If I had a dollar for every article I've seen recently entitled, "How I Quit My Job And Traveled Around The World For Next To Nothing," I might actually be able to travel the world for nothing. Whenever I read those posts, I thought it was funny how the authors tended to slip in "I quit my job (working at a high-paying finance job on Wall Street), and decided to follow my passion for travel."
Sometimes, the articles would be written by college kids who'd talk about how they traveled through Europe (on mom and dad's tuition bill). Don't get me wrong; if your parents can do this for you, that's wonderful. That doesn't discount your ability to rage in Ibiza, but I'm just saying that I don't need your financial advice if you aren't the one paying for the trip.
I work in the film industry. Sound glamorous? Trust me: It's not.
I make next to nothing in the grand scheme of things. With some careful budgeting and a lot of nights eating ramen, I found myself coming back to the east coast after a winter working in New Mexico with a good bit of cash saved up. My boyfriend at the time, Gabe*, had been planning a four-week backpacking adventure throughout Europe with his best friend.
I was so excited for him. A few years earlier, my best friend and I had gone to Ireland, Wales and London. My best friend is one hell of a budgeter. Give her a map and a compass, and it's impossible for her to get lost.
This means that she's the perfect complement to me. I get lost going to the bathroom, and I've been known to make a few dollars stretch over the course of two weeks. I pull her out of her shell, and she calls me to remind me to pay rent. She planned the whole trip, sent me email reminders to buy things and came up with lists, maps and budgets that kept us on track so that we wouldn't go completely broke.
When Gabe told me his friend could no longer go and asked me if I wanted to join, it took me less than a minute to say yes. Gabe and I are very similar people. Nothing was ever serious between us, but the thought of the two of us backpacking through Europe was hysterical to me.
I decided I'd go, but for one week less than he would – you know, to be financially responsible – and that we'd figure the rest out as we went. It was a bit last minute. I had probably two months to plan and get my sh*t together, all while moving back to the east coast from New Mexico.
While I had a good amount of money saved up, I was planning to move to New York after our adventure. This meant I needed to have some money left in my savings account by the time the whole European trip was over.
Needless to say, that didn't happen. So, here are 10 things Millennials like me shouldn't do when their wandering hearts are far bigger than their paychecks:
1. Don't forget to pack the essentials.
Before you start to budget for your trip, take a good, long, hard look at what you'll need. Your high school backpack will not cut it on your backpacking adventure, and neither will your worn-out Converse sneakers.
If you plan on camping, know that a good tent is going to cost you. Know that there are a million little things you may not have in your possession that you'll need to get before you even think about setting out.
These include a small flashlight, a good water bottle and a bag for all that dirty laundry you're about to have. The list goes on.
Over the years, I'd collected a good bit for myself, but Gabe dropped a ton of money in the month leading up to our departure on new necessities. Granted, if you aren't quite backpacking and are more likely to go hostel-hopping, remember that there are still things you'll need to keep yourself together.
Take those into account, and put them in your budget. Everything adds up.
2. Check the calendar.
Yes, this sounds stupidly obvious. But surprisingly, it's hard to remember to do.
Figure out where you're going, and check the calendar of events in the cities you're heading to. Gabe and I found that we couldn't find a hostel anywhere near the actual city of Berlin. In fact, we landed up in the middle of what looked like a burned out cornfield, across the parking lot from a German version of Home Depot in the middle of the projects.
Needless to say, we didn't check ahead of time to see that there was a massive soccer game happening the weekend we got there, which meant every hostel within our tiny budget had been picked up. This forced us to take a 45-minute train ride into the city to explore. Similarly, a few years before, my Boy Scout BFF and I had the happy mistake of finding ourselves in the middle of London during the Queen's Jubilee.
That turned out to be a happy accident — one in which I got to scream at Prince Harry — but all in all, it's a good idea to check out what's going on when you'll be in a city. If there's something awesome going on, book ahead so you can be a part of the action. Or if you're like Gabe and I, you'll know when to steer clear of a big event until the dust settles. Then, maybe you'll have a fighting chance of finding a place to sleep.
3. Don't think you can just show up and find a place to stay.
Unless you have an unlimited budget to work with, traveling on a whim is not realistic. It sounds great (in theory) to wake up in Germany and then decide to just jet off to Italy at the last minute.
Sure, you can hop on a train. But it's going to be pricey. Those hostels or Airbnbs that looked so cute online will be booked, and you may have to spend more just to get less.
Don't let a gentle plan scare you into thinking you won't be spontaneous and adventurous. Trust me: If you don't have a loose outline of where you'll be and when and where you'll be staying, you'll end up spending the majority of your time on the sh*tty campground WiFi, trying to book your next place.
Don't do this and miss out on spending time in a beautiful new city. You'll save more money, too.
4. Buy the damn train pass.
If not that, at least buy some other form of transportation bundle. This is obvious for some. But Gabe and I wanted to fly by the seat of our pants and be free to roam wherever and whenever we wanted. We thought we were saving money by not getting the rail pass.
We weren't sure where we'd be going, or if we'd be doing more flying, training or busing. Had we been more careful about research, we would have saved an arm and a leg. We decided to figure it out once we got there. This meant we paid more for train tickets.
Our train ride from Amsterdam to Copenhagen toward the end of our trip went from "That'll be €15" to "Oh, you don't have the pass? That'll be €200." Nothing says "you're screwed" more like coming to the end of your trip and scraping the bottom of your budget, only to have surprise costs jump out and bite you in the ass.
5. Have a savings account back home.
I did this right, and I recommend it to everyone. Give a few hundred dollars to your mom to hold onto for when you call her crying from the airport, saying that you overslept and missed your flight. (This didn't happen to us because we actually slept in the Copenhagen airport the night before our flight home. This is because I was too broke to afford another night at a hostel.)
But Gabe realized the day I was flying out that he really didn't have the money to make it another week. Again, laugh all you want, but it happens more than you think. So, we somehow managed to get a great deal last-minute on my flight home.
All was fine. But had he and I not had a little extra cash saved in an "Oh sh*t" account, he would've been screwed.
6. Take advantage of the free walking tours hostels provide.
Look, I hate being a tourist. Sometimes, I try so hard to not be a tourist, I end up missing all the parts of a city that make tourists want to see it to begin with.
Did I see the David in Florence? Nope. But you can bet your sweet ass I saw the inside of 90 percent of the gelato shops there.
Every walking tour I've been on has been in the early morning before most people are up. In this way, you don't feel like that super annoying pack of lost Americans, gawking at things while people scramble to work. You can get the free version of the walking tours, which are fairly quick with no frills, but they give you a general idea as to where things are and what's important on the list of things to see.
That way, later over breakfast, you can try and figure out what's worth your time and money to see. Or, you can decide to wander on your own. Plus, the folks who give the tours are usually locals who are not afraid to tell you what's a waste of your time and money. Just don't forget to tip your guide a little at the end.
7. Don't skip the fine print.
"I can fly from Berlin to Rome for €50? F*ck yeah."
Yeah, no. You might be able to fly for that amount, but that means the airline will find ways to charge you more. Oh, you didn't print your boarding pass ahead of time because you were camping in the middle of the woods and had absolutely no access to a printer? Too bad, that'll be €100 extra.
Oh, you actually have a bag you need to fly with? Ha, that's €50 more. You have a carry on? Just empty out your wallet now, and we'll give back what we're not going to take.
Those budget airlines in Europe and elsewhere look great – and granted, they are – but you just have to read the fine print. Trust me: There is fine print. Read it so you're not shocked when that sweet-sounding, round-faced Irish woman starts f*cking you over with 16 charges you didn't know could exist.
8. Don't assume you can do it all for a cheap price.
Again, this should be obvious. But don't say to yourself, "Oh, I can do this for this amount, easy. I can totally live on $40 of food every week. I'll just pack a bunch of Clif bars, and won't ever buy any souvenirs."
Things come up. Friends met along the way suggest things, and spontaneous trips that you just can't pass up arise. Just plan on spending the most on everything (housing, food, transportation costs), and then pad a little.
That way, you can spend more time enjoying, eating, drinking and having fun, rather than checking your bank account every five minutes like I was doing on the steps of the Monte Carlo casino in Monaco.
Trust me: Nothing says "high class" like a panicky tourist scrambling to see if she has enough money to play the penny slots.
9. Don't forget that you'll actually have to return home.
All that prancing around Europe in the summer can make you feel like you're actually a millionaire who has zero to worry about financially. In reality, you're a broke recent college grad who works a low-paying, entry-level job.
Trust me: When you walk into your apartment and see that pile of bills for the upcoming month, you're going to wish you'd remembered it while you were spending your rent money on bottles of booze in Spain.
Don't forget to account for the time you won't be home and making money. Remember that whatever amount you save up is going to save your ass when your rent check is due.
10. Don't miss out on opportunities to talk to people who've made the same mistakes you want to avoid.
Chances are, you know people who have taken the trip you're about to embark on. Perhaps a friend of a friend just got back from a similar trip. Hell, maybe your mom's neighbor's kid's fiancé did a trip similar to yours a few years ago.
I don't care. Get that person's email, phone number or Facebook info, and ask him or her for advice.
Chances are, that person will love the opportunity to relive the trip, and he or she will have some solid advice. I personally don't think it's rude to ask about one's budget. People don't have to tell you the exact amount they spent, but most backpackers will be honest about what they could afford, and about what you should expect. Listen, ask questions and do your research.
I wouldn't change a thing about our trip. I learned a lot, saw a lot and ate everything. We visited five countries, got lost only a handful of times and saw some incredible places. But at the end of it, I became completely broke and not at all ready to move to NYC. That didn't stop me, but it's an article for another day.
Take what you will. But more than likely, you'll tell yourself, "Psshh, I got this." Just don't call me crying from the airport when your card gets declined.
*Name has been changed.