How to Travel Europe on the Cheap

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Travel’s number one myth: You have to be rich to spend time overseas. A European vacation is on just about everyone’s bucket list and perceived prohibitive costs keep far too many people homebound. The good news? There are countless ways to bring costs down and make your dream holiday a reality.

Choosing a destination: Get off the beaten path
The glitz and glamour of major Western European capitals like London, Paris, and Rome are very enticing and these cosmopolitan hotspots deserve the hype. But when you’re on a shoestring budget, expensive, metropolitan centers can quickly sap your funds. Consider heading to smaller, more rural towns or less costly parts of the continent like the Balkans, the Baltics, and Eastern Europe in general. You might not know much about Minsk, Cesky Krumlov, or Bucharest, but exploring off-the-beaten-path destinations comes with infinite rewards – it’s easier on your wallet, the tourist crowds are thinner, and you’ll have a more unique travel experience.

The Castle, Cesky Krumlov, Czech Republik, Dunheger Travel Blog
The Castle, Cesky Krumlov, Czech Republik, Flickr © Tamas Ring
Dubrovnik, Croatia, Dunheger Travel Blog
Dubrovnik, Croatia

Getting there: Rack up frequent flyer miles
The cost of a transatlantic flight can give many a rookie traveler sticker shock, but with careful planning you can bring that price tag down. Making sure you land in a major hub airport, like London or Amsterdam, and relying on overland travel or regional budget airlines to take you the rest of the way, can help, as can booking your vacation for shoulder or off-peak seasons. But if you’re really serious about pinching pennies, signing up for an airline’s frequent flyer program and its affiliated credit card can earn you a free flight. Many branded travel credit cards, like the Citi AAdvtange card and Chase United, offer large sign-up bonuses which can get you as much as halfway to your goal. There are dozens more ways to maximize points with entire books and blogs devoted to this kind of “travel hacking,” so study up and fly for free.

Getting around: Travel overland whenever possible
If your itinerary includes multiple cities, keep them close together and opt for bus and train rides wherever possible. Overland travel is almost always cheaper than flying, even on budget airlines like RyanAir. Use rome2rio.com, or the site’s mobile app FetchMyWay, to compare your options for getting from point A to point B. A 10-hour bus ride may not be luxurious, but the extra dollars you have to spend in your destination will be well worth the effort.

Train Journey, Dunheger Travel Blog
Train Journey

Eating: Stick to side streets
It shouldn’t be any surprise that the restaurants, bars, and cafés closest to a city’s major attractions come with the highest price tags, and often the lowest quality, yet these tourist traps manage to draw in hundreds of people every day. It may be tempting to stick close to the main squares, top landmarks, and most exciting museums so you can spend more time doing and less time walking, but this is another case of extra effort proving worthwhile. Head a few blocks away from major thoroughfares to quieter side streets before sitting down for a meal. Bonus points if the restaurant’s menu isn’t in English: a locally-favored spot will likely serve better food at a more reasonable price.

The small side-street in Thassos Town, Greece, Dunheger Travel Blog
The small side-street in Thassos Town, Greece, Flickr © Ronald Saunders

Sleeping: Couchsurf or housesit
After airfare, the largest part of your budget will be eaten up by accommodations. Hostels are an ever-popular option for backpackers, but if trying to sleep in a 12-bed dorm doesn’t seem all that appealing, you’ll be glad to know there are better and cheaper options out there. Couchsurfing, an online community connecting travelers to local hosts, has exploded in recent years, and won’t just land you a free place to crash – it will afford you a glimpse into a local life and probably a long-lasting friendship too. There are also several housesitting websites on the market which can hook you up with no-cost lodgings in exchange for a few domestic chores. If you do land a bed without a price tag, however, it’s common courtesy to give something back to your host, like treating them to a meal or helping around the house.

Poets Corner Hostel, Dunheger Travel Blog
Poets Corner Hostel, Flickr © Stephen Bugno

A few basic guidelines can save you hundreds of dollars on your European getaway, but more importantly, you’ll get a more meaningful experience.