Chances are you searched for plane tickets on at least one occasion and thought I guess it will still be there when I’m 65 and retired. Don’t be discouraged! I am going to explain how you can travel to your European dream country for less than you imagined possible.
Step 1. Forget about your exact travel plans
The quickest way to make your trip as expensive as possible is to narrow your search to something incredibly specific.
For example, just because you have a four day weekend on Easter doesn’t mean its a good time to travel. Open yourself to being flexible on the dates you travel, the locations you travel to and what kind of places you stay at. The more flexible you are, the cheaper the travel will be.
Step 2. Determine where it is that you really want to visit.
I know I just said to be flexible but that doesn’t mean you can’t choose where you want to visit, it means you have to be open to getting there ways you didn’t anticipate. If you want to visit Dublin more than anything, don’t search for flights from the US to Dublin only. Chances are you can find a plane ticket from the US to another European city for much much less. Then you can book another short flight to Dublin for less than $80 roundtrip. It’s a great way to see a bonus country as well!
Step 3. Determine which city you will fly out of
Flights to Europe vary tremendously in price depending on which airport you’re flying to, leaving from and the dates of travel. So a good first step may be to determine which airport you are going to fly out of. If you live in a big city such as New York, Boston or Los Angeles, lucky you! You’ll find the cheapest flights to Europe from these cities. If you don’t live in these cities, chances are you’ll end up flying through them to get to Europe. So if you can drive to one of those cities, that may be a cheap option. Otherwise, consider booking a flight to one of those cities from your hometown. Although it seems strange, you may get cheaper flights by booking each leg individually rather than booking a ticket from your home to your destination.
Step 4. Determine the cheapest European city to fly to
The easiest way to do this is to check websites that aggregate all of the cheapest airfares so you don’t have to search through hundreds of flights yourself. Some sites allow you to type United States or the city that you know you will be departing from in the “from” field. In the “to” field, try choosing “everywhere.” Then scroll down the resulting list looking for the first/cheapest country in Europe to fly to. If for example, Norway comes up at $340 and France comes up at $380, then it’s probably worth it to just choose France if that’s your desired destination; however, if the difference is more than $100 I would choose the cheapest airport first. The annoying thing about Skyscanner is that the deals are often no longer active and sometimes you also have to search through many dates looking for the cheapest to travel on. But, patience is key and it’s how you find the cheapest flights. Another word of advice is that sometimes the flights are through travel agencies and it is probably worth it to search for reviews on the agency before booking your ticket, keeping in mind that happy customers rarely write reviews. But if the agency has one out of five stars, that may be a clue to pass.
Step 5. Find an inter-European flight to get you to your European dream destination
One thing most people don’t realize is that to fly from one country in Europe to another is dirt cheap.
I have flown across Europe for $14 one way. No joke. I have never paid more than $60 for a flight within Europe. Use Kayak.com to find a flight to your actual destination from whatever country you ended up in booking the cheapest flight to Europe.
Step 6. Now that you’ve arrived, find a cheap or free place to stay
Everyone has their own idea of a dream vacation. If yours is staying in the Ritz, then I’m surprised you read this far through this article. For most of us, we just want to stay somewhere decent while enjoying everything Europe has to offer. I have never stayed in a dump in Europe. I don’t want to and I’m just not that desperate. Accommodations come down to four options: hotel, rental, hostel or Couchsurf.
- Hotel. Staying in a hotel is a safe way to go and if it’s your first time to Europe or you’re not much of a risk-taker, then this is probably the route you want to take. Hotels depending on where you are visiting range from $20-$200 per night so you might want to keep that in mind when choosing a destination. I wouldn’t advise staying in Monaco unless your oil company is seeing record first quarter profits but staying in nearby Nice might be an option. In other words, keep your options open.
- Rental. Booking a rental room, apartment, villa or house is also a safe bet but can be a little more complicated than just checking into a hotel. Sites like Homeaway and Airbnb offer some really unique locations and I have to say, some of my favorite places I have stayed in Europe were rentals. From a villa on a winery in Tuscany to a secluded mother-in-law in a quiet neighborhood outside of London, I really enjoyed staying in rentals and the price is often much less than staying at a hotel if there is a group of you that can share the cost.
- Hostel. The word hostel brings up thoughts of scary movies but the reality is that the difference between a hostel and a hotel is sometimes indiscernible in Europe. Sure there are hostels where you get a bunk bed in a room with five other travelers and for some people this is exciting and interesting! But just because bunk beds aren’t your thing, doesn’t mean you should rule out everything that has the word hostel in the title. I have stayed at some “hostels” which were just as nice as a hotel.
- Couchsurf. If you are really on a tight budget or if meeting local people is really important to you, there’s no better way than to Couchsurf. If you have no idea what I am talking about, visit the Couchsurfing website. Essentially, the site lets you request to stay with someone who is wiling to host travelers at their home for free and vice versa. People leave reviews on the travelers and the hosts so you can have some assurance they are reputable. This of course comes with risk and safety precautions should be taken. In addition, you should always have a backup plan in case the situation doesn’t work out.
Step 7. Eat cheap.
I’m focussing on the necessities of visiting Europe: travel, lodging and food. There are of course plenty of other ways to spend money but these are the things you have to spend money on, food being one.
Food is amazing. I love food and the first couple times I went to Europe I was disappointed because I randomly wandered into restaurants and most were subpar. This all changed when I started checking TripAdvisor for restaurant reviews, that’s all it took to make every meal out amazing. This wasn’t so much a saving money tip as a general word of advice. However, TripAdvisor does let you search by general price of restaurants so $ is cheap $$ is moderate $$$ is getting expensive etc.
Here’s a money saving tip: buying groceries in Europe is usually very inexpensive. So if you have booked an apartment with a kitchen, take advantage of it! Go shopping at a local market and buy some new strange foods to cook! If you’re on a road trip, get some sandwich stuff to save a few bucks.
Step 8. Realize there are still more expenses
Even though travel, lodging and food are your main expenses, there are of course going to be others. Things to think about include, transportation once you arrive, fees for attractions and souvenirs.
Options for transportation include taking public transit. Most European cities have fantastic and inexpensive public transportation that can be purchased using local currency or a debit card at a kiosk. Note that American credit cards often don’t work at these as you need a chip and pin number.
Renting a car is a great option if you plan on traveling outside of the cities, it’s usually quite affordable and gives you ultimate freedom in mobility. Trains, although charming, are not usually a cheap way to travel across Europe. Flights are much less expensive and quicker. But if you are in love with the idea of seeing the country side by train, then it’s worth giving a try. Tickets can be purchased in advance on the Eurorail website for a fee. Or if you’re more flexible and feeling like it’s worth the risk, you can purchase them in person at the rail station for usually quite a bit less.
Step 9. Travel light
Although you might not think that traveling light will save you money, believe me, it will. First of all, every airline is going to charge baggage fees. So each leg of your flight is going to cost you $25 to $100 for each bag. That adds up fast. Secondly, if you have two suitcases, you are going to fill up two suitcases full of stuff that you probably don’t need. Thirdly, taking cheap transportation like the metro becomes frustrating and impractical when you’re hauling around two unwieldy bags. Fourth of all, your bags have to be with you at all times or in a hotel, so if you plan on checking out in the morning and going to another city, you won’t be able to do anything until you get to your hotel and check your bags in. All in all, it’s just a huge pain to carry a bunch of stuff around Europe with you. My advice, and I can’t stress this enough, is to fit everything into one backpack. I have a 50L backpack and it had everything I needed for a month and a half in Europe. Yes, there are places to do laundry in Europe as well. If you’re saying, well you don’t understand because you’re a guy. I traveled with two young women and they both fit everything into a backpack. If you’re saying you don’t understand because you’re young, I traveled with my mother to Europe and she fit everything into a standard size school backpack! You can do it too!
Step 10. Always plan for the worst and hope for the best
Whenever I travel to Europe I plan out my expected expenses and round everything up. I also plan for at least $200 of unexpected expenses. In the end, my expenses are always well below this number but I don’t want to ever end up in the situation where I’m overwhelmed by the cost.
In 2,000 words I have given you the condensed Europe-on-a-budget-guide. There are of course lots of other things to think about when booking your Europe trip but the most important thing is to just do it! Find those cheap airline tickets to Europe and book them. You can fill in all the blanks later, don’t try to plan everything out before getting your tickets and don’t try and plan every second of everyday. Leave time to be spontaneous and immerse yourself in the European life.