Monday, June 08, 2009

Hvala Croatia!: How to take a 10-day Euro vacation for $1000 or less

In the past year, I've been to Nova Scotia (twice), Alberta, Mexico and the Dominican Republic. So when I told my friends that I was headed across the pond, nobody even batted an eye--except to ask how I could afford another trip on my non-profit employee salary. Simple answer folks: tax return. (Or, the more complicated response: I work three jobs, buy vintage clothes, refuse to turn on my heat and haven't gotten a haircut in over a year.)

Here's how you can make a 10-day trip to Europe, all for the cost of one tax return.

Research your flights options. (Read: Expedia is not the best answer.)
Jay and I based our latest vacation destination nearly sheerly upon the flights deals I found. While round-trip flights to Croatia from Toronto on Expedia came out to nearly $1400, we realized we could fly in to London for about half that cost. (In fact, the cost of our flight to London was less than what it will cost me to fly home later this summer.) And while round-trip flights from London via Easyjet to Croatia were an easy $400, we discovered that the best combination flight for us would be to fly into Pula and fly out of Zadar on Ryanair. Not only did booking seperate flights save us money, it also saved us time on backtracking. Don't be afraid to mix and match your budget airlines, though.

Bottom line? Don't plan a trip and then buy the tickets--instead build your itineraries around flights. You'll end up places you never anticipated.

Travel in the Shoulder Season: The above picture was taken in the epicentre of Pula's tourist area, while enjoying late evening gelato on the steps. The weather was beautiful--at least +30 degrees. So what's missing from this picture? That's right--the hoards of tourists. Shoulder season travelling not only allows for a better experience (and shorter lineups), but it also means lower prices. The best shoulder seasons to travel in Croatia are late May/early June and September.

Best Budget Accommodation: Hostelling isn't huge in Croatia, but if you're ever in Pula, check out the Most Hostel. Gordana, the owner, is insanely helpful and nice. (She even made me soup when I was sick.) It's in a great location and reasonably comfortable, for only about $20 a night.

And when all else fails (or maybe even before all else fails), don't forget about your personal networks. In total, Jay and I only spent $75 each on accommodation for our entire trip. How'd we do it? We stayed in London with Helka (picture above). And in Croatia, one of Jay's co-worker's aunts owns an apartment on Krk Island, which is where we spent three nights. The second was a pretty tenuous connection, but it was only a matter of asking. If you travel in the shoulder season, though, apartment rentals (which can include a small kitchen and an ensuite bathroom) should only set you back about $50/night.

Bored? Poor? Take a Day Trip: Since our room was free, we decided to stay for an extra night in Krk. But by this point, we were bored of wandering up and down the same cobbled alleyways, drinking coffee, taking afternoon naps, eating gelato and smoking cigarettes (rough life, I know). So for the cost of roughly $8 round-trip each, we took a daytrip to Baska, in southern Krk. (Tons of pictures included below, because I thought it was pretty.)

The locals probably don't eat out every night: I think my favourite meal of the entire trip was sitting with Jay, feet in the water, eating a picnic lunch. A huge bottle of beer shared between us (only $1 at the grocery store!), cheese, crackers and cherries that had been picked from our apartment's garden. Other delicious treats? Gelato bought daily from street vendors for about $1, pastries from the bakery, and daily cappucinos for about $2. An entire pizza will only set you back about $8, so you could probably share, but it'll be so good that you won't want to.

Budget Traveller Beware: The only downfall of being a backpacker in Croatia is that the tourism industry caters mainly to Germans thirsting for some sun, motorcyle gangs (seriously) and campers. While the bus system was easy to use, inexpensive (the most expensive bus ride we took was about $12) it is designed for locals, not for travellers. (In fact, we were the only non-locals on nearly every bus we took.)

Case in point: On our last day in Croatia, we were still on Rab Island, but had to get to Zadar for our 7 p.m. flight back to London. There were only two options to get off the island--a 5 a.m. ferry that would connect with a 11 a.m. bus to Zadar , or a 1 p.m. ferry that would connect with a 2 p.m. bus to Zadar. Not wanting to risk it, we opted to get up and catch the 5 a.m. ferry.

"It'll be fine," said Jay. "We'll have no problem killing five hours. We'll get a coffee, poke around some shops. It'll be good."

Around 6 a.m. though, the bus (that took us on the ferry) was seemingly in the middle of nowhere and we knew our stop had to be coming up soon. "Wouldn't it be funny if the bus driver let us off here?" Jay said. No sooner were the words out of his mouth than the bus stopped, and the driver gave us the universal "get off thumbs" in the rear-view mirror.

This is where we would spend the next five hours. I consulted the guidebook. Sure enough, there were no towns--no wait, scratch that--no villages, for a 20 km radius.

The budget traveller should always come prepared with activities--there could be waiting involved. (We played 20 questions.)

Overall, Croatia wasn't a budget destination. But in comparison with the cost of other European countries and the value of the Canadian dollar, it was definitely affordable and didn't break the bank.

And the best part? It didn't even cost my entire tax return. I was able to do all this AND make a payment on the my students loans.

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