When my mom told me we were going to Brussels, my first thought was, “I can’t afford to get me AND my girlfriend to Europe. Even if I was able to, we would spend all of our time tagging along with my family.” So our original plan was to spend about a week or two in Brussels for my grandfather’s birthday, then head back home to the States. I told my girlfriend that we would come back to Europe when we both had full-time jobs and can afford it…
HAHAHA, I was so naive. It was actually my mom that had open my eyes to how cheap travel around Europe can be. I told her my plan to only stick around for a week or two and she told me, “You are going to Europe. You HAVE to explore!” Naturally curious, I started looking up flights and hotel prices. WOW! A flight from Brussels to Berlin for $12! A flight from Berlin to Paris for $25! WOWOW. Lodging was a different story but luckily I had a couple of new credit cards to help me out with that ;).
Enough with the exposition, let’s get down to business. If you are new to travel, especially international travel, everything can seem daunting. Not only that, but you just naturally assume that traveling around Europe would be pricey (I know I did). So here are some travel tips to help make your European vacation a more frugal one:
- Getting to Europe
- This will probably be the largest expense. Coming from the center of the US, a flight to Brussels costs ~$1200 for peak summer season. If you live on the East coast (especially New York, Boston, Washington DC, Philadelphia) you will see prices that are almost half of what I had found. I’ve seen Boston/NY to Dublin for around $500 and Miami to Copenhagen for around $400.
- So if you DON’T live on the East Coast, what’s the best/cheapest way to get to Europe? MILES!! I’ll let you do the research yourself, but a RT flight to Europe will usually run you about 60,000 miles during high season. You can get these miles if you’re a frequent traveler or from credit card bonuses/spending.
- If you’re trying to save as much money as you can but don’t have the miles, there’s another way; fly to the cheapest European city with one airline then use a budget European airline to get to your final destination. For example, if I wanted to, I could’ve flown RT to Dublin for $750 with Aer Lingus then take a $30 Ryanair flight to get to Brussels. As you can see, that’s a savings of over $400. I typically would not recommend this for several reasons; Ryanair only allows a free carry-on and personal item, you’ll have to pay extra for a checked bag. Also, you have to make sure your flights/arrivals are perfectly aligned. If my return flight from Brussels to Dublin via Ryanair was delayed and it caused me to miss my Aer Lingus flight back to the US, then Aer Lingus would not be held responsible. **Only do this if you are traveling light and plan on staying at your “connecting city” for some time.**
- You’re in Europe! Where are you going to stay?
- You always hear about people “backpacking” around Europe after college before they start their jobs. How can they afford lodging in expensive cities? Normally the answer would be HOSTELS. I personally would not mind staying at a hostel but my girlfriend did not like the idea. In any case, hostels are a great/cheap option for the young traveler. They are cheaper than hotels and offer a community of travelers from all parts of the world. Since I don’t have any experiences yet in a hostel, I will refrain from commenting more about it.
- Another great budget option would be to use AirBNB. My family and I went to Venice but could not afford a hotel anywhere. So we booked an apartment right in the heart of Venice and saved hundreds of dollars. As they like to advertise, AirBNB makes you feel like you’re actually LIVING in the city. Whether you rent a private room or a whole apartment, you will feel like a local and that should only enhance your travel experience.
- Now if you REALLY want to stay in a hotel, there are ways to do so for cheaper. I am a huge fan of Hotwire and Priceline because they offer unpublished “secret”rates. The websites give you a lower-than-normal price but they don’t tell you the name of the hotel. They give you information like the general location, whether the hotel has good ratings, and amenities offered. Otherwise, you don’t really know what you’re getting into. If I am in an unfamiliar place, I try to stay away from this method as the hotel could end up being far away from the subway or could be in a dodgy area. You obviously can also get some cheap (or free) hotel stays with hotel points. Hilton, IHG, and Marriott all have a strong presence in Europe. The AMEX Hilton came with a 75,000 point bonus and gave me discounted hotels in London which would have cost nearly $1000 for 3 nights. I ended up paying $160 via the “points and money” method and also got free room upgrades and free breakfast thanks to my Diamond status.
- You are in Europe. You have a place to stay. But trust me, you shouldn’t stay in one place. Travel around Europe is incredibly affordable!
- Flying: Ryanair, Easyjet, Eurowings, and Wizz Air are all budget airlines (that I know of) that serve the EU. How these airlines work is that you pay for your FLIGHT up front and EVERYTHING ELSE is extra (for example; picking your seat, checking a bag, and snacks/beverages). Also, you know those jet bridges that you are accustomed to using to get you from your gate to your airplane? You don’t use those with these airlines. Instead you get to bask in the European air as you walk on the tarmac to your plane. It is completely up to you what you need your flight experience to be like but just keep in mind that many flights are just a few hours long and these airplanes are reasonably comfortable. Due to the barebones nature of the fare and the fact that many European countries are “Schengen countries“, you will be able to find fares as cheap as $7 one-way. Now to compare these airlines! I have used Ryanair and Easyjet so I can offer my experiences on both. If you look at both airlines, they are almost identical. People tend to prefer Easyjet due to the comfier seats (which I agree are comfy), but I actually prefer Ryanair because they allow you to bring a cabin bag/carry-on AND a personal item to fit under the seat with their lowest fare while Easyjet does not allow that extra personal item unless you purchase a slightly more expensive fare. When it comes to baggage policy, the worst of these airlines is Wizz Air. You get one personal item to fit under your seat and you have to pay for a carry-on. Not cool!
- Bus: Another über cheap option for transport around Europe. I did not get a chance to use a bus because when airfares are so cheap, why spend 8+ hours on a bus? However, if you can’t find cheap airfare or train fares, then buses are still a solid option. I was looking for one-way fares from Paris to Brussels, but only found flights $100+ per person. When I searched on the Ouibus website, I found bus fares from $20. I have heard that Greyhound experiences in the US are less than optimal but long-haul buses in Europe are apparently much better and frequently used by backpackers.
- Trains: I love the train system in Europe. It might be one of my top 5 favorite things about traveling the continent this past summer. In Belgium, I was able to travel from Durbuy to Brussels for $7 per person via the Go Pass 1 for travelers under 26 years of age. I then spent a night at a hotel in Brussels Midi-Zuid station and used the Eurostar to travel to London the next day for $100 per person roundtrip. Yes this is a lot steeper than paying for a Ryanair flight, but unfortunately we didn’t have a choice at the time. Still, I loved our experience on the Eurostar! The trip was comfortable, quick, and they have a much more lenient baggage policy than any major airline! If it was cheaper to travel by train, there’s no question that I would have exclusively used this method.
- One last thing: As I mentioned before, many EU countries take part in the Schengen Agreement. This basically means that those 26 Schengen countries act sort of like one country. This was a complete surprise to me when I traveled. So what does this mean for you? The cheaper fares, obviously! But ALSO you don’t have to go through customs/immigration every single time you enter a new Schengen country. I visited 7 countries this summer and the only times I had to go through the lengthy customs/immigration process was when I first arrived in Europe from the US, when I first arrived in the US from Europe, and when I took the Eurostar to London.
Hopefully this will help at least one person! I probably won’t be posting too many things like this anymore since I currently have a non-existent viewership. At least for the next few posts, I will be chronicling some “Trip Reports” from this past year. Thanks for reading!!