With so many different countries, activities, experiences and destinations to enjoy Europe, it seems like it would be almost impossible to do Europe on a budget. However, every year, thousands of backpackers and shoestring travellers manage to experience the best of Europe while on a budget.
I have travelled medium-long term across Europe twice, following a budget that allowed me to travel for longer. The budget also enabled me to see a lot more of Europe than I would’ve if I had spent my money quite quickly. In saying this, I definitely think a healthy balance between splashing out and shoestring is needed to ensure you don’t miss out while travelling. However, if you want to make sure your travel dollars stretch further, read on for some of my go-to Europe on a budget tricks and tips.
Travel by bus
If you’ve done your research, you’ll already know that travel costs for getting around Europe can be huge. However, they also vary depending on your choice of transport. While I’m sure you’ve already been encouraged to get a rail pass or been told something along the lines of “don’t book your flights until you’re there, they’re so cheap!” (bad advice to rely on), I found every time I’ve travelled Europe, that the long distance bus services are by far the cheapest mode of transport.
For example, a train between London and Paris may cost at least $80-200AUD, a bus between the same locations will cost about $30AUD. Not only that, buses are relatively comfy for a day of travel, can store your luggage in a compartment underneath the bus and often include a phone charge point on your chair so you can remained charged up throughout your journey.
This Europe on a budget hack does come with an obvious caveat: bus journeys take significantly longer than other forms of travel. This isn’t an issue if you are a slow traveller or plan on travelling for a long period of time; but if you are short on time you may want to look at alternative travel options (more about the best way to get cheap flights below!).
Before booking always check what options are available for your journey and decide on which provides the highest value for your situation before booking. I lived by Omio.com (formally known as GoEuro) when I was travelling so therefore genuinely recommend them.
Check out the surrounding dates
If you don’t have the time to travel by bus or would prefer to travel by plane, it’s always helpful if you are not bound to travel on a specific date or time. Spend a bit of time looking into the prices on different days around your ideal travel date. In 2019, my friend and I were looking at flights from London to Iceland, by arriving and leaving a day earlier, a return flight from London to Reykjavik cost about $90AUD return as opposed to $250AUD.
Those crazy cheap Europe flight deals that everyone talks about do exist (although I would not follow anyone who advises you not to book ahead because of them) you just have to do a bit of digging sometimes to find them.
However, also check what airport the flight is landing in. Cheap flights can often land at obscure airports that are not actually that close to the city you’ve booked to, requiring a lot more effort to complete your journey and extra travel costs. If your flight lands at a different airport, be sure to add up the total cost of your journey to make sure you have chosen the budget option.
Visit popular locations on weekdays rather than weekends
While it can be hard to plan your trip around weekdays and weekends (because what even are those when you are travelling?!), if you can adjust your travelling schedule so you visit popular locations on weekdays rather than weekends you could save yourself a lot of money in accommodation costs.
For example: Amsterdam is an amazing city and with its party atmosphere and close proximity to Britain, it is a very popular weekend destination. On a weekend, a hostel bed in Amsterdam can cost upwards of $100AUD a night (crazy) but on a weekday this reverts to a far more reasonable $30-40AUD a night.
Visit Europe in the off season – Spring and Autumn
Summer is the most popular time to visit Europe and therefore, during this time, not only do prices sky rocket but most attractions are also very crowded. By visiting Europe in the off season, not only will you have a lot less crowds to contest with (significantly more enjoyable) but costs are considerably cheaper.
I have visited Santorini in Greece twice. The first time was in May (Spring), when the islands were beginning to open up for the summer season. I paid $60AUD for a private room (split between myself and 2 friends). The second time was in August (peak Summer) and I paid $60AUD for a mixed dorm bed that was further away from Fira than the private room had been. There are definite benefits to visiting in the off seasons.
Use all the discounts you’re eligible for
International student discounts
You might be surprised to learn the number of discounts in Europe you could be eligible for. When I visited Athens in Greece, I was given 50% off public transport due to my Australian student card. Although a lot of places won’t accept international student cards, if there are signs saying they accept them it’s worth an ask.
EU passport discounts
If you’re lucky enough to have an EU passport (I was until Brexit…) and 25 or younger there are a tonne of serious discounts (including free entry) you’re eligible for. In Paris alone being under 26 with an EU passport will get you free entry into the Arc de Triomphe, the Louvre and Palace of Versailles
Book ahead where you can
This is a bit of a funny one. If you’re travelling long term, you probably don’t want to book too far in advance in case you meet other travellers and/or your plans change. However, if you know you want to be in Ireland for St Patrick’s Day or have other big ticket items, it’s more than wise to book ahead to secure the cheaper prices. This is also true for long distance plane flights.
You’ve got legs, here’s a great time to take advantage of them. Not only is this an obvious saver on transport costs, it’s also a great way to keep fit during your travels and you’ll also see a lot more of the place you are exploring. An added bonus is the time you get to yourself if your travels have consisted of going from hostel rooms to popular attractions.
Choose hostels that include breakfast
While you probably won’t receive too much in the way of breakfast variety, by choosing a hostel that provides even cereal and toast, you’re automatically covered for one meal a day and have more money to spend elsewhere.
Each time I’ve gone travelling I’ve packed a camping fork, knife and spoon set with me. It meant that I could go into the supermarket and buy groceries to eat while out exploring.
Buy a loaf of bread, your choice of spread and make sandwiches for lunch
A popular hack for the shoestring traveller (and why you should pack utensils) is making your own sandwiches. Stock up on your favourite spread and put it in your backpack. Each place you visit, buy a loaf of bread and make sandwiches for your lunches each day.
This is a great money saver in places like Iceland, where we found dining out to be incredibly expensive but groceries were on par with Australian prices.
Choose a hostel with a kitchen
Choosing a hostel with a decent kitchen is a well known budget hack for travellers. Save your money for meals out you will really enjoy and cook up dinner each night in your hostel kitchen. Utilising the hostel kitchen is also a great way to meet other travellers.
Sort your hostel choices by quality not price
And while we’re at it, let’s get into choosing the best hostel while travelling Europe on a budget. You can sort your hostel by price; however, I actually wouldn’t recommend this as a way to get value for money.
I set my accommodation budget for each place I’m going to visit (acknowledging that certain cities like London and Paris will be more expensive than others) and then sort hostels by review rating. This way the first hostels that come up within my price range are probably going to be the best value for what I am willing to spend and be far more enjoyable to stay in than choosing a hostel on price alone. I always, always, always read the reviews and look out for information on how clean the hostel is and if there are enough power sockets in the room.
While I tend to use websites like hostelworld.com to find hostels, once you have found one you like I’d also recommend looking at their website to see if they offer any deals such as free breakfast for direct bookings.
Follow a blog over a paid tour
While there are often benefits in joining paid tours, especially if the guide is engaging and particularly knowledgeable about the history of the place you are exploring, often you can find helpful information in blogs online.
For example: In London you could shell out for a Harry Potter filming location tour of London or you could just Google it and a hundred different blogs pop up giving you all the information you need to find the filming locations for free.
Plus, doing it this way means you get to visit at your own time and stay at each location for as long as you want.
Work out what is your priority
Work out what you want to see and don’t feel obliged to spend money on other things. It can be a good idea to write a list of the places you want to see and experience while travelling (regardless of price) and prioritise them. You don’t need to visit places that people tell you you have to go to if it doesn’t interest or excite you and by going you’d just be wasting your money.
This is also true if you’re visiting Europe on a group tour but still conscious of exploring Europe on a budget. These tours often have add on experiences that are very expensive. Don’t feel pressured into signing up for everything. It’s also a good idea, if possible, to check if you can book these add on activities directly, rather than through your tour provider. I know of many tour operators that sell on additional activities for $250-300AUD when direct bookings only cost $80AUD. Do a bit of research and know if your money is going to the experience or into an incredibly inflated third party’s pocket.
Drink less alcohol or budget
Sorry about this one. One way to keep the costs down while travelling is to drink less alcohol. Those vodka shots and hostel bar drinks really can add up. Alternatively, if you don’t want to give up alcohol, work into your budget how often you’re likely to drink and what the costs may be that way you won’t run out of money quicker than expected.
I went on Sail Croatia in 2017 where we drank almost every night. However, I was just at the start of one of my longer term Europe trips and I didn’t know how long I would be away for (aka. wanted my money to last as long as possible). I definitely wasn’t going to miss out on having fun with everyone just to save a bit of money so I made sure to drink beer and a few ciders as it was significantly cheaper than the other options. By the end of the week, my drinks bill was up to 6 x less than some of the others who had more cash to spend on drinks.
Bring a water bottle
And while we’re on the topic of drinking, one of the best Europe on a budget tips I can give is to bring a water bottle – everywhere! Buying bottled water is not only expensive, it’s bad for the environment. Besides you’re in Europe, the home of sparkling water, by bringing your own bottled water you don’t have to deal with that feeling of immense disappointment when you twist the cap of your drink and hear the water fizz…
Using a water bottle saves a lot of dollars by the end of your trip, plus I found having a water bottle on me at all times meant I drank a lot more water every day than I usually would. Double points for the health travel life style.
Explore Eastern Europe
In addition to exploring Western Europe, focus on exploring more of Eastern Europe. I personally find Eastern Europe fascinating and want to spend even more time there but it’s also relatively cheap (especially in comparison with the west!).
For a price comparison – I visited a 1 euro shot bar in Poland and when I visited Albania in 2017, for $27AUD I bought the following: 1 x return trip on a cable car; 1 x bottle of beer; 2 x soft drinks; 1 x bread appetiser; 1 x pasta main meal; 1 x public bus trip; and 1 x taxi ride. Coming from Australia, the pricing seems unbelievable.
Digital budget tip: Delete your cookies
The ones on your computer. It’s not legal but I’ve definitely experienced it where I’ve looked for flights and seen the prices slowly rise. When researching anything that will require you to hand over money (e.g. flights, hostels) search in Incognito mode and frequently clear your cookies to try and avoid this bad business behaviour.
Check which days have free admission
If you are staying in one location for a while (or even if you’re not) it’s worth checking out if any of the attractions in your area have free admission days.
Exploring Europe on a budget is not as hard as what it may initially seem. Do a lot of research before setting off and set yourself a realistic budget that you can stick to and still enjoy yourself. The further and longer you travel the better you will also get at budgeting and sticking to it while travelling, especially when you realise that every dollar saved could mean another day out on the road.