set myself a $50 a day budget. As time wore on, I was spending $50 a week.

So this week I wanted to see how far I could make it on $20, and prove to all the naysayers that you just don’t need a lot of money to travel. Because who hasn’t talked themselves out of buying a plane ticket with the whole “I don’t have enough money” line?

Granted, facing a 7-day itinerary including three border crossings and approximately $2.85NZD of spending money per day – I wasn’t optimistic.

Hitching: the time-honoured way of saving a lot of money on travel.

Full disclosure: Yes, I am in the Balkans so things tend to be a great deal cheaper than they are in Western Europe. But the two main expenses I was all but eliminating here are also the two main expenses anywhere: travel and accommodation. Eating on the cheap can be done in any country. (Hope you like instant noodles and dry pasta).

But today, I sit at the end of my seventh day, and look down at $2.10 in change and just wonder: how?

Oh, you bet I’ll tell you.

I didn’t eat a single piece of dry pasta, for starters. Here’s the breakdown of where my money went:

$10.40: Dinner at restaurants at various locations.

$2.50: entrance to Kotor fortress

$5: Train to Kolasin; little mountain town.

And here’s the two reasons that magic was able to happen:

#1: Couchsurfing.

I’d never tried this before hitting Europe. No wait, I’d never tried this willingly before hitting Europe. My friend hooked us up with a functioning alcoholic host in San Francisco two years ago, and I vowed never to partake again. And conveniently forgot about that until writing this blog.

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Couchsurfing gang: Tivat, Montenegro

But, I digress. I now believe it is the best invention ever.

But it’s also so much more than a free bed for the night. Traveling alone, while great on the whole, can get old rather fast. There’s only so much Miley Cyrus and Celine Dion one can listen to during long walks around countless churches, monuments and castles.

There’s only so much time one can ponder their own existence and crushing life problems before an onset of social anxiety seems likely. There’s only so many times one can sit down in a restaurant and be asked if it’s “just you” by a surly waiter.

Yes mate, I know, I also really miss having someone to steal fries from.

And just when you think you know what Couchsurfing is (the title nearly gives it away), let me tell you you are wrong. Of the 15 or so hosts I’ve had thus far, I think I’ve only stayed on three or four couches.

Most people are simply like-minded free spirits with a spare bed and some good banter, and want a visitor every now and then. Some families have a spare room they want to put to good use.

For example:

Budva, Montenegro: Absolutely lovely mother and son combo who take you on excursions to local villages, selflessly pay for your dinner despite vocal protestations, and bring you breakfast to your bedroom each morning.

Tirana, Albania: First-class American guy with two free rooms resembling hotel suites and a constant hankering for damn good soup.

Vlore, Albania: A host who actually couldn’t host you, but still insists on meeting up and buying you beer and juice.

Plovdiv, Bulgaria: Single man with a loving personality, a free bed and an organic garden full of produce he insists on using to cook you breakfast, lunch and dinner. Takes you on day tour of his area and buys you more food, and souvenirs.

Heviz, Hungary: Same story, but older and Hungarian.

Zlatibor, Serbia: Same again, but Serbian. Yes I realise many are males. No I did not sleep in any of their beds, nor was I asked to.

You get the picture.

Of course you can repay each host in other ways too. I had little trinkets I’d picked up here and there I was handing over as embarrassingly inferior displays of thanks; but they were met with utter joyous thanks.

People here are incredibly proud of their countries and tourism is still fairly new, so they want to make sure you have the best time possible. And that includes getting by on the equivalent of a handful of cents.

Here’s how you can do it too.

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#2: Hitchhiking.

Okay, okay. I’m not one to advocate for getting into cars with strangers, just so you know. Especially in a strange country where you can barely communicate a greeting, let alone splutter through the name of the destination you’re heading to.

But I started hitching places about a week ago (much to my mother’s dismay) because of a complete lack of public transport options in places like Bulgaria and Albania – and I think I’m slightly addicted. For one, I’m traveling alone – so the more people contact the better.

Plus – so far – it’s been incredibly easy in the Balkans. I haven’t waited for longer than 5 minutes at any one point. And it’s been so FUN. Take these scenarios for example:

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We were actually picked up on this seemingly deserted stretch of road near Perast approx 3 minutes later

#1: Attempting to hitch over a single border with a new-found friend, and instead ending up in a completely different country, hundreds of kilometres off course, and facing a 4-hour hitch backwards in imminent darkness. Sounds like the start of a horror movie. In reality, it was more something with Adam Sandler or that super annoying woman from Scary Movie.

It’s pretty simple: a friend and I (in reality, we’d actually known each other 48 hours. But when you’re traveling, that’s bordering on a long-term relationship) headed off to hitch from Shkoder in Albania, to Tivat in Montenegro – about a 2-hour trip.

After setting ourselves up in what we thought was an ideal spot, and then being put right by a kindly truck driver who told us we were trying to thumb a lift in the complete opposite direction of where we needed to go, we’d flagged down the first car that went past and were on our way to Montenegro with two elderly Albanians.

Hilarity ensued at the border where we required the assistance of a passing English-speaking Albanian, who translated for a border guard that we needed to step two metres to the right to signify we were now in Montenegro, and only then could we have our passports back.

Our haplessness must have been endearing, because said Albanian translator then invited us along on his trip from Albania to the UK with his friend. Two hours later, we’d been convinced to continue three hours onward to Dubrovnik for a delicious (free) lunch, and as the sun set at the ungodly hour of 4.30pm, so too did the reality of what we now had to achieve: a cross border hitch in pitch-black conditions.

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“What the hell have we done” : Dubrovnik, Croatia.

That was when the first rain drops started to fall. Many cars stopped, and laughed at us. “You’ll never back it back, there are no cars going over the border in the dark!”, was the most common response.

But two hours later, we were convinced we were home free – back at the Montenegrin border after two excellent motorists heeded our pleas.

And then the rain really started. And the border guards told us we couldn’t take shelter under the border’s roof, and gave us our marching orders. Off we went into the rain, and sought shelter about 200m down the road under the eave of another building, emerging only when the headlights of a car pierced the darkness, taking it in turn to run out into the middle of the exit lane in the thunderous rain, like bait in a slasher film.

The minutes ticked by and the rain poured down. Soon, it was 8.30pm and looking like we were going to need to spend the night in no man’s land. And that was when a ponytailed demi-god stopped his red chariot and took us all the way back to Tivat.

Not only that, but there was pitstops on the way back so he could buy us beer and chocolate. I have never loved a man with more hair than me more than I did at that moment.

Hitching has also been really eyeopening. One woman told me, through exceptionally broken English, and an energetic game of charades while driving, that her husband had recently died in a car accident. But because he always took hitchhikers she did now too.

We hugged at the end of our 25-minute journey like old friends, as she handed me an apple and a beaming smile.

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My woman saviour and I

Another man took me 30 kilometres out of his way at 7pm at night. On that 30km journey, he offered to buy me dinner. I’ve had more food bought for me on these trips than I care to admit. 

And only once have I had a man blow kisses at me from the driver’s seat and offer to marry me. And one semi-bad experience out of at least 15 fantastic ones is a ratio I’m willing to work with.

Of course there are risks involved, but use your better judgement. If someone looks dodgy: don’t get in their car. Simple. And if the trip seems like its turning sour – get out and hitch another lift. But the same can be said for not judging a book by it’s cover. The man who picked me up in his beat-up BMW in Plovdiv, Bulgaria, was a chain-smoking, tattooed, long-haired, leather-wearing bad-ass – and was one of the nicest people I’ve ever met.

Of course, now I’ve trumpeted the ease of which I’ve found rides – my 800km hitch to Italy I’ve (stupidly) decided to undertake on Wednesday will no doubt be fruitless and I’ll be stranded for eight hours 45 km from my starting point. Stay tuned.

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