How to cut costs while travelling in Europe
Updated: Nov 15
If you’re in a pinch but want to travel, don’t fret; there are lots of ways to explore Europe on a shoestring budget. Below, I talk through some simple ways to stretch your savings as well as some considerations and hidden costs when travelling on the cheap.
Europe has lots of great low-cost airlines that are perfectly suited to someone trying to stretch their budget. Naturally, these flights are usually eye-wateringly early, or incredibly late. It’s not unusual for us to wake before 4 a.m. to meet a 5:45 a.m. flight or depart as late as midnight. But, if cost is your primary concern, these airlines can be your friend. However, before booking you should first consider that these flights don’t always align with the public buses from the airport. Thus, taking a premium taxi may negate the money saved, making this cheap flight comparable to a more expensive flight at a reasonable time. Also, these low-cost airlines pack a punch if you don’t follow their rules. Primarily with luggage.
These low fares are for backpacks (or small bags) only. Fortunately, travelling with a backpack is very manageable around Europe, particularly if your accommodation has washing facilities. As such, we almost exclusively travel with backpacks, sometimes for more than two weeks at a time. But before packing, ensure that your bag complies with the airline's dimensions in terms of size and weight, for if you’re over, they will sting you with as much as 70 euros at the gate. While this can be a risk, for the price-conscious traveller, these airlines are a great option. Based in Barcelona, our favourite has been Vueling. Their planes are usually slightly better quality than super low-cost competitors (who don’t even have a pouch at your seat for your belongings), and they aren’t as strict or regular on checking bags. In saying that, we've found that Vueling is often delayed. You can’t win them all.
The obvious alternative to a flight is a bus or train. We’ve found that buses in Europe can be very cheap and usually drop you close to the city centre. For example, for 4 euros each we took a 4-hour bus between countries in Eastern Europe. While slower than flights in terms of journey time, once you consider the time at the airport (before and after) and then the time to reach the city centre, a train or bus can be an almost comparable journey and usually at a much cheaper price point. And don’t forget the added view from a bus or the fact that this is a greener travel option. So, for very parsimonious or eco travellers, try an overnight bus. It’s your accommodation, entertainment and transfers at an incredibly low price.
While this may come as no surprise to seasoned travellers, eating out is expensive anywhere in the world. As such, try booking a place with a kitchen (and a washing machine if possible for longer stays, if not, look at a portable option like a Scrubba, this saved our bacon in Africa too!). Choosing a place with a kitchen naturally costs more than a room only, but the small increase in price will pay dividends when you add up the cost of each meal. We always try to cook at least two meals a day (with one being breakfast which is an easy cost-cutter). If you’re prepared, making a sandwich and packing muesli bars to avoid impromptu stops will also help save those precious pennies. And in terms of groceries, shop where the locals are; make your purchases away from the main tourist hotspots. Having a compact shopping bag in your backpack is another sustainable game-changer.
Lastly, accommodation is often one of the largest costs of any holiday. If you book in advance (up to a year ideally) you can find some amazing gems and at the best price. To exacerbate this further, look at travelling in shoulder season. Peak season accommodation is always jacked up, as well as food and activities, so for Europe, try travelling in the shoulder months of May or September.
It may surprise you that when travelling in these shoulder months, the weather changes dramatically depending on where you are on the continent. So, make sure you know what you want out of your trip before you book so you aren’t surprised. We were in Hungary for Christmas Markets and despite bringing plenty of layers, beanies and gloves, we had to buy thermals from Decathlon (a great low-cost European sporting shop).
Nevertheless, choosing the right location is more than just picking the season or knowing the weather, it involves the accommodation itself. Staying in the main hubbub of a city is more expensive than staying on the outskirts, but at what cost? Make sure to research public transport and check that it runs regularly. If not, you’re wasting a long time walking each day (I speak from many such experiences). Also, travelling across the world to sit on a bus commuting each day probably wasn’t why you left home. As such, we’ve often found it better (and sometimes cheaper in the long term) to stay closer to the main attractions.
From Slovenian caves to Norwegian glaciers, there's always something to do
In my mind, no trip is complete without some kind of sightseeing expedition. A trip to a cathedral or mosque is often on the itinerary when we travel, as these are often free and the majesty of these buildings is hard to fathom. Depending on your location, you may have access to a free walking tour. These are a great way to learn more about the city and discover new gems as well as hidden local knowledge for aperitif spots or authentic gifts. While they’re free, the guides rely on a tip. The ones we’ve tried have all been excellent and worthy of fair compensation.
Similarly, we've found the Hop on hop off bus through City Sightseeing has been great for travelling on the cheap. It comes with commentary (and headphones), and if you keep your ticket, you can receive a 10% discount on future trips. Also, you now have your transport sorted for the day, so if planned well, you can access remote areas and combine this seamlessly with your city card, should your destination have one. These city cards may seem expensive, but if you look at the inclusions, they can save you a bit of money, such as in Dubrovnik. I still recommend researching these beforehand as we’ve found that the inclusions aren’t always what we’re interested in, so sometimes it can be better value to purchase museum tickets or activities individually instead of the "all-inclusive" city card.
Europe is a bit different with Sundays too in the sense that most things are closed, and I mean almost everything. So please make sure you check opening hours and even plan your grocery shopping in advance.
Travelling is and always will be a luxury, but nowadays, it doesn’t have to blow the budget. Being sensible and practical while on holiday will ensure you can travel more often and for longer. Instead of normalising restaurant dinners and beers in a charming square, save them for special occasions. These small changes and sacrifices will make all the difference.