6 Tips for Budget Travel in Europe
The Dollarwise Grand Tour
By Volker Poelzl
Updated 9/10/2019 by Transitions Abroad
|Istanbul, the gateway between the Europe and
Asia, is a great city to travel on a relative budget
if you house and eat away from very touristed spots.
As the dollar continues to restabilize—now about US$1.10
from a previous levels of up to US$1.50+ per euro—Europe
has become a bit more affordable for most travelers from the U.S.
With smart planning and a little bit of research it is
possible to travel in Europe without spending a fortune.
In addition, traveling on a budget often is more conducive to
meeting the locals, immersing yourself in the rituals of their
daily lives, and having a truly memorable experience—rather
than taking your home along with you wherever you go.
1) Where to Go in Europe
Plan your itinerary wisely. Airfares and train tickets make up a significant part of your travel expenses. By choosing a few select destinations, as opposed to traveling all over Europe in order to see and do everything, you will save money and time. Consider the logistics of your trip. It takes a lot of time to travel and settle down at your destination. The more places you visit, the more time you will spend on getting there, finding accommodations, and gaining your bearings. My experience is that travel should be more relaxing than exhausting—more of a joy than a job.
If you have two weeks, I suggest only visiting one country, or even just one region within a country such as Tuscany, Provence, Andalusia, Burgundy, or the Cyclades islands of Greece, etc. This allows you to gain greater insights into the local history, culture, and customs—to experience some form of slow travel. You can always explore the similarities and differences with close neighboring regions or countries. The British Isles and Ireland is another such cultural region, Central Europe, Eastern Europe (often the cheapest region), or the Iberian Peninsula. France has its own distinct culture very different from other European countries, but you could include the border regions of Belgium, Germany, and Spain as part of a trip. Part of Belgium is French speaking, and the French provinces of Alsace and Burgundy share a lot of their culture and history with neighboring regions in Germany. The Basque regions in Southwestern France and Northeastern Spain share a cultural commonality. The same is the case in parts of northern Italy, which shares much of its history and cultural heritage with neighbors such as Austria, Switzerland, France, and even Croatia.
Again, my experience traveling to Europe for many years is that it is generally better, when possible, to not attempt to see too much in the course of one trip. That way you truly appreciate your destination in a profound and satisfactory way, and do not return to your home country exhausted by your vacation. Some enjoy counting countries visited these days as though doing so is some form of competition, but that is generally a superficial, even disrespectful way to experience rich cultures and vibrant peoples. If you reverse roles, think of your view of tourists coming to your own country and racing from destination to destination while often appearing with eyes glazed over, stressed, and exhausted. Whether descending or ascending tourist buses, following a leader carrying a sign while in large groups, or even walking individually, many tourists so often look the worse for wear—as though travel was a form of work. Such forms of high-speed and non-stop travel and sightseeing go against the aesthetic wisdom of the Slow Movement, founded in Europe, and largely inspired by the ideas of the Slow Food movement founded in Italy.
|The Dolomite mountain range in Northern Italy is quite spectacular and relatively free of tourists, while vacation rentals can be found for any budget.
Destinations in Eastern and even Central Europe are a better
budget alternative in many cases. Some of the new members of the
European Union have not yet adopted the euro, and travel in most
Baltic states, Poland, Czech Republic, and Hungary continues to
be a bit cheaper than in Western Europe. All of these countries
have a great historic and cultural heritage that is well worth
Finally, there are some countries such as Norway, Switzerland, and Denmark in Western Europe where the cost of living is so high that even the most carefully planned trip could prove costly and you should be prepared to spend a bit more.
When it comes to costs in various cities throughout Europe, crowdsourced sites such as Numbeo can give you glimpse of relative costs before you plan your trip if you use a common currency (such as USD$) to compare, as can the appropriate guidebooks, blogs, and other web resources.
|The Czech Republic (Prague pictured here
at night), Poland, and Eastern Europe in general, are still
generally cheaper as destinations than of most Western Europe,
though that is changing as well.
2) When to Go
Research on the web when your planned destination receives most of its visitors. If you travel in mid or low season, you not only save a lot of money, but you will also have a more authentic experience of the local culture and way of life since there will be few other foreign tourists. July through mid-September is high season in Europe, no matter where you go. Easter is another popular time to travel for Europeans, and so is the holiday season around Christmas and New Year’s Eve. While I found Paris packed with tourists during Easter week, the French Mediterranean Island of Corsica was virtually empty, since the weather is still cool and rainy in April. On another occasion, I visited Paris in February. It was cold and got dark early, but I vastly preferred it to my first visit during the month of August, when the city was choked with tourists and the Parisians largely had left town. Similarly, the Portuguese beach resorts on the Algarve coast are crammed with tourists in the summer, but I went there in October and also in February to find a beautiful coastline and pleasant towns without tourists and with low prices.
|Provence, France is still beautiful in October, and rentals of great apartments are a fraction of the high-season cost, making budget travel relatively possible.
Photo © Transitions Abroad.
3) Getting Around
Transportation costs take up the largest part of your travel budget in Europe. Airfares to Europe during the summer are never cheap, no matter what airlines and websites advertise. By visiting fewer countries or by only visiting one country you can significantly reduce your travel expenses. Eurail passes are available for a single country or multiple countries, allowing you to explore a single destination or several neighboring countries. These passes are cheaper than a Eurail pass that includes all participating countries.
When planning your trip consider several forms of transportation. Traveling in Europe by bus is a low-cost alternative to taking the train. Several bus companies connect major European cities. Ride shares are another affordable way to travel long distances for the price of sharing fuel.
If you travel with one or two other people, or as a family, and wish to explore the countryside, renting a car becomes a relatively affordable way of getting around. This gives you greater flexibility with regard to where to stay and where to go. Cheap accommodations are often available on the outskirts of a city or town. By renting a car, you can stay at a bed and breakfast or vacation home rental in the countryside, or at a campground outside the city limits. You can drive back into town the next day, visit other towns in the region, and have the option to alternate intense days of travel with days of relaxation. You can truly get off-the-beaten-path and discover medieval towns largely undiscovered by many tourists. You will meet hospitable and curious locals in beautiful places where they do not work in the tourism industry, go to local markets, and often participate in harvest or other festivals.
| Subways in Paris and other cities in
Europe offer discounts on weekly passes or multiple rides.
4) Where to Stay
Apart from transportation, accommodations take up the largest portion of your travel budget. Avoid traveling alone if you can in terms of budget. Single rooms are always more expensive per person than a double room. While many travelers prefer to book hotels ahead of time, I usually prefer to select a hotel on arrival. This has advantages and disadvantages. Without an advance reservation you can explore several options for budget accommodations locally, but if you arrive at a major tourist destination in the high season, you might find most affordable rooms booked. I traveled to Venice over New Year’s, and my girlfriend and I were surprised to find only one room in the entire city that was close to our budget. However, if you travel to a large city or visit Europe during the low season, you should not have a problem finding budget accommodation once you arrive. Airports, as well as railway stations, provide tourist information offices that can help you find a room, or you can just call a hotel that is listed in your travel guide or travel app.
If you plan to stay longer at one destination and don’t mind spending time on the subway or train, you might find a good deal on lodging on the outskirts of town. At one time, I spent a whole week in Paris with several friends. This allowed us to get a discounted weekly subway pass and we didn’t mind that our cheap youth hostel was on the outskirts of Paris.
If you arrive at your destination by train or bus you might find locals approaching you who offer rooms at their home. I have followed such invitations in many places across Europe, and I have not had any problems. The rooms are usually simple, but clean. Don’t always count on cable TV, telephone, or internet access, but these home stays are usually a great bargain compared to hotels. Rooms for rent in private residences are available in most European countries. If you drive into any town, you might see signs offering rooms for rent. This is a much more affordable option than staying at a hotel. I was in a small town in northern Italy on my most recent Europe trip, and all hotels were full, except one very expensive place. I decided instead to take another drive through town and look for signs offering rooms for rent at private homes. I found a pleasant pensione at a fraction of the price that the hotel charged, and a delicious breakfast was also included.
In large cities I have had good experiences with small family-run hotels. They are often a bit outmoded, but they are a great low-cost alternative to modern, sterile chain hotels you can find at home. Cheap accommodations are not easy to find at major tourist attractions in Europe, but youth hostels are an attractive low-cost option for lodging. Some hostels are part of the International Youth Hostel association, and you need to be a member to stay there, but there are many independent hostels now where anyone is welcome to stay. In the summer it is a good idea to book in advance or arrive early in the day. A growing number of hostels not only offer dorms but also double rooms at good rates. You can also save money on lodging by teaming up with a group of two to four travelers. You can share a room and you might be able to afford a hotel that would otherwise be beyond your budget.
Camping in Europe is difficult without a car. Most campgrounds are on the outskirts of town, making a visit to the city center a lengthy endeavor. Years ago I stayed at a campground on the outskirts of London. It was not a pleasant area and it took me an hour by train to get to the city. Even in small towns, most campgrounds are beyond the town limit, which makes access difficult, unless you have a car. If you travel in rural areas and intend to travel slowly, you might want to consider staying at a farm for a few days or renting a house in the countryside. Farm stays and vacation rentals are a very popular lodging option all across Europe, and they are usually far cheaper than hotels in the long run, while offering you the option to cook in your own kitchen or a common kitchen if you so wish. There is nothing like a sampling of great local foods from a market after many days eating at restaurants or even outdoor cafés.
|Staying in inexpensive but beautiful and rustic places like the Agriturismo Olivello in Tuscany, with a full kitchen and 2 bedrooms, brings you closer to the owners, locals, and the land while being easier on the budget.
Photo © Transitions Abroad.
5) Exploring your Destination on a Budget
Exploring a city is not only limited to major
sites and museums with high entrance fees. The best way to get
to know a city is to walk around, sit in a park, enjoy a coffee
at an outdoor café, and observe the hustle and bustle.
Walking instead of taking the subway or bus is not only more enjoyable,
burns off more of the great food you have enjoyed, but it can
also save you money since single subway rides in Europe’s
cities are often quite expensive. If you prefer public transportation,
get a multiple ride pass or a weekly pass—always
cheaper than single rides. Also, keep in mind that many museums
offer discounts on certain days of the week or at night, or access
may even be free on certain days. In some cities you can buy combined
and multi-day tickets for major sites and attractions at a large
discount over individual admission charges. Many cities publish
free entertainment guides where you can find out about free activities
and local cultural events. If you are a student, teacher, or if
you are under 26 years old, you can get a discount at many attractions
and museums all across Europe. (All you need is an International Student
Identification Card (ISIC),
Teacher Discount Card (ITIC), or the Youth Travel Card (IYTC),
with offices all over the world.)
| Trastevere, a neighborhood in Rome, is a great place to have a doppio cappucino, hang out and relax. Great people watching and street performances often goes deep into the night.
Photo © Transitions Abroad.
6) Where to Eat
Planning your meals carefully is another great way to reduce your travel expenses. Instead of eating at an overpriced restaurant or sandwich shop near popular tourist sites that generally hike the prices and serve more generic fare, you might want to consider buying food at a small grocery store or market. Eating out at lunchtime is also cheaper than going out to dinner, since you can take advantage of lunch specials, often prix fixe, intended for locals. Even better, if you buy groceries and have a sandwich or picnic for lunch or dinner back at your room or picnic in a park, you can save enough to go out to a bar, café, or movie theater later at night.
|For lunch or dinner, pick up a sandwich, a quiche, or some pastries at a typical pastry shop or deli in Europe for less than the average lunch at a café/bistro and far less than the average dinner at a restaurant. Buy your favorite local beverages at a local market to go with your feast. You will eat very, very well.
Photo © Transitions Abroad.
As you can see, budget travel in Europe is quite possible. You just have to be smarter with your money than ever. The more you research budget travel options ahead of time, the more you will be able to plan a trip to Europe that both fits your budget and offers unique and memorable experiences with the local people. Bon voyage!
Volker Poelzl is a Living Abroad Contributing Editor for TransitionsAbroad.com. He has extensively traveled in Europe, mostly on a low budget.