European cities on the cheap- my plan

So, T is minus one month now.  I’ve passed all my board exams and have just a few clinic hours remaining (and a random project for an herbs class for which I am trying to make a palatable herbal Diamox breakfast porridge…umm…..)  I’ve booked myself a trip to get my Russian visa and as long as that goes ok, the next few months should be smooth sailing.

I’ve saved up more than my goal and although I could’ve saved more than I have, I’ve gotten through with my sanity *mostly* intact.  I’m hoping to keep my budgets really, really low, because the less I spend, the longer I can travel.  Easier said than done in Europe, my first stop.  I was going to be all adventurous and make a side trip to the village in Slovakia where some of my ancestors are apparently from, but I decided I want to keep things simple as I’m recovering from 4 years of medical school and Los Angeles.

One key to long-term and budget travel is that the quicker you move, the more you spend generally.  So for these 2+ weeks, I’m going to stick to just 3 cities:

Budapest: The largest city in Hungary, Budapest is a meeting place for Eastern and Western Europe.

Vienna: As a classical musician, I have undeniable musical roots here.

Prague: Everyone knows about Prague these days, but that doesn’t stop people from recommending this charming city.

I’m going to try to do some more detailed posts on each city on cool things to do and specific places to hang, eat, and sleep, but here are the general rules I’m trying to stick to:

1. Spend under $300 for the 16 days.  Yes, that’s under $20 a day, and will include one nicer hotel stay to help complete a hotel points promo that will ultimately earn me at least 10 nights for only 2 paid stays.  I have tricks to make the lodging cheap so food is the major expense, followed by ground transport.

2. See as much opera and classical music as I can.  Luckily there are tons of cheap tickets in these cities!

3. I am allowing myself 1 “splurge” experience per city.  In Budapest it is likely to be “the number one recommended thing to do in Budapest” (shhhh, it’s a surprise!) and in Vienna it will be a seat (as opposed to standing room) for a 5 hr Wagner opera.

4. Since this is now my “life” for a good while, I will try to do more cooking in hostels.  So it will be a challenge to keep things simple, since I won’t have tons of ingredients at my disposal.  The great thing about this though is that cooking helps you make pals (some of whom might donate some drinks, wink wink) and lets you have a reason not just to look around at markets, but interact with the people there.

Spain

So several months ago I went to Spain.  I was able to time my trip during a holiday we had at school, in order to miss only one week’s worth of classes.  When I was first getting into the miles/points game, I noticed that a great deal was on US Airways- from Jan 15-Feb 28, it was only 35,000 miles to fly roundtrip from the US to Europe.  It’s usually 60,000 miles, so this was a savings of almost 50%!

I was fairly flexible with where I would visit in Europe, which was good because the only catch with the deal was that I had to fly on a plane operated by US Airways; I couldn’t fly one of their codeshare partners.  There was a lot of availability for flights to Madrid so I hopped on that!  I had to wait for some miles to post from my winter break travels, so unfortunately the flight on the way back I wanted disappeared.  Luckily I was able to talk to a friendly US Airways agent who suggested a stopover in Philly on the way back overnight, and to catch the plane to LA the next day (unfortunately that plane was late and I missed class, whoops!).

Continue reading “Spain”

It’s official

So…right after I posted yesterday’s article, I received word that a bunch of members of Orkestar Slivovica, of Vancouver, are heading to south Serbia at the same time as me, to study with Demiran Ceremovic.  They invited me along, so I guess it’s official!  The only thing is I have to figure out all my plans AGAIN, does this mean I will head straight to Vranje?  Go to Valjevo second week of the workshop (or potentially, not at all?)  I’m still waiting on more details but everything’s up in the air.

In the meantime, cleaning up “house”, shedding the truba, and blasting through the rest of midterms (weeks 5-10 of a 15-week semester.  I guess they really ARE mid-term) and trying to keep cool as LA transitions out of “June Gloom” to a more toasty summer season.

Hamburg (part 1 and 2)

As I mentioned in a previous post, I was able to spend a day and night in Hamburg on my trip to Turkey over winter break.  I didn’t really want to spend a lot of money (okay, when do I EVER want to spend a lot of money) so I tried to see what I could do during that day.  Western Europe can be expensive so I wasn’t sure what I would be able to do on the cheap.

A quick search on the internet, however, revealed an amazing, amazing thing.  Sandeman’s New Europe Tours.  Sandeman’s New Europe FREE tours.  This is a genius, genius operation.  Offer a free tour, hire amazing guides, a million people sign up and tip their guide, guide makes easy 1-200 or more Euros CASH (I’m estimating 5 euros and 30 of the people pay, it seems like there are usually 30-40 people/tour.  I saw many people giving 10 or even 20 though).

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(This is not my tour, and this is not Brian.  I lost the picture but you get the idea!)

A HUGE group of about 60 or so was gathered in front of the Rathaus (or Town Hall.  Apropos name, isn’t it?) in Hamburg.  Some were for a tour in English (the lingua franca of travelers across Europe) and some were for a Spanish version of the tour.  I was very surprised the rain didn’t hold any of us back!  Luckily the rain stopped and we were left with a cold, but not freezing, slightly windy day.  Our tour guide, however, was prepared for the elements with his set of 7 layered T- shirts!  He was an Aussie named Brian and VERY funny.  I didn’t think that a town renowned for trade and shipping (yawn) would be all that interesting but Brian really made it come to life.  HIGHLY recommended!  It’s a 3+ hour tour, so bring good walking shoes.  I’m not going to take up space here with details on Hamburg, there are other websites than can explain the history much better than I can!  One random fact that I thought was interesting was that the Santiago Way, a common pilgrimage route in Europe, can actually be reached by starting in Hamburg.

Because my flight arrived at 7:30 am and the tour didn’t start until 11am, I had some time to kill.  I had read about some boat tours on the river Elbe, the river which fed to the sea and that made Hamburg such a prosperous city.  I was pretty skeptical that there would be much happening on Dec 27, two days after Christmas, which is celebrated in most European cities.  I purchased a daily Hamburg tourist card for transport etc, and arrived at the docks around 8:30.  Sure enough, no tours were running, but a captain of the commuter ferry (yes, you can take a boat just like a bus or train there to get around the city) said just hop right on, the ferry fare was included in my card, and it went the same exact route that the tour did!

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Do you like cranes?  If so, you should go to Hamburg.  I don’t know, I sort of was into it.  None of these pics are mine by the way, they all went missing 😦

A Hamburg card costs 8,90 Euro for one day.  This covers the regional train to the city and subway, as well as the ferry.  You also get discounts at some local restaurants and tours too, though I didn’t end up taking advantage of this.  You can buy it at the airport transit vending machines, or in advance here: http://www.hvv.de/en/tickets/day-tickets/hamburg-card/

On my return trip I met up with an astrologer, Klaus.  He is the German-English translator for a friend/teacher of mine here in LA.  When I told her about my trip, she insisted upon giving me money to take him out for dinner.  Klaus was super friendly, and kind enough to give me a ride to and from the airport (luckily not too far from where he lived) and let me crash his couch.  We went to a Portuguese restaurant named, oddly enough, Restaurante Porto.  This place was REALLY good and $50 US actually went a long way- 2 entrees, a bottle of Vinho Verde, and a cappucino for Klaus.  I ordered a huge plate of grilled sardines that came with a big salad and potatoes for under 10 Euros.  I couldn’t finish it!  Hamburg has a whole neighborhood of Portuguese transplants apparently and is something I might not have stumbled into otherwise, without the help of a local.  We geeked out on astrology until the restaurant closed and had a really satisfying meal.

If you’re looking for a snack during the day, stop by one of the kiosks at many subway stations.  I looked and you could get a sandwich for just a few euros.  They also had really great stands at the Christmas market around the church.  I didn’t have cash on me at the time the first day because my ATM card was acting up at the ATM downtown (also I was really full from United’s not-too-shabby gluten free meals on the flight), but some guys on the tour scored some really good smelling sausage sandwiches (GF/paleo note: chuck the roll) with mustard for 2-3 Euro, and gluhwein (spiced hot wine, typical for the winter holidays) or hot spiced apple cider for the same price.

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In the summertime there are some really nice parks, which unfortunately were closed when I was there.  Planten un Blomen (gosh, those Germans are such pragmatists) was highly recommended by both tour websites and locals.  Check it out, it’s free!  Sometimes there are concerts in the summer too.

So that’s Hamburg on the cheap!  If you bought a sandwich/drink for 5ish Euro, went out at night and spent 15 Euros at the restaurant for a really good meal (share a bottle with friends or pass on the alcohol, tip your tour guide instead), couchsurfed, took a free tour, hung out at the park, and got the Hamburg card for transport, that’s under 30 Euros which is a steal for Europe.  Sweet!