While I was writing my Au Pair 101 post, I was thinking about how, as an au pair, you have to make do with the funds you have to do the travelling you want. Since I’ve managed to do a bit of travelling while on an au pair budget (which has fluctuated based on family), I figured I’d share how I managed what I did and hopefully that will help someone out there! I’ve found that a lot of Europeans already know most of what I’ve written below, since it is so easy to travel on the cheap here. However, for at least North Americans and possibly others who aren’t used to travel here, this should be very helpful. I wasn’t aware of most of this before I arrived, because it’s just not available in Canada and was definitely a bit of a learning curve. Once you get into it, however, it’s definitely very easy and becomes second nature. Note that this is a general summary of what I’ve done, so as to be as useful as possible to people who might want to be travelling in various countries. I do have more specific information for both France and Spain, but all of this is definitely useable across the board, no matter where you end up staying.
Close to home:
My first suggestion would be: Don’t get too excited. Check out the country you’re currently in. In France, Chartres was a 20 minute train ride from Paris. Plateau d’Assy was about two and a half hours from Lyon, which is close to Saint-Étienne. It was also close to Chamonix and Annecy, both of which I enjoyed visiting and weren’t far away. Here in Spain, Madrid is close to Toledo and Segovia, once you’ve gotten used to the city itself. It’s also only a three hour car ride from Valencia. Travel within a country is fairly cheap and is good for a weekend away.
- BlaBlaCar – I’ve talked about this service before and recommend it again. It’s easy to use, you can find rides on almost any day you want/need at fairly convenient times, plus you shouldn’t have to pay more than 40€ for a seven-plus hour trip.
- Train – If you’re planning on staying in a country long term and travelling quite a bit, get a student/youth pass. I didn’t buy one in Spain, but my one in France was 50€ and so worth the price. You can get some sweet discounts (think 25% – 50% off) for a full year. Even without the pass, if you do some digging, train tickets can be quite cheap. When we went to Valencia, we found tickets for 22€, though the train left at 6 a.m. and took six hours. That did kind of suck, but we slept on the train and arrived just before lunch, which was alright with us. Another option is to find three other people to travel with and buy a table for four, which, in Spain can cut the price down considerably. Either travel with friends or search online to see if anyone would be willing to travel and save money with you.
- Bus – This is another option, though I’d go through a group with this one, which then gets you accommodation and organization at the same time. Around here, BeMadrid is what a lot of people use and people have absolutely loved. They’re reasonably priced and let you travel around Spain with a fairly small budget. To get from Madrid to Fuengirola, I used Daibus and paid 26€ for my ticket, which was definitely cheaper than the 76€ tickets I was being shown for the train.
* Something to keep in mind: while in France, it was much cheaper to travel North – South than East – West. This was partly because I was heading towards smaller towns way on each side of the country, but also because a lot of the population lives North – South and it’s more travelled. It also tends to take less time. Whether or not this is true in other countries as well, I’m not sure, but something to keep in mind.
Let’s fly, let’s fly away:
If you’re ready for somewhere new and exciting, then plane is probably your best bet. While Canada is fairly lacking in inexpensive ways to travel the country via air (or, by train, for that matter), Europe is well known for the ease with which people can travel. Which is great for young, broke people!
- Kayak – is one of the sites I use if/when I’m booking plane tickets. It’ll go through all available airlines and give you various prices/times and you can choose in which order the offers appear.
- SkyScanner – is the other site I use. Sometimes what I’ll do is look through them at the same time to see if there’s a ticket that the other missed.
- EasyJet – Or you can go directly to one of the cheapest companies. The thing to remember, however is: read. the. rules. Oh my goodness read the rules people. I’ll hear complaints about how people didn’t know or got caught with an extra fee or something else and yes, it sucks, but if you take the 10-15 minutes to read the rules the first time, you’re set.
- RyanAir – Is the other cheap flying company that us young, broke people use. Again: read. the. rules. It really doesn’t take any time and will save you so much hassle.
** Regarding hand luggage for both EasyJet and RyanAir, I haven’t had an issue with size or weight and I’m pretty sure the weight in my bag was over with both. Of course, you should still be careful, but there is always, obviously some leeway. A lot of the time, things like that (size, weight, what constitutes as ‘more than one bag’, etc.) will come down to who’s working that day.
The scenic route:
Sometimes, train, plane and car only take you so far and you need to get just a little bit further. I have mentioned bus above, but they deserve a second mention. I’ve used the bus three times in Europe, going from Lyon – Prague, Lyon – London and London – San Sebastian. All of them were long trips and there was that one time the bus to Prague just stopped in the middle of nowhere and let this old woman off and I started panicking, but besides that, I haven’t had an issue with the bus. (Well, we did miss the ferry on our way to London and I had to get ahold of my friend to let her know we’d be like three hours late and that was also a slightly panic inducing moment BUT OTHER THAN THAT. Everything’s been fine.) The great thing about the bus is that you don’t have to pay extra for luggage weight. Which is, for me, the deal maker. Especially this summer when I was lugging around all my stuff from France to England and from England to Spain. Paying for that weight was just stupid expensive and not worth it. To the surprise of basically everyone I know, I really enjoy taking the bus. It reminds me of home and that time my mom couldn’t pick me up when I flew home during Christmas my first year at Loyalist and had to bus from Saskatoon to some gas station in the middle of nowhere and the guy who worked there kept asking if I was sure someone was going to come pick me up. It also reminds me of visiting my grandma over the summer and that cross feel of excitement and fear. Ah, the bus.
- Eurolines – is what I used for all three previously mentioned trips. I’ve pretty much never had an issue, I’ve always arrived (more or less) on time, I’m still alive and the rates are fairly reasonable.
- Busabout – I considered using this for a hot minute but this is more adventure and explore vs. trying to get somewhere specific, it’s not as cut and dry as a regular bus, but would still be something to consider!
Whether you’re going away for the weekend or a week or even longer, once you reach your destination, you’re going to need a place to lay your head. If you’re the adventurous type and don’t mind catching some z’s at a local McDonald’s or making a bed out of your blanket and a sweater on the beach, skipping this part is totally fine and kudos to you! If, however, you like having, you know, a bed, of some sort, with a pillow, maybe a blanket, here are some places to start looking:
- HostelBookers / HostelWorld – I’ve used both sites over the last two years to book hostels and can’t recommend them enough. The idea behind both is simple enough: select what you’re looking for (hostel, hotel, apartment, etc), how many nights you’d like to stay and the maximum you’d like to pay and presto! For a lot of hostels, you really shouldn’t be paying over 20€/night. When I went to Barcelona, I paid 9€/night for a bed in a six person room. One of the girls I met had paid 25€/night for the exact same thing! Don’t book the first thing you see, adjust your prices, see how low you can go. The highest I’ve paid was 15€/night and that was at a quite nice hostel in Paris.
- Airbnb – When Vimbai and I were in Stockholm, she and I found a charming place to stay through this site. The prices generally aren’t something I’d pay for just myself, but, if you’re a group of two or three, they can definitely be a bargain for having your own kitchen, bathroom, balcony, etc.
- Couchsurfing – While I haven’t used the site personally, I’ve been itching to and have had friends that have used it over and over again and swear by it. There are some basic rules to use, such as: make sure the profile is filled out/verified, check to see what their reviews are, make sure they have a picture, etc. It is a great way to meet people wherever you’re staying and see a different side of the area.
- Use your contacts – This might only go so far, but see what you can do. Check out what relatives either of your parents might have, hit up family members to see what other relatives they might have, see if friends have anyone willing to let you stay with them a night or two. I got to stay in London with Vimbai for two weeks, my Grandpa’s cousin in Malmö for 6/8 nights and through distant relatives in France, I had a place to stay for two weeks in Saint-Cado. You never know what’s available if you don’t ask. The great thing is: a lot of people would love to have someone come visit them. I still have an invitation waiting for me in the south of France I just haven’t had time/money to use and my cousin in Sweden had been inviting family for almost 10 years before I finally made it over there. A lot of the time, you staying is something they would look forward to as much as you would.
*** If you’re really smart, try and line it up so you’re spending the night on your mode of transport and arriving at your destination around mid-morning. That will benefit you in a couple of ways: accommodation while travelling, being able to check in more or less when you arrive and having most of a full day ahead of you to be wherever you’re going to be. Do the same thing with leaving so that you get maximum time at your location. Bonus: travelling at odd hours tends to have some of the best prices, so you can save extra that way, too!
A person’s got to eat, amIrite? A lot of hostels offer breakfast in the morning with the price of your room. What this looks like will vary from hostel to hostel, but even if it’s just a basket of bread with some butter and jam, it’s better than nothing and will at least cut down on what you’ll be paying for in the morning. If you’re staying long term (more than three days), I’d suggest buying some sandwich stuff and snack food and take that out with you. It’ll definitely, definitely bring down your food expenses and you can find all sorts of parks and benches where you can have lunch. As well, dinner ‘in’ while you’re on vacation tends to be less expensive than eating out. Most hostels will have something to cook your meals with and even just having a microwave oven is better than nothing. Also make sure you have a reusable water bottle (I never leave home without mine!), as it’ll cut down on the amount of bottled water you’ll be buying. The water in most places is fine to drink right out of the tap and you’ll also be cutting down your plastic footprint to boot.
Being a tourist:
Once you’ve figured out all the nit-picky stuff, you now get to enjoy the place you’re visiting. Thing is, some things cost money and it’ll be up to you to figure out a.) what your budget can hold and b.) what you actually want to see. I’m pretty easy in that regard. For the most part, if I have to pay to go in, I don’t go in. One of the few places I’ve paid to tour is the Santiago Bernabéu and even then I got a discount because my friend is a socio and gets discounts. So no, I haven’t seen inside some of the world’s most famous monuments, but that was money I spent on staying longer or going out for food with friends. I spent that money differently.
A lot of people won’t share the sentiment. They don’t feel they’ve experienced a place unless they’ve been inside and seen and taken photos and that is completely fine. Everyone has their own ideas as what constitutes a ‘completed and successful trip’ for themselves. Here, my advice is: you do you. Do what feels right and comfortable (and affordable!) to you. If a trip to Paris isn’t complete in your books without getting to the top of the Eiffel Tower, you get up there. If you’re fine with missing out on the inside of the Sagrada Familia (as I was), then skip it! Your trips are for you to enjoy as you see fit and so don’t feel pressured to go and pay if you don’t want to and don’t apologize if you’re fine with waiting in line and paying for something.
I hope you find something useful in this post. Travelling while being an au pair, using (for the most part) just the money you make isn’t always easy. It requires saving and some planning, but is definitely, definitely manageable. A lot of it is common sense and being willing to do some digging to find good deals and prices. Sites such as Lonely Planet, Yelp, TripAdvisor, The Guardian and The New York Times are all places I’ve gone to find information on the various places I’ve travelled to. Even typing something like, “Hidden restaurants in Madrid,” into Google will bring up various results. More than anything else, your trips and travels should be about getting to see what you’d like to see and having a good time, no matter what that looks like.