The Broke Art Historian’s Guide to Budgeting for Europe
Published On: 2013/05/24
Sometimes, I don’t really feel like this blog is really useful for other travelers. I write about inspiring and beautiful places from my geeky art historian perspective, but I rarely provide real travel tips. For once, I don’t claim — and would never dare to claim — that I’m a travel expert. Because I’m really not. On my recent trip to France I forgot to pack a towel, toothpaste, deodorant, and tweezers. So obliviously, I don’t even know how to pack the most essential things (and yes, tweezers are essential when you don’t want to look like Bert from the Sesame Street in your photos!).
So, if I haven’t really been anywhere exciting yet, and if my packing style is disastrous, and if my eating habits can surely not turn me into a traveling foodie — there only remains one thing I really do know when it comes to traveling: Europe.
Lately, Europe has had a bad reputation among travelers and especially among young backpackers. It’s too expensive and way too everybody-has-been-there-already-but-I-want-to-travel-off-the-beaten-track-y (I like making up words like that). There has been a huge South-East Asia hype throughout the last decade. And why not? It’s cheap, it’s adventurous, it has the most stunning beaches, and the biggest buckets. There’s nothing I could say against these advantages of traveling in Asia.
But as a convinced lover and resident of Europe, I want to defend this amazing continent against the general opinion that it is no longer budget-friendly backpacking (or in my case: overpacked carry-on) material. Because it is. You just have to know how to do it right.
There has been said a lot on this topic, but every time I find a blog post or magazine article on “How to save money while traveling Europe” they say something like “stay in hostels”, or “couchsurf”, “travel during low-season” and “don’t take cabs”. Duh. Of course young travelers stay in hostels, try to not travel during peak season, and would almost never consider wasting money on a cab! Hence these kinds of tips tend to disappoint me, because they were obviously written by older and richer people who just pretend to be giving budgeting tips.
But I put all my effort into this (I know, rather long) list of things to keep in mind when traveling in Europe — for travelers who already know that they will stay in hostels and not take cabs, but who nonetheless want to experience as much culture as possible. This list is the summary of all my wisdom of 25 years of living and traveling in Europe. If you stick to them — I’m convinced Europe can be traveled very budget-friendly while still indulging in a lot of culture.
Skip the planes
I’ve said it before and will keep repeating it: Flying in central Europe unnecessary. RyanAir and Easyjet may sound cheap at first, but the things you pay extra add up so quickly: If your suitcase is too big, or too heavy, if your ticket is not printed out. Plus, you don’t get drinks or snacks on board, and then the airports sometimes are more than an hour away from where you actually wanted to land. I’ve already written about why I love train travel in Europe so much — it’s more comfortable, more scenic and way more eco-friendly than flying. If you want to see a lot of Europe in a short amount of time Eurail is still the best option to get around Europe easily and on a budget. If you book way ahead you can also find amazing offers with Thalys and Eurostar. (Want to fly anways? Read these tips by Marie-Eve on what to keep in mind when flying Europe’s budget airlines!)
In terms of saving money, traveling by bus is also an amazing way to travel budget-friendly. From my own experiences bus travel is safe, incredibly cheap, and does not have a bad reputation in Europe. Bus companies like EuroLines offer buses all over Europe, and if you’re smart enough to bring snacks and a pillow, eight hours on the night bus to Paris are not even that bad. Last November I did exactly that, and my return ticket from Cologne to Paris was 70 Euros. A further plus: Prices are pretty stable and you can book on short notice (I booked three days before my trip) and EuroLines offers discounts for students and people under the age of 26!
Besides bigger companies, I always check the local public transportation companies too. EVA Buses, for example, operate all over Portugal. For our Algarve weekend getaway my friend Kathi and I paid only 15 Euros from Lisbon to Lagos. Even in former bus-unfriendly Germany (the main train company used to have a long-distance connection monopoly) more and more super cheap buses (like MeinFernbus and FlixBus) are introduced.
I got to the beautiful Algarve for only 15 €!
And if you want to save even more money, are a little adventurous, in the mood to meet people and to have some stories to tell: Try carpooling. It’s basically organized hitch-hiking. The driver publishes the date, time, and stops of his route and you can book your place in their car via the website. In Germany, it’s the most common way to get around for students. When I traveled to Munich last year, I had a downright positive experience — and paid 20 Euros for pretty much crossing entire Germany. Tips: Check out the driver’s profile! I’d always prefer an older (non-smoking) driver in a newer car. There’s also the option to click on “women for women”, if you feel uncomfortable getting in a foreign man’s car. Above all: Listen to your guts! I’ve never heard of something go really wrong with carpooling, but if something feels weird (driver smells like alcohol etc.), do not get in that car!
Skip the must-sees you don’t want to see anyways
It seems banal, but so many travelers actually do this all the time! I will always pay a 12 € admission fee for a museum that I’m really dying to visit. And I don’t regret doing so in Amsterdam to see Rembrandt’s famous Night Watch. But I refuse to see and spend money on attractions that feel like a must-see, but which I actually don’t really care about. I did not go into Sagrada Família in Barcelona, I didn’t go to the famous Gellert Baths in Budapest, I didn’t visit Madame Tussauds in London — simply because I was not interested enough to spend so much money on these attractions.
Instead, I went to the zoo in Budapest: I had a blast, admired the art deco elephant house, and fell in love with a sloth. Ergo, well-spent money! Don’t let others dictate what you have to see — after all, there is no right way to travel!
Take advantage of the free stuff
Everybody likes free stuff, but not everybody does their research properly. There is a lot of free stuff offered in Europe you just have to know where to find it. I would boldly say that every European city has something free for the smart traveler!
I’ve already shared my tips on how to get a lot of culture for free even in an expensive city like London, although is has such a budget-unfriendly reputation: Every museum in London (and Greenwich!) is free of admission! In the equally expensive city of Paris, it’s the other way around: The museums are pricey, but all the churches can be entered for free.
Iconic Notre-Dame in Paris — no admission fee!
And no matter which European city you’re visiting, it all comes down to a little research on “loopholes”: In Paris, museums and cultural institutions are free for European residents under the age of 26. The Louvre also offers free admission for teachers and in general on every first Sunday of the month. In Lisbon and the close-by fairy tale town Sintra, there is free admission to all museums and the national palace every Sunday. With a bit of clever research, there is something free to see in every European city!
One of my personal highlights throughout the last years were free walking tours. Especially if you’re only in town for a shorter time span, walking tours are great to get a geographical and historical overview. I know, a three to four hours tour sounds exhausting, but every walking tour I attended was so much fun that time just flew buy. Walking tour guides are the most interesting and funny people, and promised (!), you will learn a lot from them. They usually spice up the historical facts of the city with random ones, which make you laugh all the time. For example, I now know where the narrowest street in Paris is and what its name is. No one really cares, but it’s a fun thing to know. I highly recommend Sandeman New Europe Walking Tours. I attended their tours in Munich and Paris, and both times these tours were some of the best parts of my trip.
However, New Europe Tours only operates in the big cities and capitals, so if you’re staying in a smaller place, ask your hostel staff for their free walking tours. Most hostels have free tours too and they are totally worth attending (especially for solo-travelers, btw — great way to meet people!). In Prague, our free walking tour guide even managed to make the freezing rain seem magical — and she also gave me the best tips where to find the secret medieval hotspots of the city. And if you’re not staying in a hostel: Just find the biggest hostel in town, and ask if they offer free walking tours. I’m pretty sure they won’t mind another attendee (as walking tour guides cherish dedicated listeners!).
Fun fact learned during my Prague walking tour: Tourists tend to put their heads into this Mozart-dedicated statue and sometimes get stuck so firemen have to free them!
And one last little tip regarding free stuff: I love to send (and to receive, of course!) postcards. But buying postcards plus postage quickly adds up. That’s why I developed the habit of collecting free postcards. I have seen “postal free” postcards everywhere in Europe and collecting them has sort of become my little guilty pleasure. Open your eyes when entering a bar or hostel, or when on the way to the bathroom in a restaurant, and you can’t miss them. Advantages of sending these postcards: They are free, they are usually artsy, unique or funny, and they make for a great story. Instead of just writing “Greetings from Paris! The weather is okay, and the food is great” you actually have a story to tell: “So, I was at this bar, when I had to pee. But it was really dark on the stairway down to the bathrooms, so I tripped and fell into the arms of this super hot guy, who was standing right next to the free postcards and we…” — well, you get the idea.
Writing postcards in Prague
Beware of hidden costs
A mean little specialty of European cafés and restaurants is the it-costs-more-when-you-sit-rule. The prices of the cute ice cream parlor next to that pretty cathedral might not sound that bad on the menu, but they might charge twice as much as if you sit down. A classical tourist-trap! For example, the locals love the cafés on Lisbon’s most famous boulevard Rua Augusta, but they pay a lot less than the tourists: If you sit outside they charge you almost two Euros for your espresso, but if you go inside and order it para tomar nobalcão, to have on the counter, it’s only about 60 Cents. It might not be as scenic, but it’s SO much more Portuguese — and I just loved watching the laid-back retirees drinking their coffee that way! So: Watch the locals! If they’re having their treats at the counter or to go, maybe you should consider doing that too!
And another kind of hidden costs: Restroom charges. As a chronic germophobic I actually don’t mind paying for a somewhat clean train station toilet. But if you’re out exploring a city for the whole day, restroom charges might add up to five Euros a day. (That’s two coffees people!) I don’t say drink less, but pee smart (as weird as that sounds). When you have the chance to pee for free (inside a museum, when eating at a restaurant, at the mall etc.), use it, even if you don’t think you have to! Trust me on this!
Look for alternatives
My recent road trip to Switzerland reminded me that this country is incredibly beautiful, but that there is no way you could include it on a budget-friendly Europe itinerary. The great thing about Europe is, however, that there always is an alternative: If you want breathtaking natural beauty with mountains and caves and hiking trails, why not try Slovenia instead of Switzerland? I don’t mean to downgrade Switzerland, but from what I saw of Slovenia it’s just as stunning and definitely the cheapest country with Euro currency! (If you’re going to Switerland anways, read Aggy’s tips on how to save money there!)
The same applies to many countries and regions in Europe: If you want to see Roman ruins, why not try Turkey instead of Italy? If you want to see the most stunning beaches, why not try the Algarve instead of the French Riviera? If you want gorgeous 19th century architecture, why not try Budapest instead of Vienna? There are plenty of budget-friendlier alternatives in Europe. Of course, I would never ever recommend not going to Rome, but on a small budget you could be just as happy exploring Roman ruins in Spain.
Well, these ruins are in Rome. But the Romans actually spread their “stuff ” all over Europe.
In general, there are some clichés about countries being cheap or expensive out there, which are not necessarily true. From my experience, eating out in Croatia is way more expensive than in Italy, for example. Croatia used to be cheap a few decades ago, but it’s not anymore. France’s reputation about being expensive is entirely true, but buying a panini or a crêpe on the street is totally affordable. My best value-for-money countries are definitely Slovenia and Portugal. (And by the way, fellow yoghurt-addicts, no other country has cheaper and better yoghurt than Germany.) If you’re totally clueless about how expensive a country is, use the BigMac-Index for first orientation.
Drink tap water
I drank tap water from Portugal to Romania, from public restrooms in London to the fountain in front of the Spanish Steps in Rome. No matter where in Europe you are, this continent has the highest tap water quality standards worldwide and you can drink it anywhere! Plus: In some countries — Italy, France, or Holland for example –, it’s completely fine to order a carafe of tap water in a restaurant. It’s free, thus a great way to save money when eating out! But be sure to ask a local if it can be done in their country first — I embarrassed myself big time when I asked for tap water in a fancy restaurant in Lisbon, where this is totally uncommon.
Eating is of course a big topic when it comes to traveling and money. I’ve read many tips on how to rather eat out for lunch than dinner, which seems to be common advice. And I agree, lunch deals are a great way to save money, but from my experience they are not offered in very touristy areas. What I usually do instead: I go to the local supermarkets! And I don’t just go in to get a cold Coke, but I take my time to stroll and to learn about the local food. Especially by checking out the cheese, meat, and fish counters you can quickly grasp what the locals like to eat, and what the regional specialties are. My highlight in every (!!) European supermarket: The bakery section! Every country in Europe has some kind of baked good specialty and it can surely be found somewhere in a supermarket! Budget-friendly and local? What more do you want?
One of my strictest food rules regards breakfast and I learned it the hard way: Always book a breakfast along with your accommodation. Most hostels have a breakfast included, or it can be booked for a few additional Euros. Personally, I’m just not a nice person without breakfast (read: Coffee!) and there is nothing worse than getting lost in a new city on an empty stomach. In the end, it costs a lot more nerves and money to not eat breakfast where you sleep — and if there’s a decent buffet you won’t even be hungry around lunch time. Ergo: You can skip spending money on another meal and (!) you have museums and churches to yourselves around noon while everybody else is having lunch.
I’ve talked about the cab issue before, but besides that even public transportation can get really expensive at some point. The great thing about Europe’s cities however, is that they were mostly founded in the Middle Ages, before the times of public transportation — meaning they are basically meant and made for walking! To explore a new city by walking has so many advantages: It’s free, obviously! And you just see so much more of a city by walking (and getting lost!) with open eyes! Plus, you’re staying fit on the road and can indulge in more cheese and pastries — with the money you usually would have spent on the subway. Win-win.
Ok, London might be an exception when it comes to walking, because it’s so huge! But an Oyster card is quite budget-friendly too. Be sure to choose buses over the tube though —
more iconic and so much more to see!
Most likely, you want to go out eventually when in Europe. But partying is always the most expensive factor while traveling, because it’s difficult to calculate how much money you’re going to spend (especially after a few tequila shots). But what is common among all young people in Europe is drinking before actually going to the club — call it pregaming, vorglühen, or botellón — the basic idea is always the same: Buy drinks at a supermarket, gather with friends at home or in a park, and have fun. When you hit the clubs later, you don’t have to spend money on drinks as you’re already tipsy enough to have a great night. Most of the time I ask for a glass of tap water in the club to stay hydrated while dancing — it’s usually free and your head will be thankful on the next day. I also bring only a certain amount of cash and no cards, so that I always stick to my own limit. 25 Euros tops for a night out (including club admission, a drink or two, and the cab home) plus what you brought to pregaming are okay every once in a while, right?
Find free public kinds of cultural entertainment
Assuming you are so broke that you can’t even afford checking which museums have free admission online — what options do you have to still experience some culture? Easy. Because there are some culturally relevant places in every European city and they never cost anything: Libraries, train stations and university buildings for example. These buildings usually have impressive architecture and sometimes even free mini-exhibitions. The same goes for pretty book stores. I also love visiting markets and parks: In Munich, the Englische Garten park is the heart of the city. And in Budapest, the huge car-free, park-like Margaret Island even has ruins of an ancient monastery that can be explored for free. If you don’t know which park is worth visiting — just find someone who looks like a local student or a young family and ask them were they like to spend their Sundays.
Englischer Garten on a summer day — Munich’s best free sight!
My personal favorite of all free cultural sights are cemeteries! It’s little morbid, but I love cemeteries: Breathtaking nature, beautiful statues, gorgeous little chapels — and quietness far off the touristic hustle! Are there more moving ways to get to know a new city? I don’t think so. And one last favorite — street art! It’s everywhere, you just have to open your eyes to this great kind of outdoor exhibition!
The gorgeous cemetery of Montmartre, Paris
Take your opportunities
If someone asked me for my travel style I’d say I’m an opportunistic traveler. If I have the chance to travel, I do it. And by chances I mean: Friends living in a cool city, friends studying abroad, relatives somewhere, or friends of friends who happen to have a guest room. I’ve done it all and I was always surprised how incredibly generous people are even if they only know that you’re the daughter of someone they met years ago. And while I studied abroad, I invited basically everyone I knew to come visit me in Lisbon — I loved having guests and showing them around my beautiful new home town.
My friend Sarah came to visit me in Lisbon; three months later she hosted me in London: Opportunistic traveling at its best!
Honestly, I’m convinced everyone knows someone somewhere in Europe. A distant relative, a former roommate studying abroad, the family of a co-worker — and many of them actually love having guests and showing them around. Even if you don’t really know the people you’re staying with beforehand, and even if they’re not living in the coolest city ever — it’s a chance to travel you should take! Of course, you could try CouchSurfing as well, but by crashing with people you (sort of) know, you can build your own little personal CouchSurfing network — especially if you’d feel uncomfortable staying with complete foreigners.
No matter where you stay tough, remember to be a nice guest: bring a souvenir, or cook a traditional dish from your home country for your hosts. Just reach out to someone you knew or know, or someone who once said “come visit me in Denmark” — and you’d be surprised how many options for free accommodation in Europe you actually have.
The most important rule of all: Do your research!
This is basically the quintessence of everything I mentioned above: Do your research! When I moved to Portugal, I figured I that bringing all my beauty supplies from home might be stupid, but when I saw that an average small bottle of suncream costs 20 Euros there, I was more than happy that I did my research and could spent my hard earned money on more fun things.
I know, it goes against everything the hippie backpacker in you wants to hear, but: Spontaneity is expensive! Do your research! Be prepared! Read guide books, read blogs (!), ask and watch locals — and I’m absolutely convinced that Europe on a budget can be done!
This is it — my entire knowledge about traveling in on the cheap and budgeting for Europe!
What are your tips and tricks to save money in Europe?
Do you have specific travel tips for certain European countries?