How to Travel for Free (or Nearly Free!)

Every person we have talked to since returning to America has lamented about how they would quit their job and travel the world, if only they had the money. Let this serve as a guide of the websites that will help you secure lodging and food while overseas.

FREE ACCOMMODATION: 

We spent about half of the time working as HelpXers, where we exchanged 3-5 hours of work five days a week for semi-private or private accommodations and three meals a day.

HelpX: It’s something like $30 fee for a 2 year membership, and you can apply to as many HelpX’s as you want to!

Here’s a snapshot of some of the activities we did on a HelpX and how these skills are transferable to the workforce:

  • celebrated a Finnish birthday (learn culture, customs, and work through a language barrier)
  • France: built a retaining wall (ability to follow direction and work under pressure)
  • Bulgaria: built a chicken coup path (independent self-starter)
  • Bulgaria: milked a goat
  • Kosovo: assisted in running a hostel (hospitality / management experience)
  • Finland: taught English at a school

and so much more! None of it really felt like work, as we were learning from everyone we met. We stayed at hostels when we weren’t house sitting, and sometimes at AirBnBs.

Speaking of housesitting / petsitting, we watched pets in 3 countries: Ireland, France and Norway. We used both TrustedHousesitters and MindMyHouse. Again, for a small fee, you create a profile, what animals you feel comfortable watching, your experience with animals (from domestic to livestock), and you’re off to the races.

We have met people who have stringed together back to back house and pet sits and wound up staying entire months in the Eurozone for less than $500 per month. For some people, that is a car payment. That’s probably more than your mortgage or rent.

NEARLY FREE CARS:

There are many ride-sharing services in Europe, but the one we heard the most about is Blablacar. You type in the country you are starting in, and an end location, and a date, and you get matched with people who are going that direction!

england.JPG

It is like yelp. Drivers are rated, the cars are rated, and you are shown the distance and the approximate drive time. The page is translatable to any language. In this example, it will cost approximately $10-13 for a 4 hour trip across Poland. Not a bad deal!*

poland

*We talked to over a dozen people who have used Blablacar, and none of them reported any safety incidences. It is like anything else in life – if your ride arrives and you get a sticky feeling, then forfeit the money – no big deal. No amount of money is worth your life.

This should get you off to a running start when you’re preparing your overseas adventure! Let us know what else you’d like to get for free (or on the cheap!) while traveling.

Salut, Cheers, and Happy Travels!

Mark and Melody

 

Travel Diary: Getting from Skopje to Pristina

It’s 90 minutes by car, but up to three hours by bus. The Balkans’ definition of bus and our definition were clearly misaligned during this trip. When I think bus, I think of a temperature-controlled bus with WiFi, toilets, and comfortable seats.

This bus did not fit any of this criteria. It was a mini-bus that seats 16, with limited luggage storage, no WiFi, and definitely not any toilets (not that I would use them, anyway).

We shlepped our bags on board and made our way to the back rows, hoping no one would expect us to put our bags in the luggage hold. We found ourselves across the row from an American expat working for the World Bank (called Mark Deux), and a UK train employee named Mike. Too many M’s. Mark, Mike and Mark Deux set the world right talking about finance, startups and international affairs. I attempted to drift in and out of sleep but the roads in the Balkans are not known for their newness or smoothness so sleep became impossible.

A clipboard made its way around the bus where each person has to write down their name and passport/ ID card number. This, in theory, is supposed to make the border crossing much quicker. What actually happens at the border is a Macedonian border official collects the clipboard and takes it back to his little post. Then he comes back and has to collect each passenger’s passport/ ID card and return those to his post. After about ten minutes of hem-hawing, the passports are returned to us. Sometimes we get a stamp; sometimes we are disappointed. The odds are 50/50. Then the exact same process is repeated at the Kosovo border.

The border control is unremarkable, and the bus driver behaves normally by stopping at places that are most assuredly NOT typical bus stops to pick up random people. His homies, I’m guessing. These people pay when they get on, an indiscriminate amount, sometimes 1 euro and sometimes 3 euro. There’s definitely not a system.

We’re about an hour away from Pristina when we pull into a petrol station. I assume it’s to pick up fuel, but then Mark Deux investigates and the Batman driver and his Robin are taking a smoke break! We’re an hour away; honestly, you couldn’t wait? Mark and I run into the “convenience store” and pick up a crisps and chocolate breakfast. Someone runs in and asks us, in very broken English, if we’re with the bus. We say yes and run out to see everyone moving their luggage from our little bus to a large, cushy coach.

What is going on? We grab our bags and head to the coach. Turns out, our bus BROKE DOWN, and this coach has come to rescue us. Stellar. We are waiting in the stairwell of the coach to get onto it and I get frustrated. I snap at the person in front of me to move.

That’s when it becomes abundantly clear that the bus is full. There are no seats. So the 15 or so of us that were on our rinky dink bus are now standing in the aisle of the coach, hovering awkwardly over sitting passengers.  I move my way straight to the front and dig in to my breakfast: a Milke Oreo chocolate bar and tomato pesto crisps.

It’s probably only ten minutes later when people begin disembarking, but it being so awkward for me it felt like 20 hours. Someone moves and I gesture for the person behind me to take a seat, which she refuses. I don’t offer twice so I take the empty seat. One by one, people slowly begin filing out of the coach and the standing room passengers begin finding seats.

The coach enters Pristina and nearly the entire bus empties into the middle of a random intersection. That’s when it occurs to us that there’s a decent chance this coach’s final destination is not Pristina Bus Station. It could be going to Serbia. The coach driver could have had Rakija with his breakfast and forgotten his destination. When we turn away from Pristina city center and toward Mitrovice, my anxiety swells.

Just when I think we’re headed into a different country, the coach veers sharply to the left and off, on the side of the road, is the underwhelming Pristina Bus Station.

Whew. Mark Deux and Train Mike file off of the coach. There’s a running joke that whenever we board the bus to somewhere, it is always raining in our final destination. Pristina is no different. It was raining. A cold, piercing, hair-frizzing rain.

We part ways with Mark Deux and UK Mike, drag our sopping selves and our damp packs into a completely unmarked cab and arrive back to the hostel twenty minutes later for less than $4.

 

24 Hours In: Prishtina, Kosovo

I lied. We’ve been in Kosovo for three days, but today was the first day we actually went out and explored anything of Prishtina, the capital. We’ve been too busy at the hostel chatting up the guests.

There’s a really good energy about Prishtina, and despite it being a very small capital with a limited number of things to do, it’s quite amazing to be in a place that has been through a hellacious amount of conflict.

Initial observations about Prishtina:

  1. Euro is the currency and cash is king. If you’re staying for 3 days or less, 50 euro should cover your expenses. Yes. This is probably Europe’s cheapest capital city on the euro.
  2. Qepabs (Kebabs) are very popular here and you can get a very hearty plate of meat, salad and the largest bread I’ve ever seen in my life for 3-4 euro.
  3. The 2 liter beers are back! We first saw them in Bulgaria and couldn’t believe our eyes. A 2L of Lasko, the Balkan beer, will cost about 2.75 euro. Drink to your liver’s content.
  4. Tipping is not required. No one expects it. If you need to get rid of your euro change, then tip. You’ll make someone very happy.
  5. The Newborn monument and the Bill Clinton statue are about a 5 minute walking distance apart. In our opinion, the statue looks nothing like him but it’s super fun to chill with Monica’s former flame.
  6. People speak Albanian and English. Mostly Albanian. People love to say that their English is very poor, then go on carrying a full conversation with you.
  7. Good, velvety smooth gelato costs 1 euro for two scoops. Take that, Italy.
  8. Limited number of pedestrian walkways so your best bet to cross a street is to just saunter into the street and rely on the vehicles stopping and waiting for you. I’m still adjusting to this. Mark’s a natural at stopping traffic.
  9. No underground or metro system to speak of. I suppose that’s still in the works.

And the big one…

Getting to other cities! Yes, Prishtina is not a place where you can lose yourself for an entire month (or is it?), so you’re going to want to head to a different place eventually. This is where the internet basically sucks, because anything I can find in English has information that is totally wrong. So, transportation facts:

Traveling Belgrade to Prishtina:

YES: Buses do travel from Belgrade to Prishtina. There are two in the afternoon – one at 12:00 and the other at 4:30pm. If you buy them in Serbia it’s about $20 for two people. Cash only. There are two places at the Belgrade Bus Station to buy tickets. Look for the bus in the number 10 spot.

The trip: About six hours on a bus without WiFi or charging ports. Two stops are made; one in Serbia and one in Kosovo. If you are not an EU citizen, you will have to give your passport up twice at the border; once at the Serbian border, and again at the Kosovo border. We did not get stamps in our books, either.

Traveling Prishtina to Skopje:

This is hearsay as we haven’t done it yet, but the trip is about 2 hours one-way and costs 4 euro. There is both a train and a bus; the train is faster and cheaper but there is only one a day. It leaves at 7:00am and there’s a return train that comes back to Prishtina at 4:00pm. Once we do this trip, as we have to (it’s the closest city with H&M), we’ll update this with absolutes.

Traveling Prishtina to Prizren:

90 minutes away for 2 euro. A prize in Kosovo, really. Prizren is where many Peace Corps members are teaching English for a couple of years, and it’s also Kosovo’s second largest city with many historic artifacts. Definitely worth a day trip, and one we will be taking very soon.

Traveling Prishtina to Tirana:

Mixed reviews on Tirana; some people love it, other people say it’s a “shit hole.” We won’t know until we see it for ourselves. What we do know is that it’s about 5 hours away, so it’d have to be for a weekend, at minimum.

Have questions for this small yet vibrant country? Drop us a line!

Everyone loves a newborn, and we are very excited to spend a month here in Europe’s newest capital.

newborn

Cheers!

Expectation v. Reality: Reflections on the UK, Ireland, Belgium and Norway

This four part series is a compilation of something both memorable and shocking for each of the countries we have visited. Alas, the first of an ever evolving set of self-reflective, preparation posts for the questions that I’ll inevitably get when I return home:

“What’s changed?” and “Do you feel any different?”

And I’m reminded of a quote by C.S. Lewis: Day to day, nothing seems different, until one day you look back and find that everything has changed.

This is more a fun, haphazard collection of preconceived ideas, romantic fantasies and expectations of easy living I had before and during the visits to the following countries, along with their earth-shattering thought replacements:

  1. There are absolutely zero downfalls of public transportation! – England

Or so I said, before visiting London, which is really a country in itself. Not only does it get uber smelly on the underground, which is always busy, even at 1pm on a Wednesday, but tube strikes are not uncommon. Have you ever been to London when there’s a tube strike going on? The giant sidewalks aren’t big enough for the throngs of people waiting for the buses that are already full of smelly people nor are the roads able to afford anyone unlucky enough to be driving a car during a tube strike any traveling space. The tube strike that happened in July cost London nearly $500 million.

New thought: Sometimes, public transportation and the throngs of people in your personal space actually really sucks.

  1. Every capital city is worth going to. – Norway

Norway, for at least one year out of the past five, was the most expensive country on the planet. And we were warned that Oslo is perhaps the most underwhelming capital city Europe has to offer (We’ve since found one worse). Go to Norway? Yes. Go to Oslo? Hell no. Save yourself. Go anywhere else in Norway. Don’t go to Oslo.

Pub dinner: $110
Oslo’s version of Chipotle: $38

How can I eat my way through culture when every time I take a bite money actually ejects itself from my wallet and self-destructs?

Please don’t visit Oslo. Seriously.

New thought: After a dozen or so capital cities, they all really look the same. Fly into a capital city, and establish an adventure base elsewhere.

  1. The United Kingdom totally drives in kilometers per hour just like the rest of the continent. – Scotland

One of those situations where I would have bet money that I was right and I would have lost the bet. Funny story, abridged:

We rented a car in Edinburgh and got on the motorway (highway for us Americans) and came to a sign that says 70, so we do 70 kph. We approach signs telling us speed cameras. Other cars flash high-beams and swerve around us. We think all those people are stupid and are all getting speeding tickets. Next day, we confirm Mark’s suspicion. The UK drives in MPH, not KPH. The clincher? Distance is measured in meters, as in, “Hotel, 800 meters ahead.” Way to be confusing, Britain.

New thought: UK (and Ireland) drive on the left. Rest of Europe, on the right.

  1. Ireland is the place to get drunk on the cheap.

With the reputation that Ireland has of being a nation in perpetual drunkenness, I definitely thought that it would be ridiculously cheap to drink here – say 2 or 3 euros for a beer.

Color me surprised, it’s not.

It’s about 5 or 6 euros for a beer, and more in the touristy Temple Bar area, which is definitely not acceptable for drinking on a budget.

The tour of the Guinness Storehouse did shine a bit of light on a Guinness pour: if you get your stout less than two minutes after you requested it, the bartender poured it wrong. There’s mad science behind all of this which Mark is slated to explain.

New thought: Get drunk in Prague. Cheaper and more interesting a crowd.

  1. Living above restaurants is awesome and I want to have the life Marshall & Lily have. – Belgium

Wow, I was dead wrong on this. We stayed at an Airbnb that was up 8 very dark flights of stairs. The building apparently had no lights. The entrance opened up into the street with a restaurant to the left and to the right. I’m not a morning person, and I am very used to a long wake-up period. Not so in Brussels. As soon as we opened the door people were milling about in front of it from dawn to the middle of the night. After our evening meal and drinks, near the wee hours of the morning, we had to push people out of the way to get to the front door. Once we traipsed up eight flights of stairs in total darkness, we thought we’d be in the zone to sleep, but we couldn’t, because it was so dreadfully hot we had to leave the windows open and thus gave us an earful of the drunken commotion happening below.

New Thought: Overhearing yelling, screaming, fighting and crying until 3 or 4 in the morning is definitely not my idea of a good time or a good stay.

Have you been to any of these places? What were your experiences? Send us a shout in the comments below.

Ciao

Our Backpacking Gear – What We Use

This details our first attempt to follow this sage travel advice: “Lay out everything you want to pack. Now put half of it back.”

It’s really difficult to do. I began to think of all the possible scenarios in which I would need my makeup bag, three different kinds of yoga pants because it might be cold, or it might be hot. I wanted to bring ten tank tops because I love to layer, and I wanted to bring athletic shoes, hiking shoes, dress sandals and a pair of casual sandals because I want to make sure I’m accessorized and equipped for any occasion I may encounter.

But I’m carrying all this shit around for five months and that puts things in perspective. If you’re packing and you can’t lift your pack with one hand, IT’S TOO MUCH STUFF. And if you think it isn’t heavy, walk around your neighborhood for thirty minutes and reassess. If I had done that I’d have about a third of the stuff I do now.

We used the Kelty Redwing 50L Backpack ordered using Amazon Prime. We picked these packs for the following features:

    • Carry-on compliant for Ryanair, AerLingus, Norwegian. Win.
    • Front zip so the pack unzips much like a suitcase
    • Functionally sized side and top compartments
    • Highly adjustable shoulder, waist and chest straps – paramount for comfort and avoiding injury!

 

Melody’s Clothing:

Outerwear: one fleece jacket from Poshmark, one waterproof North Face jacket (lost in Istanbul).

Tops: Four long sleeve, three short sleeve, two tanks.

Bottoms: Two Jeans, One Yoga Pant, One skirt, One Pair of Shorts.

Little things: Two bras, one sports bra, one bathing suit, ten underwear, 1.5 pair of socks*.

Shoes: Leather Sandals (Aldo), Merrell Women’s Moab Ventilator Hiking Shoe

These hiking shoes have walked through farm mud, forest mud, slippery rock faces, sludgy trails, and everything in between. They provide enough stability for the ankles for a moderate hike, up to six hours in length.

Mark’s Clothing:

I think he overpacked, but he was prepared. His pack weighed over 20 pounds before we even left.

Outerwear: 1 insulated Calvin Klein jacket

Tops: 5 t-shirts, 3 long-sleeve shirts, 1 button down,

Bottoms: At least four trousers plus work pants, 1 pair of athletic shorts

Little Things: 10 pairs of boxers

Shoes: Running shoes, hiking shoes, casual shoes, and flip flops.

However, when we were ten days between laundry facilities, I was the one re-using clothes, not him. I’m actually surprised he didn’t run away when I was on my second or third wear of t-shirts.

That was my world of traveling light.

Electronics:

  • 1 17″ Dell Laptop
  • 1  iPad Mini
  • 1 iphone 4s
  • 1 iphone 6s
  • 2 Apple charging blocks
  • 2 Apple USB cables
  • 1 Car charger
  • 3 power adapters
  • 1 power converter block
  • 1 13″ Macbook Air*
  • 1  Nikon D5200
  • 1 External Hard Drive
  • 6 SD cards with carrying case
  • 1 Digital Camera Tripod

What Weighed Us Down

Melody:

  • Leather gloves – total waste in damp climates
  • Chi flat iron – adorable that I thought between the farming and touring a city I’d flat iron my hair. Nope.
  • iPhone 4s  –  used to send departing texts from Ft. Lauderdale on July 7th and never again
  • iPhone 4s charger
  • Oversized messenger bag – doubled as daypack and purse
  • Bulky plastic water bottle –  for refilling at water fountains but there’s never one around
  • Makeup bag. I gave up with makeup somewhere in August in Finland.
  • Nikon D5200. No getting around this. It’s heavy.
  • Two textbooks for my online classes

Mark:

  • 17″ Dell laptop – I wound up carrying this
  • Aluminum water bottle – bulky and makes the water taste funny

What We Tossed:

  • Mark traded his Nike free runs & Sketchers dress shoes
  • 4s iPhone Charger
  • Dead iPhone / iPad Charger
  • International Power Converter from Brookstone. All we needed for the phones, iPads and laptops were a handful of adapters.
  • Plastic and Aluminum Water Bottles
  • Melody’s mascara, eyeliner, ‘cheap’ foundation
  • Bra
  • Pairs of socks that got irreparably dirty

What We Bought:

  • Mark swapped two pairs of shoes for these NorthFace  Gore-Tex Hiking Shoes found at a TKMaxx in the UK.
  • Digital Camera Tripod from a Kodak Store ($30)
  • Full-size shampoo & conditioner to refill our many empty travel toiletries
  • Travel journals
  • *Macbook Air
  • International Power Adapters
  • Awesome Feetures Elite Ultra Light Socks. These make any shoe instantly comfortable with a compression band built into the sock that supports the arch of your foot. Translation: With these socks, you really can walk 500 miles.

 

What We Wished We Had:

  • Wool gloves for cold days
  • Box of Earplugs
  • Airplane Sleep Mask – the best one is this Alaska Bear sleep mask
  • More hand and face lotion
  • Emergency snack kits that we made before 5, 6 and 7 hour bus rides.
  • Cheap flip flops to walk around hostel in or to the car.
  • Slip-on sneakers. Many countries in Europe have a custom to leave your shoes at the door, and it gets frustrating untying and retying your shoes every hour or so.

 

Takeaway: You need a lot less than you think you do, especially if you’re traveling  from America. We wore the same week’s worth of clothes for five months and you’ll surprise yourself with the mileage you get out of your stuff. Make all of your clothes the same color-scheme (pinks, reds, and oranges or blues, greens, and browns) and you’ll go quite a long way.