Europe on the Cheap: A Travel Addict’s Guide

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I first wanted to go to Europe when I was about 16 years old. I was a sophomore in high school, and friends from my honors English class were going on a trip to several countries there over the summer, but alas, I didn’t have the money. Ironically enough, when I began traveling full-time at the age of 22, it wasn’t to Spain that I went, but instead to Argentina. I’d originally wanted to live in Spain, fueled by daydreams and passages by Ernest Hemingway. Nonetheless, I was determined to become fluent in Spanish, and Buenos Aires turned into my choice destination. In a nutshell, I thereby became obsessed with Latin America, and every chance I got to travel, I planned a trip to another place within the region.

Nonetheless, the major factor for not having visited Europe for so long was not so much being entranced by everything south of the US border, but the cost. Having just returned from the Iberian Peninsula, I am fully aware that traveling in this region can’t be compared with other low-cost areas, such as parts of Southeast Asia or poorer countries in Latin America. Europe is more expensive, but this shouldn’t be a reason not to visit. Please, do not let the scariness of the euro deter you, as it did me. Now is the optimal time to visit this historically powerful region. Now, I will tell you how I managed to discover over 12 cities in three countries, for over two months, with only centimos (errr… chump change) in my pocket.

The first factor to consider is the cost of flights (especially if you live in the U.S.). I had been looking at flights for several years, and most of them had been between $1,300 to $1,500 USD round trip from the west coast.This was much more than I had been paying previously. The good news is that now is a great time to fly anywhere, as the cost of flights have dramatically decreased. Still, if you know some much-necessary tricks to getting the best flight, you won’t have to fork over your liver in order to travel. (For instance, stick to traveling during the week, as opposed to the weekends.)

First off, be aware of the season during which you’re traveling. Take note that summer is high season, and therefore the worst time to visit any well-trafficked destination. High season = high prices, flights, food, accommodation, and otherwise.

My one-way ticket to Europe was from Oakland to Barcelona, with a stop-over in Stockholm, and only cost me $250 including taxes. I found this quite easily through Norwegian Airways and didn’t hesitate to book the ticket.

Once you’re in you’re Europe, there are many other factors to consider; the first being transportation. There are plenty of packages geared toward the eternal-planner, who has had this whole trip etched in his or her wall for six to seventy long-awaited years. Fear not. You are not the only one who doesn’t like to travel like it’s a penciled-in, overbearing, demanding obligation. Your trip should be fun and spontaneous, right?! Right!

My resolution, therefore, is to use a ride share service, called Bla Bla Car, instead of riding the train. Sure, companies like Renfe are completely awesome, but… If you arrive one minute after schedule, prepare to buy another ticket. Yes, this happened to me and it totally sucked. I ended up spending about $140 euros in total just to get from my hostel in Barcelona to my placement in Logroño, and that was only in an attempt to save money. Bla Bla Car is a safe service that allows you to pick from a variety of drivers, see their profiles, evaluations, and so on, before getting into the car with them and whomever else might be riding with you. Some drivers will even pick you up and drop you off wherever you request. And when you’re lugging around a backpack or two, that is like getting a free present. Bla Bla Car is available throughout many countries in Europe, and their website can be shown in a slew of languages.

Another way to get from place to place is a penny-pinching manner is to fly. If you’re from the U.S., your eyeballs might be popping out right now. Yes, sometimes it is not only faster and more direct, but also cheaper to fly from one destination to another. This might sound absurd, but trust me on this. Travel throughout European countries is so accessible it’s ridiculous. Budget airlines like RyanAir and Easy Jet offer crazy-cheap flights throughout Europe and North Africa, so you can literally fly to Paris for the weekend RT for under $100, depending on where you’re currently located. One thing to note, however, is that you should plan your trip in advance. Like I’ve stated before, I’m all about embracing impromptu travel, but sometimes there might be concrete moments you have to plan on for your trip. Example: The main reason I chose to go to Europe at this time was to attend TBEX Costa Brava, so obviously staying in Morocco for a couple more days wasn’t a cool idea. I therefore planned ahead and purchased a one-way flight from Marrakesh to Girona to arrive early and attend my travel bloggers’ conference. This set me back a whopping 63 euros, or about $68 USD, through RyanAir. That’s right, I got from one continent to another for the cost of a cheap date night. I flew again from Barcelona to Porto after the conference was over, paying about $25 USD. Sooo affordable. (Notice: Be very careful about which boxes you click when booking the ticket. If you want to choose your seat, eat on board, get flight insurance, and check in two bags, your flight could easily triple. That’s why I pack my lunch and do carry-on luggage only.)

Once in a city, don’t be afraid to use public transit. Major cities often have great metro and bus systems that are easy to navigate, even if you don’t know the language. This is also a fantastic way to observe locals (yes, I love to people watch!), and interact with them as well. My number one rule when traveling: walk as much as you can. There’s nothing like getting to know a city on foot- it allows you an immersion that riding in a vehicle just don’t offer. You feel the ground beneath your feet, see the world right in front of your face, smell everything from the street food to the sewer lines to the plants growing around you. In addition, walking enables you to entertain your spontaneity easily. See something you like? Take a moment, pause,  turn around and go in a completely different direction if the mood strikes you. This doesn’t cost a thing.

Then comes the big one: accommodation. Even hostels in Europe, depending on where you’re staying, can be expensive. For someone who was used to paying about $8-10 USD a night at hostels in Latin America and the majority of Asia (like, not Japan!), the thought of handing over $20-40 USD per night to sleep on a top bunk in a dorm with five to nine other backpackers made me wince. (Note: I’m not against communal lodging, but the price has to be right.) Especially when, in reality, you’re not going to be spending all that much time in the hostel, but going out and exploring, as you should.

If hosteling is the route you’re going, do your research. Use apps like Booking.com, HostelWorld, and Yonderbound to see what’s out there and get the best bang for your buck. Booking.com not only compares prices between hostels, bed & breakfasts, and hotels, but oftentimes it also allows you to book your night’s stay without a down payment. That is awesome in my book. Also, if you are a last-minute planner like I tend to be, many of the hostels offer deeper discounts for the rooms that haven’t been booked for the night, as they don’t want to lose out on money. Yonderbound is cool in that, every time you write a review, if someone reads this review and books a night at your recommended location, you get commission. Earning money while traveling? Yeah, that’s pretty freakin’ fantastic.

Nonetheless, if you’re not a hostel kind of person, there are plenty of other options. First off, let’s talk about house sitting. I did my first stint as a house sitter in Logroño, taking care of an awesome two-year-old Labrador while getting plenty of exercise, enjoying the local wine, and staying rent free. I found this opportunity through MindMyHouse, which had the least expensive subscription of all the house sitting websites at $20 USD per year. I also found out about Nomador later, which is totally free, but as of yet hasn’t secured me any gigs. Other fruitful (global) websites are HouseCarers and the ever-popular TrustedHousesitters. Please keep in mind that you should plan ahead for these house sitting gigs, because people want to secure someone they trust with their house and their pets well ahead of time. Try to be flexible in terms of timing and location, and you’ll be able to discover a part of Europe you might not have otherwise.

Another option is Trampolinn, a website that lets you stay at other people’s places in exchange for offering up your home or room. It’s operated on a points-based system, and the more points you gain, the bigger of a budget you have to spend. Currently, just by signing up, you can get enough points for one (cheap) night’s stay. Unfortunately, I didn’t get to try this, since I tried using it a few days before I needed accommodation. For this one, again, planning ahead is key.

GoCambio is another up-and-coming website that offers free, experiential home stays. No matter what your skill is- teaching English, cooking, playing guitar, or so on- you can offer this expertise in exchange for a room, and sometimes, board. The maximum amount of time you would have to teach is two hours per day, and your stay is always free. Be advised that, like the other options for free accommodation, you should book early. I heard about this amazing service two weeks into my trip, and though I stayed in Europe for over two months, I unfortunately wasn’t able to secure a position for any of the places I was traveling. Then again, GoCambio is rapidly expanding into new territories, and the place that I was looking for this spring might very well offer hosts at the time you’re reading this.

Last, but of course not least, is the subject of food. It is that one element that can bring people together, offer a bonding commonality, and even drive people to explore new lands. BUT, it can be expensive. Granted, while I am an extreme budget traveler, one of the biggest purposes of going to Europe was to find delicious vegan food. Therefore, I wholeheartedly admit that an overwhelming portion of my financial allowance was dedicated to eating at kick-ass restaurants that only served plant-based cuisine. Nonetheless, there are still ways to save.

Don’t stick around your hotel in the touristy center of wherever. Oftentimes, the places that advertise the “best coffee in…” or “the best ______ in the world” are cold-hearted tourist traps. Take the time to walk a little farther, to ask locals where to go, and to find holes in the wall where, undoubtedly, the food will be 10 times better and 75 percent cheaper than those other joints. (Don’t quote me on it; experience it yourself.)

Do make sure that, no matter where you’re staying, there is a kitchen accessible to you. Nowadays, most hostels have a shared kitchen, and this is marvelous. Buy some groceries at the local market and get to cookin’! Even if you loathe the thought of preparing your own meal, if you’re on a budget and traveling really means that much to you, you’ll suck it up and eat at least one meal a day that you’ve cooked. It doesn’t matter if it’s oatmeal or veggie quiche. Making this sacrifice will allow you to eat that coveted meal at xyz restaurant, travel a little farther, or stay in Europe a few more days. In retrospect, that’s totally worth it- right?

These are a few essential tactics and resources that allowed me to travel throughout Europe on an extreme budget, get to know cultures I’d only dreamed (and day-dreamed of), and make my travel through (supposedly expensive) Europe a reality. If you do your research, and know how to get around, this continent doesn’t have to be as financially scary as I once thought it would be.

Happy travels, and let me know how your European adventure (on the cheap) goes!

Have you traveled through Europe on a budget? Is there anything I’ve forgotten to add here? I’d love to hear about your experience in the comments below!

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