It’s the quintessential American graduation dream: You and a friend go backpacking through Europe, going from city to city, country to country, with nothing but a large, yet stylish, backpack strapped on. You sweep through the continent collecting memories and hilarious tales that you can later use to impress co-workers and romantic interests. However, many of us never got to go on that trip because traveling is expensive. But darlings, we are well past graduation, and we (hopefully) have a little bit more money than we did when we were fresh from high school or college. Even so, Europe is still pricey, and we all can’t afford to travel like the Gilmore girls did (where did they get all of their money to traipse throughout Europe, anyways?).
Luckily for you, I’ve traveled to Europe several times over the past few years, and I’ve learned some new travel tricks every time. On my latest trip, my fiancé and I were there for about five weeks, and I’m proud how little money we managed to travel and eat on (note: playing the confused tourist card got us a lot further than I am willing to admit). Obviously, some bits of Europe will be more expensive than others (for example, you’ll watch your money disappear faster in Paris than in Prague). But don’t run away with the thought that travelling to Europe for cheap means you have to cut your trip down to only a few days, or that you have to limit your macaron intake whilst in France. If you plan your trip right and use these travel tips, than you can finally manage to adventure throughout Europe for cheap.
Where To Stay
There is a plethora of ways to sleep in Europe: hotels, hostels, park benches, and homes. Luckily, there is a variety of relatively cheap ways to stay:
The cheapest is obviously going to be through Couchsurfing, as it is free. Create a profile on the website, and search for hosts in the cities you will be traveling in. You may be able to sleep in a private room, house, or in your host’s living room, and make a ton of strangers into close friends. It is actually safer than you would think, but you may have to search well in advance for a host if you have never surfed before and have no reviews that vouch for you.
Airbnb is another way to stay in Europe, but it isn’t necessarily the cheapest. Airbnb is similar to Couchsurfing, but is a bit more secure, and you have to pay to stay. You’ll also be able to play the more “typical tourist,” as Airbnb allows a bit more freedom on your end: With Couchsurfing, there is a lot more of emphasis on forming relationships with your host, and many hosts are adamant that they are just not another hotel or hostel. You can either pay to stay in a private room, house, apartment, attic, or whatever. If it is a private house or apartment, you are on your own (i.e., no host present), but I like to just rent out a room and stay with the family. This way, as with Couchsurfing, you get the benefit of a local showing you around, and they will also prepare you breakfast. And if they really like you, they may cook extra meals for and with you. As with Couchsurfing, you will also get the benefit of a local showing you around town.
Hostels, of course, are famous for being a haven for travelers on a budget, although many hostels are expensive. Most people think that hostels are grungy, dangerous, and loud places. A few of them are, but I have stayed at some amazing hostels, better than many hotels. Meininger is a hostel chain that I’ve stayed at in both Munich and Amsterdam, and I cannot tell you how amazing this hostel is. It’s cheap, clean, and modern with an awesome breakfast spread. Besides Meininger, there are many inexpenisve hostels to choose from, most with a wholesome community feel.
There is one more cheap form of accommodation: camping. Obviously, you will need a tent and sleeping bag for this form of sleep, and the campsites won’t be in the heart of the cities. However, camping in Europe is pretty legit. Nearly all of the campsites I have stayed at (outside of Edinburgh, several locations throughout Germany, the Isle of Skye, and in Windermere) have had hot showers, clean bathrooms, a pub and restaurant, wifi, bike rentals, and laundry facilities. Most people will be in RVs or campers, and the atmosphere is usually very friendly. It is typically anywhere from $15-30 a night, and buses always stop there to take you to the city or local attractions.
How To Travel
There are quite a few ways of getting around Europe, each with its own pros and cons. Since we are concerned with budget, a car, whether you rent or take a taxi, is definitely not going to be the best way to travel. Trains are the best bet, especially if you buy a pass or a card. The exception to this may be in the U.K., as they have the most expensive train system in Europe, so you may want to use a bus instead (try Megabus). Even so, you can find deals to use here: The U.K. offers ⅓ off their railcard for people between the ages of 16-25.
Some rail tips: local or regional trains will always be significantly cheaper, but you will be spending more time on the train. Some regions or countries are less expensive on select days (it’s cheapest on Sundays in Germany) or weekends. You may be able to get group discounts as well. Many of the clerks at large train stations will sit down with you and help you get the best fare out there if you are straightforward with your financial situation. And that confused tourist card I mentioned? You don’t want to abuse this method, and will only want to use it in dire situations, but you can always hop on a train that you don’t have a ticket for. When asked by the conductor for your ticket, simply act desperately confused, and they will usually just tell you to get off at the next station, at no charge. I managed to be on a train for a couple of hours doing this.
But if you want to be an honest traveler, and are going long distances, you’ll be surprised how even the rail prices will spike. Don’t despair though; there are European gems called RyanAir and Transavia which are the cheap traveler’s saviors. RyanAir planes may be old, crowded, and flown by pilots of dubious capabilities but they still get you from A to B at a very inexpensive rate. They offer flights to Rome, Barcelona, Prague, Oslo, Dublin, London, and many, many other locations. At the time of writing this, a flight from Oslo to Warsaw via Norwegian Airlines was $223 American dollars, while RyanAir offered a flight for $23.75. Transavia likewise offers flights to a large host of cities in Europe, and I found a flight going from Amsterdam to Barcelona for only €45 (compared to €119 by train on the same date). These are humongous differences, and deals that I am jealous I cannot take advantage of. One thing to keep in mind with RyanAir though: they are deadly strict when it comes to luggage size. If your suitcase is even a centimeter larger than the size requirements, you will have to shovel over a buttload of money. However, I managed to strategically hide the three “Lord Of The Rings” books in a baggy coat on a flight from Dublin to Edinburgh. Unfashionable, but thrifty.
Why pack light? For one thing, you won’t have to worry about size restrictions on RyanAir or other airlines. For another, it will be easy to carry around. If you are in London, and will be spending a night in Glasgow, and then head back to London, you may not want to drag your human size suitcase with you. In this scenario, you would have to pay for a locker at a rail station to keep your luggage safe. But if you simply pack lightly, and have just a small duffle to begin with, you can take your stuff with you and save those pennies.
Get all of your euros and pounds before you go abroad, and bring one credit card for emergency purposes only. One of our Lifestyle editors, Liz, also suggested to watch the currency rates well beforehand, so you can exchange at the best time possible. For example, right now one American dollar converts to .91 euros. That is pretty darn close, and it may mean it’s a good time to get your euros now, even if you aren’t traveling until next year.
When it comes to your credit card, make sure you tell your card company where you are going and for what dates, but you should try your damndest not to touch it. Before leaving, sit down and budget how much you expect to spend on food, transportation, souvenirs, and sightseeing. You should overestimate just to be safe, but you really need to be as realistic as possible. Take all of that money out, and plan on spending only that amount. Only touch your credit card if you absolutely have to, especially since credit card companies will apply transaction fees for using your card in another country, meaning you will actually be spending more with your card, than if you used cash.
- Take along your student ID card. Even if you are no longer a student, if you still have your college ID, pack it. You may be able to get in free, or at least receive a huge discount, at many museums and galleries. In addition, you may also get railcards or railpasses for a special or discounted price with a flash of the trusty student ID card.
- If you know ahead of time that you’ll need to make a domestic flight, say from Venice to Rome, book it through an Italian, not an American, website. You will save oodles, even hundreds, of dollars.
- Keep an eye out for free days in Europe. Planning ahead of time can mean that you will get into places that you would normally pay a lot for, for free. Did you know that on the first Sunday of every month, during select hours, you can get into the Louvre for free? Do some research, and you will be amazed of how much you can save
- Important: drinks are going to be far cheaper at the bar than at the table in Southern Europe. It may be convenient and easy to order from your waiter at your table, but if you wander on up to the bar, you can get the same exact drink for half the price.
- If you can, travel in the offseason: October-April. Both airfare and accommodations will be cheaper, and it will altogether be less touristy.
- Be careful about tipping. Many places, like the U.K., do not expect tips, and even those that do, a 15-20 percent tip is extraordinarily high. Try to find out ahead of time what the custom is, either by asking fellow diners, or from your hosts or the hostel you are staying at.
- Consider getting a citypass. If you are planning on spending a at least three days in a city, and a lot of time in museums, this may be a good idea. Not all cities offer this, but Paris and Oslo are two out of a handful that do. In Oslo, the pass includes free public transportation, and free access to 30 museums and attractions. For Paris, you will be able to do some wine tasting, a river cruise, and entrance into over 60 museums, galleries, and attractions for free.
Have any European travel tips of your own? Comment below, or else tweet us @litdarling.
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