Want to vacation in Europe but don’t think you can afford it? Maybe you can.
Our family vacations in Europe every couple of years, despite being solidly middle class. And without mortgaging the future. Here’s how.
Shun Paris, Rome, and Amsterdam
Big name European cities have Big price tags to match. You should still visit (where else can you experience the Louvre, Colosseum, and Anne Frank’s House?), just avoid staying there, especially if you’re on an extended stay.
Mass transit in Europe is so widespread and timely and reasonably priced, that it’s not difficult to stay somewhere affordable and day trip to various destinations. We are recently back from Budapest, Hungary, where we stayed for a month. Hungary borders seven countries, and we visited two of them – plus Germany – by train and bus.
Boycott Hotels in the Best Part of Town
Boycott hotels period. There are too many other affordable options: Airbnb, VRBO, even Craigslist if you’re careful.
Also, avoid the tony districts. In Budapest, the most expensive areas are on or near the Danube, especially on the Buda side. So we stayed on the Pest side, in an immigrant area. (Yes, despite what you might hear about the political environment in Hungary, there are immigrants.) Being from multi-colored Baltimore, we felt right at home.
The cost for four weeks in a 3-bedroom apartment in District VIII of Budapest? $1,579.81 How amazing is that?
Dodge Baggage Fees
Airlines are experts at price discrimination – the practice of selling the same product at different prices to different buyers, in order to maximize sales and profits. That sounds like a negative thing, but, if you hustle, it’s actually to your advantage.
One of the ways airlines wring additional revenue out of fliers is by charging to check bags. The thinking is: price sensitive consumers will jam and cram their undies into their carry-on bags (dodging extra fees), while the more wealthy profligate packer will happily pony up the extra cash.
Traditionally, I’ve always been an over-packer (I like options, OK?) but the ascending march of baggage fees has me reformed. This trip was on British Airways and each checked bag was docked $60 each direction. As Nora says: “For $120, you can buy a boatload of clothes in Europe.” We shoehorned everything into carry-ons, and saved $480 ($120 X 4 of us) total.
Avoid Going in Summer
OK, we failed this one due to our schedule. But if you can swing it, go to Europe in April or September. Shoulder months are cheaper and – bonus! – you won’t get fried like chicken sizzling in oil.
Live Like a Local
That means first and foremost to use public transportation. This isn’t Atlanta, if you know what I mean. Everyone uses public transport to get around – and between – European cities, so you should also.
After housing and transportation, what’s the next biggest expense? Yup, food. Like I tell my kids at home: “If you eat out every day, eventually you’ll run out of money.” Same is true on vacation.
But, like a local, sometimes we splurge on food. We are on vacation after all.
Listed here, from cheapest to most expensive, is all the different types of food we consumed in Budapest, and where it came from:
- Produce and some prepared foods from the cute little Teleki Téri Market right across the street from our apartment
- Grocery items from Lidl supermarket, located adjacent to the market
- Gyros, doner kebabs, and palacsintas (crepes) from stands on literally every street
- Sit down restaurants like Huszar (with a roving violinist!) and Café Gerbeaud, where we saw Wallace Shawn – inconceivable! – nibbling a decadent dessert before jetting to Spain for his next Woody Allen shoot
Oh, and of course, our daily gelato from the bakery on our street: $.62 (!) for a cone scooped high with stracciatella (chocolate chip), zold alma (green apple), and this one:
Reject Guided Tours
We’ve used guided tours before and it can be pleasant to just show up and not think, but you’ll pay for it. And it’s not very rewarding.
When we took a four-day excursion from Budapest to Croatia (like Italy, but cheaper), we knew we wanted to go to one of the country’s two natural wonders: Krka National Park or Plitvice Lakes National Park. We settled on Krka because it is closer to the coast, where we were staying.
In every Croatian city, there were street booths that offered day trips to Krka. I never bothered to check, but I’m sure it was at least 4X what we paid.
Advance Pay for Some Things
If you know you are definitely going to do something, and there is a discount to be had by pre-purchasing tickets, then go for it.
Our apartment and rail tickets were both reserved and paid for before we even laid eyes on an airport.
Do Homework on How Best to Pay for Things In-Country
I’ve previously related how I took a bath in Belize when I didn’t realize the country ran on cash, and I was forced to use the high-fee ATM twice.
If a country is cash-oriented, determine beforehand whether it’s best to use an ATM, or to exchange cash at the airport, bank, or street exchange.
If a country is more likely to accept credit/debit, determine which card will offer the best exchange rate and lowest fee. And be sure to inform your bank of your plans, so they don’t think you’re a Nigerian scammer on an EU bender, and shut you down.
Skip the Trip Insurance
I’ve written about this before. We’ve never bought trip insurance, and I’ve never regretted it. Or lost a wink of sleep over it.
And the saved cash has allowed us to take even more trips!
In addition to the four of us, we were joined by two college friends – Fiona and Gigi.
First and foremost, things are just more fun with friends. We did a self-tour of the Buda Labyrinth. It looked like no one had done any maintenance or improvements in this natural underground cave for years, but the hilarious antics of our friends in the cool and misty darkness totally overshadowed that.
Also, friends bring new capabilities to the group. Fiona is a superb photographer, lugging her SLR with her everywhere. She snaps shots of the whole family that we couldn’t easily get any other way, like this iconic Prague shot (from a previous trip). From a cost perspective, it certainly beats the two Flytographers that my sister hired for her trip to Africa.
Jettison the Cell Connection
I know there are now affordable cell plans for Americans traveling in Europe; Verizon offers one for $10/day. No doubt there are some advantages for having this convenience, but there is something wonderful about not being able to access emails or texts all the time. Restricting internet access to wifi zones is sufficient.
That said, there are a couple steps to take:
- Before you set out, download all google maps that you’ll need for the day, so you can successfully navigate offline
- Only separate if there are clear time and place instructions for a reunion
Learn from us – we didn’t heed #2 on our German side trip, and we paid for it by losing a couple hours of prime activity time:
Free the Wallet for One-Time Experiences
Certainly enjoy the free stuff, like this colored fountain show set to music on Budapest’s Margit (Margaret) Island, in the middle of the Danube:
But what’s the point of all this saving if you can’t splurge occasionally?
Related: Our Splurge on NYC Hamilton Tickets
One of the best things to splurge on is vacation experiences. Memories don’t wear out like a Target purchase does, and unlike Netflix or a safe deposit box, it’s a one-time expense.
In Germany, that meant visiting Neuschwanstein (New Swan Stone) Castle near Fussen. The inspiration for Disneyland’s Sleeping Beauty Castle, it’s an even better inspiration to keep your real estate dreams in check. It’s builder – King Ludwig II – was such a spendthrift (he started five castles or palaces) that the panicked government declared him insane, dethroned him, and three days later his corpse was mysteriously found floating in a lake south of Munich.
In Budapest, it meant challenging ourselves with multiple Escape Room experiences, which, no surprise, were one-third the cost of similar stateside challenges. Harry Houdini and Erno Rubik were both born in Budapest, and the city has maintained that tradition, with over 100 escape rooms located within city limits.
Tote Your Frisbee With You Everywhere
OK, this might not be universal, but I carry my frisbee with me everywhere I go in Europe. It keeps me young and you just never know when you will round a corner and an expansive meadow will unfold before you.
What travel tips do you have to keep vacationing affordable and fun?