You never really realize just how small Europe is until you find yourself in a whole other country, with its own language and culture, after a train ride of just 1 hour. Living in Europe and traveling so constantly has made me acutely aware of just how crazy big the United States really is. Seriously: most of Western Europe could fit into Texas alone.
The close proximity of all these countries provides a very seductive and nigh irresistible temptation to travel as constantly and as often as you possibly can. It makes it very easy to catch that unshakable Wanderlust bug, let me tell ya.
But how can you possibly travel as much as you’d like when airlines, hotels, and food are just so darn expensive? Well, during my travels (and through much trial and error), I’ve found several awesome ways to save big on traveling. So for those of you who are planning on seeing Europe on a dime, studying abroad, or just want to travel as much as they can with the money you have, pay close attention, this stuff will come in handy later!
1. Plane, Trains, and Buses – It’s really not that expensive!
There are so many options to use here, and many ways to get to where you wanna go! My methods of choice, for cities and countries sharing borders, are trains and buses.
I always look for trains first: they’re comfortable and fast, and if you book early enough, very very cheap. There’s almost always a discount for students and young adults under 27, and in some (like France), there’s a discount card you can buy in addition (50 euros for France’s Carte Jeune) that saves up to 60% on fares. For instance, from Lille, France, I could travel to Paris for under 40 euros, or to Bruges, Belgium for around 30 euros or less. Fares are also often less expensive to book in the middle of the week than on weekends (high-traffic times), especially Fridays and Sundays.
Buses make for a fantastic second option if you don’t mind a bit of a longer journey. Flixbus offers fares that starts at just $1 (Yes, a dollar!) all over Europe, the US, Canada, and other countries. Usually you must book far in ahead for such a great fare, but the most common price I’ve seen, even for booking just a week ahead of time, is around 10 euros each way. Other great sites include Isilines, Ouibus, and Flibco for airport shuttles. I was able to book a round-trip ticket to Amsterdam using Flixbus for just 20 euros. It’s definitely worth it! The buses are usually very comfortable, include free Wi-Fi, and bathrooms on board.
One somewhat less-used but still popular method of getting around is Bla-Bla Car: this is a site where people who are planning a trip can book up the extra seats in their cars. It’s a great way to meet people who are going to the same places as you, and it’s typically pretty cheap!
Don’t be daunted by the high sticker-prices associated with flying, there are plenty of websites airlines that provide super affordable flights for those trips that are simply too far to travel by train or bus. The first site I usually go to is SkyScanner.com, which I’ve mentioned in several of my other posts, and for good reason! SkyScanner gives you the option of searching “Everywhere” if you know that you want to fly but have no idea where you want to go, or want to find the cheapest location from your local airport!
In Europe, I frequently utilized Ryanair or GoVoyages. GoVoyages compares many different airlines and routes to provide you with the best one: however, GoVoyages is currently only available in French, German, Portuguese, Spanish, and Italian. While Ryanair may have more limited locations, their prices are unbeatable. For instance, I booked a flight to and from Italy for less than 50 euros using Ryanair! Some other great discount sites to check out are Jetcost and Kayak.
2. Accommodation: Where Will You Live?
So you’ve got your transportation, but what about when you get there? There are a ton of great options to check out, but some are a little out of the box!
Two websites you MUST add to your favorites bar: Hostelworld.com and Booking.com. I’ve found unbelievable deals on both that were hands down so much cheaper than anything else. If you’re concerned about bunking in an 8-person dormitory, have no fear: in my experience, usually the entire room isn’t even booked, the beds are pretty comfortable, and if you’re concerned about mixed dorms, there are almost always options for female or male only dorms.
One of the things I love about staying in hostels is the group experience: especially if you’re traveling alone, hostels make it easy to connect with other travelers for a day for free-spirited adventuring. Often, the hostels will organize exclusive free or discounted tours and activities for their guests, and include at least one meal, more often than not!
If you would prefer not to share a room, many hostels also offer private rooms that afford you all the amenities and group benefits of staying in a hostel, without having to deal with someone else’s snoring all night!
Another option is AirBnB. I’m sure you might have heard of it, and for good reason: its hosts are composed of people who lease out extra bedrooms, their homes/apartments, and even hostels or hotels! It’s sometimes even more affordable than a hostel, and you usually have more privacy as well.
Sometimes, when you book a flight, you can get a hostel or hotel at a great discounted price! Expedia.com and eDreams.com both offer this discount, as well as GoVoyages and most other airline sites.
Finally, if you’re willing to try it out, there is always couchsurfing: it is almost always free, and consists of people who are willing to host people looking to explore their city! I haven’t done it personally, but I’ve heard of many great experiences from it. There’s couchsurfing websites where people write reviews on their experiences with their hosts, so you can make an informed and safe decision about who to apply to for a stay. It’s a great way to get a guide to the city, sometimes free meals, and a free bed!
3. Food: Why is it Always so Expensive??
You might think that, if you want truly authentic food, you’re going to have to break the bank. That’s not always the case, however!
Cafes, bakeries, and grocery stores in Europe are typically super cheap and affordable, so you can save on smaller meals like breakfast and lunch by grabbing a baguette and an espresso at a cafe, and packing a sandwich for your lunch. Or, because dinner tends to be much more expensive than lunch, you could book housing with a kitchen, eat out for lunch (those midday menus are actually really great!), and then cook for yourself for dinner, especially if you have a big lunch.
And then, for students, there are almost always student menus (or formules, in France) that provide a set meal at a set price. For example, there’s a cafe here in Lille that offers a panini, a muffin or doughnut, a cold drink, and a coffee for only 5 euros at lunch!
Grocery stores here have such cheap food as well, including pre-packaged lunches that could save you on eating out. I get steaks regularly in Lille for less than 3 euros, and vegetables are also very affordable. They also have incredible pasta boxes for about 2.5 euros/box that you can heat in the store’s microwave, and I swear the taste will transport you to Italy!
In Europe, when you see the word “menu”, it often means a set meal with several courses included, and not just a list of the dishes like in the United States. So my best advice is to look for menus, cafes, and bakeries, as these generally provide the best, cheapest, and most local options for eating out.
4. Group tours and travel agencies
Want to travel but afraid of going solo? Luckily, there are various local travel sites that provide group excursions to various places across Europe (the one for Lille is called cicevoyages.com, although it looks like they’ve shut down because of COVID). One of my go-to group travel sites lately has been GetYourGuide. They have tons of excursions and tours for anyplace you could imagine, from camel rides in the Sahara to exploring the Navajo reservation at the Grand Canyon! Best of all, they have a no-strings-attached cancellation policy because of Covid, so you won’t be charged a fee if you have to cancel at the last minute!
And of course, AirBnB recently released a new feature on their site called AirBnB Experiences, which allows you to sign up for once-in-a-lifetime tours, classes, and experiences with locals in almost every major city in the world! Want to take a few wine tours in Rome? Or maybe you’d love to learn how to make French pastries with a master baker? Or perhaps you’d love to see the gorgeous palaces of Sintra, Portugal through a private tour with a local historian? AirBnB Experiences has you covered!
And of course, hostels are a great way to hook up with fellow travelers for local excursions in the city. One of the reasons I love LOVE staying in hostels is for this very reason – often, the tours are free, include exclusive access to certain parts of the city, and give you invaluable insights into the lives and culture of the city’s residents!
Some final thoughts
Hopefully, these tips will help you afford to travel everywhere your heart desires! Some final tips: look for local train rail lines, and not just on the big commercial sites. Rome2Rio is a great site for finding ways to get from A to B when you need to save money or you have to mix up your modes of transportation (i.e. taking a train and then a bus).
Feel free to comment if I missed anything, if you have any personal stories you’d like to share, or any additional travel hacks! In the meantime, be safe and travel with conscience.
Stay classy, and happy travels!