If you’re anything like me, you wish you could travel more than you do. There are a lot of reasons that keep me from traveling several times a year (like having a kid and a job), but one of the biggest reasons is financial constraints. If I ever win the lottery, a chunk of my money will go to responsible things (paying off our house, funding my retirement account, setting aside the hundreds of thousands of dollars it will cost to send my son to college in 2035), and the rest of my money will be spent on traveling (and adopting as many shelter dogs as possible).
While a vacation to Europe certainly can be expensive, it is absolutely possible to travel on a budget. My husband and I have done a two week trip to Iceland, London, and Paris (three pretty expensive cities) for under $6,200 total. As in, including airfare, hotels, transportation, food, attractions, everything, for both of us. We saw all the sights, ate great food, slept in nice hotels (my hosteling days are far behind me!), and didn’t feel like we were on a budget at all. A great trip doesn’t need to break the bank! Here are my best money-saving trips that won’t compromise your incredible vacation.
- Travel during off season. If at all possible, avoid travel during the peak periods. “Off Season” can differ by destination, but in general this means the fall, winter, and early spring. Not only will traveling during the off season result in fewer crowds, but airfare and hotel costs will be substantially lower. Sure, you might have a little less sunshine, a little more rain, and fewer hours of daylight, but I think the trade-off is worth it, especially when visiting a big city where you’ll likely spend a lot of time in museums, where the weather outside doesn’t matter at all.
- Fly during a weekday. Generally, flights are much cheaper if you avoid flying on the weekend. By shifting your plans just a little bit, you can save hundreds of dollars. We prefer to leave on a Thursday and return on a Friday. Even though returning on a Friday rather than a Sunday means cutting our vacation a few days short, we save money and have the rest of the weekend to unpack, do laundry, grocery shop, generally get the house in order, and adjust to the time change (it always hits me harder coming home than it does going) before having to go back to work (ugh).
- Stay outside of the city core. Even though getting a hotel “in the mix” can be tempting, it’s always cheaper to stay a little bit outside a city’s tourist center, and in a city with great public transportation, it’s not really a compromise at all. For example, when we were in Munich for Oktoberfest, hotel rooms in the the city center were going for over $400 a night. Definitely above our budget! Instead, we found an Airbnb a 10-minute U-bahn ride away for the very reasonable price of $150 a night. When looking for a place to stay outside of the city center, I make sure it is near a public transportation line with direct connection to the tourist core (no transfers necessary) and has a variety of restaurants nearby so we don’t have to go too far for dinner after a long day of sightseeing.
- Picnic. One of the biggest ways to save money in Europe without sacrificing anything is to eat picnic-style for the majority of your meals, and save restaurants for a few special occasions. Assembling a picnic is easy to do, and lets you experience life like a local. Grocery stores sell delicious ready-made dishes (complete with plastic utensils), or you can visit a market for a truly immersive event. Public wine consumption isn’t illegal or frowned upon like it is in the US. Grab some cheese, bread, olives, fruit, a bottle of wine (most stores will uncork it for you, or you can buy a cheap wine opener), and you have a feast fit for a king, on a pauper’s budget. Some of my favorite places to picnic include the Piazzale Michelango in Florence, Jardin du Palais Royal in Paris, and the San Nicolás viewpoint in Granada.
- Balance stays in cities with stays in smaller cities. I think this is an important tip for any European vacation, even if you’re not incredibly concerned with the budget. A country is much more than it’s largest city (imagine if someone judged all of the United States by their visit to New York City!), and getting out of the big cities will let you get a truer sense of the country’s culture. It can also save you money. For example, the cost of a moderately priced hotel in Munich runs between €100 – 140 a night. But in Füssen, just a two-hour train ride from Munich and close to the famous “King’s Castles” of Neuschwanstein and Hohenschwangau, a moderately priced hotel ranges from just €80 – 100 a night. The cost of food is less expensive, too.
- Look into sightseeing passes. Most cities have some form of a sightseeing pass that includes admission to multiple museums over a specified number of days for one fixed price. Usually, when you purchase the pass, you’ll also be able to skip the lines, which will save you time in addition to money. However, it’s important to do your research before purchasing a pass. In some cities, like Paris, Rome, and Berlin, the pass is a great value and can be an integral part of having a great trip. But in other cities, notably London and Prague, the sightseeing pass doesn’t provide real value to any but the most ambitious and busy travelers. Look up the cost of the pass and compare that to the cost of each individual sight you plan on visiting to see whether the pass is a good deal for your trip.
Planning a vacation to Europe can seem daunting and overwhelming, especially if you’re trying to stay within a budget, so don’t hesitate to contact me if you want help! Do you have any other favorite money-saving tips? Tell me about them in the comments!