This year I spent close to five months in Europe. Every time I tell people that in person, their eyes get wide or they start mentally calculating in their mind how much of a fortune I must have blown through. Really though, I spent less than I would have road-tripping around the USA, staying in campgrounds. I just followed my own advice on how to find cheap places in Europe to visit—and making one certain strategic move in more expensive countries.
Europe has a reputation for being pricey and it certainly can be if you’re following the herds. Everywhere you’ve read about 1,000 times, seen on TV shows, and dreamed about going to because half the people you know have been there, it’s probably expensive. Even more so if you go in the summer.
Then there are countries that are expensive just because their population is rich, or cities that are expensive because they just have high costs of living. That’s true throughout the developed world. There are ways to sidestep them though and drastically lower your costs in those spots too.
If you do it right though, you can see UNESCO World Heritage sites, visit beautiful places in Western Europe, and explore destinations with a rich history–all while being budget travelers. Historic sites and Greek Islands can be in play, as can cultural attractions and Medieval castles. But traveling around Europe without blowing a fortune requires more than just looking for free things to do and using public transportation. You also have to employ a contrarian travel strategy.
Go to Cheap Places to Visit in Europe That Are Entire Countries
Many countries in Europe aren’t going to hit your wallet any worse than you’re used to in the USA or Canada, especially when you consider that tax is folded into the price you see and tipping hasn’t gotten so out of hand.
If you’ve got a copy of The World’s Cheapest Destinations or you’re a regular reader of this blog, however, you know that there are some countries in Europe where costs are on par with Southeast Asia or the inexpensive spots in the Americas. Some goods and services can be even less. I was buying carafes of wine for a few euros and I got a haircut for less than $2 this year in Europe.
These countries generally fall into two geographic areas: the Balkans and the bloc of countries that used to be part of the Soviet Union. (Sometimes called “Eastern Europe” but usually more accurately Central Europe.) The Iron Curtain designation alone is not enough though and these sections of the map have big differences: Croatia is not a bargain at all, but its neighbors in the region like Bosnia and Montenegro go from “not bad” to “what a deal!”
Prices in the Czech Republic (Czechia) are reasonable, especially once you get far away from Prague Castle (more on that later), but Slovakia is a better value. You’ll find outright bargains in Romania and Hungary.
In the cheapest European countries, you can generally find good deals on hotels, apartment rentals, meals, attractions, transportation, and drinks. They’ll be half or less what you would spend in the UK, Canada, or USA, for comparison.
Here are a few articles you can go to for more price information and The World’s Cheapest Destinations has a chapter on each of these countries with more details.
And here’s advice on how to find a good budget hotel deal wherever you may be headed.
Don’t get too hung up on the individual price of this item or that. Just know that in these countries, you’ll spend far, far less than you would in the UK, France, Italy, or Switzerland, for almost everything that impacts your vacation budget.
Most of the time when you see legitimate lists of the cheapest European cities, quite a few of them are going to be in these inexpensive countries. At the top of the list would be Budapest, Bucharest, Sofia, Sarajevo, Tallin, and Bratislava. Look beyond those though and see what else is around.
2) Limit Your Time in Big European Cities
On this blog I mostly write about the cheapest places to travel in the world and where to go in order to make your budget stretch. But some people are hell-bent on going to a specific place in Europe at the busiest time. This includes some friends and relatives who ask me for advice. They know my beat and my books, but will go, “Yeah, but we’re already set on visiting Rome and Florence next July…”
Rome and Florence are popular for a reason, but these big cities that everyone knows about are going to cost you, especially if you’re an independent traveler. The people on organized tours of Italy are actually getting a better deal because the organizer gets group rates at hotels plus the prices of admissions, guides, and some meals are baked into the total.
Sure, Paris is great, there’s a reason it’s such a popular destination. But if you take a train for an hour or two, you’re going to spend far less on your hotel rooms at night than you will in the big city. A fraction of the amount usually. You don’t have to skip Paris, but if you limit your nights there it will have a huge impact on your expenses.
For example, when I searched Paris hotels on Booking.com for a September Saturday, there were only 17 hotels or apartments under 80 euros per night. In small Rennes, there were also 17—and only one hotel at all more than 200.
When I searched Booking in Italy, there was only one hotel room in Rome’s city center available for under 100 and it had terrible reviews. The majority were twice as much. In beautiful Matera there were 15 double rooms or apartments for 80 or less.
Anywhere in the Netherlands is less expensive than Amsterdam. Anywhere in Austria is less expensive than the capital city of Vienna. See the popular attractions you came to check out and then head out of the capital cities and big tourist draw metropolises.
There’s a truth that holds true in most of the world but it’s especially apt for popular tourist cities: head to the smaller cities and towns and you’ll see your expenses drop in a hurry. Secondary cities in France or Italy will cost less than major European cities, rural areas less again. So knock out the sightseeing in Rome or Paris, then head out for greener pastures that won’t require as many greenbacks.
Hit Oslo for the museums and free tourist attractions, then get out to the countryside where you can camp or find a hostel bed that’s not 40 euros. Madrid and Barcelona will cost you more for almost everything than you’ll spend anywhere else in the country when you catch a train out of the city.
Even in the cheap countries this is often true: my apartment rentals outside of Sofia were a much better deal than in Bulgaria’s largest city. The Czech Republic is a good value…except for Prague.
Caveats to this advice: a) Sometimes big cities have a more competitive hostel/cheap hotel scene internationally than smaller towns, so Bratislava may offer better lodging choices than smaller Kosice. 2) The big cities with great subways can sometimes be cheaper to get around than a spread-out small one with a lousy bus system. 3) Popular resort towns are going to cost more no matter how small they are.
3) Avoid Package Holiday Resorts and Tourist Towns
“Budget Venice” is an oxymoron. London’s going to cost you a fortune no matter how many free museums you go to. The worst though are the beach resorts, the holiday destinations, the vacation factory places where the average stay is less than a week.
There’s a time and a place for these mass-market tourism places like Mykonos, the Canary Islands, parts of the Algarve, and Ibiza, but that time and place is when you have hundreds of dollars per day to spend. I’ve enjoyed my share of all-inclusive resorts, especially when my daughter was young, but these areas are geared to people who are not being careful with their spending.
If you’re on a shoestring budget or even a mid-range one, your grumpy frown will really stand out among the €400 a day merry makers spending with abandon. Instead, go where they’re not: the places that are harder to get to, that aren’t conducive to ordering cocktails while sitting in a lounge chair.
You also might want to spend some time in places where there’s no box to tick off or a bucket list item to claim. You’ll notice fewer package tourists and a rapid drop in prices—plus you will have some nice surprise discoveries.
Caveats to this advice: places that are big domestic tourism draws in inexpensive countries are not the same thing. Loads of Mexican tourists come to where I live in Guanajuato, but that means most hotels and restaurants are priced for their budget, not the budget of foreigners, as they are in San Miguel de Allende. There are places in many cheap Asian and Latin American countries that are big draws for locals, but hardly any foreign tourists visit. Go join the fun.
One easy way to find these places is just to ask around. Ask in Bucharest, “Where do Romanians go on vacation in Romania?” You may end up with some interesting destinations where you’re in the minority. Price-wise, that’s usually a good thing, especially for hotels and restaurants.
4) Pick the Right Season for Europe Travel
This will be a short section because the explanation here is simple: skip the summer in Europe. Yes, I know it’s when your kids are off school, or when you always go on vacation, or when you’re not as busy at work. Whatever. It’s a terrible time to go.
The summer months in Europe combine high heat with high prices and a lot more stress. The crowds are insane, rates are at their highest for everything, and you’re more likely to be treated like a number. Forget looking for cheap flights. They don’t exist then because the flights are full regardless.
This aspect is not as bad if you choose your location within a country carefully, but don’t forget that this is when Europeans themselves are on vacation too, so most of the desirable places are at their peak for tourism. If it’s not a desirable place, you might find that half the businesses are closed because the owners all went on vacation themselves and shut the doors.
Europe in winter is not easy in terms of all the clothing layers you have to pack, but people clearly go about their business living there in that season just as they do all the others. Museums are open, restaurants are open, the sites are less crowded, and you’ll find better rates for everything. You won’t sweat buckets while you’re visiting Roman ruins or the Acropolis.
Shoulder season is best if you can swing it though, timing your visit for the spring or fall. The only thing this won’t work for is beach vacations, but people in Greece kept telling us that the water is warmer in September and October than it is in June, so keep that in mind.
Naturally, flights to Europe are much cheaper outside of summer than they are in peak season. Check prices from your airport here.