Let’s face it: It’s summer and you’re broke. If you’ve somehow managed to make it to Europe and have some money for food and shelter, you might not have cash for much else. Trust me, I’ve been there. Everyone knows activities in places like London, for example, is pricey. But it’s important to know that there are several fun and interesting things to see and do that are completely free.
With that in mind, this is the first in a series focusing on free sights and activities in some of Europe’s best cities.
Taking the London example, here’s just a short list of free activities that give you a good taste of that amazing city:
-The National Gallery is free, although that may surprise many. Yes, one of the world’s great art museums—hosting works by world-renown masters—does not charge for entry.
-Piccadilly Circus, the gateway to the West End, is a colorful sea of people—especially when the sun goes down and the neon lights wash over the surroundings. Great people watching.
-The Changing of the Guard at the palace is always a sight to behold. The military pomp has been tradition for centuries, epitomizing military precision.
-Regent’s Park includes the city zoo and a wildlife garden. An oasis of leafy tranquility in the heart of the metropolis.
-There’s also St. James’s Park, ringed by some of London’s biggest landmarks (Buckingham Palace and Whitehall) featuring gorgeous greens and a soothing lake when the Tube and the crowds drive you mad.
-Speaking of great urban parks, no list would be complete without mention of Hyde Park. Lots of open air festivals and concerts are held here, especially in summer. Amble on over and enjoy.
-The Tate Modern (free except for certain special exhibitions) hosts a dazzling array of modern art, if you’re into that sort of thing.
-The rightfully revered British Museum is another world-class treasure trove of history that deserves your time. It’s a jaw-droppingly thorough survey of human civilization.
Of course, the best parts of travel, meeting the people and sampling the culture, are always free—but having a list of other free stuff to do certainly helps.
If you’re vagabonding in SEA and trying to get off the beaten track the Indonesian island of Sulawesi is a great place to do just that, especially during the low season of Dec. – Feb. There is a reasonably reliable network of bus service around the island but the roads are terrible and the rate of bus crashes seems (based on observation) higher than average for Asia. Not surprising, given the state of the roadways. If you can rent your own car, it’s a ticket to freedom on the island, but be prepared for people to be shocked that you’re driving yourself. Apparently everyone hires a driver or takes busses!
If you are looking for an excellent guide or arranger of further guides, Dodo Mursalim, in Makassar is your man. He’ll pick you up at the airport, deliver you at hellish hours, and even put you up in his house. He’s a wealth of information about Sulawesi and has uncanny connections all over the island. His email: email@example.com
Rantepao is in the heart of the region of Tana Toraja, which should not be missed. Plan to stay several days to a week, slow down, explore, and try to see a funeral. Nicholas Pabara is a fantastic guide, he asked me to share his phone number with fellow travelers: 082-192-183-677. Having a local to tell you the stories, explain the history and find the out of the way things that you won’t find on your own is priceless. You’ll definitely want him to help you place a bet at the cock fights!
Bira is at the eastern tip of the northern arm of Sulawesi. It’s got a pleasant tourist slum with cheap accommodation, but if you head out of the tourist district to Bara Beach there are six little bungalows for rent on a deserted beach that are a little slice of heaven. A boat can be arranged to the facing island where the diving is world class. This is the place to kick back and relax for a few days away from the hustle of Indonesian cities.
Samalona island is listed as an afternoon trip from Makassar in some of the guides. A better bet would be to head out for three or four days and stay in the home of one of the seven families (all inter-related) who live on the island. To get there, take a blue bus to Fort Rotterdam, cross the street to the waterfront and the boatmen will find you. There is no electricity (a generator will be turned on in the evening) no running water, no shower, and no hot water, but it’s a welcome respite from the bustle of Indonesian cities and the snorkeling is pretty good. You’ll find the islanders welcoming, generous, and their fresh from the ocean cooking worth staying an extra day for. If you have an instrument, bring it, music is welcome in the evenings. It costs about $20 USD a night for lodging and three square; can’t beat that.
It’s a well-worn practice the world over: customers and vendors talking price. CNNGo tackled this issue in a post titled How to bargain: the ultimate guide to scoring a deal in the markets of Asia.
Many of the tips will be familiar to experienced vagabonders: shop around, be polite, and be ready to walk away. What makes the article special is the little details about particular destinations. Some examples:
Have you negotiated over a purchase at a market? Please share your stories in the comments.
Loco2 launched not long ago. A site dedicated to train travel throughout Europe. I’ve exchanged emails with its founder, and “the team” has the vision of creating a source of online train booking “as easy as flight booking”—it appears to be well on its way. The site has a video short that explains how to find, book and share itinerary with friends. It also features a blog that covers things like watching the Tour de France by train, photography by Steve McCurry, and interviews with The Man in Seat61.
If you are not privy to that last mention; the man in Seat61 site was created by former railway engineer Mark Smith in 2001, and received many cudos in 2007 (including a blog post on this site.) That site alone is a plethora of information about world-wide train travel.
However, it doesn’t have the unique Engine Room forum which Loco2 has created to offer advice broken down easily by country with the latest information about areas. If you’re considering Europe by train; check into this site. If you’ve travelled the area recently and have suggestions, they are open to building a better, more useful community…
I’m not talking about toting Portuguese ceramics around Europe or filling your backpack with I Love (insert city name) t-shirts at every stop. I’m talking about small pieces that will always remind you of your time away from home. In many places, you can get a beautiful local print for less than what a mass produced picture would cost at a Linens ‘N Things.
Here are some rules I like to live by on the road:
1.) Even if you don’t buy, interacting with shopkeepers is a great way to glimpse into local life. Window shopping is free, and can lead to some hysterical experiences, seen here as Rolf explores a market in Morocco on his No Baggage Challenge.
2.) Research what kinds of things your destination has to offer. Know the price range for a Nepali cashmere scarf before hitting the streets, and also look into potential scams. Bangkok is known for luring tourists to faux gem stores, charging customers competitive prices for lookalike gems.
3.) Analyze the quality of the item in question. Not only do most local vendors not have return policies, but you’ll likely be onto a new city or even home before you notice it’s cheaply made or broken.
4.) Look for fair trade shops when purchasing handicrafts, which ensure that the artists earn fair wages and work in good conditions. Friends International shop in Phnom Penh is one of my favorite examples.
5.) Watch out for breakables…If you’re browsing the Czech glass shops of Prague, don’t stand too close…If you break, you buy.
6.) It’s fun to say “I got this in Laos!” But make sure you’re buying for the right reasons. Do you love what you see? Is it unique to the region? Is it something that’s truly worth carrying in a backpack until you return home?
If room in my backpack permits, here are my favorite things to look for abroad:
Postcards and stationary: These are great reminders of world travel, and can also be shared with others! Each postcard or letter sent means less “stuff” in your backpack.
Handcrafted jewelry: I look for something that is unique, wearable and won’t break the bank. One of my favorite things is a small silver bracelet from the Black Hmong woman who walked with me for 5 hours while trekking in Sapa, Vietnam.
Handwoven crafts: Travels in South America and Southeast Asia have brought me to incredible villages where handwoven products often take weeks to make and cost less than 10 dollars.
Artwork: most small prints can lay flat in a suitcase or fit between a book, and can then be framed at home.
What do you think? Have you fallen into the tourist trap of useless “stuff?” Where have you gotten your favorite souvenirs? Do you have any tips for other travelers who are interested in picking up a souvenir or two?
Many Vagablogging readers are familiar with Matt Kepnes, or Nomadic Matt. Kepnes’s website is packed full of information on travel deals, travel tips, travel guides, and loads of interesting travel tales suited to any genre. Now Kepnes has taken the next step and has published his own Ebook.
Kepnes’s book is a smooth read. Even over the details of dollars, budgets, and savings options, it never reads like a dry financial manual. Kepnes’s book documents specific dollar amounts for many elements of his travels. He starts with how to save money before you even hit the road by detailing the more advantageous international banking options and airline carriers.
Kapnes’s book isn’t just for the new traveler in the beginning stages of planning out their trip. There is a lot of useful information that, even after years of long-term stints on the road, I still haven’t quite been able to work out, like making air miles work for you, or all of the ropes and rules of upgrading to business class on those long flights. Sure, there are loads of details for beginning travelers, like how to pick the right backpack for the road or how to save for your trip before you depart. Though there is something for everyone in this book. Whether you’re a novice when it comes to air miles, or if you’re trying to decipher the endless web of ESL jobs or volunteer options abroad.
There is also a Destinations section in the book, where Kepnes offers readers a look at likely travel budgets for areas on nearly all continents of the globe. He even includes budgets for activities popular to a particular destination, like scuba diving in Southeast Asia. Kepnes also compiles a list of great hostels and budget guesthouses for various locations, along with discount coupons should you be in the area and decide check out one of the accommodations.
You can download a PDF format of the book from Kepnes’s website for US$14. The book is also available for your Kindle or Ipad.
Those vagabonders funding their travels by working abroad in Korea, or those simply traveling through the country, will be happy to hear of Air Asia’s new service to Korea. Korea has rested infuriatingly outside of the budget travel loop for quite some time. However, in November of last year, Air Asia began offering flights from Seoul to Kuala Lumpur for around US$300 round trip. This opens up a lot of options for travelers, as Kuala Lumpur is a major travel hub in Asia and it’s easy to book cheap continuing flights to just about everywhere from there. Over the last few months the Air Asia service has grown to include flights from the Korean capital to Bali and Jakarta in Indonesia. Finally, leaving Korea no longer means dropping an easy $1,000. Get out there and start taking advantage of these deals!
A $1 bill. Photo: rychlepozicky.com/Flickr Creative Commons
One of the central tenets of vagabonding is that travel doesn’t have to be expensive. In fact, going abroad can be far cheaper than your monthly housing and car costs at home.
Lonely Planet called on its readers to send in their tips on what $1 buys around the world. Replies poured in from nomads from all points of the globe. The value of a dollar can really vary across different countries. In some places, a dollar can buy you a feast; in others, that will barely pay for a cup of coffee.
Thailand, a perennial favorite, made an expected appearance in this comment: “The question is, what can’t you get in Chiang Mai for US$1? – Sheila”
In other places, the higher cost of living was reflected: “Paris: about 40% of an espresso at Starbucks. – Michael”
An interesting trend is that many of the replies revolved around food. When you only have $1 to spend, you’re going to buy things that:
A) You can afford
B) You really need
Food fulfills both categories. What’s the best thing you’ve spent $1 or a small amount on? Please share your stories in the comments.
As usual, the media is full of stories of disasters rocking foreign countries. For a good status report, check out this CNNMoney article: 5 tourist spots in turmoil.
Savvy travelers are cashing in on the deep discounts being offered by travel providers. I know an American expat in Thailand who’s been booking Air Asia flights like crazy to take advantage of cheap flights to Chiang Mai and the Thai islands.
South Korea has been in the news due to having a submarine allegedly destroyed by North Korea. Lately, the rumbles are fading and it’s back to normal.
Have you ever traveled to a country that was in crisis? Did you go during the problems, or just immediately afterwards? Please share your experiences and tips on staying safe.
As more people travel, they want to bring home the experience by “globalizing” their houses. To help, they hire special contractors who scour the world for rare and exotic building materials. In this New York Times article, they come off as a blend of Indiana Jones and Philippe Starck:
Also be sure to check out the great accompanying slideshow: Searching the globe for authentic materials.
How many of us have dreamed of having a cool home filled with art and furniture from around the world? However, the article did raise a number of important issues. Does taking natural materials hurt the environment? Will buying artifacts rob a country of its cultural heritage?
These specialists also charge steep rates, as this excerpt illustrates:
“Last month, Mr. Sanchez traveled for two weeks to Bangkok and Chiang Mai, Thailand, a trip he estimated would cost $15,000 to $18,000.”
For many people, it can be hard to imagine how anyone could spend that much money in a cheap destination like Thailand. Especially in only two weeks. There are hard-core backpackers who could live in Thailand for a year or longer on a budget like that.
The good news is that you don’t have to be a Silicon Valley billionaire or a Wall Street hotshot to bring an international flavor to your home. One of my favorite decorations I have is a hanging scroll I got for free as part of a calligraphy lesson in Japan. In Hong Kong, I met travelers with their luggage bags full of paintings and souvenirs they’d purchased in China.
Have you brought back any cool mementos from abroad to decorate your home? How much did they cost? Please share your stories in the comments.