Tag Archives: Euro

How to turn your European holiday into a nightmare in 10 simple steps

Summer is upon us and as always, Europe will be filled with tourists, young and old, spending their well-earned currencies around the old continent. Many of those are fresh graduates, from high school, college or graduate school, eager to make a journey of a lifetime. Sadly, quite a few visitors are bent on making their European holiday unique and memorable, missing the golden opportunity to march along the obvious tourist traps, fast-forward between the places where everyone else is going, and to do what everyone else is doing, as if their life is not subject to the tyranny of the bucket list. For those poor souls who think they can avoid making the common mistakes, I have compiled a simple and efficient instruction on how to turn your European holiday into a nightmare in just 10 simple steps.

  1. Don’t stay anywhere longer than 2 days. Berlin? 2 days is more than enough! Amsterdam? Can do in 1 day, no sweat, it’s a small city.
    The common advice is to spend at least 3 nights in one place. Longer is better. Trust me, you won’t get bored – plenty of opportunities for day trips out of your “base camp”.
  2. Don’t go to Eastern Europe. Raggedy commy ruins, nothing interesting ever happens there. Nobody speaks English, too.
    It is true that the most visited cities are in the West of Europe. Places like Budapest, Tallinn or Zagreb are rather Westernized nowadays, but the American (and European) travelling crowd still has what the Germans call “Mauer im Kopf” (a wall in the head). 25 years after the fall of Communism its time to ditch that East-West labelling once and for all. Weather is better in the East, too.
  3. Forget about currency exchange. All of Europe uses the Euro, right?
    About half of the European countries uses the Euro. This means the other half doesn’t! There are dozens of different currencies in use, and key countires like the UK, Switzerland, Czech Republic and Sweden stick to their own coins. No need to avoid leaving the Euro zone but keep in mind that it is expensive and inconvenient to get used to other currencies.
  4. Nevermind the climate. You’re going in the summer, what are the odds it will rain?
    Especially in Western Europe summers can be quite rainy. But also in parts of Spain, Italy and the Balkans, weather can be much of a spell-breaker. Don’t forget the rain gear, no matter where in Europe you’re going.
    Average annual precipitation in Europe (Britannica)
  5. Plan your entire trip in advance. With all the information available on the internet, no way you’d miss something and want to change your plans.
    Especially on a longer trip (anything more than a couple of weeks) you are bound to find out things are not as you expected them to be. Some places turn out to be a disappointment, others you’ll love and want to stay longer. Or the weather is nasty where you are and its great just around the corner (see previous point). Having pre-booked hotels and transportation robs you of the opportunity to exploit an opportunity.
  6. Never stray off the beaten track. If all those other places in Europe would be interesting, they’d be full of tourists, too.
    By all means visit some of the highlights, they are famous for a reason. But at least try to discover places not tramped by millions of tourists every year. Europe is so much more than the obvious Paris-Berlin-Venice-Rome tour. And even in these famous places, there are plenty of hidden spots you can brag to your friends about finding. There are even websites that help you discover them – like www.spottedbylocals.com or Hidden Europe magazine. Or even this blog.
  7. Stay in the cities. Europe is a crowded place, there’s no nature left outside the cities anyway.
    European cities are rightfully a tourist magnet. Paris, Berlin, Venice, Rome – the list can become infinite. Outside the cities though there is a splendid country side, huge mountain chains and endless sandy beaches that are all yours, if only you follow point number 6.

    Ridin' the hills

    The French countryside in Burgundy

  8. Stick to the old stuff. Its called “the old continent” for a reason, and you’ve come to see the old masters.
    First of all, the best of the old masters are in museum in North America and private collections in the Persian Gulf. Secondly, Europe did invent impressionism, Art Deco, Bauhaus, cubism, modernism and so on and on. Old stuff is cool. However, European art did not stop in 1800. Do dare to check out some of the less-old stuff, too.
  9. Ignore distances. Europe is the smallest continent, getting around is fast and easy.
    Europe is relatively small. Its still roughly the size of USA or Australia. But besides the size, most time traveling  is lost on waiting. Even getting from Amsterdam to Brussels, just 100 miles apart and 2 hours by train, will take half a day if you consider packing your stuff, checking in and out of hotels and transfers to and from the train stations. A longer distance easily eats a whole day of travel. See point number 1, too.
  10. Avoid hostels at all costs. These are bed-bug infested places, only poor people go there. A hostel is no place for a family.
    For sure, some hostels suck. But there are plenty of other hostels who are just what they say they are – a budget-minded, clean, basic alternative. Many are extremely family-friendly, and I’ve met people of all ages and groups of all compositions who had a great time staying in hostels. Don’t let silly movies put you off hostels.
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Greece – just another small European country in big trouble

[Disclaimer: This post contains no shocking news and concludes that there will be “more of the same”.]

I’ve been to Greece once, about 10 years ago. It was a short visit – all I had was a 7-hour layover in Athens, and I went to see the city rather than hang around in the airport. The brand new subway, built for the 2004 Summer Olympics took me to town, past huge stadiums built only a year or two before, especially for the Olympics. Abandoned and disused since, the stadiums were already overgrown with weeds. Once in Athens, I didn’t do much – walked around town, climbed a hill to a church and a ruin, lunched on bread and olives from a local supermarket and headed back. The Greek capital did not leave a good impression. I found it dirty, the roads were cratered, the buildings in terrible disrepair and I’ve never seen such shortage of attractive women. Add to that constant harassment by street venders trying to sell me illegal cigarettes and counterfeited perfumes, and you’ll understand why I was relieved to go back to the airport. Greece was painfully far adrift from the cradle of Western Civilization it once was supposed to be.

The entry of King Otto of Greece in Athens and his reception in front of the Thiseion temple, in 1833, a painting by Peter Von Hess (http://www.pinakothek.de/peter-von-hess)

As we all know, since my short visit (and totally unrelated to it) things have only been worse for Greece. Last weekend’s elections result has just thrown in an extra portion of uncertainty into the situation. Syriza, a militant alliance of radical left groups, has won on a populist promise to “end austerity”. The statements by Syriza leaders before and after the elections are, of course, rather contradictory (before: “[Syriza will demand to] write down on most of the nominal value of debt“; after: “We are not talking about writing off 50% of the nominal debt”). So what is going on there? And where will Greece (and the EU) go from here? The way I see it, there are 4 possible scenario’s:

  1. What Greece wants
    The debts are forgiven (“written off”) and Greece is free to recover. Highly unlikely. The Greek have shown no intention to mend their ways. The rest of the EU is not bent on a repeat of the situation, having to save Greece again in 5 or 10 years. “Pardoning” Greece’s debt is politically unacceptable in the loaning countries (like Germany and the Netherlands) and will be met by similar demands by other bailed out countries (Spain, Portugal, Ireland). Such demands are clearly impossible to meet. Not an option.
  2. What the (Northern) EU wants
    Greece paying its debts. Equally unlikely. By now it is clear that the Greek economy is simply unable to recover sufficiently to generate tax income that will allow the government to repay the current loans. The pace of reform has been virtually zero. Syriza promises a lot (an anti-corruption task force, “an end to both bureaucracy, corruption and tax immunity“) but these promises have been made by previous governments as well. There’s no sign or prospect of Greece’s economy becoming “Germanized”. And without drastic reforms, there’s simply no budget to pay back the loans. Won’t happen.
  3. A creative solution
    Thinking out of the box and breaking taboo’s. Grexit is one such option. Again, unlikely. Greece has no intention of leaving the Eurozone. Grexit will deprive it from the only leverage it has – “help us or we will bring you down with us”. In plain words, we call it blackmailing, but its politics, so “using the available assets” is considered a more proper term. The EU has no legal means to force Greece to leave the Euro. And the fall-out will be too big for Grexit to be a real option. Other creative solutions are possible, but politicians are not really good in recognizing and applying them. Even less probable than the previous two scenario’s.
  4. More of the same
    I recently learned that if weather forecast would simply state “tomorrow’s weather will be like today’s” it will be accurate in about 65% of the cases. The huge spending on meteorology improves the accuracy only marginally to 75% of the cases. My guess is that the same applies to economy. As a former boss of mine used to say: “The soup is being eaten cooler than it is served”. He meant that bold statements and stiff negotiations positions are usually watered down to match reality. In Greece’s case it will probably mean that:
    a) Syriza-led government will find it difficult to negotiate a significantly better deal
    b) The EU will have to write off some of the Greek debt (here a creative solution will be found – they will name it differently to avoid a scandal)
    c) Syriza’s populist promises of higher wages and pensions, expanding the number of government jobs and such are easy to make but impossible to fulfil.

So expect drama in front of the cameras but little dramatic results at the end. The pale reaction of the international stock exchange markets to the elections result is a clear indicator that not much is going to change. Is this good news? No. But its much less bad that it could be.

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The price of Europe

The Euro is in a free-fall vs the US dollar, sparking much debate about the macro-economical consequences. And of course about how cheap it is for (American) tourists to visit Europe. How expensive is Europe really? MoveHub, a website dedicated to “help you make an informed decision about wherever you want to move” has recently published a handy infographic showing the of costs of living around the world, compared to the cost of living in New York used as a 100% benchmark. Since I’m only concerned with Europe here, I took the liberty to crop that part out:

Relative cost of living in Europe (from www.MoveHub.com)

Relative cost of living in Europe (from http://www.MoveHub.com)

Compared to the cost of living in the US (based on the same infographic), there are several types of countries in Europe:

  1. Bloody expensive – Norway, Iceland, Denmark and Switzerland
  2. Quite expensive – UK, Ireland and Luxembourg
  3. Just expensive – Sweden, Finland, Netherlands, Belgium, France and Italy
  4. “Average” – Germany, Austria and Cyprus
  5. Slightly cheaper – Russia, Estonia, Slovenia, Spain and Greece
  6. Rather cheap – Latvia, Lithuania, Belarus, Portugal, Croatia, Slovakia and Azerbaijan
  7. Really cheap – Poland, Ukraine, Czech Republic, Hungary, Romania, Serbia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Montenegro, Albania, Bulgaria, Armenia and Turkey
  8. A total sell-out – Moldova, Macedonia and Georgia

It is immediately obvious that the general trend is for countries to be cheaper towards the South-East of Europe. But that’s nothing new. The interesting part is in what this map does not show. And its quite a lot.

First of all, the numbers come from Numbeo, which is a collaborative database. This means that the prices are provided by individuals and are not verified. But with hundreds of thousands of users providing millions of statistics, I’d say it is as reliable as it gets.

Secondly, a map of the local purchasing power index is much more useful if you’re going to live in a country. Prices are high in Switzerland, but so are the salaries.

Thirdly, even if you are a visitor, the prices you are interested in may not be the ones that are taken into account when making this inforgraphic. After all, why would you as a visitor care about the price of a Volkswagen Golf or of a membership of a fitness club?

Finally, the biggest disadvantage in this map is that it presents averages per country. And the differences may be quite significant. For example, Berlin is about 20% cheaper than Munich.

And now the good news. One of the biggest expenses for both a visitor and a resident is in having a place to stay. And that’s where the differences tend to be highest! It is a rough indicator still, but if you look at the price per square meter to buy an apartment in Munich and notice it to be twice as high as in Berlin, be prepared for significantly higher hotel prices.

All-in-all I can say that this map is a very good match to my personal experiences around Europe, and I would seriously recommend using it as a start in your budget planning, whether you intend to move to a European country or just visiting.

What would you say? Does this map match your experiences and/or expectations? How about maps of your continent? Share your thoughts!

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Can you travel Europe on 5 dollars a day?

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a series of articles about how to travel Europe on a budget. But never have I mentioned what I consider “budget”. Accidentally, a couple of days after finished the last article in the series, I’ve stumbled upon a post on the topic. It turns out there is this book, an old book, called Europe on 5 Dollars a Day. Its a guide book, the very first published by Frommer, back in 1957. Apparently, it is a very influential book, and people still try to follow the routes around Europe proposed by Frommer, getting all worked up about how expensive everything’s become (like a room at the Ritz in Paris).

So what’s the score – can you, indeed, still travel Europe on 5$ a day, and if you can’t – how much do you need? In the first part of this post, I’ll deal with the 5$ issue, and in the second part, give my personal, unbiased and statistically validated opinion on what is the budget that you’ll need to travel in Europe anno 2014.

Part 1 – can I travel Europe on 5$ a day?
Well, if you only hitchhike or walk, sleep on people’s couches, sneak into museums and steal food, you can. But that is an answer to the question “can I live as a bum in Europe?” not “can I travel Europe?”.

There are, in fact, 2 issues with the  “can I travel Europe on $5 a day?” question. Since its $5 from back in 1957, there is 1 – the inflation that has to be taken into account, and 2 – the exchange rates. Estimates of inflation vary, depending on the way of measuring it and what you are actually buying. The variation is rather extreme, as $5 in 1957 is worth between $31.50 to $171.00 today. If you’re interested in the details, you can check http://www.measuringworth.com/.

Comparing exchange rates over half a century is even more difficult, as many currencies have been devaluated, merged into the Euro or disappeared all together, sometimes with the issuing country, like the Czechoslovak Koruna. The Swiss Frank is a rare example of a European currency which has not been subject to all these perturbations. In 1957 you’d get 4 Swiss Franks for 1 dollar, and today you get just one. Comparing exchange rates with the Euro is more challenging. Taking the German Mark (DM) as an example, we’ll see that $1 would buy 4.2 DM in 1957 and today $1 buys 0.75 Euro (or 1.5 DM) – about 3 times less!

So taking the exchange rates into account, to get what you’d have for $5 in Europe in 1957, you’ll need $100 to $500 today! I don’t think that counts as “budget travelling” anymore. Another issue with attempting to travel the same routes as proposed by Frommer in 1957, is that most places mentioned in Europe on 5 Dollars a Day have been closed and the ones that survived became hugely popular with $-rolling American tourists thanks to that very book! This popularity has driven prices beyond general inflation rate and, in fact, beyond any reason. So, no, you can’t travel Europe on $5 a day. Well, perhaps if you only visit Moldova.

Part 2 – What is the minimal budget to travel Europe?
Not $5. That was made clear in Part 1. And in fact, since I live in the Eurozone, and most travellers in Europe spend at least part of their travels in Euro countries, I’ll stick to Euros if you don’t mind. The exchange rate you can find yourself at Oanda.

Back to the budget – can I travel Europe on 25 Euro a day? Yes, you can! It will take some effort – booking tickets in advance and avoiding expensive cities (Paris), countries (Switzerland) and regions (Scandinavia). Also, to stay within this tight budget you’ll probably have to do a lot of Couchsurfing and cook most of your own meals.

Spending an average of 50 Euros a day you’ll have a bit more comfort and choice. It will still require planning and self-control, but on 50 Euros a day you can buy yourself an ice-cream if you want to, go to a museum even outside the free hours and there is no reason why you’d have to avoid whole regions – just don’t buy alcohol anywhere in Scandinavia, as it will butcher your budget right away.

Conclusion – no, you can’t travel Europe on $5 a day. But you don’t need $500, either. Depending on your luxury standards and destinations, between $25 and $100 will probably do just fine.

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