Backpacking in Europe on a Budget

Spread the love

To say that Europe is a popular destination is a gross understatement. Each year, some 500 million people visit Europe, affording the continent the title of top tourist destination in the world. No other place has such a rich tapestry of culture and history to call upon. From the ancient ruins in Athens to the Renaissance art in Florence, from the beer-soaked halls of Germany to the cliff-top castles of Central Europe, there is something in Europe to satisfy everyone’s wanderlust. This is exactly what draws so many visitors to Europe, the undeniable fact that it is both the past and the present, the old and the new. With such a wealth of diversity, many backpackers to Europe barely scratch the surface, often spending their time, energy, and money in the service of an experience which is only vaguely reminiscent of the one they’d planned to have. With a little knowledge, some careful planning, and a dash of frugality, it is possible to fully involve oneself in the rich tapestry that is Europe, to avoid the tourist-clogged highways and package tours.

Each year, millions of young people from around the world migrate north to the continent of Europe. The idea is to take in the culture and experience the varied peoples, places, and things that are known as Europe. The majority of these backpackers will end up in Western Europe. France is a common entry point into Europe, with many young travelers spending much of their time in France and Spain. Many will stick to the well-worn path from the Eiffel Tower to Amsterdam’s coffee shops, but there are still large numbers of visitors to Europe who are in search of something a little more meaningful, something a little more real. And these people will often find themselves venturing off the beaten track, the track less well-traveled.

The allure of traveling Europe on a shoestring

The lure of traveling in Europe for shoestringers is quite compelling. First of all, Europe is very easy to travel. Given its dense population, extensive train systems, cheap airlines, and countless tour companies that offer package deals, it is easy to see and do a lot in a relatively short time. Distance is no object in Europe. A 3 to 4-hour train ride can bring you from a very different culture and language to a new and exciting world. A place where the language is different and the food, drink, and social customs are new. Whether it’s a weekend trip to the stunningly preserved medieval city of Cesky Krumlov in the Czech Republic or a months-long sojourn through the capitals of the former Eastern bloc, travel is an integral part of the European lifestyle and the foreign visitor reaps the benefits. Europe is also quite accessible to overseas visitors. With fierce competition in the airline industry, it is possible to find some great deals on flights to Europe. For example, the price of a ticket to Ireland or Northern Ireland often does not differ greatly from the cost of a transcontinental domestic flight within the US. Also, with the advent of the Euro, European travel is now more cost-effective for many travelers as they can eschew dealing with the hassle and poor exchange rates of countless different currencies. Meanwhile, ATMs are now widely available in every country and provide a hassle-free way of obtaining cash at a good exchange rate.

Benefits of backpacking for budget travelers

Certainly though, there are ways to save and ways to squander in the new Europe. The value of the US dollar has decreased considerably over the last few years, regardless, it is still relatively easy to travel in Europe without spending a fortune. If one plans to spend some time in any single European country, it might be wise to buy a used car. Any student who has a student visa can purchase a cheap car in any of the southern countries and when the time comes to go home, it can be sold for more or less the same price. Traveling with friends and splitting expenses is another great way to save money. Often times, groups of 3 or 4 can rent an apartment for not much more than they would pay for a hostel dorm room. This way, they will have a comfortable and private place to stay with kitchen facilities, which can save a great deal when it comes to eating. Still, the cheapest way to travel is by foot (or thumb) and staying in cheap hostels or camping. This is where backpacking becomes the best way to see Europe. With a little bit of backpacking gear and a Eurail pass, one can see all over the continent with a means of transportation that is comfortable, flexible, and certainly cheap. This may not always be the most luxurious way to travel, but it is rewarding.

The allure of traveling Europe on a shoestring is not just getting there and back, it is the adventure and the experience. One of the possibly most cost-friendly ways to see Europe for young people is to backpack. It is no wonder that today it is a rite of passage for so many young travelers. An article from “Budget travel tips: Backpacking Europe” explains, “Seeing Europe with a backpack, a few changes of clothes, a Eurail pass and some travelers checks is the way to go these days.” With the popularity of cheap airlines and more open borders throughout the European Union, travel to Europe is no longer just the “grand tour” for the happy few. Backpacking has become a viable option for budget travel in Europe and it is quite possible to see, do, and experience quite a lot in only a few short weeks.

Planning and Preparation

Lastly, you will need to find out visa requirements for each destination and how to stay legal in the Schengen Area. A good reference for this is

Keep in mind that traveling slower and staying in each location longer can dramatically reduce costs. Transportation between countries and cities is a major expense, and the less you move the less you spend. Make a list of the places you’d like to visit and calculate how long you think you’ll want to stay in each location. You’ll probably find that it adds up to a much longer trip than you were initially planning. This is one of the great virtues of budget travel, you’ll find that you need much less money to see more.

Important factors in determining a destination’s cost include the prices of accommodation, food, attractions, entertainment, and transportation. Generally, Eastern Europe and parts of the Mediterranean are less expensive, while Western and Northern Europe are more costly.

You’ve decided to undertake the adventure of a lifetime. Now what? The first major step in this process is to do your homework! Researching your destinations is a crucial task in planning your journey. Your top priority is to find out the average cost of each location in order to determine if it fits your budget. One recommended method is to purchase a guidebook and make use of internet travel forums and destination websites.

Researching budget-friendly destinations

Backpackers are often guiltily elitist. No matter how much they spend on their travels, they like to think it’s being spent on something better and more authentic than the package tourists’ experience. In the minds of many, ‘authentic’ is synonymous with ‘hard to reach’ and the thought of arriving in a place that’s overwhelmed with tourists fills them with dread. It’s easy to identify the more off-the-beaten-track destinations like say, Laos or Guatemala, as they’re the ones that people don’t know how to spell. But how can you tell if a less famous country could still be a hidden tourist mecca? Today’s independent travellers tend to rely on free resources like Wikipedia and Wikitravel, overlooking the fact that the older guidebooks are still more accurate and comprehensive. And there are more useful pages and discussions on than even the most stubbornly web 2.0phobic traveller can afford to ignore.

For accurate information and the best online booking fares, try to go straight to the sites that cater to the region – but don’t ignore the big online travel agencies. For a rapid and up-to-date overview of the budget accommodation scene in a particular place, use the hotel search engines on You can set the maximum price you’re willing to pay for a double room and most of the properties that come up are bookable with free cancellation. This means that, for the sake of a few minutes spent online, you can if necessary hold several bookings while you verify your plans and make a final choice. When researching an adventurous trip to a specific country or region, you need to know that your destination is an attractive one.

Creating a realistic budget for your trip

A well-budgeted trip requires self-discipline. Impulse purchases can be expensive and lead to unnecessary long-term travel changes. At the same time, try not to sacrifice your well-being to save money. A common trend for backpackers is to skimp on accommodation to save money. While this can be effective, an inadequate sleeping environment can kill your energy and enthusiasm for the following day. It is more beneficial to spend extra money for a comfortable sleep to recharge your batteries. Look to offset the costs of pricey destinations with a few weeks in cheaper areas and adjust your spending based on your budget assessment as the trip progresses. Finally, have a safety net of extra money in case of an emergency. With your budget and safety net in mind, you can now develop the best strategy for money management during the trip.

To avoid running out of money in an expensive city after the first week, it will be vital to create a budget for the trip. Be realistic about your available finances and how long you can afford to travel for. Be proactive in gathering information about the approximate costs of your various destinations. Knowing these costs will also help you to gauge the amount of time you can afford to spend in each place, and will keep you from spending more than you need to. Remember to account for your expenses in terms of the duration of your trip. A trip to Paris, for example, will require more money for a 4-day visit than a 4-day visit in Prague. The information you have gathered can be organized into a table of estimated expenses to compare with your total available funds. This will clearly display whether your trip is financially possible and what adjustments need to be made to your travel itinerary.

Packing essentials for a budget backpacking adventure

A successful backpacking trip depends, in part, on the quality and quantity of gear you carry. The cardinal rule is to carry as little as possible. On a trip to remote backcountry areas, you’ll need an especially efficient, portable gear kit to maintain a margin of safety. If you’re now a committed backpacker starting to accumulate your gear, begin with the lightest gear in every category and think hard before you make any new purchase about the gear’s weight, durability, versatility, and return on investment. You can certainly lighten your load these days and still be safe and comfortable, though old habits die hard and many experienced backpackers still carry more gear than they need. Vignettes of individual backpackers, especially those in Steve Howe’s category, will help reinforce our suggestions on gear selection. Probably no number of how-to paragraphs can better illustrate the principles of ultralight hiking than a few well-placed anecdotes about specific backpackers.

Accommodation and Transportation

Finding affordable hostels and budget accommodations. Do research in advance to look for good rates on hotels and guesthouses. There are many online booking sites and most have the option for sorting the results by price. It is a good idea to book ahead for the first night’s accommodation at a new destination, so you have somewhere to go upon arrival and don’t have to waste valuable travel time looking for a place to stay. This can be a nice time saver if you just got off a long-haul flight and the last thing you want to do is drag you and your pack around a new city. When you get there, of course, it won’t hurt to ask if there is a cheaper room available than the one that you have booked. Sometimes you can luck out. Don’t underestimate the power of the common travel guide! Most guidebooks will have accommodation listings included. A good resource is often the community or forum section on websites which provide recent travelers’ advice. It is wise to research the location of prospective accommodation with relation to the city center and public transport, so you don’t spend more in time and money commuting than you are saving on the cost of the room. Remember if you are striving to experience new cultures, a hotel room may not be the best option. Instead, consider a hostel or guesthouse, where you can interact with other travelers and possibly get local insights from the owners. Many hostels even let you trade a few hours of work for a free bed and possibly some meals. This is a good way to slow the pace of travel and spend some time getting to really know a place. Inquire around; you’d be surprised at some of the great budget accommodations that can be found by word of mouth. Navigating public transportation systems in Europe Traveling on public transport in a country where you can’t speak or read the language can seem a bit daunting. But fear not; many public transport systems in Europe are designed to be tourist-friendly. With the abundance of different discounts and options available, the best idea is to ask a local or your accommodation’s host about the most cost-effective solution for your needs. Student and youth discounts are widespread in Europe, as are special tourist tickets in main cities. If you have time to spare, it may be worth looking for the old-fashioned paper maps of transport routes, as opposed to the online or mobile phone version since service or internet access may not be available everywhere. Make sure you have validated or stamped your ticket if this is required. Spot checks by plainclothes ticket inspectors are common and fines can be hefty if you are caught without valid fare. And remember – if you are truly lost, the cost of extra transportation, more than likely, will not compare to the value of unneeded stress and frustration of your travel time. In an extreme case, if you really can’t figure it out, ask your embassy to recommend a trustworthy taxi service.

Finding affordable hostels and budget accommodations

For those that are traveling with a group of people, it may be more economical to look into renting a house or an apartment. Prices can often be cheaper than what you would pay for individual rooms in hostels, and you won’t have to deal with other travelers that may keep you up at night. This is also a great way to get off the beaten tourist path and get a feel for what life is truly like in a European city.

A new trend in recent years has been to book a room or an apartment for short term rent. Websites offer a huge selection of rooms in private homes all over Europe. The prices are often similar to hostel prices, and this is a great option for someone that desires a little more privacy or is traveling as a couple. This can also be a great option for people that are staying in a city for an extended period of time. The best travel experience in my life in Europe was when I rented an apartment in Rome for 300 euros for an entire month. This can be a great way to save money in the long run.

Hostels are unquestionably the most prevalent and least expensive accommodation for travelers in Europe. Hostels offer the ideal balance of an inexpensive place to stay and a fun, social atmosphere. There are thousands of hostels in Europe and there are many websites that can be used to search for and compare prices. Use caution when choosing a hostel. Beware of the ones that are written up in guidebooks; they tend to be overcrowded with other tourists and not backpackers, a major difference in atmosphere.

Navigating public transportation systems in Europe

When backpacking in Europe, it is important to know how to get around. Although taxis are convenient, they are rather expensive and should be avoided unless there’s no other option. Trains are an efficient and cheap way to travel within countries. For the best deals on train travel, a Eurail pass is the way to go. It allows unlimited travel on trains in up to 20 countries. There are a variety of different passes to choose from to suit your travel needs. Although some people have complained that the Eurail pass isn’t as cheap as it used to be, it is still a viable option for cheap travel. For local travel within cities, buses and subways are the best option. Consider buying a tourist attraction card which includes unlimited travel on buses and/or the subway and also includes free entry into various tourist attractions. If you plan to use the card a lot in one day, this can save you quite a bit of money. These attraction cards are also available from tour agencies and sometimes with hotel bookings, so check around to see if you can find a good deal. With free entry into so many popular tourist sights, it’s easy to find great value in these cards. When using buses or subways, it is important to know that ticket validation procedures differ between countries and even between cities. Always make sure to validate your ticket before boarding and be aware that there are sometimes stiff fines for not having a validated ticket. Walking is also a very viable option in many European cities. Many urban centers are high density and easily navigated by foot. A good map can save you from having to pay for local transport. In the UK, consider investing in a National Express coach card. The card costs £10 and saves you a third on all coach travel over the next year. With card prices starting at £15, typically a return trip between just two cities will easily save you enough money for the card to have paid for itself. Also in the UK, Megabus offers the cheapest bus travel with fares starting at £1 and increasing as the travel date becomes nearer. The earlier you book, the cheaper the fare. Megabus is also a great option for travel between the UK and major cities in Western Europe. With enough research and time investment, it’s easy to find great deals for travel within Europe. Unlimited options for cheap accommodations, whether it be in the youth hostel environment, or even sleeping overnight on a train enable the resourceful and adaptable traveler to save a lot of money while still being able to see and do a lot. By reducing the costs of transportation and accommodations, you enable yourself to spend more money on other amazing experiences, such as a 3-hour horseback ride through the mountains of Andorra or an entire day of sea canoeing in the Adriatic Sea off the coast of Dubrovnik, Croatia. With a little experience and know-how, it’s easy to stay on budget while still enjoying all that Europe has to offer.

Tips for saving money on flights and train tickets

Try and book your flights as far in advance as possible. The price of flights increases dramatically as the departure date approaches. Also, be flexible with the dates that you depart and return from your trip. Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Saturdays are the cheaper days to travel on. There are studies out there that suggest that the best time to purchase a flight is on a Tuesday afternoon. Ticket prices are at their lowest point at this time and increase as the week goes on. If you see a price you’re comfortable with, purchase the ticket! Prices change frequently, and if you don’t get it while you see it, you could miss your opportunity to get a good deal.

As with anything, determining how long you’ll be in Europe and where you’re going can help you save a ton of money. If you’re staying around a certain region, don’t be afraid to use sites like UK’s Easyjet, Germany’s DB Bahn, or Ireland’s Ryanair for cheap flights around the area. For example, if you’re planning on Italy, instead of purchasing a $60 Eurail ticket to go from Milan to Rome, try and find a flight with a low-cost carrier, something like $20 with a no-frills airline. The time saved with the flight will be worth more the money you saved with the train ticket. (Read more on this in the next bullet) This same advice is great for finding cheap flights to get you back to the states. The majority of the time, you’ll find that if you travel to a big airport in a major city, that you’ll save money on flights to return home. For example, a flight from Barcelona to New York will likely be much cheaper than a flight from Copenhagen to New York. Use sites like or that search all airlines to help locate the best value.

Experiencing Europe on a Budget

A number of cities also have music and arts festivals scattered throughout the summer months, and many of these are free to the public. Again, with some research, you can locate and experience live music, shows, and exhibitions and soak up the festival atmosphere without having to spend much at all.

Most European cities are home to a number of world-renowned museums, and if you are flexible with the time and day you visit, most of these have specific times when they do not charge an entry fee. With a little forward planning, you can pinpoint days in your trip where you can spend the day museum hopping and it won’t cost a penny.

Free tours can often be found on the internet, and if not, most large cities have specific areas where tours meet and set off at certain times of the day. It is wise to pay attention to the information given on the tour and then return to areas of interest in your own time, as not to get lost and lose track of where the tour is! This way you can research into the areas of the city you are most interested in and it costs nothing.

Every traveler wants to experience their destination as fully as possible, yet this can be hard on a budget. In Europe, however, the rich culture and diverse lifestyles mean a little bit of careful planning and you can experience the best each country has to offer without breaking the bank. Consider free walking tours available in most city centers.

Exploring free or low-cost attractions in popular cities

In Paris, free admission can be obtained by post-secondary students, and an International Student Identity Card (ISIC) can get the same discount. In Rome, the museums are free on the first Sunday of every month, so plan accordingly. Many cities have a museumkaart, offering free admission to multiple museums in the area. Not everything in Europe costs money. In popular tourist regions, the price and quality of goods can vary greatly. Ludwig van Beethoven once said, “The music is not in the notes, but in the silence between.” This is very true in France, where a picnic can be more enjoyable than a ridiculously priced meal at a busy café. Accessories for self-prep meals can be found anywhere in Europe. Fresh markets can be seen in almost any city center, and certain campgrounds will hold cultural food events. With good timing and a bit of patience, some good deals can be found to see previously thought expensive sights. An example would be a gondola ride in Venice, Italy. This can be ridiculously priced, but if taken in a group of six, the price is quite comparable to a vaporetto (public transit boat). High prices are still prevalent in Europe, and the world’s economic status is an ever-changing one. But if these words ring true in 2007, then let the frugal and the penny-wise represent their countries and quietly smirk in the shadow of their big-spending compatriots.

Sampling affordable local cuisine and street food

Sampling a region’s local cuisine can be one of the most delectable ways to gain insight into the culture and way of life. It’s also easily one of the most expensive aspects of travel. It is very easy to stumble upon a tourist-oriented restaurant and subsequently blow through money without even realizing it. The best way to avoid this, and to also taste the best of what European cuisine has to offer, is to seek out traditional and affordable places where the locals tend to eat. While the architecture and monuments may be what draws tourists to Europe in the first place, many travelers find that the sensory experience of a crowded outdoor market is what captures their hearts. Food markets are a good way to get a feel for what the locals really eat, and you can usually find quality food for a good price. The key is to shop around and to not buy the first thing that looks tempting. If you stock up on market goods for a picnic in the park, it can be less expensive and more fulfilling than a meal taken in a sit-down café. In terms of actually sitting down to eat, one of the most cost-effective ways to enjoy a meal in France and other Mediterranean countries is to order the fixed price menu at lunchtime. At many restaurants this is half the price of a dinner menu, despite the fact that the same food will be served. In East European countries such as Italy, Spain and Greece it is customary to be served a complimentary hors d’oeuvre or even a choice of several small dishes when you order drinks at a café. This can be a surprisingly filling and affordable way to enjoy a beverage and a chat with friends.

Engaging in budget-friendly activities and tours

There is an endless list of budget-friendly activities and tours that a backpacker can partake in. Many cities offer tourist cards which give the traveler free entry or entry at a discounted rate to many museums and tourist attractions, free use of public transport and in some locations, various discounts at shops and restaurants. These cards are usually available in the city’s tourist office, however some must be purchased online prior to arriving in the city. These can be excellent value if you are planning on taking in many of the city’s attractions. An example is the Paris Museum pass which allows free entry to over 70 museums and tourist attractions. Walking tours are usually a good way to familiarize yourself with a city and they are generally quite cheap. Many companies now offer free walking tours of the city with the option of tipping the guide at the end based on how much you enjoyed it. Boat, bike and segway tours for the more adventurous are also often available at discounted rates from sites such as Groupon and the equivalent local websites in various countries. Apartment rentals are becoming more popular in many places and can be an affordable accommodation option for a group of friends or a family. Prices are often comparable to a hostel and can be better value in terms of the quality of the accommodation, plus you have the option of cooking your own meals in order to save money on dining out. Shopping at local markets and small supermarkets rather than eating out at restaurants can save a large amount of money over the course of a trip. This is also a good opportunity to experience the local culture and to sample various local cheeses, meats and other delicacies.