This guest post on frugal European travel is written by my friend Rick, who has been living in Italy for over a year on a shoestring budget. You can read more about his adventures at his blog: Over a Bottle.
The falling dollar can make overseas travel seem rather daunting these days.
But with careful planning, flexibility and doing some research, you can still have that great cultural European vacation on the cheap.
Plan your vacation carefully. Research what you want to see and plan daily schedules.
Prioritize what you’d like to fit into your trip. Remember not to overbook yourself. You don’t want to be rushing from one sight to the next and not get a chance to enjoy what you’re seeing. Try to book major tourist attractions in advance whenever possible: instead of waiting 2 hours outside the Accademia in Florence to see Michelangelo’s ‘David’, book your tickets by phone and laugh at the suckers waiting in line. Also, go to cities’ tourism pages for announcements of free shows and exhibitions that might be of interest to you.
When booking a place to stay, do plenty of research so you are not surprised when you arrive at your hotel. Remember when you read hotel reviews online, you’re reading one person’s opinion and their tastes and expectations may be different from yours. Hostels provide safe and cheap accommodation for travelers of all ages and offer the chance to connect with other travelers. If it is cost effective for your budget and you are staying in one place for a week or longer, you may consider renting a short term apartment in a good location. For small groups, the savings of splitting an apartment can add up and there are no lock-out times as with some hostels.
Hostels and apartments can provide you with added savings on food. Being able to cook for yourself, though not as romantic as a 5 star Michelin rated restaurant, can help you save enough money to afford that expensive souvenir or extra museum pass you wanted. If you aren’t able to cook for yourself and must stay in a hotel, never get the breakfast that is included. Going to a nearby bar or café for a coffee and croissant can easily save you 4-5 euros every day and will help you practice your language skills and interact with locals.
While traveling among EU cities, a Eurail pass can be a time and money saver. Again, do your research to make sure you will actually be saving money on your Eurail pass. Most national rail systems have online scheduling and post their fares. For long hauls, low cost airlines such as RyanAir or EasyJet post fares in advance for as little as 1 euro. In metropolitan cities, buy a local rail pass for 3-7 days, where available, if you are doing a lot of traveling around a city. Or, if you’re adventurous and want some exercise, walk between sights. The extra sightseeing will sometimes pay off. A 30 minute walk in an unfamiliar city can sometimes provide you with the most unforgettable sights and experiences.
Perhaps the biggest money saving trick is to be flexible with your plane tickets. If you can book far in advance, early in the morning, or on low-travel days such as Tuesday and Wednesday, you can sometimes save hundreds of dollars. Websites such as Kayak, Sidestep, TravelZoo, and 1-800-Fly-Europe sometimes post specials that most travelers will never see. There are more travel websites than Expedia and Orbitz.
Finally, you can turn your vacation into a learning experience by volunteering at an organic farm in Europe. For the small membership fee of 25 euros, WWOOF provides volunteers with lists of farms around Europe that are looking for volunteers to help with a variety of tasks.
Both parties almost always have unforgettable learning and cultural exchanges. Sometimes, for the price of an airline and train ticket (you are not asked to pay room/board/food), you can experience what organic farming is all about. My WWOOF experience brought me to a lovely small Tuscan vineyard where I helped in almost every step of wine-producing, from picking grapes to bottling wine.