Since we came back from our European excursion, I’ve gotten a lot of messages about planning trips on a budget and what to know while abroad. Travel spreadsheets are my number two love language, right behind free guacamole at Chipotle. It’s a close competition, but I think the memories that result from my spreadsheets are slightly better than those of Chipotle. Maybe if they hadn’t introduced potato-tasting queso? We will never truly know. But here’s a few things I’ve learned before/during my travels.
The biggest money-saver when traveling internationally is getting a good deal on flights. Google Flights is the most well-known method, where you can create flight alerts for a flexible range of dates so that you know when to buy. Momondo is a more advanced version of this, with similar alerts. But for me, Scott’s Cheap Flights saved me the most money — around $1,600.
How it Works:
scottscheapflights.com works on an algorithm, spotting airline mistakes and oddly low fares. For example, I got an email about flights to New Zealand from Texas for under $200 — thousands below the normal price. I quickly added the flight and went to checkout, but it was no longer available because the airline corrected the mistake. You have to act fast, and you can’t search for these deals. You have to wait until Scott updates you, which could be anytime. There’s a paid subscription with even more alerts, presumably the best, but I only have experience with the free newsletters.
The only caveat to this method is the spontaneity of it. If you’re okay with a flexible travel date, this is by far the best method to scoring good deals. We knew we wanted to travel before peak season, sometime in April or May. I got an email in October with mistake fares from Houston to Rome, one of the stops on our bucket list, and we bought the flights within a few minutes for less than $400 each (before travel insurance). This same flight goes for $1200+ during that timeframe. So our travel dates were determined by what flight we were able to secure — you can’t necessarily plan ahead for that. Scott is practically my best friend now, and I can’t recommend this newsletter highly enough. We are thinking about a Northern Europe trip for next summer, and I’m already on the lookout for good deals.
I have a lot of friends who stay in European hostels, which is a great option if you’re a wandering, free spirit on a budget. If you’re a little more particular and like your space, there are a ton of options out there. We came across several new websites offering home sharing, but decided to go with Airbnb in the end because it’s familiar. Airbnbs in Europe are significantly less expensive than American ones, and often have more amenities than you would get at a hotel. The only city where a hostel/shared hotel experience was cheaper was Amsterdam. Some Airbnb hosts provide pickup to/from your arrival location for a fee or even just for a tip/good review. We took advantage of this and even asked a few times. Our favorite hosts were the ones that offered to drive us, pick up our bus tickets, or even buy us city passes for reimbursement. Our hosts in Rome drove us around the neighborhood so we knew where to eat/shop/locate transportation the next day. Plus, the locals know the ins and outs of the city and will be able to get better deals than you — don’t waste their knowledge — it’s the best part of traveling this way! If you’ve never travelled using a home sharing site, I’ll break down the options and costs associated with them:
Shared Rooms: This is a “live with your host” situation. It’s a hostel posted on Airbnb, often run by a local. They frequently include breakfast, linens, towels, ect. Typically, it’s a large room with bunk beds shared by other travellers. If you choose this home type, make sure there’s a safe place for locking or keeping your items while your’e exploring.
Private Rooms: Private rooms are secluded spaces within a local’s home — some are a room with a shared bathroom, while others are the entire master suite or guest house with private entrance/bathrooms. Read the descriptions carefully and ensure your room has a lock on the door. When living with a host, their reviews are increasingly important. We had a positive experience in Nice with our host, but chose to move Airbnbs halfway through our stay because we just weren’t comfortable sharing such a small home with multiple people. If you like to go nonstop during the day and want quiet/TV time when you get home, splurge on the biggest space, the entire apartment.
Entire Apartments: This option filled the majority of our itinerary, and we loved 99% of the spaces we stayed in. The average nightly cost was usually less than $100/ $50 per person. We even had our own rooms in Spain and the second leg of Nice. You get so much more bang for your buck in these spaces — especially if you book early. There will be a handful of homes that offer amazing prices for less square footage, but the places are built/rennovated specifically for Airbnb. Look for the ones that look like professional photos — these hosts often use Airbnb as an income and equip their properties with everything a tourist needs. Our home in Venice had AC, wifi, espresso, maps, bus cards, restaurant coupons, the best bathroom ever, multiple beds, and was in an amazing location. It was tiny, but it was built for home-sharing and was a terrific experience, for less than $150 total. Professional photos and a 5-star host are a recipe for success. If you wait to book, though, all of the cheap gems will be booked. Think ahead (I’m talking 6 months).
Extra Fees: The bottom line is — read the reviews, the descriptions, the added fees, read it all. Europeans charge travel taxes so read carefully about how much your host requires in cash upon arrival. Don’t agree to more than 15 euros for a few nights. Anything else is a scam — book somewhere else. You might also need to provide photos of your passport, so I printed several and stuffed them into our travel folder. Your host may also charge for linens or towels. We chose to avoid those places because it felt too much like running a business and less like a home-sharing experience. All the information you need will be included on Airbnb. If it’s not, skip!
For our trip, we decided early on that we wouldn’t say no to food, regardless of cost. We saved money using public transportation and walking 12 miles on our day in Paris so that we could consume all the calories, financially guilt-free. If you decide to be thrifty in your food options, though, I recommend splitting dishes. Most of the averagely priced restaurants had huge portions of pasta that could easily be split. Nicer restaurants tended to serve smaller portions, but were also the most amazing plates we’ve ever eaten. Don’t forget about the bread — if you want to save a few dollars and order a smaller entree, the bread before your meal is free and you will likely want to eat the entire loaf (no shame). Bring a refillable water bottle with you to save tens of dollars in ordering water with your meal because it’s not free in Europe. We would have saved close to one hundred dollars had we refilled our bottles the whole trip instead of ordering it with every meal for three weeks. And if you’re worried about the cost of alcohol, don’t. You can get a house bottle of wine for just a few bucks, and trust me — it’s worth it. For specific wines per region that we love, shoot me a message. Lastly, don’t tip! We had to Google proper dining etiquette almost every time we sat down to eat. Most countries will include gratuity in their bills already, so don’t leave extra cash.
Another tip — try to avoid restaurants with English menus or paper menus at all. The mind-blowing, mouth-watering dishes we had throughout the trip were all in the native language, written on a chalkboard. Ask your server to pick for you if you’re unsure and don’t be embarrassed about looking up key words or entire dishes.
Check out Airbnb’s “Experiences,” which are created and conducted by locals. We loved our wine tasting and pasta making classes, both reasonably priced and tons of fun. This is a great way to meet people (who speak English) and feel immersed in the culture while learning and eating like locals.
Flights are the cheapest option for hopping from city-to-city in Europe. We had several flights for less than $30 (without bags), but we quickly discovered it’s not the most convenient way to travel. Instead, I recommend taking the trains that run through almost every major city. Though it’s slightly more expensive for a ticket, the money and time you save getting to/from the airports will justify the increase in cost. Train stations are in the center of every city, likely close to where you’re staying, while airports are usually several miles away from public transportation. Navigating this system without speaking the language of the country can be difficult and frustrating. Instead of trying to figure out the cheapest, direct path to the airport every time (we often quit and ordered an Uber), just take the train. Eurorail has country passes that are cheaper if you’re under 26, and you can take unlimited transportation on the days you select. For example, we bought an Italy four-day pass, and we could get on any trains (and some busses) however many times we needed to while traveling in Italy, for a discounted price. Then, instead of going through airport security, we walked our luggage to each train station, hopped on and hopped off, and walked to our next Airbnb. It’s easier, more comfortable, and far less stressful — all beneficial for long trips.
If you need a taxi, I always recommend Uber. Most cities in Europe have reinstated this service and now have better rules and restrictions. Almost all of our rides were first class, black vehicles. Some cities have eliminated the basic accommodation of “regular” cars and upgraded to only professional drivers dressed well with premium vehicles. Don’t feel bad about being cautious, and if you’re matched with a driver with bad ratings, deny it for another one. We didn’t have any problems, and actually had a few fun conversations in broken English.
Another tip — If you’re taking public transportation, scan your bus/train card every time you enter a vehicle. Cities have inspectors that hop on/hop off and check your tickets for the machine’s stamp. We learned quickly that some cities monitor a lot better than others, and it’s not worth getting a fine because you wanted to make your ticket last longer by saving a few dollars worth of punches.
Bonus tip — On busses and some trains, there are designated seats for elderly, pregnant moms, and disabled/injured passengers. Do not sit in any seat with those markings. I sat in one in Spain and got yelled at three or four times in Spanish for my ignorance, until they saw my casted foot. Though most of our interactions were kind and friendly, we had multiple experiences on busses where people treated us unkindly because of being Americans. If you want to give up your seat to a local, they appreciate it because the busses get jam-packed during rush hour every day.
My biggest mistake while planning was not purchasing tickets for museums and sights ahead of time. We missed the Vatican because we didn’t buy “Skip the Line” passes ahead of time. Even a month out, tickets to the Anne Frank house were almost sold out. In order to maximize your time, purchase tickets in advance. Be mindful of any transportation passes you purchased as well, because most come with one or two free/discounted museum tickets. If you prefer tours, we loved the hop-on, hop-off bus tours. For $30, we could get on and off a double decker bus in Barcelona and go wherever the route took us — this was a great way to see the city while also getting around and understanding what the most exciting sights are in a region. Not to mention, the busses include audio, and you can get an idea of the history behind the places you’re going. If you’re trying to see a lot, skip the more expensive guided tours at each spot and opt for an audio tour or self-guided one. If you’re a history buff, there are often English guides offering to show you around for cheaper than the museum offers, just be careful of any suspicious behavior and don’t feel bad for saying no. There will often be lines of several hours waiting to see the most popular sights like David in Florence or to get into The Louvre in Paris. If you’re in a hurry, you can join a tour that bypasses the line. Or, if you’re like I was and have a disability, ask one of the guards to let you in — we were able to skip every line because I was in a boot (the only good thing that happened from this break).
We visited so many places, I can’t count anymore, but we truly felt safe in almost all of them. Rome and Paris had some scary moments, but you’ll notice that a lot of places have armed guards scattered throughout their city. Americans often find this alarming, but it’s nothing to worry about. Keep your belongings near you, though, because we heard countless stories of stolen phones and wallets. I opted for a small fanny pack the majority of the time, where I could put it under my shirt or keep one hand on it. Thieves are experts, though, and even your pockets are fair game. Jessica had a jacket with inside compartments near her chest, and that was a great solution that kept her belongings safe too. Backpacks are a no, unless it’s stuffed with other stuff on top to bury your wallet. Still, the more stuff you’re carrying around, the more appealing you look to pickpockets.
At the end of the day, your trip is what you make it. We had an amazing time despite our mistakes and lack of knowledge. You can’t prepare for everything, and that’s okay. Either way, you’ll come back a better person with countless memories and probably five pounds heavier if you love pasta as much as me. Traveling is a privilege Jessica and I worked so hard to pull off, and it’s honestly worth so much more than money can buy. We spent around $3,000 each by the end of the trip, and we could have saved significantly more if we wanted to, but our inner shopaholics got the best of us. If we can do three weeks for that price, you can do it for less, but it’s your prerogative. Wanderlust doesn’t have to break your bank.
What are your travel tips? Did I miss anything? Comment below!