There are people who dream of traveling and there are those who make it happen. In this section of Dream Euro Trip, I interview smart, interesting, beautiful dreamers who hurdled all obstacles and made their dreams come true. I asked them how they plan and budget their Euro Trips, tips and tricks in traveling Europe on the cheap and other useful words of wisdom for newbie travelers to Europe.
I love talking to people so this is my avenue to do just that. The truth is that there’s always something new you can learn from another person. But I want to learn from the best, from people I can emulate so that’s what I’ll do here. I’ll arrange interviews with some of the coolest people in the world so I can pick their brains and share it with you. I’m sure we can learn a thing or two from them.
Meet Darren Alff, epic bicycle traveler from USA
Darren Alff is one of the world’s most experienced bicycle travelers. He runs one of the most popular travel websites solely dedicated to bicycle trips, Bicycle Touring Pro. He is currently in Iceland for his third long-distance bicycle tour in Europe.
DJ: How do you normally plan your Euro Trips? Do you have your own system? Any specific guide books or websites you use?
Darren: All of my travels start with an interest in a particular location. I never go somewhere just because it’s popular for other people to go there. I tend to avoid a lot of the world’s popular tourist destinations. Instead, I go to places in the world that I find fascinating for whatever reason. That’s how my travels always begin – by becoming passionately interested in a particular area.
Once I find a place that interests me (sometimes it’s a collection of nearby places), I plot out those locations on a map and then start researching other popular things to see and do in the area – later adding the destinations that interest me to my map. Then I simply look at the map I’ve created and connect the dots. This process usually forms a wavy line of some kind that stretches across one or more countries for quite some distance. And from this simple map, I start planning out a route of travel on the available roads and trails – not with a guidebook of any kind, but with a route of my own creation.
Most of my travels have not been by foot, bus, car or train, but on a bicycle instead. While others pay to get from one destination to the other and tend to miss a lot of the stuff in-between destinations, I ride my bicycle from one place of interest to the next. By doing so, I save a lot of money on transportation costs and I get to see and experience the in-between stuff that so many tourists never see because they are rushing from one hotspot to the next.
DJ: Most of the people who emailed me expressed that their #1 obstacle is money. Almost all of them think that they can’t afford Europe. So how do you budget for your trip? How much do you spend monthly on average?
Darren: Money seems to be a hurdle for just about every traveler – myself included. However, I’ve managed to travel for months on end and keep my expenses low by doing three main things:
Instead of working a regular 9-5 job, I work for myself and in doing so, have created several sources of passive income, which generate money for me when I am sleeping, traveling, or doing just about anything I want. For many people, it isn’t the lack of money that prevents them from traveling. Instead, it is their lack of time! I’ve created both time and money for myself by working over the years to create as many passive income streams as possible. It isn’t easy to create passive income, but if you can make it work, it will change your life forever! I recommend you read “The 4-Hour Workweek” by Tim Ferriss for more information on this subject.
I ride my bicycle. Instead of paying to go from one place to the next using my own vehicle or public transportation, I simply jump on my bike and pedal to my next destination. This is not only an inexpensive means of travel, but it comes with many benefits as well: being physically fit, seeing and experiencing things most people do not, and meeting interesting individuals (because when you are on a bicycle, people are more inclined to talk to you, ask you about your travels, and invite you into their homes).
I travel for long periods of time. Believe it or not, it is usually cheaper to stay in Europe for a month than it is to stay in Europe for a week. I’ll talk about this a little later, but there are a lot of benefits that come with staying in one location for a long period of time – the most obvious of which is the amount of money that you can save.
When I cycled through Europe for nine months in 2009, I kept track of every single cent that I spent while I was there and in the end, I was surprised with just how little nine months of European travel had cost me.
After nine months of travel, I realized that I was spending about $1,250 USD per month on average. And that included everything from flights to and from Europe, lodging, transportation via bus and train, food, entertainment, gifts and more!
It was that bicycle tour across Europe in 2009 that made me realize it was actually cheaper for me to travel than it was for me to sit at home in the United States and do nothing, as my costs of living in America are far greater than $1,250 per month.
People think that international travel (especially travel in Europe) is expensive, but it’s not. It just depends on how you go about it.
DJ: Any tips and tricks on how to make a Euro Trip affordable?
Darren: My biggest tip for making a Euro trip affordable is to stay there for a long period of time – preferably a month or more.
Most people can only get a week or two off from work and they want to see as much of Europe as they can in that short amount of time. But by doing so, these people tend to pay incredible amounts of money for hotels each night, entrance fees, transportation, etc. In the end, they may have covered a lot of ground, but they usually don’t get to have very many authentic European experiences.
Instead of sticking to the main tourist trails and staying in expensive hotels each night, I recommend selecting a small part of Europe (one city or one small country perhaps) that you are most interested in and renting an apartment in the area for a long period of time. Then, use that apartment as your hub for the next month as you explore the city and the surrounding areas.
If you can rent an apartment for a month or more, you can save huge amounts of money.
Often times, you can rent an apartment for an entire month for the same amount of money as if you were to rent that same apartment for a week! The longer you tend to stay, the more you can save on lodging.
With lodging being one of travel’s biggest expenses, this is the best way I know to save money on a trip to Europe.
DJ: How do you fund your Euro Trips or travels in general?
Darren: I work for myself, so the way I fund my travels is quite different from the way most of the people in the world will need to do it. However, I run a small Internet Marketing company called Silver Mountain Marketing, which works to both create websites for people and to help established businesses make more money online. Most of my clients are established businesses that are currently selling a product or service offline, but want to move part of their sales online and don’t know how to do it.
I also run a few websites of my own that by themselves provide me with enough income to travel the world and do just about anything I want.
Again, these small businesses I own are the passive income sources I’ve created for myself that allow me to work whenever I want, go wherever I want, and continue to make money at all hours of the day – no matter whether I am sleeping, traveling, or sitting in front of my computer. There’s no way I could do as much traveling as I do if I had a regular 9-5 job working for someone else.
DJ: What are the things you wish you knew before traveling to Europe? (Please name at least 3)
Darren: I wish I knew how to speak all the different languages that are spoken in Europe. When I was in high school and college I studied Latin, which I now realize was a huge mistake. I’ve never been very good at learning other languages, but now I have a lot of fun going to countries where I can’t talk to anyone and no one can understand me and trying to learn, at the very least, a few words of the local language. However, being in a country for a long period of time and not being able to talk to anyone can get a bit boring and frustrating after a while. So, I definitely wish I knew how to speak and understand more of the world’s various languages.
I also wish I had a better grasp of the history of all the places in Europe. I, of course, know a lot of the basic history of most places, but it is all the small stories of local people and places that I find the most interesting. And yet, these are the historical stories that are most difficult to discover. There just isn’t enough time in our short lives to learn it all… but I wish there was!
Finally, I like going to Europe because I don’t know everything about the place… and that’s what makes travel fun and exciting – the fact that you don’t know everything. If I knew everything about the places that I was going to, I probably wouldn’t want to go there at all. So, in a way, I’m glad I don’t know everything there is to know about Europe.
DJ: What are your favorite European cities or destinations and what makes them your top choices? (Please name at least 3)
Darren: I love Croatia. I spent a little over a month living in a small beach town called Orebic, Croatia and used my rented apartment there as a hub of travel to other locations in the country. I loved it! Croatia’s landscape is so incredibly beautiful. There are mountains, beaches, islands, and more! Plus, the people are nice (for the most part) and the food is good. I would recommend Croatia to anyone who wants the experience beautiful beaches without the crowds that are so prominent in many other parts of the world.
Macedonia is another place in Europe that really surprised me once I arrived there. The people in Macedonia are friendlier than any of the people I have met anywhere else in the world. The food is wonderful. The history is fascinating. And the cycling is superb. Macedonia is a difficult country to get to, but if you can make it there, it is certainly worth the trip.
Finally, I’d have to include Switzerland on my list of favorite places to visit in Europe. While Croatia and Macedonia are places I’d love to visit again, Switzerland is a place that I could actually see myself living. The country has everything: Mountains, lakes, rivers, skiing, cycling, fashion, festivals and more! I lived in Switzerland for a little over two months and I’m going back to Switzerland later this year. I love the place, the people, and the language. Highly recommended!
DJ: Any favorite events or festivals in Europe that you’ve attended?
Darren: When I was living in Luzern, Switzerland in 2009, the apartment that I rented in the center of the city was located over a bakery on the city’s main thoroughfare. It was on this small cobblestone street that the country’s Fasnacht festival took place. It was a festival experience I will never forget!
For over a week straight, people in costumes strolled around the city playing music in large marching bands. Sometimes, two fully-costumed marching bands would approach one another from opposite sides of the street and you’d think that one band would stop playing so the other could get past. But instead, the two bands would both continue playing as they collided in the middle of the road, their notes mashing together into an indiscernible mix of mashed up music, until finally the two bands started walking away from one another and the songs of each band could once again become distinguishable from the other.
More than anything, the costumes that people wore during the Fasnacht festival were superb.
DJ: One amazing thing you’ve seen or done in Europe
Darren: Amazing might not be the word, but during my first night in Albania, I cycled into the center of Shkodër (the second largest city in Albania) and asked a man on the street (who didn’t speak English) if he knew where I might find a cheap hotel for the night.
The man couldn’t really understand me, so he called over some teenage boys who were starring at us from across the street. The boys ran over to us and so did just about everyone in the area. Before I knew it, more than thirty people had assembled around my bicycle, all of them talking over one another and arguing about where they should send me. I couldn’t understand a word anyone was saying, but after about 15 minutes one of the young boys in the group pointed to an old man with a bicycle on the other side of the street and said, “Follow him. He will show you a hotel.”
Following a strange man across an unknown city scared me a little bit, but I did as the young teenager had instructed and followed the old man on his bicycle as we wound our way for several kilometers through the streets of Shkodër.
Finally, the old man and I cycled up to the front of a building that did indeed look a little like a hotel. There was no sign in front of the building, but it looked relatively safe, so I thanked my bicycle guide and walked inside the building.
Inside the entryway I found a tall skinny man sitting at a broken-down folding table with nothing on it except a small metal cash box.
Again, the man didn’t speak English, so I did my best to explain to him that I wanted a room for the night.
Looking confused, the man held up a finger and wrinkled his nose as me as he asked, “One hour?”
“No,” I replied. “One NIGHT. I need a place to sleep until tomorrow morning.”
The man looked at me as though I were crazy, but finally agreed that he could help.
After motioning for me to follow him, the man took me upstairs, past a row of rooms with both open and closed doors, inside some of which I could see various couples lying on top of one another in rooms covered with pornography.
It was then, as the man was leading me through the hallway of this nameless hotel, that I realized this wasn’t a hotel at all. It was a sex hotel!!!
It was a place that people came to have sex with their significant other (or perhaps, even complete strangers). There were no prostitutes on hand (as far as I could tell). Instead, it was a place where you brought your own significant other to do what you couldn’t do in the privacy of your own home. Most importantly, you paid by the hour!
It was frightening and disgusting and hilarious all at once.
Even though I was a little shocked at first, I ended up staying in the “hotel” for the entire night… and the manager let me have my room for free!
For whatever reason, that’s one of the stories from my travels in Europe that stands out the most. It may not be an amazing European experience, but it is an experience I’m going to remember for the rest of my life.
DJ: Give ONE piece of advice to people who dream of going to Europe or those planning to go to Europe soon.
Darren: My advice is to not go to a place just because it is popular with other tourists or travelers. Instead, find a place in Europe that you are passionate about, for whatever reason… and go there!
While there are some great tourist destinations in the world, many of which are worth seeing, I have discovered that some of my most memorable travel experiences have been in places that no one ever told me about, but that I discovered on my own by first going to a place that I was super passionate about and exploring the area for myself.
– – – – –
What is your biggest take away from this interview? What other things would you like to know from a traveler who has been to Europe?