Europe provides travellers with hundreds of top destinations to visit. With such a large number of countries in a relatively small area, each with its own different culture, language, architecture, and food to experience and explore. If have not been to Europe in a number of years, you may soon find out that a trip to Europe can hurt your bank balance. Fortunately, there are ways to travel to Europe on a budget. Keep reading to find out how.
Plan your trip before the time
While it might be exciting to just get on the first available flight and start doing whatever comes to mind, it's not the best way to save money on a trip to Europe. Without doing research on ticket and accommodation prices, what there is to see in every country, and how to cheaply get from one country to the next, you are bound to end up paying more than you should.
Choose the right time to travel
Europe in summer is a different place from Europe in winter. It's teeming with other tourists, accommodation prices go through the roof, and getting there and getting around will cost an arm and a leg. On the other hand, while Europe is beautiful in winter with snow-clad mountains and Christmas markets, it's not the best time of the year to get cheap flights and to travel around the continent.
For those who want to visit Europe on a budget, the best time is during the so-called shoulder season, which falls within the autumn and spring. There will be fewer tourists, accommodation will be cheaper, flights and internal transport will cost less, and you should even be able to find better deals at many restaurants.
Find the most affordable way to travel to Europe
Depending on where you live, you will probably arrive in Europe by plane. Don't make the mistake, however, of assuming that all flights are equal. By doing a bit of research beforehand, you can probably save enough money on the ticket alone to fund your first few nights’ accommodation. This is particularly true if you have to embark on a long flight to get to Europe.
If you search for 'cheap flights to Europe' on Google, beware of the tourist traps. The first few listings are normally paid ads that are unlikely to offer the best available rates.
Rather use a flight price comparison service like Skyscanner. Play around with different departure and arrival airports and dates. Often it could be cheaper to fly into a major airport like Paris or Rome and find your way from there to wherever you want to start your journey.
Once you've decided more or less when you want to fly, also experiment with different departure and return dates. You will often find significant price variations during the same week, depending on the supply and demand situation.
Travelling from country to country in Europe
If you don't give this some thought before the time you will probably also end up paying much more than you should have.
Travelling through Europe by train
Train travel in Europe is immensely popular but it's not equally cheap in all EU countries. Trains in Western Europe and the UK are often a lot more expensive than trains or buses. In Southern and Eastern Europe, however, travelling by train can be extremely affordable. Doing research on websites such as Rome2Rio.com and the already mentioned Skyscanner.net can help you to save a lot on these tickets. Trainline (www.thetrainline.com) is another great tool because it offers a myriad of destinations in 45 European countries.
Travelling across Europe by airplane
Europe is brimming with budget airlines such as EasyJet, RyanAir, and Norwegian. Beware, however, that there is sometimes a catch: they might charge a lot extra for your luggage. They are a solid option if you are travelling light though. We've bought flight tickets to our next destination for less than $10 in this way more than once.
Using the bus to travel through Europe
Although it will take a bit longer to reach your destination, bus travel is another affordable and reliable option in Europe. A few of the companies that offer a large number of destinations include MegaBus, FlixBus, and OuiBus. We've seen tickets from London to Brussels or Amsterdam on Megabus for as little as $20.
An old budget traveller’s trick to save money on accommodation is to take an overnight bus for long trips, such as from London to Rome.
Save money on local transport when travelling inside Europe
Once you've arrived in a new city, you will likely want to see all the sights and have amazing local experiences. Taking a taxi every time is not the most affordable option. Let's look at the alternatives:
- Walking two or three blocks won't kill you. It will, instead, help to keep you fit and during the course of your journey you will save an amazing amount of money.
- Another great option is to use day passes for the local transport wherever they are available. This way you can often save lots of money on bus, train, and the metro (called U-Bahn in Austria and Germany).
Saving money on food during your trip through Europe
After transport and accommodation, food will probably be your biggest expense while travelling through Europe. Here are a few ways to save on the cost of your meals.
Cook your own meals
With so many world class restaurants and bars all over the place, eating out and enjoying local wines are part of the fun. If you could at least cook one meal a day, you are going to save a significant amount of money.
If you stay in Airbnb apartments you will often have a small kitchen. You will often realise that food at the local markets is a lot more affordable than eating out for each meal.
Eat where the locals eat
Another great way to save money on a trip through Europe is to avoid expensive restaurants favoured by tourists. You will seldom find any locals there. Rather go into a quiet side street, away from the tourist attractions and find yourself an authentic little local eatery. The prices will be (much) lower and there's a better chance that you will be able to strike up a conversation with a local.
The same principles apply to drinking. Buying alcohol at a liquor store will be lots cheaper than hanging out with the tourist crowd. If you hate drinking along though, at least try to find a quaint local pub in one of the side streets. One other cost-saving tip is to drink local beer or wine, not international brands as they will often be overpriced.
Choose free activities and sights over pricey ones
We get it, when you are in Paris you have to go to the Eiffel Tower. Don't let the guidebook lure you into visiting tourist traps that won't really give you an insight into the local culture, architecture, or lifestyle.
If you search Google for "Free things to see and do in (Paris, Rome, etc)" you will find lots of interesting places and activities that won't cost you anything to see or do. Examples include parks, walking tours, rivers, beaches, mountains, buildings, museums, and much more.
Also don't be shy to make use of discounted ticket prices for students or pensioners. Many famous attractions offer thee discounts and they can save you lots of money.
In quite a few top attractions across Italian cities charge no entrance fees on the 1st Sunday of each month. So, yes, you can visit Rome's Roman Forum or the Colosseum for free.
Staying in budget accommodation can be as much fun as anything else
Before the arrival of the Internet the accommodation scene in Europe was tightly controlled and it was difficult (but not impossible) to find bargains. Today, however, there is no excuse if you pay the price of a new camera for a roof over your head while travelling through Europe.
Staying in a hostel will be much more affordable and you will have a much better chance to meet like-minded travellers. With the help of websites such as hostelworld.com and booking.com you can still find a dorm room in a hostel for less than $30 per day, and in Eastern Europe this can be as low as $10.
A relatively new entry to the market is airbnb.com. This is a particularly useful service if you would like to stay in a small apartment and now and then cook your own meals to save money. Just make sure that the location is convenient - some Airbnb places are in the suburbs, far from transport options.
Couchsurfing.com is for the true budget traveller who would like to mingle with locals. You will get a spare bed or couch without paying a cent. Just read a couple of reviews though, the location might not be convenient and you don't want to spend the whole night lying awake because the owner of the house is making you uncomfortable.
Focus on Europe's relatively affordable destinations
The cost of living varies significantly one European city to the next. Scandinavia, for example, is infamous for its high prices. So are Paris and Zurich. Portugal on the other hand is relatively cheap when compared to France. So is the Czech Republic. You can still enjoy a beer in Prague for around 1 USD and afterward explore one of the most beautiful and interesting cities in Europe on a budget. In Croatia you should still be able to get a hostel bed for under $10 and a full meal in Romania shouldn't set you back much more than $5.
Don't make the mistake of thinking that these relatively cheap destinations have little to see and experience either. Prague offers amazing historical sites and stunning architecture. The Old Town of Warsaw in Poland is overflowing with history. The same applies to Riga in Latvia, Sofia in Bulgaria, and the small towns of Spain, Portugal, and Italy.
Schengen visas and ETIAS
Readers should please note that the vast majority of passport holders who can currently travel to Europe without a visa will have to apply for an ETIAS when it is launched if they want to visit the region for tourism, business, or transit purposes for maximum period of 90 days in every 180-day period.
Everyone who currently requires a Schengen visa to visit the region will still need one. Fortunately the ETIAS is priced reasonably at €7, thus not causing significant stress to traveller budgets.
ETIAS is not the same as a visa. It is, instead, a travel authorisation for visitors who do not need visas and who are visiting Europe for business or leisure purposes. The ETIAS system will be used to pre-screen these visitors. Although the applicant will still have to provide some basic information, it will not be as much as what is involved with a Schengen visa application.
The aim with ETIAS is to improve EU border security. It was created for short-term visits to the Schengen Area, up to a maximum of 90 days, and will be compulsory for entry into the European Union from the planned launch date in 2024.