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How to travel Europe on a budget

Europe is a popular travel destination, because of its concentration of highly diverse cultures, safety level and the overall standard of living. The only perceived downside is the associated price tag. The article debunks this common misconception and shows how to travel in Europe at a bargain.

Budget

The budget is the most important part of your travel planning and the limiting factor for the length of your stay, accommodation, and mode of transport. For my example I am going to assume a twentysomething with a limited budget, let’s call him Larry. Larry is 25 and lives in Miami. He graduates soon and wants to take a 3-month break before starting his career as an entry-level accountant. It’s a once in a lifetime experience for him. His max. budget for the entire Eurotrip is $6900, that’s $2300 per month. The number is a bit arbitrary, but I am going to use it for my example anyway. That’s a lot of money, but not totally out of reach if you save up for a couple of months. You should take a look at the current Dollar/Euro exchange rate as well.

The longer you stay in a destination, the cheaper it gets, because of reduced travel fare, discounted accommodation and more local knowledge about cheap supermarkets, etc. With this strategy, you can stretch your budget for a longer trip. Having said that, the point of traveling is experiencing different places, so it’s all about finding a healthy balance between traveling and staying put. Personally, I prefer to stay at least for a week in any destination to get a feel for the place.

Timing

Larry travels during summer (June, July, August). The main upside is the good weather and the downside is the higher price level and big crowds because of the holiday season in Europe.  

Route

The route depends on your budget and personal preferences (party, culture, nature, beach, etc.) Larry wants a mix of all four aspects. He wants to focus on the Iberian Peninsula, which consists of Portugal and Spain. He specifically wants to party for one week in Ibiza and learn surfing in southern Portugal. Additionally, he wants to visit the desert of Morocco for some variety. He also wants to visit the UK and do some city hopping in continental Europe. Based on this preferences he created a travel itinerary.

You can stay up to 90 days in the Schengen Area without a visa as an American. Larry takes advantage of this rule and stays for 90 days in Europe. Larry prefers to fly, but he is also willing to take the bus or train under the condition that the ride is direct and three hours max.

Cost

The main costs are transportation, activities, accommodation, food and insurance. Before you plan your trip, you have to think about what is essential for you and in which aspects you are willing to compromise. For example, I am happy to fly without extra baggage, but I am not willing to live outside of the city center.

Transportation

The first thing you need is a flight to Europe. I recommend using Skyscanner, Google Flights and Kayak. The maps function of Google Flights is pure gold because you can check all possible connections from your airport. There are a million articles on how to find cheap flights, so I am not bothering with adding another one to the list. Generally speaking, flights from the East Coast (Chicago, NYC, Boston, etc.) tend to be cheaper. But there are also good deals to be had in cities like Miami and L.A. My advice is to take the cheapest flight to anywhere in Europe and take it from there. Ryanair has a maps function as well. There are four main means of transportation around Europe: Air travel, bus, carsharing and train.

Air travel

Europe has several low-budget airlines, most notably the no-frills airline Ryanair. The base price for Ryanair tickets is exceptionally low but can increase rapidly when you add “extras” like baggage. My recommendation is that you limit your baggage to one hand baggage, which is included in the airfare. You may think that one piece of hand baggage isn’t enough, but it’s key to saving money and I will explain how to do it later on. This has the added bonus that you don’t have to wait for baggage at arrival and that you don’t look like a clueless backpacker straight away.

Ryanair has changed the rules for priority boarding, which is a new requirement for taking the (big) hand baggage on board with you. I don’t care about the early boarding, but I like to leave the airport ASAP and therefore I am happy to pay six bucks for priority boarding in most cases. It’s the only extra I splurge on. Ryanair wants to reduce downtime and therefore they handle baggage faster than other airlines, so you don’t have to wait forever when you don’t pay for priority boarding either.

If you fly with a friend, you have to pay extra for sitting next to each other. Another thing you have to keep in mind is that Ryanair often uses small airports in the periphery, so you have to add the additional cost of transportation to the city center. Ryanair also has a zero-tolerance policy and high fees for excess baggage and other violations; it’s part of the business model.

To sum it up, if the price is your only criteria for the flight and you don’t care about comfort, Ryanair is the way to go. Comfort is overrated on short distance flights anyway. The only thing I enjoy about flying Ryanair is the inability to recline your seat so that nobody can invade my precious legroom.

Let me give you a personal example; I paid 70 bucks round trip for the following Ryanair flights:
16.05.2018, 20:50;  Cologne – Barcelona (El Prat)
30.05.2018, 18:15; Barcelona (El Prat) – Cologne

Both flights fall on a Wednesday and have a convenient departure time in the evening. I didn’t book any extras in this case. Both airports are located near the city center, which I always check beforehand. Ryanair is notorious for getting creative with airport nomenclature (best example: Airport “Paris” Vatry, 93 miles from central Paris).

Train

Unlike the States, Europe has a good train network and an offer called Eurail Global Pass (12-27 years) for Non-Europeans, which allows you to take trains all over the whole continent. The pass costs $1365 for three months and you can save extra money for accommodation by taking night trains. Trains are the way to go if you want maximal flexibility and to cover a lot of ground.

Carsharing

Car sharing is a thing in Europe, which makes sense in light of the high gas prices. The most popular option is BlaBlaCar, where drivers offer free seats in exchange for a small fee. You can book national as well as cross-national rides. There is obviously no regular schedule, but sometimes you can find a good deal.         

Bus

The cheapest and most uncomfortable mode of transportation is by bus. The buses stop at various cities to pick up passengers and therefore bus rides tend to be long. It’s a sound option for short distances though. Buses are also the perfect option for the hardcore frugal traveler. Flixbus and Eurolines are the two biggest bus companies in Europe. 

I mainly use low-budget flights and trains, but you can mix it up a little bit. The good part is that you don’t have to cross-reference local booking platforms, you can simply use an aggregator like GoEuro in combination with Ryanair

Let’s come back to Larry’s Eurotrip. Larry’s roundtrip flight from Miami to Madrid costs $900. His itinerary in Europe consists of 11 countries and 18 different cities. He is covering ground with 14 flights, two bus rides, one train ride and a rental car. Apparently, Larry isn’t that concerned about his carbon footprint. After the holiday, Larry the accountant calculates a rough estimate of his expenses to check if he stuck to his budget. Let’s say each trip costs $50 on average. That makes $850 for the flights and rides plus rent for the car. The car costs $800, but he shares it with three cool cats he met in Lisbon, so it’s only $200 for him. That’s $1950 in total for transport:

Miami31.05.2018
→ Air Europa flight 8:35 hours
Spain
Start
Madrid
01.06.2018
1 Week
→ Train Renfe AVE2:56 hours
Sevilla $$4 Days
→ Bus Alsa 3:00 hours
Granada $$3 Days
→ Bus Alsa Supa to Malaga1:45 hours
→ Ryanair flight1:20 hours
Ibiza $$$1 Week
→ Ryanair flight1:05 hours
Barcelona $$ 1 week
→ Ryanair flight2:25 hours
Morocco
Marrakech $1 Week
→ Ryanair flight3:50 hours
UK
Dublin $$ 3 days
→ Ryanair flight 1:10 hours
Edinburgh $$3 Days
→ Ryanair flight1:25 hours
London $$$3 Days
→ Ryanair flight1:45 hours
City trips
Copenhagen $$$3 days
→ Ryanair flight1:50 hours
Budapest $ 1 week
→ Ryanair flight1:10 hours
Prague $ 1 week
→ Ryanair flight1:45 hours
Rom $$$ 3 days
→ Ryanair flight2:05 hours
Berlin $$ 1 week
→ Ryanair flight3:45 hours
Portugal
Lisbon $$4 days
→ Car Rental 2:50 hours
Lagos $$ 4 days
→ Car Rental0:40 hours
Carrapateira $$2 weeks
→ Car Rental to Faro1:20 hours
→ Ryanair flight 1:10 hours
Porto $4 days
→ Ryanair flight1:15 hours
End
Madrid
29.08.2018
→ Air Europa flight9:20 hours
Miami29.08.2018
Expensive $$$
Average $$
Cheap $

Activities

Larry spent money on the following activities:

Party for a week in Ibiza (including accommodation and food)$800
Surf lessons for two weeks (including accommodation and food)$700
Four days trip to the Sahara (including accommodation and food)$300
Four organized pub crawls with an average fee of $15$60
Four bike rentals for $10 each$40
Eight free walking tours ($5 tip)$40
Six museums, with an average entry fee of $5$30
Total cost $1970

Food and drinks

Let’s say Larry mainly cooked in the hostels with the odd kebap thrown into the mix. Cooking has the advantage that it’s also a cheap social activity. He limited his alcohol consumption to three beers max, which he drunk while pregaming in the Hostel. He also always carried a water bottle and snacks, so he didn’t have to buy overpriced food. His food is covered in Ibiza, Carrapateira and on the Sahara expedition. The remaining 65 days he spends 20$ on average on food and drinks. That’s $1300 for food and drinks in total.

Accommodation

My general rule is to book hostels when I am going solo and to book Airbnb apartments when I am traveling with other people because you can split the costs. The two biggest booking platforms are Hostelworld and Hostelbookers, which is part of the former. Hostels range from dingy shacks to hotellike design hostels. I tend to go for somewhere in between, so I usually settle for upper mid-priced hostels. My main criteria are location and a decent locker (bring a lock). Normally I check both platforms and occasionally you get the best deal when you book directly. The older I get, the more I tend to book Airbnb apartments though.   

Couchsurfing is a free alternative. As the name suggests, it’s a community of people who offer a spare couch/bed for travelers. It’s supposed to be for short stays and I think it would be a class move to offer your own coach in return and thank your host individually by cooking a meal or something along the lines.

Larry stayed in upper mid-priced hostels and spent $18 on average per night. That’s $1170 for 65 nights.   

Insurance

This topic is extremely unsexy, so I am going to keep it short. You don’t have to insure your stuff, but it’s nice to be prepared for medical emergencies because a freak accident can happen anywhere. Insurance doesn’t have to cost an arm and a leg and World Nomads Travel Insurance is popular among backpackers. The pricing is straightforward and Larry paid $255 for his standard plan.  

Gear

Don’t go overboard with your equipment. It’s not like you are climbing Mount Everest or some shit. Do it like the navy and Keep It Simple, Stupid (KISS). Your space is limited by your hand baggage anyway. No item costs more than 70 bucks, so you have peace of mind, which is priceless. Some dope shit in no particular order, JP approved:

  1. Hand baggage optimized backpacks with dope color schemes.
  2. Solid packing cubes.
  3. Slightly overpriced travel toiletry bag for liquids.
  4. This day bag is not going to win any design awards, but it’s highly practical.
  5. Classic water bottle.
  6. Practical travel adapter.
  7. Rock solid Abus lock for your hostel locker.
  8. Microfiber travel towel; not comfy, but it gets the job done.
  9. Handmade sleeping mask for the slick traveler.   
  10. Vibrant yellow/magenta colored earplugs to block out the peasants. Howard Leight is the Ferrari of the earplug industry.
  11. Premium noise-canceling headphones
  12. In case you don’t have to work, leave your laptop at home and take this tablet/Kindle combo with you instead.

Larry had been traveling before, so he only bought a backpack for $50, a microfiber travel towel for $20 and earplugs for $5. That’s $75 in total for gear.

Other costs

This catch-all includes metros, taxis, streetcars, entrance fees and lost items among other things. Larry spent $2 per day on average for random shit like this. That’s $180 in total. It makes sense to include a buffer for this expenses and be mindful of them.

Total cost

Let’s calculate Larry’s total cost:

Transportation $1950
Activities$1970
Food$1300
Accommodation$1170
Insurance$255
Gear$75
Other $180
Total cost $6900

He maxed out his budget, but didn’t overspend a dime.

Larry’s secret

Larry didn’t want to compromise on transport and activities, but he saved money on things he didn’t care for:
1. He didn’t buy pointless souvenirs.
2. He pregamed in the hostels and didn’t buy alcohol in the clubs.
3. He cooked with other people.
4. 
He didn’t bring extra baggage.
5. He split the money for a rental car.
6. He stayed at least three days in every location.
7. He stayed longer in cheap cities.

Common mistakes

There are three common mistakes I see time and time again, which make traveling more stressful than it should be:
1. Travelers are packing to much stuff. It’s a pain to carry a heavy load around and packing takes for ages.
2. Travelers carry too much valuable stuff with them. It takes mental energy to worry about your shit. Leave your expensive SLR at home. While the general crime level is low in Europe, petty crime like pickpocketing is common in tourist cities like Barcelona.
3. Travelers visit too many places in a short time span. This is especially true for Americans. You can check a lot of places off your bucket list this way, but it doesn’t make for an enriching travel experience. Short timed travel is also more stressful regarding transportation because you move around a lot and have a stricter schedule.
Avoid these pitfalls and you are good to go.

Conclusion

This article is only a starting point to give you some ideas. Don’t overcomplicate the planning and start playing around with Skyscanner, Ryanair and GoEuro. Be like Larry. He didn’t live like a baller, but he had a reasonable level of comfort.

The truth is you can always go cheaper if you are willing to sacrifice convenience (stopovers, bad hostel locations, etc.) But that’s not for me. Personally, I like to save money as much as the next guy, but I am not willing to compromise on a central accommodation, no matter what. Instead, consider cheaper cities like Budapest, Porto and Berlin, if you have a small budget. This list of cheap cities is a good starting point.

If you want to get pumped up for your next Eurotrip, read the classic “Vagabonding.”
Now you know everything you need to know about budget travel in Europe.
The rest is up to you,

 

Recommended Gear

Abus lock
Carry-on Backpack
Day bag

Earplugs
Noise-canceling headphones
Packing Cubes
Tablet/Kindle combo
Travel adapter
Travel toiletry bag
Travel towel
Sleeping mask
Water bottle

Recommended booking sites

Airbnb
Blablacar
Couchsurfing
Eurail
Eurolines
Flixbus
GoEuro
Google Flights
Hostelbookers
Hostelworld
Kayak
Priceline
Ryanair
Ryanair Map
Skyscanner

Recommended book

Vagabonding

Resources

Price of travel
World Nomads Travel Insurance
XE Currency Converter