An Ode to McDonald’s

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I’d like to take a moment to acknowledge the real MVP of my travels: McDonald’s. No, not because I like fast food or get excited about nuggets and a red-footed, red-haired clown. Let me take a second to explain.

When I arrived in Berlin on a chilly, windy, wet April morning, I was running on less than three hours of sleep, a few granola bars and 8 oz. of water. I was not the best version of myself. I was parched, exhausted, jet-lagged, irritable, and not ready to face the day, let alone take on a new country with a language I don’t speak a lick of. Of course, I was excited to have touched down in Europe, the land I love more than my own, but that excitement was diluted by my physical stupor.

After stumbling through the airport and finding my way to the train stop, then navigating to the station closest to my hostel, I took my first steps in East Berlin. First impression: not great. It was dreary and grey; the people who shuffled up and down the sidewalks were dressed in varying shades of black, grey and navy. Heavy boots clapped on the ground and chains clinked on pedestrians’ jeans. Graffiti stretched as far as the eye could see on buildings, walls, fences, sidewalks, construction zones…everywhere.

I was dressed in a preppy tan coat and riding boots, with red lipstick on and my hair in a tight bun on the top of my head. I didn’t quite fit in. I got a few sideways glances and I lugged my suitcase off the platform and made my way to the street corner to look for signs. Since I didn’t have WiFi, I had screenshotted the directions from the station to the hostel before I had let the airport and I figured that would suffice to get me there. Wrong, wrong, wrong.

I first walked about 10 minutes in the wrong direction. I realized it and walked back to the station, and then went 10 minutes in the other direction. Then, realized the first direction was the correct way and I had just read a sign incorrectly. So 30 minutes later, I was on my way. I was so delirious and growing more frustrated by the minute that even when a man saw me frantically scrutinizing my map and asked if I needed help, I said no thank you because I didn’t feel like talking to humans. Yeah, that bad.

Finally, I made my way to the hostel. Of course I arrived before I could check in and could only drop off my bags. I wanted nothing more than a meal and a coffee and gallon of water to drink and a shower and a nap and a comfy bed – was that really too much to ask for? Apparently yes, it was. So I used the hostel bathroom, freshened up with some tap water from the sink, stored my luggage in the safe room, and took off on a quest for food.

Usually, when I travel, I have no issue eating alone. I’ll find a cute café with outdoor seating and will order a glass of wine to ease my nerves, and then dig into my meal. But on that morning, I was not so optimistic. I was simply hungry and tired. I passed by a few hole-in-the-wall kebob places but to me they looked questionable and definitely didn’t have warm-fuzzy vibes to them (though of course I saw everything though my lens of irritability and probably didn’t give them the chance I should have). So I didn’t stop.

I continued to walk, passing a few more uninviting-looking eateries and eventually ended up in an industrial area that was even more intimidating than the goth/punk rock area wherein I had begun my journey. Every sign and poster was in German and I didn’t know what I was looking at. I passed by more questionable characters on the streets and got more glances and I was just so uncomfortable I wanted to cry. I was so done.

But then off in the distance, I saw the golden arches. I can’t remember the last time I have eaten McDonald’s in the U.S.  Like every other person born in the early 90s, I definitely had my share growing up, but eventually stopped eating there post “Super-size Me” movie, as the world grew more aware of the health effects of eating fast food.  

But when traveling, it’s a different story. It’s not about the food at that point. It’s about taking a break from risk-taking and going somewhere where you know what to expect and you can read everything on the menu. It’s a little home away from home, a refuge when you’re feeling how I was in that moment.

So I made my way to McDonald’s, ordered my food, and for the first time in 24 hours, felt at ease. I plugged my phone in to charge in the outlet by my table. I logged into the free WiFi and looked up where I was. I stayed there for nearly an hour, browsing the web and planning my next few days in Berlin.   

I thought about how many times I have resorted to McDonald’s when traveling alone. I did it in Sydney, Australia, when I was fed up from getting lost in the city all day and just needed a place to go and recharge. I did it in Casablanca, Morocco, when I felt so uncomfortable trying to eat anywhere else because women typically don’t go out by themselves, let alone eat at a restaurant, and I had gotten lots of uncomfortable looks from hopeful men at every other restaurant I tried to enter. I did it in Buenos Aires, Argentina, when the power went out at my yucky hostel and I just needed to go somewhere with light and power to charge my phone and get a coffee.

It’s interesting how a place that doesn’t enter my brain space at home becomes my sanctuary while abroad. But then again, I don’t need a sanctuary when I’m at home because everything is already familiar. It’s like going to a party by yourself, finding the only person you know (a kid you knew briefly from high school), and clinging to that person the rest of the night just to survive the party. It’s really all just survival, isn’t it?

McDonald’s Corporation has undeniable flaws, but it has done a great job keeping its interiors and its in-store experiences consistent while assimilating to the demands of international consumers. And while I sat there in Berlin, drinking my signature diet coke and dipping over-fried French fries into sugar-infused ketchup, I couldn’t have been more appreciative for the fast food chain. I left feeling content and ready to take on the rest of the day.

This is my Ode to McDonald’s.

One week in Germany and Austria for less than $1,300 (including flights)

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Image via Wikimedia Commons

Germany — the land of the castles and the home of the beer. That sums it up right?

Almost. While my knowledge of Germany is wanting until I can get my butt there and discover it firsthand, I have at least enough know-how to find a way to get there for cheap.

Now the following outlines my budget for an upcoming trip. Meaning there’s a chance a wild boar might escape from the Berlin Zoo and pummel me on my way to the train station, causing me to miss my transport to Münich and have to find a new train the next day and pay for another night in a hostel — costing an extra $200 or something plus hospital bills for the boar attack. That would completely discredit my claim in this post.

But that probably won’t be the case. Especially because the Berlin Zoo doesn’t have wild boars.

So, given that all goes accordingly, here here’s how my boyfriend and I are doing a week in Germany (and a day in Austria) for less than $1,300 each:

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WOW Air connects US to Europe by way of Iceland – image via wowair.us.com

Flights: $531.00

I prepared for the worst when I first searched LAX to SXL on Skyscanner and watched the results start to roll in. I thought that the move from East Coast to West Coast (3,000 miles in the opposite direction from Europe) would mean nearly double the cost for a flight to Germany. The first result was $1,200 (okay, what I was expecting), then I saw $830, then $600. My heart fluttered. $600 – I can afford that!

But the wheel kept spinning and more results loaded. $580, $530, $500. I felt like I was watching my tickets fly out of the dispenser at an arcade. The wheel stopped spinning and the final result beamed at the top. LAX to SXL for $420.

Whut.

So I had heard of WOW Air before. But in the time that the airline had evolved into a major player in the budget travel community, I hadn’t searched flights in regions the airline serviced.

In my last semester of college I completed a mock PR plan to revamp Spirit Airlines’ reputation, and I consequently learned all the rules and facets involved with their bare-bones business model. WOW Air draws many similarities to Spirit in that its prices include the bare minimum fare to get from point A to point B — meaning you’re SOL of you seek such luxuries as in-flight entertainment, leg room and food. But if you’re prepared with a preloaded iPad and 8-hours worth of protein bars and Goldfish, you’re peachy and you get a cheap flight.

WOW Air offered a smattering of flights from the U.S. to Germany for around $400 each, and on the day I am flying, $420. So why does the header of this section say $531? Because they charge $50 for carry-on luggage each way — and then extra taxes. So tack on $100 to the tab, but even that $531 ticket was cheaper than the next cheapest option. I of course have my hesitations about doing such a long journey without common airline inclusions; but I’ve had it too good for too long and it’ll make me feel young again to be cramped up in an uncomfortable seat with a bag of homemade granola and a juice box.

The nifty part about this airline is that every U.S.-to-Europe flight includes a stopover in Iceland as a way to entice tourists to explore (and spend money) in the country. We’ll have 16 hours to explore Reykjavik before our 3-hour connecting flight to Berlin.

Post-trip, I’ll share a review of my experience with WOW and determine if it was really worth it. It will either be my new favorite way to travel to Europe or my favorite horror story to share at dinner parties.

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What our double room should look like at Grand Hostel Berlin – image via hostelworld.com
Accommodation: $221.50

This is where we splurged a little. We kept costs low by booking only hostels, of course, with help from my favorite hostel booking site HostelWorld. We could have stayed in hostels for as cheap as €15 per night. But for the first time, I didn’t sort by price “low –> high.”

I chose each of the hostels based on a rigid criteria of rating, reviews, location and amenities. This will be my boyfriend’s first experience in a hostel and I didn’t want to overwhelm him with the crowded summer camp cabin ambience of some of the hostels I’ve stayed in before. So I booked us private rooms in top-rated hostels and saved money by choosing hostels that:

  • are located within walking distance to most tourist hubs so we will save money on transportation
  • have breakfast included or available for less than €4
  • have proprietary bars/restaurants because it’s almost always cheaper to drink at the hostel bar first before going out
  • offer social activities or – at minimum – free walking tours
Here’s the list:
Berlin  – 2 nights

Grand Hostel Berlin (Private room: $30/person/night)

Munich – 3 nights

Euro Youth Hostel (Private room: $33/person/night)

Salzburg – 1 night

YOHO International Youth Hostel (Private room: $38.50/person/night)

Back to Berlin – 1 night

SleepCheapHostel (Private room: $24/person/night)

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We’re taking the Deutsch Bahn from Berlin to Munich – image via railwaypro.com

Inter-city transport: $96.00

Through my research (aka gleefully reading through travel blogs), I’ve found mixed opinions on whether or not to pre-book trains. I’ve traveled both ways before, and there are always ups and downs – like the risk of missing your pre-booked train and not getting a refund, or, on the other hand, arriving to the station without a ticket just to find all the trains are booked or cost twice as much as they did online. I’ve chosen to pre-book for this trip because, from my understanding, inter-city trains can get pretty pricey in Germany and you can save if you book in advance. I used GoEuro.com to book as it seemed like the prices  on that site were the most reasonable, but if there is anyone reading this who know of a better rail-booking site accessible from the U.S. let me know!

I compromised departure time for price here, going for the cheapest tickets I could find (at odd times) that were at least late enough in the morning that I knew we wouldn’t snooze through them.

Here’s the breakdown:

Berlin-Munich: $26/per person
Munich-Salzburg: $40/per person
Salzburg-Munich: $30/per person

Per Diem (total): $450.00

This is the area that could push us over the $1,300 mark but I’m confident we can survive on this amount.

For 10 days, I’m allocating $45/day to cover food, souvenirs and entertainment. (Luckily the USD to Euro conversion rate is happily in our favor now so the following prices estimates are in USD but should roughly be the same in euros.) If we stick to free or cheap hostel breakfast, we’ll clock in around $4/day maximum for breakfast $10 lunch, and $16 for dinner and cheap beer. That leaves $15/day for things like museums and “free” walking tours. Our itinerary is filled with free things to do in all three cities so hopefully we won’t even spend the entertainment ration. On days when we don’t spend the full amount the rest will go toward souvenirs (or more beer).

Annnnnnnnd there you have it folks!

 
$531.00
$221.50
$  96.00
+     $450.00
= $1,298.50

Post-trip, I’ll do an analysis of how closely we stuck to our budget. Fingers crossed the boars stay at bay and we can proceed as outlined.

People say they can’t travel because it’s too expensive or they just don’t have the money right now. I get that, and I’ve been there. But I don’t think many realize just how cheap travel can be if you 1.) do your research and 2.) are willing to sacrifice a few luxuries for the trip of a lifetime. No, my travel style isn’t spending a week at a resort and spa on the beach. Yeah, that could get pricey. My style is being immersed in a new culture, discovering unfamiliar foods and traditions and languages, and meeting people who have a completely different perspective on life — and that doesn’t have to cost a life’s savings.

Top 15 Destinations on My Travel Bucket List

From Rio to Zurich, I am drawn toward cities with beautiful, colorful architecture and waterfront cityscapes. The following are 15 places on my before-I-turn-30 bucket list, apart from the ones I get to check off my list this summer — Rome, Paris, Barcelona, London and Montecarlo.

1. Prague, Czech Republic

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2. Berlin, Germany

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3. Amsterdam, Holland

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4. Venice, Italy

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5. Dubai,  United Arab Emirates

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6. Stockholm, Sweden

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7. Zurich, Switzerland

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8. Cape Town, South Africa

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9. Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

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10. Tokyo, Japan

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11.  Positano, Amalfi Coast, Italy

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12. Edinburgh, Scotland

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13. Dublin, Ireland

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14.  Jungfraujoch, Swiss Alps, Switzerland

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15. Istanbul, Turkey

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