These are challenging economic times, but you don't have to win the lottery to travel in exotic countries. Certainly the biggest expense is a plane ticket, but once on the ground, it's surprising just how far we can go with so little in our bank account.
Five years ago, I visited 24 countries on five continents. Over a 12-month period, my total budget was $20,000, and that included flights, meals, activities and accommodation. What's more, this was before the days of social media, and social media have revolutionized the art of budget travel.
To prove this, I set myself the task of exploring Helsinki, one of Europe's most expensive cities, on just 20 euros a day. That's about $26, and would include food, accommodation and activities. When it came to stretching my pennies, I would have to lower my expectations (no Michelin-rated restaurants), do my research and prepare myself to meet locals with an open mind and sense of humour. All of which, it should be said, are recipes of success for any traveller.
A dorm room in a Helsinki hostel starts at 20 euros. A roof over my head is great, but with a blown budget, I didn't expect to enjoy Helsinki hungry. Instead, I turned to the social networks of couchsurfing.com and Global Freeloaders - digitally enabled altruism that proves to be such a boon for budget travellers. These communities help one find free accommodation, ranging from living-room couches to private rooms. They're free to join, hosts create profiles and guests can rate their accommodation, friendliness and location.
Much like a poorly rated seller on eBay, negative comments and low ratings help to remove any unsavoury characters from the service. That being said, it's worth doing more research before contacting a host without a track record, and female travellers might find it more comfortable staying with female hosts. Both sites have excellent help guides on hosting and finding free accommodation.
I created my profile, and began my search. Global Freeloaders had 170 members in Helsinki, while Couchsurfing had 10 times that amount. Hosts are under no obligation to entertain or feed their guests, and can ask you to leave whenever they wish. Many are fellow travellers who have experienced the kindness of strangers and tend to go above and beyond in welcoming visitors to their cities.
It took a couple attempts before I found Juuso on Global Freeloaders (some people were busy, others were booked, others never responded to my inquiry). Juuso, a young guy who worked in a bank, offered his couch, as well as some time to show me around the city. His apartment was small and clean and the couch was surprisingly large.
With accommodation taken care of, it was time to explore Helsinki. It had cost me two euros on the tram to get to his apartment and two euros to get back downtown, so now I was down to just 14 euros. Juuso took me to a couple places: the harbour, some beautiful old churches, Helsinki's market square. Several museums had free admission too, but I found it fascinating to just walk around the city, enjoying its architecture and atmosphere.
Before long, I was getting hungry, so we stopped into a supermarket opposite the Central Railway Station. I bought a protein milkshake (€1.50), an apple (33 cents), a few slices of tasty traditional bread (67 cents) and a packaged salad composed of cubed cheese marinated with olive oil and sundried tomatoes (€1.25). The total cost came to €3.75. Supermarkets can feed a hungry traveller for less, and there's no shortage of variety.
I wanted to explore more of the city, so Juuso suggested that I pick up a city bike. Various cities have free bike programs - helpful for locals, amazing for tourists. Helsinki's city bike program required a two euro deposit, but it did take me some time before I could find one, chained to a depot in the city centre. On wheels, I visited the Uspenski Orthodox cathedral, the Stockmann Department Store, the Parliament of Finland and the University of Helsinki. With just under 600,000 inhabitants, Helsinki is not a sprawling metropolis - getting around is quite simple.
I had arranged to meet Juuso and some of his friends at the Linnanmaki theme park late in the afternoon. Making friends with locals comes with benefits. At their insistence, they bought me an entrance ticket to enjoy some of the rides. We dined on excellent pizza (€4.90) at a nearby Turkish restaurant, leaving just enough money for a couple beers at a popular student bar. I still had change in my pocket, although without a car ride home from one of his friends, it would not have been enough for a taxi.
As I lay down on Juuso's large couch, wide and soft enough to be considered a five-star hotel in terms of couch hopping, I felt that I had accomplished my goal. Granted, I couldn't afford to go inside most tourist attractions, or visit Helsinki's lovely Suomenlinna Fortress. Eating cheap pizza can also quickly get stale. Yet my travels have consistently taught me that it's the people we meet who create the paradise we find. New friends had exposed me to an experience I might have missed with a nice hotel and tour guide. On the rare occasion I found myself in the company of idiots, all I had to do was pack my bags and move on. After all, that's what a traveller excels at.
Travelling on a tight budget requires patience and a sense of adventure, but there are plenty of rewards. If you can squeeze by in an expensive city like Helsinki, you'll be amazed at what you can get up to in cheaper parts of the world.
Special to The Globe and Mail
Catch up with Robin on the OLN/CITY-TV series Word Travels, or at www.robinesrock.com.
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