Budget Travel– or learning that trying to save money sometimes costs more

The first time Giovanni and I went to India together, it was the middle of summer in monsoon season, so we headed for the hills to cool off. While wandering around Shimla, a former British hilltown, we decided that a trip to England would be in order. So the next summer, we, of course, went to England, but as our first stop. The major downside here was we both wanted to buy tons of books and records from charity shops, and with two more months of traveling with one backpack each, buying everything we wanted was impossible. 

The summer after, we were headed back to India, but wanted a two-week trip to England as our last stop, to solve the “I can’t fit it all” problem with “I’m headed home anyway, might as well.” 

Now that a summer of no travel awaits me, I realize that I didn’t buy as many “might as well” books and I’m still thinking about some that I could have bought…

Since I knew we would be flying home from England, I wanted a roundtrip ticket to Gatwick. When booking flights, I challenge myself to go as cheaply as possible. Flights to London from Seattle or Vancouver have historically fallen in this category, hence making it affordable to tag a quick trip to England on to any long summer away. Once in Europe, budget flights make it easy to go anywhere for less than $100. Seeing flights from London to Delhi for over $500 encouraged me to get exceptionally creative when booking my flight, which is how I ended up taking a 5-day solo trip to Greece in 2018.

Before I launch into the tale of my solo trip to Greece, I just have to brag that I booked a flight from London to Heraklion (Crete) for less than $100 on kiwi.com (I can’t seem to find the exact price, but it was on Thomas Cook Airlines and I’m pretty sure it was a charter flight full of British holiday makers seeking the golden coasts and parties of Crete and they had one extra seat to fill. RIP Tommy Cook). It was about the same for my flight from Athens- Delhi, with a stopover in Sofia. Here, you can see, I saved myself a hearty $300 or so, and managed to squeeze in an extra destination. But, you ask, aren’t you just using that money you saved on airfare on food, lodging and extra stuff in the destination that wasn’t even a part of the original plan?  Well, dear reader, yes. Hence how I found myself searching Couchsurfing.com for a host in Athens in order to not spend the money that I had allegedly “saved.” 

Over the years I have had some success with Couchsurfing– from the lovely family I stayed with in Osaka who served me veg tempura every night, to the fellow English teacher in Bangkok who showed us around town. I’ve also had some not so great experiences– Tokyo, for one, where the guy made questionable sounds all night. But nothing to really scare me away. I was able to find a host in the outskirts of Athens fairly easily, and I booked hostels for my stops in Crete and Santorini.

Here’s the little cat who followed me for several blocks.

Most of the first few days of the trip were unremarkable– sleeping in airports, losing my yoga mat in JFK, vowing never to go to JFK again, jetlag, etc. At the end of a 2 day long journey, I walked from the airport in Heraklion to the place I had booked on Airbnb, followed by a small orange and white cat, took a shower, and went to sleep. I had about a day and a half in Crete, which was mostly spent looking for food, napping and wandering to no place in particular. The place I found was a studio apartment with a kitchen, so I had plenty of coffee, and it was noteworthy in its proximity to the airport and the ferry terminal. I made a point of walking everywhere in order to not spend that money that I told myself that I had saved, but was mostly tired and took it easy. If I were to go back, I’d definitely go to Knossos Palace and see the labyrinth and the Minotaur. After a day, I took the ferry to Santorini and had a lovely 3 days there, which, while noteworthy, will make this story too long. 

Here I am reading by the pool. All in all, it wasn’t a bad place to waste a day.

On my last day in Santorini, I woke up at 6:30 so I could go for a run before it was too hot out (I know it’s only been two years, but who was I back then???). I ran about 3.5 miles before I was too hot and thirsty and had to stop and buy water. In the end, I think I ran about 4 miles, looping back to a bakery to get coffee and a croissant and then showered and relaxed until 11 when I had to check out of the hostel. I didn’t want to wander around with my bag all day, and the hostel owner said I was free to hang out, so from 11-6 I sat by the pool reading and trying to stay out of the sun. At least with the run I didn’t feel so guilty about doing nothing. I often try to pack too much into my travel, and relaxing poolside was a bit uncomfortable for me.

Around 6 I ran to catch the bus, a notoriously messy situation, so I aimed to give myself plenty of time. It’s well known that if the bus is full, they won’t let anyone on and you just have to wait until the next bus comes. The Bus to Fira was €2.40, and I had dinner there– a falafel sandwich and chips. From there, the bus to the airport was €1.80, and only left at 8 and 10. As I still didn’t want to wander around with my bag much more, I opted for the 8 and got to the airport at 8:20, when my flight wasn’t to leave until 12:25am. 

Crowded Santorini airport.

The Santorini airport is tiny, crowded and unorganized. I just remember being sticky and tired and there was nowhere to sit, airport workers yelled for everyone to move, not to sit down, to step back. In the end, though, I was glad I had paid the extra €5 to get on the flight first. It was here I learned that RyanAir doesn’t weigh your bag, or even look at you if you opt for priority seating. A valuable lesson, indeed! My eagerness for the flight was short lived, however, as the couple next to me spent the whole 25 minute flight making out. Oh well!

Now, the Couchsurfing host had given me somewhat convoluted instructions to get to his house– airport bus, then cab. By this time, it was probably 1am, and I had been up since about 6:30am. I found the airport bus easy enough (€6), but once I was on it and it started I missed the stop and went out of the way. I got off as soon as I discovered this– and used the Uber app to find a ride from there. I was picked up, and it ended up being a pricy ride (€17) and I wondered if it wouldn’t have been much more expensive to take an Uber in the first place. I’ll also add here, at the time, I beat myself up about the price of the Uber. I was tired, missed the stop, the place was out of the way, etc. I could only imagine I’d be spending a fortune to get into town to sightsee the next few days. The taxi driver, though, wanted to give me a complete history lesson and point out sites of interest. “See you speak Greek already!” he continuously exclaimed, “English words come from Greek!” Tired as I was, I couldn’t help but smile.

When he finally pulled up outside the host’s house, he told me it was in one of the most expensive, exclusive suburbs of Athens. Alexandros, the host, a hippy type, maybe 40 or so, seemed a bit out of it, and I knew almost immediately I wouldn’t be there longer than that night. But by this point, it was about 2:30am, I was exhausted and I just wanted to sleep. I’m sure I looked really out of it, but Alexandros kept talking, asking me to take shots of olive oil, and giving me drops of olive oil to put on my pressure points. It was very strange for just meeting someone and he didn’t seem to realize sleep would have been the cure, not oil. I pined for my lost yoga mat.

Other characters included a shirtless, shaggy-haired Russian kid with a dead look in his eyes, and someone, I later found out, a Turkish girl, sleeping on the balcony. 

I was given explicit instructions for using the shower, as a few days before, a Japanese couchsurfer had flooded the apartment after taking a 30 minute shower. I had read about this, actually, in the reviews, and since I have been told that the Japanese look for “safety, security and comfort” in travel accommodations, she had vouched for this place with her review of “Alexandros is odd, but nice. I had a great time!”

Needless to say, I slept badly from about 4-6. When the sun came up, the cast of characters were moving about and arguing on the porch. Apparently the Turkish girl was loudly complaining that she had bugs and said she didn’t have them until she went there (?!). I grabbed my phone and found a place on Airbnb, deciding the cost was worth it.

You may say, “why wouldn’t you find a woman to stay with? Isn’t that safer?” Yes, but these days a perfectly good platform like Couchsurfing has been largely taken over by creepy men. It’s a well known fact that a solo lady traveler can easily find a place while a solo man cannot. And all this is after sifting through the invitations that seem more like something you’d find on a dating app. Gone are the days where a family will invite you to stay because they want their children to meet people from different backgrounds, which was my experience in Japan. Luckily, I had other options, but when using such sites, especially as a solo lady, always have a backup plan.

Here I am with my backpack, purse and large bottle of water wandering around.

Meanwhile, the Russian kid was just wandering around, dancing a bit, his eyes a little less dead by the light of day, and when I said I was leaving, he said he’d walk with me to the metro station. He talked about how nice Alexandros was, and how he’d gotten from Russia to Greece (some story about running out of money somewhere Greece wasn’t actually the destination, but he was stuck), and asked for €2 for the metro, then disappeared. I thought I’d finally shaken him, but alas, he was on the other side of the gate and wanted to ride together. I didn’t have the energy to say anything, but got off at the stop before him, coincidentally “Viktoria,” which I took as a good sign.

Victoria Station, my good omen.

I couldn’t check into my new place until the afternoon, but I was so eager to get away I ended up with about 5 hours to kill. The host, Daisy, suggested that I go to the National Museum. Bag check was free, a plus since I had been carrying around my backpack for what seemed like days, and the entry was €10.

Those keeping track of how much I’ve spent at this point will note that I’ve probably spent more not trying to spend money than I would have just finding a normal place in Athens. For all my penny-pinching, I had not come out ahead after all. But the museum was excellent, and I’ve found since that wandering around in a museum is one of the best ways to kill time. 

I became obsessed with frappes… I think they’re the inspiration behind whipped coffee.
To make whipped coffee:
2 tbsp instant coffee
1 tbsp any type of sugar, I use agave
2 tbsp boiling water
Any type of milk to fill glass

Add first 3 ingredients together in a cup, use a milk frother to combine, about 2 minutes of whipping. Add milk (I use almond) and enjoy!

Afterwards, I found a cafe and ordered a frappe and reflected on the experience and how I had made the right choice. I vowed that I was going to forget trying to not spend any money and would just enjoy myself from there on out.

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