How to Travel Europe on a Budget

how to travel Europe on a budget

Alternate titles being "How to Alienate Your Friends" or "The One Topic You Should Probably Stop Bringing Up at Dinner Parties."

After visiting 36 European cities, it's safe to say the husband and I learned a thing or two about traveling across Europe on a budget.

Not that I feel any need to explain myself, but clearly I'm going to do it anyway.

Much to everyone's dismay (my own included) I find myself trailing off for hours about "this one time, when we were in Paris.." and "oh, but in Italy..." So if I don't share this information on the blog, I'm afraid my friends will altogether stop inviting me to dinner parties.

Hopefully you'll find this list useful as you make plans for your own European adventure. If nothing else, I hope my personal experience helps you realize that you don't need to win the lottery to see the world. Should you find yourself wishing to repay me for my generosity, feel free to buy me a one-way ticket to Paris, and I will love you forever.

  1. If possible, fly into and depart from the same location. Roundtrip tickets are typically less expensive than one-way tickets. Search sites like kayak.com and skyscanner.com and compare it to direct airline rates. Also, be flexible about your travel dates to get the best rates.
  2. Avoid restaurants in city squares – they are generally overpriced tourist traps. A few additional indications that you're not dining with the locals: "We speak English" signs and multilingual menus.
  3. As tempting as it may be, do not try to visit everything at once. It's natural to want to see as many places as possible, considering that you next trip to Europe will probably not be taking place any time soon. However, Europe should be experienced multiple times, and at various points of your life.
  4. If renting a car, make sure the pickup and drop off locations are the same. If you pick up the car in one location with hopes of dropping it off at another, you'll end up paying nearly twice (if not more) the price of standard rentals. The price increase is even more drastic if the two locations are in different countries (been there, done that, still having nightmares).
  5. Travel off-season to get cheaper airfare and hotel discounts. We booked our tickets for May 1st, and the price could've been significantly cheaper had we planned ahead of time and flew out in April. A few days can make a huge difference.
  6. Picnics are a great way to save money – plus they're oh-so-romantic! Ten dollars can buy a delicious, gourmet lunch for two.
  7. Use cash instead of ATM machines and/or credit cards to avoid a bevy of withdrawal and international fees.
  8. Call up your long-lost friends, relatives and your friends' friends and ask whether they're willing to show you around when you're in town. Chances are, they will offer you lodging – a major bonus! Sure, the practice may be mind-boggling to most Americans, but it's quite common in Europe and Russia. If it wasn't for long-lost relatives and friends of friends, we probably wouldn't have seen Barcelona, Lisbon, Cabo da Roca, Munich and more!
  9. Consider staying at a hostel if you're traveling alone or with another person. If you're with a group, a hotel room may be cheaper. Sure, a hostel is not the most luxurious option, but it's a super cool way to connect with other travelers your age (and of course, to save money).  
  10. If set on staying at a hotel, book rooms at the last minute using sites like lastminute.com. It's not uncommon to score four-star rooms for $150 and below.
  11. Avoid hotel breakfasts "included in the room price." While convenient, these are rarely a good value. Join the locals at the corner cafe for a delicious coffee and croissant at half the price!
  12. Ask for student discounts. Some places are more up-front about student discounts than others, so don't hesitate to ask (assuming you actually have a student ID card). 
  13. Consider using couchsurfing.com to connect with locals and find free lodging in the cities you're traveling to.
  14. Take a cruise as a way of visiting several destinations at a very reasonable price. Here are five reasons why cruises are one of the best modes of vacationing .
  15. Some of the best sights in Europe can be free. Most top museums offer free admission on certain days of the month, so do your research and schedule your trips accordingly.
  16. Instead of trying to save money by booking a hotel outside the city, stay within walking distance of must-see sights and save money on transport costs, as well as valuable time. Besides, the best way to explore a new city is by foot!
  17. Speaking of walking, try a free walking tour. An English-speaking local guide will walk you through the city's major points. Tipping is encouraged.
  18. In most European countries, outside dining is more expensive than eating inside. 
  19. Instead of booking a hotel, rent an apartment from a local family by booking on sites like homeaway.com and my personal favorite airbnb.com. When we first arrived in Paris, we spent two nights in a hotel, which ended up being more expensive than the next eight nights in a flat we rented on Airbnb.
  20. If you must use public transportation, make sure you understand your options to avoid a costly fine (especially in a law-enforcing country like Germany). Many single tickets are actually good for round-trip, transfers, or an hour of travel. Three rides generally cost more than a day pass. 
  21. If traveling to multiple countries throughout the EU, consider buying a rail pass option, which offers huge savings. Just be aware that not all destinations may be included, so do your research to see whether point-to-point tickets may be the better option for you.
  22. The only difference between a first- and second-class train car is the price; the level of comfort is generally about the same, so don't be afraid of booking second-class.
  23. Take advantage of free Wi-Fi found in city squares, most restaurants and nearly all Starbucks or McDonald's. You may be required to make a purchase before the waiter will give you the access code, but even that is less expensive than dealing with roaming and international charges.
  24. Another Internet/phone option is to purchase a local simcard, assuming your smartphone is unlocked. Just know that each country will require a new card, so if you're traveling to 16 like we were, it's probably a good idea to limit your Internet dependancy. 
  25. If at all possible, do your shopping in cheaper countries like Portugal or Spain. If you happen to lose a travel essential, try to hold off until you are out of countries like Switzerland before replacing it (unless you want to pay eight euros for a toothbrush).
  26. Split long-distance travel costs by hitching rides with locals making the drive to your desired destination. Check out sites like ridefinder.eu or carpooling.com.
  27. Avoid travel agent and tourist services, as most of them charge additional middle-man fees.
  28. Travel to countries that are part of the European Union but are not on the Euro, like Croatia. Not only are they some of the most charming spots on the continent, they are significantly less expensive.
  29. Most budget-friendly airlines have strict restrictions for carry-ons and checked baggage, so try to pack light.
  30. Know the tipping rules, as they vary by country. Unlike in America, most servers are paid by the hour and do not rely on tips as their only source of income. 

Got a question I didn't answer? Feel free to leave it in the comments section, below, and I'll be sure to get back to you!

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15 Comments

  1. We found traveling in Sweden and Norway last year that the included buffet breakfasts were fabulous at the moderately priced hotels we stayed at. So we ate a big breakfast and only had a small snack mid-day and then ate out for dinner.

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  4. I saved a lot of money when I backpacked around Europe by avoiding the places traditionally popular with American/western tourists. Eastern Europe was cheaper in general, more interesting (to me) and the people were very friendly. Hostels vary wildly in quality and cleanliness- it is best to educate yourself on travel forums before the trip to find good hostels and B&Bs.

    • You’ve definitely got a point there, but if you’ve never been to those traditionally popular places then it’s worth the visit, even if it is overrated at times. Unfortunately we didn’t get to explore as much of Eastern Europe as we had hoped. Czech Republic is definitely on my must-see list, and I hope to return soon!

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  8. Excellent roundup of tips.

    Like to add that when renting a car online, if you happen to have dual citizenship, you may find that changing your country may get you a drastically different set of prices (hopefully lower!).

    And for exploring by foot – I agree that is the best. To complement the walk, find some audio tours and stick it on your phone. Listen and follow – it’ll just be like having a live tour guide.

    Ken
    http://kensaysgotravel.com

  9. Such a Godsend this post is. I’m travelling solo to Europe for a month and I’m visiting at least 5 different cities. Thank you so much for the lovely tips!

    xox
    head2heels.co

    • Hi Roxanne, I’m so happy to hear you found this post helpful (and so very envious of your upcoming travels)! If you have any additional questions or want to bounce ideas off of someone, I’ll be more than happy to help! I travel with my husband, so I can only imagine how stressful traveling solo can be!

      Which five cities do you plan to visit? And when do you leave?

      XOXO, Oksana

      • Sure, I’ll definitely contact you. I’m planning Brussels, Barcelona, Amsterdam, Paris, Milan, Cinqu Terre and maybe a few other smaller ones as well from 22nd May to 24th June. I read your other posts which have been very helpful as well. But I’m going to hit you up with a few “what should I do and which places to visit” questions for sure!

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