What’s the best time to visit Europe? This is probably the biggest nonsense question asked about European travel. Any Google search on the topic will result in a virtually infinite amount of forum threads explaining why its a nonsense question, like this one, for example. Answers by Europeans can be summarized as 1- “Europe is pretty big, so it depends on where you go”, 2- “It really depends on what you want” and 3- “Any time is good”, none of which is really helpful. What if you are a budget traveller then? How can you time your European travel to keep your budget from going over the roof?
- Go in the summer
If you’re on a budget, travelling in the summer is pretty essential as the good weather allows you to save quite a bit. Thanks to the good weather, you can save for example by going camping instead of booking a hotel, or by having a picknick in the park rather than having lunch in a restaurant. Sure, you can do that “off-season”, too, but its much less fun in the cold November rain.
But summer is the high season?! The sad truth is, that in Europe, there is no real “high” and “low” season. Prices of food, hotels, train tickets and attractions are rather season-independent all over the continent, so you’ll probably pay the same in November as in August. Yes, the months of July and August are the busiest time in Europe. Fortunately, European summer is more than just July and August – in Scandinavia, for example, May is the driest month and the Mediterranean is still warm even in October. Europe, as I said, is pretty big, so outside famous tourist-traps like Venice or Paris its just fine in August, as better weather helps spread the tourists over larger areas. Actually, even in the most heavily touristed places its really not that crowded if you just take two steps off the beaten track.
- Go while you’re young
Isn’t budget travelling for young people anyway? What’s so special about going to Europe while you’re young? As it turns out, there is a catch here. Asia and South America are relatively cheap anyway. Even if you’re travelling with children, you can still have a great time in Thailand or Bolivia and not go bankrupt. Europe is a whole different story. In Europe it takes a bit more effort to travel on a budget. I’m not saying its impossible to camp with a family and you sure can go couchsurfing in your 50’s, like my parents did. But as a young person you’re slightly more likely to hitchhike instead of renting a car or to crash on someone’s couch for a few days. Plus, significant youth discounts, like 35% off the Eurail pass are available to youngsters living in or visiting Europe.
- Go when you’re a student
Don’t say “I’ll go after I graduate”. Don’t wait until you save more money. Go while you’re still a student. Why is it a budget move? Because your university can help finance your semester abroad, because there are special discounts for students on pretty much everything, because you will spend more time away and thus save on settling costs. Because your program may actually include travelling around. Because student parties have cheap booze. And because its great fun.
Young European students camping in the summer. One of them could be you.
Next time – my tips on what you can do for fun in Europe if you’re on a budget.
What are your experiences? When do you suggest is the best time to travel Europe if you’re on a budget?
An essential part of travel is… the actual travelling. Unless you’re on a city-trip, at some point you probably want to get from A to B. Admitted, some routes are more spectucalr than others, and not all ways of transport are equally pleasant. But getting around can be part of the joy of travelling, and even in Europe it doesn’t have to be expensive.
- Take the bus
The major destinations in Europe are well-connected by budget airlines and the excellent European train network is rightfully praised. However, in some parts, like the Balkans, bus is the major mode of transnational travel. But even in better-connected parts of Europe the transnational buses of Eurolines are a very valid alternative for the budget-minded traveller. For example, say you want to travel from Amsterdam to Frankfurt. The cheapest flights are at least 90 Euro, train tickets start at 59 Euro but the bus costs just 25 Euro! Sure, 8 hours by bus is longer than 6 hours by train, but it does save you 35 Euro. And on shorter routes, like Amsterdam-Brussels, the margin is even greater (9 vs 29 Euro for the cheapest tickets and the train is only an hour faster).
Eurolines bus (credit: Wikipedia)
- Rent a car
What? Renting a car? How’s that a budget mode of transport? Well, under certain conditions it is. First of all, if you’re going to remoter destinations, or off the beaten track, renting a car can be even a necessity. Secondly, since trains in Europe can be quite expensive, if you travel in a group, or moving around a lot, renting a car can turn out to be cheaper than train or even bus. “Group” doesn’t mean you have to squeeze 5 guys in a small-sized vehicle, the break-even group size is usually between 2 and 3. This means that even for a couple, renting a car can be a budget option and if there’s 4 of you, don’t hesitate to rent. Finally, car rental is about the only thing in Europe that is cheaper outside the peak season of July-August, and the differences can be significant. Check the prices in different months – it might pay off to postpone your travel by a couple of weeks, to save hundreds of Euros on the rental vehicle.
Our (budget in the off-season) rental car in Borgarfjörður Eystri – Iceland’s remotest point. We’ve visited the local church. It was for free. And unlocked.
This is for the more adventure-minded travellers. For women its probably not the best idea to hitchhike alone even in the safest countries. Generally, standing by the roadside with a board or the thumb up is not a good way to hitch a ride. Go to a gas station and engage in conversation with people you want to give you a ride. Smile a lot. Learning a few words in the country’s language, even if only saying “Hello, how are you”, is essential for breaking the ice. Ask people politely where they are going and if they would be ready to take you with them. While hitchhiking took me once from Vienna to Eindhoven in just 10 hours, be prepared for the worse – like getting stuck on a dead road for a whole day. Fortunately, in the modern hyperconnected world, there are special websites like www.carpooling.com or its local sibling www.mitfahrzentrale.de, where you can find a ride in advance (maybe while paying part of the gas costs). Additionally, Couchsurfing groups are a great way of getting in touch with other travellers, that may want to join you in hitchhiking, share gas costs or just give you a ride. Happy hitchiking and stay safe!
Not the right way to hitchhike
Well, now you know where in Europe to go to on a budget, how to find a cheap place to sleep and how to get from A to B. Next time – the all essential question of when to go if you want to be able to travel Europe for 30 Euros a day (and I promise not to forget to tell you what you can actually do in Europe on a budget).
OK, so you’re in Europe. Whether you are in a big country or small, North or South, rain or shine, at some point you need to get some sleep. And getting a place to sleep can eat quite a big chunk out of your budget. Fortunately, even in (relatively) expensive Europe there are good budget sleeping options, that sometimes throw a unique experience into the bargain.
I probably am not shocking anyone by telling about Couchsurfing (or CS for short). In case you’ve missed out on this one – its a way of getting a place to sleep on someone’s couch. CS itself is just the largest and most well-known of a number of similar clubs. The concept is simple – you make an account on a website, tell a bit about yourself and send potential hosts a message asking whether they will be kind enough to host you when you’re around. I’ve had some amazing experiences with CS, both hosting and staying, and a couple of not-so-great-but-still-better-than-a-hostel experiences. In case you’re freaked out by the idea of going to spend the night at a random stranger’s place, try going to a meeting of your local CS group, or perhaps use CS in your home town before you go. Besides a free place to stay, CS is a great way to get to know the locals and join them for some cheap thrills, like going to a Death Metal club in Glazgow, wine tasting in an Italian village bar or speed boating on Lake Luzern (all done by me via CS).
If it wasn’t for CS, I wouldn’t get to ride this guy’s 500 hp boat on Lake Luzern
If you like to get your hands dirty – why not go WWOOFing? Here the concept is a bit different – you get food and lodging in exchange for a few hours (4-6) a day of work on an organic farm. In addition to free accommodation you get a unique experience and an opportunity to learn new skills. WWOOFing needs an initial investment – to get the information about potential hosts, you need to pay a membership fee for the WWOOF charter in the country you are visiting. A way of circumventing multiple fees if you want to WWOOF in multiple countries is to get membership of “WWOOF independents” – countries where there are just several hosts and that don’t have a national group (in Europe this includes Albania, Bosnia, Croatia, Cyprus (Northern), Finland, Georgia, Iceland, Latvia, Luxembourg, Malta, Montenegro, Netherlands, Russia, Slovenia, and Ukraine).
OK, so maybe not all WWOOFing locations look like this. Let’s just say that I just know what to choose.
Most European cities have a camping nearby or even within city limits. Especially in the summer months, camping is a cheap alternative to staying in the crowded, damp hostels. Even more remote campings sometimes offer pick-up and drop-off service from the nearest train station, so you don’t have to have a car to go camping. And did I mention that even in pricey Switzerland camping fees cost just 5 to 10 Euro? In addition, in less crowded areas of Europe (and there are plenty), you can just pitch your tent out of sight for free! By the way, camping does not necessarily mean that you have to pitch your own tent – many European campings offer places in already pitched tents, dorm-style. There are family tents as well, or, if you want more comfort, caravans.
No, you don’t always have to go to 4000 meters for a free place to sleep in Europe (on the slopes of Mont Blanc)
Mind you, these are only the free or almost free options. If you’re less adventure-minded you can find a cheap hostel or book a hotel well in advance (or off season) and get a great deal. But as you now know, even if you’re on a tight budget you can still get a good night sleep, sometimes in really cool places, too. Next time – the essence of travelling – how to get from A to B on a dime and a penny.