The Backpacker/Flashpacker Part Of The Trip

This blog entry about the events of Thursday, June 28, 2007 was originally posted on July 23, 2007.

PART 10:  “I like this random backpacker thing,” Steph had said back when we had checked into the Hotel Garni, a surprising great accommodation deal that we spontaneously acquired in a willage [sic] just outside Zagreb airport in Croatia.

Flashpacker thing,” I corrected her. 

Flashpacking,” a fairly recent term used in the travel industry for the past 3-4 years — particularly by the British, Australian, and New Zealander press — is a combination of the budget-conscious independent travel style known as “backpacking,” and the other kind of travel where a little more money is spent for the added comforts outside a not-so-private hostel dormitory.  Wikipedia’s entry on “flashpacking” defines it as “a neologism used to refer to affluent backpacking.  A flashpacker shares many of the characteristics of a backpacker: independence, no fixed itinerary and long periods of travel to more exotic and far-flung destinations.  However, whereas low cost travel is associated with backpacking, flashpacking has an association of more disposable income while traveling.”  A couple of years back, The Guardian in the UK ran an article in their travel section, calling flashpacking “the best of both worlds.”

Steph and I were definitely flashpacking it up on our trip thus far, perhaps leaning a little more on the “flash” side, with our rented Mercedes, beautiful hotels with pools and spectacular views, and fancy, candlelit dinners.  Little did we know when we touched down in Zurich, Switzerland, that the “flash” would run out. 

OUR STORY FOR PART 10 begins in Zurich Airport, where we had landed on a Friday evening after a two-hour flight from Zagreb, Croatia.  Our first order of business was money — the third country on our “fake honeymoon” trip would require a third currency — and it was easy enough to acquire Swiss francs from an ATM machine.  Our second order of business, accommodations, was not so easy to come by, and we suddenly regretted that we hadn’t made some sort of reservations in advance.  So far it had been pure luck when finding decent accommodations on a whim, but luck didn’t come through at the last minute on a Friday evening.

We looked at the accommodations board with hotels listing vacancies via little lights, next to an information kiosk.  Almost all the accommodations in and around Zurich were in the red, signifying no availabilities, but we called a few to make sure the machine was giving correct information.  Steph used the kiosk with direct connections to all the reception desks:

“Hi.  Do you speak English?...  Do you have a room for tonight?...  Ah, okay.  Thank you.”

“Hi, do you speak English?...  Do you happen to have a room?...  Tonight…  Oh, okay.  Thanks.”

“Hello, do you speak English?...  Do you have a room tonight?...  Two people…  Oh well…  Okay, thank you.  Bye.”

We had nowhere to stay in Zurich, at least centrally — we were only passing through for about fifteen hours en route to our real Swiss destination, Interlaken, and wanted to make the most of our time with a convenient location.  However, looking at the board, our only real option was the official Hostelling International hostel in the suburbs, a twenty-minute tram ride out of the city — we reserved their last double room as a fail-safe.  However, we didn’t let the reservation stop us from trying to best it with some “flash;” Steph tried to find a more conveniently-located place via the internet at a kiosk (and her mother at home), while I called Risa (a.k.a. blogreader da Rzz), an ex-girlfriend-turned-friend who’d lived in Switzerland for nine months — I figured she might know of some secret place.  It was only about two in the afternoon at her office in New Jersey, USA when the phone rang, and she happily used the opportunity to help me out to break the monotony of her workday. 

“I see places on Travelocity, but I think they’re out of your price range,” Risa said to me, only really knowing my backpacker side of flashpacking. 

“It doesn’t matter, as long as it’s central.  You should see the places we’ve been on this trip.”

She suggested hotels that the internet listed as available, even though they were lit red on the accommodations board in front of us.  I called a few to confirm, and the red lights prevailed.  Suddenly I noticed that the Hotel California’s light went green, and I called them:

“Hi, do you speak English?...  Hi, do you have a room for tonight?...  Really…  but — I’m at the airport — and on the board it says that you have availability…  Oh, I see…  Well you should turn it red again then.”

It wasn’t the end of the world, just the end of the flash — not that we were really concerned, we were just trying to continue the good streak we’d had thus far.  “It’s okay.  This will be the backpacker part of the trip,” Steph said as we rolled our bags to the airport’s train platform.  “It’s funny, we’re going in reverse.  Usually you work your way from a hostel up to a honeymoon resort.  We’re doing the opposite.” 

We took the train from the airport into the main train station in town, which gave us twenty minutes to catch our breath.  With my hand on Steph’s leg, I felt her skin was a bit rough and was due for a shave.  “Is this because this is the backpacker part of the trip?” I teased her.

Steph had the brilliant idea of just using the suburban hostel as a place to go when we were done touring the city center, both that night and the morning after.  Moreover, we’d just sort out our bags in the train station (as backpackers often do, picture above) and keep the bulk of our belongings there since it’d be our point of departure the next day anyway.  We followed the signs for the lockers when we arrived at Zurich’s central bahnhof, however, we couldn’t initially find lockers big enough.  Steph was about to give up.  “Let’s find the baggage room,” she suggested — but the backpacker inside me didn’t give up hope just yet.  I turned another corner and there they were. 

“I’ve done this before.” 

OUR “BACKPACKER PART OF THE TRIP,” at least in Zurich, was a brief one:  an evening and a morning, just enough for a taste.  Zurich is a relatively small city anyway, at least in scale with less than 400,000 residents, but holds big significance in the German part of Switzerland:  the former center of the religious Reformation, it is not only where James Joyce wrote Ulysses, but is now home of the world’s largest gold exchange and fourth-largest stock exchange.  In Swiss history, it was home to (the many renditions of) A. Escher (the Swiss railroad tycoon, not M.C. the artist), who was founder of the international financial institution now known as Credit Suisse. 

Our walk around central Zurich, by day and by night, showed us places of architectural interest:  Zurich’s iconic twin towers of the Grossmünster, considered the “mother church of the Swiss-German Reformation”; Fraumünster, the 13th-century cathedral famous for its unique stained glass windows of Christian scenes, created ironically by famous Jewish artist Marc Chagall; and St. Peterskirche, whose tower boasts the largest clock face in continental Europe.

“Ha ha, I don’t have to ask you what time it is,” Steph said with a smirk, ruining my “time to get a watch” joke.  I wasn’t too sore about it; in fact, I jumped for joy — we had lucked out on good weather, plus it was funny how we’d accidentally wore practically the same outfit that day

IT’S FITTING THAT THIS ENTRY about flashpacking takes place in Zurich, because the city is sort of a microcosm of the “flashpacking” dichotomy.  Geographically, it is divided in two by the Linmat River, which separates the two parts of flashpacking:  on the west bank, along the main Bahnhofstrasse, are many chic boutiques of international designers (and a few local ones); to the east is the “funkier” side of town with many bars and cafes, a side of town where “nightclubs” are codename for “strip clubs”, where Swiss souvenirs with the simple, yet strong Swiss emblem are sold in many stores.  This lively area — home of “The 69 Store” for his and her enjoyment — is not surprisingly Zurich’s backpacker district, where many hostels (and a few decent hotels) are located. 

With that said, there were plenty of cheap backpacker eateries on the east side —  McDonald’s (with a tastier menu), pizzerias, and the ever-popular doner kebab stands — although Steph and I went the “flashier” route when we went on a quest to find a rich, Swiss delicacy: fondue.  It wasn’t hard to find once the smell of cheese filled the main walkway of the backpacker district.

“I can smell it!” Steph said before she followed her nose.  Underneath a statue of a blue cow on a balcony was Swiss Chuchi, a fondue specialist that satisfied both Steph’s and my craving for melted cheese dripping off of bread and potato chunks.  Our other flashpacker meal was not with a blue cow but at The Blue Monkey, a fancy Thai food restaurant full of locals who had made table reservations in advance — we lucked out with a table for two, to eat (and pass flirtatious notes to each other while waiting). 

OUR ACCOMMODATIONS IN ZURICH — twenty minutes out in the suburbs actually, near the lakeshore of the Zurichsee — was definitely on the backpacker side of the spectrum: the Hostelling International Zurich Youth Hostel, which actually turned out to be one of the better HI hostels I’d been in, with a clean, student-center-like common room/cafeteria/lobby, convenient internet stations, a decent breakfast buffet, and a very helpful and friendly staff.  As I’d known already, the “youth hostel” wasn’t all youths (although there were many, and with some high school drama in our hallway), but there were many families and traveling adults as well — I’d noticed a big group of middle-aged friends sitting around one of the common room tables chatting it up with bottles of wine. 

Our room for the night was also better than expected: a private room, converted from a four-person bunk dorm with a private bathroom.  It more than sufficed for the night — there was no need to argue who was on top; the other bunk bed had been set up as a double.

WE DIDN’T LUCK OUT on such private quarters when we made reservations for our next hostel in Interlaken, but in such a popular backpacker destination — German Switzerland’s haven for beautiful mountain scenery and adventure sports — we snagged whatever we could get:  two spots in a six-person dorm at the Backpackers Villa Sonnenhof.  We arrived in Interlaken in the late afternoon after having lunch in Zurich, regrouping our belongings from locker 1269 at Zurich’s train station (the number made me chuckle), and taking a two-hour train ride through the Swiss countryside — we passed the time staring out the window, blogging, and writing to each other.  Upon arrival in Interlaken, we tried once again to best our backpacker hostel reservation by checking out a newly advertised B&B, but in the end, the hostel was our best bet.  “I think it’s better to do the hostel thing at a place like this [anyway].  Because that’s what you do in Interlaken.”

The Backpackers Villa Sonnenhof, which received a well-deserved “thumbs up” in my Let’s Go guide, was not one of the two party-all-night hostels in the central part of town; it was just a couple of blocks out — everything is walking distance in Interlaken — but what it lacked in nightlife it made up for in its cleanliness, its service, and most of all, its view.  Unobstructed by the taller buildings in town, the view from our six-person “deluxe dorm” terrace had the classic view of the three Alpine peaks the region is known for:  Eiger, Moench, and in the center, the famous snowcapped Jungfrau, commercially dubbed as the “Top of Europe” (even though geographically speaking, it is not the highest peak in Europe).  This five-star view I could not look away from, and I knew that even on the backpacker side of the spectrum, there’s always room for a little “flash.”

More than the incredible view, Backpackers Villa provided an extremely helpful and friendly staff at its reception desk.  Catherina, who had remembered my voice from when I called in a reservation the night before, checked us in with a big smile on her face, assuring us that our stay in Interlaken would be a good one.  Immediately after claiming our beds, we asked her for information about the one thing we’d come to Interlaken for: skydiving.

“Helicopter or plane?” she asked in her slight Swiss German accent. 

“Well, what’s the difference?”

“[If you take the helicopter, they take you all the way to Jungfrau, to where you are surrounded by the mountains, and it’s beautiful all around.  In a plane, it’s nice, you go up, but you just jump over a field.  But in the helicopter, it’s so amazing, with the snow and the mountains, and all the peaks!  I haven’t done it myself but I know the area that they go and it’s so beautiful!  Just beautiful!]”

“Well, that is the most amazing sales pitch I’ve ever heard,” I said, signing up for the chopper with no reservations — we were continuing our spontaneous Amex travel commercial (albeit with Visa cards) by signing another pair of slips. 

Catherina tried to help justify the extra fifty bucks in our heads, not knowing that the seemingly two grungy college backpackers in front of her actually had jobs at New York interactive ad agency.  “[The helicopter is fifty more, but if you have the money, it’s definitely worth it.  You only do this once, right?  It’s not just the jump, it’s also the helicopter tour, so it’s like two in one.  You can just skip dinner or something, eat something in here.]”

When we finally settled into Interlaken, we found ourselves not skipping or skimping on dinner; we ate out at a nice outdoor table at a restaurant specializing in a set three-fondue course meal.  “Did you hear her about the fifty dollars?” Steph said to me, referring to Catherina in our dinner conversation.  “They’re used to getting backpackers, not flashpackers.”

Whether this was the “backpacker part of the trip” or the “flashpacker part of the trip” was kind of vague, but in a place where yummy fondue was readily available — that popular party food from the 1970s — we didn’t seem to care about the cost of dinner.  “This will be that 70s part of the trip,” I said, as I shoved more melted cheese in my mouth.  Our two-day Swiss fondue party part of the trip would continue, and in no better or beautiful a place than the Swiss Alps.


In our morning in the suburbs of Zurich, we stopped briefly for a view of Lake Zurich, home to many swans gliding across the surface of the water.  “Stop looking at me swan!” I said.

“Shampoo is better!” Steph said, continuing the quote from Billy Madison.  “No, conditioner is better! I go on and make the hair smooth!”

Next entry: Ending On A High Note

Previous entry: Alone Again

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This blog post is one of twelve travel dispatches from the trip blog, "The Global Trip: Two in The Boot and Beyond," which chronicled a romantic getaway through Italy, plus jaunts to Croatia, Switzerland, and London.

Next entry:
Ending On A High Note

Previous entry:
Alone Again


Confused at some of the jargon that's developed with this blog and its readers over the years? Here's what they mean:

BFFN: acronym for "Best Friend For Now"; a friend made on the road, who will share travel experiences for the time being, only to part ways and lose touch with

The Big Trip: the original sixteen month around-the-world trip that started it all, spanning 37 countries in 5 continents over 503 days (October 2003–March 2005)

NIZ: acronym for "No Internet Zone"; a place where there is little to no Internet access, thus preventing dispatches from being posted.

SBR: acronym for "Silent Blog Reader"; a person who has regularly followed The Global Trip blog for years without ever commenting or making his/her presence known to the rest of the reading community. (Breaking this silence by commenting is encouraged.)

Stupid o'clock: any time of the early morning that you have to wake up to catch a train, bus, plane, or tour. Usually any time before 6 a.m. is automatically “stupid o’clock.”

The Trinidad Show: a nickname of The Global Trip blog, used particularly by travelers that have been written about, who are self-aware that they have become "characters" in a long-running story — like characters in the Jim Carrey movie, The Truman Show.

WHMMR: acronym for "Western Hemisphere Monday Morning Rush"; an unofficial deadline to get new content up by a Monday morning, in time for readers in the western hemisphere (i.e. the majority North American audience) heading back to their computers.

1981ers: people born after 1981. Originally, this was to designate groups of young backpackers fresh out of school, many of which were loud, boorish and/or annoying. However, time has passed and 1981ers have matured and have been quite pleasant to travel with. The term still refers to young annoying backpackers, regardless of year — I guess you could call them "1991ers" in 2013 — young, entitled millennials on the road these days, essentially.

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The views and opinions written on The Global Trip blog are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the official views and opinions of the any affiliated publications.
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