How to Travel Across Europe When You’re Totally Broke
Despite the fact that my hubby and I haven’t even finished unpacking from our last trip, I haven’t been able to stop dreaming about visiting Europe. My husband has never been to Europe, and I’d love to give him the 20 somethings European adventure he’s never had yet. The only problem is, it’s hard not to feel too broke to travel sometimes. Life can get in the way, and even when my e-mail inbox lights up with a fare sale that seems to incredible to pass up as it did this morning, the extra costs associated with travel can quickly add up and make travel seem impossible.
But after a disparaging few minutes, I started crunching the numbers, digging into some research, and falling back on old habits that have allowed us to travel before when we only had pennies to our name. I realized that it is possible to travel across Europe, even when you feel completely broke. So if you, like my hubby and I, are ready to book that flight for the trip of a lifetime, get ready to discover just how affordable traveling across Europe can be.
Find a Cheap Flight
The biggest obstacle of traveling across Europe is often buying the initial plane ticket to Europe. Check out our list of 25 ways to score cheap plane tickets to help cut down on the cost of your flight to and from Europe, which can really help cheapen the overall cost of your trip.
Go At the Right Time and Find Alternative Accommodations
No matter where in the world you go, traveling off season is usually a great way to save money right off the bat. Fares are cheaper, hostels and hotels are cheaper, and while some activities may have restricted hours, they also can offer cheaper entrance fees. Try to avoid traveling during holidays and over peak vacation times, like during the summer months.
If you’re totally broke but still able to travel through Europe, abandon now the idea of posh chain hotels and standard amenities. While you can find somewhat luxurious digs for cheap if you know where to look, if you’re really broke you are going to need to adjust your expectations and being willing to have a great sense of adventure- and humor. But just because they’re cheaper doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll be sleeping on a cot.
For instance, Airbnb lists everything from a tent in someone’s backyard to a private houseboat or apartment above a garage. And speaking of tents, camping is a great and often free way to visit Europe. Many countries and areas in Europe allow you to even pitch a tent on the side of the road and camp for free.
Other places have designated campgrounds, but off season prices are very cheap and sometimes even free as well, although certain amenities like bathrooms and showers might be closed. If you’re in a rural area, you may be able to ask farmers and other locals if you can pitch a tent in their yard overnight in exchange for a few dollars.
Campinmygarden is a great network that helps you connect with homeowners who are willing to let you use their yard as a home for your tent. There are plenty of more networking opportunities for alternative accommodation sites online as well. Homestay is similar to Airbnb, except you pay in full when you get there, and instead of staying at an empty place, you have the benefit of living with locals and being able to really interact with the people of that country.
If you have a great place at home with an extra room or couch, Night swapping allows users to trade nights for future credits toward free stays. So if you let someone stay in your extra room or couch for a few nights for free, you’ll earn a few nights of free stay at someone else’s home. It’s a great way to not spend a dime on housing while traveling, and you get to help out some fellow travelers as well. If you’re traveling during term breaks, University rooms allows you to stay in vacant dorm rooms for just a few euros a night.
While the rooms are sparse and you might find yourself having horrible school flashbacks, the universities and colleges tend to be located right in the heart of the cities, which gives you a great location for only a tenth of the price as the hotel down the street.
Visit the Right Countries in Europe
When it comes to housing, what will get you a couch in England will often buy you a private mansion in Bulgaria. This is generally true for other elements as well, such as food, tickets, etc. So if you’re truly broke, try to visit more of Eastern Europe than Western Europe. Head for countries that are more off the radar and less touristy. Instead of France or England, trying thinking Ukraine, Romania, Poland, etc.
Just because it doesn’t feature the Eiffel Tower doesn’t mean it isn’t Europe. Plus, you’ll be more likely to escape the usual tourist crowds, which is always a win!
Work for Your Accommodation in Europe
Room and board can be one of the most expensive elements of traveling Europe, with hostels and hotels running anywhere from $10 upwards to $250 a night. If you’re truly broke and can’t even afford a few euros for a night’s stay in a cheap hostel, there are several ways to earn free housing while traveling around Europe. Housesitting can be quite lucrative, not only giving you a free place to stay but often times give you some extra pay as well.
When homeowners go on vacation or are out of town, they pay housesitters to take care of watering plants, feeding and exercising pets, and helping to deter robbers. Housesitting can be a great gig, but it’s pretty hard to get into and you have to have plenty of references and be a good, solid citizen with no criminal background or record.
If you do want to get into house-sitting, there are several organizations and websites where you can sign up to be a member and become listed on the website. Since previous experience is usually needed, start by asking friends and advertising locally to house sit for free. World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms, or WWOOF, is a network that reaches across the globe, and has a huge presence in every corner of Europe.
For anywhere from several days to several months, you can work on an organic farm for several hours a day, and are paid in free room and board on the farm. You’ll have to pay a subscription fee to join in the WWOOF network, but you’ll only be working up to 6 hours a day, which still gives you plenty of time each day for traveling around the area.
Travel While You Sleep
Travel costs and accommodation costs are the two biggest expenses you will occur while traveling, so the more you can multi-task and kill two birds with one stone, the better. If you have a long distance to travel, take the train late and night and combine sleeping with traveling.
While you can upgrade to a sleep train, you can just as easily sleep in your seat and skip having to pay for a place to sleep that night. Traveling like this also gives you more free time to explore, and the early hours are a great time to explore the city.
If you’re going to sleep on the train, make sure you are wearing comfortable clothes like sweats or yoga pants. If you don’t have a blanket, use a large sweatshirt or coat as a makeshift blanket. I like to put my bag under my legs to help me feel like I’m on a bed, and make it harder for people to steal my stuff.
However, if you’re going to be too tired to enjoy the next place you visit, or you’re going to spend the equivalent of a couchette on caffeine the next day just to stay awake, it might be cheaper just to find a cheap place to stay and travel during the day, or spring the extra money for a sleeping berth on the train.
Take Advantage of Being a Tourist
The truth is, you’re not a local, but being a stranger in a foreign town can have big dividends. Take a bit of pride in being a visitor and hit up every tourist welcome center in every city you visit. Many of these tourist information booths are located at train stations and airports, or other areas that are easily accessible to out of towners.
There’s usually stacks of brochures offering plenty of discounts or coupons, and many have city wide passes that include discounted entry to the city’s main attractions and even free transportation on public rails or city buses. The information booths usually have plenty of maps as well, and coupons for restaurants and other stores in town, as well as resources on finding free events and no-cost admission attractions.
Use Alternative Transportation or Bring Your Bike
Bicycling around Europe is a cost free way to travel that’s faster than walking but nearly just as mobile. You can easily bring your bike onboard trains and buses if needed, or you can simply hop on and bike from town to town to both stay in shape and help cut down on spending. Besides just saving on daily transportation costs, biking can also help you save on accommodation as well.
Warmshowers is a networking sight much like Couchsurfing, but for just for cyclists. The goal of the site is to help network traveling cyclists with free places to stay overnight. Stays are free, with the goal being cultural exchange and friendship between bike enthusiasts rather than financial gain. Accommodation may vary from an actual room to a place to throw up a tent, but the price is well worth roughing it.
And as great as the Eurorail system can be, there are plenty of alternative methods of transportation that can be even cheaper than buying a rail pass or ticket. Ridesharing is becoming increasingly popular across Europe, and is relatively safe and common in many areas of Western Europe. Blablacar helps people in need of a ride find drivers who are heading along the same route, similar to hitchhiking but on-line and ahead of time. Speaking of which, hitchhiking can be a completely free alternative method to traveling. Use hitchhiking etiquette, follow the local protocol and don’t be stupid, and you should be able to survive the experience. Hitchhiking is a lot safer as a pair rather than solo, so if you’re traveling with a friend or in a small group, this is a great way to get around for free.
Buses are often overlooked to the Eurorail experience, but if you have extra time you can usually end up at the same place for about half the price only a few hours later. National Express, Megabus, and the Simple Express are great choices; seats often only cost a few Euros and the service is fairly reliable.
Go off Grid and Eat at the Right Time And Place
Trying to grab some internet time at a hostel or cafe can get quickly add up to be one of the most expensive parts of your trip. If you’re truly broke, consider going completely off grid. You can upload your Instagram pics later, and in the meantime you’ll actually spend more time enjoying Europe rather than posting about it on Social Media. Save that for when you’re back home and wallowing and need to re-live the memories.
The best, and cheapest way to survive a European trip on a penny budget is to buy groceries from a grocery store. A loaf of bread and some peanut butter is a great way to keep from running on empty for just a few Euros. Try to buy food that travels well without spoiling quickly, like apples or crackers. To switch things up and still get to experience some of Europe’s cuisine, try buying some staples at the grocery store but outfit the rest with local finds.
For instance, buy bread from a local bakery in Italy, or sausage and cheese from street vendors, but crackers from the grocery store. Some countries offer great street food that may not be completely filling but work as a lighter meal that you can fill in the gaps with other food. For instance, a bowl of roasted vegetables off the street in Prague or currywurst in Germany will only cost you 1 euro per serving; while they aren’t filling, they can easily be rounded out with a piece of fruit or piece of bread for a fuller meal. If you’re going to go out to eat at a restaurant, time your dinner around happy hour.
You’ll be able to eat the same food for about half the price, and there’s less likely to be a wait for a table. Again, the cheaper countries you visit, the more food you’ll be able to afford, but eating during happy hour is a universal way to at least slash the bill a bit.
Bring Money With You and Plan Around Free Events
The easiest way to get ripped off without setting foot in the country is to exchange money at the airport. Exchange rates are never the best deal at the airport, and the fees are astronomical; exchanging money at the airport to local currency is the fastest way to completely empty your wallet. In general, the further away from the airport you get, the better exchange rate you’ll find. ATMs can also charge a high surcharge fee for withdrawing cash.
The best way to travel with cash is to withdraw cash from your bank at home, and then exchange it once you get out of the airport. Use your credit card or debit card to get you away from the airport, and then change over to Euros or other currencies.
Meanwhile, it’s no fun going to a place if you can’t do anything there. So if you’ve got an open itinerary, plan around free admission dates so you can still come back with memories of European museums, concerts, and festivals without any of the financial regret. For example, museums in the United Kingdom that are run by the state are completely free and never charge admission. Paris’ museums are free the first Sunday of every month.
Research each city you’re going to visit; many museums offer free admission on certain days of the week or for the last few hours throughout the week. While free outdoor summer concerts are easier to find during the summer months, you can still enjoy free music throughout the rest of the year at different universities and colleges that have a music department.
Many cities also offer free outdoor film festivals, free local festivals, and free music venues throughout the year. The key is to research and plan your trip around the free admission, events and times, rather than trying to cram in things around your day. That way you’ll be able to enjoy events all throughout Europe without spending money because you ended up in Berlin a day early.
Other things you might want to consider having money
Rent Out Your House. If you’re going to be gone for a while, consider renting out your place while you are gone to help offset the cost. If you live in a desirable enough place, you could even make enough from sub-letting to completely cover your trip. When we lived in San Diego, you could easily rent out a room for two weeks and cover a month long trip across Europe with the same money. If you can’t get a permanent long term renter who will stay in your place the entire time, you can enlist a friend to help rent it out for a day or two at a time through sites like Vrbo.com or Airbnb.com.
Give them a share of the the profits in exchange for helping you out; you won’t make as much, but it’s a good way to help give you some extra breathing room in your travel budget.
Win a Contest. This is about on par with hoping to win the lottery, but a lot of times you can enter drawings for free vacations or discounted trips through airlines, cruises, and other travel industry companies. The next time you fly, page through those magazines tucked into the airplane seat in front of you; a lot of the time there will be advertisements for drawings for free flights, sponsored vacations, and discounted tickets.
You can also do a quick google search and see if you can find any legitimate giveaways that include free hotel stays in Europe or flights around the continent.
Plan a Trip For Others. If you’re already planning a trip for yourself across Europe, try altering your plan for a group trip instead and join as a group tour leader! Tour leaders often travel for free, all for the price of planning an itinerary and travel details for 10-20 people. If you are the kind of person who likes traveling and planning anyway, this can be a great way to do so for free and enjoy helping other people experience the same love of travel that you do.
You don’t have to knowledgeable about the city itself, as you’ll be in charge of doing more of the logistics side of things. In all honesty, traveling across Europe doesn’t have to be expensive; it can be as cheap as you want, even completely free, if you do it right. The key is really in planning and preparation; these two elements will stretch your budget further than anything else.
Buy in Bulk. If you’re going to be traveling across Europe, you’ll be spending a lot of your time utilizing trains, buses, and other forms of public transportation. I’m a huge fan of the Eurorail system in Europe; it makes getting around Europe incredibly hassle free and perfect for traveling without a set schedule. Instead of buying your tickets individually or even on the day of, considering buying a pass for a length of time or a pass for a group of countries.
In the long run, it’s often cheaper to buy the bulk pass rather than buying each ticket individually, and you can travel as much as you like within that parameter.
If you need additional help and resources to plan your trip across Europe, head to Trekeffect and get ready for the trip of the lifetime!
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