European Diaries – Planning on a Shoestring Budget

Dated – September, 2011

Warning: Very long post ahead!

From the travelogue, 15th September 2011 – They say that when you wait for something for too long, the anticipation kills the excitement. Not sure when we started planning for Europe, but here I am…at the Colombo airport waiting for my connecting flight to Frankfurt. You’d think that we would be doing a jig right in the middle of the airport. But like I said, all the meticulous planning has made us as dead as wood! 

Enough with the ranting. So, ever since S and I met, there was an implicit pact to travel. We might be like chalk and cheese, yet plans are easy and the differences, comfortable. Europe started out as an ambitious plan. I think for some dreams to turn into reality, all you need is some nonchalance. Nonchalance for everything else, except what you really want to do. What started as an 8 day plan finally became a 17 day one. 

The flight was 6 hours late and I had a lot of time to kill. It was my first trip abroad and I was like a kid who had been handed her favorite toy!  The travelogue entry written from the Colombo airport was just to pen down how this trip came about. So, to continue; the key things for us to figure out for the trip were –

  • Itinerary
  • Travel Options
  •  Hostels
  •  Visa

As harmless and easy as they look, it is an insane amount of work! A lot of fun too, but sometimes we just didn’t want to agree with each other. 😛 Top it with some laziness, add a dash of procrastination and general inertia…and before we knew it, we were wagering bets over the probability of making it to Europe! At the end of days and months of Googling, reading and listening to umpteen suggestions, our final itinerary looked like this –

Frankfurt -> Rhine Valley ->Amsterdam -> Paris -> Lauterbrunnen -> Zurich -> Munich -> Salzburg -> Venice -> Rome

Travelogue: All we had was a starting point (somewhere near Rhine to see Rhine in Flames on 17th Sept) and we knew for sure that we had to stop at Munich for Oktoberfest. The problem with Europe is that even the smallest of the cities are a traveller’s joy. To zero down on an itinerary is a Herculean task! There was no Florence or Nice on our itinerary. But one’s got to make peace with the limited days at hand and one’s got to have a second trip in mind already!

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Our Europe scribble board

We didn’t really see Frankfurt and Zurich. They were brief stopovers. And Munich was solely for Oktoberfest! 🙂 So, we covered 8 cities and even that was gruelling. We Indians have the ‘paisa vasool’ gene, which makes us want to extract the maximum out of the available resources. So, we thought that since we are spending so much and going all the way, anything less than 8 cities would be sacrilege.

Next thing on the cards was Travel. First was fixing the flight from India. This was one of our worse off decisions, but we did end up saving almost 14k per head! In my head, international flights are these plush airplanes with red (I know! Red! :P) big seats which recline to become beds, where I can tuck in and dream sweet dreams. Only to be woken up by good looking stewards serving wine and appetizers. Yeah, I dream business class! 😛 Anyway, so we got our return tickets (Chennai – Frankfurt, Rome – Chennai) for 26k and it was a steal! Qatar was next at 40k. We high-fived at an alarming rate for the next one week and gloated about all the money saved. So, now to divulge the airlines we travelled in – Srilankan Airlines! I know I know. You haven’t heard of it. Or you thought it only manages to reach Colombo. Or you think people travelling by this Airline are asked to wear parachutes and jump off wherever they think their destination is. We’ve heard it all. 😀 Yes, the dream came crashing down the moment we boarded. But in our defense, we reached and we saved a LOT of money!

My Two Cents: If you are seriously trying to save some money, I think Srilankan Airlines is a good bet. A little infamous for delays, but you’ll reach (Both our flights were late by 6-7 hours). Otherwise, fly Qatar. Or whatever is the next cheapest option. 🙂 Also, pack food before boarding. Even prison food might taste better than the in-flight gourmet dishes! 

Second travel question is to figure out that once in Europe, whether you need a Eurail Pass or you would book tickets destination-wise. It is basically a cost vs flexibility vs effort analysis. Eurail Pass is higher on the cost side (costlier than our flight tickets! Around 38k, if I remember correctly.), but gives you a lot of flexibility. We picked a 15 day continuous Global Pass. You need to figure out what’s best for your itinerary.  There is one big drawback with the Eurail Pass. For some of the high speed and overnight trains, one needs to get reservations done, in spite of the pass. Reservations are charged around 10-30 euros depending on the train. And you got to go to the station to get it done! Thank god for Robin, this happened pretty smoothly for us.

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Quintessential travel companions – Eurail and visa

My Two Cents: I would take Eurail any day! Awesome network, ease of booking and the sheer joy of travelling through Europe in trains! Reservation can be a tad painful, but still worth it. Also, book a little early because the free shipping of pass is applicable if you book certain days before the travel. Express shipping is charged. 

Next were the hostels. My favorite favorite bit! Hostels in Europe are awesome. Don’t judge them after watching the movie. 🙂 You MUST stay in them for two very good reasons –

  1. They are cheap (Duh! But obviously!)
  2. You meet people from just about everywhere! And people love to mingle here.

We used this site for our bookings – www.hostelworld.com. Heard later that there is this another site called www.famoushostels.com. The hostels on the second site are better rated and as the site says, famous. But, all European cities might not be covered. The first site is pretty neat too, but some research is required before you book. Reading the reviews is a must! The hostels we stayed in were amazing. We have sworn allegiance to them! 😛

My Two Cents: Read reviews. Any rating above 75% should be pretty good. Always always pick hostels near the station. Dorms are cheaper, but some places, even rooms are pretty affordable. Try picking rooms/dorms with ensuite bathrooms. Internet is a good add-on. A bar is good too! 😉 You need to give a tentative time of arrival while booking, so have a fair idea of your itinerary.

Now, to talk about the most painful process of the lot! Getting a Schengen tourist visa! Looking at their economies, one would think they would encourage tourism. It’s this huge process where you need to get a zillion documents proving you are financially sound and have a big intent to come back to your country. For first timers, they call for a personal interview as well. Also, they require an employer’s letter, which truly sucks! Imagine telling your boss that I am gallivanting to Europe for a couple of weeks. It mostly does not sink in well!

My Two Cents: Get this done as early as is allowed. Before you go to VFS to submit documents and take an interview appointment, check and re-check whether you have all the documents in order. The bank balance should be fairly decent but not phenomenal. 🙂 Book your flights before the visa, as they get convinced by a confirmed flight ticket. You need to show an itinerary and confirmed stay there. Hostelworld is your best bet, as it takes 10% of total amount for confirmed bookings. We picked travel health insurance from Lombard. You can do it online pretty easily. Always, go to the Consulate of your Country of Maximum Days of Stay for visa processing.

We got the visa barely a few weeks before the date of travel. Spent so many anxious days in between thinking of back up plans. But of course, the days post the visa were spent grinning in the middle of meetings and doing mental jigs! 😛

Travelogue: For once, we thought we’d do things on time. Yet, today was a day of frantic packing and the usual last minute rush. Lugging three overstuffed bags, we started off. Am a firm believer that when the beginning is an anticlimax, the rest of the journey more than makes up for it. Some law of balancing the rights and the wrongs.

So, here I am, waiting it out for my flight to Frankfurt. It’s a six hour delay! Had the good luck (sarcasm intended in every manner) of staying in this hotel called Good Wood Plaza. I think the first B/W TV that entered our house in Patna was better than the one in the hotel! To top it, there was no lock! So, while S snored away to glory, my mind was conjuring up images of people barging in and abducting us!

Finally it is time for us to board. More from Frankfurt. Signing off from Colombo! 

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