How to travel to Europe on a Budget
Updated: Mar 4, 2021
Don't let the cost of a trip to Europe scare you! You too can afford to travel abroad without breaking the bank. Here are some money saving tips that will change the way you travel!
Travel during off-peak times of the year
One of the best ways to save money is to travel during off peak, or less busy times of the year. But that doesn’t mean you have to travel in the dead of winter! Most Europeans go on holiday in July and August, so traveling in late May or in the months of June or September are good options for travel in the warmer months. Airfare is cheaper, crowds are smaller, and you’ll have more options for accommodations with better prices.
Many places in Europe are beautiful in the Winter, and there are festivals in the Fall and Spring that can add some extra fun to your travels. For example, consider a ski trip in March to the Italian Alps with a visit to Milan, Florence, or Torino. Take a trip to Germany in the Fall and experience Oktoberfest. Or travel to Holland in the Spring and see the world’s largest flower garden in full bloom!
Think of places you would like to travel and do some research on what festivals they have during different times of the year. Then, book early! Try to book your airfare about 3 - 4 months ahead of time. For accommodations, it’s best to book in the 6 - 9 month range for best results.
Get creative about where you stay
You don’t have to stay at a hostel to save money. This is an option if you are on an extremely tight budget; however, you may have to contend with sharing a bathroom or sleeping in a dormitory style room. If you are traveling with a group, you may want to rent out all the beds in a dormitory room to have a more private space. Research hostels and read reviews ahead of time so you know what you’re getting into by using a reliable website such as Hostelworld.
One option that won’t cost you a small fortune is to rent an apartment on a travel site such as Airbnb or booking.com. Apartments in the city center are great if you want to immerse yourself in the local culture in a truly unique way. They are also convenient if you plan to do your sightseeing on foot because you will most likely be within walking distance to many places of interest. If you want to venture out of the city as well, there should be a train, bus or metro station close by. Keep in mind you may have more limited check in times, or have to pick up your keys in a rental office or separate location from the apartment.
Bed and breakfasts are an excellent option if you are looking for a quieter stay outside the city. If you have your own transportation and are driving from town to town, or need to stay in a central location with several small towns in the vicinity, a bed and breakfast can be the perfect place! The really special thing about these is that they are owned by locals who can give you advice about what to do and where to eat, and often serve meals with local or traditional foods. Talking with the owners or other travelers from around the world while at the breakfast table is an experience like no other!
If you are traveling between two cities that are not quite far enough apart to fly, consider taking an overnight train. This can save you time AND money. You’ll save money by combining a train ticket with an overnight stay. By traveling overnight, you won’t spend valuable daylight hours on a train when you could be sightseeing. One thing to note here is to make sure you buy a ticket for a sleeper car and not just a reclining seat. Also, you want to reserve a sleeper car that has the same number of beds as the people in your party, so that you’re not sharing space with a stranger. You can’t ever be too careful... you don’t want any of your valuables disappearing while you sleep.
Instead of sticking to familiar hotel chains like you would find in the U.S., look for smaller, boutique style hotels. Some of these can be quite expensive, but there are many affordable options as well. The cool thing about these is that they are often in historic buildings, decorated with antiques or in eclectic styles. You can usually find them in or around the city center, which makes sightseeing much easier if you plan to take walking tours. The only thing to be careful about is that smaller hotels are sometimes family owned and may have limited check in hours or not have someone at the front desk 24 hours. If this is the case, just check with them ahead of time and you can usually work something out. Communication is the key!
No matter what type of accommodations you choose, do your research ahead of time. Read the reviews, and make sure they are recent. A site like booking.com is a great option because the information about the properties is usually accurate and up to date, and they have excellent customer service if the need arises. Also, many of their listings have free cancellation and don’t require prepayment, which means you can book early and cancel free of charge if you need to change your plans.
Plan your own itinerary
You don’t have to rely on tour companies or guides to control your travel plans, or your budget! You can find out everything you need to know online and plan your own trip. Instead of taking a tour bus, rent a car or hop on a train and do it yourself!
This doesn’t mean you should never pay for an excursion or guided tour. Just be smart about it, and find the right balance that fits your budget. Set aside extra money for cooking classes, wine tasting tours, or outdoor adventures like zip-lining, and book them through trusted sites like Trip Advisor or Viator. You can even email your hotel ahead of time and ask them to recommend local companies or book activities for you. As always, read the reviews before you book anything like this!
For local sightseeing and walking tours, plan an itinerary on your own. It will allow you to choose places that match your interests, and go at your own pace. If you would still feel more comfortable with a tour guide, check for free tours. Many European cities have free tours led by local college students, and meet at easy to find locations. For help planning your own itinerary, submit an inquiry here.
Research city discount cards
Many European cities have discount cards that offer free or discounted admission to major tourist attractions. There are usually options for 1 day or multi-day passes. You sometimes even get “skip the line” options for certain places. If the participating attractions are already on your list of things to do, this can be a real money saver!
These city cards often include free public transportation on buses, trains, or the metro. If you get lucky, it might even include access to a Hop-on Hop-off Bus (HoHo). The HoHo Bus has designated stops where you can get on and off the bus all day. They also have a speaker or headphone system that gives you information about places of interest as you pass them. One nice thing about the HoHo Bus as opposed to public transportation is that you don’t have to worry about being on the right train or bus route, or how to navigate an underground metro system.
Before you decide whether to use a city discount card, check ahead of time to make sure the places you want to visit are included, and whether they offer full admission or only discounts. Compare the cost of the card with the total admission costs of the places you plan to visit. Also, check to see if there’s an online discount for purchasing the card ahead of time. For a list of European city cards and the links to buy them, click here.
Eat like the locals
One of the best things about traveling is trying different foods that you wouldn’t usually eat at home. Keep an open mind, and an open palette! Here are some ways that eating like the locals can actually save you money.
Stay at bed and breakfasts or small hotels that offer free breakfast as part of your stay. This saves you money because you don’t have to pay to eat out for breakfast. Also, the meals they serve will typically be more traditional or made with local ingredients. When you do eat out, choose small cafes or restaurants that are not in the middle of major tourist areas.
Eat small meals throughout the day, instead of huge meals that will leave you stuffed. Eating light meals or snacks at food stands, cafes, or local markets is a fun way to try new foods, and they typically don’t cost very much. It also leaves room for treats at the chocolate shop, bakery, or gelato stand that you will inevitably pass by later.
Ask locals for recommendations, and stay away from restaurants geared towards tourists. Ask the staff at your hotel or sightseeing attractions where they would eat. You will likely find good quality, reasonably priced meals that you’ll remember years later! Lastly, consider sharing meals at dinner. Depending on portion sizes, sharing an appetizer, one large meal, and a dessert is often more than enough for two people!
Ready to add a few more stamps to your passport?
Start planning your trip now…the possibilities are endless! Have other ideas about how to travel on a budget? I’d love to hear them!