Would you like to travel Europe but you’re afraid you can’t afford it? Does a “cheap Europe trip” sound like an oxymoron? Well it can be if you pick the wrong places, travel at the worst time, and spend indiscriminately. Follow this advice on the cheapest way to travel Europe, however, and your vacation can be a great value.
It’s hard to get around the fact that Western Europe is more expensive than the U.S. and will often be pricier than Canada is these days. However, the exchange rate of dollars to euros is quite favorable as I write this, running between 1.10 to 1.15 dollars per euro. So 115 dollars will get you around 100 euros. The rate hasn’t been bouncing around much the past few years.
I’ve taken a fair number of trips to Europe over the past decade, 13 countries if I remember them all, and I’ll be back at least once next year to number 14. I get quoted a lot in the media as a budget travel expert on how to travel in Europe more cheaply (always a popular topic with editors) so I thought it would be a good idea to pack a collection of these tips in one place. Use a few of these next time you’re trying to ease the budget pain.
Table of Contents
Start With Cheap European Destinations
The decision that will have the biggest impact on your budget is when you decide where to go. The cheapest places to travel in Europe are a screaming bargain, some of them on par with the bargain spots in Latin America or Southeast Asia. If you go to the opposite end of the scale though, you could easily spend triple what you would in the USA.
No matter where you stay and how frugally you watch your funds, a week in Bosnia, Bulgaria, or Hungary is going to cost you a fraction of the cost of a week in Norway. The Czech Republic and Slovakia feel like ye olde Europe at a half price sale. Stockholm feels like what it costs in New York City, even in the best of currency exchange times.
Eastern Europe and the Balkan countries are the cheapest in general, but Portugal is a seriously good value and some parts of Greece and Spain are still a relatively good value right now. Remember too, you don’t have to visit France or Italy to eat well and drink well. Check out this post on the cheapest wine destinations in Europe.
Slow Down and Stay Awhile
Transportation costs are a big expense in Europe, whether you’re flying with actual luggage, traveling on a Eurail pass, or hopping buses. In Western Europe, the fuel costs are high, taxes are high, and labor costs are high. The more you move around trying to check things off your list, the more your budget is going to rise. Slow travel is just a lot less expensive.
Exploring one area on a short trip or one country/region over several weeks is going to cost you less and also allow you to absorb more instead of it all flashing before your eyes outside a window. Slow down, savor, and relax.
Get Out of the European Capitals (and Venice)
By their very nature, cities cost more than rural areas. Popular capital cities cost more than normal ones. With very few rare exceptions, the cheapest cities in Europe are never the biggest or the ones where the government is based.
Sure, go spend some time in Paris and London. Catch a few museums, see the sites. Then head out. Don’t spend your whole vacation or backpacking trip in capital cities unless you’re willing to spend like the rich tourists in a big hurry do. Besides, Kosice is more interesting than Bratislava. Veiliko Turnovo (pictured above) is a more interesting place to hang out in than Sofia—and easier to get to by train from many other countries. Is Madrid really where you want to spend most of your time in Spain?
In this time of overtourism, look for the less-visited second, third, and fourth places to travel to beyond the capital city or the big selfie stick destination. Sure, the most popular European destinations are usually popular for a reason (or at least famous for being famous), but don’t spend your whole vacation jammed in with the crowds and paying top dollar for a place to stay.
Make the Most of Free Attractions in Europe
Finding the cheapest way to travel Europe means being judicious about which big-ticket admission charges are really important to you. When one museum or famous site is $25 each, that can have a big impact on a couple’s daily budget. If you are in a big city, figure out what’s free and take advantage of it the other days. Some museums are free all the time, some have specific days.
Also, nearly any city is going to have festivals and music performances going on constantly, especially in warm months. Check the official tourism site first because some have good free event and museum listings. Then go to destination-focused blogs and a guidebook for recurring freebies and bargains.
Get a Transportation Pass in Europe
In most European cities, if there’s a viable public transportation system, you can buy a pass for one or more days that will give you unlimited rides. Get one and pack all your city travel into that time. Note that if you have one of these, it opens up your lodging options too—you can be on the branch of a subway or bus line instead of paying a premium to be right in the center of the tourist zone. Travel prices in Prague drop by half when you get out of Old Town. Sometimes the full-on city passes are a good deal too. See this old but still valid post: Are those city cards really worth the money?
Look Deeper for Europe Hotel Deals
In most of Europe outside Scandinavia and Switzerland, two or three of you traveling together can stay in a real hotel for less than you would spend in a hostel. Unless you’re just looking for partying mates to blow more money with, independent small hotels and value chains like Ibis and NH Hotels can give you more comfort at a good price. Go beyond the U.S. booking sites though as they’ll have more inventory elsewhere. Use a metasearch engine like HotelsCombined but then also search Booking.com, TripAdvisor (beyond the first page), a good guidebook, or an authoritative local resource guide online.
Don’t forget to check your balance if you’ve followed my advice for getting free hotel rooms by getting the right credit card. Cash in some points in the most expensive spot.
Or maybe the best hotel is no hotel at all. There are some terrific apartment rental deals all over Europe, like all of these where you can find a European apartment rental for less than $50 a night. Check out Airbnb or Vrbo.
Live Like a European Local
If you rent an apartment or home for a couple weeks in one place, you can live a local life instead of a tourist life and spend far less in the process. When you’re in a real neighborhood instead of a tourist one, you pay what the locals—who probably aren’t rich—pay for groceries, pubs, coffee shops, and restaurants. You’ll also meet people who don’t get paid to serve you and experience more of the local culture.
If you can stay with a friend or relative that’s the best, but assuming you don’t know someone everywhere, you can sign up to be a housesitter, do a home exchange, or rent an apartment a subway ride away from where all the tour buses are parked.
Get on a Bike in Europe
You can take a real tour with a company like Bike Tours Direct and spend the same or less as you would on a vacation you booked yourself, while seeing more of the countryside. They’ll take your luggage to the next hotel and it’ll be waiting when you get there. I’ve had great trips with them in the Alentejo region of Portugal and cycling the Balkans in three countries.
Or you can just hop on a bike to explore a city, either on a local tour or on your own. Many have public bike share systems. Some hotels rent out bikes to guests for free or cheap (as mine in Budapest did). Otherwise, look around for a rental kiosk like I found in Sofia—where it came with a free guided city tour. If you’re in a smaller bike-friendly area, you can probably rent one for a whole week and get a big discount.
Splurge for Lunch, Not Dinner
This tactic has been a key one for longer than I’ve been alive. If you’re going to go out for a nice meal now and then, you’re better off doing it during the daytime. The cheapest way to travel Europe is to make your meal splurges daytime ones, not dinners. Sure, it’s not quite as romantic as dining by candlelight, but many restaurants offer a prix fixe option, a set meal, or a “meal of the day” that makes even the gourmet hotspots less of a strain on the wallet. Plus it bears repeating: don’t eat where you see all the tourists eating, especially in a super-popular destination like Florence or Amsterdam.
Party Where It’s Cheap, Not Where It’s Not
It makes sense to drink up and have a blast if you’re in the Czech Republic, Bulgaria, Romania, or Hungary. Or in an Italian village where they sell wine by the jug. Not when you’re in Oslo and alcohol is taxed worse than cigarettes. Dry out for a bit or switch to narcotics if you must indulge—which are cheaper than the legal stuff. Thankfully you can travel in Europe and hit many of the cheapest beer destinations around the world.
Don’t Go to Europe in the Summer
Why do people go to Europe in the summer? Flights to Europe are at their most expensive then, hotel rates are the highest, and the famous places are hot and packed.
Many decide to take a Europe trip then because school is out, which is hard to get around if you’re a family. But can you at least take off the day after school ends in early June, rather than expensive August when three-quarters of Europeans are also on vacation?
Otherwise, if you don’t have offspring and you’re not a teacher, rethink your timing. If you don’t have to take your trip to Europe between June and August, then don’t. Your European vacation will be more pleasant and far less expensive if you visit in spring or autumn instead.
Cheap European Vacations and Flights
So there you have it, my advice for how travel Europe cheaply. I didn’t discuss flights, but see this post on some of the cheapest cities for international flights, which might spark some ideas. Use Skyscanner or Google flights to check prices from your home airport on their big map. Often going to a neighboring country instead of the one you had planned to land in can save you hundreds of dollars.
Also, don’t rule out an organized Europe tour. Check out the itineraries and prices on Intrepid or G Adventures and you might be pleasantly surprised at how reasonable it is, especially for the longer trips that hit multiple countries. That will also drastically cut down the time you spend on planning logistics and searching for where to stay.
There’s no one single cheapest way to travel Europe, but if you combine some of the strategies above, you can enjoy a great Europe trip that won’t cost you a fortune.
How about you? What made the most difference in reducing your European travel budget?
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