This time last year I was half way through my second interrail adventure, around Eastern Europe. I left the UK with only €500 in cash to last me the first 3 weeks – hostels and food included. Come pay day I had an extra few hundred to spend for the last leg of the trip, but also had to relocate to Madrid straight after… I must say I was rather nervous – I hadn’t done a trip that long since Peru in 2013, and my budget back then was over 3 times the amount! With interrail passes and flights included, the whole trip came to around £1200 each. Here’s a rundown of the measures we took to keep costs down, and the sacrifices that were made along the way.
Hostels. Hostels. Hostels.
Oh boy do I love a good hostel! Having tried and failed at couchsurfing (there were NO hosts), they were our only option and I was not angry about it. Our £27 a day budget had to stretch and cover accommodation too, which actually proved to be surprisingly easy.
We spent on average about £10 a night on accommodation – Thessaloniki and Prague being the most expensive at almost £15 a night, and Bulgaria and Romania pulling that average down at about £8 (sometimes less). We stayed in the biggest shared & mixed dorms, and exhausted all the freebies possible. In Sir Toby’s in Prague, for example, there was an all you can eat breakfast buffet for 6€. That was pretty expensive, but as it ran from 8-12 we managed to get a hearty breakfast AND lunch out of that and we set up camp and stuffed ourselves for approximately 2 hours. Later in the evening they had Happy hour – FREE pancakes (aka dinner), and 1 euro pints of delicious Czech beer. In Hostel Mostel Sofia, we could get breakfast, dinner, and a free drink each day included in our £8. Bargain. Every so often we’d treat ourselves to a private bedroom, and got some funny looks off a receptionist in Cozyness Downtown Hostel Bucharest who showed us into a rather romantic but cramped double bedroom… In some places this was way out of our budget, but in others we could just about afford it and it was worth one decent night’s sleep.
We also saved about 10% simply by avoiding hostelworld.com and booking directly through the hostels instead. Once further into the Balkans some hostels were even part of a partnership where you could collect stamps for each booking and eventually earn yourself one free night; unfortunately we weren’t in the Balkans long enough to take advantage of this, but we were able to get 10% off here and there through staying with sister hostels. Of course, cheap accommodation sometimes came at a price. We did come across bedbugs in the Hiker’s Hostel Plovdiv, and hostel Fabryka in Warsaw looked pretty cool on the outside but was dull and unfriendly on the inside. But overall we had a right laugh, and in some destinations it was the hostel that made our stay (looking at you Sir Toby’s), and we didn’t even stay in the cheapest of the cheap options.
Walk. Walk. Walk.
Until our soles were throbbing and our heels were concrete. Our feet may have left little to be desired, but they were our main mode of transport around the cities we explored. In Warsaw we took it a bit far –
our hostel was over a half an hour walk from the city centre and for the first few days we were troopers going there and back. Then we decided to take the tram because it cost pennies. BUT we got to see the heart and souls of cities and heck – it made me feel better about the litres of beer I was consuming come night-time… We would also exhaust all the “Free” walking tours available to us, and felt like the worst people on earth when we could only fork out a few quid tip in return. We really did feel like terrible human beings for being so stingy, but were sure the generous Americans amongst the group were making up for our tight-arse contributions. I’ve said to myself that I will make up for it one day when I’m actually earning a salary… Promise!
Bread. Pasta. And so much Subway.
Part of our morning ritual was stopping by a local market to grab ourselves some cheesy bread, then head off into the town. On our way home, we’d pop by again to buy supplies for dinner: pasta and tomato sauce. Most hostels had kitchens with basic cooking utensils, oil, and some herbs and spices. Sometimes you’d get lucky in the “communal” baskets, but I can’t recall ever using more than some salt from them. Our diet was not enviable, but it was cheap… We’d brought dried cous cous, quinoa, and pasta sachets with us from home for those particularly desperate occasions.
Luckily, beer and ice cream were worryingly affordable so if our taste buds were sad we drowned them in sugar and alcohol to mask the pain. Every other city we’d treat ourselves to a meal out, and we became Subways #1 fans by the end as that became our go-to 12 hour train snack. It turned out food was ridiculously cheap, so midway we realised we could stretch our purses a bit more and added vegetables to the mix. Holly (my trip companion) is a bit of a foodie so I believe this was the toughest sacrifice she had to make, but I was happy to eat less and see more.
Of every little spend, because the currency is a nightmare to keep track of and with one bit of bad maths you’ll accidentally spend a little more zloty than you’d intended.
This was especially important during the first weeks because converting euros into zloty, krona, and florints was a nightmare. Before my trip I worked out the basic conversions for each country and had them at the front of my travel journal ready, but of course things got a bit complicated when ATM and bureau charges were taken off. As we got further into the trip I got more relaxed as I became much better at mental maths, but given I came home with a literal sack full of spare change I feel like I could have done a better job…
GO TO THE BALKANS.
Just go. Now. Or next summer. Whenever you can – you MUST. As soon as we left Hungary and ventured into Romania, we felt like the richest people alive. Our touristy bits up until this point consisted of arriving in a city, hanging out in our hostel, only seeing what could be seen by foot, and not exactly living life to the full given we couldn’t afford any more than the above.
But in Romania and Bulgaria we could do all that AND visit cool castles and ruins. For those who like to play the “I don’t like to be a touristy tourist” card, then these places are for you – most of the tourists around were locals visiting from other parts of the country, and there were no Busabout party crowds in site. My only regret is that we hadn’t spent more time exploring the region.
That was how we did it: 6 countries in 27 days, for approximately £1200. In hindsight we could have done it even cheaper. Our interrail passes set us back at least £219 (plus extras for reservations) and it would have been cheaper and often faster to go by bus (especially in the Balkans). Having finally gotten my paycheck in the third week I was able to relax and not stress out so much over money, but even then I managed to stick to the same budget. If I were to do it all over again, I would extend the trip and fit in some workaways en route. Overall, Eastern Europe was a backpackers cheap dream, and if I could I would do it all again in a heartbeat!
Interrail pass: £219 (10 days within 22 day pass)
Everything else: £750 (approx.)
Note: This post was written 1 year after the trip, shortly after the UK voted to leave the European Union and the pound subsequently dropped its value. At the time of the trip, my budget was closer to £20 a day, however the same trip today would cost closer to £27. Interrail passes have also gone up in price to £252, as they have changed from 10 days within 22 day pass to a 10 days within 1 month pass.