Europe — both the continent as a whole and many individual destinations within its storied borders — is on the bucket list for many travelers. Unfortunately, though, it’s also one of the world’s most expensive destinations, and that can be a deterrent for even the most eager traveler.
But don’t give up hope yet. As travelers and backpackers have known for years, there are plenty of ways to do Europe on a shoestring — without having to subsist on bread and cheese (though if you’re headed to France, you may want to do just that). Here are our top 5 tips for budget travel in Europe.
1. Think (and Stay) Beyond Hotels
With the sole exception of budget accommodations (which generally aren’t located in the best areas anyway), staying at hotels is one of the quickest ways to overshoot your budget — yes, even if you get good deals at online sites. Instead, consider booking at or through:
• Hostels. Not only are hostels cheap, but they’re also a great way to meet fellow travelers, and these days most are pretty nice, too. If you’re a little older and are uncomfortable with the early twenties crowd, or if you’re traveling with a partner, many hostels provide private rooms at a good rate. Hostelworld and Hostelbookersare two popular bed-finding sites.
• AirBNB. On sites like AirBNB, hosts from around the world post rooms, apartments, and homes for booking at affordable rates. The best part about AirBNB is often times the hosts, who tend to enjoy touring guests around. You can also host travelers at home yourself if you like, but there’s no obligation to do so.
• Couchsurfing. Couchsurfing is much the same concept of AirBNB, except, well, you’ll be booking a couch, which can be even cheaper.
• House Sitting. Several sites, including Caretakerand Sabbatical Homes, post a plethora of house sitting opportunities. House sitters generally won’t have to pay a fee to stay there, but they will have to pay utilities and they may have a fair amount of chores, so clarify the details with the homeowners before signing on.
• Home Swapping. If you really want to live like a local, home swapping might just be the thing — and it’s free, too! Use a site like Home Exchange or Swap Now to find a home in your chosen destination, talk to the home owners, check references and write up a clear contract, and you’ll soon be relaxing in your new European home away from home.
2. Travel in the Off-Season
Want to travel to Europe for Christmas? Yeah, good luck to you (and your wallet) with that. You’ll have much better luck and find much cheaper deals on flights, tours and rooms when you travel in the offseason. While this varies slightly between regions, the weeks after Thanksgiving but well before Christmas are typically dead for getting yourself out the country, as is the week following New Years Day. There’s also shoulder season — that little blip between the low and the high seasons. This might be, for example, early September rather than August, when you’ll get similar weather and lower rates.
3. Shop Around for the Best Transport Options
Getting to and from Europe can be expensive, as can be getting around once you’re there. Keeping things cheap means taking a close look at how and where you want to travel.
• Flights. Again, the off-season is your friend. In getting to Europe, search for travel deals on sites like Kayak or Adioso, setting up low fare alerts for your exact dates. If you live, for example, on the west coast, you might even want to consider a round the world ticket to get you there and back, as it might be more cost-effective and more fun! Once in Europe, consider budget airlines.
• Train. Unlike in the States, trains are a great way to travel in Europe — fast, clean, scenic, and really an essential part of any European vacation. However, they do differ in price and style between regions. A German express train, for instance, will cost far more than a local service Italian train, while also getting you there much faster. For more expensive regions, consider bundling your tickets with a Eurail pass (which you’ll have to purchase before you leave the US), saving individual ticket purchases for more affordable regions.
• Buses. There are actually many decent bus lines in Europe today, equipped with TVs and snacks. And they’re much cheaper than any option out there. Sorting the good from the bad can get tricky, so we recommend asking fellow travelers for tips.
4. Stick to the ATM
Traveler’s cheques? Exchange bureaus? Banks?Hotels? The best rate you’ll get for exchanging money will actually be at an ATM — yes, even after ATM and foreign transaction fees. Most exchange places charge outrageous and surreptitious commissions, so avoid them like the plague.
5. Save and Book Well Ahead of Time
No matter what strategies you take, it’s important to get all of your ducks in a row well ahead of time. In fact, starting to save early will mean starting to book early, which in turn will bring you savings. To get an accurate accounting of all possible costs, list them out on a piece of paper with general estimations. How much do you anticipate flights costing? Hotels?Trip insurance Meals?Tourist site fees? Get it all accounted for and start saving now so that you’ll be able to take advantage of any deals the moment they arise.
Traveling to Europe can be a costly endeavor, but it doesn’t have to be, just as long as you’re willing to think outside of the box. Do your research, pick your destinations, start squirreling those dollars and cents away, and you’ll be on your way in no time.