Have you ever thought about going on a trip to Europe, but the cost turned you off? Visiting Europe is a dream for many Americans, who romanticize cities such as London, Paris, and Rome for their unique architecture, historical buildings, and good food and drink.
Unfortunately, traveling to Europe is an expensive proposition for many people. With airfare, hotel, and car rental costs, a trip to Europe’s most famous cities can easily run you in the thousands of dollars, making that romantic Paris getaway or Vatican tour seem unattainable.
Fortunately, there are plenty of ways you can enjoy Europe without stretching your budget past the breaking point. Whether you’re a solo traveler or vacationing with family, use these tips to make your dream trip to Europe more affordable.
1. Take Advantage of Credit Card Benefits
As an incentive to use credit cards over debit cards or cash, many credit card companies offer perks in the form of discounts and freebies on various services. Many of these perks are travel-related, such as discounts on rental cars.
In addition, many credit cards offer rewards points for every purchase you make. Some cards offer double rewards points for travel-related purchases, such as hotel reservations and airline tickets, allowing you to cut the cost of your trip even more.
For example, the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card has a bounty of travel-related perks. In addition to double rewards points on qualifying travel expenses, it offers perks such as free trip insurance, damaged and lost luggage reimbursement, and trip delay reimbursement. Check out our list of the best travel rewards cards for more options.
While we don’t recommend signing up for credit cards solely to cut costs on a foreign vacation, if you already have a card or two, you should take advantage of their benefits. Think of credit cards as a loan. As long as you spend within your means and promptly pay back what you owe, they’re a useful tool to have in your arsenal.
2. Use Budget Airlines
Without a doubt, airfare is one of the biggest expenses of traveling abroad. Due to the distance, flights between the United States and Europe can run into the thousands of dollars, particularly if you purchase them on short notice.
Fortunately, flights within Europe itself have become increasingly affordable thanks to budget airlines that allow passengers to travel for deeply discounted rates. If you’re used to U.S. “budget” airlines such as Spirit and Southwest, you may be surprised by the discounts European budget airlines offer.
Budget airlines such as Ireland-based Ryanair and Hungary-based Wizz Air operate by charging customers for every service, from carry-on luggage to water. Because passengers only pay for the services that they want or need, these airlines can sell tickets at a far lower cost than others.
Budget airline tickets between European cities can cost as low as $20 depending on how far in advance you buy them. To compare flight prices, you can use websites such as Skyscanner and Skiplagged that aggregate tickets from airlines around the world.
Using budget airlines such as Ryanair, Wizz Air, and easyJet can save you hundreds of dollars on trips around Europe. Some European budget airlines such as Norwegian Air Shuttle also serve the U.S., offering round-trip tickets to major European cities for $500 or less.
3. Don’t Book a Hotel
Another major expense when traveling to Europe is accommodations. Centrally located hotels in cities such as Paris can cost hundreds of dollars per night, particularly during the spring and summer when tourist activity peaks. While hotels outside the city may be cheaper, you’ll incur additional transportation expenses and waste time traveling. You may also risk becoming a victim of crime in certain areas.
Luckily, there are plenty of alternatives to hotels that are considerably cheaper. Hospitality services such as Airbnb and HomeAway.com offer short-term room and apartment rentals for travelers. Facilities often include kitchens — allowing you to save money by cooking your own meals — and free Wi-Fi. These services are generally less expensive than hotels, and they allow you to stay in residential neighborhoods and experience life like a local.
Younger travelers who want to experience Europe on a budget should consider the tried-and-true method of staying in hostels and living out of a backpack. Hostels are group living arrangements in which travelers share rooms, allowing them to not only save money, but also connect with other travelers and make friends. Hostels also typically organize events for their patrons. You can book hostels via Booking.com or hostel-specific resources, such as Hostels.com.
Finally, if you’re a social butterfly, you can check out Couchsurfing, a social networking site where people offer their couches to travelers. It’s a great way to make local friends and immerse yourself in the local scene wherever you’re going.
4. Use Public Transportation
Most Americans are used to driving cars to get around due to the lack of quality public transportation in many cities. Car travel in Europe is expensive, however, with higher gasoline taxes, tolls, and pricier car rentals.
Additionally, the age of many European roads and cities makes them ill-suited for modern automobiles, and traffic problems are a serious issue in many countries. Fortunately, European countries have robust public transportation. Major cities, such as London, Paris, and Berlin, have efficient subway systems that connect passengers to anywhere they want to go. Even smaller European cities have public buses, trams, and ferries.
Most European countries have well-developed train networks that allow passengers to ride in speed, safety, and comfort. For example, high-speed Eurostar trains connect many major cities in northwestern Europe. Europe also features a wealth of low-cost bus operators. Companies such as Megabus and FlixBus offer bus connections between major cities for as low as $10.
You might consider ditching transportation altogether and walking. Many European cities are highly walkable due to their compact size. You can traverse the downtown core of Budapest on foot in an hour or two, for example. Consider walking as a healthier, cheaper alternative to using taxis or public transportation, particularly if you’re not in a rush. It will give you an intimate, up-close look at the city you’re in, and isn’t that part of why you want to go to Europe in the first place?
5. Buy a Local SIM Card
While many American mobile networks offer roaming services in Europe, roaming charges can run into the hundreds or thousands of dollars depending on how long your trip is. To save money, when you arrive in Europe, purchase a SIM card at a local cell phone shop. A SIM card is a data chip in your phone that gives you access to a mobile network. SIM cards are easy to remove and install and allow users to switch to any mobile network they please.
Local SIM cards offer you mobile network access at far lower rates than American roaming services. In some countries, such as Poland or Hungary, local SIM cards are as cheap as $2. To save money, avoid buying a SIM card at the airport where they tend to be more expensive.
Under European Union regulations, mobile providers are required to offer free roaming services across the entire EU. That means that if you’re visiting multiple EU countries, you only need one SIM card.
In order to use another provider’s SIM card, you must have an “unlocked” phone. “Locked” phones are tied to a particular mobile network and incompatible with other service providers’ SIM cards. You can buy unlocked phones on sites such as eBay for low prices. You can also unlock your phone yourself, but it’s a complicated procedure and not recommended if you’re under contract with your mobile provider. Check out cell phone shops in your area if you’d like a professional to unlock your phone for you; it’s cheaper than purchasing an unlocked phone.
Many European cities have free Wi-Fi. For example, Budapest offers free Wi-Fi in public parks, Warsaw offers free Wi-Fi on trams and buses, and Tbilisi offers free Wi-Fi on all major streets. If your destination has free Wi-Fi, you can save even more money on mobile data.
6. Travel Light
If you have packrat tendencies, consider limiting what you bring on your European adventure. Checking luggage at an airport is costly, and there’s a chance the airline could lose your things in transit. Traveling light saves you money and gives you peace of mind. You don’t have to devote as much mental energy to keeping track of your things or worrying about losing them.
You can purchase many everyday items, such as toiletries, when you get to your destination. Hotels, Airbnb rentals, and hostels often have washing machines, allowing you to bring fewer clothes with you.
That said, there are certain things you should be sure to pack because they’re either more difficult to find in Europe or considerably more expensive. Electronics, for example, are far costlier in Europe than in the U.S., so be sure to bring your phone and your laptop or tablet.
7. Travel During the Off-Season
As mentioned above, peak tourist season in Europe is in the late spring and summer. If you visit Europe during this time, you’ll not only face higher prices for everything, but you’ll also have to contend with throngs of foreigners everywhere. Besides that, many Europeans take out-of-town vacations during the summer, further limiting the authenticity of your travel experience.
To counter this, plan your vacation during other times of the year. It allows you to save money and avoid jostling for space with other tourists. Many things are cheaper when traveling in the off-season, from accommodations to restaurant prices to plane, train, and bus tickets. Just be sure to pack clothes that are appropriate for the weather.
8. Get an ATM Card That Saves You Money
While all European ATMs allow you to withdraw money with an American ATM card, your bank likely charges foreign transaction fees. That’s on top of any fees the European bank charges, and these fees add up quickly if you withdraw money often.
To avoid this, consider opening an account with a bank that refunds ATM fees and doesn’t charge foreign transaction fees. For example, Chime Bank charges no foreign transaction fees and also refunds all third-party ATM fees.
In general, to minimize the amount of ATM fees you end up paying, only go to the ATM when you need to. Withdraw large amounts of money so you don’t constantly have to go to the ATM every time you run low and incur more fees.
Additionally, ATMs and credit card terminals in some European countries may offer the option to charge you in dollars instead of the local currency. Don’t ever take this option; ATM exchange rates are always worse than what your bank offers.
Finally, it’s generally not a good idea to withdraw a large amount of U.S. dollars and then exchange it for local currency at the airport as airport exchange rates tend to be a ripoff. Instead, withdraw money in the local currency when you arrive to avoid exchange fees.
9. Prioritize Your Destinations
Europe is a big place. Deciding what you want to focus on for your trip allows you to plan more efficiently and avoid wasting money.
Do you long to explore ancient Roman or Greek ruins? Then focus on Italy and Greece. Enjoy skiing? Consider Switzerland or Austria. Want to spend some time on the beach? Spain, Portugal, or Cyprus would be perfect. There’s a European country for every kind of tourist.
Consider narrowing the scope of your trip to one or two countries or even one or two cities. Instead of doing a whirlwind tour across the continent, commit to exploring one country or one city in depth, discovering all of its secrets instead of just seeing the tourist attractions.
If you only have a limited amount of time for your European vacation, you’ll get more out of it if you stick to one or two areas. When you try to visit too many places, you waste time and money traveling instead of seeing as many sights as you can.
10. Visit Countries & Cities Off the Beaten Path
Millions of people around the world want to see cities such as Rome, Paris, and London. As a result, these places have sky-high prices and tourists everywhere. Some European cities, such as Venice and Barcelona, have even started passing laws to make visiting more inconvenient for tourists, such as banning Airbnb.
To avoid this, consider visiting other European countries that also have great things to see but aren’t as taxing on your wallet. The following cities and countries are just a sampling of the many affordable locations Europe has to offer. However, it’s worth noting that as it becomes cheaper to travel the world, and more of Europe opens up to tourism and investment, many of these places will become more expensive. So it’s best to visit while they’re still cheap.
Tip: When planning a cost-effective European trip, consider visiting countries that are not part of the eurozone, meaning they don’t use the euro as their currency. Countries such as Romania, Hungary, Poland, and the Czech Republic are considerably cheaper than neighboring eurozone nations.
Located on the banks of the Danube River, Budapest has become popular in the past few years among both hard partiers and history buffs eager to soak in its picturesque waterfront, rolling hills, natural thermal baths, and preserved Austrian architecture.
Historically one of the most important cities in Central Europe, Budapest boasts a large number of attractions, including St. Stephen’s Basilica, the House of Terror, and the Dohany Street Synagogue. It also features modern public transportation with a metro system and tram and bus network.
Foodies and alcohol lovers will enjoy Budapest’s gastronomic delights, from goulash and fisherman’s soup to locally produced wines and pálinka. After sunset, the city comes alive thanks to a surplus of hip nightclubs and “ruin pubs” that are open all night.
Despite its growing popularity, Budapest remains one of the most affordable capital cities in the EU due in part to its currency, the forint. It’s also close to Vienna, making it easy to fit into a tour of Central Europe.
Although Warsaw is Poland’s capital, Kraków is its true cultural heart. Located in the southern part of the country, Kraków’s preserved medieval buildings are a far cry from the Soviet apartment blocks and modern skyscrapers of Warsaw.
Visitors to Kraków can enjoy the city’s bustling Old Town, full of unique restaurants, charming architecture, and historical museums. Other notable attractions include the Cloth Hall, the Old Synagogue, and Wawel Royal Castle.
Like Hungary, Poland uses its own currency, the zloty, making Kraków one of the most affordable places to visit in Europe and an increasingly popular tourist destination.
Kraków is easy to reach by air from other points in Europe, as well as internationally, and it’s connected to neighboring cities and countries by high-speed rail. It’s also close to other important cities in Poland, such as Warsaw and Oswiecim, the home of the Auschwitz concentration camp.
The historic heart of Western Ukraine, Lviv has served as a meeting point for countless cultures and empires throughout its history. At various points, it has been part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Poland, and the Soviet Union, and each left their mark on the city.
In the years since the Euromaidan Revolution, Lviv has become a popular tourist destination due to its charming downtown square, eclectic restaurants, and hip nightlife. Notable attractions include Rynok Square, the Lviv Opera and Ballet Theatre, and the Armenian Cathedral. Ukraine, as a whole, is extremely affordable.
While there is a civil war going on in eastern Ukraine, Lviv is located in the far western part of the country and is perfectly safe. A high-speed rail line connects Lviv to Przemysl in eastern Poland, as well as to Kiev and other major Ukrainian cities, such as Odessa. Lviv also has air links to much of Central and Eastern Europe. Lviv is located near the Polish border, making it easy to fit into a Central European trip.
Serbia and the other nations of the former Yugoslavia have an undeserved bad reputation due to the wars of the 1990s. It’s a shame, because in the decades since the wars ended, Belgrade has become an underground party destination for intrepid explorers.
Located at the confluence of the Sava and Danube rivers, Belgrade boasts historic Orthodox and Ottoman-inspired architecture combined with gorgeous views, great weather, and shockingly affordable prices.
When you’re done partying at Belgrade’s famed floating nightclubs, you can visit such tourist attractions as the Belgrade Fortress, Church of Saint Sava, and Nikola Tesla Museum. Be sure to partake in some authentic Balkan cuisine, such as cevapi or pljeskavica, at the city’s many cafes and restaurants.
Belgrade is easy to fit into a Central European itinerary as it’s mere hours from Budapest via bus or train and has air links to most of Europe. It’s also close to Dubrovnik and other seaside cities in Croatia and Montenegro, if you want to take a side trip to the Mediterranean as part of your vacation.
Not often thought of as a European destination, the tiny ex-Soviet republic of Georgia has quietly become popular in recent years as an offbeat tourist destination thanks to its scenic mountain views, historic Orthodox monasteries, and welcoming citizens.
Nestled in the southern part of the Caucasus Mountains, the Georgian capital of Tbilisi is known for its Iranian- and Russian-influenced architecture and eclectic nightlife. Notable tourist attractions include the Jvari Monastery, Narikala Fortress, and the Georgian National Museum.
Tbilisi is a great jumping-off point for exploring the rest of the South Caucasus, offering bus and train connections to neighboring Azerbaijan, Armenia, Russia, and Turkey. Tbilisi is also not far from the Georgian seaside city of Batumi, a popular destination for those who want some fun in the sun.
Easily accessible by air, Georgia is one of the least-expensive countries in Europe, but its quality of life rivals that of any other European nation. Tbilisi’s combination of good weather, unique cuisine such as khachapuri and khinkali, and famously friendly people may make you want to stay there well past your trip’s end date.
Visiting Europe is a goal for many Americans. Its rich tapestry of cultures, cuisines, and history makes it one of the top tourist destinations in the world. Many Americans never take the leap, though, because they believe going to Europe is something they can’t afford.
That is simply not true. International travel has become cheaper and more convenient over the years, making that European dream vacation a real possibility for travelers who know how to find deals and plan their trips smartly. Using these tips and some research, you’ll be able to make your European vacation not only memorable but also easy on your bank account.
Have you visited Europe in recent years? How did you save money on your vacation?