Considering a cheeky jaunt to the mainland? This guide should cover everything you need to make budget travel in Europe a reality—from where to stay and how to get there, to who to go with and what to eat. Looking for something closer to home? Be sure to check out our favourite cheap and easy day trips from London.
1. Pick your moment
If you’re a teacher or a parent, you’ll know from bitter experience that school holidays are among the most expensive times of the year to take a trip. Going in May–June or September–October can help you make the most of cheaper travel costs and accommodation. What’s more, you’ll avoid the worst of the winter weather across much of Europe. Just be sure to check the forecast and pack accordingly; the climate might not be what you expect.
2. Go as a group
Yes, you’ll spend a lot more time waiting around for that one friend to get ready (unless you are that friend). But going as a group makes a lot of sense financially. You can spend much less on accommodation with fellow travellers in tow. And if you’re planning to drive, you can save a small fortune by splitting fuel/rental costs. If you’re not the type to spend all your time with others, there’s no reason not to just let your buddies know ahead of time and blaze your own trail.
3. Get your data fix
Whether you’re looking to get from A to B, show off how much better your life is than your mates or get together with the locals, most of us are more reliant on staying connected than we’d care to admit. If you need guaranteed service, you’re worried about data theft or you’re heading out of the major cultural hubs, it’s safest not to make assumptions when it comes to free WiFi.
Roaming charges can be pretty pricey, especially if you’re going for more than a few days. Fortunately, though, there are plenty of decent cheapo options. Several UK mobile providers offer free roaming in some European countries, so it’s worth checking if that applies to you. If not, or if you want to bulk up your data package, getting a SIM with a company like Voxi might be your best shot. Their packages offer pretty beefy data plans on the cheap, along with unlimited social media use—which doesn’t contribute to your data cap.
4. Save on baggage fees
Travelling light is a key skill for budget travel in Europe. Your baggage is going to depend entirely on what kind of holiday you’re going on and how you plan to get there. Generally though, the biggest questions around baggage revolve around flying. Most budget airlines charge extra for hold luggage—so obviously if you can get by with carry-on alone there’s money to be saved.
When catching a flight, anything you’re wearing on your person goes unweighed as a rule. Some folks have taken this to extremes with great effect—wearable luggage (vests and jackets that are all pocket) are still considered fair play by airlines. If you’re unlucky enough to have your cabin luggage weighed and go over the limit, you’re well within your rights to shave off a little weight off by layering up with your heaviest clothes. It’ll be uncomfortable until you’re through security, but you’ll save forking out for unnecessary extra baggage space.
5. Dine al fresco
Meals are as much about where you are as what you’re eating. There’s a good chance some of your most memorable travel meals weren’t experienced in fancy restaurants, but outdoors. Whether it’s in a park or a bustling marketplace, on a riverbank or by the sea, it’s easy enough to rustle up something great from simple ingredients when the views are good.
Europe has an incredible wealth of dairy products, baked goods, delicious veggies and meats—many of which you just won’t see in London. All it takes is a little homework on what’s good locally (and perhaps just a touch of bravery to try new things). And remember, whether you’re a wine, tea or fizzy drink aficionado, there’s usually a local drink to wash it down with too.
Just be a dear and take your rubbish with you when you’re done (yes, even if there are no bins).
6. Beat a new path
There are a few obvious nearby tourist powerhouses when it comes to travel in Europe—France, Germany, Spain and Italy to name a few. But with name recognition comes higher prices and bigger crowds. We’re not saying there isn’t some sense in looking for cheaper, shorter flights, but there’s a good reason visiting less touristy destinations is becoming fashionable.
Let’s be honest, the most popular spots aren’t going anywhere. But by hitting these lesser-known gems (before everyone else does), you’re getting in a slice of culture that might very well see a lot of change over the coming decades.
It’s a great time to visit countries like Poland, the Czech Republic, Bulgaria and Romania. They’re all beautiful countries with rich historical sites and traditions that you probably didn’t learn about in school. What’s more, they each have their own currencies, and can be considerably more affordable than Eurozone nations.
7. Sleep strategically
When it comes to cheap accommodation there are two main factors—type and location. If the word hostel conjures images of dirty rooms, shared toilets and snoring roommates, you might be pleasantly surprised. There are plenty of upmarket spots these days, which can include budget, private en suite rooms. If that’s still not in your wheelhouse, companies like Airbnb can save you a bundle, especially if you’re with a group.
Obviously if you’re in a city, staying more centrally can cost more. Just be sure to take time and transport costs into account. Saving a tenner but adding an hour every time you want to go anywhere is usually a false economy! If inner-city living just isn’t for you, keep an eye out for accommodation with free bicycles, which can be a great way to cover more ground in your city of choice.