Author, reporter, and NPR correspondent Scott Huler recently returned from an epic journey tracing the tale of Homer’s “Odyssey.” After reading “No-Man’s Lands,” his insightful recounting of the trip, we asked him for advice on planning a similar journey—on a budget.
Scott had some great advice:
When Odysseus set off on an epic voyage, he had some non-cheapo advantages: his ships were filled with treasure from the Trojan War, and if supplies ran low it was perfectly reasonable to come ashore and make a brief pirate raid on a coastal town.
That wasn’t going to work for me. When I set out to retrace his journey from Troy to Ithaca, I had little more than a backpack, a tight budget, and a pregnant wife at home. Just the same, I found the cheaper-than-cheap backpack route from Troy to Ithaca perfect for me. I had more than a dozen stops to make. Add to that Athens and the tiny Turkish town of Kesan, and my journey covered around 20 cities in Turkey, Greece, Tunisia, Italy (where I visited the catacombs in Rome), France, and Malta. Finally, I arrived on the western tip of Sicily.
Here are five things you should know if you ever make an epic journey on a small-scale budget:
1. Get your doner on!
In Turkey, if it’s spinning on a vertical spit, it’s probably doner, which is like Greek gyro and delicious almost beyond imagination. But beware: If it’s spinning on a horizontal spit it’s probably kokorec, which is sheep guts, and tastes like sheep guts. If you suddenly find yourself buying kokorec, just get them to put a lot of pepper on it. You can get a few bites down before you turn the corner and find a trash can. Be sure to smile and wave at the vendor. You’ll be a good story for them.
2. Use your words.
Don’t be embarrassed to take a guided tour in the language of your choice: you left home to understand people and places different from you, right? You’ll learn a lot more, and if you stick with trustworthy sources (the museum’s free audio guide rather than the guy who starts plucking at your sleeve after you walk in), you’ll pay only a reasonable fee augmented by, of course, a reasonable tip. I had a guided tour of Troy that got my journey started just right, and I might have missed some very cool stuff had I been too savvy for it all.
3. Buy cheap(er) overnight accommodation.
Here’s how. Take an overnight ferry and pay the extra euros for a room. If you’re traveling alone, pay the addition for a single. Defending territory on couches in saloon bars or hunkering down in chilly winds on deck sounds romantic in a post-college kind of way, but unless you’re absolutely destitute, the extra € 20 will be well worth it, turning a sleepless night into a night of almost delightful, private peace.
4. Take the bus (especially in Turkey).
Not only is the bus one of the cheapest—and greenest—modes of transport, but it’s civilized beyond measure. In Turkey, for example, where I rode the bus everywhere, there’s air conditioning, oriental rugs down the center aisle, free cakes, water, and orange soda. Plus every couple hours or so an attendant brings around a little dash of bergamot cologne. Talk about luxury for less! (Visit the main bus terminal in Istanbul to learn more or to get moving.)
5. When in Rome, stay near the train station.
In Rome, I loved the Hotel Stromboli. Tourist guides will tell you to avoid the hotels near the Stazione Termini, but I think they’re crazy. Cheap rooms abound (if you’re clever, you can get them at the Stromboli for 50 euros or so), and there are tons of paninotecas with delicious and cheap hot sandwiches that keep travelers fueled for a couple euros a pop. Plus, you’ll find plenty of nearby nasoni fountains to keep water bottles full for free and you have constant, convenient access to the train station. No place in Rome is too far to walk from there and when it’s time to head to the airport, that’s exactly where the cheap buses depart from. There are dozens of cheap, clean, and safe hotels in this unfairly maligned neighborhood. It’s where you want to be.
About the author: Scott Huler has written for such newspapers as the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Philadelphia Inquirer, and the Los Angeles Times and such magazines as Backpacker, Fortune, and Child. His award-winning radio work has been heard on “All Things Considered” and “Day to Day” on National Public Radio and on “Marketplace” and “Splendid Table” on American Public Media. He has been a staff writer for the Philadelphia Daily News and the Raleigh News & Observer and a staff reporter and producer for Nashville Public Radio. He was the founding and managing editor of the Nashville City Paper. He sometimes serves as guest host on “The State of Things” on WUNC-FM. No-Man’s Lands is his fifth book. He lives in Raleigh, North Carolina, with his wife, the writer June Spence; they have a son and another child on the way.