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World Tourism Day: How To Travel Across Europe On A Budget

Navigate through the incredible continent without burning through your savings, and here are 20 ways to do it well.

Shikha D

From devouring cheese and chocolate in Switzerland, sleeping under the Northern Lights in Finland and walking inside one of the world's oldest operating salt mines in Poland to taking in the 50 shades of green in Ireland, cycling around windmills in Amsterdam and guzzling beer with the locals at the Oktoberfest in Munich, Europe is a massive, diverse continent with countless things to see and do. Each country, with its distinct language, culture, food, festivals and architecture, offers a unique travel experience. Within every country lies lively cities, small towns and quiet remote villages just waiting to be explored. There's so much to appreciate, learn and absorb that it could be a little overwhelming. Add to it the ever-present charm and romance of the winding cobblestone streets, rolling vineyards, pastel houses, picturesque canals, Disney-inspired castles, fancy afternoon teas and couples embraced in love! 

While Europe is one of the most fascinating continents, it is also overwhelming and expensive. However, you can manage an affordable European adventure if you're a savvy traveller with a knack for connecting with locals and their culture.

Here are some money-saving ideas and quick tips to help you have an authentic travel experience

1. Pick affordable destinations

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The cost of living in Europe varies in every direction. However, Eastern Europe is largely cheaper than Western and Northern Europe. Also, countries not on the Euro tend to be less expensive. Do a lot of research and ensure your destination fits your budget. More importantly, know your vacation style to make trip planning easier.

Now, grab a map and think outside of the traditional hotspots like Paris, Amsterdam, Madrid etc. For example, skip Paris and consider historic towns like Rouen and Honfleur and ditch Santorini for less touristy islands like Samothraki, Paros, Sifnos and Symi. When in Ireland, explore smaller, colourful towns like Cobh and Kinsale instead of buzzy Cork. The farther away from the touristy places you go, the more affordable everything becomes.

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Some places in Europe do get more attention than others, but don't let this stop you from exploring the lesser-known countries and cities. Try visiting cheaper destinations like Budapest in Hungary, Valencia in Spain, Valetta in Malta, ČeskýKrumlov in the Czech Republic, Krakow in Poland, Porto in Portugal, Bratislava in Slovakia, Bucharest in Romania, Riga in Latvia, and beyond.  

2. Consider an open-jaw flight

That's a roundtrip itinerary that arrives in one city but departs from another. If you're visiting multiple European cities in one trip, carefully consider the beginning and end points. Don't feel the need to travel back to the airport you arrived at. It will save you both time and money.

3. Time your trip

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In travel-industry jargon, a year is divided into three seasons: peak season (roughly mid-June through August), shoulder season (April through mid-June and September through October), and off-season (November through March). During the off-season, you find cheaper airfare, budget rooms, limited queues and more locals than tourists.While travelling during the winter might not be as comfortable as travelling during the summer season, the former promises some magical experiences like skiing, Christmas markets, dog-sledging, snow-covered landscapes and more.If you want a pleasant mix of affordable flights and decent weather, travel during the "shoulder season", meaning spring or autumn, sometime in-between peak season and off-season. Of course, avoid major celebrations like Christmas and Easter.

4. Choose local airlines for internal flights

Many cities in Europe are just two hours or less away by plane and flying low-cost carriers like Ryanair and Wizz isn't a bad idea. However, remember that you'll be charged extra for pretty much everything, so plan ahead if you want to check a bag or reserve a seat. For short weekend trips, it's best to carry just a backpack. These airlines are also likely to use airports that are smaller and slightly far from the town. So, make sure tocheck the airports before you book the flights and calculate the cost of commuting from the airport to your final destination.

5. Use ATMs and credit cards rather than traveller's checks

If you're planning on using a credit card everywhere, make sure to bring one with no foreign transaction fees. Some credit cards offer protections for delayed flights, lost luggage, trip cancellation, accident insurance and more. If you have a luxury travel credit card, there’s a good chance you have access to some airport lounges. Having a place to relax at the airports can be a welcome respite during a long international journey. Keeping some cash handy is a good idea as many places like craft shops, and weekend markets accept only cash. For cash withdrawals, ATMs usually give the best possible rates. However, they do come with transaction fees. So, minimise these fees by making fewer and larger withdrawals.

6. Look up friends, relatives and friends of friends  

If you have a friend or a distant relative in your travel destination, make sure to reach out to them ahead of the trip. If your folks are sweet and knowledgeable, they might dish out money-saving tips or even offer you a room in their apartment. Use your charm to enjoy local hospitality. Perhaps, bring them some thoughtful presents that don't occupy much space in your luggage.  

7. Don't dismiss hostels

Cut down on your accommodation expense by considering budget hostels. In expensive cities like Amsterdam, hostels make the best choice. If you think hostels are only for the backpacking crowd, you're wrong. There are no age limits and most offer dorms as well as clean and basic private rooms. Most hostels are often centrally located and have bright, comfortable common areas where you can socialise with other travellers. Some even organise fun events like karaoke nights, movie screenings and more. You can find a bed in a hostel dormitory for around 15 to 30 euros per night. Hostelworld.com and Booking.com have the largest inventory and a great search interface.

8. Think B&Bs and couch-surfing for cultural intimacy

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Airbnb is worth a look while travelling through Europe. This gives you the golden opportunity to stay with a local, like a local. Sometimes renting a room or an entire home through Airbnb can be cheaper than staying in a hotel, especially if you are more people travelling together. You can also try Couchsurfing to save even more money on accommodation and meet a local who can share their insider tips and advice. This online platform allows locals to offer their couches or spare beds to travellers for free. The rule of thumb is: Always read the reviews before you decide on the stay. Alternatively, try Campspace which allows you to pitch a tent in someone’s backyard for free or for a small fee. Each listing on the website mentions details about the facilities offered by the garden owners.

9. Work in exchange for meals and a free stay

Another fantastic way to save money and immerse in the local culture is to work in exchange for free accommodation and meals with Worldpackers. Teach football, manage a hostel's social media account, help the local kids learn a new language or put your gardening knowledge to use. Many hostels, farms, mediation centres, B&Bs and small local businesses employ travellers to work for a few weeks and in return, they offer a free bed and sometimes free meals as well. It's a fantastic way to build a meaningful, long-lasting bond with a local. 

10. When booking a hotel, be smart

If going through travel agents and hotel booking websites, double-check the tariff by calling the hotel directly. Third parties can sometimes charge a higher fee and provide no discounts. You could end up bagging a good deal if you go direct and offer to pay in cash for your entire stay. Also, if breakfasts are optional, you can eliminate them. Most European cities have excellent cafes where you can grab a quick coffee and croissant.

11. Supermarkets and street vendors are your saviours

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Buying food and drinks could be one of the biggest expenses while travelling around Europe but there are lots of ways you can dine on a budget. Start by shopping at the local food markets and supermarkets. They have the freshest fruits, vegetables, bread, cheese, pastries, local delicacies, beer, wine and more. Stock up on some drinks and edibles. At the food markets, you could also look for vendors selling popular street food dishes. If you have an apartment with a kitchen, you could rustle up a quick breakfast or lunch. When on longer holidays, it's a good idea to cook more often.

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Planning to dine out? Avoid touristy restaurants and places with “We speak English” signs or multilingual menus. Ask locals for recommendations on hidden joints that aren't too pricey, "grab and go" eateries and authentic local restaurants where you can sample good-quality, traditional cuisine. Also, eat local, seasonal food. Enjoy a reindeer delicacy in Finland, fish and chips in England, pizza in Italy, Gyros in Greece and so on.  At restaurants, always request tap water instead of mineral water.      

12. Drink what the locals drink

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Enjoy Rakija in Serbia, beer in Belgium, Brennivín in Iceland, Jenever in the Netherlands, vodka in Poland, port wine in Portugal, wine in Italy and France and whiskey in Ireland. Mainly, drink like a local. Local liquor and alcohol are usually cheaper because they are high in demand. Moreover, drinking something local gives you an insight into local culture, drinking traditions and more. Like food, you can buy alcohol from a local market rather than ordering individual drinks at bars and restaurants.

13. Bring back the art of picnicking

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Europe has ample beautiful parks to go picnicking in the sun. Pack some sandwiches, olives, cheese, wine, and fresh berries, find a good spot to spread a mat and park yourself. Revel in the simple pleasure of eating outdoors while people-watching. This experience is a genuine reminder of the fact that you don't need to book a table in a fancy restaurant to truly enjoy a meal. Picnicking is both cheap and satisfying.

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14. Carry a water bottle for refilling

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Most places in Europe have drinkable tap water, which means you'll save money by bringing a reusable water bottle and filling it up before heading out in the morning. While Switzerland has top-quality drinking water flowing out of its fountains, countries like Italy, Germany, and Belgium, have public taps for you to refill your bottles for free. Look out for signs that indicate when the water is not safe for drinking. Bottles with built-in filters help stay away from any kind of water contamination and ensure safety. Try using metal bottles instead of plastic ones for the sake of the environment.

15. Use your feet as much as possible

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Walking is not only a good exercise but also the cheapest way to get from point A to point B. The best part? You can observe the world around you and take in the sights, smells and sounds at your own pace. Whether you wish to stop at a spot and spend an hour in silence and contemplation or simply give it a quick nod of appreciation and move on, it's all up to you. Walking also gives you the chance to discover some hidden gems and photograph the little details you notice on the way. European cities are usually compact and if you're living in the city centre or around one of the main squares, it's easy to reach the nearby attractions on foot.

16. When walking isn’t an option, use public transport

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Riding the local bus, metro or tram is always cheaper than a taxi. You also get the chance to meet and interact with locals while you travel. Several European cities like Zurich, Paris, Prague, Vienna, Amsterdam and Frankfurt have top-notch inner-city transit systems. When purchasing the tickets, make sure to check the validity. Tickets are often valid for a round-trip or even 24 hours of travel. For short trips, point-to-point tickets are cheaper. If you're staying longer, look for passes that let you travel for cheap.For example, the Swiss Travel Pass is available for 3, 4, 6, 8, and 15 days and offers unlimited access by public train, bus, and boat to visit more than 90 cities, reachthe peaks of many mountains, and sail through beautiful lakes in the country. The pass also gives you free entry to more than 500 museums, discounted city tours, and access to private and scenic trains with a pre-requisite seat reservation.

By train: Eurail Passes can save hundreds of euros. If you are travelling far distances and through many countries, they are a great purchase. It’s also comfortable and relaxing to travel by train as you can read a book, and watch the stunning landscape go by.

By bus: For bus travel, consider booking a pass for Flixbus. You can travel to more than 20 European countries and thousands of cities on this bus, which includes amenities like Wi-Fi, electrical outlets, free baggage, and comfy seats. Prices start as low as 5 euros.

Go road tripping: If you're travelling with a group of friends, consider renting a car or a campervan. Four people sharing a vehicle can generally turn out cheaper than four individuals buying four rail passes. 

Rome2Rio is great for comparing train, bus, and flight prices between two destinations and picking which option is the cheapest.

17. Look out for free city tours, museums, art galleries  

One of the great things about Europe is that you can find free walking tours in all the major cities. Typically, they require signing up online in advance and tipping the guide at the end. Sandemans New Europe and Freetour.com are popular free walking tour companies that run tours in more than 20 different cities throughout Europe. Walking tours can be a wonderful introduction to the city. Since these free tours are generally done in large groups, you not only learn about the history, culture, and geography of the place but also stand a chance to meet new, interesting people. These tours are usually run by friendly locals who have a good know-how of the destination. Also, if you have a student ID card, always carry it with you. Lots of attractions have student discounts.

Many attractions in Europe offer surprisingly cheap deals and free entrance on certain days. Doing a bit of research beforehand helps. For example, every public museum is free in London. The Prado Museum in Madrid can be visited for free from Monday to Saturday between 6 pm to 8 pm and Sundays and public holidays from 5 pm to 7 pm. Medeiros e Almeida Museum in Lisbon can be seen for free on Saturday mornings from 10 am to 1 pm. Museum Sunday grants free admission to over 60 Berlin museums on the first Sunday of each month. Carefully go through the list of free attractions in your destination and make time for those you are genuinely interested in. 

18. Learn the basics of the local language

Nelson Mandela famously said: “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.” This perfectly sums up the power of speaking to someone in their mother tongue. Invest some time in learning the basics of the local language before your next trip and you will realise how it enables you to unlock new opportunities and have an authentic travel experience. By greeting someone in their native language, you become instantly more likeable to that person. Before you know it, they’re complimenting you and sharing local tips and recommendations. You might even get a good discount or some other kind of special service. It also shows that you are savvy and know your way around. This way, you are less likely to get ripped off.

Learning the below words and phrases in the local language can go a long way:

Hello

Please

Thank you

Goodbye

I would like…

What’s your name? 

Where are you from?

What do you do? 

How much does it cost?

That is too expensive!

19. Get a local SIM from the city centre  

Why pay an exorbitant roaming charge when you can get a local SIM for cheap? Buy a local sim card in the country you start your trip from and buy one that works in all (or most) European countries. Every international airport in Europe sells prepaid sim cards for tourists. However, they could be 20 to 30 per cent more expensive than the sim cards available in the city centre. Convenience stores at train stations and gas stations, local street shops and supermarkets also sell prepaid sim cards. Request the store manager to activate the sim card for you.  Always keep a photo ID or passport ready as you might be required to present it when buying the card. Get a basic data plan which is enough to use Google Maps and WhatsApp when you're out and about and do most of your internet browsing and social media scrolling when you're on Wi-Fi. Most hotels, cafes and restaurants have free Wi-Fi.

20. Find like-minded friends who can turn into travel partners, and even split some costs

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Travelling alone is fun and liberating, but it can get lonely at times. If you’re someone who enjoys making new friends, interact with people you meet on walking tours, in public transport, or a cafe. You might find someone you click with, someone who shares a mutual lust for life and an eagerness to try new things, and this can be good for your budget as well as your overall adventure. Having someone to split food and lodging costs with can save you a lot of money. Plus, it can be a lot more fun to experience new things and create memories with another person. 

Photo: Shutterstock; Shikha D
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