The shoestring traveler. The term might imply a person who is easy going, willing to make sacrifices and happy to accept sub standard service. To a degree, that can be true. But there are many types of shoestring traveler and the 21st century shoestring traveler is a demanding sod. This is a world of Groupons, reduced incomes and increased competitiveness. Shoestring traveling is no longer entirely for hapless hippies trying to make do on what they have, but also for savvy bargain hunters trying to get the maximum for their tourist buck.
I, and Mrs P, are that latter sort of shoestring traveler. And proud of it too! I don’t need luxurious hotels. I have long maintained that the nicer the hotel, the more time you spend in it and the less time you spend looking at what you really came to see. I don’t need taxis or tour buses. I want to experience the places we visit at street level. I don’t need Michelin star restaurants. The best eating experiences are usually the ones the locals go to.
What I want is a cheap flight, a clean and comfy bed and for my senses to be stimulated, titillated and satisfied. I’d much rather have a couple of four or five day breaks away rather than one fancy long weekend. Time is precious, and I’m not just looking for how little I can spend, but how much I can do in a limited time. We’ve hit seven destinations in just over a year, although I’ve wrapped them into a list of six. We did Bratislava and Vienna in a single trip as they are so close together. Here’s how I rate them from from top to bottom.
I cannot even begin to tell you how easily Budapest wins this little competition. It scores top marks in every department. Flights are as cheap as they come from Stansted. Our hotel was an absolute bargain at about £16 a night. Food is reasonably priced, if not always cheap cheap. Having said that, there are eat-all-you-can buffets which include alcoholic drinks in the deal. Get there early and you’ll not need dinner, nor breakfast the next morning. Budapest is becoming more popular, but the crowds still, foolishly, head to Prague. That makes getting into places of interest easy with few queues.
Best bits: Everything. Absolutely everything. Walks along the river Danube, the Opera House, the House of Terror, the thermal baths, the trams and metro, the cuisine is up there with any other international cuisine you can name, the architecture, the history. Worst bits: I genuinely cannot think of a single thing.
Vienna is an expensive city, both to fly to and to stay in. The budget conscious traveler goes the smart way. Bratislava and Vienna are the two closest capital cities in the world, and Bratislava is as cheap to get to and stay in as Vienna is expensive. It’s an interesting city in its own right, worthy of giving a day or two of your time. It’s clean, friendly and easy to get around. It’s also quite small, so you will quickly run out of things to see and do. So jump on a train and an hour later you are in one of the grandest, boldest, most beautiful and historic cities on the planet. The architecture is a wonder to behold. The museums hold treasure troves of the worlds finest art and artifacts.
Best bits: The Christmas Markets are great for some seasonal shopping. Mulled wine and beer. Those fabulous museums. Worst bits: It can be bitterly cold in winter. Those fabulous museums are fabulously expensive. There are so many of them and they each seem to want 15 euros or more. They are, however, all worth every cent. Vienna is also very busy.
Krakow is a beautiful city, Poland’s shining cultural diamond. It’s almost as cheap as Budapest, both in getting there, staying there and eating. We had a sizable studio for less than you’d expect to pay for a dorm bed in most cities.There’s no shortage of history, and tragedy. Auschwitz is an obligatory bus journey away. Schindler’s factory is within the city borders and the city is almost a Holocaust museum unto itself. But it’s more than that. Much more. It’s a beautiful and ancient place. Walking around the city is a easy and there’s a hidden gem of a church/museum/house round every corner. It’s certainly one of the most interesting cities we have visited.
Best bits: the Milk bars offer filling food for next to nothing. The Holocaust is everywhere in Krakow, if that is what you’re looking for. The people were the friendliest of all the places we went. Worst bits: Nada. I have nothing bad to say about the place.
A city of tulips, windmills, canals, coffee shops and prostitution. So goes the stereotype. Actually Amsterdam offers a lot besides. Despite its position at the heart of Europe, it’s a calm oasis compared to London or Paris, but busy enough to have that big city atmosphere. Small enough to walk around, but with an excellent tram network if you want to rest your feet. Getting to Amsterdam is very inexpensive – perhaps it’s the cheapest of Western Europe’s capital cities to fly to. Eating out is not cheap however, but the food is good. To be fair, there’s little to separate Krakow, Bratislava, Vienna and Amsterdam in this list. I could have put them in any order.
Best bits: The Van Gogh museum is one of the best art oriented museums I have visited. Renting a bike. The Heineken Tour. Worst bits: The centre around Dam Square is untidy and full of Brits. The shoestring traveler will probably be priced out of staying in the centre. That’s a plus point. Nuff said.
Marrakech is everything you want from a short break from the UK. It’s exotic, cheap as chips, the sun warms the skin even in winter and it is utterly different from home. It’s in Africa, but it’s still little more than three hours flying time. You’re enveloped by an intoxicating blend of smells, sounds and sights the moment you land. It’s a city made for exploring by virtue of the labyrinth of alley ways and streets that guarantee you’ll be lost within minutes, no matter how many maps you have with you. The call to prayer is hypnotizing. The language similarly so. Plan on shopping and wander the souks with no regard as to how you’ll get out.
Best bits: the plethora of Arabic/Islamic design, the charming hotels and guest houses, the Jardin Marjorelle and the souks. The views of the Atlas mountains. Worst bits: the pollution is chronic, the food was disappointing (although there were a couple of exceptions), the pestering sales antics of vendors and the unwelcome attention single women receive.
As easy as it was to put Budapest at the top of my list, it’s even easier to sit Paris at the bottom of it. Paris is everything the cost and time constrained traveler doesn’t want. It does have a certain beauty, but the horrendous time wasting queues you must suffer to see anything, the crowds in general and the high prices for anything mean Paris is the one city I would recommend you giving a miss. Despite it’s reputation that suggests otherwise. Add to my list of complaints the fact that much of city smells like an unkempt urinal and most shops and places of interest consider that they are doing you a favour rather than viewing you as a customer. The food? If you want to spend top dollar, I’m sure you’ll be satisfied. Eating on a small budget is not possible. And even when spending a reasonable amount of money – well, when I did that I got chips with my boeuf bourginon. Need I say more. Ironically, though, if I had to choose one of the cities on my list to live in, perhaps I would rate only Budapest higher.
Best bits: The Pere Lachaise cemetary, the Catacombs, the parks. Worst bits: Every museum queue, the prices, the food, the same-ish architecture that is Paris.
So that’s my list. I’d like to make it longer. We have a few more destinations we’d like to visit. Berlin, Pisa/Florence, Munich, Dubrovnik and Malta feature high on that list. Moscow would too, if the visa requirements weren’t so onerous and the cost so high. If any one has other suggestions for bargain hunting, VFM orientated, tight fisted shoestring travelers, do let me know!