How to Travel Europe on a Budget

We ask full-time traveller & tour guide Christian Gibney for all his tips and tricks to travel Europe cost-effectively

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  • 21 January 2017
  • • 19 min read

WE ASK FULL-TIME TRAVELLER & TOUR GUIDE CHRISTIAN GIBNEY FOR ALL HIS TIPS AND TRICKS TO TRAVEL  EUROPE COST-EFFECTIVELY

How long have you been wanting to take that trip to Europe? For most people, the first obstacle to conquer is saving up enough money. That will just about get you from place to place. Then you have to think about how to manage your funds when you hit foreign turf; where to go, what to do, how to do it. So many things to plan and pay for. But don’t panic - we’ve enlisted the help of American travel-junkie Christian Gibney to share all his tips on how to travel Europe on a budget.

Christian’s full time job as a tour guide means he’s constantly on the road, so his knowledge of travelling on a budget is pretty advanced. He could easily write a book filled with the best advice and tips you’ll ever need. Not to mention his great justifications as to why you should take the time to travel.

I had the pleasure of having Christian as a tour guide when I went trekking and honestly, he knows pretty much everything about every place we went to.

He travelled 23 European countries within a year, all whilst counting his pennies. And that didn’t stop him from having the time of his life. I thought I’d ask him all the questions you’re probably thinking from where to stay and how to get there, plus much much more.

Need travel inspiration? Find out .

QUESTIONS

FIRSTLY, WHY DO YOU THINK PEOPLE SHOULD MAKE TIME TO TRAVEL?

From young, I was inspired to travel by the stories my father brought back from his business trips all over the world. These stories fuelled my curiosity. My interest was piqued ever since then and my desire to learn more about the world kept me determined to actually see the world.

As I grew older and realised the sacrifices that sometimes needed to be made in order to travel (financially, work-related, etc), my dad would always remind me of one thing: “When you get to be my age and you think back on your life, you won’t remember all of those extra hours you logged at work, but rather the incredible experiences you had from travelling”. It seems like such an obvious statement, but when you are trying to meet deadlines, close on sales, or just satisfy the boss NOW, it becomes almost impossible to reflect on your life as it is from a future perspective.

I think travelling is so much of that: self-reflection. Of course learning about new cultures and gaining a global awareness is important, but I see travelling as something you ultimately need to do for yourself. You learn a lot about yourself when you’re in a situation that is unfamiliar to what you’re used to. You owe it to yourself to go discover what’s out there. Your future self will thank you for it.

The view over Venice, Italy from the Campanile di San Marco


HOW MANY COUNTRIES DID YOU TRAVEL IN EUROPE AND HOW LONG DID YOU GO FOR?

I lived in Heidelberg, Germany for a year, which is located in the southwest of Germany, quite close to the French border. It was a perfect location to travel from because it’s so centrally located. During my year in Europe, I was able to travel to 23 countries! I remember being in disbelief of that number when I first tallied that up. I would go on little weekend trips and short breaks so often that they just accumulated so quickly!


WHAT WOULD YOU RECOMMEND TO PEOPLE WHO HAVE LESS TIME TO DO IT IN?

This is a tough question because the responsibilities and restraints that usually prevent people from going on long trips are real. There aren’t too many employers out there who will allow you to go on a two month backpacking trip at the drop of a hat. My recommendation is to start out small. If you’re in the Europe, check what Ryan Air or Easy Jet flights are available early Saturday morning and get the last flight back on Sunday. You’ll be tired, but you’ll have a great story for Monday at the office. If you’re in North America, get in a car and drive out to a hiking trail and climb to the top of that hill or go get lost in the nearest city.

Scratch that itch that you have to travel. Eventually, travelling will become a priority in your mind. All of the sudden, you’ll want to start saving up those holidays or paycheques so that you can treat yourself to a big trip every couple of months. Wanderlust is a real thing and once you have it, it may never go away.


IS IT POSSIBLE TO TRAVEL ON A BUDGET AND STILL EXPERIENCE EVERYTHING?

Absolutely. I cannot stress enough how doable this is. The main expense is usually getting to your destination. Sometimes, you have to be really patient to find the right deal or just know where to look. Once you get to wherever it is that you want to go, you can become the biggest penny-pincher in the world or throw around hundreds like they’re going out of style. Either way, you can have fun doing it!


COULD YOU RECOMMEND SOME CHEAP WAYS TO ACTUALLY GET TO YOUR DESTINATION?

Here are three websites that you should bookmark:  skyscanner.com airfarewatchdog.com , and  scottscheapflights.com . I’m sure there are more out there, but I’ve never needed anything else. Sky Scanner and Airfare Watch Dog will help you find the cheapest flights available from wherever your departure airport is.

Scott’s Cheap Flights, on the other hand, will notify you via email of unusual flight deals that airlines either purposefully or accidentally offer.

These sites are essential in the initial stages of planning your trip.

If you’re looking for actual cheap airlines, there are plenty of those (and they usually will show up in your searches on the aforementioned websites!). In North America, you have Frontier Airlines, Spirit Airlines, and Southwest Airlines. In Europe, you can use Ryan Air, Easy Jet, and Eurowings. I’ve flown with all of these companies and their cheap prices will always have me coming back.

View of the Alps on a RyanAir flight


HOW DID YOU GET FROM COUNTRY TO COUNTRY OR CITY TO CITY WHEN YOU TRAVELLED EUROPE?

I used Ryan Air A LOT when I was over in Europe. It can be frustrating at times as they utilize mostly regional airports, but there is no way I would’ve been able to see 23 different countries without them.

Even regional airports have duty-free shops! Dat Ouzo doe... shudder

Say you’re not flying. You are already in Europe and are in the midst of your backpacking adventure. You have three options: trains, buses, and automobiles. Obviously, this will depend on your itinerary, but there are cheap and affordable options for each method of transportation.

Eurorail

Eurorail was always fun to ride, especially with friends. We’d play cards or knock back a few beers and chat to pass the time away. If we had our own carriage, we’d blast some tunes and sing along until we had no voices left.

10 hour train ride up to Copenhagen. At least you can drink on the train

The European train system has connected the continent so well and made travelling there so easy and efficient. Eurail.com offers “hop on, hop off” train deals depending on the amount of countries you want to see and is the fastest of the bunch. I love this method because it allows you to really see the European countryside. You can get a:

Global Pass - access to 28 countries for seeing as much of Europe as you want Select Pass - access to as many as 4 bordering countries One Country Pass - you guessed it, access to travelling via train all over a single country

When you have to sit on the floor because you are an overbooked train you weren't supposed to be on in the first place

The crew heading to Stuttgart for Frühlingsfest which is basically Oktoberfest during the spring

At least you get to see cool train stations like this one in Budapest, Hungary

Buses

Bus companies like  Eurolines.com  gives travellers access to 53 different cities within Europe at very affordable prices. It can be a longer, but more direct way of getting from place to place in comparison to the trains.

Seemingly, the only photo I took on a bus during my time in Europe. Probably because nothing fun happens on the bus...

Cars

Finally, you have cars. There are many ride sharing websites that friends and fellow travellers have mentioned to me. One that I am most familiar with is mitfahrgelegenheit.de in Germany. These sites work by users entering where and when they want to travel from and to and then matching them up with drivers who are passing through those towns or cities.

I found these three methods of travel to be the most cost and time-effective and I would recommend them to anyone looking to travel throughout Europe.


WHERE WOULD YOU STAY?

Hostels

HOSTELS! I’ve been on trips where the hostel was my favourite part of the experience to no fault of the actual city’s offerings! What I love about hostels is that they bring travellers together. Travelling can definitely be lonely, especially if you’re travelling alone. Even for an introvert like me, hostels provide you with an option to engage in conversation and activities with travellers you would otherwise never meet. Hop on that walking tour, participate in that night’s cooking demonstration, get stupid drunk on the pub crawl, or stay in for board game night!

The staff are always so knowledgeable about what one should do, where one should eat, and what one should see in the city. They’ll offer tours and excursions, train station and airport transfers, and just about anything else to make your trip easier.


HOW DO YOU KNOW IF YOU’RE CHOOSING A GOOD HOSTEL OR NOT?

READ. THE. REVIEWS. No hostel is going to tell you how they have never been able to circumnavigate the bed bug problem or that they haven’t cleaned their bathroom since they opened or that they are located on top of a popular nightclub. I can honestly say that I have never had a horrific hostel experience due to the simple fact that I always check the reviews before I book a place. The reviews will also give you an impression as to what the atmosphere of the hostel is like. Is it a party hostel or a chilled out one? You can usually find these answers in the comments left by people who have already stayed there.

If we didn't stay at a hostel, how else could we have just passed out on the lobby couch after several litres of beer at Oktoberfest?


WHERE DO YOU GO TO EAT AND DRINK - AND HOW DID YOU FIND OUT ABOUT THESE PLACES?

There are several ways I go about this. First, I’ll do my own research. This usually consists of Trip Advisor (copy & paste this into Google: “best restaurants (travel destination) trip advisor” and it’ll be your first hit), YouTube videos from people who have gone there, and word of mouth from friends and travelers I’ve met abroad.

If you’re familiar with Reddit, another great way find the best local spots is to find your travel destination’s subreddit. For example, say you are going to Barcelona. You know that you need to try Spanish Tapas, but there are way too many places to choose from! You can check out Barcelona’s subreddit at reddit.com/r/barcelona. On the right side of every city’s subreddit page, you should come across a link that will take you to the best local restaurant and bar recommendations. The website might be a bit confusing to navigate for first-time users, but I promise you it’ll be well worth the effort.

Finally, I like to ask two specific people for recommendations once I actually arrive in the city: the person who checks me in at the hostel and the bartender at whatever bar the person who checked me in at the hostel recommended. It is their jobs to have their finger on the pulse of the city. They wouldn’t be doing their jobs well if they didn’t! You’ll be surprised of the undiscovered gems that you’ll find with their help.


HOW DO YOU AVOID TOURIST TRAPS?

A good rule of thumb is if you can see the most popular landmark in the city from your restaurant table, you might be at a tourist trap. Furthermore, if you don’t see one local in the establishment you just sat down at, you might be at a tourist trap. Now obviously, some places are “tourist traps” for good reason. The number one restaurant on Trip Advisor in any given city is more often than not going to be packed.

My best advice is to do your research. You don’t need to plan every meal, but check out which districts tend to be known for having the best restaurants or local spots. A good website for finding this information is wikitravel.com. Many of the city pages are split up by districts so you’ll have a really good idea of which might harbour more tourist traps and which will be more likely to have that delicious hole-in-the-wall.


ON AVERAGE, HOW MUCH MONEY DID YOU PUT ASIDE FOR YOUR DAILY MEALS?

My answer will be different than most because I LOVE to eat. Some people eat to live, I, on the other hand, live to eat. I’ll save money on other things such as finding cheaper accommodation or skipping out on souvenirs so that I can splurge on good meals. If you’re staying in a hostel that provides one like St Christopher’s Inns, you can finance at least one meal per day by partaking in their free breakfast.

If you’re sticking with street food in a European city, I see no reason why you can’t keep it at $30/28€/£25. If you want to eat out for every meal, I’d probably bump that up $45/42€/£37. If that all seems too high for you, hit up a grocery store and cook at the hostel! You’ll be spending a fraction of the amount that I am!


HOW DO YOU EXPLORE AS MUCH OF A CITY AS POSSIBLE ON A BUDGET?

When I travel, I make full use of the internet in all of it’s glory. From planning and booking all the way to being my own personal tour guide. I like to explore mostly on foot. That way, it’s harder to miss things, you get a really good feel for the vibe of just being on the street with the locals in that city, and it’s a fantastic workout! Also, think of the money you’ll save every time you don’t use a taxi or the metro. That can add up fast!

Cool Metro signs in Paris

They have automated barriers on Paris Metro platforms. Clever!

I like to plan out my own walking tour of the main sights that I want to see starting from the hostel and working my way around the city in a way that I can avoid paying for any type of transportation. Having this rough idea on a map of where you want to go also allows you to stray from your planned itinerary and discover things that catch your eye as your roaming around.

Another cost-effective way of travelling within a city and seeing the sights is to get a city pass. These passes are found on sale at airports and the main train stations. They commonly offer unlimited use of the public transportation system for a period of time, free or discounted entry to museums and historic sites, and discounts on local restaurants. Examples of these include London's The London Pass, Paris' Passlib', and Rome's Roma Pass. It is the first thing I purchase when I get to a new city that I know I'll be exploring a lot of.

Ride the famous Tram 28 in Lisbon with the Lisboa card

Look up which museums and sights offer free entry. Find out if there are any free concerts or bars you can just sit in and catch some live music.


WHAT COUNTRIES ARE MORE EXPENSIVE THAN OTHERS - AND THEREFORE WE SHOULD PUT ASIDE A LARGER BUDGET FOR?

Did you know that Iceland is so f***ing expensive?! It makes Switzerland look like a panhandler.

Iceland is undoubtedly the most expensive country I’ve visited. You have to realize that a lot of goods need to be imported to the island, which will inevitably raise the costs for visitors and locals alike. Switzerland is also quite expensive as it’s reputation states. Other than those two countries, you’ll most likely find big cities to be more expensive than smaller towns. Places like Paris and Barcelona come to mind when I think of cities that are noticeably more expensive than its surrounding areas.


WHERE DID YOU BUY YOUR SOUVENIRS?

I know how ridiculous this sounds, but my souvenirs from my trips are the memories I take home. This could be the meal I treated myself to, the bar I had a merry and drunken time in, the new friends I made at the hostel, or the crazy and slightly worrying experiences I endured that I can laugh at now. I prefer these souvenirs as supposed to something like a shot glass that will end up breaking or collecting dust on a shelf at home.


FROM YOUR OWN EXPERIENCE, WOULD YOU SAY TRAVELLING ON A BUDGET ALLOWS YOU TO SEE/DO EVERYTHING YOU WANTED?

Without a doubt. Before you go on a trip, sit down and think: “what is my reason for going on this trip? what do I want to get out of it?”. Whether it’s food, partying, an activity, or something else, base your trip (and budget) around that reason.

Write out that budget on a piece of a paper or note on your phone. Something I like to do (and is a bit extreme) is to write down every single cent I spend from the cost of the flights to a single metro ride I took from the bar back to my accommodation. This way, I can keep a running total of how my budget management is going and adjust my spending habits based on that.

Allow yourself to spend a bit more money on that reason too. You’ll be able to save it back in other ways on your trip which can include cutting back on souvenirs or staying a your second hostel choice rather than the first. I think it’s important to not be too money-conscious while you travel.

I don’t mean to say that you should forget about the budget you set as soon as your plane touches down on the tarmac; rather, give yourself a little freedom to treat yourself. One of my few regrets while travelling was being too stingy in Iceland. I know I missed out on some really cool culinary experiences because of it. I never think back in disgust over the meals I paid a little bit extra for or the bar tabs I ran up; it’s the money I didn’t spend that I regret the most.


IS THERE A PERFECT NUMBER OF DAYS YOU SHOULD GO FOR?

Well, yes, but that number is unique to each person and each trip. Choose your destination and figure out what it is you want to do there. Don’t shove it all into one day, otherwise you’ll be too tired to enjoy it all. Also, don’t stretch it out for way too long as you’re accommodation and food bill will begin to add up fast. Check out travel bloggers who have gone to where you’re headed already and see what their itinerary was.

In terms of balancing out time spent in a destination and seeing as many destinations as possible, think about how many opportunities in the future you’ll have to travel. If you only get a week off from work per year, go crazy! If not, take the time to appreciate the atmosphere and lifestyle that exists at your destination. Sometimes, that’s impossible to get from a day or overnight trip.

Remember when you got to Prague so late that their trains shut down for the night?


LASTLY, WHAT KIND OF TOURS DID YOU DO THAT YOU’D RECOMMEND?

These are the tours a little different to ones you’ll find advertised all over the city.

Carlsberg Tour, Copenhagen

I personally love brewery tours. I love beer so it only makes sense. I remember going on the Carlsberg tour in Copenhagen and being brought into this room that was FILLED from floor to ceiling with old beers from all over the world. It was an amazing sight to see!

Pavel’s Personal Prague Tour, Prague

One walking tour that I did really enjoy was in Prague. The tour was called Pavel’s Personal Prague Tour. Our guide, you guessed it… Pavel, was so informative and added a great personal touch to what it was like growing up in Prague, especially during the dissolution of Czechoslovakia. He also recommended an awesome bar as we walked passed it for later that evening called U Zlateho Tygra. At this bar, you are immediately served beer as soon as you sit down and they will keep bringing you glasses of beer until you actually tell them to stop. It’s dangerous, but provides for one helluva time.

Tour guides can really make or break a tour depending on their knowledge and passion for the country or city that they’re in.

Catacombs tour, Paris

I also enjoy tours of places the typical travel websites might tend to overlook. I remember going on the Catacombs tour in Paris and thinking it was one of the eeriest, most intriguing tours I’ve ever been on. I’m sure most couples romanticizing their way around the city don’t realize there may be crypts filled with bones of Parisians that once walked the same streets they are.

And that’s that! We hope Christian’s informative tips make planning your trip a lot easier. And remember - if you’ve always wanted to travel Europe on a budget, do it while you can! Christian is currently travelling around China teaching English to children.

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