Tl;dr: Give me the bullet points
- Buy a good pair of shoes and spend most of your time walking. It’s the best way to travel and to see new things in cities.
- Book hostels with free breakfast and a kitchen to save money on food.
- Have a plan for where and what to eat; you’re not yourself when you’re hungry.
- Buy the city passes if you are staying at least three days in a city and want to see as much as possible.
- Abbey Road is an actual road an takes a lot longer to walk to the studio than you think it does.
- Never, ever eat at tourist traps – you’re better than that.
- Treat yo’self. At some point, know when it is worth it to buy something a little more expensive because it’s once in a lifetime, and it’s defintely cheaper then getting it back home.
If I can give you the best piece of underrated advice for travelling, it’s to buy good shoes. Yeah, yeah. Get away from the main tourists sights. Buy a city pass and save money. Look into volunteering in exchange for room and board. More than likely, if you’re serious about backpacking Europe and you’ve looked into at least one book, one website, or talked to one person, they’ve probably told you something along those lines.
What those sights and people failed to tell me was how important a good pair of shoes would be. It’s hard, but of course not possible, to pack multiple pairs of shoes when you are trying to fit your whole life into a backpack. But for the most part, one, maybe two pair of shoes, will have to last you for months on end. They’ll be the one thing on you in every airport, every hostel, at every sight you visit, and at every farm you volunteer at. To put into perspective, Chynna and I (and some friends) walked over 12 miles in London in one day. We did the complete loop at the Cliffs of Moher and walked over 13 miles that day. In Amsterdam, a city where we vastly underestimated its size, we walked 20 miles a day, two days in a row. That’s a lot of miles, and after months of travelling and walking, I can tell you that you better bring a great pair of sturdy, waterproof, somewhat fashionable shoes. I recommend a pair of everyday shoes and a pair of exercise shoes for guys, and a pair of flats or whatever is comfortable for girls.
If you don’t buy the right pair of shoes, your feet will be miserable and the romance of Europe will dissapear quickly. Or, if your shoes aren’t built to last, you’ll be forced to spend days on end shopping for new pairs until you find the right ones, rather than sightseeing, because you’re on such a strict budget and can’t afford to grab just any pair of shoes that you’d like. Not that we are speaking from experience or anything.
Your feet are your cheapest form of transportation and are the most rewarding way to get around cities. Walking shows you so much more of a city than if you only take the metro or buses everywhere. You get to see the differences in neighborhoods and you will be constantly surprise by new streets, fun areas, and great places to eat that never make it on travel lists. Our best advice is to download the map of the city on Google Maps, pin a few of the places that you want to visit, and begin vagando to those places on your feet!
One of the best free things to do on your feet are the free walking tours. Most last a few hours, you learn a lot about the city, get to see a bunch of sights, and can learn where to eat and shop. The tour guides live on tips, so make sure to bring some change for your guide. They certainly vary in quality, but most are fantastic.
Of course, bikes are another great option and are available to rent in every city across Europe. We personally aren’t bike people, so we only did it a few times, but obviously it is a great option for those who love to bike. Plus, if you want to fit in in Copenhagen, you basically have to rent a bike, where bicyclists outnumber cars 10-1 most of the time.
For some cities though, walking is just too much. If you have never been to London, than you will be immediately suprised at just how massive that city is. We booked a hostel slightly out of town, but when we looked at the map it was right next to Abbey Road and then we could connect to the London Zoo. Turns out, Abbey Road extends for miles and miles away from the studio, and what looked like only a few minutes away was close to an hour walk before we snapped a picture of us crossing Abbey Road. That’s fine, for the most part, but we only had three days in London and were trying to see everything, and before had done much at all it was lunch time and we were starving and had no idea where to go for food.
Which is our next big tip for budget travel: have a good plan for where/what you want to eat before you’re hungry and desperate. There is nothing scarier than a hungry Chynna, so we quickly learned to have a plan for food. Sometimes you just start walking and you’re so entranced by sightseeing that you don’t realize how hungry you are. Then by the time you decide on what to eat, you’re another thirty minutes of hungry wandering away before you can eat something. You’re not yourself when you’re hungry. It’ll put a big damper on what was supposed to be a great day, especially if you don’t have enough money to buy just anything and you’re stuck in an expensive neighborhood, or you are near all the tourist trap restaurants that overcharge for terrible food. You’re smarter than those lazy tourists, though. Check out timeout.com for great ideas on what to eat and where to drink before you head out. Then obviously, a little Google searching for budget eats or asking your hostel will give you great ideas on where to eat for cheap.
There’s always a cheap kebab stand in Europe, most places in France and Italy have a bakery on just about every corner, and plenty of places have great, authentic, local fast food for less than 7 euros a person. Don’t think that eating cheap means you don’t get to try the local food. Most of the classic dishes from Europe are peasant dishes, so there is really no reason to overpay for them. And if the city has a Chinatown, you can eat a huge meal for really cheap and it’ll be some of the best Asian food of your life.
Don’t be suprised when markets overcharge for products. Walking through markets in cities like Paris, Budapest, Prague, Sofia, Vienna, and really everywhere in Italy were some of our favorite memories, but more than once we were overcharged for food. Produce is cheap, bust many prepared goods are costy, or they trick you into the price by charging by weight, and before you know it you spent 20 euros on what was supposed to be a cheap meal. That said, that fire spit ham was amazing, so it’s hard to complain too much.
You’re also going to have a few places that are so worth the extra few dollars. Treat yo’self. Some people save up money by eating nothing but plain rice or toast for months on end, but we just aren’t those kinds of people. We didn’t come to the mecca of great cooking to starve ourselves. Nor the home of so many great drinks. You’re going to spend a lot of money on Guiness in Ireland. Every pint is 4-5 euros, because Ireland raised the prices on alcohol to limit excessive drinking, but you’re not going to not drink Guiness in Ireland. You don’t fly all the way to Belgium and not drink great beer. And if you find Westvleteren 12, Rate Beer’s “Best Beer in the World,” then you should probably spend 15 euros on it because you’ll never find it again. Some places, like Harry’s New York Bar in Paris are worth the extra prices for a good cocktail. (Order the French 75, Sidecar, or the Bloody Mary, they did invent them after all). It’s worth the 12-15 for a cocktail. When in Rome, right? Know when it’s worth it to have a once in a lifetime dining experience!
This one might sound a little obvious, but learn how to cook. I’m always amazed at how many people we meet who can’t cook for themselves. We’ve had numerous Workaway hosts tell us that they have had lots of volunteers who have no idea how to cook at all. The cheapest option is always to cook at your hostel or AirBnB. We always check that our hostel has a kitchen before booking. We saved so much money by cooking a lot of rice and pasta dishes ourselves. Plus, we got to have risotto in Venice and Hungarian Goulash in Budapest by cooking it ourselves in our AirBnb. You can easily fill up and save money for museums and attractions, or, let’s be honest, beer and wine, if you just cook at home for most of the week.
We also always try to choose a hostel that has free breakfast. It’s rarely ever more than cereal or cold sandwhiches, but a free breakfast saves you so much money and you can get your coffee for free, too. It might be some of the worse coffee you’ve ever had, but it’s free and has caffeine, so there are worse things in the world. Like decaf coffee, which might just be the worse thing in the world.
Hostelworld.com is the best way to see all the hostels available in your city, but is not always the lowest price. Definitely download the app, though, and then search for places. We always try to choose the one that is close to the cheapest, with plenty of ratings, and of course free breakfast and free WiFi. The best way is to use Hostelworld, and then search go straight to there website to book direct, usually saving you a few dollars. Plus, it makes the hostel more money since they don’t have to pay Hostelworld for the booking, so it’s overall much better. Always try to book direct. It won’t always be the cheapest though, since sometimes they run deals on Hostelworld. Check bookings.com for last minute deals, where they often try to fill rooms for even a few dollars cheaper.
Once you’ve had your free breakfast and have places marked to eat at for lunch and snacks, then you should walk as much as possible. But when walking is just too much, it can save you so much money if you have a city card. The London Pass comes with a preloaded Oyster card, which means you can take the Underground and chuckle everytime it says “Mind the Gap” because you spend too much time on The Chive. It also gives you free or discounted admission into all of the sights that you want to see. Given, all of the museums in the UK are free anyways. And they should be, considering Britain stole everything from other cultures and put them in their musuems, but now they have the most amazing collection of Indian and Egyptian artifacts in the world. The pass gives you admission into all of these, plus Westmister Abbey (normally close to 20 pounds to enter), the Tower of London (25 pounds at the gate), and hundreds of other things, ranging from Shakespear’s Globe to Beefeater Gin. With a travel card, the London Pass is about 123 pounds for 3 days, but if you are committed to seeing as much as possible then it will definitely pay off. The pass is almost always on sale so check the website every week or so since you are able to buy the pass months in advance. The same goes for passes in Paris, Amsterdam, Rome, and other major cities with a lot of attractions.
If you’re taking the metros and busses long enough than you’re going to think you can get away without paying. Don’t. You might get away with it once or twice, but the one time you are caught they charge you over 5 times the price of a regular ticket. In Romania we jumped on an inner city bus in Cluj-Naropa, only to find that there was no ticket machine inside. When the guy approached us and asked for our ticket, we had no way of explaining to the man that in literally every other country in Europe you can buy a ticket on the bus and that we couldn’t wait for the next bus because we might miss our departure. So we had to pay over eight times the price for a regular ticket. The exchange rate is so good for us that it really wasn’t that much money, but on principle alone it wasn’t worth it. Don’t try to take public transportation without paying. It’s bad karma and can end up costing you way more than it’s worth.
As a general rule, Eastern Europe is so much cheaper than Western Europe. Most of the buses and metros are only a few cents, so there is really no reason not to take them in places like Budapest, Prague, Bucharest, Sofia, etc. That said, we walked all of these cities and they are really doable to walk around if you have a few days.
If you follow these basic rules, you’ll save a bunch of money while planning your trip. We’re going to make plenty of city specific tips in the near future, but these will basic rules can extend your trip for months. Happy traveling!