Europe has this perception of being an expensive bucket list place to travel. Some destinations within Europe are - I once paid $10 for some sliced fruit in the Zurich airport (I still cringe thinking about it). Outside of the Londons, and Zurichs of the continent, there are a lot of beautiful & exciting places that you can travel to in Europe on a budget. When it comes down to getting a deal on your dream European vacation, I find it comes down to three things: time of year, being creative with the logistics, and destination.
When to Travel to Europe
Summer in Europe is popular for a reason. The weather is excellent, the kids are out of school, and there are lots of national holidays. Because there is more demand in general during the summer months flights, hotels, entrance fees all tend to be more expensive from June - August. There are also a lot more crowds. My favorite time to travel to Europe is in the spring or the fall. The weather is usually good, there are a fraction of the crowds, and I can find deals on flights and accommodations. Usually, I pay around $300- $400 roundtrip to fly to Europe from Chicago. If you are flying from East Coast cities, it often costs $200- $350, and if you are flying from West Coast cities, it usually costs $500-$600 during the offseason.
How to Score that Perfect Flight Deal to Europe
Unfortunately, the more affordable destinations in Europe can be costly to get to from the United States. There are no direct flights to many of the more affordable capitals in Europe such as Tbilisi, Tallinn, Riga, Vilnius, and Zagreb. One of my favorite tricks is to fly into one of Europe’s better-known cities (London, Paris, Copenhagen, Stockholm, Barcelona, or Munich) and fly with a smaller domestic carrier to my final destination. Essentially I build my own layover. To figure out which city to fly into, I calculate the following - where is the cheapest to fly to from my home airport? And Where is the cheapest airport my home airport flies into to get to x destination?
If you are going to go this route, there are a couple of things to keep in mind. A lot of the affordable carriers in Europe do not have codeshare agreements with larger US carriers. This basically means if your flight gets delayed/canceled, leaving the states your flight to your final destination will not automatically get changed/moved. You may have to purchase another flight if the timing is too tight. To hedge against the many unknowns that go hand in hand with travel, I usually build in about 4 hours of layover time -long I know.
Finally, it can be a lot of work tracking flights and determining the right time to buy. I recommend using Scott’s Cheap Flights to spot flight deals.
Be creative when it comes to accommodations
In any given trip to Europe, I’ll stay anywhere from a hostel to an Airbnb to a five-star hotel. It’s fun to mix it up & it’s also a great way to save a little money.
When I travel to pricier European cities, I often chose to stay in a hostel. Picking the right hostel can be tricky, and my all-time favorite resource is Hostel World. The site has honest reviews, photos of the properties, and an easy to understand rating system. Hostels are great because they present the opportunity to meet other travelers, the accommodations are usually affordable, and they typically offer free walking tours. When I’m looking at hostels I always opt to stay in a private room - I’m a light sleeper and not quite at the place in my life where I want to stay in a shared room. Most hostels offer private rooms. When picking this option, make sure you double-check if there is a shared or private bathroom.
Airbnb is a beautiful thing. I love staying in Airbnbs when I’m traveling with a group of friends or if I’m looking to get a more local experience. Over the years, I’ve had some incredible experiences with Airbnb and some awful experiences. The key to finding a great Airbnb - read the reviews and trust your gut. If a place is way too cheap for the location, it’s in, it’s probably too good to be true. Also, take the time to do your research - do people say the place is clean? Has the host canceled on guests last minute? Is the area the home is in safe? When it comes to Airbnb, my other rule is that I only book Airbnbs in places that are “safer.” Safety and comfort are a personal thing, but in cities where crime is more prevalent, and there is more of a language barrier, I prefer to stay in a hostel or hotel.
Airbnbs and hostels are great, but my all-time favorite accommodations are really nice hotels (preferably with a sauna). Since it’s not feasible to spend an entire trip living a life of luxury with the amount I travel, I carefully choose where I want to splurge. With each trip I take, I usually spend a couple of nights at a bucket list hotel. When picking luxury accommodations, I seek out places that are unique to the area I’m traveling and something I won’t experience anywhere else. One of my all-time favorite “splurge” hotels was King George in Athens. The beautiful historic hotel has unparalleled rooftop views of the Acropolis, a rooftop pool, and is walking distance to Athens most popular sites.
Where to travel in Europe on a budget
The most essential factor in finding a deal in Europe is where you are going. Certain places such as Norway & Switzerland are always going to be pricey, but you can find some great deals by traveling in Eastern or Southern Europe. One of my favorite meals I’ve had traveling was in Lisbon - for 5 Euro I had 3 courses and wine (significantly better than the $10 fruit in Zurich). I recommend keeping an open mind and not being hyper-focused on having to go to a particular place. There are a ton of exciting and beautiful places in Europe, and you can find some great deals by keeping an open mind on destination.