How to travel Europe on a budget
Europe seems to be in vogue all the time. In summer, wild and windswept beaches battered by cerulean waters lure beach bums and sun-worshippers to its golden sand. The warm weather brings a bonanza of festivities and parties to the continent. Winter, on the other hand, dresses many European cities in white. World class ski resorts and fresh powdery snow draw ski connoisseurs from all over the world. Not to mention the blooming flowers, the falling maple leaves and the pleasant weather during Spring and Autumn. Europe is always on a traveller's to-go list.
Then, you ask the ultimate question: how much should I budget for my backpacking trip to Europe? And I'm a student: is it possible to backpack in Europe on a budget? If this is a question that you're asking right now, congratulations! You've landed yourself at the right spot! To be honest, when I first travelled around Europe, I had little idea about how much things are gonna cost there. I knew it’s expensive, but I just didn’t know how expensive it is. So, if you are going to Europe on a budget, I wanna help you guys with budgeting! I’ve made these tables to give you an insight into my expenditure when I was travelling in Europe for 2 months. As I am a student, I consider this as a dirt cheap budget guide. Read on and you will know why.
Europe on a budget: My cost breakdown
My spending style
I am a full-time medical student. So, you can imagine how busy life can get for me. As I can't really find the time to work, I saved up a quarter of my monthly scholarship allowance for 10 months (around 300 AUD per month) and that became my main travel fund. That is also part of the reason why I want to (or have to) travel in Europe on a budget.
I didn't insert a column for accommodation because I spent almost nothing on accommodation! Read on and you'll know why.
How I manage to travel Europe on a budget
It will take a little bit of planning for you to be able to enjoy your trip to Europe on a budget. But in general, they are a lot of ways to cut costs while in Europe and read on to know how I did it!
Walk as much as you can when you are in the city! This will keep both your wallet and your body fit. Public transport in Europe is not as cheap as you think. If you want to travel Europe cheap, this is the way to go.
Go to the tourism office to get a tourist card! With this card, you can enjoy discounted (or even free!) museum tickets, public transportation tickets and so on.
Make full use of the free WiFi! Major libraries normally offer free WiFi. McDonald's and Starbucks (varies from countries to countries) offer free (but limited) WiFi as well.
Bring your student card! If you have one, you will enjoy a lot of discounts on everything. Don't worry if you don't as you can try to prove that you're under 26 years old with your passport and still enjoy a discount. This is probably the best thing when you are travelling to Europe as a student.
Pack light and don't pay for excess baggage! When you are flying with a budget airline (which I think most of you will), it's best if you can keep your baggage less than 10kg so you can take it as a carry on. If you opt for baggage allowances, you might be paying for the same price as you would for a non-budget airline in the end. Different carriers have different baggage policies, so make sure you check them out before booking a flight with them. Moreover, having only a carry on will also save you a lot of time as you don't have to wait for checking in baggage or baggage claim upon arrival.
Try to avoid buying souvenirs! I love souvenirs, but they add up and they take up so much space in my baggage. So I try to only buy one or two souvenirs.
Take photos of yourself. Lots of them. Because if not, in the end of the day, your photos will look just the same as the one I pull out from Google Image.
If you can, travel during the shoulder season! For Europe, the shoulder season is Spring and Autumn. Prices are lower and the weather is nicer. This is also a great way to travel in Europe on a budget.
The cheapest way to travel? Bring a friend! I love solo travelling. But if you wanna travel Europe on a budget, travel with another
frugal person. You can basically split everything and try more stuff.
Couchsurfing: There's no doubt that accommodation is gonna be a big part of your expenditure. What if I tell you that you get to stay with a local for free? Spoiler alert: this is probably the best tip to travel Europe on a budget.
I used Couchsurfing throughout my trip in Europe (except for Cesky Krumlov, because it was a really small town). That's why you can't see any column for accommodation. I think Couchsurfing is a great idea for travellers to meet locals and be more exposed towards their culture, food and lifestyle! Read more about Couchsurfing here and find out how to not be a freeloader! In fact, this is one of the biggest reasons why I managed to travel in Europe for cheap!
There are other couch surfing websites out there so make sure you check it out!
- BeWelcome: The basic idea is similar to Couchsurfing and it has a really active community in Europe so if lady luck is not with you on Couchsurfing, try BeWelcome instead!
- Hospitality Club: The website looks like a grandpa but it actually still has a relatively active community.
If you are using any of these sites, make sure you have a complete profile (including profile picture) to increase your chances of getting a host. Also, make sure you read the profile and the testimonies/reviews of your potential host.
House / pet sitting: This is also another brilliant idea for you to save some money. If you are a pet lover, it's a bonus! This is not entirely free as you have to pay for the site membership before sending any request. But you can certainly browse through the listings for free and decide if you want to pay for membership.
Make sure you read through the FAQs of these sites and see if you are ready to commit to the expectations that you are required to meet by the house / pet owner. When you are travelling, you might need to specifically allocate time to perform those tasks (walk the dog, buy dog food and etc). Sometimes, the house owner might want you to pay for the utilities during your stay. So establish a common ground to avoid a disaster.
- Housesit Match: This is a really popular house or pet sitting website in the UK and some parts of Europe. Membership is currently priced at $35 USD.
- Luxury House Sitting: This website is popular in Europe and the US. The name is really compelling, isn't it? Find out more about it! Membership is $25 USD.
- Nomador: Nomador has a lot of listings in Europe as the mother site (Ilidor) is founded in France. Membership is priced at $89 USD.
Airbnb: If you are not cool with the idea of Couchsurfing, you can also try out Airbnb! It gives you much flexibility in terms of the kinds of accommodation, ranging from a chalet by the beach to a villa on the hill!
On Airbnb, you can get a discount if you are staying at a place for a longer period of time in most cases. For example, if you are staying in Prague for 2 weeks, the price will be much cheaper compared to the price of staying for the same accommodation for 2 nights. You can then make Prague as your base and go to Vienna, Dresden, Karlovy Vary, Cesky Krumlov or Budapest for day trips.
Home Swap: If you by any chance still have a house (a.k.a did not sell it before you come on a big trip to Europe), you can swap it with someone from another country who is having an empty home at the same time as well!
Volunteering: You can also do volunteering in exchange for food and bed. For example, you can help out with some chores at the hostel in exchange for free stays. This is one of the best ways to travel in Europe for cheap.
Volunteering can be a little dodgy when the organisation start to offer cash as an incentive. Note that in a lot of countries, this is considered illegal as you need a work permit / visa for that. The cash incentive is different from doing a little bit of unpaid work in the hostel in exchange for a night stay as there's no money directly involved in it. Some of the listings will just tell you not to mention about volunteering at all when going through immigration. Make sure you read the details of the listings.
- StayDu: The user interface for this is really good. Basically, people on this website will require you to help out with some chores in the house / hostels / farms and so on. Some might charge a little bit but most of them will let you stay for free. There's no membership fee for this.
- Hostel Jobs: Besides hostels, listings about resorts and hotels are also added almost daily. Just help around with some chores and earn free stays. There is no membership fee for this.
- Hostel Travel Jobs: This requires a membership fee of $9.99 USD. As it is free to browse the listings, you can just get the details of the hostel and contact them directly.
Homestay: The general idea of homestay is that a local family will let you stay at their place at a price. Keep in mind that there'll be people staying with (and taking care of) you sometimes, so you might not have a lot of independence.
- Homestay: Homestay is my personal favourite mainly because of its huge coverage (over 160 countries) and number of listings on their website. Moreover, it's free to sign up!
Agoda always gives me very competitive rates (most of the time, the lowest room rates) compared to other hotel comparing websites. Hotels.com has a loyalty program in which you can exchange a free night stay after you have accumulated 10 night stays with Hotels.com.
What you can learn from my mistakes: I probably spent a bit too much on transportation. If I stayed in each city in a longer period of time and went to less countries, the cost will decrease a lot. This is probably the biggest tip from me - you need to travel slowly if you want to see more of Europe on a budget.
Another thing I wanna talk about is flexibility. As you can see from the budget breakdown above, there are some insanely cheap tickets. I bought these tickets a month before I go to Europe and these heavily compromised my flexibility. I wanted to stay a little longer in Budapest but I wasn't ready to burn my 40 Euro train ticket to Munich. So another advice is, keep your options open by not booking your tickets so early. But, you do have to be aware that ticket prices will not be as cheap if you book it a few days before.
Use flight-comparing sites: This is gonna take a huge chunk out of your budget. So, in you are travelling in Europe on a tight budget, this is an important tip. I am sure you have heard about different flight-comparing sites such as Kayak, Skyscanner, Momondo or Google Flight. Use these sites to find the best tickets to fly from your country to Europe. Another tip is to check which is the best city in Europe to fly into. This is normally big city like Barcelona, Rome, London, Paris, Warsaw, Moscow or etc. For me, Paris was the cheapest for me to fly to (I was flying from Melbourne). Use Skyscanner to save from the effort from searching one city at a time because you can just search "Everywhere" and it will display the cheapest country for you to fly into Europe.
Walk as much as possible: Like I said just now, you should walk as much as possible! It will be a little tiring for the first few days but after that you just get used to it.
Public transportation: Public transport in Europe is not cheap, and it can add up really quickly. If you have to use public transport to get to somewhere, travel when it's not peak hour because certain cities charge more during peak hours. Also, go to the local tourist office to get a tourist card that sometimes offers free public transportation service.
Rent a bike: Renting a bike gives you much flexibility and it's not too expensive as well! A lot of European cities also offer bike sharing so make sure to check out those sites.
Rental varies depending on the service provided, so just check around! You can get a bike in Amsterdam for as little as 8 euros. PS: Riding a bike in Amsterdam can be a little bit scary though.
Rent a car: If you have a party of 4 or 5, renting a car is not a bad idea too because you can do day trips to wherever you want. This is not necessarily the best way to see Europe on a budget. Also, there are more restrictions when it comes to driving as a student.
Use Rome2Rio: Rome2Rio.com is a superb website which compares all the transport options (buses, trains, flights, car sharing and even ferries) from your starting point to your destination. For example, if you are going from Vienna to Prague, Rome2Rio will list all the bus, train, and flight options for you. It's pretty convenient so that you don't have to go to each site and search manually.
Rome2Rio also compares the prices for BlaBlaCar, which is a long distance ride-sharing service. As cheap as the bus, BlaBlaCar is a lot quicker compared to the bus. Moreover, you can enjoy the luxury of pick-up and drop-off services at the location that you want.
Take an overnight bus when you can: Taking an overnight bus isn't only cheaper than other options, it can save you from paying for a night stay at the hostel as well. Travelling in Europe on a budget done right!
A few tips for you if you are going on an overnight bus:
- Bring something warm. Even when you are travelling during summer, bus will still be an Antartica at night!
- Buy some snacks before you board the bus. The worst thing that you can endure is hunger when you're already cold.
- Take a motion sickness pill if you get sick easily.
- Take an overnight bus that's long enough. You don't want to arrive at your destination at 3am and have nowhere to go.
- Hold onto your bag while you're sleeping! Normally, I'd just tie the straps of my backpack to my leg. If you are a deep sleeper, then just hug your bag.
Eating is definitely one of my favourite activities when I am travelling.
So by going cheap, I don't mean that I cook my own meal all the time. I will not find any joy if I'm travelling to Europe and not have pizza in Italy, bourguignon in France or goulash in Hungary. After all, travelling in Europe on a budget doesn't mean it's the end of the world for your tummy.
After reading this section, you'll know why eating cheap in Europe is not impossible.
Don't dine in near an attraction: I know this seems like a no-brainer. Restaurants next to an attraction are overpriced and most of the time, the food sucks.
My rule of thumb is to walk at least three blocks away from any major attraction. The price difference is scary. When I was in Vienna, one veal schnitzel at the Naschmarkt cost 20 euros! Not ready to burn our wallet, my friend and I walked away from Naschmarkt to somewhere else and had a really good schnitzel for only 10 euros!
Another rule of thumb is if you see a lot of tourists eating in a restaurant, run away as fast as you can. If there's no English menu (in a country that doesn't speak as much English), that's a pretty good indicator that the restaurant targets mainly locals. Although you may find ordering harder (you might need to pull out Google translate), the food will always be nicer and most of the time, a lot cheaper as well!
Eat before you get too hungry: When you are too hungry, you will just have whatever food that is nearby. That often happens, for example, when you are visiting a museum.
Plan a little bit ahead in the morning. Do a little bit of search on the internet before going to the area that you are exploring. Get the names of the restaurants that you think have the best valued meal. Ask your host or the staff at the hostel / hotel for even better recommendations.
Eat street food or eat standing up: Okay to be fair, street food doesn't have a big presence in Europe. But look around, you will see some street / bar / pub food that's really affordable. Eating at the bar is cheaper than sitting down.
Kebab, souvlaki, shawarma are commonly found in major European cities. They are cheap and the servings are big too. These are some of the common cheaper food in some countries.
- France: crêpe booths, sandwich shops
- Germany: Currywurst
- Austria: Currywurst or all kinds of wurst
- Denmark: Danish polse
- Italy: Cicchetti, slice of pizza (like a big slice for 1 euro)
- The Netherlands: Herrings and croquettes
- Spain: Bocadillo at bars during non-lunch / dinner hours, tapas
Supermarket: The supermarket is every budget travellers' favourite. You can get almost everything you want from baguette to beers for a really cheap price. One great way to travel Europe for cheap.
Another way to save money is to picnic (if the weather is not too biting)! Grab a bottle of wine, baguette, ham, cheese and head up to a park!
Breakfast: Have breakfast in your hostel. If you are staying in a hotel though, try not to pay for the breakfast as it's normally not worth the price. Instead, go get some freshly baked goods from a bakery nearby. After all, this is Europe!
Takeaway shop: There are a lot of options for Asian takeaways in Europe, especially in bigger cities like Paris, Berlin and London. However, don't eat too much of them though. What's the point then if you're in Europe eating all the Asian food?
Fast food: Unfortunately, fast food restaurants are one of the cheapest eats you can get in Europe.
With the free WiFi and greasy calories, McDonald's can be really tempting at times. You might try to justify that eating McDonald's can help you save some money but in reality, there are other options out there for you which is cheaper!
Don't buy soft drinks: Soft drinks can quickly add up. If you really want to have some Coca-Colas, buy them from the supermarket and keep them with you.
When you are dining in, get these instead:
- Tap water: Tap water is safe to drink in most of the European countries
- House wine: When in Italy or France, house wine can be as cheap as 1 euro, and the quality is superb too! You can also ask for a jug (about a litre) and they can cost as little as 5 euros.
- Beer: In Czech Republic, Hungary, some parts of Germany, beer is as cheap as water (or even cheaper).
Cook something: Cooking is a great way to cut cost. This is a bonus for me as I love cooking for people. I told myself to at least cook one meal for my Couchsurfing hosts when I was in Europe. In this way, I can cut my expenditure and also show my appreciation!
However, there are things that you need to take care of:
- Your accommodation might not have a proper kitchenette (most hostels)
- You need to go to the market/supermarket to do groceries (I actually enjoy this, but some people don't)
- You might be too tired after a whole day of sightseeing and you still need to cook for your dinner
Lunch specials: Most countries in Europe have lunch deals. Restaurants normally have lunch specials and the discount is huge, ranging from 20% to 50%! For example, you can get an entreé with a main meal for 12 euros or even cheaper. That's why lunch should be the best meal of your day!
University canteen: If you happen to see any university by any chance, eat at its canteen or cafeteria. As you know, students are generally poor, so the food there is significantly cheaper. Although the food quality is not as high, it does the job to fill your tummy up if you are running short of money! Alcohol there is cheaper too!
There was once when I was walking to the main square in Ghent, I saw a lot of young people lining up in front of a building. I asked the people there and apparently, they were giving out 1 euro pasta to anyone with a student card. Although I don't study at that particular university, the lady served it to me anyways (because I have a student card)!
Split your meal: Servings in Europe are huge. If you know you can't finish the meal, split it in half so you can have it for both lunch and dinner. This will keep both your wallet and your body in shape. Do not eat until you feel like "Omg, I am so full right now" because you might feel lazier and sleepier for the rest of the day.
Use coupon sites: If you really have to splurge (like having a romantic, fine dining experience with your partner), splurge using a coupon site.
Sites like Groupon have a lot of luxurious restaurants listed with huge discounts in order to attract people. Sometimes, you can find gems on these sites too (like a 25 Euros Persian all-you-can-eat buffet in Berlin)!
Some of the sites listed below are not in English. Just Google Translate the page and you'll be fine.
- Great Britain: LivingSocial, Groupon.co.uk, Buyometric
- Spain: Groupon.es
- Belgium: Groupon.be
- The Netherlands: Groupon.nl
- France: Groupon.fr
- Turkey: Grupanya
- Germany: DailyDeal, Groupon.de
- Switzerland: DealKompass
Travelling in Europe on a budget is feasible as long as you plan it right! The options that I suggested require a certain degree of openness (for example: Couchsurfing) and planning. Even if these are a new concept to you, there's no need to fear! Europe is pretty safe region to test these stuff out! I hope that this helps you in any part of your planning to Europe.
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Born and raised in Malaysia, Aaron is a medical school student that is crazily in love with travelling. He loves to inebriate all his readers with the crazy travel stories and personal travel tips that he has gathered throughout years of travelling experience. Learn more about him here!