Europe on a Budget – Tips and Tricks
The world is changing in a way where the travel gods are now in our favor. Specifically, traveling to Europe has never been cheaper. It’s been pretty common to find $400 round-trip flights from the US to EU, score! Now all budget travelers alike can afford to hop on that plane and get their adventure started!
What about when you get there? Europe can still cost an arm and a leg if a trip is planned poorly. Well not to worry, this post will reveal the best tips and tricks for traveling Europe on a budget. You’ll find out how to leverage meal times to get the best deals on dining, how easy and affordable it can be to get from one destination to another, how you can stay in apartments and B&B’s for free, and much, much more.
*Please note: All of the products listed in this post are my personal tried and true recommendations and may contain affiliate links. You won’t be paying a cent more, but in the event of a sale, the small affiliate commission I receive will help keep this blog running. Thanks!
EUROPE ON A BUDGET: WHEN & WHERE
Visit Central and Eastern Europe
For planning where about Europe you’d like to go, keep in mind that not all of Europe is expensive. The typical hotspots such as Paris, Rome, Copenhagen, and London might be on your list, but keep in mind that these cities don’t come cheap. Alternatively to really stretch your budget, head eastward. Prices in countries like Hungary, Czech Republic, Poland, and Albania are a fraction of what you’ll pay in the Western or Northern countries. These lesser-traveled countries have so much to see and are still up and coming, which is why costs are still pretty low. Europe on a budget may not be so hard after all!
If you really can’t bear to miss out on the more popular destination cities, then consider doing some mixing and matching to optimize your spending— opt for some days in Western Europe, sprinkled with some days in Central Europe.
Go in the shoulder season
Long summer nights in Europe are out of this world. But along with summer travel comes stifling hot and humid afternoons, massive crowds, long lines everywhere, and steep high-season prices. That means hotels prices and even admission prices to top attractions skyrocket. Also, Europeans tend to flea their home country during the month of August as they take off for holiday themselves, meaning you’ll be faced with wide scale closures of shops and restaurants.
Travel off-season instead for a more local experience. This means traveling during Europe’s shoulder season in early fall (September – October) and early spring (March – May). The weather during these periods is very pleasant and you’ll find that flights and lodging costs are significantly cheaper than what you’d pay in the summer, and you won’t be disappointed by the wide-scale closures that occur during the summer months when many Europeans take off for holiday themselves.
Stay longer in one place
I know a lot of us struggle with limited vacation time, but that doesn’t mean you should cram as many cities or countries into your itinerary as possible. Trust me, by slowing down, you’ll be able to spend more time immersing yourself in the local culture of a destination, as opposed to hitting the top attractions right before you head to the airport for the bajillionth time. You’ll really be able to indulge in their cuisine, see their different neighborhoods, and observe the people in their everyday lives. From personal experience, I’ve almost always regretted it when I’ve stayed in a destination city for less than 2 nights. I’d aim for 3-5 nights minimum, depending on the size of the city.
Don’t miss the smaller cities and towns
Of course, you’re going to have to hit up the major cities like London, Paris, Barcelona, and Amsterdam. But, have you considered looking into smaller towns 1-2 hours away from those cities? Why not do a quick day trip to a smaller town by bus or train and experience something a little more intimate? Incorporating some of the smaller cities and towns into your itinerary can give you a completely different cultural experience.
Want expert advice on where to go and what to see for cheap? Check out some of my favorite budget travel guides, such as this one by Rick Steves.
EUROPE ON A BUDGET: ACCOMMODATION & LODGING
Sleep cheap, splurge elsewhere
Let’s be real, how much time are you really going to spend inside your hotel room versus exploring a new European city? Make the sacrifice to stay somewhere cheap so you can splurge elsewhere. With the money you’ve saved on accommodation, you can spend it at a fancy restaurant, at a rooftop bar, on a bag you’ve been eyeing, or on a spa treatment. Whatever you choose!
I like to start on Booking.com, then sort by price and filter out anything under 7/10 or 8/10 rating. This will ensure that you’re getting the best bang for your buck!
Skip the hotel, rent an apartment
Hotels provide very little in terms of personalization and local flavor. Not to mention, they’re often your most expensive accommodation option. Staying in a hotel zone also means you’ll likely be paying higher tourist prices at restaurants and shops. Going with apartment rentals can save you a significant amount of money, and you get a taste of the local life! My favorite sites for booking rentals: Booking.com, Airbnb or HomeAway.
Stay at a hostel, they have private rooms too
Apartments are excellent but if you are looking for even cheaper alternatives, you should also consider hostels. The stereotype of them being dirty, communal living for solo travelers is not true anymore! There are new breeds of family-friendly hostels and even luxury hostels popping up across Europe so you’ll be able to get a hotel-like experience whether you’re traveling solo, with family, or with friends.
Staying near the city center or in a neighborhood you really like is usually a good idea, but may cost you slightly more than staying on the outskirts of town. You can stay further from the city center, but make sure you’re close to a train, metro or bus route. Europe on a budget is an art; do the math— if you foresee spending a lot on transportation if you stay farther away, then it might make sense to stay in a centrally located accommodation.
If you’re a solo budget traveler or traveling with 1-2 others, this could be a great free accommodation option for you. The idea behind Couchsurfing is simple: “couchsurfers” leverage the hospitality of friendly people around the world who open their homes to travelers. It’s a great way to meet other like-minded travelers and locals who may also be willing to make time to show you around their city.
Try a work exchange
This is another great way to really do Europe on a budget. It’s the ultimate way to save money on lodging if you’re going to be traveling for over a few weeks at a time. Workaway is an international hospitality service that allows members to contact one another to organize homestays and cultural exchange. “Workawayers” will work a few hours of their day in exchange for lodging and food, which is provided by their host.
Some of the projects that I’ve encountered include babysitting children, teaching English, helping with home improvement tasks, and working as a staff member in a hostel. In my experience, if you’re able to stay put for longer, you have a better shot at getting approved by the host (in most cases, hosts require multi-week long stays).
Another way to avoid spending anything on lodging and accommodation while traveling. If you’re flexible with dates for lodging and accommodation, take a look at housesitting as an option. If you don’t know what housesitting is, it is an exchange in which a person (you) stays at someone’s home and cares for their pets and/or property while they are away. Usually, no money is exchanged between parties. Check out Trusted Housesitters, the main housesitting service out there today. Keep in mind though, you may need to be flexible with your travel dates to make this work.
EUROPE ON A BUDGET: TRANSPORTATION
Take public transportation from the airport
Getting from the airport to the city center by train or by bus is very easy and can save you a ton of money. Most airport websites provide clear information on how to buy tickets and get to the center. Rather than spending $30+ for a taxi, just take the train for well under $10 in most destination cities.
Travel between cities and countries by train/bus
Train travel throughout Europe is one of the most efficient and enjoyable experiences. At times, the travel time can be longer, but it’s can also be more enjoyable and leisurely than hauling through the chaos of airport security. There are no surcharges for baggage (or a very, very minimal charge of a few dollars), WiFi is likely provided, and you actually get to see the landscape that you’re passing through. Why not take the scenic route and enjoy a book or a movie?
Book an overnight sleeper train
Go to bed in one country, and wake up in another. Booking an overnight sleeper train is a double whammy of a win. If you’re planning to tour Europe, check out whether there are any sleeper train routes that link two cities on your itinerary. This option cuts out the need for a flight and one night’s hotel— it’s such a good deal! Plus, the couchettes I’ve taken have provided free bottles of water, toothbrushes, slippers, and even breakfast. Fares, especially if you don’t mind sharing a couchette compartment, can be very competitive. Book your place a few months in advance to secure the best deals.
Consider a European rail pass
If you’re planning a longer European vacation with the intent of hitting a multitude of cities or countries, consider getting a rail pass. There are a lot of different passes available; from a single country pass to an all-inclusive Europe rail pass that lets you ride trains anywhere in Europe. It completely depends on your trip, and you’ll need to crunch some numbers to see if the cost backs out for you, but you can definitely save a lot of euros if you know you’ll be traveling a lot. Most rail passes available to non-Europeans can only be bought outside Europe, so sketch out your itinerary and calculate transportation costs before your trip.
Tourist passes with free transportation
There are a lot of European cities that offer multi-day tourist passes for travelers, and oftentimes public transport use is included. For example, The Berlin Pass gives you entry to 60+ top Berlin attractions, hop-on hop-off sightseeing tours, and an optional travel card for unlimited transportation. Similarly, London offers passes ranging from 1 – 6 days, providing free entrance to 80+ attractions, skip-the-line access, as well as a hop-on hop-off bus ticket and valuable shopping and dining discounts. Check out some of the options here.
Biking or walking
If you truly want to immerse yourself in a European country or city, then exploring by bicycle or on your own two feet are the ways to go. Not to mention, these are probably your cheapest options! It not only helps to save you money but also improve your health while traveling abroad! I often make it a goal to take the trains/buses as little as possible and to walk everywhere I can (which allows me to eat unlimited amounts of delightful pastries and pastas!). Remember to pack a pair of lightweight walking/running shoes, like this stylish pair by Adidas.
Fly with budget airlines
Ryanair and EasyJet are two extremely affordable options for inter-Europe flights and are often used by travelers who visit Europe on a budget. Often times, you can get from one country to another for under $50. Just note, they’ll nickel and dime you for all other add-ons (choosing a seat, checking your luggage, etc.), so pack light and be flexible with seating to take advantage of the super cheap fares.
Open to buses? Try Busabout
Busing is actually a good option in Europe (very different from how we view buses in the US). If you’re a solo traveler or are backpacking across Europe, you may want to checkout Busabout, as an alternative to the European rail passes. They offer a hop-on-hop-off bus pass across Europe which offers a lot of flexibility. Choose your own route through Europe & make last-minute changes (free of charge) so you can stay longer when you fall in love with a place. It’s also a great way to network with fellow travelers.
Another good bus option: Flixbus
Flixbus is another great bus company servicing 24+ countries in Europe. (They’ve also really grown their presence in the USA over the past few years.) Besides providing multiple departure times for most of the key routes you’ll need, the buses also offer free wifi and generous luggage allowances. If you want to see as much of Europe as possible but still want to have the spontaneous element, then Flixbus ‘s Interflix Euro bus pass for just €99 is probably the best deal in bus travel. The pass allows you to pick 5 direct routes from their 200,000 daily connections in 24 European countries, and is valid for 3 months.
Long-distance ride-sharing is becoming popular in Europe. If you’re open to carpooling, check out BlaBlaCar. BlaBlaCar connects drivers with empty seats and people who are looking for a ride for extremely affordable prices. It’s like an online marketplace for trusted carpooling/hitchhiking, only not dangerous.
EUROPE ON A BUDGET: FOOD
Don’t eat at restaurants three times a day
Limit dining out to once a day to be most efficient with your money, twice a day at most. Each meal at a sit-down restaurant will likely set you back $12-25 per person, which really begins to add up if you’re eating out three times a day. Instead of eating at sit-down restaurants, why not grab something portable from the cafe, supermarket, or from a food truck?
If you do choose to eat out, many restaurants offer an affordable “menu of the day” option which often comprises of three courses and a coffee or dessert, so keep an eye out for these specials!
Make lunch your main meal
Restaurant meals tend to be cheaper at lunchtime than at dinner time, even for the same portion of the same food. Timing is everything, so take advantage of it! If you’re a foodie looking to splurge on a meal at a gourmet restaurant, the same rule applies; many restaurants offer great value set menus, business lunch sets, and even the same options served during dinner time for a fraction of the cost.
This will also allow you to properly fuel up for you post-lunch exploration. Why have a big meal for dinner when you’ll likely just be going to sleep right after?
Don’t settle for the first restaurant you see
Major cities are full of tourist traps, where dishes cost way more and the food isn’t really that good. Aside from being in a central location, these restaurants can result in an extremely disappointing experience. Don’t just settle on the first or most convenient restaurant in sight. Aim to find the local spots, which usually indicates that the food is authentic, delicious and affordable. A good rule of thumb is to avoid any cafe or restaurant that has staff luring you in, posters of their menu solely in English, posters with images of food, or is located in busy squares / next to major attractions.
Eat street food
Lucky for those looking to save money, food stalls and food trucks are super common in Europe. Nibbling on street food throughout the day instead of saving your appetite for a big restaurant meal can save you a ton of money. Not to mention, you’ll get to try more of the local cuisine this way! For example, you can grab a bratwurst in Germany, a slice of pizza in Italy, a waffle in Belgium, or a crepe in France for only a few euros.
At the end of the day, you might not even be hungry for a formal dinner. Trust me, this has happened to me plenty of times while traveling on a budget in Europe.
Eat like a local
Foods will be more expensive at tourist spots, so your best bet when traveling on a budget in Europe is to eat like a local. You’ll be able to find some local spots just a few blocks away from where most tourists go. So, take the time to find these joints. You’ll end up with more delicious food, more authentic experiences, and more money in your pocket.
Cook your own meals from time to time
One of the biggest travel expenses is food, so in order to really save, opt to cook if you have access to a kitchen. You can buy fresh meats and produce from the grocery stores and cook them yourself, or even grab a prepared meal or frozen meal. Here’s the math: let’s say you would have spent $20 for one meal at that cute Italian restaurant—but you could get equally as full off of a $5 sandwich from the grocery store and save $15. For budget travel, the second option sounds better to me. By doing this periodically, you’ll definitely be able to save yourself a lot of cash.
Another benefit of shopping in local markets for food? It’s a great way of learning about the local cuisine and ingredients!
To help you achieve your cooking endeavors abroad, get this genius all-in-one spice assortment shaker. A traveling cook’s must-have!
Have a picnic with local market finds
Buy your groceries at local markets; in Europe, there will likely be specialized markets everywhere with high-quality products (cheese markets, meat markets, bakeries, etc.), perfect for picnicking! Hunt down some farmer’s markets, take a stroll, and survey the different prices to get the best deals. Just don’t forget to bring a picnic blanket!
Always drink coffee at the bar instead of at a table
If you’re looking for a quick caffeine fix in Italy, follow these instructions: walk to the bar, order it and stand there while drinking it. Likewise in France, grabbing a seat at the outdoor tables can drive the cost of a coffee from €1 to €3-5. Coffee at the bar often costs half as much than the same coffee at a table. This is especially true in highly populated and touristy areas. This is now a permanent rule on my list!
Enjoy the wine and beer
Depending on which country you go to, you may be shocked at how cheap the wine and beer costs in general. In Italy, France and Spain, a good bottle of wine can cost under €3 and you can find a glass of wine at many restaurants to be under €5. In Hungary, Belgium, and Poland, cheap yet delicious beer is everywhere!
Pro tip: If you’re looking for an affordable souvenir gift that your recipients will actually use and appreciate, skip the shot glasses and keychains and bring them some bottles of wine (or extra-virgin olive oil, my absolute favorite gourmet food item).
In Italy, take advantage of the aperitivo
In northern Italy (and even in some parts of southern Italy these days), the cheapest way to eat out is in the early evening when you go for aperitivo, generally between 7-9pm. The gist: you order an aperitif –a glass of wine or other drink and you’ll gain access to a free buffet of finger foods, including meats and cheeses, bruschetta, small pastas, and finger sandwiches. The general rule of thumb is to have one plate of food from the buffet with one drink, but sometimes you can go back for seconds… and often you’ll end up being too full for actual dinner!
In Spain, take advantage of the menu del dia
In Spain the cheapest way to eat out is by ordering the menu del dia, or meal of the day–a fixed price menu often for under 10€. Stroll the streets during lunchtime, keeping an eye out for chalkboards and posters with the handwritten menu del dia offer and you’ll end up with a great meal for amazing value. The menu typically consists of a first course and second course followed by a dessert and coffee.
In Spain, get free tapas with purchase of a drink
This is a tradition that is starting to die out in many parts of Spain, but head to less popular Spanish cities and you can still find traditional bars serving free tapas with any drink purchase. Your best cities for enjoying free tapas are Granada, Leon, and Almeria. This article gives a good overview of where you can still find these perks!
Want expert advice on where to go and what to see for cheap? Check out some of my favorite budget travel guides, such as this one by Rick Steves.
EUROPE ON A BUDGET: ATTRACTIONS & THINGS TO DO
Look for all-inclusive passes in your destination city
Often times, the major European destination cities have multi-day passes that give you access to major attractions, museums, and even public transportation. If you are planning to pack in a number of visitor attractions, chances are you’ll be spending a pretty penny on all those admission fees. Consider getting one of these all-inclusive passes. Check out the assortment of welcome cards here, offering free public transportation, admission to museums, as well as discounts to additional sights, tours, and restaurants.
Check out free walking tours
“Free” walking tours can be found in most cities across Europe. Sandeman’s is the market leader in Europe, but a quick Google search can yield many local and more intimate walking tour companies (I usually like to go with the smaller ones, as I find that the guides are funnier and more engaging). These tours will usually provide you with the history of the city and will give you insight into the local culture, including off the beaten path activities and local restaurant recommendations. Tip the guide what you thought the tour was worth in the end!
Check out free concerts, movies, festivals
Before going on your trip, do a quick search on Facebook Events or Google to see if there are any local events happening at the same time you’ll be visiting. Just like any major city, there will often be some free local events happening. Free concerts, outdoor movies, and cultural/food festivals are all ideal events when you’re traveling Europe on a budget and want to avoid spending on attraction admissions.
Look for discounted admission
When visiting museums and other notable sites, always ask if they are special rates are available for students, seniors, or small groups. Some discounts aren’t clearly visible and can be overlooked. Don’t forget to carry your student ID cards with you!
Free museum days
Many museums worldwide offer free admission days throughout the month. For example, in Paris, the first Sunday of the month is when all the main museums are free; in Rome, the Vatican Museums are open for free on the last Sunday of every month. There are of course many more, just do your research to find them.
Pro tip: If you plan on taking advantage of this perk, make sure you wake up early to get in line! I stayed just outside the walls of the Vatican City and the line for the Vatican Museum (as seen by peeking out my window) was growing exponentially even 1.5 hours before opening.
EUROPE ON A BUDGET: MONEY TIPS
You probably don’t need to tip
Tipping is totally an American practice. In Europe, servers, taxi drivers, and everyone else is paid full livable wages, and it’s nearly universal that a service fee will be included in your bill.
Change your money once you get there
When exchanging cash, most of the time it is better to exchange your money in the country you’re going to. You will usually get the best exchange rates at banks, post offices and possibly hotels. Avoid the foreign exchange stands you see everywhere in airports, train stations and touristy areas. They charge a fee for everything!
You will almost always get the best exchange rate when buying foreign currency with either ATM cards or credit cards, which will usually be 2 to 7 percent better than the rates you’ll get when exchanging cash.
Use credit cards without a foreign transaction fee
Try to use credit cards whenever possible for large purchases such as hotel bills, tickets and car rentals. The exchange rate is almost always one of the best, but make sure you charge in the local currency, NOT your home currency.
Get an ATM fee-free banking card
Most credit and debit card issuers charge foreign-transaction fees, which typically run between 2% and 3% of the purchase price, as well as ATM fees. That might seem like a minor expense per transaction, but all those extra charges can really add up.
You can avoid these fees by signing up for a Charles Schwab High Yield Investor Checking account. It does not charge currency conversion fees, and you’ll get a rebate for all your US and overseas ATM charges (this is what I use, it’s changed my international money life).
ESSENTIAL PACKING LIST FOR EUROPE
- Travel backpack | I love my Osprey Aura 65 so much. It’s extremely comfortable because of its super intense hip belt (if you get it, you’ll see what I mean) and perfect for those warm travel days due to the ventilation technology. If you’re looking for a new travel bag, GET THIS BAG! You won’t regret it.
- Packing cubes | You need to get these, they are amazing. However you choose to organize your clothes— by day, by the outfit, by type—these will be the most useful thing you have in your packing artillery. You’ll no longer need to go through the entire suitcase for that one thing you’re looking for because you’ll know exactly where it’s at.
- Everyday bag | A mini backpack that can fit a water bottle is a great option. Another good option for days where you’re not feeling the backpack look is a medium-sized, cross-body bag.
- Shoes | Bring one or two pairs of comfortable walking shoes with good support and traction. I usually go with one pair of sneakers (gives you the ability to go for a run in the morning and then walk all day in them) and another pair of cuter shoes when I want to dress up a bit more. For your second pair, consider sandals for the summertime.
- Smartphone UV Sanitizer and Charger | Our phones gather all the grime and bacteria we touch throughout the day, and then they are stored in warm, dark places like purses and pockets, which make for great breeding grounds for bacteria to grow. They are the third hand we never wash, but should! Using a UV sanitizer such as PhoneSoap on a regular basis will help keep germs and illness at bay.
- Travel adapter | Necessary for many EU countries. This one here is tried and trusted. It allows for a normal plug and has two additional USB ports.
- Light Jacket or Cardigan | Ideally, this jacket will be a lightweight, water-resistant, windbreaker. You’ll be walking around a lot, the last thing you want is to be lugging around a jacket that you may or may not wear.
- Puffy Jacket | If you’re traveling in the spring or autumn seasons, you’re going to need layers in Bologna, which tends to get pretty cool nights. You have a lot of options here, but I personally have the North Face Thermoball, and it’s kept me warm throughout my many years of adventuring!
- Shawl or scarf | One of my Europe must-haves! I’ll always have a medium sized thin scarf in my bag. Not only can you use them for warmth or style, you can use them as a coverup in churches and other sensible places, as a towel, as a mat on grass/sand/dirt, as a quick rain shield, or as an emergency skirt if your bottoms get stained or soaked somehow.
- Daypack | I’m a fan of the Deuter ACT Trail 30 Hiking Backpack. Even when I’m not hiking! It has ample room for all the snacks and water you’ll need, as well as for your camera and the safety essentials for the hike.
- Sunhat | Sun protection is key for any sunny European destination.
- Hand Sanitizer | Hand sanitizer gel or wipes are a must any time you’re going to be in contact with surfaces many other people have touched. Never leave your hotel room without it! And if you do happen to forget it, remember to wash your hands often, especially before eating or touching your face.
- Body Wipes / Feminine Wipes | Feeling a bit gross after a day of extended walking or bike ride but don’t have the time to shower right in that instant? Just whip out one of these body wipes for a quick refresher. The feminine wipes I like are infused with cucumber and aloe. Trust me, you will feel and smell so much better. Always good to have a few handy in your travel bag.
- Squeeze bottles | GoToob travel bottles are my favorite thing ever. Made of high-quality silicone, they are extremely durable, have never leaked on me, and are super easy to squeeze. They have different TSA-approved sizes.
- Moisturizer with SPF | You’ll be out in the sun all day. Save yourself face from premature aging and sunburns.
- Portable Power Bank | You’re probably going to be out all day, snapping away taking pictures… the last thing you want is to be driving along with no phone battery! A portable power bank is a must-have, and Anker’s ultra-light, ultra-portable power bank is tried and true by so many travelers! I never embark on a day of exploration without it.
- Soft Hydration Flask | Stay hydrated throughout the day with a water bottle that can go anywhere with you—and fold up when not in use. I love the packability of these bottles!
- Travel belt/money belt | Thief proof! I used a Flip Belt when I went out exploring, which doubled as my running belt. I swear, this thing doesn’t budge or jiggle at all when you run, plus it’s super comfortable!
- Travel pillow | This one by Turtl is the one! It comes highly rated because it has so much support, almost like a neck brace (there’s a chunk of flexible plastic in there to prop your head up). It’s warm and super packable too.
- Foldable tote bag | Great for doing groceries or carrying your belongings in a pinch.
- Laundry bag | Keep your worn clothes separate from your clean ones, especially when traveling to high humidity places such as the EU. When it’s humid, you’ll just be sticky all day and all that stickiness will transfer to your clothes. In either case, you will inevitably have dirty socks and undies to toss in here.
- Small lock | If you’re staying in hostels, you may need to provide your own lock for the lockers. Otherwise, this can be used on your luggage bag when you’re traveling and checking your luggage.
- Small Massage Ball | One of the best things in my bag, hands down. Roll your legs, upper back, and under your feet whenever you have downtime to undo that tension and soreness you’ve built up over the course of the day’s adventures. This one by TriggerPoint is my go-to.
- Money | A mix of local currency because you’ll need it, and your home currency for emergencies.
- Tickets and travel documents | Passport, student ID (for all those great student discounts), medical card, proof of travel insurance, printed documents of your flight/hotel bookings, visas if you need them
- Travel cards | Credit cards, debit cards, airport lounge access cards, visas
And there you have it. I hope you found the tips and tricks above useful. Got any more tips that you’ve found helpful or heard of for sticking to a budget in Europe? Leave a comment below!
If you’d like to share the knowledge, please share away!