6 Traveling Tips We Learned in Austria

This is the “wandering” part of Wandering Theatre’s journey, where we put all our puppets in storage for a little while to shoulder our backpacks, and do some hiking and exploring. First up: Austria.

We are still finding our feet in this, really. Blundering through, trying to make use of the (many) online resources for travelers while only using our phones wherever we can find free WiFi. (Phone plans are an interesting conundrum for us, which I’ll get to in a bit.) In some ways, it’s a lot like building our show was: we are excited to meet the challenge, but often feel a bit out of our depth: making it up as we go, heeding advice from friends and, in this case, helpful strangers, and generally getting schooled.

As budget travelers—because self-made puppeteers by trade aren’t exactly rolling in the dough—we’ve been digging for creative solutions so that we can stretch our funds for the next three months, make it to our festivals, and rack up lots of experience points, new friends, and beautiful sights along the way.

I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t stressful (especially for me, a worrier by nature, though this is the perfect opportunity for me to learn to better manage that). Not only is it worth it, but every little accomplishment is that much more rewarding for the extra effort it takes. We figured out how to bus or train or walk from A to B, or how to say “Thank you” and “good morning” and “My German is bad”, and even though every interaction, every potential “problem”, takes twice the energy, we feel that much prouder that we are managing it. That’s probably my first big lesson.

1. Trust Yourself

This is a lesson that I’ve always struggled with, even in the comfort of my own home. I’ve always strived to be independent (my parents have some exhausting-sounding stories of toddler Leah insisting on zipping up her own jacket. I wouldn’t let anyone help, despite the extra half hour it added before we could get out the door). I like to think of myself as determined, stubborn, self-reliant.

But as I’ve grown older, my tendency to second-guess myself has often won out. If others sound certain that they know better than I do, I often believe them. Sometimes this has been a virtue, because I’ve been able to learn from them, but all too often I’ve known I was right, and failed to stand up for myself. I worry that my instincts or my memory are faulty. I’ve stopped trying quite as hard to do a task myself if I don’t already know how to do it.

With this sort of travel, though, there’s much less room to just sit back and do nothing simply because you aren’t sure how. You read the instructions for your camping stove, you take the risk of filling the fuel at a gas station, you set it up and you cook yourself dinner. You find your way from this train to that bus to this walking path, you look at maps, you suck it up and ask for directions (and you act it out if you have to, like charades). You assess whether the impending storm is coming your way, and you decide to continue your hike up the mountain and get to the peak. You don’t just sit back and wait for somebody else to make the decision, to solve the problem, to do the thing. You do the thing.

We’ve learned that we CAN rely on ourselves and on each other. That we’ll figure it out. That we are capable. As they say: improvise, adapt, overcome.

There have already been times that I felt certain I couldn’t do something. That I’d fail, or do something stupid that would have dire consequences: get us stranded somewhere, or blow up our tent and half our campsite with our stove, or the like. We were hiking up a mountain in Zell am See, Austria, and after nearly 3 hours, the incline was steep and breathing was hard and our muscles were aching, and to top it off it looked like a storm was coming. But the wind was blowing toward the valley, away from us. The thunder was distant. We didn’t want to be foolhardy, but it seemed important to prove to ourselves that we could do it: we could make it to the top.

So we pushed on. The wind was strong, but it blew the storm away from us. 312 stories up (according to Aaron’s step-counter app), we made it to the top of the peak. The view, of course, was beautiful. But the best part for me was that I proved something to myself. There had been so many times I wanted to turn back, but I’d pushed onward. Instead of worrying “what if we can’t do it,” we pulled out some Little Engine that Could wisdom, and adopted the mantra “I think I can,” and then, “I know I can.” And truly, that mindset is the reason that we made it.

2. Ask Questions

Relying on ourselves has been hugely important. But equally as important has been talking to people, asking for what we need.

It’s incredible how every person in Austria has been kind and willing to help, whether or not they speak English. We’re lucky, of course, that so many people do speak our language, but not everyone does. And you can’t let that stop you from trying to communicate.

Learning even just a little bit of German has gone a LONG way. Even if you’re terrible at it, the effort counts. We got a little pocket translation book from a bookstore, but before we found that, we googled “important phrases translated” and took screenshots of the results, and it was hugely useful. Things like greetings, and “thank you”, and “Where is the bathroom?”, “water”, “How much does this cost?”—all of the standards.

It’s definitely vital to really tune in and use as many context clues as possible, even when we’re all speaking English. Aaron and I made the mistake—twice—of misinterpreting mealtimes at one park where we stayed. We thought we were being told not to be late for dinner at 6:30. We were really being told not to be late, because dinner ends at 6:30. We were incredibly embarrassed, especially because at that point we didn’t really have any German phrases under our belts yet, so we felt even more that we were fitting the stereotype of entitled Americans.

But it brings me back to asking for what we need. Of course we apologized intently, but they heated up all the leftovers for us, always smiling. Smiles go so far. It truly is a universal language, and just the posture of friendliness, of openness, alters a situation completely; the difference is night and day.

When we’ve asked for advice, folks have gone above and beyond to offer us recommendations, to then share a beer or a snack with us, to lend us a phone charger, and to give such useful tips (which will also appear later). Of course, sometimes the answer you get will be “No, I can’t help you.” But as long as you’re respectful, that’s pretty much the worst that can happen.

And sometimes you might receive something totally unexpected and beautiful. We were gifted a tiny little glass pig by one woman who spoke some English and helped translate for us during our missed dinner misadventure. She talked with us for a bit about our trip, and later came over to the table where we were eating, out on a porch next to the canteen beneath lush vines with tiny hanging grapes. She placed the pig on the table and said, “To protect you.” We named him Hector the Protector.

3. Searching for Affordable Rides

This tip was offered to us by a friend we made at the hostel we stayed at in London our second night: clear your cache. I had no idea, but apparently clearing your cache and your browsing history, or using incognito browsing on Google Chrome, helps you find cheaper travel deals.

We all know that The Internet tracks your search history (and maybe listens to your conversations through the mic on your phone too, who knows) and then the ads that pop up are geared toward you in a scarily specific way. But apparently this is also a thing: if you’re doing a whole bunch of searches for transportation from one place to another, like we were doing for London to Vienna, it can alter the results and up the price, since it knows you want it.

That blew my mind a bit. Granted, it is secondhand information. So I don’t know how it works and/or how much truth there is to it. It’s very possible that our jump over to Vienna was the most expensive simply because it was the farthest. But so far, since we’ve followed this advice, we’ve had better luck. So there’s that.

We opted not to get a Eurail pass because our trip spans 3 months with so many potential travel days, so none of the passes quite fit. But, if you’re going to a handful of destinations over a few weeks, that can get you a lot of freedom with travel at a discount.

Instead we are looking for any and all means of transport for each leg. I found a website that I’m almost hesitant to write about for fear it will disappear like the unicorn it has been: checkmybus.com. This site has found us a couple of AMAZINGLY affordable rides already. I booked a bus from Munich to Frankford (Germany, contrary to the title of this post, but we made the booking in Austria…) for €3. Total! For both me and Aaron! I have to say, I was SUPER proud of myself for that one. (Getting to the bus station was an adventure for that trip because of a public transit strike in Munich, but we made it! Definitely a win.)

There are also some pretty amazing apps we’ve found or had recommended to us, like BlaBlaCar and Flixbus (recommended by a new friend we met on the train from Zell am See to Kufstein). Flixbus offers affordable bus rides, and BlaBlaCar is a rideshare app.

We had our first BlaBlaCar ride the other day, and it was lovely. We paid €16 total for the two of us to hitch a ride in Robert’s car. He was driving home to Munich (our next destination), and was passing by Kufstein, where we were staying. We picked up one other rider on the way, Alex, who showed us the perfect stick she found to wrap in wire and crystals and make into a magic wand. We got comfortable transport, and new friends!

Bicycling is also huge here, which we LOVE as Philly bikers ourselves. We haven’t rented bikes yet, because we so often have our giant backpacks to contend with. But one campsite where we stayed offered us the use of their bikes for a quick jaunt into town, and there’s a big biking culture here.

We have found, though, that for true budget traveling it’s good to be willing to walk. We’ve had some beautiful riverside walks, a few less-than-ideal, rainy, side-of-the-highway walks, but always with the fields or mountains of Austria winking at us as we go by. And it’s been more than worth it.

We got to see country neighborhoods with entire paint palettes of bright flowers spilling from their windows, and we got the lay of the land as we made our way to the place where we were staying for the night. Which brings me to:

4. Affordable Lodging

So far, Aaron and I have mostly been staying in hostels and campsites. Campsites are perfect for us since we are traveling with our own tent. And it has allowed us to go off-the-beaten-track a bit, to places like Zell am See and Kufstein (which are definitely still vacation spots, but not the type to offer hostel options. They’ve got plenty of hotels, bed and breakfasts, and resort stays, but if you want to spend under 100 a night, none of those are viable options).

Even though arriving at a campsite is the most likely to require walking, they were pretty much all family-run, and the people there were incredibly welcoming. They’ll give you the lowdown on hiking, swimming, and things to do in the area. And there’s always a new adventure around the corner: just outside of Vienna, the park where we stayed belonged to a nudist colony, and we spent a lovely couple of days without clothes!

Hostelworld.com has been my go-to for booking hostels in the more well-known cities, and it always gives great info on the place. If you’re willing to stay in a mixed dorm, the prices are super affordable, and it’s a great way to meet fellow travelers from all over the world.

For an even less expensive (read: free!) option, and a true-blue way to meet locals, Couchsurfing.com is the way to go. It is exactly what it sounds like: hosts let guests stay on a couch or floor or spare bed if they have one, and it’s an amazing way to meet new and interesting people. Like Hostelworld and BlaBlaCar, you can read reviews beforehand. You can learn a bit more about someone through their profile, and message them to make sure it’s a good fit. And of course, in all these cases, it’s vital to trust your instincts and not remain in a situation where you’re uncomfortable. But we stayed with our very first Couchsurfing host in Kufstein, and had a great experience. Our host was only just arriving home from a trip himself, but still he opened his home to us, and then brought us on an “ice bath” adventure the next day, jumping into a stream comprised of glacial runoff (yes, it was FREEZING, but so invigorating). And then he even helped us get our train tickets and make it to our train on time.

  • And finally, there was the resource of our very own friends and family! It’s a small world, and so many people from home have given recommendations from their own travels. They gave us contact info for their own friends and loved ones who live abroad. We met up with someone I haven’t seen since high school on our first full day in Europe, after getting her contact info from mutual friends. It was easier than I could have imagined to chat and reconnect, and she had fountains of knowledge and generosity to offer.
  • 5. Staying in Contact

    And then, of course, there’s staying in touch with our dear loved ones from home.

    It is truly a wired (or wireless) world these days. Our phones do everything. Bookings. Maps. Pictures. Calls and texts are just one piece of the puzzle. It’s crazy. Aaron and I actually had a funny moment over dinner one night when we were out of a wifi zone and couldn’t use our phones. We couldn’t remember the name of the sauce we were eating, that is often put on fish in America. It took almost the whole meal before Aaron finally shouted, “Tartar sauce!” and the relief at FINALLY having brought it from the tip of our tongues to the forefront of our minds was immense.

    So of course, there is the pride that comes with not asking Siri to answer a question the moment it pops into your mind. That said, though, smart phones are a vital resource. Everything is possible on our mobiles. Google maps even shows us our location when we’re out of Wifi and on airplane mode (thank goodness, because we haven’t always had the best luck finding maps). But, our phone plan situation has been rather interesting.

    SIM cards weren’t a great option because we would’ve needed to buy a new one for every country we go to, though they’re great if you’re spending your time in a single country. Instead we opted for Verizon’s TravelPass, which lets us use our normal phone plans for $10/day, charged only when we use it. Therefore, we’re doing our best not to use it.

    So far, it hasn’t been too terrible. We’re getting pretty adept at locating WiFi, and mainly using WhatsApp to message and call people. With WiFi calling on my iPhone, messages and calls can come through with data and roaming off, and airplane mode on, but that hasn’t worked for Aaron, so WhatsApp is a reliable way to be certain we aren’t getting charged.

    We’ve had to pay a euro or two to use the WiFi at a couple of places we’ve stayed, but most of them let you on the network for free. Some trains, buses and stations have it as well, and some cafes, restaurants, and hotels will let you on if you‘re eating there (or, if they aren’t password protected, you can catch it from a bench on the street nearby).

    But my favorite and most reliable spots have been town squares, many of which have free public WiFi and lovely little fountains to sit by as you use it, and markets/grocery stores, which also often have free WiFi (and you can get your shopping done or treat yourself to an ice cream to boot).

    So we update our families on our location every time we can. We challenge ourselves to rely less on our phones (though it’s comforting to know we can turn on our data and use them as normal if we’re stranded, provided we’re not on a hike in the wilderness where there’s no service anyway). And I’ve taken the opportunity to forget about my phone entirely and just take in the sights. Which brings me to:

    6. Breathe, and Just Be

    It can be so easy to get bogged down in the logistics, especially if you’re planning as you go. The first week or so of the trip, I had to work hard each day to shed the weight of worry that settled on me like silt.

    But as each day gave way to the next, and each morning I woke up to find that we were still “okay”–that the money in the account hadn’t disappeared like water through cupped fingers, that the lodging and transportation opportunities hadn’t all been snatched up overnight–I became more and more able to not constantly think about it. Being responsible and aware are important, but it’s just as important not to let that consume you.

    We went through so much effort to get to where we are. Now is the time to exhale those nagging “what ifs” and not have my head constantly in my watch or my wallet. Life is magical if you free your mind enough to see it. It may not always be easy, but just taking the time to step back, feel your breath, the sun or the rain, hear the wind through the trees, can remind you why you’re doing it all. It can remind you what it is to feel alive.

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