It’s hard to get around the fact that Europe is more expensive than the U.S. and can be even pricier than Canada these days. However, the exchange rate of dollars to euros seems to have settled around 128 to 135 in this European crisis period, so at least that’s not as volatile as it has been in years before.
I’ve taken a few trips to Europe in the past couple years and you can see my recent article on a bike tour in Portugal in the latest issue of Perceptive Travel. I get quoted a lot in the media as a budget travel expert on how to travel in Europe more cheaply (always a popular topic with editors) so I thought it would be a good idea to pack a collection of these tips in one place. Use a few of these next time you’re trying to ease the budget pain.
This tip is first because it has the most impact. No matter where you stay and how frugally you watch your funds, a week in Hungary is going to cost you far less than a week in Norway. Eastern Europe is less than west, especially the four countries and the honorable mention one I have in The World’s Cheapest Destinations. Portugal was a seriously good value when I was there in May though and tough times mean better deals in some parts of Greece, Ireland, and Spain right now.
Transportation costs are a big expense in Europe, whether you’re flying with actual luggage, taking a train, or hopping buses. In Western Europe fuel costs are high, taxes are high, labor costs are high. The more you move around trying to check things off your list, the more your budget is going to rise. Exploring one area on a short trip or one country/region over several weeks is going to cost you less and also allow you to absorb more instead of it all flashing before your eyes outside a window.
Cities cost more than rural areas. Popular capital cities cost more than normal ones. Sure, go spend some time in Paris and London. Catch a few museums, see the sites. Then head out. Don’t spend your whole vacation or backpacking trip in capital cities unless you’re willing to spend like the rich tourists in a big hurry do. Besides, Kosice is more interesting than Bratislava. Veiliko Turnovo (pictured above) is a more interesting place to hang out than Sofia—and easier to get to by train from many other countries. is Madrid really where you want to spend most of your time in Spain?
If you are in a big city, figure out what’s free and take advantage of it. Some museums are free all the time, some have specific days, and nearly any city is going to have festivals and music performances going on constantly, especially in warm months. Check the official tourism site, any good non-official city site, and a guidebook for recurring ones.
In most European cities, if there’s a viable public transportation system, you can buy a pass for one or more days that will give you unlimited rides. Get one and pack all your city travel into that time. Note that if you have one of these, it opens up your lodging options too—you can be on the branch of a subway or bus line instead of paying a premium to be right in the center of the tourist zone. Sometimes the full-on city passes are a good deal too. See this post: Are those city cards really worth the money?
In most of Europe outside Scandinavia and Switzerland, two or three of you traveling together can stay in a real hotel for less than you would spend in a hostel. Unless you’re just looking for partying mates to blow more money with, independent small hotels and value chains like Ibis and NH Hotels can give you more comfort at a good price. Go beyond the U.S. booking sites though as they’ll have more inventory elsewhere. Use a metasearch engine like HotelsCombined or Trivago but then also search TripAdvisor (beyond the first page), a good guidebook, or an authoritative local resource guide online.
If you rent an apartment or home for a couple weeks in one place, you can live a local life instead of a tourist life and spend far less in the process. When you’re in a real neighborhood instead of a tourist one, you pay what the locals—who probably aren’t rich—pay for groceries, pubs, coffee shops, and restaurants. You’ll also meet people who don’t get paid to serve you and experience more of the local culture.
You can take a real tour with a company like Bike Tours Direct and spend the same or less as you would on a vacation you booked yourself, while seeing more of the countryside. Or you can just hop on a bike to explore a city. Many have public bike share systems. Some hotels rent out bikes to guests for free or cheap (as mine in Budapest did). Otherwise, look around for a rental kiosk like I found in Sofia—where it came with a free guided city tour. If you’re in a smaller bike-friendly area, you can probably rent one for a whole week and get a big discount.
If you’re going to go out for a nice meal now and then, you’re better off doing it during the daytime. Sure, it’s not quite as romantic as dining by candlelight, but many restaurants offer a prix fixe option, a set meal, or a “meal of the day” that makes even the gourmet hotspots less of a strain on the wallet.
It makes sense to drink up and have a blast if you’re in the Czech Republic, Bulgaria,Romania, or Hungary. Or in an Italian village where they sell wine by the jug. Not when you’re in Oslo and alcohol is taxed worse than cigarettes.
Why do people go to Europe in the summer? Because school is out. Honestly, that’s the main reason airfares go up, hotels are full, and the attractions are packed. If you don’t have to go between June and August because of your school schedule or that of your kids, then don’t. It’s less pleasant and more expensive.
This article originally appeared on Tim Leffel’s World’s Cheapest Destinations Blog.