Whether it’s a gap year before college or a summertime sabbatical, there’s little a notion more romantic than backpacking across Europe. But between new visa laws, the introduction of the euro, and rising prices in general, this ultimate dream of long-term travel isn’t as easy as it was in the ‘60s. Most backpackers these days have taken to less expensive areas like Southeast Asia and Central America, but if you have your heart set on the European trips of yore, a little extra elbow grease will take you a long way.
Planning Your Route
One of the most important things to consider in planning a long-term trip through Europe is your tourist visa. Many countries in the European Union (EU) and European Free Trade Association (EFTA) are also part of the Schengen Area, a group of nations that’s done away with internal border control. In some ways, this makes travel between European countries easier. You can pass from Spain to France to Germany without having to purchase a visa or even show your passport. But this lack of border control comes with a catch: travelers can only spend 90 days in the Schengen Area, making those six-month backpacking trips from back in the day a virtual impossibility. If you want to spend more than three months on your journey, make sure you alternate 90-day periods in the Schengen Area with 90-day periods elsewhere.
Schengen participating countries include Iceland, Spain, Portugal, France, Italy, Malta, Switzerland, Luxembourg, Belgium, Netherlands, Germany, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Austria, Hungary, Slovenia, and Greece.
The United Kingdom, Ireland, Romania, Bulgaria, and Cyprus are EU member states, but have opted out of the Schengen Area for the time being. You can also travel without Schengen restrictions in Russia, Belarus, Ukraine, Moldova, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, Montenegro, Macedonia, Albania, and Turkey; but remember, these countries all have traditional border controls, so do your due diligence and make sure you have all necessary visas for travel outside of the Schengen Area.
No matter how much you scrimp and save on the ground, airfare is a pretty serious fixed cost in your budget. Many travelers don’t think twice about booking an easy and convenient nonstop flight with a major commercial airline, but there are so many other choices for lower-cost travel. You’ll be surprised how just a little extra effort pays off with big savings.
To score a good deal on a flight, flexibility will be your best friend. Skyscanner has handy tools you won’t find on any other search engine that can help you save big on airfare. Don’t nail yourself down to an exact departure date. Skyscanner will allow you to search an entire month, or even an entire year for the cheapest fares possible. If you’re open to planning your route around your budget, you can even search for a flight to “Everywhere,” and get a broken down list of the cheapest fares around the globe.
Fly on a budget airline
For most Americans, “budget airline” is a completely foreign concept, along the oxymoronic lines of “virtual reality” or “Microsoft Works.” But if you’re willing to give up the bells and whistles of more luxurious carriers, your airfare costs could plummet. WOW Air offers round-trip airfare from Washington D.C. or Boston to Reykjavik for as low as $300. Once you’re in Iceland, you’ll find plenty of low cost flights to other European destinations, like London and Amsterdam.
Always arrive in a major city
There’s a lot to be said for Europe’s nooks and crannies. The medieval villages in Aveyron, France and the miniscule hamlets of Germany’s Black Forest are all universally charming. But don’t book a direct flight to a small town without first checking the cost of an overland ticket, particularly when it comes to your first stop. Large international airports, as in London or Paris, that handle more flights can translate the higher variety of options into lower airfares. Landing in a larger metropolis and then taking a train or bus to get to your final destination could save you a great deal on transportation. As an example, depending on your exact travel dates, a direct flight from New York to Edinburgh costs over $1,400, even in the off season. But a nonstop flight from New York to London on budget carrier Norwegian Air Shuttle on the same date is less than $200. From there a budget flight to Edinburgh is just $25 more. That’s well over $1,000 in savings, just by starting your trip in London instead of Scotland.
Become a frequent flier
Free flights may sound too good to be true, but that’s just what you’ll earn if you use a frequent flier credit card wisely. Sign up with Chase or Citibank for a branded credit card that will help you earn miles on an airline’s frequent flier program. Choose a card with a large sign-up bonus, so you can earn your free flight in just a few months. Watch your spending carefully and pay the full balance on the card each month, to keep your credit score from suffering. Want even more bang for your buck? Get the Barclaycard Arrival Plus World Elite Mastercard which offers a huge signup bonus and two miles earned per dollar spent. You’ll earn miles faster and you’ll be able to use miles to reimburse yourself for any flight and any hotel stay, instead of being tied to one airline. For more tips on using frequent flier credit cards, read our handy guide.
Like all your other budgeting tricks, saving hundreds of dollars on airfare does mean giving up a few bells and whistles, but a few hours of discomfort could give you much more time in your destination, which is what really counts.
Stay flexible on the road too. Just like long-haul flights, quick hops from country to country can vary in price from day to day. Budget airlines like RyanAir can help keep your internal transportation costs low, but read the fine print carefully and know what perks you’ll be giving up. Most budget carriers charge extra for checking bags and require fliers to print their own boarding passes ahead of time.
If you aren’t interested in keeping your eyes peeled for hidden fees, traveling overland is just as easy and budget friendly. As an added bonus, traveling by bus and train will show you corners of Europe you haven’t imagined. A Global Eurail pass will give you the stability of a reserved ticket and the flexibility to go wherever you want, whenever you want, but you’ll save more by purchasing rides a la carte.
Rome2Rio and its corresponding app FetchMyWay are your best tools for finding your way from point A to point B, as they quickly calculate all the possible routes you could take and break them down by price and duration.
Finding Cheap Accommodations
The hostel has long been the darling of the backpacker world, and you should certainly stay in at least one on your trip. Not only are they budget-friendly, but the social atmosphere of hostels is what makes them an unforgettable rite of passage. Some hostels even have private rooms available, so you can take advantage of the establishment’s amenities, like communal living areas and specially organized group tours, without sleeping in a 20-bed dorm.
If you’re really on a shoestring budget, you can save even more on accommodations, though. Couchsurfing allows travelers to find local hosts to crash with, giving you a free place to stay and a special look at your destination’s culture. When it comes to safety, common sense rules all. Choose hosts who have complete profiles, plenty of photos, positive reviews from past guests, and a verification stamp proving they’re a real person. Even though there’s no charge for your stay, it’s good form to have a small thank you gift for your host or at the very least to offer them help with cooking and cleaning during your visit.
If you’re not too keen on sharing space, you can still find free accommodations by housesitting. There are a variety of housesitting websites online where you can offer your services to residents of your destination who are leaving town themselves. You’ll have to accept typical housesitting responsibilities like watering plants and caring for pets, but your hosts will get their property taken care of and you’ll get a free bed. It’s in your best interest to pay an annual fee on a site like Trusted Housesitters or House Carers, which will help prove to hosts that you’re a trustworthy traveler who’s committed to looking after their property, not just a freeloader.
Short term rentals are also good budget alternatives to traditional hotels. Sites like Airbnb offer a happy medium between luxury lodgings and bumming a spot on somebody’s couch. You can book a shared room, a private room, or even a whole apartment for your trip. This is an ideal option for longer trips as Couchsurfing hosts aren’t always able to accommodate travelers for longer than a week. Couchsurfers are also less open to hosting couples or groups, so finding an inexpensive rental on Airbnb can also be a great way to stay with a local and your travel companions.
Dining on a Dime
When all your worldly possessions fit on your back, you’re probably prepared for your fair share of street food. As food trucks continue trending, you can often find tasty meals for low prices, but it’s still easy to get tired of curbside meals. The secret to not blowing your budget on pricey dinners is planning ahead. Pick out a handful of special dishes you’d like to try, like osso buco in Milan or chicken paprikash in Budapest, and pepper your itinerary with a few more expensive meals that you can work into your budget. Knowing a nice sit-down dinner is just a couple weeks away can help keep you motivated to save your money for that night, instead of impulsively grabbing a table at an overpriced eatery.
When picking the perfect spot for your special night out, steer clear of main streets and tourist attractions. Restaurants that cater to residents instead of tourists will often have lower prices, so ask locals for recommendations. Engaging in local culture can save you money and offer you a fully immersive, authentic experience. For example, tapas bar hopping in Spain is both affordable and fun.
For an extra special experience, try EatWith, which allows travelers to book a seat at a local’s dinner table. You’ll get to enjoy a home cooked meal – a rarity on the road – and meet interesting locals. Mealsharing and EatFeastly will also help you meet locals for unique dining experiences. Having these special opportunities scattered throughout your trip will make your typical cheap dining options easier to manage.
Finding Free Things to Do
No matter how much you cut back on transportation, dining, and accommodations, shelling out every day on adventurous activities and high admission fees will eat up your budget before you can get to the third stop of your trip. Many major European cities have special discount cards that can admit you to multiple attractions, or free admission days at top attractions. Once you’ve chosen a route, do your due diligence and find places you can save.
When it comes to once-in-a-lifetime experiences, give yourself a little room to splurge, but make sure you don’t have any surprise large expenses. Think carefully about the big ticket experiences you want to have. If taking a flamenco class in Madrid is something you’ve dreamed about for years, go ahead and work that into your budget. But if skiing in the Alps isn’t on your bucket list, don’t get suckered into paying out the nose for an exclusive Swiss resort just because the opportunity arises. Spontaneous, unexpected moments are part of why travel is so wonderful, but you shouldn’t have to sell an arm and a leg for them.