How to Budget for a Trip to Europe
Visiting Europe is a must-do for any serious traveler. But there’s no getting around one cold hard fact: visiting Europe is just plain expensive. For many people, it’s a once-in-a-lifetime trip.
It doesn’t have to be that way, though. Good old standby practices like budgeting and saving up a travel fund will help you set aside some money for traveling to Europe. But there are a lot of other ways you can afford the European trip (or trips) of your dreams as well — by seeking out budget European travel options.
We know — you’re probably thinking of gritty, overcrowded, underwhelming hotels and tours. But going the cheap route doesn’t have to mean sacrificing comfort or fun. Plus, by selectively seeking out cheaper travel options and doing your research, you’re probably going to get off the beaten path more, which is almost always a good thing.
Looking to enjoy a spectacular European vacation — without risking bankruptcy in the process? Heed these 15 tried-and-true tips.
1. Book Your Trip for the Shoulder Seasons
Everyone wants to jet-set over to Europe in the summer, when the weather is often agreeable and the kids are out of school. The problem? Airlines know this too, so they put a premium on travel at this time. But did you know that the shoulder-season weather is almost as nice, but comes at a much lower price?
Specifically, we’re talking about April/May and September/October. Save those sunburns for your winter trips to the tropics, and enjoy Paris’ Tuileries Garden in the spring and Germany’s Oktoberfest in the fall.
You can dial down your airfare even further by flying there and back on weekdays instead of notoriously overpriced weekends, when people try to accommodate their work schedules. You can also use websites like Skyscanner and Momondo to find the cheapest deals once you do have a date nailed down.
2. Perfect the Art of Packing Light
You don’t want to be that person — the one toting multiple heavy suitcases full of clothes, souvenirs, shoes and waffle irons around with you everywhere you go. Instead, take a page from the minimalists and learn how to pack light.
The advantages are many. You’re limited in how many cheap tchotchkes you can buy from each location. (Photos are better mementos anyways.) You won’t have to pay baggage fees while in transit. And you’re less likely to lose things because you’re bringing fewer items in general.
Plus, you can more readily take advantage of spontaneous adventures; switching up your travel plans on the fly is a lot easier when you don’t have to worry about toting around half your wardrobe.
3. Visit Countries Off the Beaten Path
Sure, France, Italy, Germany, Norway and Switzerland are what most people think of when it comes to a “proper” European vacation. But these countries are swarming with tourists (some with way more money than you), which means often astronomical rates.
Instead, why not go off the beaten track a bit and visit a lesser-seen country, like Poland, Portugal, Bulgaria or the Balkans? These countries also have established tourism economies, but they’re much less crowded than the more tourist-infested areas to the west and north.
Each one of these countries has its own long-established history, culture, regional gastronomic delicacies and natural wonders to savor as well, so you won’t be missing out — your photos will just be less full of other people.
In terms of cities, a handful of European metropolises are among the cheapest places in the world to visit. Consider Sofia, Bulgaria (pictured here), where you’ll spend an average of just $94.69 per day, or Kyiv, Ukraine, which will typically set you back about $103.79 per day. (As a point of comparison, it’ll cost you $277.36 to visit Paris, $284.83 to hit up Barcelona and $386.78 to explore Amsterdam per day. That’s a huge difference!)
4. Chat Up the Locals at the Visitor Bureau Offices
We know, they look cheesy. You’ve already done your research online, right? Why stop by those little offices just to poke in like a n00b tourist and show off your lack of worldly experience?
Stick with us, though. Oftentimes those little tourism offices offer discounts on everything from tours to restaurants to hotels — sweet relief that frees up your cash for other fun activities — as well as up-to-date, on-the-ground knowledge. You know, the kind that hasn’t been posted on TripAdvisor lately because everyone is still too busy out enjoying themselves to sit down and hammer out a review from yesterday’s tour.
The folks at the visitor’s bureau may also know which tour outfits are currently down and which ones are hot, so they can steer you to the best places to go. Most tourist offices even offer free maps. Take two — one to use while you’re there, and one to store away for later as a memento (since your first one will be all folded up and ripped by the end of your trip, most likely).
5. Hit Up the Free Walking Tours
In most major European cities (and around the globe for that matter) there’s at least one company that offers free walking tours. These are led by friendly locals who can help show you the nooks and crannies that you might pass up on the bigger tours that zip around to and from each major tourist destination.
And while these aren’t truly free (you are expected to at least tip the tour guide), they are a great way to explore on the cheap.
These are also fun to do on the fly, since generally you don’t need to make a reservation. You just show up at a pre-designated meeting space at a regularly-scheduled time, find someone wearing a vest or other signage from the company, and off you go.
Wondering how to find free tours? Good old Google (search “city + free walking tour”) can honestly often do the trick. Or try asking your hotel or hostel front desk. There are also reputable companies, including Sandemans, that offer free tours in a variety of cities across Europe.
6. Buy the City Sightseeing Passes
Most major European cities, including Dublin, London and Paris, offer paid sightseeing passes. The idea is simple: You pay an up-front fee in exchange for free (or reduced-cost) access to many of the city’s top tourist attractions. Some passes even offer free use of hop on/hop off buses, so you don’t even really need to worry about transportation.
These passes are especially useful if you’re trying to cram a lot into your itinerary since you can be whisked away to each spot you want to visit posthaste. Moreover, some passes let you cut the lines at each attraction.
Of course, it’s also a good idea to scope out exactly what’s included before you shell out for a pass. Are the included attractions ones you’d really be visiting anyways, or are there many others that aren’t included that you’d rather see?
Crunch the numbers to see if it really is a deal — but if it does include the spots you wanted to go to anyways, this can be a great bargain.
7. Stay in a Hostel
Most travelers are well aware that hostels are cheap places to stay. But most also believe that these cheap rates come at the cost of comfort, amenities, and peace and quiet.
If you think hostels are all full of drunk frat kids, think again. Many hostels are quite upscale, offering the same luxury design touches and services you’re likely to see in more extravagant (read: expensive) hotels.
Most hostels nowadays offer a wide range of room types, depending on your budget and comfort level. You can be packed into ultra-cheap mixed-sex bunk rooms, all the way up to private rooms with private baths, just like in hotels.
Even better, hostels offer a range of ways to save on your next European vacation besides just being a cheap place to sleep for the night. They generally have kitchens available, which means you can prepare your own food so you’re not eating out for every single meal. Many hostels even provide free breakfasts.
Finally, hostels are generally located in prime spots in the city so you’re never very far from the action, meaning you don’t have to pay a lot for transportation to start your adventures each day.
Wondering where you can find affordable-but-nice hostels in Europe? Try a site like HostelWorld, which allows you to search by room type and amenities so you can find what suits you best. HostelBookers is a good bet as well.
8. Stay in an Airbnb
There’s a very good chance you’ve already stayed in an Airbnb property. Similar to hostels, these accommodations run the gamut from shared rooms to entirely separate places (including houses, apartments and condos), and are generally listed for a very reasonable rate.
Some cities in particular are excellent choices for finding cheap Airbnbs. Cities where the average price of an Airbnb is less than 50 bucks a night include Antara, Turkey; Sofia, Bulgaria; Krakow, Poland; Valencia, Spain; and Tenerife, Canary Islands. (Pictured here is a loft in Tenerife that's just over $50 per night.)
Another piece of advice? Don’t limit yourself to Airbnb only. Remember to check similar websites too, such as VRBO or Homestay. If you don’t mind watching people’s pets and homes while they’re away, TrustedHouseSitters.com is a great place to find homestays that aren’t just affordable, but scot-free.
With any of these options, since you’re staying in someone’s personal home, you can get up-to-date tips about where the best places to go are. If you rent an entire place with a kitchen, you’ll also have the benefit of being able to cook your own meals.
You can even get the warm fuzzies from knowing that you’re helping to support the local economy where you’re traveling.
9. Fly Budget Airlines
While there are a few budget airlines in the U.S., like Frontier Airlines and Southwest Airlines, it’s safe to say Europe is better at offering cheap domestic airfare in general. Carriers like EasyJet and Ryanair can take you almost anywhere in Europe for a fraction of what you’d expect to pay to go a similar distance back in the States.
Here's one example, to give you an idea of the savings involved: A flight from London to Paris on EasyJet on December 6, 2019 starts from $87. On British Airways, it starts at $136.
True, flying a budget carrier may mean a slightly less comfy experience, and it will force you to miss out on some of Europe’s iconic rail adventures, which tend to be pricey. But it also ensures that you’ll have that much more time on the ground at each destination, which we think is always a good thing.
10. Use a Car-Sharing App
BlaBlaCar is the Airbnb of cars — an app that matches up drivers going from one destination to another (usually distant cities) who are looking for carpool buddies to share in the cost. The average long-distance ride will set you back only about $25, far less than what you’d spend on other modes of transit.
You’d think something like this would already be here in the U.S. too, but it’s not (yet). It’s quite popular in Europe though.
It’s a good idea to sign up for the app before you leave the U.S., since it may require you to use your cell-phone plan to verify your account. After that, you can use Wi-Fi to search for other drivers in your town heading off to your same destination.
Drivers generally set the price in advance, and payment is handled through the app itself. This is a great way to save some bucks while making new friends along the way.
11. Take the Bus
Just like how Europe has abundant low-cost air carriers, the continent’s also been buzzing with affordable bus service lately. Specifically, FlixBus is a popular ultra-affordable option. You can travel from Neuschwanstein Castle in the south of Germany to Berlin in the north for just $25 one-way. Eurolines is another good option serving continental Europe, while National Express serves tons of small villages in the UK.
Bus service may not get you there as fast as air travel or rail travel in some cases, but it will get you there cheaply so that you can afford to do more things once you’re where you want to be.
12. Don’t Overtip
We’re often guilted into tipping heavily in the U.S. because we know service staff are underpaid. That’s generally not the case in Europe, where tipping is less considered a norm. In many countries, you’re not expected to tip at all, and if you do, only a small amount will do to show your appreciation.
Make sure to research the specifics of the countries you’re traveling to before you go. That way, you can save a few bucks and order an extra drink with dinner instead. (You can find an excellent guide to tipping in Europe, courtesy of the esteemed Rick Steves, here.)
13. Don’t Be Afraid to Haggle
You might not get away with haggling down the price of your plane ticket or hotel bill. But when you’re visiting small markets in Europe, it’s often considered perfectly acceptable (nay, expected) that you’ll haggle with the shopkeeper for the right price. Again, the specific haggling customs vary by country, so it pays off to do a bit of research in advance.
Haggling can be intimidating for Americans, but it doesn’t have to be. Make sure you spend some time shopping around first. This gives you time to get a rough feel for an item’s going rate. Then, decide in advance on two numbers: the price you want to pay for the item, and the price you’re not willing to pay for it. Start from the lower number, and if it exceeds your high bar, then don’t be afraid to walk away. Keep it fun and light; it’s something of a game, and a great way to ingratiate yourself in a local custom.
14. BYOM — Bring Your Own Meals
If you’re eating out for breakfast, lunch and dinner each day, your food bill can quickly climb higher than your lodging costs. This is especially true if you’re traveling with a spouse and kids, and/or if you’re in a pricey country like France.
Instead, try limiting your dining out. If you’re staying in a hostel or an Airbnb, this will be even easier for you since you might have access to a kitchen where you can cook your own meals. But even if you’re staying in a hotel, you can find the makings for sandwiches, ready-made croissants and baguettes, or other picnic food at local grocery stores.
The nice thing about this tip is you can scale it back as much as you want. Uber-frugal travel freaks can choose to avoid restaurants entirely and eat exclusively from the grocery store, as if they were home. More foodie-minded travelers can choose to just eat a light breakfast in, and reserve dining out for dinners and the occasional lunch. It’s entirely up to you and what you’re comfortable with.
15. Rethink Your Cell Phone
The last thing you want to do is come home to find a surprise bill for several hundred dollars’ worth of roaming charges from phone calls you made while in Europe. That’s why it’s a good idea to put some thought into what you’ll be doing for cell-phone usage while abroad. Chances are you will need to call someone, after all.
You could spring for an international plan, but these are typically overpriced. Instead, if your cell phone is unlocked (check with your carrier if you’re not sure), a good option is to buy a SIM card with a prepaid plan from a local mobile-phone shop. You’ll need a new SIM card for each country you travel to.
If your phone is locked, you can buy a cheap prepaid phone to use, while switching your current phone into airplane mode so you don’t inadvertently rack up roaming charges.