This is a guest post by Paul Marshman, The Travelling Boomer, on how to visit Europe without breaking the bank.
Most travellers agree – Europe is a great place to visit, especially in summer. Problem is, it can be an expensive place to travel. Staying in downtown London or dining on the Champs Elysees in Paris can leave your credit card with a major hangover.
However, it doesn’t have to be like that: there are ways to enjoy Europe’s bright lights without leaving your bank account drained.
I’ve visited several of Europe’s great cities in the past few years, from Copenhagen to Budapest, and I’ve found a few strategies that can help keep your travel costs in check. Here are The Travelling Boomer’s five ways to visit Europe on a budget.
Skip the hotel
Finding a low-cost hotel in many European can be a challenge, especially in mid-summer, when prices are at their highest. How to find an affordable place to stay?
Try the alternative accommodation sites, such as Airbnb, WIMDU and VRBO. While these aren’t always the cheapest way to go in North America, a recent survey shows that they’re almost always cheaper than a comparable hotel in Europe. As well, you often get the use of a kitchen, so you can self-cater a few meals and save more money.
The cheapest deals typically rent you a room in someone’s home. But you can get whole apartments for substantially less than the price of a hotel room. In fact, sites like Tripping.com specialize in apartment and home rentals. Some specialize in one city, like Paris Address and Nostromondo in Rome. If you have a long time horizon, you can even try doing a home exchange.
You have to join the service you choose, but it’s free, and the process isn’t too onerous. But book early: the better places tend to book up fast, especially in high season.
Have breakfast in bed
Speaking of self-catering, one expense you can avoid is the hotel breakfast. Most European hotels offer breakfast, but in many cases it’s not included in the price of your room. You can find yourself paying 10 to 15 euros to have breakfast in the dining room every morning – and over the course of a trip, that adds up.
You can go to a coffee shop if there’s one nearby, but that may not be cheap, either — coffee is expensive in Europe. Better to pick up some pastries, or some bread and cheese, and have breakfast in your room in the morning.
You may still have to spring for a take-out coffee, but there’s a way around that too: bring along one of those immersible water heaters and make your own tea or coffee in a cup (Starbucks makes a decent instant coffee, if you’re a fan).
Buy a pass
Paying transit fares and tickets to museums, castles and such can leave you with empty pockets by the end of the day. But you can save some money by purchasing one of the discount cards most European cities sell.
For example, the London Pass gives you entry to attractions like the Tower of London, Westminster Abbey, Kew Gardens and Thames River Cruises; other cities include free rides on the local transit and train services. These cards can save you time, as well, since you can often skip the ticket line.
These cards aren’t cheap, but they can make sense if you’re going to see a few attractions during your stay. Most European museums charge more than $10 for admission, so it doesn’t take many to exceed the cost of the card. If that doesn’t work for you, consider a transit pass, which can save you money if you’re moving around town a lot.
One last suggestion: if you’re visiting for just a day or two, try the Hop-on, Hop-off (HoHo) bus. For a reasonable price – typically $20 to $30 — you can see most of the main attractions in as little as a half-day. You get the lay of the land, and there’s a guided tour thrown in.
Get off the main street
Dining in that lovely piazza in the middle of Rome can be so romantic – and so expensive. The restaurants in European cities’ most famous spots are there to cater to tourists, and that means they’ll charge you tourist prices.
It’s tempting to sit at one of those marble tables overlooking the historic church, but do yourself a favour and just have a drink. When it’s time to eat, look for a place in a less famous spot.
In most cities, you can enjoy great food and avoid the great big bill by looking for a restaurant a block or two off the main square. You’ll likely get more authentic food, and maybe even meet a few of the locals.
In Britain, for example, neighbourhood pubs serve some of the most economical meals. And ethnic neighbourhoods often have some of the best values. If your heart is set on the high-profile restaurant, go for lunch, when prices are often substantially lower.
A couple of other tips: In some places the portions are big enough to share an entrée, if you’re not big eaters. Or you can order a salad with meat in it as your main course. And in cities like Paris where the tap water is safe, ask for plain water instead of expensive bottled water. It’s free.
This seems like strange advice when we’re talking about saving money, but shopping at local stores can save you big-time. Pop into the neighbourhood shops and markets to do your souvenir shopping: you’ll often find the same things you saw in the tourist shops, for half the price. A few years ago I found an Ikea-style alarm clock in a store in Bruges, Belgium for 3 euros; I’ve been using it ever since.
Local food stores are a great resource, too. You can pick up some breakfast fare (see above), put together a picnic, or find some great local food products you can take home — at lower prices than in the airport duty-free shops.
It’s also fun to see what the natives eat, and what they pay for it; I rarely leave a city without browsing through a food store. If nothing else, I pick up some snacks to save me stopping at one more expensive café.
Those are a few suggestions that can help you visit Europe on a budget. Of course, you can save more by staying outside the heavy tourist zones, or by choosing a different destination. Smaller cities are generally cheaper than big ones, and Central European cities like Prague and Budapest are cheaper than more famous places like Paris and Rome.
Finally, if you don’t have to travel in summer, try visiting in the spring and fall: the weather may not be ideal, but the prices can be a lot more comfortable.
In any case, don’t let the prices keep you from seeing Europe. It’s one of the world’s great destinations, full of beauty and culture and history. And if you use some of these tips, you can do it without taking out a second mortgage.