“50 euro. Your grandfather and I have 50 euro for you. Please take it and buy yourselves beds”, my grandma said.
For about a year, my brother and I were living and studying in Germany. We rented an apartment and furnished it.
Well, kind of. We were sleeping on mattresses directly on the floor.
To save money.
After all, it was a temporary home. For only a couple of years. Why invest in something we’ll have to leave behind?
(And no, this money would not have been enough to buy two twin beds. But my grandparents’ pensions were 200 € (approximately $235) in total at the time. So 50 € was all they could spare by limiting the little they were spending monthly furthermore. )
How We Ended Up Sleeping On The Floor And Why
In 2003, my brother and I graduated our Bachelor degrees in our hometown Sofia, Bulgaria. But without work experience, we couldn’t find jobs, which would support us. Instead of working just anything for a ridiculous payment, we decided to continue our education abroad.
After a few classes of German and not really speaking the language, we were admitted to an international bilingual program at a university in North-Rhine Westphalia. In May 2004, we headed west.
Knowing how hard it was for our parents to support us, we would save money from just about anything.
- We would buy the cheapest groceries and learned how to cook, so we didn’t have to eat out. In the first few months, we lost about 10 kg (22 lbs) of weight. Each.
- We would not print out the materials for our courses but read them from the screen of a 17” CRT monitor until our eyes hurt and the text blurred.
- We didn‘t have internet at home. Instead, we walked over to the university to use the free Wi-Fi there.
- We would not go out and party but rather invite a few friends over or go out on a picnic.
- We even wouldn’t buy a table but construct one ourselves from bookshelves plates. You’ve guessed it – because it was cheaper!
Our monthly budget was 800 € (approximately $950). Including the university fees. And flights to go see our family during the holidays.
We took the money from our grandparents and thanked them. But didn’t buy beds.
What’s More Important Than Having A Bed
While growing up, we soaked up our grandfather’s stories about his travels with mouths wide open, wishing one day we‘d visit the places he had seen.
Back then – in the 1980s – travelling for Bulgarians was limited to socialist countries. Even visiting those destinations required a serious reason, not simply tourism…
Because of his scientific research, my grandfather was able to travel to places like Cuba, Novosibirsk, East Germany, Mongolia, and Antarctica.
Yes, that’s right! He was in Antarctica before it was cool. For the record, the journey alone took over 3 months.
He worked on the ice continent for 18 months in the late 1960s and is the first and only Bulgarian to spend a polar winter in Antarctica.
After the change of the regime, in post-communist Bulgaria, my parents were struggling to put food on the table. The stores were empty, the inflation was eating up their salaries, and the only way to survive was to self-cater. My other grandparents grew vegetables and farmed pigs, goats, and hens.
Despite all the difficulties, there were exactly two priorities in my family: health and education. And because travel is the best education, we would head on road trips around Bulgaria with my mother in the front seat reading information about the places we passed through from her books.
Growing up having close to nothing, makes you define your priorities better. It also makes you realise what are the most important things in life.
For example, I always prefered experiences over material possessions and travel over modern furniture, fashion clothes, or latest gadgets.
From a very young age, we were infected with the travel bug, for which – thank god – there is no cure!
How To Make Your Travel Dreams A Reality
Now you’re asking yourselves, how did two mid-20s students without permanent jobs, trying to spend as little as possible on their day-to-day needs, travel to some of the most expensive places on Earth?
Here’s our secret which I’m going to share with you:
The best part about being a student in Germany is having a free public transport ticket for the whole semester! Combined with various discounts which students recieve, we were able to take some incredible trips:
- We would visit the nearest big cities Cologne and Dusseldorf, several times a month and explore the whole area until there was no stone unturned. This included medieval castles, river promenades, history and natural science museums, etc.
- When friends and family came to visit, we would buy group tickets and travel to three cities in a day to use the ticket to its maximum validity. (These tickets expire at 2:00 AM the following day. )
- We would book train tickets 3 months in advance to take advantage of all possible early bird discounts.
- We would go on students’ trips. This included travelling the whole night to arrive early in the morning in e.g. Paris, wandering the streets till the middle of the following night, then hopping on the bus and spending a second night in a row on the road. Just to save from accommodation.
- We would walk the whole day when exploring a city until our feet would refuse to take us any further to even save on public transportation in cities where our student passes weren’t valid.
- We would pack our homemade sandwiches to reduce our expenses while roaming the European capitals or the North Sea coast.
- We even enjoyed the FIFA World Cup 2006 euphoria! Well, not in the stadiums but in the free viewing areas in the biggest German cities, like Dortmund.
The student ID was our best getaway instrument.
But there are hundreds of other ways you can make the system work to your advantage.
You Can’t Put A Price Tag On Your Dreams
It has been over 10 years now since our first trip to Paris.
But why is Paris so special that I keep mentioning it?
Because the tour happened just a few days before our grandfather passed away. The person whose stories infected us with the travel bug for good.
The last time we spoke on the phone, we told him about our recent adventures in the French capital.
He was confined to a hospital bed. Yet he was happy.
He knew he lit a fire in us and we succeeded. Not yet as professionals but at following our dreams. All while receiving the best possible education: not at the university but through travel.
So here’s a thought for you:
If two twenty-something Bulgarian kids can live in Germany and visit Western Europe’s capital cities on an 800€ monthly budget, what magnificent places can you explore with your full-time salary?
Stop whining that travelling is expensive.
Stop complaining you are not making enough money to follow your dreams.
Stop making excuses and start packing your bags!
If you really want to achieve your travel goals, you will find a way. There is always a way.
Even if you are a kid with just 400€/month to spend on all your expenses.
Go out there and make a plan. Then, follow it through.
- Find destinations within your budget.
- Learn from others’ inspirational success travel stories.
- And most importantly, set your priorities straight!
Travelling isn’t a question of money but of mindset. Change your mindset and you’ll achieve your travel dreams.
If we could beat the system, escape our everyday restrains, and travel to some of the most expensive places on Earth, imagine what you could do if you set your mind to it!
So, tell me, will you continue looking for excuses not to travel, or will you finally stop putting a price tag on your dreams and freakin’ realise them?
What is your next amazing travel destination going to be?