The following article on how to travel Europe for cheap is a guest post by Gigi Griffis
When I tell people I’ve been traveling full-time for 7ish years, mostly in Europe, I get a lot of shocked looks.
Isn’t that expensive? People ask.
After all, their one-week passionate jaunt across Europe by train cost them a pretty penny that one time…so doesn’t it follow that Europe’s always a pricey destination?
But with almost seven years over here—two of those years living in Switzerland, the priciest of the pricy—my answer is no. No, Europe isn’t always a luxury-priced destination.
No, you don’t have to be rich to be a digital nomad who spends most of her time in France. And no, Europe on a budget isn’t an impossible concept.
I know because my budget isn’t a huge one. My goal as I travel across the continent is to spend $2,000 per month or less. And I’m proud to say that I often come in way less, like $1,200 or $1,500.
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How to Travel Europe for Cheap (Under $2k a Month)
There are so many ways to cut down costs but here are the five main ways to travel Europe on a budget with some additional knowledge on the “two sides” of Europe and how I even manage my low budget with a dog in tow.
1. The Savings of Traveling Slow
The first thing to know about how to travel Europe cheap is this: the slower you go, the cheaper it is.
Spend two days in a place, and that $500 plane ticket is budgeted across just two days ($250 per day). Spend two weeks and the transit cost per day drops drastically (about $36 per day). Spend two months, and it drops hard and fast yet again (about $8 per day).
The slower you travel, the farther those one-time big-ticket items like transit fall.
And they’re not the only way slow travel saves you big. Most guesthouses, hostels, and apartment rentals have nightly, weekly, and monthly rates. The latter two are discounted, with bigger and bigger discounts available the longer you stay.
For example, I’m currently in Split, Croatia, for two months soaking up sunshine, exploring islands, and getting some high-quality, affordable dental care stuff taken care of (more on that later).
My partner and I have rented a sunny one-bedroom apartment via Airbnb. Our total monthly cost for the place is about $1100 per month, including fees (less than $600 per person). This same apartment lists for $58 per night if you book weekly and $68 per night if you book for nightly. By contrast, we’re paying about $37 per night.
That’s not to mention that slow travel means your must-sees are spread out over a longer period, which saves you money yet again. If, for example, you’re off to Paris and you must see the Louvre and the Eiffel Tower and Frenchie Bar a Vins (my favorite restaurant; yes, it should be on your list).
If you do all those things in a single day, you’re racking up quite the bill for a one-day stay. If, however, you’re spreading them over a week with lots of cheap or free activities in between (like picnic lunches in Paris’ cool parks or afternoons spent wandering in interesting neighborhoods like Le Marais), your total activities costs get spread out just like your transportation costs.
Does this always mean you have to travel slow to do Europe on a budget? No. But it does mean that it’s one pretty surefire way to keep costs down.
2. Keeping Transit Costs Low
Now, whether I’m slow-traveling or fast-traveling, transit costs are always a factor in keeping to my under-$2,000 budget. There are a few ways I keep these as low as I can.
The first is that I walk and cycle everywhere.
If something is less than an hour’s walking distance, I’m going on foot. Not only because it saves me a buck or two on bus fares, but also because I feel fitter and healthier, and I see more of the places I’m visiting.
Giving myself extra time and strolling across town means finding little bakeries, shops, gardens, and alleyways I would never have otherwise found. It means cool photo opportunities and yummy snacks and a feeling that I am really getting to know the place I’m in.
If walking or cycling isn’t an option, buses, trains, and uber come to the rescue as needed.
Now, when trains are a better option because walking is impractical/too far/not a good plan when you’re loaded down with your bags, I have a couple tricks up my sleeve for keeping those costs low.
First, I check multiple days. What if I left a day early or a day late? Would the transportation savings be more significant than what I’d lose in accommodation costs? When I was traveling overnight from Italy to Paris via train, for instance, I found out that leaving only one day later would save me 120 euros. Asking a friend to let me crash her couch for one night felt like a worthwhile option with those kinds of savings.
Second, I check multiple routes. Is it cheaper to go from Switzerland to Slovenia via Austria or Italy? Is it a better deal to pass through Paris on my way to France’s Basque country or to take a more direct route through the countryside?
And if I’m staying longer in one place, are there any train or tram discount cards I can take advantage of?
During our summer in Prague, my partner and I both bought monthly tram passes. All it took was about ten rides per month before they paid for themselves and with a lot of things outside my walking distance sphere, it saved me about 50% of what I would have spent.
Similarly, when I lived in Switzerland, I bought a half-fare travel pass. The pass costs about $175 and lasts a whole year, and it gets you about 50% off on most train rides in the country. For a few-week stay, it’s probably not financially worth it. But for a few months or a whole year? Those are big savings.
Finally, everything above also applies to flights. I check different airports, different days, different routes. When my partner needed to get from Switzerland to Romania, flights were hundreds cheaper out of nearby Italy, even once we’d factored in train tickets.
3. Accommodations on the Cheap
Transit costs might seem like a big-ticket item, but the biggest factor in my budgets across Europe has been accommodations. On months when I am staying longer and settled comfortably into an apartment, I spend significantly less than on months when I travel quickly and stay in hotels, B&Bs, or nightly apartment rentals.
If you’re traveling quickly and like people, options like Couchsurfing or Warmshowers (for cyclists), where you can crash someone’s couch for the night and make a new friend, are great. If you’re traveling slow, apartments/rooms in apartments are almost always the cheapest options (with guesthouses with shared kitchens occasionally coming in a little cheaper).
Looking for ways to travel for practically free? If you love the idea of Couchsurfing, you’d love these ideas for working in exchange for room and board!
4. Health on the Road
If you’re from the US, there’s more good news ahead: Part of the reason traveling Europe full-time for nearly seven years has been so affordable for me is because healthcare costs are so much more reasonable here.
My insurance (through GeoBlue) costs $165 per month and covers me everywhere in the world except the US. But even the times that I’ve had to pay out-of-pocket on the road, the costs have been stunningly low.
When I hospitalized on Malta twice in one week, my bill, including a ride in an ambulance, a bag of hydration fluids, multiple doctor consults, and hours in a hospital bed, cost about $150.
My dental x-rays here in Croatia cost about $30, and I’m having a filling replaced tomorrow for $60.
Even in Switzerland, the most expensive country for healthcare in Europe, my birth control pills were approximately 1/5 of what they cost me in the US pre-Obamacare.
5. Solo vs. With a Partner
The first three years of my full-time travel journey, I was doing Europe on a budget solo. Then I met my partner and the last three+ years have been a joint venture.
My budget hasn’t changed, but my lifestyle has. I could pretty easily travel Europe for $2,000 or less while I was on my own, but I had more roommate situations and rented more studio apartments.
I couldn’t be quite as picky about my apartment choices, either, because $1,000 a month is a relatively low budget for some of the cities I was traveling in (like Paris or Amsterdam).
I made it work, but there were trade-offs in the accommodations department.
Now, with each of us chipping in half the rent, we can afford to look at apartments that are a little more expensive and have a little more space, light, and location flexibility.
Our typical rental these days averages between $1,200 and $1,600, which means $600 to $800 each—a significant saving on an individual level and a step up in quality on the joint level.
(This is also a pretty good argument for traveling with a friend or partner. Your other costs will stay relatively stable, but accommodation costs get chopped right in half.)
Europe on a Budget: Eastern Europe for Under $2k/Month
The cheapest way to travel Europe, as you might have guessed, is to stick to the east. Traveling to cheaper European countries just makes sense to keep yourself on a budget!
Countries like Romania, Bulgaria, and even Croatia are still developing, which means more annoying infrastructure snafus (for instance, no one in Bosnia and Herzegovina seems to know whether dogs are allowed on buses or not) but also significant cost savings.
Where a month in the most expensive cities in western Europe (e.g. Amsterdam or London) will likely run you over $2k even if you’re pulling out all your budget tricks, a month in Mostar, Bosnia, and Herzegovina, in a lovely two-bedroom apartment on the edge of old town cost me less than $1,300.
My personal cheapest month in Europe was in Konjic, Bosnia, and Herzegovina, where I spent $1,157 for a month. And my most expensive stay in the east? A month in popular Dubrovnik for the not-actually-that-pricey cost of $1,443.
Europe on a Budget: Western Europe for Under $2k/Month
If you think of doing Europe on a budget, chances are you’re thinking of the east. But the truth is that it’s also very possible to stay within budget in western Europe.
My cheapest month in a western European country (in Taormina, Sicily, Italy, for $1,364) was actually cheaper than my most expensive month in an eastern country (across the Adriatic in Dubrovnik, Croatia, for $1,443).
In both cases, I had apartments with beautiful views, took myself out to eat reasonably often, and lived more or less the same lifestyle.
Now, that said, western Europe does tend to run more expensive than the east. Expect to live a little more of a budget lifestyle if you’re traveling under $2k in places like Germany and Austria and a lot more of a budget lifestyle if you’re traveling in places like Amsterdam or Switzerland.
The most affordable countries in western Europe, in my experience, are Slovenia, Spain, Italy, and Belgium.
A solo month in Toledo, Spain, in a sunny, quiet apartment in the city center cost me just $1,388. In Kobarid, Slovenia (a nature lover’s paradise), I spent $1,422. And a month in Italy’s Umbrian hill country (again, solo and footing my entire apartment bill myself) was $1,882.
I haven’t been yet, but I’ve also heard that Greece and Portugal are very reasonably priced European destinations.
By contrast, my most expensive months in western Europe have been in Switzerland (no surprise there), the UK, the Netherlands, and France. And of the countries on that list, the only two where I felt my budget significantly hindered my quality of life were the UK and Amsterdam.
The good news is that even in expensive destinations, my spending hasn’t gotten as crazy as you’d think. My most costly month in Europe was a vacation spent cycling across France on the Eurovelo 6 from the Swiss border to the Atlantic Ocean.
I spent $3,091, mostly because even though I wasn’t incurring any transportation costs (except the couple bills for bike fixes along the way), I was staying in budget hotels most nights—and as I said above, those nightly costs add up fast.
Unsurprisingly, I also went over budget in Paris ($2,118), glitzy Biarritz, France ($2,029), and Amsterdam ($1,008 for two weeks). But, as you can see, each of those budget overages was actually relatively small. If I’d skipped a couple of meals out in Biarritz or rented a room instead of a solo studio in Paris, I could have probably come in under budget.
And if you’re curious about these budget numbers, you can find a full list of all my monthly budgets with detailed breakdowns of my spending here.
How to Travel Europe for Cheap Even With a Dog
Did I mention that these seven years of traveling Europe on a budget have been done with my pint-sized pooch in tow?
Her name is Luna, and she’s an almost-10-year-old Schnauzer-Yorkie mix with therapy training (which I highly recommend if you want a super well-behaved travel companion). And, of course, traveling with her is a factor in my budget.
But here’s the good news for American travelers: European vet care is almost always cheaper than the US equivalent.
When Luna had pancreatitis in Croatia, her full vet bills for multiple tests, x-rays, blood tests, sedation, and pills came in about $150. By contrast, just a blood test (to check on her pancreas later) in Colorado was upwards of $200.
The other big cost to consider if traveling with a small dog is your jam is transportation fees. Most airlines that allow small dogs charge $50 to $100 for an in-cabin dog on flights within Europe. International flights go up from there. The good news is that most trains charge a small fee or even no fee if the dog is in a carrier. So if you’re traveling by train, those costs are rarer and more manageable.
So You Want to Visit Europe on a Budget…
After about seven years of traveling mostly on this continent, my top tips are these:
- Travel slow and take advantage of the cost savings (and relaxation) that comes with exploring one city or region in a more profound way.
- When booking transportation, look at multiple dates and multiple routes to find the one that best fits both your budget and travel style.
- Book apartments when you can, both for the cost savings of the apartment itself and for the cost savings of having a kitchen and preparing your meals.
- Travel with a friend or partner if you can, but don’t fret if you can’t. With solo travel, you might have to book an Airbnb room instead of a full apartment, but you can still travel within a budget.
- For the absolute cheapest way to travel Europe, stick with the countries in the east. But don’t discount Italy or Spain as high-value, low-budget places to visit, especially outside the main tourist areas.
So do you think you can manage to travel Europe on a budget? Let us know your thoughts in the comments!
Gigi Griffis is a world-traveling entrepreneur and writer with a special love for all things European food and adventure. She’s been traveling full-time in Europe since 2012 with her pint-sized pooch and oversized appetite.
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Nina Ragusa is an adventurer, messy bun master, breakfast fan, and full-time travel blogger. She’s been abroad and epically failing at the American Dream since 2011. Her sassy yet informative blog, Where in the World is Nina? is all about how to work abroad to live a more adventurous life. If you want to travel longer you have to work to wander.