Traveling around Europe is an exciting experience, but not necessarily a cheap one. Popular European destinations such as London, Budapest, Rome, or Paris are amazing places to visit but can also be very expensive. So, what is the cheapest way to travel Europe? I have some answers for you.
I’ve been traveling around Europe since the ’90s and while it’s not as easy as it used to be, there are still ways to lower costs and travel Europe on a budget.
Of course, a lot will depend on your own personal budget and comfort level with traveling on the cheap. Not everyone is comfortable staying in a hostel, for example, but you may be fine with buying food for a picnic as opposed to eating in a restaurant. It all comes down to your priorities and flexibility.
Here are some tips on ways to save money when traveling in Europe. Use them as a base to work from and create your own budget travel plan based on what suits your needs and what you’re willing to compromise on.
Tips to travel Europe on a budget
1. Travel during off-peak or shoulder-seasons
This is one of our favorite tips because it has multiple benefits. Traveling to Europe in the off-season saves you money and helps ease the issues of over-tourism faced by the most popular destinations during the high season. Plus, you will benefit from fewer crowds and line-ups at tourist sites and restaurants.
We always travel to Europe during off and shoulder-season and would do so even aside from the cost savings. Generally speaking peak season in Europe is mid-June through August, shoulder season is April to mid-June and off-season is November through March.
Considerations: There are some cons to traveling in the off-season but we think the pros far outweigh them. Just be prepared for less than perfect weather in certain areas and also possible shorter hours or closures of some sites, shops, and restaurants.
2. Be flexible with your dates, departure, and arrival points
When booking transportation many booking sites will allow you to enter a range of dates to see if there is a big difference in price. If you’re able to be flexible with your dates and even with your departure and arrival points you can save big!
This tip applies not only to booking your flights in and out of Europe but also for transportation within Europe. For example, there are 3 major airports around London and prices can vary drastically depending on which one you fly in or out of.
Considerations: Of course, your work may dictate your vacation dates making travel less flexible. Also, make sure to check the location of the alternate airports as they may be far from the city requiring additional ground transportation which can quickly eat up the savings.
3. Consider non-direct flights or long layovers
Doing some research and looking at different airlines to mix and match flights manually can get you some great deals. Many booking sites will show you options for “self-transfer” meaning that you’ll be required to make two separate bookings, one for each airline.
Sometimes there are long layovers but that doesn’t have to be a negative. Use that time to search for deals on activities and accommodations that you haven’t already booked. You may even have enough time to leave the airport and see a bit of the city you’re laid over in.
Considerations: If you’re booking two individual flights be sure to leave plenty of time between as non-connecting flights will not cover you for delays.
4. Travel light
Europe is amazing for cheap air travel around the continent. For example, you can find flights from major cities like London to popular spots like Barcelona for as little as $25. However, this price does not include checked luggage meaning that you have to fly with a carry-on only to get the deals.
Traveling light can also save you money on ground transportation. Most major cities in Europe have amazing public transit but it can be difficult to load on a bunch of suitcases, especially during peak times.
We’ve even been known to walk 30 minutes or more to our destination if we aren’t weighed down by luggage. Having too many bags will make you more likely to opt for the easier but much more expensive taxis.
Considerations: If you’re someone that loves having a varied wardrobe on vacation this may be one of the compromises you don’t want to make.
5. Find the freebies
There are cheaper European destinations, like Croatia and Bulgaria and this is definitely something to consider. Unfortunately, some of the most popular destinations are also more expensive. That doesn’t mean you have to skip the big players on your European vacation, however. After all, they’re famous and popular for good reason.
The good news is that many of the famous cities in Europe have a ton of things to do with absolutely no cost! For example, many of the famous museums have certain days where admission is free. In fact, most of London’s museums are free every day.
Some of the best spots to explore in Europe are the parks and squares. Here you can get a taste of everyday life as the locals take a stroll, visit with friends or enjoy a picnic. Another big draw in Europe is the history and architecture and most of this can be experienced by just walking around the city which costs nothing and will also help burn off that big bowl of pasta you just ate.
Considerations: Keep in mind that the free museum days also mean bigger crowds, especially in the high season.
6. Book your ground transportation in advance
As much as we love being spontaneous we’ve learned the hard way that booking in advance is financially beneficial. Trains, buses, and boats often get more expensive the closer you book to the date of travel. As space becomes more limited prices often increase.
This is especially true with train travel in Europe. Train tickets are separated in classes so, of course, economy class is going to be the cheapest way to travel Europe. However, these tickets are often released in stages so if you don’t purchase early enough you’ll miss out on the cheapest options and wind up spending much more than your fellow economy passenger who booked early.
You can use the travel booking platform Omio to look at trains and buses in Europe and find the best prices. They even have a handy comparison chart showing how traveling by ground compares to flying in time and impact on the environment.
Considerations: The cheapest tickets are usually non-refundable no matter how far in advance you purchase so you may have to be willing to lose your money if something happens to change your plans.
Bonus Tip: Consider motorhoming in Europe to combine the cost of transportation and accommodation!
7. Look at purchasing passes
If you plan to visit a lot of sites at a destination or do a lot of train travel in Europe purchasing a pass can save you a considerable amount of money.
Eurail offers a variety of options for train travel passes including One Country or Global pass and options for a variety of travel durations. For example, if you plan to spend a month traveling around multiple countries by train you can save money with a one month Global Pass.
Many destinations also offer tourist passes for activities, attractions, and even some transportation. If you want to visit as many museums and tourist sites as possible during your stay this could be the way to go.
Considerations: Do some research into what you want to do and add up the costs of each individual admission to make sure the pass is good value for your personal itinerary.
8. Budget your accommodation
There are lots of ways to save on accommodation if you’re flexible. We always use booking sites to compare rates and often find they are cheaper than booking directly. City centers tend to be more expensive and the closer to the city or its attractions you stay, the higher the prices. If you don’t mind a longer walk or taking public transportation look for options a bit further out.
If you must stay in the center of things then hostels are often a good choice for saving money in Europe. I can say from personal experience that hostels have come a long way in the last 15 years and many of them are more like small hotels. If you don’t mind staying in a dorm room or sharing a bathroom you can save even more.
Whenever we’re staying for longer than a night or two, as we did in Split Croatia, we go with Airbnb. Not only are the prices usually cheaper than hotels you will also have access to a kitchen which will save on food costs.
Considerations: As mentioned before you will have to consider your own comfort level when it comes to accommodations. Hostels can be great for solo travelers but not always the best choice for a family. Also, a solo female traveler may be more comfortable staying in the center of things rather than having to navigate quieter areas outside the main tourist zones.
9. Withdraw cash from bank ATMs
We usually arrive in a country with a small amount of the local currency to get us started and then withdraw from bank ATM’s as opposed to local exchange offices or airport exchange places. The rate is always better through the bank, there are lower surcharges and you can withdraw as needed.
Considerations: Always try to use a bank ATM as opposed to the machines on the street or in shops as they are more secure. Also, be sure to check with your bank at home to see what they will be charging for each withdrawal.
10. Eat with the locals and have picnics
Restaurants in tourist areas or restaurants catering to tourists are always more expensive. Venture off the beaten path a little and look for simple eateries that look to be full of locals. Not only will the prices be lower but the food will often be much better. Also, in some parts of Europe there is a different price for sitting at a table than there is for standing at the bar or taking your food to go.
Europe is a great place for picnics and this can save you a lot of money. Shop for food at a local grocery store or better yet a fresh market and find a spot to have lunch. There’s really nothing like eating a meal of local cheese, meats and fresh bread in front of a castle or in a peaceful park. Most places in Europe even allow the consumption of alcohol in public meaning you can still have that Italian wine or German beer with your picnic.
Considerations: The upside of tourist restaurants is that they will usually have menus in English so you know exactly what you’re ordering. They will also generally take a credit card whereas the markets and small, local eateries may only accept cash.
So there you have it. Our top tips to travel Europe on a budget. How do you save money when you travel?
Born in England, Sarah developed her wanderlust at a young age as she traveled around Europe with her parents. As a young adult she spent every penny she could on experiences as opposed to possessions. Eventually she found a way to earn a living doing what she loved: traveling, writing and capturing images of the wondrous world we live in. When not on the go Sarah enjoys time in her “sometimes home” of Vancouver.