Guide to Traveling Europe on a Budget With Cheap Alternatives for Hotels, Transportation, and Dining

Updated on November 22, 2017
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Michelle spent a semester abroad in Lyon, France and took advantage of all the cheap travel options while backpacking across Europe.

St. Peter's Square, Vatican
St. Peter's Square, Vatican

Europe has garnered a reputation as a lavish getaway for the rich and privileged. Luckily, you can take in all the sites and explore the local culture for much less by following these important tips.

Should You Use Your Card or Cash in Europe?

You can use both without paying for any foreign transaction fees and without high conversion fees. Before you jet off to Europe, I suggest doing two crucial things: 1) Open a checking account with Bank of America and 2) Open a credit card with no foreign transaction fee.

  1. Open a Bank of America checking account: This is a necessity, in my opinion, because it allows you to withdraw cash anywhere you go without paying any extra fees. Bank of America is partnered with BNP Parisbas, a popular European bank with ATMs that are found almost everywhere across the continent. When I lived abroad in Europe, BNP ATMs were ubiquitous, and all I needed was my Bank of America debit card to instantly withdraw Euros. This way, I avoided processing fees and the long wait at a currency exchange office that may be all the way across town. With a Bank of America debit card, you'll be worry-free knowing that you can get fast cash virtually anywhere you go.
  2. Open a Credit Card with 0% foreign transaction fee: If you don't have one already, I suggest opening either a Bank of America Travel Rewards Credit Card or a Capital One Quiksilver Cash Rewards Cards. Both cards are free with no annual fee and no foreign transaction fee, and in addition, they offer cash back for spending. I used my Capital One Card while I was traveling to pay for plane and train tickets.

Pro Tip

I suggest using only the credit card to pay for big expenses and paying for everything else with cash. This way, you'll be less likely to spend frivolously on souvenirs.

BNP Parisbas ATMs
BNP Parisbas ATMs | Source

Free or Cheap Boarding Options in Europe

Don't get a hotel. It's expensive, and you'll be spending most of your day outside anyway. I suggest the options below—all of which I've used.

1. Couchsurfing:

I was able to travel to 4 cities in 3 different European countries for under $400 by utilizing couchsurfing.com, a site that allows you choose a local who will let you use his/her coach, bed, or extra room for a night or up to a week. The perks included free housing during your stay and a priceless opportunity to make friends and exchange cultures with the locals.

When I couch surfed in Spain, my host and his roommates took us out to the local bar for traditional Spanish tapas, and in Greece, our host cooked us a traditional greek meal. Not only does this save you money on a meal or two, but you also get the added luxury of partaking in authentic local cuisine.

While couch surfing does not offer the same comfort and privacy a hotel can, it does give you a wonderful window into the life of the locals. I have been able to gather great insider tips from my couch surfing hosts, ranging from advice on best places to eat to tips on how to get into museums for free. And if you are socially or politically minded, coach surfing is a great way to pick the brains of locals to glean the issues that are most important to them and their world. I have had a number of unexpectedly provoking intellectual conversations through this experience.

My greek host made us dinner!
My greek host made us dinner!

2. Hostels:

Staying in a hostel is like a staying in a college dorm. You rent a bed in a big room that you share with other travelers. You also share the bathroom down the hall. It is not the cleanest option, but if all you need is a place to sleep and wash up, then hostels are your cheapest option, short of being free. Prices can range from 10 euros to 60 euros per night.

Like couchsurfing, staying at a hostel exposes you to different people that you can share your experiences with. Unlike couchsurfing, however, you are not likely to bump into any natives of the country you are in. Most likely you will find other tourists such as yourselves. While in Rome, I shared a room with a girl from Turkey who had years of experience backpacking around the world. I gathered many tips and tricks from her about traveling and she even recommended a great restaurant nearby.

Typical hostel setup
Typical hostel setup | Source

3. Airbnb

I stayed for 4 nights at an Airbnd in Paris. The host was a nice Parisian woman who picked me up from the train station and even helped me haul my heavy luggage to her apartment. I rented my own room with shared bathroom for roughly $60/night, and the host provided my choice of breakfast. She also gave me a house key so that I could come and go as I pleased.

I also used Airbnd while in Spain. I shared a room with my friend, and we shared the house with a pair travelers who stayed in the other room. They were from Hungary, and had been in Spain for a while, so they graciously showed us around Madrid and took us to tapas.

If you're looking for the safety and cleanliness of a hotel at a lower price, then Airbnd is the way to go!

How to Travel Around Europe

Forget booking pricey airline tickets when traveling from country to country, and NEVER call a taxi. Instead, use Easyjet for cheap flights and use SNCF to travel by rail. When you want to explore the city, use the metro system. It's much faster than sitting in traffic and costs only a few bucks.

  1. Easyjet: Easily the cheapest way to fly. When I was flying from Geneva to Athens, my flight was only 20 euros. For such a cheap flight, you might assume that the customer service and the condition of the plane would be subpar, but in contrast, Easyjets were clean and spacious, and the staff were all very friendly. Plus, check-ins at the airport were fast and easy!
  2. SNCF: A French railway company, SNCF is your go-to company for buying train tickets. The prices are much cheaper than booking through an American website and sometimes they offer discounts for students. When navigating their website, check out the information under "Fares and cards." They often post special discounts on certain routes. I was able to snag a one-way ticket from Lyon to Geneva for 13 euros during a weekend when trips from France to Switzerland were on sale.
  3. Metro: This is the equivalent of New York's subway system. Avoid traffic and high taxi prices by taking the mode of transportation that all locals use to get around. Tickets are only a few bucks and the routes are strategically designed to stop at or near the famous sites in the city, making it a great way to hop from attraction to attraction in half the time, for half the price. Metro tickets can be purchased at the metro station on the machines. And don't fret if you do not speak the language. These machines allow you to select English as the language of operation.

Some metros are above ground. This one in France stops right by the farmers market.
Some metros are above ground. This one in France stops right by the farmers market.
An orchestra playing in the metro station in Paris.
An orchestra playing in the metro station in Paris.

Shop at the Corner Market

Rather than dining at the highly-rated restaurant located near tourist attractions, I suggest going to the grocery store in town and buying a meal there. Not only will it be a fraction of the price, but it is exactly what the town people eat on a daily basis.

Contrary to popular thought, restaurants that are recommended to tourists do not offer authentic local cuisine. They may have dishes inspired by the typical foods of the region, but each dish's taste is internationalized so that it can appeal to a wide number of people, meaning that the specific flavors found in these traditional dishes are often omitted or toned down. If you really want to taste authentic flavors, the supermarket is the cheapest and most practical option.

French corner store
French corner store

However, if you would rather have a sit-down dinner, try venturing as far as you can from tourist areas. Restaurants that are hidden down narrow streets or near residential areas are more likely to offer a real taste of local cuisine.

Locals at a restaurant in Athens
Locals at a restaurant in Athens

Some Additional Tips and Tricks

  • Learn the local culture: In some cultures, you do not tip. This is important to know so you can avoid inadvertently squandering money.
  • Choose to walk, if possible: When getting around town, sometimes walking is better than taking the metro. Some stops are only a 10-20 minute walk from the last stop and you will take in more of the sites by taking a stroll.
  • Bike: In big cities across Europe, you can rent a bike to get around town. Just pay for a bike at any bike station using the machine and return it at another bike station anywhere in the city.
  • Avoid summer months and big European holidays: Everything is cheaper in the off-season.

How likely are you to plan a trip to Europe after reading this article?

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