How to travel in Europe without going broke: five tips

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Europe is a great place to visit, especially in summer. Great cities, stately palaces, classic art — there’s so much to see. Problem is, it’s expensive to travel in Europe , especially for North Americans and travellers from other lower-cost parts of the world.

But there are ways to avoid some of the daily costs that make it so expensive to travel in Europe, from choosing where you stay to planning your meals. Here are five tips that can make a big difference to your travel budget.

Skip the hotel: In many parts of Europe, cheap hotels are scarce, and you likely wouldn’t want to stay in them if you found them. But why stay in a hotel anyway? You can get better digs, and oftenA bed against a red wall more of a “native” experience, by staying in an apartment.

There are several websites that offer accommodations in people’s homes, including Airbnb, WIMDU and VRBO. The one I’m most familiar with is Airbnb, and the deals it offers can be very attractive: $50 or $60 for a room, or sometimes even an apartment, in major cities like Vienna and Copenhagen. In some cases you stay in a  room in the host’s home as a guest, which can be a great way to learn about the country. In others, you get a whole apartment.

You have to join the service you choose, but it’s free, and the process is not too onerous. Then just type in the name of the city you’re visiting, and browse the locations. But book early: the better places tend to book up fast, especially in the busy summer season. If you’re nervous about using this type of service, try it for a day or two — you may come back.

Have breakfast in bed: If you do stay at a hotel, it may offer breakfast in the morning — at a price, which can be anywhere from $10 to $15. If that’s the case, you can save money by going to a local coffee shop. But even coffee can be expensive in many parts of Europe, so the best remedy is to do it yourself.

Pick up a pastry, some bread, cheese, pate — whatever fits your idea of breakfast — while you’re out each day and make your own breakfast in the comfort of your room while getting ready for the day. You can nip out for some coffee, or bring one of those immersible water heaters to make your own tea or coffee in a cup (Starbucks makes a decent instant coffee, if you’re a fan).

Buy a pass: Most of the major cities in Europe now offer city passes that include unlimited transit trips, as well as free admission or a discount at museums and other local attractions. Whether A tram in Istanbul, Turkeythese are a good value depends on your itinerary: the more attractions you’re intending to visit, the better they look. But museum admissions are often more than $10, so if you’re looking to do the museums, they may be well worthwhile. And they often include transport from the airport, which means you’ve already got some of your money back by the time you get to town.

Even if you don’t buy the city pass, consider a transit pass. On a visit to Vienna, I got a pass that let me take multiple trips all over the city by tram and subway for three days for about 15 euros. The Hop-on-Hop-Off (HOHO) buses can be a good deal as well, since they include transport all over town plus a guided city tour all for one price, often around $20. However, this depends on the city: if most of the attractions are right downtown and walkable, you may find there’s no need for a bus tour.

Get off the main street: Part of travelling in Europe is enjoying the great food. But the restaurant prices in some parts of Europe — especially Scandinavia — can be breathtaking.  However, you can enjoy some great food and avoid the great big prices by looking off the beaten path.Menu

It’s tempting to dine on the patio in the beautiful town square, or at a glitzy restaurant in the famous hotel. But you’ll find better prices, and sometimes better food, by exploring the side streets nearby, where the restaurants aren’t charging a “tourist supplement”.  As well, you’ll likely be dining where the locals do, and you might even meet some of them. Check your guidebook, or local restaurant guides or websites, for hidden treasures.

Go to the store: Most people don`t need any encouragement to shop, but I’ve found it pays to look in neighbourhood stores while I’m travelling. First, it’s interesting to see what’s on the shelves, and often provides a unique insight into the local culture. At the same time, it gives you an idea of what things really cost around there. You may be surprised to find the same stuff they`re selling in the tourist district for substantially lower prices.

In some cases you can even find real bargains. In Bruges, Belgium, I found a great little Ikea-style alarm clock for three euros, and a pair of much-needed gloves for five — both cheaper than they would have been at home. Food stores are a great source of breakfast fare (see above), and you may also find some great local food products you can take home, at lower prices than in the airport duty-free shops.

There are lots of ways to save money when you travel in Europe, if you do a little planning. And the longer you stay, the more the savings add up. Following tips like these can make travelling in Europe more affordable, and maybe even more enjoyable. If you have any tips of your own, feel free to share them — we all like to save money.

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About Author

Paul Marshman is a retired journalist who spent 30 years as a writer and editor on Canadian newspapers, while travelling to the ends of the earth. Now he continues to travel while passing on his travel experiences to you.

13 Comments

  1. Roberta Medley on

    Great tips Paul! You mentioned one of my favorite things to do while exploring a new place: getting off the main street & shopping and eating “local” verse “tourist.” Even if you don’t have a lot of days in new place, going off the main drags let’s you get right to the real living heart of the city (or village!) And you have the priceless opportunity to strike up a conversation!

  2. Some great tips here Paul.

    I am someone who lives in Europe and agree it can be expensive visiting many of the countries. Those ideas of saving hotel and travel costs are great. Many cities offer tourist focused travel passes and they take the worry away of making unplanned journeys.

    As for cheap hotels, in the UK we now have 2 discount hotel chains (Travelodge and Premier Inn) which whilst basic offer comfortable accommodation. Catch one of their sales deals and you’ll be paying around £20-£30 a night!
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    • Thanks for your comments, Guy, and thanks for the hotel tip. Britain can be one of the priciest places and it’s great to hear there are some budget choices without staying at a hostel. I’ll remember them for my next trip over ‘ome.

  3. Hi Paul,
    You can also get quite interesting rates in International Youth Hostels (30 euros/adult, including breakfast). Some of them have been renovated with very good taste and creativity. In line with my quest for “historic accommodation sites”, I prefer the ones that are located in (very) old buildings, because you can still catch bits of the original atmosphere of the place. But there are not so many of them, unfortunately…
    I have tested youth hostels with children as well. It can be quite fun (unless you meet some strange guests in the place).
    Have a look at the nice “Hostelling International” website.

    • Too right, Matilda — no choosing a breakfast place and waiting for them to serve you. And it’s so relaxing to sip your coffee and eat your croissants while checking your email, watching the morning news or reading up on where to go that day.

  4. Some really great money saving ideas. Another great way to save some money in Europe is to find out which day of the week Museums have free entry. See the muesuem without paying the admission price.

    • Great suggestion, James — I forgot about that one. A lot of museums do have a free day, including big ones like the Louvre. And with the admission prices these days, the savings can be big.

  5. Good tips, I enjoyed reading through them. One thing to note from experience is also that before buying transit passes especially – it’s worth, if possible, comparing the cost of the pass over regular cash-fare tickets unless you’re really going to take in a lot of the transit network and walk very rarely. Sometimes just paying for a regular ticket and walking between nearby sights can still be cheaper again. Cheers!

    • Thanks, Andy. It’s a good point: transit passes are a good deal only if you’re going to be running around town a lot. In the case of city passes, they mostly make sense if you’re going to be using the facilities at which they give you discounts, as well as the transit system. If you’re taking two bus rides a day, you’re not saving money with a pass.

      That said, I bought a city pass in Copenhagen and a transit pass in Vienna, where I stayed out of the city centre, and in both cases I found them a pretty good deal. They’re also convenient — no shuffling through your pockets looking for change all day.

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