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Five survival tips for cheapo Singaporeans in Europe

Five survival tips for cheapo Singaporeans in Europe

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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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