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How to plan a trip to Europe on a budget
Travelling to Europe is a dream for many Australians. The glossy ads for guided European tours are beyond the budget for many. It is still possible to plan a trip to Europe on a budget by researching and planning your own holiday.
Travelling Europe on a budget doesn’t have to mean backpacking and noodles for dinner.
Our travel budget would best be described as “moderate” and you could certainly travel even more cheaply than we do. We travel inexpensively, while still enjoying a few indulgences on our holiday.
We like to have some creature comforts when we travel, staying in self catering holiday accommodation, Bed & Breakfasts and moderate hotels. Travelling independently provides the opportunity to experience more of the local culture along the way.
You may find the thought of researching and booking your own trip to Europe daunting. Below we have outlined some steps and handy links to help you to research your trip and plan your itinerary .
We have also included some actual costings from our previous trips to give you an estimate to budget with.
So are you ready to start planning that dream holiday?……
This Lonely Planet Best of Europe travel guide available on Amazon was useful when planning our trip to Europe.
How to travel Europe on a budget
Before you start researching, keep these tips in mind while planning your itinerary.
- Some days we shop at the local markets and cook our own meals, other nights we treat ourselves to dinner at a local restaurant.
- Having a large lunch in a restaurant and then a home cooked meal at night is cheaper.
- Choose accommodation with breakfast provided. A large breakfast means you can have a lighter lunch.
- A bottle of French wine bought from the supermarket and sipped on a balcony overlooking the alps is around a quarter the price of a restaurant bottle and just as enjoyable. On our last trip to Burgundy, my brother in law slipped a $1.90 bottle of red from the corner store in with our winery purchases to see if we could tell the difference. We didn’t.
- Check out what discounts are available through your accommodation provider when you arrive. Even smaller “holiday lets” are members of local tourism groups offering discount cards on transport and attractions to their guests.
- Don’t underestimate the savings to be made with free Wifi. It is an important item on your list of inclusions when researching accommodation.
- Even if you are not self-catering, visit the supermarket and stock up on water, fruit and snacks to take on day trips and beer and wine to enjoy in the evenings.
- Booking and paying for as much as you can in advance means you know exactly how much you are going to spend and only have to allow for meals and incidentals once you get there.
Lonely Planet Europe on a shoestring available on Amazon has some great budget travel ideas for Europe
1. Set your travel budget.
The question “How much do I need for a trip to XYZ….?” is like asking “How long is a piece of string?”
Basically you need to work out how much you can afford to spend on your trip and budget around it. Your travel budget will largely determine your holiday.
It is however possible to save considerably when planning your trip to Europe so you can enjoy your dream holiday for much less than you might think.
- Budget your trip is a useful site providing you with estimates based upon other travellers’ experiences. The site provides you with options for low, midrange and high range budgets, taking into account accommodation, food, travel, and incidental expenses.
- To help you in planning your travel budget, we have also outlined our actual expenses for two weeks in France, Germany and Switzerland to give you an idea of costs.
- This cost of living comparison tool will also give you a good idea of basic costs in your chosen destination.
- Do over-estimate in your budget to allow for that must-have item from Paris, that extra glass of wine or unforseen expenses.
2. Booking your flights
Now you know how much you have to spend, it is time to research your flights. Your departure and arrival dates will define your itinerary.
- It can pay to be flexible with your dates, as you will be amazed at the cost savings to be had.
- Flying on a Tuesday for example, is often significantly cheaper than other days of the week.
- Even a few days either side of peak holiday times can make a huge difference in cost. We initially chose early June for our first trip as I don’t “do” freezing winter. However by changing our plans by a few weeks to May we were able to save around 30 per cent on our airfares.
- The flight savings from extending your travels even a few days either side of peak holiday times can sometimes make it cheaper to have a longer holiday. That couldn’t be right you say? Last trip we extended our trip five days either side of the peak holiday flights. We saved nearly $3000 in airfares and the accommodation for an extra 10 days was only around $1200, making it cheaper to stay for four and half weeks than three.
- : There are many websites where you can get great deals across numerous airlines and compare different airfares. Do look closely however at the cheaper fares. Do they include baggage? Meals? Can you cancel or re-book if necessary? These essential “extras” can quickly add up to make a cheap flight not so economical.
Compare flight times.
- : Look also at the number of legs in the journey ,layover times and total travel times. A 24 hour flight can be harrowing enough without adding in four plane changes and a 17 hour wait in an airport. This is all time that can be spent exploring Europe. We try to opt for only two legs for our flights to Europe.
Consider Arrival times:
- Take note of arrival times. Landing at 2am local time may be cheaper, but not the most convenient time to find transport to your first accommodation. We find arriving mid afternoon, getting to our hotel and having dinner and an early night is a good way to deal with jetlag.
- Keep time zones in mind when making your accommodation and transport bookings. You will gain a day on the way over and lose a day on the way back.
- You can save significantly on airfares by being flexible with your destination city. For example, last time we flew to Germany, it was cheaper to fly into Frankfurt than into Munich. Look out for cheap airline deals into Europe. Once you are there it is surprisingly cheap to travel between cities and even countries compared with Australian travel costs.
- Research the difference between Economy, Premium Economy and Business class. How much of your travel dollar do you really want to spend on the flight? Flying economy is the cheapest way to travel. However for a small extra fee, you can choose a seat with extra legroom.
Choosing a seat:
- Look carefully at the seat map when selecting a seat. A seat right next to the bathrooms, galley, or in front of the designated baby cot may not give you the added comfort you were hoping to achieve. A window seat may sound like an obvious choice. The reality is you have very little to look at during the flight, and potentially two other people to climb over every time you need to visit the bathroom. Travelling as a couple, we have found an aisle and middle seat in the centre is more comfortable and convenient. Seat Guru is a great site to help you choose your seat.
- Look out for package deals offered by airlines and travel companies. On our first trip to Europe, we were planning to fly to Berlin through London Heathrow. Qantas were offering 7 nights accommodation in London as part of a flight package for not much more than we were budgeting for flights, making adding a week in London to the start of our trip a no-brainer.
3. Researching your itinerary
Once you have your flights booked and you know your arrival and departure details, it’s time to start planning your itinerary.
- Transport: Firstly, how are you going to travel between destinations? Your four options will be bus, train, plane, or driving. Your choice will have an impact on your itinerary. Unless you are choosing a self-drive holiday, you will need easy access to airports or bus and train terminals from wherever you choose to stay.
- Consider distances: It can be more relaxing and enjoyable to spend more time in one place and see “more” of “less”. We will stay in one place for up to a week, taking day trips each day.
- Factor your travel time between destinations into your itinerary to give you plenty of time to explore. No point arriving at 4 in the afternoon as all the attractions are closing and having to leave at 9 the next morning.
- Book accommodation close to town. When self booking your accommodation, do consider the proximity to the places you want to visit. On the London leg of our trip for example, we could have booked considerably cheaper accommodation in the outer suburbs of London. However our Kensington hotel was within a five minute walk of both Earls Court and Gloucester tube stations and a few minutes ride to anywhere in central London. Well worth the extra cost
- Visit the local tourism websites, where you will find valuable information on transport, seasonal events, weather and local attractions. There is nothing worse than arriving at a “must see” attraction on Monday morning, only to find it is open Wednesday to Sunday, or closed for maintenance. Simply google “Visit…your chosen destination”
- We found Route Perfect was an excellent tool to help us with our itinerary planning.
- Lonely Planet Have a range of travel guides available on Amazon that you can thumb through, bookmark and plan your itinerary with.
3. Research your accommodation:
It would be easy just to book into the nearest hotel, but there are a range of accommodation options available that can help to stretch your travel budget further. Bed & Breakfasts, holiday rentals where you can self cater and smaller boutique hotels are all great accommodation options. Don’t totally discount hostels. Many hostels now offer private suites that are a great budget accommodation option. Home Exchange, house sitting and Air BNB are all options you could explore.
- Do research proximity to the attractions you wish to visit and also public transport options.
- Are there “additional night free” options?
- What is included? Breakfast? Wifi? Airport shuttle?
- Do you have to book for a minimum number of nights?
- What is the cancellation policy?
- Check out reviews on travel websites to read what other guests have had to say.
- Always confirm your bookings before you leave.
4. Organise transport between destinations:
Now your itinerary and accommodation are sorted, it’s time to look at your internal transport options.
Car Rental: Research a range of car rental providers to find the best option for you. Travelling in Europe, a smaller car is not only more economical on fuel, but easier to park and navigate narrow village streets.
When comparing prices, look at
- Pick up and drop off locations. Is it cheaper to pick up and drop off at the same location? Can you pick up at one airport and drop off at another? This can have an impact on your itinerary, as you may need to do a “round trip” rather than A to B.
- Insurances and excesses – before you pay additional “excess insurance”, check whether it is covered under your travel insurance. Check what excesses, insurances and deposit bond will be.
- Added extras, such as child seats and GPS can add to the cost. Make sure you include them in your comparisons.
- Mileage limits – additional mileage charges can quickly mount up. Unlimited mileage may seem more expensive in the comparison but can ultimately be cheaper.
- Whether you return the vehicle with a full or empty fuel tank. Opting for a “full tank” return means you can shop around for the cheapest fuel price, rather than the rental company charging you at “their rate” for fuel
- Is a breakdown service and replacement vehicle available?
- Once you collect your vehicle, do inspect carefully for any damage, even minor scratches before you drive away.
- Once you have chosen a vehicle, you will need to familiarise yourself with the local road rules and ensure that you have the correct licenses. Do you need an international drivers license to drive in your destination?
Train : Eurorail provides an extensive rail network across Europe, with discount passes available. You can pre-book and pay for your Eurail pass before you leave home
- Do research whether you are better off purchasing individual tickets or an overall pass, depending upon your itinerary.
- While your Eurail pass will allow you onto nto most trains, high speed and overnight trains do require a reservation
- “Couchette” or sleeper options on trains can be a cheap night’s accommodation between destinations.
- Do arrive at the station in plenty of time. International rail stations in Europe can be huge and very busy and it can take time to find the correct platform.
- If you do not have a Eurail pass, you may need to validate your tickets on the platform. Always worth checking at the ticket office to avoid a fine.
Bus: Travelling by bus can also be a great budget transport option.
Flixbus and Eurolines are two of the coach lines we have used when travelling in Europe. You can either pre-book before you leave home, or jump online and reserve a seat the day before if you don’t want to be too tied to an itinerary.
- You will need to show your passport each time you board the bus – something Australians are not familiar with.
- As with the trains, do get there early and check your departure terminal. It is not unusual for two half-full buses to be merged onto one bus at a different terminal, as happened to us in Prague!
Plane: While not the cheapest option, domestic plane services between cities are the quickest option if time is an issue.
- When booking your international flight, factor in internal flights when researching. For example a Qantas flight Sydney to Frankfurt was our cheapest option last trip. However, when you factored in two internal flights to Berlin and Munich, it was actually cheaper to fly Lufthansa with the internal flights included in the package than to book two separate German flights.
- If booking a budget airline, it is important to check for “extras”. Some airlines will charge you to sit together -even with children. Baggage may not be included, nor cancellation.
- Budget flights may land at smaller airports. The transport costs to the main town centre may negate the money you saved on the cheap flight.
Transfers: The cost of transfers to and from airports can quickly mount up, however you can save by checking:
- Does your accommodation have a free/cheap shuttle service?
- Is there a rail or bus service that may be included in your transport card?
- Is there a taxi shuttle service? In Berlin, for example, we found the E30 we spent on a taxi was worth avoiding the hassle of multiple trains to the airport.
5.Tours and Travel passes
So now everything is booked, what are you planning to see?
- Most cities offer visitor passes which provide pre-paid public transport and entry into attractions, such as the London Pass, Berlin Welcome Card , Swiss Pass and the Paris Pass These can be purchased before you leave home. Not only will they save you money, but will give you a much firmer idea of your expenses before you leave. Visit the tourism website for your destinations to research which is best for you
- Consider guided day tours. You can choose from group guided tours, coach tours, hop-on-hop-off tourist buses and day coach trips. When in London we chose a one day coach tour to Bath, Stonehenge and Windsor Castle. Not exactly cheap but a good investment in that we got to visit three big attractions out of London that we would not easily have accessed on our own. Researching and booking tours before you leave gives you the security of knowing how much you are spending.
6. The fine details
In the excitement of planning your holiday of a lifetime there are some fine details you need to attend to:
- Passports and visas. Most countries will require your passport to be valid for six months after your departure. Smart Traveller will provide you with up to date visa requirements for your chosen destination, as well as providing you with up to date travel alerts. You will also find important information on your destination, such as prohibited goods, dress requirements and other cultural issues you may need to know. While you are there, don’t forget to take a few moments to register your trip.
- Vaccinations. Check with your GP on vaccination requirements and ask for a copy of your health record in case of an unforseen emergency. A letter covering any medications you will be carrying is always a good idea at customs. At the very least a Fluvax is always a good idea, given that you will be in a confined space on a plane for at least 24 hours. Nothing worse than arriving at your dream destination with the ‘Flu.
- Copy documents. Leave a copy of your passports and original birth certificates etc with a friend or relative in case you need to replace your passport. Also keep a photo of them on your Iphone. Trust me on this – my children have taken passport loss to a professional level.
- Travel insurance. If you can’t afford travel insurance you can’t afford to travel. Many credit card providers offer free basic travel insurance. Be sure to compare these with the insurance offered by your travel provider, as this can save you several hundred dollars. Don’t be tempted by the cheapest offer – read the fine print to be sure what is covered. A medical emergency requiring you to be evacuated home can run into the tens of thousands of dollars if you are not covered.
- Money matters. How are you going to access your funds overseas? Travel Money Cards, which allow you to load multiple foreign currencies are a good option which help you to minimise the international transaction fees you will incur on your credit card and debit cards. Travellers cheques are no longer widely used and may not be accepted in your destination. Make sure you have internet banking access to your accounts before you leave. Purchase a small amount of local currency from your bank before you leave or use an ATM when you arrive. Airport currency exchanges will cost you dearly.
- Phone plan. Are you taking your phone overseas? Check with your carrier about the international roaming plans available. Simply turning your phone on when you get overseas will result in a costly bill shock when you return home. Prepaid international sims are also available, but these cannot be used on all phones – check with your provider.
- Packing. See what to pack in our separate posts. When choosing your luggage, take into consideration both your airline baggage limits and how you will be travelling when you get there. Navigating two large suitcases, two carry-ons, backpacks and handbags on and off buses and trains is not fun.
Hopefully the above has provided you with some helpful tips to planning an enjoyable European trip.
Germany – a 16 day itinerary
- Summer packing list for Europe
European Family Road Trip Itinerary
European Family Road Trip