Monday, January 13, 2014

Europe on a shoestring - How to travel on budget around Europe

Many people always tell me how expensive it is to travel Europe. There are many ways to cut cost, but it will require some advance planning.

Also, Europe is a continent, please do not try to visit 'Europe' in one or two weeks. When you do this, you are essentially spending most of your time on the plane/train and this is expensive as well as taking time away from the real sightseeing. Focus on what you want to see. If you do feel that this is a trip of a lifetime and you must visit multiple countries cramped into a short period of time- a lot more planning is required or you will need a holiday after your holiday due to sheer exhaustion...

As a rule of thumb, Eastern Europe is usually cheaper (Prague in Czech Republic is especially popular recently but countries such as Croatia, Poland, Hungary, Russia seems to be gathering momentum etc), Southern Europe is reasonable but tourist areas are suicide during peak seasons (Italy,Spain, Portugal, Greece etc), Western Europe is what most people know and do (London/UK, Paris/France, Berlin/Germany etc) and the most co$tly is Northern Europe (Iceland, Sweden, Norway etc).

Try to avoid travelling during summer holidays (end Jul- August) because everyone is travelling and it will be crowded and costly. If you can afford it, avoid winter too, Nov- Jan especially as day light hours is very short. When it starts to get dark and cold.. you can't do some sights, it is hard to take nice pictures and you might be bored etc etc.. but things especially accommodation is the cheapest in winter. when the hotels are empty, the prices go down. And the que to see famous sites are shorter too.. a good balance I find is to visit in spring and autumn. Not too cold, not too many people, not the cheapest.. but not the costliest.

While every country is different, but some important tips remain the same. So here's mine for your budget travel to Europe.

1. Getting there

Find cheap flights. The best is to book during promotions but perhaps you are never really in the know and often miss them. Use a flight comparator. I use mostly www.kayak.com and www.skyscanner.com.What these sites do is trawl other websites offering flight tickets and compare them, this way they can very quickly show you what is the current best deal. However, this only works if they partner with this site.. so use both to compare. If you have a bit of flexibility, use the options to see the flights +/- a few days ahead or after your chosen travel dates, also other alternative airports close-by. 
Generally flights that require transits are cheaper and airline from countries (I am being kinna mean here, it is not completely true) that not that many people want to visit in the first place but wants to develop a market as a regional air-hub will be the cheapest. Look out also for deals with the airline/airport of the transit point - usually they organize some short tours which they will bring you out of the airport, tour the city and return for very little money and you get to see something extra.

A bit of additional advice, if you take route that requires you to change flights - don't do it yourself unless you are saving a substantial amount of money. The reason being- if you first leg of flight is late and you miss your connecting flight, you will be in a foreign country and with lots of trouble. Even if you have insurance, the hassle of getting the next available flight, the lost time, the aggravation, trying to claim you insurance afterwards.. is not worth it. If you bought it as a package (on the same airline or their coach share partners), any delay will have the airline try to get you on the next flight out, in the event the next flight is longer than a certain hours they will give you food vouchers or one night hotel etc.. it is still a big hassle but someone else is taking care of it for you until you cab leave. Hmm, also try not to transit in French airports.. employees go on strike and tada.. you are stuck.. It is not that often, but France is a great end destination but a horrible transit point.

2. Getting Around

Now that you are there, you would have notice that local transportation is costly. But more frequently than not there are many tourist passes or transport passes that you can use. The best way to get this information is to visit the website of the train/bus service provider of the country/city that you want to visit.

There are plenty of offers. For example in Germany, you can buy a daily ticket so you pay a flat rate and hop on and off as much as you want. There are other offers for people travelling in groups, students, etc etc.. In the UK for example, you have off-peak/super off-peak/advance tickets etc which offer a lot of saving. Each city will also have their own 'scheme' for example London have their Travelcards and Oyster. There are also plenty of discounts for students/young people, you need proof age or a internationally recognised student card..

For example, do you know that there is a German Rail pass that lets you hop-on all trains (also their high speed train), buses and such for EUR 269 for 7 days. With this you can easily cover 3-5 cities. Which can be a steal if you want to do Berlin- Hamburg- Munich (some day trips in between) and then perhaps go to Austria.. But if you are just doing just one city in that particular country.. hmmpphh.. you'd be better off with other offers. So research and find what fits you best.

Actually, if you are travelling within one region/country only and there is 2 of you at least, I find that it is often cheaper to book a car. A small car is cheap and gives you the freedom to stop in places in between. But you need to plan it in such a case that you pick-up and leave the car from the same spot.. or there will be hefty charges. Also, automatic cars are more expensive than those with manual gear box. :(

City deals are best found on the tourism website of the city you want to visit. Sometimes it comes as a pass for the city that is bundle with offers for other attractions for the city like The Cologne Welcome Card or one which is for transportation only. It can also get quite complex but research online and you shall find! For example here is a break down of the various options that you can find in Paris alone. Life is more complicated in countries where different companies run different services, different trains, distance trains vs metro/subways etc and passes might not always be interchangeable - so do check. But google with key words like 'one day pass NAMEOFCITY'/ 'tourist pass NAMEOFCITY' it would usually give you something to read.

Of course, one can also always walk. 

3. Crossing Borders

If you need to fly, I suggest again checking with www.kayak.com or www.skyscanner.com. Skyscanner trawls a number of budget airlines in Europe.

Same applies to trains. Here's a summary of what's out there from one reseller. 

You will notice that the trend is early booking, cheaper prices but it usually means no change, no refunds etc.. so if your plans change you are pretty done for. Last minute deals aren't that good in Europe but you could look them up.. most of the time advance booking is what gives you the best rate.

If you need to travel last minute and don't want to pay too much, there is a new scheme these days where travellers/drivers heading a certain direction and for little money, they let you go along. Quite a few people found this to be cheap and convenient and they love the company. But personally I'd rather not take the chance to be stuck with someone in a car for hours whom which I may not like... mm... also most of these sites are in the country's native language... so if you can't speak it.. your stuck.This arrangement can also be useful for inter city travels as well as cross border travels - and I know many people that liked it.. Here's an example:




4. Stay & Sleep

Want something free? Try couch surfing. This offers you a network of hosts who will let you stay at their place for free.. or bring you out on tour etc.. As you can imagine, it is not without its own risk so do prepare yourself and as always be careful. 

For something cheap but don't want to slog it out in a hostel room with other strangers. Try Airbnb, this offers you another network of people who are willing to let you stay at their place but wants you to pay them for it. Again, be prepared and be aware.



Hostels of course are the cheaper option to hotels, especially if you are OK with dormitory like rooms and toilet sharing. I find it a good way to meet people and I am a sound sleeper, good for me... but I snore like a train, so if you are my roommate, too bad for you. If you want some privacy.. many hostels now offer double rooms too (for more $$). You can find hostels and read reviews on http://www.hostelworld.com or http://www.hostels.com both which I found to be helpful.

There are always deals for hotels too, you just need to look. More and more chain are offering best prices on their own websites. But you can always make comparisons to get an idea of the price on sites such as booking.com, agoda.com, trivago.com or simple see what's being recommended on tripadvisor.com

Again, these days I find that last minute deals are no match for advance bookings. Not always, but most of the time. However, if you are really unsure about your itinerary, get a rate which is refundable.. or you might loose more money than you save.

5. Food

Eating is a huge part of one's travel cost. Eating can be cheap, but don't start giving side eyes and say that you don't want to eat crappy food. This is a post on BUDGET TRAVEL. :P

In Europe, the cheapest way to eat - Fast food. McDonalds for instance, offers small prices. In many countries they offer cheese burgers for 1 EUR. Breakfast at IKEA is also very cheap.

Walk around the main train station usually you will find cheap eats. Someone remarked this to me once that when you are in a European city the chances are you will find the city's main train station with a church and a red light district.. mmm... that and usually it also comes with souvenir shops and cheap eats.

Try also the 'immigrant district' e.g Chinatown, Turkish quarter etc. usually these areas offer cheaper food options.

If you are a big eater, look out for Chinese buffet. These are usually geared for the Europeans (and are decorated to look very very oriental).. but Chinese food, should read 'Chinese' food- don't expect anything authentic. But they are usually dirt cheap - especially for lunch.. It can be possible to find something for 6 to 8 EUR-ish for all you can eat. Have a big lunch and you can do a smaller dinner.

If you are pretty health concious (or have special dietary needs) and absolute do not want to eat food fast food and yet do not have the budget. You can easily make very simple stuff by--- buying simple stuff from the super market. You go to budget ones like the Tesco and Aldi for instance or go for something more upmarket like Mark and Spencer. Any more upmarket.. we will not start ;) But there are many pre-packed food options that you could get that that cost less than EUR 3.. that you need to just heat up in the oven or microwave, just make sure the place you stay has one and you are all set.

For fresh and healthy..You can also have cheap food by making your own sandwich.. bread is cheap, add a few ham and/or cheese, if you want some tomatoes and lettuce, voilĂ .. breakfast or lunch when you pack it to go.

6. Others

Here and there you can save. Travel light, when you are on budget airlines you save on luggage. Borrow travel guides from library instead of buying them - use these guides to find bargains too. Have your own water container to carry your own water around. Most places, tap water is safe to drink, otherwise boil them at the place you are staying for the next day. Don't buy souvenirs, these are over priced items you will not need. Avoid peak seasons, this is normally the summer holidays (worst) and long holidays like Easter, Christmas/New Year and school term break!

The most important key remains.. be prepared. Research in advance for deals and travel tips - there is so many of them you just need to take your time and find them. Once you arrive, visit the tourist centre - here usually you will get free maps, list of places of interest, deals and recommendations. Some tourist centres are nothing more than a phone booth, but some really do offer you a wealth of information, stopping by wouldn't kill you and might save you a  lot of $$ if you haven't been doing your homework.

AND DON'T FORGET - remember to stay safe, don't do anything you wouldn't normally do and Europe has surprising high rate of petty crimes, so don't bring too much cash on you... especially if that's all you have for the trip.

Have fun and if you have any other tips, do share with us!

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