December is an expensive month. The gifts, the travel, the meals, the party’s all cost a bunch. Come January and you’re left with a huge financial hangover on top of the common one, with the European vacation you’ve been eyeing for this summer further out of reach than ever. Europe as a continent does not enjoy the reputation of being a “budget destination”. Totally undeservedly, if you ask me. I’ve spent years roaming around Europe as a penniless student and I can tell you that if you do it right, there is no reason why you shouldn’t be able to tour this beautiful continent from end to end on a reasonable budget. And over the next few weeks, through this weblog, I am going to tell you how. Assuming you don’t go on an organized tour but want to travel on your own schedule, taking your time, I promise you that if you keep reading, you will discover that Europe too can be a budget destination.
When travelling, or thinking of travelling there are a number of topics to consider. Usually, these can be divided into the following: “Where and when do I go, how do I get around once I am there, where do I sleep, and what do I do while I am there”. There is, of course, the “how do I get there” question, but my guess is that you’ll be perfectly able to figure that out by yourself once you’ve settled your mind on the “where and when”, so I’ll just ignore the “how to get there” part and start with “where do I go”.
If you are going to Europe on a budget, first of all, don’t go to “Europe”. Its just too big and too diverse to cope with, especially on a budget. Go to “Europe” and you’ll end up getting lost in the maze of countries, currencies and customs, “seeing” a lot but experiencing only frustration and lack of time. Is there anything you can do? Yes, you can!
- Go to a big European country
Big European countries, like Spain, Italy or France are home to a great diversity of landscapes and regional cultures. If you spend most of your time in a big country, not only will you save on buying one guide book instead of many, you’ll profit from getting familiarized with the local transportation system, knowing which supermarket chain is the cheap one and so on. You may even learn some of the language and if you get bored – most big countries have many neighbours, making day trips to other countries a piece of cake.
- Go to the Eurozone
Maybe not the cheapest part of Europe, but staying in the uniform currency area will save you the hassle and costs of changing money at every border. Getting used to the exchange rate can prevent costly mishaps, saving you more than you would think. And a Eurozone country is not necessarily expensive – Estonia, Slovakia, Malta, Portugal, Slovenia and as of 1st of January also Latvia are all using the Euro and are comparatively cheap.
- Go to Central Europe
The West and North of Europe are rather expensive and travelling in the East is difficult (and expensive) due to large distances and language barriers. Plus, countries like Russia or Ukraine lack facilities for the budget traveller such as hostels and campings. Staying in the “golden middle” will keep you from overspending while allowing you to enjoy excellent facilities and relatively short travel distances. The only problem is – what is Central Europe? I think it can be limited to members of the EU that have been behind the Iron Curtain. Just check any list of “cheapest European cities” and you’ll find most of them fit the definition of Central Europe I propose.
- So where to?
Seemingly, the advice I just provided is contradictory, as there are no large countries in Central Europe that use the Euro. But I never said you should fulfil all the conditions at the same time. Besides, perhaps you’ve forgotten a country? What about Germany? Its big, it uses the Euro and its as Central European as it gets – even the geographical centre of the EU is in Germany. And, of course, a large part of Germany was behind the Iron Curtain – the Berlin wall must count for something! Plus, don’t forget that Berlin is one of the most affordable cities in Europe.
Hope this gives you inspiration and confidence that Europe is doable even on a tight budget. Next time I’ll share some tips about where to sleep cheaply (or even for free). And if you have budget tips of your own, your comments are welcome! Happy travels!