Five survival tips for cheapo Singaporeans in Europe

Posted on 02 June 2011

NTU student Lee Jian Xuan shares some of his epic failures during a recent trip to Europe so that you won’t do the same.

Photos: Ronald Loh

Somewhere out there the Singapore Flyer is weeping silently to itself.

“WE’RE gonna do Europe!”

In retrospect, the exhilarating proclamation made by my schoolmate sounded way more glamorous and fun while we were all comfortably seated around a wooden bench at NTU.

Which is not to say we’ve been completely jaded by traveling to Europe – no one can resist the allure of this mythical, romantic and gorgeous continent.

Even as more ridiculously un-pronounceable Icelandic volcanoes spew ash into the skies and reports galore of e-coli infected cucumbers and worker strikes abound, backpackers continue to pour into Europe by the millions.

So, as a newbie traveler who has learnt many lessons the hard and expensive way, let me offer a few tips to those of you who’re planning your backpacking trips to Europe this summer.

1) Budget your time wisely

Taking that Ryanair flight that lands in Madrid at 1 am doesn’t only mean that you’ve just saved yourself 13 Euros.

It also means that because the last metro/bus ends at 12 midnight, you have no way of getting to your hostel halfway across town.

Waiting makes people do crazy things.

Which also means you will have to spend the night freezing to death and possibly getting mugged (whichever comes first) while staying over at the airport, which, by the way, has no comfortable flat surfaces for you to sleep on.

Always, always, always make sure you research what time the last train/metro/bus operates till and whether you’ll catch it in time.

Also, remember to factor in time for flight delays, and trust me, with Ryanair, there WILL be flight delays.

The same rule applies to buses, trains, camels and whatever form of transport you’re taking. True story: my group of 6 spent almost two hours walking across Barcelona at two in the morning with our luggage in tow, because we failed to realise that our bus would arrive at 12am.

2) Settle your business before heading out

Unlike Singapore, most European countries have yet to master the concept of building sanitary and free public toilets. I don’t quite understand this as well. Maybe every European is automatically issued with diapers upon coming-of-age or they have bladders the size of septic tanks.

Anyway, always relieve yourself in your hotel/hostel before heading outdoors because there are virtually no free toilets anywhere, not even in the main shopping areas.

In the event that there are toilets, it’s likely they are located in restaurants, which means that you have to dine there before you can use them, or they charge you a fortune to enter.

I once paid 2 dollars to visit a WC in Stockholm. Undoubtedly, the most expensive crap I’ve ever taken.

Fun tip: if you’re at a train station, you can check the departure timings of the trains to see when they’re leaving, then proceed to hop on board, pee and hop off. Not recommended for stress pissers.

Docked trains = best free toilets!

3) Plane > Train > Bus

When debating travel options, the above logic applies. Of course, it follows that the same hierarchy applies in terms of money. But you have to weigh the opportunity costs.

Let me illustrate this with a real-life horror story: my friends and I decided take a 14-hour Eurolines bus ride from Avignon in France back to Zurich, Switzerland.

After all, we figured it’d save us some money as compared to the train and put us in Switzerland just in time to catch the free night train back to our hostel. We weren’t in that big of a hurry anyway and coaches couldn’t be that uncomfortable, right?

Um… no. The bus arrived at our stop after an all-nighter (presumably from hell). It was almost at full capacity when we got on and there were people spilled across seats, sleeping with their legs dangling out and snoring like subwoofer systems going off.

There was a creepy old Italian dude who kept standing up and staring down each and every passenger. Like I said, hell.

Our driver didn’t stop for meal breaks at all, which meant we spent the entire day on a diet of biscuits, bread and water. We did, however, stop for FOUR custom checks near the French-Swiss border (once I held my pee so long I thought my bladder would get stretch marks).

On top of which, we had to sleep sitting up straight for the whole journey. After contorting my body into yet another Cirque-du-Soleil-esque position for the 70th time, I gave up on sleeping and started wondering if death by deep vein thrombosis would be swift and painless.

By comparison, the train cost 20 Euros more and would have taken us a mere 4 hours.

Grasslands Express this is NOT.

4) Dine out sparingly

I know, such a concept is as alien to a Singaporean as non-potable tap water (yes, there is such a thing).

Firstly, most restaurants in Europe are a complete rip-off. You could probably hold a wedding dinner at the Ritz for the price of a three-course meal in Belgium.

Secondly, Europeans generally have a strict food culture and don’t look kindly upon the concept of penny-pinching Singaporeans sharing their food and drinks.

And lastly, if you don’t have much time to spare in a city, the last thing you want to do is waste three hours of it chomping away on subpar grub and dealing with bad service.

Stick to eating bread and pastries from nearby confectioneries (those are usually affordable and delicious) and survive on a diet of sandwiches, pizzas and kebabs.

Remember, you’re there for the sights and scenery. For cuisine, there’s no place like home.

What’s wrong with having a good hearty kebab for lunch and dinner?

5) Be friendly but stay wary

It’s not to say that Europe is full of racist and hostile angmohs, there are plenty of helpful and friendly people around.

But it’s smart to exercise some gut-based judgment in your interaction with locals – do they seem trustworthy? Why are they offering to help me? Could I take this person in a fistfight?

Remember, pickpockets come in all shapes and sizes – thuggish-looking men, helpless old ladies, kids asking for donations – and they strike when you’re most distracted, in crowded places like the metro/subway and shopping areas.

Fun tip: Chinese/Malay/Tamil/Hindi, as well as dialects are extremely useful against potential eavesdroppers. Non-Singaporeans can never understand a rapidfire conversation held at top speed in Singlish. Ho bo?

Even if they look like statues, always be on your guard.

There is a lot to learn about Europe from the great history of civilizations long forgotten to the many diverse cultures and peoples that populate the continent and their way of life.

We’ve learnt other valuable lessons too, like not how to double-check your itinerary so you don’t miss your flight by a day and end up shelling $250 for another one, or not to carry backpacks so your iPod gets lifted, or how not to fall asleep on a train and have your entire bag swiped from under your nose.*

I’m writing this so that you the traveller don’t have to learn them the hard way.

*Every one of these incidents actually happened to this writer and his companions.

Lee Jian Xuan is a second-year Communications student at the Nanyang Technological University. He is currently on an exchange semester in Switzerland, where he spends his time staring at the Alps contemplating his existence, drinking and watching backlog episodes of Parks & Recreation.

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Joey is an intern at New Nation. He hopes to be as funny as Belmont one day and get laid at least twice a month.

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  • Kelvin

    Tragic lessons indeed. Haha.

    But I would disagree that one should dine out sparingly. With the weak Euro and Pound, I have been able to have pretty good meals between S$9-20 at cafes. Of course, complete with a good cuppa.

    Even not all of the restaurants are a rip-off. Sure, spending S$50-100 for a meal can be a mind-blower to most. BUT if you consider that some of these restaurants are Michelin-rated, they are at least 50% cheaper than similar ones in Singapore.

    Of course, the takeaway sandwich or kebab will almost always be cheaper. But I think it’s worthwhile to just try some of the local cuisines each country have.

    So yes, I actually do my research on where to eat too.

  • Tabea

    Are we supposed to feel sorry for the writer because he’s suaku (not his fault, there is a first time for everything), yet did not put in sufficient research into his trip?

    First of all why is he calling Europe a ‘mythical’ continent? Did he actually go to Atlantis? Mordor? Narnia? Those are mythical places. Europe exists and is very real. Please look up a dictionary if you are not sure.

    Next, Ryanair’s punctuality record. Ryanair is in my opinion the worst airline in the world. That’s subjective, though many would agree. However, Ryanair actually has a punctuality record that is better than the industry average. That is a matter of objective fact.

    Train toilets. Does he realize that passengers are not supposed to use the toilet when the train is stationary in the station? There are signs on all trains indicating this. It is unhygienic and unsanitary and it makes the locals think that you are an uncivilized savage living in the rainforest.

    Dining out. I am sorry but I have to disagree in the strongest possible terms. The writer did insufficient research into eating out options and just jumped to the totally wrong conclusion. Yes, on average, eating out in Europe costs more than in Singapore. But it does not need to be either expensive or a ripoff. In Spain for instance, you can get a three course meal with bread plus water or wine for 10 euros. Do you know anywhere in Singapore that will give you a three course meal plus wine for the equivalent of 10 euros nett? I don’t think so.

    I don’t know if there is now all-you-can-eat sushi in Singapore but in many European cities, you can get all-you-can-eat conveyor belt sushi at lunchtime for about 10 euros. That’s definitely a bargain by any standards, especially as you’ll also get pan-Asian cooked dishes as well. (These joints are all run by PRCs, that’s why they are so cheap.)

    Even high-end dining can be cheaper in Europe compared to Singapore. There are some incredible deals if you shop around. At one point, you could have set lunch at a Michelin-starred restaurant in London for 20 pounds. Do you think any Michelin-starred restaurant in Singapore would have a similar deal?

    Remember, you’re there for the sights and scenery. For cuisine, there’s no place like home. That’s short-sighted at best and xenophobic at worst. Part of the fun of travelling is to try the local cuisine. What would you think of a foreigner who came to Singapore and just ate bread everyday, and never ever tried any chicken rice, satay or curry puffs? Sad and pathetic right?

    • Terence

      come on, let’s not be too hard on the writer now 😉

      this is obviously written tongue in cheek, and I don’t think the writer expects pity of any sort.

      it’s more self-deprecating in the sense that “okay I hope you’re not as stupid as us when you go to Europe”.

      • Terence

        and when the writer meant “mythical”, obviously he didn’t mean it in the literal sense, of Europe not existing! i agree with his characterisation actually, think the whole pantheon of Gods that governed the Norse, Greek and Roman systems of thought. Europe does sound like a magical, ancient place!

    • JX

      Dear Tabea,

      My apologies if the headline wasn’t clear enough – this piece was written with people looking to save some money in mind and as has been said, it was written with a tongue-in-cheek style.

      With regards to the word “mythical”, I was trying to describe the magical quality of the continent, not casting aspersions on its physical existence. But you are right – perhaps I should send my future articles to you for vetting.

      In my article, I reminded my readers to expect that Ryanair is an airline that is often plagued by delays. This is not to denigrate it as a “horrible airline” or to say that their punctuality record is awful – all these are your personal judgments, perhaps drawn from an erroneous reading of this piece.

      It would be editorially unviable for me to go into every country specifically and while there are places such as Spain and Greece that offer cheaper cuisine, on the whole, meals are very expensive in Europe, especially for people working on a shoestring budget (read: people who don’t have the money to eat at “Michelin-starred restaurants” like yourself).

      Note that I NEVER stated explicitly that trying out the local cuisine was a no-no – I’m all for it if it’s affordable, where, in the case of restaurants, it usually is not.

      And let’s not kid ourselves, given a choice between using the toilet on the train for free and paying 3 dollars to enter a toilet, most Singaporeans would opt for the former. But what do we know, we’re all uncivilized savages living in the rainforest.

    • SJ

      This comment is just out to create trouble, isn’t it? Firstly, you didn’t even consider the crucial point of the whole article: Travelling Europe on a BUDGET.

      Sure, Michelin-starred restaurants could be a lot cheaper in Europe than it is in Singapore, but that wouldn’t mean jack to someone whose food budget is about 5 – 10 euros a day. Hence the writer’s advocation for cheaper pastries and kebabs. To first time travellers in Europe, it could be quite a revelation that cheaper food alternatives are found around any street corner. You should understand that ‘bargain’ is a subjective concept, and not everyone has the extra money wipe their mouths with a 10 euro bill after sampling the cheapest foie gras in France.

      For that matter, I think bakeries could be more representative of local cuisine than the hoity-toity restaurants. Most of those places are tourist traps (or at the very least, decadent dining options for locals that tourists mistake for normal dining), and I’d rather eat at the equivalent of a Swee Heng bakery than at the Ritz hotel anyway, if I truly wanted to taste food there (on a budget). Grab-and-go pizza slices in Italy, baguettes in France, fries in Belgium and fish and chips in London are all cheap foods that don’t compromise the ‘local’ factor.

      And aren’t you shooting yourself in the foot a little? Here you are, criticising imagined tourists who visit Singapore and eat bread while suggesting eating SUSHI in EUROPE not even cooked by true blue Japanese chefs, but by other immigrants. Let’s all toss aside local fodder for a cheap imitation of a cuisine that’s nowhere NEAR local!

      Not once in the entire article did the writer say you should never try out one of those restaurants, although he does advocate takeaway dining more than eating in. For the budget traveller, this is sound advice because most restaurants charge extra for simply sitting in the restaurant. To say that he had not researched enough for dining options is a little harsh, because there are little things that could ruin your experience that no one thinks important to mention to fellow travelers that result in the horror stories you read about now.

      Your point about the washrooms? His main point is mentioned in his heading: Settle your business before heading out. The point you are so angry about was just a fun tip, i.e. not to be taken seriously.

      I’m not sure what this writer or this article has done to offend you. This is merely a collection of personal lessons he’s learnt from his time in Europe. Moreover, the target market was very specific: those on a budget. You choose what you want to take away from the article, and what I got was an idea of the dirty part of travelling in Europe. Europe, as with any continent, isn’t peachy and could be twice as horrific for the inexperienced traveler. If anything, he’s prepared us for a culture shock with even the simplest of things: I would have never known it would cost me $6 just to use washroom facilities. Other articles (most sponsored by tourism boards) might completely gloss over the rough reality of backpacking and I always find that citizen accounts give a more accurate representation.

      Are your arguments not cogent enough that you have to pick on the use of one word: “mythical”? Alright, let’s play along.

      1. Occurring in or characteristic of myths or folk tales

      2. Idealized, esp. with reference to the past

      3. Fictitious

      I point you towards the first definition. Did Zeus and Hercules not frolick on the coasts of Greece? Did Thor and Loki not roam the lands of Scandinavia? Could the writer simply not be referring to these mythical European places as the backdrop of such legends? Was this really the point you wanted to start your argument with? Preparing your criticism with an inference of the writer’s abilities by highlighting his misuse of a single word which, surprise surprise, he did not use incorrectly after all?

  • Tabea

    It takes special talent to successfully carry off a tongue in cheek tone. I’m afraid you are not there yet. Not everyone has that knack.

    But even without that knack, it is possible to avoid basic pitfalls. Like not grossly over-generalizing based on your own personal experiences which themselves were based on a limited knowledge base. If you don’t have the available data then don’t make sweeping statements. You might not have found cheap restaurant food in the places that you visited, but that does not mean that it does not exist. In fact, it does. While eating out in Singapore is generally much cheaper than in most European countries, certain types of meals can actually be cheaper in some European countries than in Singapore. For example, the 10 euro 3 course+wine ‘menu del dia’ which is widespread in Spain. This is a more balanced statement than your sweeping overgeneralization ‘all restaurant food in Europe is a ripoff’.

    You would be better off not making grandiose, inaccurate generalizations about a very diverse continent. It’s just as bad as the irritating Westerners who backpack for a month across Asia and come back and tell you ‘Asians only know how to eat rice and nothing else’, ‘everything in Asia is dirt cheap’ etc.

    And btw nowhere in my first response did I ever say anything about having the money to eat at Michelin-starred restaurants. Again you have jumped to a conclusion. I merely said that if you shop around, it can be cheaper to eat a Michelin-starred restaurant in Europe than in Singapore. Note the careful choice of words.

    And I’m sorry but you are dead wrong about the toilets. I have lived in countries where public toilets are free and countries where you have to pay, and of course, free is better. But taking something for free in circumstances that are unhygienic, unsanitary and against the rules is ‘chau kuan’ behaviour and is pretty distasteful in any culture.

  • JX

    Dear Tabea,

    From what I can discern, you seem agitated by the fact that the article is making a lot of over-generalizations, which was a valid concern when I was writing this article. To label Europe as a whole is as patronizing as slapping the Asian label on Japanese, Vietnamese, Indonesian and Chinese cultures (each are as different and diverse as can be).

    But what I was hoping to achieve here was to give other inexperienced budget travellers like myself a rough picture of what Europe is like as a whole. Like I said, I would have had to write at least 3000 words if I were to cover each and every country in-depth, which would be difficult to plough through.

    As has been repeated, this is a limited PERSONAL account (along with some lessons and tips I’ve learnt) of my travels, and certainly not a rigorously researched piece as I’m but an university student without the resources to do so.

    On the topic of pointing out inaccuracies in quoting, please re-read the article again. I wrote that “most restaurants in Europe are a complete rip-off”. MOST, not ALL. Funny that someone who has such a knack for picking on word choice would miss out on such a glaring disparity and “jump to a conclusion”.

    Lastly, if you think this has missed the mark, I’m very sorry to hear that. But perhaps if you have the knack as you call it, you would like to submit your own article to the New Nation editors, who I’m sure would welcome your valuable input.

    Or perhaps, as SJ pointed out, you’re simply here for the purpose of trolling, in which case there is little point in responding any further and continuing to spoil the experience for other users.

  • Tabea

    I thought also I would offer you my list of survival tips as per your list:

    1. Plan plan plan in advance! I second everything the original writer said in the first point. Especially transport that arrives at odd hours. No matter how much we complain about taxi fares in Singapore, the truth is that taxis in Singapore are very affordable. That is not the case in Europe (for once I can safely generalize about this continent-wide).

    2. Toilets. There is no getting away from the fact that in many European countries, you have to pay to use public toilets. If that upsets you, holiday in a country with free public toilets. Some advance planning might be needed to avoid paying for toilets. For instance, remember to go when you’re at a museum or other sightseeing attraction. Big department stores often also have toilet facilities. There might be a toilet auntie there with a saucer in front of her but unless there is a sign indicating a compulsory payment, tipping is only customary. It is perfectly OK to just ignore the auntie’s glares. Finally, it might not cost as much as you think to patronize a bar/cafe to take advantage of the toilet facilities. The key is not to sit down but to stand up at the counter. (This does not work in all countries but is especially applicable in Italy.) An espresso taken standing up at the counter will not cost more than 1 euro, which is considerably cheaper than the average espresso in Singapore. Sitting down automatically doubles the price; only gullible tourists do that.

    3. Penny wise pound foolish. Sometimes it’s worth paying a little extra to avoid journeys from hell.

    4. Food. Eating out in most European countries is generally more expensive than in Singapore. But you have to compare like for like. There are no hawker centres in Europe so you cannot use the price of a plate of chicken rice to compare. If you shop around carefully you will often be able to find special deals at lunchtime. Set menus are usually the most economical option. Have a look at fresh food markets where you will often find quality bread and temperate climate produce at NTUC-style prices rather than air-flown Jason’s prices. Truly sweet strawberries and vine-ripened tomatoes are affordable treats compared to what they cost in Singapore. It is also worth looking at supermarkets at the end of the day when the food is marked down.

    I note that the original author is writing from a Switzerland-based perspective, which has coloured his experiences somewhat since Switzerland has become extremely expensive over the years, with very few genuine bargains to be had. Blame the bankers and hedge funds who have relocated there!

  • Tabea

    A response to SJ:

    The use of ‘mythical’ in the original article _is_ wrong. You can call Europe ‘myth-laden’ or ‘the setting of many myths and fables’ but you cannot call it a ‘mythical’ continent.

    What did the writer do to offend? Good question. I think I mentioned the many sweeping overgeneralizations already. Also because the impression given is a conflation of personal ‘epic failures’ into generalized reflections of a state of being, thus giving a warped impression to other travellers. For example, I’m sorry that the writer was ripped off for that toilet he mentioned, because that is really very expensive. That’s good to warn other potential travellers, but it’s only a partial reflection of the reality, which is that not all toilets are that expensive, and there are other reasonable toilet options. (For example going to a big department store or shopping centre and purposely forgetting to give the toilet aunty a tip. Not all the locals tip anyway.)

    The PRC sushi places I mentioned in counterpoint to the author asserting that people on a budget can forget about dining out. Come on. Are there places in Singapore where you can get all you can eat sushi for the equivalent of 10 euros? Europe is not necessarily more expensive, you just have to research and shop around. (Although Switzerland is generally very expensive so maybe the writer’s viewpoint is coloured by his time there.)

    • SJ

      Fair points, although I maintain that this article isn’t as offensive as you make it out to be. His above points with regards to your concerns in overgeneralisation are reasonable, especially since he did mention that these were his own experiences. I see no need to criticise the article for its lack of research when all the research he needed to write a personal account were his own experiences.

      Moreover I’m supposing this article was written more for the humour and entertainment than it was to actually inform.

    • nat

      just curious, your mention of all you can eat sushi has got me tempted. can you share some places i can check out on my upcoming trip to europe? (i’ll be in the uk, amsterdam, berlin, belgium)

      thanks! :)

  • spy

    Taeba, I tend to agree with you that there are way too many generalisations made in this article. Writing an article about the entire continent requires really a a whole load of travel experience and research because its a freaking CONTINENT. If the writer’s bulk of his experience is mostly from Switzerland, let the title or the introduction reflect so.

    It will be the same case of generalising ASIA travels if one just visits one or two of its member countries and then make sweeping generalisations about the whole continent.

  • GL

    Seriously, Tabea, why are you taking everything he says so seriously? Especially on the word ‘mythical’, surely you don’t have to make SUCH a big fuss out of it? Are you that affected by his wrong usage of the word? If its wrong its wrong, don’t have to be all nit-picky about it.

    The article was obviously written in jest and should be taken with a pinch of salt, so chill man seriously. Lol.

  • Hitch

    Tabea obviously thinks he/she is some Europe travelling god who knows the right way to travel Europe. There’s no such thing is the best way to travel, some like it cheap, some like it slow, some plan every detail (like Tabea), some stick out their thumb and go with the first car to pick them up. Everyone has a great time in their own way, no need to get so worked up.

    No matter how cheap and value for money your fantastic 10 euro three course meal is, I can spend 3 euro on a loaf of bread and some cheese and ham, and that’s my breakfast, lunch and dinner. The writer is suggesting budget tips, and I think he has given great tips for those on a real budget. Different people have different “budgets”.

    Although the Ryanair comment is indeed incorrect: Ryanair is one of the most punctual airlines around. They cheat a bit by budgeting a lot of extra time for their flights, but you can be 90% sure the flight will reach by the time stated on the ticket.

  • kay

    HINDU is NOT a language, it’s a religion. Do you mean HINDI? Please research your facts then write your articles. This site has some of the most badly written articles I’ve ever read.

    • Terence Lee

      that’s more of a typo than lack of research. but thanks for pointing it out, we’ve corrected it! as for badly written articles, well, to each his/her own!