Europe on a budget
I lived in Europe for 5 years and have returned 5 times since 2015 with my family. Europe has something for everyone, and you can experience a different culture every day. Do you hate planning every minute of your trip? Do you like flying by the seat of your pants? Below is the travel guide we have used that allowed us to see Europe on a budget during our previous trips.
Avoid the Crowds
If you want to avoid the crowds during the summer months and find the best deals on lodging, you need to avoid the European holiday season. This is when schools are out and more Europeans are traveling. Typically this is from mid-June through the mid to end of August. If you can arrive mid-May and leave mid to late June you should be able to avoid the rush and still have summer weather. The same goes for the end of August to mid-September, although that will be cooler weather. If you travel to a location that is not as popular, you can still do this mid-June to mid-August.
I would suggest finding a flight into one part of Europe, and out another. We have done this several times; fly into Oslo and out of Amsterdam or into Paris and out of Porto. I know you are thinking, that would be two 1-way tickets and they are more expensive. That is not always true; both options above were cheaper or very close to the same price. Play with your arrival and departure locations once you have a rough idea of what you want to see. For example, the Paris to Porto trip above. We wanted to see Normandy, Mont Saint-Michel, Bordeaux, and the Iberian Peninsula. Backtracking was not an option; we needed different entry and exit points.
Once you have your entry and exit locations picked out, you need to determine how long you want to stay at those locations. You need to remember that you might be jet-lagged for the first couple nights and tired from the trip on the last couple. My suggestion is to find a place to stay close to those locations for at least two nights each.
The hard part is essentially over, except paying for the trip. We try to book our flights, entry and exit point lodging about 3-6 months out. This should give us time to pay that portion off before we leave for Europe.
Transportation in Europe
You have a few options for getting around Europe, trains, planes, and automobiles. We prefer trains, as it is the best bang for the buck for traveling around Europe on a budget. Trains allow for spur of the moment change in direction without a lot of headaches. Some destinations will require a car to reach the more remote locations. The beaches of Normandy can be reached by public transportation. However, a car is the best option to see that area.
In December 2015 we were in Frankfurt, Germany and the weather was not great, light rain and the temperatures were in the 40F/5C range. We went to the train station and looked at the departure board for a destination that was warmer. There was a train leaving in 40 minutes to Marseille, France. We wanted to be sure we would have a seat, so we headed to the ticket counter and paid about $20 ($5 each) for 4 seat reservations in 1st class. We picked up some food in the station and boarded the high-speed train arriving in Marseille about 7 hours later. Changing our plans to Marseille happened in less than an hour and was absolutely painless.
There are several Eurail pass options for train tickets. We typically purchase the Eurail Global Pass for 15 or 22 consecutive days of travel. You can also purchase a certain number of travel days within a specified period, for example, 15 days of travel within a month. The passes can be for a specific country or for all 33 countries. The global pass is for all 31 countries and includes some ferry/ship travel and discounts on other ferries, etc. How much is a 15 or 22-day Global pass? The normal price for a 15-day Global pass about $700; the 22-day option is about $800 for a single adult in 1st class. Trains in Europe are a cost-effective and convenient travel option that provides a lot of flexibility.
Eurail does offer specials throughout the year; the best deal is typically October to December with up to 45% off. Children under 11 travel free, so keep that in mind if you are comparing plane and train travel options. Passes are available for up to 3 months of travel. Most of the tickets must be used within 11 months of receipt. Fortunately, they also have a rail planner app for on the go travel ideas and how to get from point A to B. Check out our previous trip itineraries for more information on where we have used Eurail passes. Eurail has suggested trips on their site as well to get you inspired to travel. We are partners with Interrail, Eurail, and DB (German rail system).
You can use ride-share options similar to Uber in many cities, and it can be quite affordable in countries in Eastern Europe or Spain and Portugal. We took a 1-hour Uber trip from Lagos to Benagil in the Algarve area of Portugal for about $40. Most of our trips within Portugal were under $10. We had a taxi driver in Poland drive us from Krakow to Auschwitz and around Krakow on an all-day trip for about $100. He was willing to take us anywhere we want to go for a reasonable price and he gave us a history lesson along the way.
Some cities have local transportation passes for 1-7 days that cover the subway, buses, and streetcars. These are usually a good deal as some offer discounts at museums and other attractions as well. The best place to get the passes with the additional benefits is at the tourism office. See our travel partners here.
You are probably wondering about lodging if you are traveling by the seat of your pants. Most of the time we use online services like booking.com to check the pricing prior to committing to a destination. Often we will be heading a certain direction and start looking for a place to stay along the way and book it while traveling at 200mph across the countryside. If you are traveling as a family or group, apartments are the best way to see Europe on a budget. Apartments also usually have a place to do your laundry.
Keep it Simple
It is as simple as that, no need to make things difficult by over planning and having a delay in travel that ends up costing you money. However, during our trip to Norway and Svalbard was planned completely and delays did cost us money and time. It is not difficult to see Europe on a budget, flexibility is the key.
Do you have any questions about train travel in Europe? Feel free to ask in the comment section below. I will do my best to answer any of your questions. Route-specific questions can be answered using the online timetable at the link below.
If traveling by train you will want to travel light and not drag suitcases around. We have used a great 65-liter backpack on our trips to Europe and most recently my son took it to Cuba. See the link below for more information on what we use for luggage, etc.