Ever dreamt of gazing at the Mona Lisa or sampling (correction: demolishing) brick oven pizza in Rome, but felt it would cost a small fortune to get there? You're not alone! As a travel consultant, I talk with many people who have reservations about taking the big European dream trip because they think it simply isn't affordable.
While I'm not saying its cheap, many are actually surprised to find out how manageable a backpacking trip truly is. I'm here to lay out some tips and tricks to help you maximize your budget and finally take the trip you've been saving at the top of your bucket list!
1. Get yourself to Europe for as little as possible.
First and foremost, check out where you can find the cheapest flights from the US. Airlines such as WOW Air, Norwegian, and Iceland Air offer some great budget deals from the East Coast over to Scandinavian countries. Once you get there, though, you'll want to take a train or short flight over to another part of Europe (just a few days in Scandinavia will max out your budget!).
You can also do well booking far enough in advance. I found roundtrip tickets for under $400 when willing to book months ahead. Compare prices at sites like Kayak, Student Universe, and SkyScanner.
However, be cautious with your definition of 'cheapest.' The last thing you want is to buy a ticket with a budget airline to find out you have to make up the difference in baggage fees. I like to avoid that issue all together by traveling light with a backpack I can carry on. Trust me, you'll be happy you did when you find yourself walking day after day between hostels and train stations.
2. Pick budget friendly destinations
Like I mentioned before, if you're on a budget, places like Scandinavia are worth saving for a later trip. Parts of Western Europe (think: London, Paris, Amsterdam) can also be on the pricier end, especially when you factor in exchange rate with the US dollar to the British Pound or Euro. Don't be discouraged, though. You can make any of those cities work with the tips I'll mention a bit later.
There are plenty of other cities in Europe that will offer just as much excitement with a fraction of the cost to eat and stay. I've had a lot of success on a shoestring budget in places like Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Poland and other countries in central/eastern Europe. You can find plenty of ways to eat cheap, free activities/museums, and reasonably priced hostels. Once I stayed in a hostel in Budapest for only $8 a night (try finding somewhere that inexpensive to stay in the US)! I spent a grand total of $4 for a nice dinner and beer in Bratislava! And I'm not talking McDonald's...this was a real restaurant.
3. Travel point to point for as little as possible
The beauty of backpacking Europe are the many options for quick and inexpensive travel within the continent. Budget airlines like Ryan Air and EasyJet will allow you to make those longer connections, sometimes for as low as $20. Busses are almost always the cheapest way to go, although they often take longer than trains. I spent only $6 to go by bus from Berlin to Prague. Can you imagine?! An entirely new country and only six bucks to get there!
Explore whether a Eurail Pass is right for you. The pass allows you to travel by train between most European countries, often at a cheaper rate. If you aren't going to so many destinations, it's important to do the math and compare pricing between the pass and point-to-point tickets. Keep in mind that Eurail does offer a discounted rate for those under 27 so those savings could really help. Learn more from our post "How to Choose Your Rail Pass."
4. Stay somewhere on-the-cheap
There are tons of budget-friendly accommodations throughout Europe. First off, you'll want to explore hostels. Toss aside any preconceived notions you have about hostels - they aren't like the horror film Hostel and they are not all dirty. On the contrary, you'll find many hostels with designer touches and they are truly the best place to meet other travelers along the way. I've had some truly amazing experiences getting involved in hostel activities and meeting friends for life. Travel is that much more impacted by the people you meet and the experiences you have than the museums you visit and insta-pics you take. Also, many hostels offer free walking tours, group dinners, and discounted pub crawls.
For those who are a bit more adventurous, don't be afraid to explore couchsurfing.net. Couch surfing is an online community where you can connect with locals in a given city and they will host you for free in exchange for meeting others from around the world. I've found this is truly the best way to experience a city from a local's point of view, especially if I'm a bit restricted on time.
An entirely different way to travel, and COMPLETELY FREE!, is through WWOOF (Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms) or Work Away. All over the world, farms, teaching centers and local businesses are looking for volunteers to work for free in exchange for a free lodging (and sometimes meals)!
5. Live frugally everyday
On a lengthy backpacking trip, it's important to think about every small purchases in the scheme of your overall budget.
- Eating on-the-cheap: Meal prep may not be at the top of your list for how you'd like to spend your time in Europe, but it can actually become one of your biggest money savers! After weeks on end traveling and eating on-the-go, I'm always comforted by a simple pot of pasta. Grocery stores in Europe offer cheap ways to feed yourself fresh and simple foods you crave. Even cooler, you may be able to find a local farmer's market with inexpensive and fresh produce. You can even get a taste of local life while you shop. Also, look for street food for quick and cheap eats between meals. I'm not saying you should cook every meal. On the contrary, its important to get out and try as much of the food and culture as you can. I tend to find balance by preparing/grabbing something simple for breakfast and lunch and splurging a bit on dinner.
Many hostels actually have kitchens so you can really save on cooking. Also, while it may not seem like that daily Starbucks is a big splurge ($4-$5 ain't so bad), that absolutely adds up over time. Start your day off with cheaper (or sometimes free!) tea or coffee at the hostel.
- Free Tours: Luckily, there are other ways to balance out your spending. Virtually every city offers at least one free tour option. These tours are tip-based and offer a great overview of the city. You'll also meet plenty of other travelers to connect with. We'd recommend Generation Tours for lively, engaging, and informative free tours in Budapest, Barcelona, Berlin, Dublin, and Prague. You can find more information about their fantastic tours here.
When it comes to sightseeing, there are some things you don't skimp on. Your first time in London, may the hefty fee to ride the London Eye. When in Paris, you spend a bit to get to the top of the Eiffel Tower. Let's face it. Some things are pricey and are just worth seeing. But you can balance that out with things like free tours and discounts.
- Student Discounts: Be sure to bring a student ID with you if you have one. Even if yours is no longer current, you might even slide by if there is no expiry date. Many museums and galleries offer significant student discounts. If you're lucky enough, you may even find museums that are completely free. Many of London's best museums, such as the National Gallery and the British Museum, cost absolutely nothing to enter!
- Souvenirs: If you have to buy souvenirs, stay away from central tourist areas in any city. You'll do best looking for unique postcards, small finds at flea markets, or inexpensive candies. These not only save money but are easier to pack to take home.
6. Plan ahead to minimize foreign transaction fees
When traveling abroad, using foreign credit and debit cards are inevitably a bit of a pain. Make smart choices about which bank and card option you use to cut down on ATM and transaction fees.
These fabulous resources from U.S. News & World Report will help breakdown which cards make sense for travelers and strategies to save more:
So, there you have it! I hope you found this article helpful so you can finally realize that bucket list dream! No place is out of reach if you use the right strategies. Just remember, you may not have the money now, but you've got the time. Later in life, you could have plenty of money, but no more time. There's no better day than today to go out and see the world!