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6 Tips for Budget Travel in Europe

The Dollar Wise Grand Tour

Steyr in Austria
Out of the way destinations are often cheaper than major tourist attractions, but they often harbor great cultural treasures: Steyr, Austria, is home to one of Central Europe's finest example of a Gothic residence.
© Volker Poelzl. All Rights Reserved.

As the dollar continues to remain relatively weak against the euro, Europe has largely remained expensive for most travelers from the U.S. However, with smart planning and a little bit of research it is still possible to travel in Europe without spending a fortune. Traveling on a budget often is more conducive to meeting the locals, participating in the rituals of their daily lives, and having a truly unique experience—rather than taking home along with you.

1) Where to Go

Plan your itinerary wisely. Airfares and train tickets make up a significant part of your travel expenses. By choosing a few select destinations, as opposed to traveling all over Europe in order to see and do everything, you will save money and time. Consider the logistics of your trip. It takes a lot of time to travel and settle down at your destination. The more places you visit, the more time you will spend on getting there, finding accommodations, and gaining your bearings. My experience is that travel should be more relaxing than exhausting—more of a joy than a job.

If you have two weeks, I suggest only visiting one country, or even just one region within a country such as Tuscany, Provence, Andalusia, Burgundy, etc. This allows you to gain greater insights into the history, culture, and customs—to experience some form of what we call cultural immersion. You can always explore the similarities and differences with close neighboring regions or countries. The British Isles and Ireland is one such cultural region, as are Scandinavia, Central Europe, or the Iberian Peninsula. France has its own distinct culture very different from other European countries, but you could include the border regions of Belgium, Germany, and Spain as part of a trip. Part of Belgium is French speaking, and the French provinces of Alsace and Burgundy share a lot of their culture and history with neighboring regions in Germany. The Basque regions in Southwestern France and Northeastern Spain share cultural commonality. The same is the case in parts of northern Italy, which shares much of its history and cultural heritage with neighbors such as Austria, Switzerland, France, and even Croatia.

Again, my experience traveling to Europe for many years is that it is generally better to not attempt to see too much in the course of one trip. That way you truly appreciate your destination in a profound and satisfactory way, and do not return to your home country exhausted by your vacation. Some enjoy counting countries visited these days as though doing so is some form of competition, but that is generally a superficial, even disrespectful, way to experience rich cultures and vibrant people in my view.

Sterzing
Sterzing (Vipiteno) in northern Italy shares most of its culture and history with Austria. Exploring bordering countries is a great way to learn about European history and culture, while spending less on transportation
© Volker Poelzl. All Rights Reserved.

As the dollar continues to be relatively weak against the Euro and the British pound—though up to US$1.30 from a low of US$1.50 against the Euro—even during the European recessions, destinations in Eastern Europe are a budget alternative to Western Europe. Some of the new members of the European Union have not yet adopted the Euro, and travel in most Baltic states, Poland, Czech Republic, and Hungary continues to be a bit cheaper than in Western Europe. All of these countries have a great historic and cultural heritage that is well worth exploring.

Prague
Prague, and Eastern Europe in general, are still generally cheaper destinations than Western Europe, though that is changing as well.
© Volker Poelzl. All Rights Reserved.

2) When to Go

Research on the web when your planned destination receives most of its visitors. If you travel in mid or low season, you not only save a lot of money, but you will also have a more authentic experience of the local culture and way of life, since there will be few other foreign tourists. July through mid-September is high season in Europe, no matter where you go. Easter is another popular time to travel for Europeans, and so is the holiday season around Christmas and New Year’s Eve. While I found Paris packed with tourists during Easter week, the French Mediterranean Island of Corsica was virtually empty, since the weather is still cool and rainy in April. On another occasion I visited Paris in February. It was cold and got dark early, but I vastly preferred it to my first visit during the month of August, when the city was choked with tourists and the Parisians largely had left town. Similarly, the Portuguese beach resorts on the Algarve coast are crammed with tourists in the summer, but I went there in October and also in February to find a beautiful coastline and pleasant towns without tourists and with low prices.

Budget Farm Travel in Provence
Provence, France is still beautiful in October, and rentals of great apartments are a fraction of the high-season cost, making budget travel relatively possible.
Photo @ Gregory Hubbs. All Rights Reserved.

3) Getting Around

Transportation costs take up the largest part of your travel budget in Europe. Airfares to Europe during the summer are never cheap, no matter what airlines and websites advertise. By visiting fewer countries or by only visiting one country you can significantly reduce your travel expenses. Eurail passes are available for a single country or multiple countries, allowing you to explore a single destination or several neighboring countries. These passes are cheaper than a Eurail pass that includes all participating countries.

When planning your trip consider several forms of transportation. Traveling in Europe by bus is a low-cost alternative to taking the train. Several bus companies connect major European cities. Ride shares are another affordable way to travel long distances for the price of sharing fuel.

If you travel with one or two other people, or as a family, and wish to explore the countryside, renting a car becomes a relatively affordable way of getting around. This gives you greater flexibility with regard to where to stay and where to go. Cheap accommodations are often available on the outskirts of a city or town. By renting a car, you can stay at a bed and breakfast or vacation home rental in the countryside, or at a campground outside the city limits. You can drive back into town the next day, visit other towns in the region, and have the option to alternate intense days of travel with days of relaxation. You can truly get off-the-beaten-path and discover medieval towns largely undiscovered by many tourists. You will meet hospitable and curious locals in beautiful places where they do not work in the tourism industry, go to local markets, and often participate in harvest or other festivals.

Subways in Paris
Subways offer discounts on weekly passes or multiple rides.
© Volker Poelzl. All Rights Reserved.

4) Where to Stay

Apart from transportation, accommodations take up the largest portion of your travel budget. Avoid traveling alone if you can in terms of budget. Single rooms are always more expensive per person than a double room. While many travelers prefer to book hotels ahead of time, I usually prefer to select a hotel on arrival. This has advantages and disadvantages. Without an advance reservation you can explore several options for budget accommodations locally, but if you arrive at a major tourist destination in the high season, you might find most affordable rooms booked. I traveled to Venice over New Year’s, and my girlfriend and I were surprised to find only one room in the entire city that was close to our budget. However, if you travel to a large city or visit Europe during the low season, you should not have a problem finding budget accommodation once you arrive. Airports as well as railway stations have tourist information offices that can help you find a room, or you can just call a hotel that is listed in your travel guide or travel app.

If you plan to stay longer at one destination and don’t mind spending time on the subway or train, you might find a good deal on lodging on the outskirts of town. At one time, I spent a whole week in Paris with several friends. This allowed us to get a discounted weekly subway pass and we didn’t mind that our cheap youth hostel was on the outskirts of Paris.

If you arrive at your destination by train or bus you might find locals approaching you who offer rooms at their home. I have followed such invitations in many places across Europe, and I have not had any problems. The rooms are usually simple, but clean. Don’t always count on cable TV, telephone, or Internet access, but these home stays are usually a great bargain compared to hotels. Rooms for rent in private residences are available in most European countries. If you drive into any town, you might see signs offering rooms for rent. This is a much more affordable option than staying at a hotel. I was in a small town in northern Italy on my most recent Europe trip, and all hotels were full, except one very expensive place. I decided instead to take another drive through town and look for signs offering rooms for rent at private homes. I found a pleasant pensione at a fraction of the price that the hotel charged, and a delicious breakfast was also included.

In large cities I have had good experiences with small family-run hotels. They are often a bit outmoded, but they are a great low-cost alternative to modern, sterile chain hotels you can find at home. Cheap accommodations are not easy to find at major tourist attractions in Europe, but youth hostels are an attractive low-cost option for lodging. Some hostels are part of the International Youth Hostel association, and you need to be a member to stay there, but there are many independent hostels now where anyone is welcome to stay. In the summer it is a good idea to book in advance or arrive early in the day. A growing number of hostels not only offer dorms but also double rooms at good rates. You can also save money on lodging by teaming up with a group of two to four travelers. You can share a room and you might be able to afford a hotel that would otherwise be beyond your budget.

Camping in Europe is difficult without a car. Most campgrounds are on the outskirts of town, making a visit to the city center a lengthy endeavor. Years ago I stayed at a campground on the outskirts of London. It was not a pleasant area and it took me an hour by train to get to the city. Even in small towns, most campgrounds are beyond the town limit, which makes access difficult, unless you have a car. If you travel in rural areas and intend to travel slowly, you might want to consider staying at a farm for a few days or renting a house in the countryside. Farm stays and vacation rentals are an increasingly popular lodging option all across Europe, and they are usually cheaper than hotels in the long run, while offering you the option to cook in your own kitchen or a common kitchen if you so wish. There is nothing like a sampling of great local foods from a market after many days eating at restaurants or even outdoor cafés.

Budget Farm Stays Abroad
Staying in inexpensive but beautiful and rustic places like the Agriturismo Olivello in Tuscany, with a full kitchen and 2 bedrooms, brings you closer to the owners, locals, and the land while being easier on the budget ($50 a night when we visited for two weeks 20 minutes from Siena).
Photo @ Gregory Hubbs. All Rights Reserved.

5) Exploring your Destination on a Budget

Exploring a city is not only limited to major sites and museums with high entrance fees. The best way to get to know a city is to walk around, sit in a park, enjoy a coffee at an outdoor café, and observe the hustle and bustle.  Walking instead of taking the subway or bus is not only more enjoyable, it can also save you money, considering that single subway rides in Europe’s cities are quite expensive. If you prefer public transportation, get a multiple ride pass or a weekly pass—always cheaper than single rides. Also, keep in mind that many museums offer discounts on certain days of the week or at night, or access may even be free on certain days. In some cities you can buy combined tickets for major sites and attractions at a large discount over individual admission charges. Many cities publish free entertainment guides where you can find out about free activities and local cultural events. If you are a student, teacher, or if you are under 26 years old, you can get a discount at many attractions and museums all across Europe. All you need is an International Student Identification Card (ISIC), Teacher Card (ITIC), or the Youth Travel Card (IYTC), with offices all over the world.

Gianicolo Park Rome Picnic
Just above Trastevere in Rome, the Gianicolo park is a great place to take a walk and get away from tourists for an inexpensive picnic and relaxation, with panoramas of the city on every side.
Photo @ Gregory Hubbs. All Rights Reserved.

6) Where to Eat

Planning your meals carefully is another great way to reduce your travel expenses. Instead of eating at an overpriced restaurant or sandwich shop near popular tourist sites that generally hike the prices and serve more generic fare, you might want to consider buying food at a small grocery store or market. Eating out at lunchtime is also cheaper than going out to dinner, since you can take advantage of lunch specials intended for the locals. If you buy groceries and have a sandwich or picnic for dinner back at your room or in a park, you can save enough to go out to a bar, café, or movie theater later at night.

Budget Food in France
For lunch or dinner, pick up a sandwich, a quiche, and some pastries in Europe for less than the average lunch at a café/bistro and far less than the average dinner at a restaurant, and eat very, very well.
Photo @ Gregory Hubbs. All Rights Reserved.

As you can see, budget travel in Europe is quite possible. The more you research budget travel options ahead of time, the more you will be able to plan a trip to Europe that both fits your budget and offers unique and memorable experiences with the local people. Bon voyage!