How We Spent Less than $3,500 on 7 Weeks in Europe

02 February 2015


When we got home from our 7-week backpacking trip across Europe, we couldn't stop recounting the stories with our friends and family. From being mistaken for a couple while catching up on some z's in a random hostel bed in Amsterdam to the crazy Scottish tour guide that healed Caileigh's itchy nettle rash with a plant growing next to it, our tales seemed endless. Filling others with a sense of wanderlust, one of the first questions we often got was how we could afford it.

Even though it was our first long-term trip and despite the mistakes we made while abroad, we came back with a pretty manageable savings depletion. We can proudly say that we backpacked through Europe on less than $3,500, and we had the time of our lives doing it.

That's why we want to share some of our tricks with you. Travel can be affordable for everyone that tries to do it reasonably, so we hope these tips inspire you to take the plunge like we did.

How We Spent Less than $3,500 on 7 Weeks in Europe | The Brave Little Cheesehead

1. We did our research
The key to traveling on the cheap is understanding the general cost of living in the areas to which you'll be headed. We conducted a lot of research to determine what would be the most cost efficient route throughout Europe and ended up selecting Ireland as our first stop due to flight prices. We also used HostelWorld -- one of the biggest databases of hostels across the globe -- to project housing costs, and we consulted some of our favorite travel blogs to get a sense of food costs. This enabled us to establish a rough, daily budget of approximately $75 per day. We wrote down every penny we spent to make sure we kept to that. 

You may need to be prepared to sacrifice a certain level of spontaneity with your travels if you take this approach. But if you're on a tight budget, not waiting until the last minute to book flights and overnight stays may help considerably with saving some extra cash.

2. We planned ahead
We made a list of all of the things we wished to see in each place we visited, denoting rough costs for everything even if it was free. We then factored these costs into our daily budget to make sure we could afford it.

If these activities and attractions put you at the top of your budget, start thinking about where you can cut costs. For example, perhaps you can consider staying in a 12-bed dorm room instead of an 8-bed if you need to scrounge up some more money. By having a good sense of your priorities, you're able to set boundaries for spending and plan ahead.

How We Spent Less than $3,500 on 7 Weeks in Europe | The Brave Little Cheesehead

3. We couchsurfed 
We knew London was going to be one of the most expensive cities we planned to see, so rather than booking a hostel, we got in touch with an old family friend who was more than happy to have us crash on her dining room floor.

If you don't have friends to meet you at your destination like we did, you can consider looking into sites like Couchsurfing.com or another homestay program to make new friends to stay with.

4. We stayed in hostels that offered extras
While hunting for a place to stay, we had a list of must-have amenities included in the price of our bed: breakfast, towels and linens, wifi, lockers per bunk and occasionally airport pickups. These things will not only reduce the cost of your daily budget, but they'll also help in terms of packing light. We did end up bringing our own microfiber packable towels and sleeping cocoons anyway, so we could be flexible on some of the amenities, but not offering free breakfast was usually a deal-breaker for us. Plus, we could often take fruit or granola bars that were offered at breakfast to have as snacks later on in the day, helping us to stretch our budget even further.

5. We packed lunch
We saved a ton of money by packing daily lunches and splurging for dinner instead. After we bought a couple of jars of peanut butter in Paris to carry with us for the rest of our trip, this became pretty easy. In each city, we would stop at a local grocery store and buy bread, cheese, fruit and other things to make sandwiches and snacks most days. Some people say to eat out for lunch instead of dinner because of cheaper prices, and this is certainly true, but we didn't want to have to come back to our hostel to cook dinner every night. This was a more convenient way for us to keep our costs down and still be able to indulge in local cuisine when we wanted.

Since we were booking hostels that had free continental breakfast and packed lunches 4-5 times a week, we could afford to eat pretty much anywhere we wanted for dinner. This allowed us to have some budget left over for dessert, which is honestly a must in places like France and Italy.

How We Spent Less than $3,500 on 7 Weeks in Europe | The Brave Little Cheesehead

6. We took overnight buses
I'm not the best at sleeping in moving vehicles, so I wouldn't recommend doing this all of the time. But for longer journeys like Edinburgh to London or from Prague to Budapest, we opted for an overnight bus ride as our form of transportation from city to city. It's typically a low cost trip and maximizes your day time in each place you visit. You'll also save the cost of an overnight stay somewhere else!

We took OrangeWays a couple of times on our trip and would recommend it to others. It cost us only 21 EUR per person from Prague to Budapest and about 15 EUR per person from Budapest to Vienna, which was really affordable.

7. We picked places to stay that were centrally located
Sometimes this means spending a few extra dollars per night on a hostel, but we found that when we stayed at a place that was close to many of the things we wanted to do and see, we were more likely to walk than take public transportation and never took cabs. This definitely requires some upfront planning to determine whether it's actually more cost effective, but for us this worked well.

8. We used ATMs
Rather than paying high fees to exchange US dollars for local currency, we made sure we had American debit cards with low international transaction fees (only 1%) and used ATMs instead. You'll still have to pay an ATM fee, so try to avoid taking money out at an airport where this is likely to be more expensive.

How We Spent Less than $3,500 on 7 Weeks in Europe | The Brave Little Cheesehead

9. We went for lots of walks
We actually have a lot of fun just wandering around a new city and letting ourselves get lost. It's a great way to get off the beaten path a little bit, get some exercise, and it's free! We also used Sandeman's free walking tours in a handful of the cities we visited. While these weren't spectacular by any means, we did meet a handful of other travelers, and it was nice to hear a little more about the history and architecture of cities like Edinburgh and Paris that we wouldn't have otherwise heard. Since they're free, you really don't have anything to lose by giving it a try!

10. We (mostly) skippped the alcohol
We know what you're thinking. We know this is a controversial thing to say. But for us, this really came down to our priorities. Personally, we would rather have a casual drink here or there and put the money we'd have spent seriously partying in Europe toward adding another city to our trip. With a pint of beer ranging from $6 to $10 depending on the country you're visiting, a single night out can add up pretty quickly. We would rather spend that money on a 3-day backpacking trip to the Isle of Skye in Scotland or put it toward our next trip. This might not work for you, but this is a big reason why our trip ended up being so affordable for us.

11. We negotiated
This is easier to do depending on the place you're visiting, but we negotiated a handful of times while at markets. For example, we managed to get premium leather wallets from a seller at the San Lorenzo market in Florence at a discount. Since we were planning to purchase three (one for each of us, and one for our mom), we managed to snag them for about $35 a piece instead of their listed price of $50. Not bad!

How We Spent Less than $3,500 on 7 Weeks in Europe | The Brave Little Cheesehead

12. We booked with budget airlines
Yes, you get what you pay for, but when flights between countries in Europe are only a couple of hours long, you can save yourself a pretty penny or two by picking RyanAir over something else. Sure, the airplanes resemble tuna cans with advertisements, and yes it's true, the flight attendants tried to sell us e-cigarettes our entire flight, but these were sacrifices we were willing to make for the trip of a lifetime.

13. We knew our airlines' baggage policies
You can avoid getting charged extra fees at the airport by doing a bit of research. You are likely well aware of many airlines now charging to check baggage and may try to carry on whenever possible, but you also want to make sure you understand the carry-on size restrictions of airlines you're flying because they tend to vary in the EU. If you are going to check a bag, make sure it doesn't go over the weight restrictions as well.

14. We tried to limit the souvenirs (but didn't always succeed...)
We know just how tempting it can be to stock up on souvenirs from foreign places -- we actually ended up having to purchase a cheap, purple roller board suitcase that we nicknamed Donatello in Vienna to help carry some of ours -- but one way you could cut back on costs is to slow your roll on the amount of stuff you buy. We are pretty good at only purchasing things that can be used, like clothes or jewelry, and we kept anything outside of that to Christmas tree ornaments because of a tradition we started while in Amsterdam that we continue today. But travel trinkets aren't always cheap, and they only weigh down your pack. Just remember that, after all, "travel is the only thing you buy that makes you richer."

For more information about our trip to Europe, check out our posts here.

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2 comments

  1. Awesome Post!!!! Getting ready for my own 2 Month Europe Travel. A couple of quick questions...What tup of ATM card did you use while in Europe? How many countries did you visit and did you purchase a Eurail pass? THANKS!

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    1. How exciting--we're so jealous!

      Most any debit card (with chips) will work for you in the EU. Of course, bigger banks are likely safer bets (think Ally, Chase, etc.) We would recommend taking three chip cards, some kind of combination of debit and credit cards. Maybe consider taking two debits and one credit or two credits and one debit. This way, if one card gets denied or held by your bank, you have other resources to get cash. Also be sure you can transfer funds among them easily. If you don't travel frequently, you'll want to notify your bank(s) of the dates and regions you'll be traveling so they don't hold your card when they see transactions coming in from abroad. You can do this online or with a quick call to your bank.

      Yes, we purchased Eurail passes for the first leg of our trip, but purchased train tickets individually after that. Given that we were students when we traveled, we got a bit of a discount purchasing Eurail passes. Seat61.com is also a good resource for checking out the types of seats/cabins for the different trains you may take.

      We visited 11 countries by train and bus, and then we took a one-week cruise to three other countries with our family; they joined up with us in Italy for our final leg of the trip. Given the large number of countries and short timeline, we like to think of it as an intro to Europe trip, which gave us just a quick sample of the different places we visited. That said, our very favorite places were the destinations we stayed the longest (5+ nights). With more time there, we had more time to fall in love with them.

      Enjoy your travels, Daniel!

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