Saving money requires luck and planning. My so-called “travel on a budget” is based on my school programme and personal preference–only the quantity of food matters.
So let alone the 24-hour stay in Amsterdam which, in theory, costed me around €10 including everything except the €24.5 fancy skull backpack from Van Gogh Museum. In practice, you can hardly buy a fine backpack with €24.5 in Hong Kong.
As I began to walk towards the UK-based MegaBus station in Amsterdam at night, I knew it would be a tough task for me to save my pocket–socialising with classmates, getting to rural areas for interviews, and drinking dozens cans of beer to make myself drunk. But it was simply an imagination way beyond the truth.
During the 5-day European Union(EU) reporting trip, we were assigned to visit the EU Parliament and the Commission. While there is no sponsorship for the school to pay for our study trip, we were assigned to live in two places–Citadines Sainte-Catherine Hotel for the first night and Hello Hostel for the remaining three nights. But I only stayed in the hotel for a few hours as I arrived at 3 am and we needed to check out at around 8 am, so there’s no point for me to comment on the service and details of the hotel. I particularly like the room with private kitchen as well as free waffles for the breakfast, though.
Free food & group dining
As a root -class exchange student from Hong Kong, basically I have everything on a budget including transportation, food and accommodation. But in Europe, you can be a dumpster-diver outside grocery stores and get food for free and get on a train without paying for tickets (which I never recommend).
It’s an art to find a balance between controlling your spending without missing too much local dishes. Leaving out Michelin Star restaurants and extravagant items, the most costly dinner was the first Belgian night which costed me €16.5 euro. It was a nice Italian restaurant with waiter and waitress speaking French and Italian, and I was even misunderstood as speaking Chinese while I was asking for a cup of tap water (you don’t have to pay for tap water but you need to pay for a bottle of water in this kind of restaurant). The stakes were high and almost all politics classmates showed up in the dinner. I had a big pizza with eggs and sausages for €10, but the combination of wine and water fees were as high as €6.5. Bare in mind that I had around €20 in my pocket for the entire journey including Luxembourg and Hamburg in Germany.
Still, we have to pay for a moment of happiness. So I accepted and spent €2 euro for two meals and €1 for bread. The upcoming days went worse for reporting, but did too well capitalising my advantage to the study trip–enjoying free lunch in both Commission and Parliament. There was a €6 lunch coupon for each of us to order food in the Commission’s canteen. For health’s sake, I ordered a yummy steak with potato but also with all kinds of fruits. The lunch in the Parliament is entirely different from the Commission’s as we were offered to free sandwiches after rounds of talks and sharing by different Members of the European Parliament(MEP).
The luckiest encounter was a free lunch campaign outside the Parliament, which aims at boosting the awareness of people not to waste food. It was a nice dish with vegetarian food which is free from Genetically Modified Organism(GMO) food. And additionally I got a kiss from a Belgian designer–yes it was free as well, if you count it in as my travel on a budget.
Hostel & couch-surfing
Without an option, our class was assigned to stay in Hello Hostel for three nights, given that there is free breakfast and affordable drinks and pizzas at the bar. Chances are, when you live with dozens and dozens of travellers sharing same bathrooms and toilets, timing is crucial. Instead of taking showers at night, I woke up at around five every morning to get a sense of space and freedom. There were free shampoo left from the previous visitors and I dared not to waste it. In addition to the free breakfast, there is a reasonable yet not budget-friendly breakfast rules–you can’t take as many bread as you want to eat since there is a fixed portion for all visitors. So I decided to take a huge portion of bread and finished it as quick as I can. Thanks mom and dad for giving me such a big appetite.
As the reporting ended and my Danish partner drove back to Denmark, I was forced to sleep at the central train station in Brussels, I thought. So I texted a Brussels-based Hong Kong journalist about my plan and she was more than worried about my safety. “I won’t feel comfortable if I know that my brother is sleeping at the station overnight,” she wrote. With a big surprise she asked her husband to pick me up at a train station which is near where they live. Her husband is also a French journalist from Hong Kong. He greeted me in Cantonese and I felt like home. They treated me like their son and cooked me some spicy Asian dishes. It was the warmest gift as I managed to find a shelter to stay for a night. In this sense, there is no need to click and send requests in the couch-surfing website since I can rely on the social network that is built by myself.
Noticeable places & events
During the study trip, we spent most of our time to arrange interviews and reading documents, sightseeing became a luxury but I still managed to go to Cinquantenaire for 25th anniversary of German reunification and the Royal Palace after getting back from Luxembourg (Note: I finished Brussels study trip on Friday and travelled Luxembourg for a day and got back to Brussels on the same night).
Cinquantenaire square is a place having a high similarity with Brandenburg gate in Berlin, but the lighting and animation added so much colours to the gate as a symbol of unity of European Union, which I considered it as a propaganda. I accompanied with a Russian classmate as I was watching the performance. It’s interesting to notice how bad a Russian wishes to join the EU family as Russia is geographically located in Europe. Given the EU’s sanctions against Russia, it wouldn’t be possible for the polar bear to join, unfortunately. Leaving out the political matters, it would always be the biggest reward if you take a look at what’s happening in the city that you are visiting–sometimes you can participate in a free event like this.
The Royal Palace has nothing but a huge crowd drinking and yelling together. It was a night right before the Brussels Marathon–hundreds and hundreds of people gathered and sit on the ground to chill and have fun as the officials have blocked the roads to prepare for the race. Without any company, I didn’t drink and walked across the main street over and over until a British guy approached and asked me about the situations in Hong Kong. It was an awkward situation but also a good way to build up your network to ask for more places for accommodation, if you want a different experience other than staying in hotels and hostels.