Trippin' Out: Cheap Summer Travels
In the late 1700s, young Europeans were encouraged to take a year to travel abroad. One of these young travelers, a Scotsman named James Boswell, explored the great cities of Western Europe. He continued to travel throughout his life and went on to pen one of the quintessential pieces of British literature, The Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides with Samuel Johnson.Nearly 200 years later, a 28 year old Jack Kerouac sought his road kicks in America. His legacy was On the Road, and a nation of millions followed him.Summer is the perfect time for a travel adventure. You could simply sun yourself in Cancun, shoot a roll of disposable panoramic film, and go home. But instead of passing through, why not get off the common trail? Enrich your travel with cultural experiences, get chummy with the locals, maybe even hitch a ride and get a free meal.YOU CAN GET THERE FROM HEREIf "getting there" is half the fun, actually "being there" must be one third of the fun, since you'll need about .17 of the fun to get home. With this much enjoyment riding on one decision, your destination merits thorough investigation. Blessed with a far-stretching highway system and cheap gas, every American has the obligation to take at least one extended road trip. For a chance to hear some of the best bands from around the world, head to Austin, Texas. Austin's diverse community was made famous by Richard Linklater's movie Slacker. Check out Guadalupe Street, known as "The Drag," for a taste of the hipster scene, cool record stores and cheap eats. Sure, other countries can claim fantastic scenery and exotic wildlife. But why fly halfway around the world when you can be eaten alive by a prehistoric reptile right here at home? The Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge offers two- to five-day canoe trips and the chance to zip up your sleeping bag among the park's 20,000 alligators. The closest you'll ever come to feeling like a steaming hot dog, the Refuge is a one-hour car ride northwest of Jacksonville, Fla., and six hours southeast from Atlanta. Trails through the swamp allow you to explore the semi-tropical area, covered by vast prairies and diverse wildlife.If your idea of being "outdoorsy" produces visions of smoking outside a coffee shop, Portland may be the place for you. The city, located in the Northwest corner of Oregon, boasts a vibrant music scene, some of the country's best microbrews and more restaurants per capita than any city in the U.S. Known for their friendliness, residents can be pushed to their hostile worst by saying: "Hey, this place is the next Seattle." Considering a cross-country journey? Then earmark $5 for a day's hike through Bryce Canyon National Park in Utah. The otherworldly terrain will make you feel like you're in a Spaceman Spiff cartoon ("The freem propulsion blasters are useless!"). In fact, southern Utah was the inspiration for the Calvin and Hobbes strips. Harsh winters and rainstorms have created huge rock formations out of the brilliantly colored limestone. Both Bryce and nearby Zion National Park offer unbelievable hiking. While domestic travel has its charms, how could we overlook Europe, where due to current exchange rates, twenty bucks will get you a hot, flaky croissant. For bargain travel, even Eastern Europe is less Eastern than it used to be, and areas like Prague are lousy with Americans. "You have to push farther into Poland, Bulgaria, Romania," says Scott McNeely, executive editor of The Berkeley Guides travel series. "There's something like 25,000 Americans in Prague, which is like living in UC Berkeley."Consider Krakow, Poland, a city with a vibrant youth culture and a bargain to boot. "Krakow is an amazing town," says recent visitor David Lieb. "The old city is absolutely beautiful and full of pubs and clubs. You can get a huge plate of Polish food for under a dollar. Beers are excellent, and a pint is around a dollar."If Europe is out of your price range, why not visit our friendly Central American neighbors? Many Americans associate the area with CIA puppet governments and belligerent dictators rather than, say, sunbathing. Yet areas like Belize and Honduras are inexpensive and safe for travel.Roatun, an island off Honduras, is known for its Caribbean feel, clear water and white sandy beaches. You should be able to fly into Honduras for less than a cross-country domestic flight and find a double near the beach for about $10 a night. Now is a good time to go, before the area is overrun with discos and International Houses of Pancakes.Now that you know where to go, the question remains: how to go?BE A DRIVING FORCEWhen budget travelers examine their transportation options, what could compare to the sheer open-road independence, the thrill-a-minute excitement of stealing a car? For all of the fun of carjacking without the troublesome legal hassles, call a drive-a-way agency. The agency will find you an automobile that needs to be transported in the direction you're going. You only pay for the gas, and in some cases you can share the expense with riders, if you get approval from the rental company. It's especially easy to get a car going cross-country.For those interested in less pricey auto transportation, hitching may be an option. Generally considered unsafe in the U.S., if you're going to hitch a ride, Europe is the place to do it. In many countries, the automobile is considered more communal than in the States, but check your guidebook for advice regarding the safety of hitching in a particular area.Joel Bland spent a month catching rides through Ireland. "There are times when it's hard to get a ride," he says. "But there are worse places to be waiting than in the Irish countryside. I would never hitch in the States, but in Ireland it is considered a legitimate form of transportation. People hitch to the store and to school."The Let's Go guidebook for traveling in the U.S. presents its position on hitching candidly: "Hitchhiking in the United States is dangerous... Near metropoli like New York City and Los Angeles, hitching is insane and tantamount to suicide. In areas like rural Alaska and some island communities, hitching is reportedly less unsafe."TRAIN YOURSELFWhen traveling by rail in Europe, there's nothing like falling asleep in Belgium and waking up in Hungary. Or sleeping through Hungary and waking up in Finland. Eurail offers the best way to visit any of the 17 countries in which the trains travel, but you must purchase your pass before leaving the States. There are cheaper rates for riders under 26. Make sure the pass costs less than you would spend on individual trips, and get where you're headed in the time you've allotted yourself. "It's really important that I stuck to my schedule," Maddlai says. "If I had used up that pass I really would have been in trouble." In the summer months, you should make reservations on the trains or be prepared to fight for seats with travelers from around the world. Check with an up-to-date timetable as well, because arrival times change, and you may find yourself broke and stranded in Gutersloh.Unfortunately, America is sort of a one-horse town as far as trains go. There's certainly something romantic about seeing the Rockies through an observatory car, but people on a budget may consider flying for about the same price as taking Amtrak.TAKE THE PLANE, THE PLANE!When researching inexpensive flights, the true budget traveler should shop for airlines that avoid wasteful spending on flight simulators, maintenance or creature comforts like stabilized air pressure. If "safety" is something you get uptight about, then consider the following.Courier travel is reliable and may be the cheapest way to fly to any major city in the world. For a discounted rate, you can transport packages -- most likely time-sensitive documents -- for a courier agency. The downside is you probably won't be able to check in luggage, and there are restrictions on the length of your stay.Just call a courier agency about a week in advance to check the availability of flights. Show up at the airport, and an employee of the courier company gives you a ticket and baggage-claim slips. Once you arrive, deliver the claim slips to a waiting agent, and you're all set. You'll probably never even see what you're transporting, and the agent will check the baggage through customs.Ticket consolidators, also called "bucket shops," are another great deal. The cost benefit (10-40 percent off the lowest fares for commercial airline tickets) is offset by the fact that you're flying on an availability basis that's just above standby. At least your money will be refunded if you can't get on the plane, and unlike courier flights, you can check baggage.One service that uses consolidated travel is Airhitch, which offers one-way flights to Europe (non-peak season) for less than $200. You give them a five-day window when you can fly and three cities where you're willing to arrive."If you're the type of person who says I need to be in Paris at 2 p.m. on March 19th, Airhitch isn't for you," says experienced traveler Eugene Mazo. "If you just want to go to Europe and don't care which city you go to first or last, Airhitch is perfect. If you have a Eurail pass it doesn't really matter."Mazo, an editor at Let's Go, has flown to Europe numerous times using Airhitch-contracted airlines, though he can't necessarily remember which ones: "You don't really fly the name-brand airlines. I flew Air Pakistan to Amsterdam. Or was it Air Bangladesh?"Amongst all this yammering about saving money, don't forget to check the newspapers for discounts on standard commercial tickets. You may find a fare comparable to courier or consolidated tickets. STA and Council Travel specialize in finding the best deal on flights for younger travelers.GET ON THE BUS, GUSBusing in the States ignites images of too-close travel -- tight spaces, irritating strangers and stops at every warehouse district along the way. So if a trip on Greyhound sounds unappealing, consider an expedition on the Green Tortoise, the lobster-tail of bus travel.If you have the time, a Green Tortoise tour is cheap, convenient and gives you a chance to meet like-minded travelers. Tortoise trips reflect their San Francisco roots and are communal affairs where riders are provided with mattresses and sofas, and everyone shares food and helps prepare meals. These unpredictable road trips head cross-country or, starting in San Francisco, as far north as Alaska and as far south as Central America.Andrew Nystrom spent a month on the Green Tortoise to Guatemala. His bus mates were 40 travelers of diverse cultures from around the world, many of whom spent the previous year traveling before their southern migration."You hear so much about it being a hippie bus," Nystrom says. "I wouldn't call the people on my trip hippies. One of the drivers used to be a Hell's Angel. He was a great guy; he had been running trips into Mexico since '81. We'd pull off the road and find this abandoned resort all to ourselves. That happened about every time we pulled over. We'd find somewhere that was really unique that you'd never read about in a book."What European travel lacks in bus-driving Hell's Angels, it makes up in hostel-to-hostel pickup. The Eurobus Co. travels widely in Europe and allows passengers to get off anywhere along the route and pick up another bus two days later. You're guaranteed a seat with seven-day advanced notice, and hostel reservations can be made through a courier on the bus. CRIB FOR LESSOne of the truisms of cheap travel is that the benefits mirror the disadvantages. Often, you'll find yourself sleeping in a hostel with 20 snoring members of the same gender. But when you wake up, those snores turn to hearty, international laughter, slaps on the back, a shared drink, a drunken brawl, a punch in the nose. Lumpy mattresses beget friends for life.Hostels are the most common option for budget travelers, since they run about $5-20 a night. In Europe, hostels may be converted three-star hotels, resorts or castles. You can cook your own food, relax in communal areas and find rides going your way.When Joel Bland was hitching through Ireland, oftentimes he'd find a hostel recommended by the driver. He particularly remembers the time he was hitching through a stretch in Western Ireland and was picked up by a sheep farmer in an old Mercedes."The driver promised to take my friend and I all the way to Clifton if we could only 'stop for a drop' along the way," Bland says. "He ended up buying us each three pints of Ireland's finest before dropping us off at a hostel that he had picked for us. It was the best one in town." Unfortunately, many travelers overlook hostels when traveling in the U.S. Independently owned establishments, with their quirky owners and eclectic structures and furnishings, can be the best part of a trip.If you're headed South, the Hostel in the Forest in Brunswick, Ga., is one of the best in the country. Within an hour's drive of Savannah and Okefenokee, the hostel is a makeshift tree-house resort set among beautiful landscaping. If you're not careful, you may be asked to manage the place. More than a few guests have become employees.Visitors of all ages are welcome for stays up to three days at most Hostelling International (HI) hostels. HI offers booking preference and discounts for a membership fee of $25 at the nearly 5,000 hostels the agency oversees in 70 countries. While HI-affiliated lodging tends to be clean and safe, they are generally more strictly run, with rules regarding curfews and alcohol on the premises.For people traveling through Europe, The Berkeley Guides' McNeely recommends staying at campgrounds, which tend to have better facilities than their American counterparts. "A lot of Americans don't put much thought into camping in Europe," he says. "It's not just cooking eggs over a fire. There are bars, restaurants and showers on the grounds. You go to the cantina and drink a beer and meet other people. You can't put American expectations on camping in Europe. That's giving it short shrift."In Norway and Sweden you can camp on someone's property as long as you're not in sight of the road or within 150 meters of a dwelling. And in Turkey and Greece some hotels allow travelers to pitch a mat on their roof at night.WORK IT, BABY, WORK ITIf your love of travel is in conflict with your "personal and confidential" letters from credit card companies, consider financing your trips through odd jobs along the way. Crewing on a ship is one way to satisfy your wanderlust, though it can be dicey. Mark Richardson hit the Alaskan high seas in search of fast cash. Lured by newspaper ads which boasted top dollar for three months' work, his hard labors brought him about seven grand."I've worked at Taco Bell," Richardson says. "I know brutal, monotonous work. But nothing could have prepared me for a 16-hour day aboard a ship when the wind is blowing 50 and the waves are cresting at 15 feet."A less dangerous and probably more rewarding way to subsidize your travel is teaching English abroad. At one time, opportunities abounded for people who wanted to leverage their English skills into a free trip to Japan. But in most cases, to teach abroad you will need a functional knowledge of the country's language. English skills alone are more desirable in areas like Southeast Asia and Eastern Europe. "I had heard that you could teach English [in Eastern Europe], but I didn't know how easy it would be," says Daniel Hruschka, a Let's Go researcher/writer. Though he arrived without job prospects, Hruschka found a sign at his hostel calling for "two enthusiastic speakers of English." He ended up teaching "Mary Had a Little Lamb" to 5-year-olds at a summer camp outside Prague."The really important thing is to get connections right away," he says. "Going to bars, going to hostels, because you'll meet people who have been there a while and know where jobs are."If your language skills are lacking, The Council on International Educational Exchange (CIEE), can help. CIEE is a nonprofit educational organization that sponsors three- to sixth-month reciprocal programs with government approval, obtaining work authorization for U.S. students and recent graduates in Europe, Canada, New Zealand, Costa Rica and Jamaica. They won't find you a job, but for $160 they will set you up with work permits. The Council also coordinates volunteer projects on several continents. Many travelers find work waiting tables, tending bar or, depending on language fluency, working as interns. At the hostel where Hruschka was staying, he took a job as the night receptionist. He got paid to sleep while waiting for new guests, and the hourly was better than McDonald's, where, he says, "You have to work two hours to get a Big Mac."BRING IT ON HOMESo, what have we learned?Preparation for a lengthy trip should be extensive. What else is there to tell? If you have any problems, refer back to Section III, where we discuss how to say "It's not my fault," in 12 languages. Be flexible. Don't do anything abroad you wouldn't do in the States. Avoid making eye contact with strangers. Act Canadian. If you're traveling in a developing nation, don't ask guerrillas for directions. Don't drink the water -- unless you're near that spring where they bottle Perrier, and then go for it!Godspeed.