Europe is one of the world’s most expensive travel destinations. Hotel rates are sky-high in major capitals like London and Paris, and the hefty cost of living (particularly in Scandinavian countries) makes everyday purchases such as meals and public transportation tickets a pricey proposition for travelers.
But that doesn’t mean you can’t see Europe on a budget. We’ve gathered 25 tips to help you travel Europe for cheap.
Europe Trip Planning on a Budget
1. Be flexible with your dates and airports.
One of the best ways to save money on airfare to Europe is to be flexible about when you travel. The high season for travel to most of Europe is June through August, so you can often save money on both airfare and lodging by traveling at other times of year. (That said, you’ll want to avoid major holidays such as Christmas and Easter.) Also, consider flying to and from alternate airports—for example, London Gatwick instead of Heathrow—as a potential way to land cheaper fares. To start your search, see The 10 Best Flight Search Sites for Booking Cheap Airfare.
2. Book at the right time.
Not sure whether the airfare you’re seeing is a good one? There are sites and apps that can help. When you search for a fare on Kayak.com, the results page typically features a little box with a fare prediction that advises whether you should wait or buy now. The Hopper app (iOS | Android) offers similar predictive advice. You can set fare alerts on SmarterTravel’s sister site, Airfarewatchdog, and the site will notify you when the price drops on your route.
3. Find your focus.
When planning your European itinerary, consider exploring one region or country in depth rather than bouncing around from place to place. For example, spend a week sightseeing in Florence and taking day trips to nearby towns in Tuscany rather than trying to squeeze Milan, Venice, Florence, and Rome into seven or eight days. You’ll not only spare yourself hours of sitting in transit, but you’ll also save big on transportation expenses such as airfare or pricey train tickets. Learn more about slow travel.
4. Save on museum entrance fees and entertainment.
Many museums offer free admission on certain days or nights of the week or at certain times of the month. For example, the Louvre in Paris is free on the first Saturday of each month, as well as on Bastille Day (July 14). Check ahead of time for free admission at the museums you’re interested in, and schedule your visit accordingly.
Similarly, keep an eye out for free concerts or performances going on in local parks, churches, and other public venues. The best place to find these is in the local newspapers or online entertainment listings, by asking at your hotel—or simply by stumbling upon them.
5. Purchase a pass.
Most major cities offer special cards that include discounts or free admission for museums, attractions, tours, and public transportation. Examples include the London Pass, the Amsterdam Pass, and the Barcelona Pass. These can be a great value if the card covers many of the attractions you were already planning to visit, but be sure to evaluate whether it’s really worth it. If the card costs $100 and you’re only going to use it at one or two museums, it may be better to pay a la carte.
How to Save on Europe Lodging
6. Consider a rental.
Choosing a vacation rental instead of a standard hotel has several cost advantages. Renting an apartment or house often gives you more space for less money (so it’s a particularly economical option if you’re traveling with a group or family), and having kitchen facilities means you can cook for yourself rather than spending a lot on overpriced restaurant meals. You can find rentals on sites such as Booking.com, TripAdvisor (SmarterTravel’s parent company), Airbnb, and HomeAway.
7. Don’t count out hostels.
Many travelers steer clear of hostels, thinking that they’re just for 20-something backpackers who don’t mind sleeping 10 to a room. However, you may not know that many hostels also offer private rooms, some with ensuite bathrooms as well. They may not be luxurious, but if you’re looking for a clean, basic room at a low price, it’s worth checking out the hostel scene. HostelWorld is one good place to find them.
8. Choose a less convenient location.
To get a lower hotel rate, consider staying outside the city center. As long as you’re located somewhere near a public transit line, it will still be pretty convenient—and you could save big bucks.
9. Get creative.
Discover other affordable possibilities—from B&Bs to farmstays—in Ditch the Hotel: 10 Cheaper Ways to Stay.
Money Management in Europe
10. Get cash from ATMs—at a bank.
An ATM is your best option for a combination of a fair exchange rate and low surcharges and fees. At an ATM, you’ll likely pay a transaction fee from your bank (typically 1 – 2 percent or a few dollars), but you’ll also get the favorable interbank exchange rate rather than the higher rates you’ll find at typical exchange bureaus. To avoid excessive fees, take out large amounts of cash at a time and store the excess in a money belt or hotel safe. For more advice, see Money Safety Tips for Travelers.
It’s best to avoid stand-alone, off-brand ATMs of the kind you often find in the back of convenience stores. These typically have the highest transaction fees; use an ATM from a reputable bank instead. If possible, use your own bank to avoid fees from other institutions. Check your bank’s website for ATM and branch locations.
11. Use your credit card.
Many of the benefits of using an ATM card also apply to your credit card, particularly the strong exchange rates. However, keep in mind that many credit card companies charge fees for purchases made in foreign currencies, usually 1 – 3 percent. Choose the right card and you can avoid these fees. Capital One, for example, is a major credit card company that levies no surcharges on foreign transactions for its U.S. card holders. Check with your credit card companies to figure out which of your cards has the lowest fees for foreign purchases, and then use that one for your overseas purchases. SmarterTravel’s sister site, Airfarewatchdog, offers a list of credit cards that don’t charge foreign transaction fees.
Once on the road, check the fine print to make sure that your hotel, restaurant, or other outfit does not tack on a percentage fee on credit card transactions to cover authorization fees.
12. Choose your counter wisely.
If you absolutely must use a currency exchange counter, skip the airport or train station kiosks where you are almost guaranteed to get the worst rate available. Instead, choose a bank if you can find one. Wherever you are, exchange only enough money to get the job of the moment done (whether it be a cab ride, emergency rations, or the purchase of a souvenir), and then get to an ATM as soon as you can.
13. Fly cash (and coin) light.
Wait until you reach your destination before exchanging currency, and spend the bulk of your foreign currency at your destination before you go home. This way, you won’t have to pick up and then dump a lot of money at an exchange booth while taking losses both coming and going.
This is especially applicable to the piles of rattling coins you accumulate while traveling. Good luck finding a place back home that accepts a bucket of euro tin and Queen Elizabeth heads in your neighborhood. Spend all your change on the way out, or at least stop at a bank and convert it to bills; you might actually get your money back someday if you do. For more tips, see Foreign Currency.
14. Don’t be afraid to haggle.
While this isn’t recommended at Harrods or other department stores, there are still plenty of places in Europe where bargaining is acceptable. Outdoor markets and street vendor stalls offer prime opportunities to try your haggling skills. To learn more, see Shopping Abroad: A Traveler’s Guide.
Save Money on Europe Transportation
15. Cut out the car…
Most travelers know that a rental car isn’t really necessary (and in fact can be a hindrance) when visiting a major city. But many European nations have such comprehensive networks of trains and local buses that you might not even need a car to visit the countryside. Public transportation is available to many small towns and rural tourist attractions, which will save you not only the price of your rental but also the cost of gas (Europeans pay significantly more than Americans do). If you truly are headed out into the middle of nowhere for a day or two, plan to keep your rental for only as long as you need it rather than for your entire stay.
16. …and the cab.
Most European airports are served by trains, buses, shuttles, and ridesharing services that will take you downtown and back for a fraction of the cost of a cab. (Make it easier on yourself by packing light since you may have to schlep your own luggage.) Similarly, it’s much cheaper to get around town via public transportation, Uber/Lyft, or, better yet, by walking from place to place. If you think you’ll be relying heavily on a subway or bus system, a single- or multi-day pass could be a good buy.
17. Consider a rail pass.
Whether you’re concentrating on a single country or traveling all over the Continent, there may be a Eurail pass that will save you money. Before purchasing a pass, carefully plan out how many train trips you will take and calculate the total cost of point-to-point tickets at RailEurope.com. Keep in mind that short trips are relatively inexpensive—so if you’re going to be sticking to a very small area, a pass may not be worth the cost.
18. Overnight it.
If you’re planning a lengthy train journey, consider traveling on an overnight train. This way you won’t waste valuable daylight hours in transit, and you’ll save on the cost of a night’s lodging as well. Or take a quick flight with one of Europe’s many low-cost carriers such as Ryanair and easyJet. Learn more about international discount airlines.
How to Save on Meals in Europe
19. Go grocery shopping.
Stock up on bottled water, fruit, and snacks at grocery stores rather than tourist shops. You’ll pay what the locals pay and often get a wider selection, too.
20. Learn to love lunch.
Instead of eating a pricey multi-course dinner, make lunch your big meal of the day. Often you can enjoy similar dishes for half the price.
21. Don’t overtip.
Americans are used to tipping 18 – 20 percent in restaurants, but in most European nations, 10 percent is the norm unless the service was truly extraordinary. Check first to see whether a service charge has already been added to your bill; if so, you usually don’t need to leave anything additional. For country-specific tipping information, refer to a good guidebook, do a Google search, or ask at the local tourist office. For more information, see Tipping in Europe: The Europe Tipping Guide.
22. Save on breakfast.
If breakfast is included in your hotel’s nightly rate, then be sure to take advantage of it. But if it’s not, skip the overpriced room service. You can almost certainly find a much cheaper croissant and cup of coffee at the cafe down the street. Ask your hotel’s concierge or front desk about what’s nearby.
23. Be wise about wine.
If you’re dining out, order the house wine; you’ll save money, and in places like France and Italy, you may be surprised at how good it is. Want a drink out on your hotel balcony? Pick up a bottle at the local liquor store and bring it back to your room for an affordable taste of luxury.
24. Seek out local eateries.
To find authentic and affordable food, skip the restaurants with the tourist-friendly English-language menus out front and seek out places where you see plenty of locals. (The Google Translate app, available for iOS and Android, can help you make sense of the menu.) Don’t hesitate to ask your hotel concierge to recommend affordable restaurants in the area.
25. Follow the locals’ lead for cheap eats.
Eat the plentiful pizza in Italy, grab a quick baguette sandwich in France, or nosh on takeaway curry in London.
What tricks do you use to travel Europe for cheap? Post them in the comments below.
More from SmarterTravel:
- Packing for Europe: 8 Items You Should Leave at Home
- 10 Secret Places in Europe You Can Still Visit on a Budget
- 14 Best Shoes to Wear in Europe
Editor’s note: This story was originally published in 2017. It has been updated to reflect the most current information. Sarah Schlichter and Ed Hewitt contributed to this article.