Traveling cheaply doesn’t have to mean traveling poorly. In fact, I’ve found that oftentimes the less I spend, the closer to the ground I travel and the more integrated I can become into the culture I’m visiting. Here’s a few tips I use constantly to keep my budget under. Some, of course, will be no-brainers for the experienced backpackers among us. Others will hopefully share some insight into traveling richly on a pauper’s budget.
1. Student Discounts – Bring your student card wherever you go. Even if you’ve graduated and your card is expired, bring it and show it every time you’re going in to a venue be it a museum, show or event. Many European countries have generous student discount policies, especially in public buildings, and you’ll rack up tons of discounts before you know it.
2. Eating out of Grocery Stores – I see tons of students who say they’re on a budget while continuing to eat out 7 days a week during their semester abroad. Pay attention to these expenses because they add up just as painlessly as a daily frappucino. But at the end of the year, that’s hundreds of bucks that you could have easily saved by hitting the local market and grocery store for picnics and home-cooked meals. When a group of friends come together and cook up a larger meal, the cost of groceries can drop to two or three euros a head—much better than the 20euros you’d drop at a touristy restaurant. Now let’s go spend that new-found beer money!
3. Find hostels that include dinner – A welcome trend I’ve seen recently has come about because of the increasing competition between hostels competing for your dollar. As a way to offer more value, many European hostels have started offering free or cheap dinners included in your booking. Some have free pizza every night. Others do a pasta cook out on Sunday evenings. So keep an eye out for this as you page through your hostel options on hostelworld.com.
4. Make reservations ahead of time – When it comes to transportation, it’s almost always substantially cheaper to book well in advance. That goes for buses, trains and planes. Of course, there’s a tradeoff: you’re locking yourself in to plans, but because most travelers have a pretty solid itinerary and plan ahead of time, I’d highly recommend booking your transfers as soon as you know you’ll need them.
5. Stick to Central and Eastern Europe – I’m blown away by how affordable Central and Eastern still are. When the Euro came into existence, it generally doubled the cost of living for locals, and it shot tourist prices through the roof. For countries that haven’t yet been brought in to the warm fold of the Eurozone, that’s where us budget travelers can find a welcome respite from the painful prices of Western Europe. Cities like Prague, Budapest, and Krakow pack a major sightseeing punch, with little bite on the wallet. Unfortunately, I have seen Prague’s recent popularity begin to push prices up in the touristy center to nearly that of any other European capital. So go rack up your experiences quick before the rest of the traveling public catches on!
6. Pregame hard – Nightlife is expensive. There’s no way around it. Beers and drinks at most popular bars start at 6 euros and only go up from there. Hit the convenience store and pick up some wine or beer and take it back to your hostel to socialize before hitting the bars, where you can maintain rather than achieve your buzz.
7. Public transportation – Hearing students and budget travelers discussing splitting cabs is like nails on a chalkboard for me. European cities have made hefty investments in public transportation, so use it! Even in the middle of the night in most cities, you’ll still be able to find your way home on public transportation. Put in a few minutes of research ahead of time to see what your options are for getting back at the end of the night as this can save you 10+ euro a pop.
8. Go where the locals go for food – While in Europe, I don’t stop looking for a restaurant until I find where the locals are. Work on identifying touristy restaurants on first sight: bright lights, pushy menu-toting recruiters, heat lamps, multi-language menus etc. They also share another thing in common: high prices. A restaurant with someone outside who has to aggressively steer you to a table is obviously using them to pick up the slack for their food. The food for a restaurant should be that place’s primary draw! So find the places back in the alley and around those corners, where you hear the happy sound of locals dining away before you see them. You’ll have better experiences, and save money while doing it.
9. Pay attention to free days – Many museums across Europe have free afternoons, nights, and days depending on the day of the month. If you’re in a city with a long list of sights to hit, Google them up quickly and see if they have any time when they let the public in for free or at a discounted rate. You may be able to connect the dots between sights and organize them by day depending on when each entrance loses its fee.