Summer is a comin’ and that means you’re starting to plan that next big trip! Odds are that many of you will be jumping across the pond so I thought I would put together a list of my favorite resources for extending your budget just a little bit further. The power of the dollar is on the rise but Europe in general can still be a black hole for your money if you aren’t careful. Here is your Euro-budget playbook for your two biggest expenses: transportation and accommodation!
(I went ahead and summarized my favorites at the top so you can bookmark this page or copy and paste the links. Read further to get more information on additional sources.)
Top Picks: Quick Reference Guide
Rooms, Apartments, Houses
Free with Locals
Couchsurfing.org (hint: set up your profile before you go)
When I want to fly in Europe, this is my first stop. It is unbelievable the rates Skyscanner is able to scrape up that don’t even show up on any of the bigger engines’ radars. I’m not sure why Kayak and Google don’t include results from companies like Ryan Air and Wizz, but it seriously reduces my trust in their algorithms. Skyscanner also has the amazing ability to be extremely flexible and help you customize your search results to really suit your needs. That being said it is always good to verify your results directly with the airlines and compare against some of the other engines (you just never know).
Due to the risk of having to change or cancel reservations, I recommend always booking directly through the airline’s website (granted the rate is the same) to avoid having to pay two fees (from the middle man and airline). Here is a great resource for the amazing network of budget airlines that service the European continent and the countries they visit:
Additional tips can be found from the European master, Rick Steves. His passion and experience in Europe shows in his guide books and I highly recommend giving them a shot. As someone who typically opts for the Lonely Planet series, I thoroughly enjoyed Rick Steves for my European reading.
I know what you are thinking, “stranger danger!” Yes I am telling you to get in a car with people you don’t know and yes you will probably have to engage in conversation with them for the duration of your drive. This is an odd concept coming from the U.S. but in Europe it is considered normal and practical. I have a lot of personal experience with the first two sites and came across the third while researching more options. All work pretty similar. From personal experience I like the layout of carpooling.co.uk, the amount of available rides on blablacar.com and, from what I’ve seen, the worldwide availability of roadsharing.com. Just for an example of what kind of savings you can expect to achieve, I took a five hour rideshare from Berlin to Stuttgart for 20 Euros. The train was close to 120 Euro. That’s ridiculous. It was almost the same in trip duration, and I had the option to talk to the other travelers in the car or pass out in the backseat. In Europe, carsharing is an amazing resource in the sharing economy and is enjoyed by young and old, professionals and vagabonds alike.
Train and Bus
To try and generalize rules for trains and buses across the myriad of countries that comprise Europe would be silly and, frankly, irresponsible. Other than the fact that buses, with very rare exceptions, will ALWAYS be cheaper than trains, and that both can double as accommodation on over night trips, there are very few concrete rules I can give you that will apply 100% of the time under all circumstances and locations. Personally, I don’t use trains much because, though convenient, they can be quite expensive unless you just happen to catch a screaming deal. I recommend you look into resources specific to the countries you will be visiting, but I have linked to some great general resources to get you started.
I know, scary. You get a feeling of pure vulnerability as you cast yourself out into the unknown, standing on the sides of roads and gas stations… hoping, waiting. All the while cars are wizzing by; occupants feigning distraction to avoid making awkward eye contact with the destitute on the side of the road. All the while they are making excuses in their head as to why they couldn’t possibly pick you up. You smile awkwardly and try not to take each passive-aggressive ‘no’ personally, while constantly wondering ‘who’, ‘when’ and ‘if’ anyone is going to stop.
I’m not going to try and convince you that hitchhiking is the route you should take. There are a lot of factors that would need to be taken into consideration and, honestly, I’m not sure if there would be legal ramifications if I did and then something bad DID happen to you. Besides, I figure you’ve either got it or you don’t, and no random blog post is going to change that. You are better off reading a good travel book from an actual writer like “On the Road” by Jack Kerouac; a cult classic among travelers and vagabonds. If that shit can’t get you jazzed up about riding with strangers then, well, take the safe route. But if you are open to a potentially incredible experience here is a great place to start for tips and tricks on the matter:
Locally: local transportation
I hope that through your travels you discover that the journey is more important than the destination. You say you want to experience the culture and see daily life but then you take cabs and Ubers from point-to-point to all the tourist destinations, providing you with nothing more than a watered down, spoon-fed version of… ‘wherever’. This is like all of those people who say they want to get in shape, but avoid stairs and distant parking spots as if they may actually make them fatter. Don’t take short cuts. Enjoy getting lost in translation and maybe even lost literally, while saving more money for the things that matter, like that hole in the wall bakery you happened to stumble upon while en route.
Getting local transportation information is easy in this day and age. The odds are that your hostel or host can provide some insights on how to get around or you can always G.T.S.: Google That Shit! If all else fails stop by the tourist information centers and grab a map of local attractions, metro lines and bus routes. European cities are much more advanced than most American cities when it comes to public transportation and I assure you that you will figure it out in no time.
Even if Couchsurfing with a fun local were to cost the same as the nearby hostel, I would still opt for the couch… or floor… or whatever they had to offer. Simply put the intimate experience and local knowledge you can acquire from these opportunities is by far the number one benefit… even more than it being free! I have had some amazing Couchsurfing experiences on four continents and find that I would rather keep up with these new friends than people I grew up with (no offense childhood friends). It is and will continue to be my number one choice of accommodation when traveling, especially because where I spend my ‘sleeping’ hours is not nearly as important as where I spend my ‘waking’ hours. And I’ll have a lot more money to enjoy my ‘waking’ hours by sharing a place, moment and conversation with a new friend. If this thought is still scary for you, then check out this link on Couchsurfing, safety and not ‘being a baby’.
The following links are organizations that embody the same principles as Couchsurfing, though I cannot personally vouch for any of them. That being said, they will only be as good as the people on them, so make sure and do your research. Couchsurfing doesn’t always work out so it is nice to have some backup opportunities.
Warmshowers (‘Geared’ towards touring cyclists)
Global Freeloaders (I feel obligated to mention this site since it is an OG… but I don’t like it.)
Hospitality Club (See above ^)
I’ve never done this but believe me I’m going to give it a shot! These three sites specialize in connecting you with long-term house sitting opportunities. That’s right, you get to LIVE in someone’s house in another country. Just make sure you don’t kill their pets or your first house may be your last.
Unfortunately I don’t own a house with which to do this, but if you do and are looking for a getaway (and aren’t weirded out by the thought of strangers in your home… hypocrite) then this could be a great opportunity. Who knows, maybe the movie The Holiday will come true and you will find true love in your host’s home city.
Still can’t find a free place to stay? Pinching every last penny? There are always airports, bus stations, beaches and wooded areas. Now you are really roughing it!
Odds are if you are backpacking on a budget you will go for the hostel route. It is convenient, cheap, and it gives you that security of planning far in advance. It is also an excellent way to meet other travelers who could possibly become lifelong friends and provide insights into local hotspots or other travel destinations. In Europe, however, they can still get pretty spendy… or maybe that’s just because South America and SE Asia have spoiled me. But if you want to keep your finger on the pulse of the backpacking circuit, make new friends and save a helluva lot more money than you would by staying at hotels, this is the way to go. I use hostelworld.com pretty exclusively just out of habit and because I rarely have a problem finding a place in their extensive directory, but don’t believe that it is the only hostel booking website. Check out the number of listings, fees, and user interfaces of these sights before you get tunnel vision like me.
You don’t like the idea of sharing a ‘dorm’ with 6-20 other people? You need more privacy or more options than are attainable in the hostel world? Then welcome to the shared economy. Still a better bet than hotels, cheap finds to exist and if your budget (and sense of what’s important on a trip) is different than mine, you can find some really cool shit on these. I’m a big fan of the ‘shared economy’ concept and would much rather give my money to a localpreneur than a multinational chain. AirBnB is obviously the most popular site for this out there but other super budget options exist like Camp In My Garden, Rent a Sofa and Homestay International (basically paid versions of Couchsurfing which may, somehow, make them seem more legitimate). When I’m in backpacker mode I would much prefer to opt for the last three but if you are ‘in-between’ a backpacker and ‘vacationist’, you will probably want to stick with the big dog: AirBnB.
So far the options above are targeted at more short-term stays for people moving from place to place. If you are looking to really get to know a place and stay for a few months, you can check classifieds and local websites for listings, or hopefully find something on one of these two sites. Both were designed for the Erasmus student or other floating Europeans who are either studying abroad or doing an internship. They seek to simplify the renting process by streamlining it and putting it online. No need for meeting landlords or scheduling a walk-through. One last place to search is for university housing in your preferred city. Typically you can get a room or shared living space for under 200 Euros a month even if you are not a student at the university!
Why stay in one place and spend all your money. Find a job, make friends and find home away from home. I wrote a whole blog post on this, which you can find here:
Hopefully by now I have opened your eyes to some possibilities that you didn’t even know existed! There are so many different tools at your disposal for extending your trip and saving money while traveling in Europe. This buffet should help you customize your trip according to your travel preferences. And of course, if I did miss anything notable then please let me know in the comments below!