If you’re like me, making it to Europe on a vacation can seem like a daunting and difficult task. Between the cost of airfare, accommodations, and transportation, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed by international travel. Careful budgeting before you go is an absolute must, but let me show you how to travel Europe on a budget.
Luckily, it is totally possible to travel through Europe on a budget, especially once you know some of these key tips and tricks. With a little research and maybe some practice, you’ll be a travel pro in no time.
Be flexible with your travel dates.
This could make the difference between spending an extra several hundred dollars. If you’re coming from the US, that initial expense will probably eat up a good bit of your budget. Always book one way flights to take advantage of different airline and airport deals, and check multiple websites to make sure you’re getting the best price for your flight ticket (check out expedia.com, rome2rio.com, skyscanner.com, etc.).
Pro tip: Rome2Rio has been really helpful in my travels. Not only does it give prices for every leg of your trip (flight to train, train to bus), but compares prices to see which form of transport is cheapest.
Most importantly, give yourself a few days of flexibility to fly into and out of Europe. If your schedule is determined by the cheapest flight and not by your attraction plans, you’ll save a lot more money.
Fly using budget airlines whenever possible.
When I was in Europe, I used budget airlines for everything. If you’re visiting multiple countries and are not planning on spending five hours on a train each way, you should definitely check out the cheap airfare options that are available. Ryanair is what all the savvy European travelers use to get from here to there… I’ve caught flights for as little as €5 (about $5.50)!
It’s good to keep in mind that these are not the most comfortable airlines, and you have to plan your trip well. These airlines make their money not from the tickets, but from everything besides the tickets. They charge for drinks, onboard magazines, and seat choice. Most importantly, they charge extra for an overhead carry-on bag, so make sure you pay a small fee for the bag in advance instead of a big fee at the gate (save yourself around $40).
Stay in a hostel or Airbnb.
What more is there to say about Airbnb than it is absolutely amazing? If you’re travelling alone or with one other person, I would definitely start with Airbnb when looking for accommodations. It’s available all over Europe, and you can find a private room for under $20/night if you play your cards right.
Bonus: you will usually have access to a kitchen and sometimes free breakfast, so it’s basically a win-win.
If you’re travelling as a family or with more than two people, hostels can be a really good option for you. They’re used most often by travelling students or large groups, and offer a more budget-friendly alternative to European hotels. You generally pay by bed, but can select when you book if you want to be in a shared, communal room or just one for your family. They can range from fancy and upscale to dodgy and bare-bones, so make sure you do your homework on HostelWorld to find the perfect one for you.
Pro tip: I wrote a huge post on all things international travel, including much more info on cheap accommodations. Couchsurfing? Free upgrades? Everything you need to know.
Book your train and bus tickets in advance.
For going short distances in Europe, train travel is the way to go. Most countries have strong transportation systems, especially between cities, so it’s easy and convenient to use the train. Your biggest financial mistake would be buying the tickets at the station, however. They are way more expensive than buying online in advance, and less convenient.
You might already be facing a language barrier, so it’s a good idea to make things as simple as possible for yourself when you’re traveling! Buying your tickets in advance is not only easier, but could save you tons of money. My experience has taught me that tickets usually cost around €10 at the train station, and sometimes just €1 online. Just don’t miss your scheduled train, because your digital ticket is non-refundable.
Exchange your money before you travel.
Exchanging your currency can be a major hassle, but it’s more than just inconvenient: it can be really expensive. Sometimes you get stuck in an airport and are forced to exchange your cash right then and there, but a little extra planning can save you a whole bunch on service charges and high exchange rates (learn more about the woes of airport currency exchanges here).
See if your bank or credit union will sell you some euros in advance, and if they will buy them back from you when you return. If not, take a close look at your credit card and find out the rates for taking cash out of an ATM or just using your debit or credit– it might be cheaper than the airport exchange rates. Head over to my post on traveling to Cartagena to learn more.
Make a grocery store pit stop.
We all know how expensive food can be when you have to eat out every meal. Europe can be especially bad, boasting generally higher prices for everything (due to consumer taxes) and also boasting really good food. Of course, when in Rome, but you can still hold onto your cash while having a good time.
Try and only eat out a maximum of one meal a day. If you’re staying in an Airbnb, chances are you have access to some kind of kitchen. Always check with your host, but most are fine with you storing some food in their fridge and cooking in there a little bit. Drop by the local grocery store to pick up easy-to-prepare foods, and settle in for some homemade meals.
Pro tips: Best breakfasts- oatmeal, cereal, toast with peanut butter or regular butter. Best quick meals- pasta with sauce and beans, boiled veggies, cold sandwiches. Stock up on staples you know you’ll use over several days, but preferably won’t have to take back with you.
Get a transportation pass for cities.
Europe is doing a great job with public transportation, and most major cities have some kind of three-part system you can take advantage of. Public buses are usually a good option if you have more time to get from here to there, but want to be dropped off closer to your destination. The metro is better if you have less time and are willing to walk a bit to get to your next stop. Trams are good if neither the buses nor the metro is available.
Most cities have kiosks at the metro and bus stations where you can buy a transportation pass. If you’re only in the city for a few days, it’s usually more economical to buy an unlimited pass for however many days you are spending there. It will save you money each day, especially if you’re going to many different places. If you’re in the city for a longer period of time, most places have a more permanent pass you can buy.
Example: London’s Tube (metro) is one of the oldest and best in the world. It costs around £1.50 ($1.90) per ride, and can add up pretty quick if you’re hopping on and off. Invest in the Oyster card if you are there a few days. It is just £5 to purchase, and then you load money onto it. You use it as needed and save money on each trip.
Pack as light as you can.
I’ve already mentioned that certain airlines charge extra for your carry-on overhead bag, especially if it has wheels (a “trolley” bag, if you want to sound European). You’ll save a lot of money if you can travel lightly with a sturdy backpack that can fit under an airplane seat, with maybe only a purse or small personal bag for your most important items.
I have a whole post on the best backpack for Disney World, and it’s a great place to start looking for the right backpack for your Europe trip as well. My favorite folds up small in your suitcase when you’re not using it, and has several sizes available on Amazon.
Use an app to find food.
I am just waiting for the day these apps spread across the pond to reach me in the United States! I discovered food apps mid-way through my Europe trip, and I wish I had known about them sooner. There are some amazing apps you can download to help save money on your food expenses, and cut back on food waste at the same time.
Most of these apps work the same way: a business will have leftover food from the previous day or earlier that morning. It’s perfectly edible, but they cannot keep selling at their place of business because of their menu or availability. They take a picture of the food with a description on the app; you find it, buy it in advance, and then stop by to pick it up before a certain time. The best part:
All of the food is half price.
Perfectly good food for half the money! Depending on the area of Europe you’re going to, you might have to work a little to find which apps are active in which cities. I’ve had really good experiences with Karma and YourLocal. Plus, you can sort results by dietary needs, so it’s a great option if you’re gluten free, vegan, vegetarian, etc.
Find free things to do.
I basically live for free things (especially at Disney!). This could be a post of its own, but you can always find free things to do in Europe, especially if you’re staying in a city. It’s always fun to walk around and take in the culture, especially if you get to meet and talk with the locals! Most architectural landmarks are free to look at (if not go inside and tour), so grab yourself a map and some good shoes, and you’ll be on your way.
Some cities have bars with free entertainment, like comedy clubs or small theaters. If curling up with a good book is more your speed, you can always find a comfortable library that will welcome you as a visitor (maybe not as a tourist). Find important historical landmarks, explore various districts, and even window shop.
Pro tip: Find parks. Enjoy parks. Fall in love with parks. Cities like Paris and Barcelona have fantastic public gardens that are completely free for visitors to explore. Chill out in nature, ponder some sculptures, or bring your yoga mat.
Use every discount you can.
European museums are some of the finest in the world. They also work really hard to keep art accessible to the average person, which means there are plenty of ways to see masterpieces for free. Check online to see which days the museum is open to the public for free, and then work your schedule around that. Some museums drop their fee after a certain time each day, giving you a couple hours to soak in the art guilt-free. These museum “free days” do attract the crowds, though, so be sure to arrive early and grab a good spot in line.
Most museums also offer discounted rates for different groups of people. Students can almost always get in for free with a proof of ID, as well as young children, the elderly, and more. Take a close look over the museum’s website to see if you qualify.
Knowing how to travel to Europe on a budget is definitely possible. The key is to plan ahead and do some research. Like any vacation, sometimes the planning can just as fun as the trip itself, especially when the destination is somewhere as vibrant and diverse as Europe (or, of course, Disney). Your finances will thank you after you return, and you might end up with some enjoyable and unique memories to show for it.