I arrived home from Europe seven days ago. In that time, I’ve been sharing stories and catching up with what’s been happening at home. Of all the details of my trip, what seems to surprise people the most is how cheaply I managed it, and that I honestly think I could have done it even cheaper. I managed to visit 10 countries in two months, for $5,123. This number DOES NOT include the bills I had to include in my budgeting for while I was away, like my rent, car payments, and insurance. It is simply the total amount I spent during the entire two months.
The biggest expense on a trip like this is transportation. For the first month, I traveled by plane to get from country to country. I only paid for two flights, totaling just over $200. In fact, I would have only needed to pay for one of those, but I changed one of my flights and had to pay for an entirely new ticket.
Free flights are a LOT easier to get than you might expect. I simply found the best credit card offer, and signed up for it. In this case, I picked the Capitol One Venture card. This card also has no foreign transactions fees. Score! All I needed to do was spend $3,000 on the card in the first 3 months I had it to earn 40,000 miles. Now, I’m not a big spender, and since I was saving for my trip, I had no big purchases coming up. However, letting friends and family know that you’re aiming to earn a mileage reward helps. They can put their bills on your card and then give you the cash. This earned me the reward of 40,000 miles, as well as 6,000 miles for the expenses charged to my card (you get 2 miles per dollar.) The next step was simply planning my flights ahead of time. I aimed for days and times that were less busy, and I have no qualms about booking with budget airlines. Another step to keep those travel costs down was packing light. My bag for this trip, the REI Vagabond Tour 40, is carry-on sized, so I did not need to pay to check my bag at all.
The second half of my trip was all train travel. I had purchased a Eurrail pass ahead of time, and I can’t say how glad I am that I did. It was $680 for 17 days of travel in a two-month span. During a travel day, you can take as many trains as you want, as long as they are included. The only extra fee I had to pay was for seat reservations, and this was only a concern in Italy. Germany, Czech Republic, and Austria you simply hop on, find a seat, and put the date in your pass. This saved me quite a bit, and made it very easy to get where I needed to go, on my own schedule. I loved the freedom it afforded me and having the pass saved me a lot of time at each station since I didn’t have to wait and buy a ticket. If you are planning to move around a lot, the Eurrail pass is definitely the way to go.
Now, once you get where you’re going, how do you avoid spending boatloads of cash but still have a fantastic time? You simply prioritize! For myself, I bought simple groceries and cooked in the hostel whenever possible. Eating out is expensive, and to eat out every meal, every day, for two months…I shudder to think how much more expensive this trip would be. I am not a foodie. I enjoy food, sure. And in Italy, I thoroughly pigged out. But almost everywhere else, I was content cooking my own food. I think this was a huge part of what kept me under budget. Before leaving on this trip, I had researched most of the cities I was visiting, and made lists of the free things to do, as well as the ones I didn’t mind paying for. I didn’t stick to these lists by a long shot, but it was a good way to plan out some of my experiences. I took several free walking tours (Sandemans tours are excellent. You tip the guide at the end) and I visited many free museums along the way. However, some of my favorite times in each city were actually spent just wandering around. I would walk out of my hostel with a vague idea of something I may do that day, and just explore for hours. Eventually, I would use my phone’s GPS to find my way back.
Not only is walking around a city free, but I found that I really got to enjoy the feel of each place. I think everywhere you visit has a vibe, a personality if you will, and if you just do the touristy-guided-stuff, you might miss that. While there are always amazing things to see and do in new places, taking a walk can actually be the most pleasant.
The next cost concern is accommodation. I kept this cost low by using a variety of places. I used couchsurfing (I wrote a post about my experiences with this, Couchsurfing: To try or not?) which is free of cost but certainly not for everyone. I also took my time choosing hostels, taking into account cleanliness and safety first, and then cost and location. I stayed in one Airbnb which we split three ways and worked out to be close to the cost of a hostel (but much nice, and with a beautiful view of the Sorrento coast) and I stayed in a budget hotel for two nights halfway through my trip, at which point I was in need of some privacy. Being able to use couchsurfing was a big help towards keeping my budget low, and I found that it really benefited my trip in so many other ways.
Lastly, don’t buy crap.
Seriously, I only brought home a couple souvenirs for myself. Most of them were things I needed along the way that doubled as souvenirs, like a small daypack bag from the Cinque Terre. Having such limited space in my backpack helped keep me from buying a lot as well, and whatever I purchased I would then be carrying around for the next month. The only expensive thing I bought was a beautiful leather jacket from Florence, for $226, towards the end of my trip.
I hate the concept of buying souvenirs for other people while you are traveling. To me, it just seems weird unless you see something that absolutely screams that person’s name to you. The exception is for people who financially contributed to the trip. So I avoided doing that as well, which doubtless saved me a bundle. My photography and my travel journal are better souvenirs than I could ever find in shops, as they detailed my personal experiences and adventures.
Looking back over my trip, I can see many areas that I could have cut my spending even further. Between ATM fees, alcohol, and spending a little extra for nicer hostels and even a hotel, I could have cut another $200-$300 off my entire trip.
These are not revolutionary tips by any means. There aren’t secrets to traveling cheaply. Every single person who travels has a set of priorities and experiences they want to have, and that mentality really does dictate one’s experiences. These techniques and this type of travel worked fantastically well for me. I feel that I didn’t miss out on anything during my trip either, which is even more important. I ate what I wanted, took the tours I wanted, and saw all the sights that were most important for me. Budgeting and prioritizing certainly don’t need to impact the quality of the trip overall.
What have you done to budget while traveling?