Is European travel expensive? Like me, a lot of you are planning your travels for the spring and summer seasons right now. And those of you who are headed for Europe may be steeling yourselves for the sky-high prices you expect to find there.
It’s conventional wisdom that Europe is an expensive destination. And for the most part, the belief is true. There are places in Europe where you can pay crazy prices for things that cost only a couple of bucks back home. I’m headed to one of them next month: Switzerland. Which is why I’m confining myself to a quick, four-day stop.
But as with a lot of things, making a blanket statement about European prices doesn’t tell the whole story. Europe is a big, diverse place, with different regions that have very different standards of living. So while the price of a hotel or a restaurant meal may be off the charts in one region, it may be very reasonable – even cheap – in another.
So the cost of your trip depends on where you decide to go. Generally, the really high travel costs are to be found in Western Europe, especially Scandinavia, which has some of the highest prices in the world. The farther east you go, the less you’ll pay.
Digging even deeper, prices tend to be highest in the big centres like London and Paris because of their affluence, their popularity and their huge number of tourists. Visit smaller places and you’ll spend less – considerably less, in some cases.
So, how to know which cities will put a strain on your pocketbook and which ones won’t? I found a clue at the Price of Travel website. It has created the 3-Star Traveler Index, a ranking of European travel cities based on the cost of things a typical traveller uses during a visit: a three-star hotel, local transport, meals, drinks and entertainment, and attractions.
The index allows for three budget meals a day, plus two three-kilometre taxi rides, three beers or glasses of wine and one attraction daily, such as a museum. Then it tots it all up and comes up with a total daily price. The prices are based on low-season travel: I’d add 30 per cent or more for the high season in mid-summer.
Here’s a selection of Europe’s most and least expensive cities, according to the 3 Star Traveler Index. The prices are in U.S. dollars, followed by the Canadian dollar price.
Switzerland tops the annual lists of the world’s most expensive places, which I’ve featured in previous posts on this site. And the 3 Star Index puts its largest city at the top of the list for travel expenses, with a daily cost of $200 U.S. ($267 Cdn) in low season. Even at that, I have my doubts that you can get a three-star hotel for $89 U.S. ($118) a night. The $21 ($28) the index allows for local transportation also seems low; apparently the city took the world title in the survey of highest taxi fares. I think I’d get my walking shoes on.
At $172 ($228) a day, Copenhagen is closely bunched with two other Scandinavian capitals, Stockholm and Helsinki, and rightly so: this is a pricey part of the world. Trying to find a reasonably priced meal in Copenhagen’s lovely downtown is a challenge: the quoted meal allowance of $49 ($65) seems barely adequate. However, you could cut the $38 ($50) allowance for drinks by buying a Tuborg at the corner store and drinking it beside the colourful Nyhavn harbour (seen here) to watch the passing scene – better than a movie.
London has long been one of the world’s most expensive cities, but the plunge in the value of the pound after the Brexit vote has made it a little more affordable (now and then, we travellers catch a break). At $144 ($191) a day, it’s still a good test for your finances. A three-star hotel comes in at $55 ($73) and meals come in at $37 ($49) – both of which seem low to me. While some of London’s museums are free, others are expensive: Price of Travel recommends buying a London Pass.
Like Copenhagen, Paris rewards the money you spend with sheer beauty. And to boot, it offers a world-leading smorgasbord of things to see and do. At current exchange rates for the euro, prices seem reasonable this year (though less so against the Canuck buck). A three-star hotel comes in at about $50 ($66), with $33 ($44) for meals and $25 ($33) for drinks and entertainment. On my last trip to Paris I found it affordable if you avoided trendy spots. Even then, I had a light meal and a carafe of wine in a restaurant right on the Champs-Elysées for about $12 ($16).
This is a surprise, to be sure. But while Rome can be very expensive during high season, Price of Travel says good values can be found during the shoulder season. A price per day of $117 ($155) includes $34 ($45) for meals and about $13 ($17) for drinks. And for that price you get to see places like the Vatican and the Roman Colosseum. Not my favourite city, as I explained here, but a decent deal if you’re so inclined. Florence, another Italian attraction, is just behind at $113 ($150)
Vienna (seen here) is another of my favourite cities. And while it’s not cheap, it’s a place where you can see some great sights without going broke. The 3 Star list pegs it at $113 ($150) a day, including $39 ($52) for a hotel. Otherwise, costs are reasonable, including $33 ($44) for meals and $16 ($21) for drinks and entertainment. Vienna is pretty affordable if you shop carefully; in fact, on my first visit, I think I got in under the price quoted here. I got around cheaply and easily using a transit pass; Price of Travel recommends the Vienna Pass, which also covers local attractions.
Right behind Vienna comes Scotland’s capital, with an estimated daily cost of $110 ($146). The guide says you can get a three-star hotel for $38 ($50) a night in low season, which raises an eyebrow. And $27 ($36) for three meals is also very affordable. However, the guide notes that when summer comes and the Edinburgh Festival kicks off, you’ll pay dearly for a room — if you can find one.
Athens is not the world’s most beautiful city, so it’s good that it falls into the “bargain” category. However, it does have some world-famous sights, like the Acropolis, and it’s the place to start if you want to witness Greek history. The 3 Star Index puts the daily costs at $80 ($106) a day. You can find cheap hotels even in the tourist zone in low season, it says, and meals will set you back less than $30 ($40). Throw in the cradle of Western civilization, and it’s a bargain.
Prague is many people’s introduction to Central Europe. And it’s proof that prices tend to go down as you head east: daily costs are $66 ($88) a day. I didn’t find a hotel for $24 ($32) a night, but I did get around cheaply on the transit, and have a fine dinner and a drink at the toney Café Imperial for $21 ($28). Many people come to Prague just for the beer, which is good and cheap. And to my delight, the local house beer is Urquell Pilsener, one of my favourites. What’s not to like?
If you’re looking for a brilliant city that’s also a bargain, look no further. Budapest, with its dazzling waterfront, historic castle and great food scene, is also the fifth-cheapest city on the list. The daily total of $48 ($64) is underestimated, in my opinion: I paid more than $15 ($20) a day for food during my stay last year, and I don’t know where you can get a $17 ($22) hotel room. But you can get around for less than $2 a ride on the subway and trams, and as in Prague, a glass of good beer costs $3. And as you can see, the amazing views along the Danube at night are free.
That’s a look at the 3 Star Traveler Index: you can see the full list at Price of Travel, plus cost breakdowns for a whole list of world cities. As you’ve figured out by now, I’m not convinced by all the prices in the index. But I think it is a good yardstick to judge which cities are budget-busters and which are Europe’s bargains. And it is a graphic reminder that there’s a big price gap between one part of Europe and another.
While, we’re talking money, I’d add that there are ways to keep the costs down, even in a pricey city. Choosing a hotel with breakfast included can cut your daily food bill; if not, skip the expensive breakfast in the dining room and have a coffee and pastry in your room. And try street carts for lunch: even in Paris, I found tasty sandwiches for around 5 euros that were big enough for two meals.
Then there are the passes. Most cities sell a city card that’s good for unlimited transit rides and admission to a list of museums and attractions, generally for one to three days. These can save you money if you’re intending to see a lot of attractions, though they’re not as good a deal if you’re just sightseeing. If that’s the case, look into a short-term transit pass; these can make getting around town easy and cheap, and save you buying tickets all day.
For more hints on saving money on European travel, read my post on seeing the continent without going broke. And keep your eyes open: you can save money even in an expensive city by finding the secret places where the locals go. Finally, my strategy for seeing Europe affordably is to spend more time in the cheaper destinations and less time in the expensive ones. And stay away from Zürich.