This is a guest post from budget traveler extraordinaire, Matt Kepnes. Keep up with his travels and read his advice at NomadicMatt.com
For the last five years, I’ve spent every summer traveling around Europe. My first summer riding the train through the European countryside enamored me with the continent and I couldn’t resist coming back….repeatedly.
But Europe isn’t the cheapest of continents to visit. The airline ticket prices have increased substantially over the last few years and despite financial problems in Greece, the Euro is still stronger than the dollar. Travelers often get sticker shock when they travel there, and the collective cultural impression that “Europe is expensive” keeps too many people away.
But Europe’s prices are not monolithic; they are as diverse as the cultures on the continent. There are plenty of ways to save money and actually have a cheap vacation in Europe. After all, I couldn’t spend entire summers there if it was as expensive as people believe.
So if you’ve ever dreamed of seeing Europe but are worried about the costs, here are my top tips for making that dream become a reality:
Get a rail pass
If you plan to travel widely around the continent, purchasing a rail pass will save you hundreds of dollars. I have used a European rail pass twice and saved hundreds each time.
They make complete economic sense if you are going to be riding many high-speed, overnight, or long-distance trains. Passes can be bought for up to two months of travel and cover most of the countries in Europe. The leading sellers of these passes are Rail Europe and Interrail.
Book in advance
An alternative to getting a rail passes is to simply book your rail trips in advance. By booking online and at least two weeks before your trip directly through each country’s rail website, you can save upwards of 50% off what you would pay at the counter.
As an example: if you are traveling to Denmark, their advanced purchased “orange tickets” can save you up to 60% of the standard price. Rail passes work best when you travel long distance, so if you are planning a short-term holiday instead and aren’t planning on traveling far and wide, this option is best to save you money on trains.
Take the bus
Bus service throughout Europe is widespread and, in the eastern part of the continent, is much cheaper than taking the train. I don’t really like the bus because you don’t get to spread out like you do on the train, but if you are looking for a cheap method of transportation, bus fares are generally half the cost of a train ticket.
Europe’s major bus provider is Eurolines, which is the umbrella organization of inter-country travel in Europe. They go everywhere.
Obtain a tourist card
The best money saving device is also the least advertised. Tourist cards are cards that provide discounted or free entry into a city’s museums and activities as well as free public transportation and discounts at some restaurants and shops. They can be purchased through city tourism offices when you arrive at your destination.
I always get these passes if I plan on seeing many attractions. In Oslo, I saved $30 dollars using the pass. In Paris, the museum pass saved me over $80 USD. In London, I saved over $100. Even if these passes will save you a few dollars, get them! Every dollar counts.
Enjoy the free tours
One of my favorite things about Europe is that in every major city you can find free walking tours that provide an overview of the city’s history and culture as well as help you get your bearings on where things are and what to do.
Why pay for some fancy tour when you can do it for free? Many of these tours are filled with incredible information and the guides have deep knowledge of the city. Some of the big names are:
Athens – www.athensfreewalkingtour.com/
Belgrade – www.belgradewalkingtours.com/
Brasov – www.guided-brasov.com/
Bratislava – www.befreetours.com/
Bucharest – www.guided-bucharest.com/
Budapest – www.triptobudapest.hu/
Krakow – freewalkingtour.com/
Ljubljana – ljubljanafreetour.com/
New Europe Tours – www.neweuropetours.eu
Paris – www.parisiendunjour.fr/
Sarajevo – www.sarajevowalkingtours.com/
Tallinn – www.traveller.ee/tour/tallinn-free-tour
Explore the food markets
When I am traveling, I like to pretend high-priced restaurants don’t exist. Good food doesn’t have to be expensive and Europe has some amazing food markets where you can get delicious and affordable food. It’s what the locals do, so if you want to really experience the native cuisine, hit the markets.
There’s a cheese guy, a meat guy, a baker, a veggie guy, and so forth. Everyone specializes – it’s not like the mass supermarkets of the United States. Head to the outdoor market, grab some fresh food, and have yourself a picnic. The food markets of Europe have provided most of my meals and I’ve never felt I was missing out on anything.
When most Americans think of Europe, they think of Paris, Rome, Amsterdam, or London. In other words, the big western and expensive destinations. But more affordable alternatives lay to the east. Head to Eastern Europe and find hidden, cheaper, and less crowded treasures in Bulgaria, Romania, Slovenia, or the Balkans.
You can enjoy just as much beautiful countryside and numerous historic cities without worrying about the overwhelming crowds or heart attack-inducing prices.
So the next time you are planning on visiting Europe, don’t be so quick to dismiss it due to its prices! Europe may appear to be expensive on the surface — and the advertisements and packages we see just seem to reinforce that idea — but if you look just a little bit deeper, you’ll find a surprisingly affordable place to visit with a variety of ways to save your travel money, even in traditionally “expensive” destinations.