See the world on a budget: Part 1

Posted on Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Having lunch while exploring Honfleur, France with two friends from Paris.

By Brandon Gillet

Have you always dreamed of seeing the world, but your tight student budget has made it seem impossible?

Not to worry — there is a way! Fourth-year student Ena Lucia Mariaca can attest to this, having spent roughly two months backpacking across Europe this summer.

From Paris, France to Freiburg, Germany, with a number of stops in between, Mariaca took a seven-week solo trip, running up total costs of only $1,300. By staying with family and friends and volunteering as a teacher, she spent about $20 on accommodations. Booking her flights early — arriving in Paris and leaving from Madrid — ran her just over $500, about the equivalent of a one-way trip to Calgary from Ottawa.

“Do your research early,” said Mariaca. “Buy your tickets on a Tuesday or Wednesday for the best price, and use a different computer than the one you researched on because the airline site remembers your search history and increases the price when (you) finally make the purchase.”

Exploring Paris near the Arc de Triomphe.

Mariaca arrived in Paris and hopped the train for quick stays in Basel, Switzerland, Frankfurt and Freiburg, Germany, and Lyon, France, taking in the beautiful sites and landscapes, and, in Frankfurt and Lyon, visiting museums and researching school-related areas, including possible master’s thesis topics. She even had access to rare texts and documents to supplement her research.

“Bring your student card and inform people of what you’re studying. I got to take photographs and photocopies of texts that are no longer in print and important primary sources,” said Mariaca. “I have to translate them, however.”

“I also saw the Queen (Elizabeth II) in Frankfurt, which was pretty cool,” she said. “I didn’t even know she was in Frankfurt until I asked the police why there were a million selfie sticks in this one location.”

In Albertville, France, she stayed a couple of weeks for free at a school in exchange for helping out with the children, and even received free French lessons. All she had to pay for was food, but in France food is cheap. According to Mariaca, you can get all your groceries for a week for less than 20 euros.

"Paris is a little more expensive. But Switzerland, I would suggest staying in another country and just visiting and bringing your own food,” she said. “A Big Mac can cost up to 20 euros ($29.33 CDN).”

Transportation is really easy in Europe. In addition to using friends’ vehicles, Mariaca bought a student rail pass. It cost her $350 Canadian for five days, but was good for travel anywhere in Europe. The pass came in handy when she was ready to head to Madrid — it saved her the cost of airfare, allowing her to take a weekend trip to Rome to visit her brother.

While Mariaca used her travel time as an opportunity to learn, consider her future studies and help out communities where she stayed, she also longed for a break, having been bogged down with classes nearly every term since she began at uOttawa and suffering three concussions that caused her to miss considerable amounts of class time.

“It (was) my first summer that I wasn’t studying so I really needed to just relax my brain and finally breathe, enjoying life again,” she said.

The entire experience was enlightening, as Mariaca learned about different everyday customs, including greetings. She recalls Europeans’ openness and zest for life.

“I absolutely adore European people. They’re so friendly and willing to help,” said Mariaca. “They’re generally just great individuals and I’ve made amazing lasting friendships.”

According to Mariaca, Europeans aren’t as concerned as North Americans with looks, how people dress, or even the stress of the daily grind, because they’re too busy enjoying life.

“You realize that to them, everybody looks great no matter what they look like,” she said. “That’s something I loved about the culture in Europe — they love their life and they actually live it.”

Overlooking Albertville, France, site of the 1992 Olympic Winter Games, where she volunteered for the month of July.

Ena Lucia Mariaca’s travel tips

  • If you want to go abroad next summer, start saving now.
  • Book your flights four to six months in advance.
  • Get health insurance and the necessary vaccinations.
  • Plan your lodging, staying with family or friends if possible, and have a general idea of locations you want to visit.
  • Pack only one week’s worth of clothes and ensure your pack doesn’t exceed 20-25 lbs. Otherwise, it gets heavy after a while.
  • Don’t forget your student card, for special discounts on things like museums and shopping.
  • Bring a flashlight, personal alarm device and any other safety equipment you may need.
  • Check Pinterest beforehand for on-the-go tips for travellers.
  • Volunteer if possible to enhance your experience.
  • Get off electronic devices and talk to those around you.
  • Budget for special excursions or things you wouldn’t normally do; go off the tourist’s beaten path and explore (in Mariaca’s case, driving a Ferrari in Paris).
  • Above all, take the time for slow travel and enjoy the experience. It’s the best way to travel.
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