Back in 2004 I had an 8 month engineering Co-operative Education (Co-op for short) term ahead of me. After 12 straight months and 3 terms of intense engineering program at the University of British Columbia where I was taking 8 courses each term, I was ready for a break from school. On top of school, I was tired of living on the UBC campus. I knew a few people that worked oversea previously and all of them raved about living abroad and their great travel experience. So during the winter of 2004 I applied all the oversea Co-op positions available. By early March I had a couple of Co-op job offers but none were from oversea. On the last day that all the other job offers were expiring, I finally received an offer from a German laser research lab. Without any hesitations, I turned down other better-paid jobs and accepted an lower-paid-800€ job in Germany. At that time I was more focused on living abroad and exploring the world than earning money. Here’s my story on how I managed 8 months of European travel on extreme budget.
Monthly fixed expenses breakdown
800€ might sound like a lot of money given the exchange rate. But that was before the two fixed monthly expenses.
- 375€ per month for my room at the university dormitory.
- 35€ per month for tram pass to get around town.
Therefore, I was left with a total of 390€ per month to live on and for traveling.
Prior to the 8 month Co-op term started, I was saving money while studying. I have heard that most oversea companies didn’t not offer high salaries. So I saved with the belief that I would be working oversea for 8 months. I was trying to save money whenever I could.
How I lived in Germany on extreme budget
Believe me, 390€ per months to live and travel around Europe was an extremely challenging task. How did I minimized living expenses so I had money left over to travel around Europe?
- Luckily, food price in Hanover Germany was low to start with.
- I shopped at low cost grocery store called Plus to reduce food cost even further.
- I cooked everything in one go when I was not traveling. Then split it up into 5 dinner portions.
- Reduced meat consumption by using only a pack of ground beef or chicken breasts each week.
- Fillers like tofu, beans, and vegetables were used extensively so I could limit my meat use.
- Rice in a bag was cheap so this became my go-to starch source.
- I went to the local university mensa (cafeteria) with co-workers for weekday lunches. I was very price conscious.
- Since I didn’t bring a laptop or PC to Hanover with me, there was no monthly internet cost. I used work’s computer during non-working-hours for surfing and emailing.
- No cellphone or a landline the entire 8 months. I relied on pre-paid phone cards or collect calls for calling home.
- I spent no money on entertainment. Instead, I borrowed English books from local Hanover library branches. I read significant amount of English classic novels during my 8 months stay.
- Beer was cheap in Germany but that didn’t mean I was consuming name-brands. At first other Canadians and I were buying a brand called Schloss. At $0.25 Canadian per half a liter, we thought this was the best thing in the world. But we were quick to find out that Schloss was not good for Canadian stomachs. Fortunately a local beer called Herrenhausen came to our rescue. Herrenhausen cost 0.50€ per half a liter, an outrageous price compared to Schloss, but Herrenhausen was easy on the stomach.
- To keep me occupied and active on weekdays, I joined a couple of local European handball teams for free. Each team practiced once a week. Due to traveling on weekends, I only played a limited number of games. One of the teams would always bring a case or two of beer for after practice. My teammates let me drank for free, so I would usually get home a bit tipsy after two or three bottles of 0.5L beer.
How I traveled Europe on extreme budget
- I would pack peanut butter & jelly sandwiches for my lunches when traveling. Imagine packing PBJ sandwiches for a 6 day trip. Yes I was crazy enough to do that.
- While traveling in a new city, I would usually eat donair (kebab) for dinner. Donair could be found all over Europe for a very low price. The cheapest donair I had was around 1.50€ in Berlin. This allowed me to stretch my travel budget significantly.
- I tried to explore new cities on foot as much as to avoid paying for local transportation. This gave me opportunities to see many non-touristy things.
- I booked flights from discount airlines like EasyJet and Air Berlin (a few other airlines have ceased to exist). Ridiculously cheap tickets could be found whenever there were sales. For example, I flew from Hanover to Newcastle for less than 30€ including fees.
- The German DB website often had tickets on sale. I was able to book some Inter-City-Exchange (ICE) tickets for cheap to travel within Germany or to other European cities like Copenhagen and Prague.
- I used wochenende (weekend ticket) for Germany regional travel during the weekend. Wochenende used to cost 40€ and can be used up to 5 people to travel on regional and regional-express trains throughout Germany. The ticket was valid Saturday or Sunday from midnight until 3 AM the following day. This was a very cheap way to travel within Germany with a group of people. It was also great way to see the fanatic football fans before and after football matches.
- I slept in airports, bus stations, and train stations from time to time to save accommodation cost.
- Stayed only at hostels dorm rooms. I would ask for a discount if I was staying for longer than 3 days.
- I preferred hostels that had a kitchen over hostels that did not. Kitchen meant the ability to cook while traveling. Cooking my own meals typically meant cheaper than eating donairs, especially when traveling in a more expensive country like Switzerland or France. Unfortunately Airbnb wasn’t available back in 2004.
Places I went
I managed to traveled all over Europe during my 8 months stay in Hanover. It was amazing to be working and traveling in Europe at the same time. On weekdays I was a normal Co-op student, on weekends I was a road warrior. This was an unique experience. During the 8 months stay, I confirmed that books and classrooms could only teach you so many things. Valuable life experience and knowledge should be obtained from traveling. Here are places I went:
- Italy (Rome, Venice, Naples)
- France (Paris, Bayeux)
- United Kingdom (London, Newcastle, Edinburgh)
- Spain (Barcelona, Madrid)
- Switzerland (Zurich, Lucerne)
- Vatican City (it’s a country!)
- Austria (Vienna)
- Czech Republic (Prague)
- Denmark (Copenhagen)
- Belgium (Brugge, Ypres, Brussels)
- The Netherlands (Amsterdam)
- Germany (Hanover, Berlin, Hamburg, Cuxhaven, Cologne, Winterberg, Wolfsburg, Munich, Würzburg, Leipzig, Dresden, Nürnberg, Breman)
Interesting Travel Encounters
Traveling for 8 months in European gave me a lot of interesting encounters that I will never forget.
- Experienced the last stage of Tour de France while in Paris. I stayed in the area by Louvre where the bikers looped for several times. This allowed me to see the bikers up and close for many times. It was amazing to see physically how fast they were on their bikes.
- Went to Octoberfest and experience the craziness and drunkenness involved. I must had something like 4 masses (1L mugs) the Saturday night. I never had so much alcohol in one night in my life! The next morning my friends and I sat in one of the tents with beers in our hands but just couldn’t consume any of it because we were all hungover.
- Walked through a WWI trench in Belgium and pictured my head what it was like back then.
- Saw and walked through the gas chamber in Dachau concentration camp. The Nazis claimed the chamber was never used but I had chills running down my spine while walking through the gas chamber.
- Visited WWII D-Day beaches in Normandy France where so many Canadians, Americans and Allie troops gave up their lives on that day. I was very thankful for their sacrifices while standing there. Seeing a couple of young kids walking by on the beach gave me a completely different perspective.
Being young and fearless, European travel on extreme budget meant I had a few interesting encounters. Mostly were caused by my foolishness. Here are a few travel oops.
- Got wasted the night before my trip to Amsterdam. I woke up 30 minutes after my alarm and was still drunk. Somehow, I managed to stumble my way to the train station to meet my friends (I may have threw up a few times along the way). I fell sleep as soon as I boarded the train and slept most of the way to Amsterdam. When the Dutch border police boarded the train I realized that I had forgot my passport. I gave them my Canadian drivers license and told them about my drunken story. For some reason they didn’t ask me to turn back. Phew! Fortunately on the way back the German border guards allowed me back to the country too.
- I often explored new cities without a map and simply walked around to get my bearings. When I was in Barcelona, I decided to go check out Picasso Museum. A few wrong turns later I ended up in a less traveled part of the town. While there, a few teenager kids came up to me and wanted to show me some soccer moves. One of them hooked my left leg and just laughed. When they ran away I immediately realized that my wallet was gone. I traveled with a money belt so I didn’t have any cash in the wallet. However, the wallet had all my ID’s and credit cards, which I needed for future travels. Without any hesitations I started running after these kids. I managed to catch up to one of them, grabbed him, yelled at him, and demanded my wallet back. Somehow, I managed to get my wallet back.
- A fellow Canadian found a tent in the house he was staying. After a few too many drinks, we thought it was a great idea buy a wochenende ticket to head to Breman. We didn’t have any hostel booked and simply thought we would camp if we couldn’t find anything. Unfortunately both the two hostels in Breman were closed at that time. This resulted in us walking for hours trying to find a camping spot in the city. We heard public camping was illegal in Germany so we tried to find an isolated spot. Eventually we found a grassy area near an industrial area and set up camp. Since we had no camping gear other than the tent, we slept in our jackets in extreme cold and woke up around 5 AM in the morning.
My 8 months stay in Germany was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. I was able to enjoy the backpacker lifestyle during weekends and worked and earned money during weekdays. It was wonderful to have a “home spot” to recover from all the travels. European travel on extreme budget was indeed possible, as long as you plan ahead.
At end of the 8 months I came to the realization that it was time to go back home to Vancouver and resume my student life. I would have loved to go to Ireland, Hungary, Poland, and Sweden but these countries would need to wait.