Budgeting for European Travel

It’s a great shift in culture these days, to see more people eschewing the Stuff and choosing to spend their money on travel. Travel changes your perspective on the world and everything in your life, making it the best investment in yourself possible. But how can anyone afford it? Isn’t European travel outrageous and impossible to afford? Absolutely not, and in fact, I find it to be cheaper than domestic travel in some places. Skip the trip to Hawaii and think big, you may save money in the end. Let’s get a sense of the costs by budgeting for European travel.

Where You Go Matters

Not all of Europe is built the same, cost-wise. In general, northern Europe is expensive and things get cheaper the further south you go. A hotel in Amsterdam may cost $300 per night, while and equally nice one in Palermo may cost $100. The other determining factor is if you stay in the countryside or the city. While pricing out a private tour recently, I was amazed to find that a country hotel was 50% cheaper than one in the city, only 5 miles away.

If you’re on a budget, southern European countryside will stretch your Euros well. If you have money to spend, go for the Scandinavian city experience. As for myself, I prefer a mix.

When You Go Matters

Hotel costs and airfare are your big ticket items. Assuming you’re not using loyalty programs or airline mileage programs, choose a cheap season to get the most out of your money. The best time for cheapskates? January. November is a close second. As days pass beyond January, prices increase, but the spring is still decently priced and has more options since many resort areas are closed in winter. The most expensive months are September and October everywhere, and August for any place with sand or a kiddie pool.

Play with date combinations and see what you come up with, you may even find deals as late as June.

Prince or Pauper or Both?

Some people need to have hotels with all the trimmings, others can sleep in a box under a bridge. My dirty backpacker days are long over, but they taught me that you can actually get by on almost nothing. I wouldn’t suggest saving money the way I did (stories too incriminating to tell) but if you scale back on little things you’ll be surprised how it adds up. I suggest a combo of cheap and moderate hotels, picnics and fine dining. Don’t scrimp on the admission fees to sights, that’s what you came for.

Airfare

Telling you how much to allot for airfare is like looking in a glass ball without being a psychic. I am always shocked when I see the cost of my airfare to and from work, it’s always different and for random reasons. Here is what I can guess, based on 20 years of commuting to Italy, and assuming you’re buying your ticket at least two months out. This is also west coast airfare, which is higher.

What Does it Cost–Seattle to Europe

January– $650

February-March– $800-900

April– $1100

May– $1300

June-August– $1500

September-October– $1300-2000

November– $700

December– $700-2000 depending on holidays

Add about 20% if you’re a month or less away, and another 20% if you buy less than two weeks before departure. That’s roughly what it costs. You can certainly get lucky and find cheaper fares. Besides checking your own home airport, try airports of neighboring cities. In Seattle, for example, tickets leaving from Vancouver, Canada can be up to 50% cheaper occasionally.

Overall, let’s pin your flight budget at $1000. You can manage that. Cook at home more and avoid Starbucks and you’ll be surprised how quickly you can put that money together.

Other Transportation

Your itinerary will determine if this is a big ticket item or not. Public transport is fairly affordable in every country. Sticking to a single country or region will keep your costs low, especially if you’re using buses or trains.  If you’re traveling in a group, renting a car can be very cost-effective. But even wacky itineraries, like, say, Stockholm, Rome, Lisbon, can totally work with budget airlines.

Flying can be cheaper than the train, but you’ll have to do some research on the budget carriers and their tricks. A €5 fare could end up costing $200 after bags, seat assignments and such.

While pricing is very dependent on what you plan to do, I’m going to spitball the transport cost to be $25 per person per day.

Hotels

Where you choose to sleep can burn money fast. Hotels have crazy pricing schemes these days, and finding a budget sleep is hard in high season in big cities. I strongly suggest booking your hotels far ahead of time if you’re on a budget. Look at the calendar and watch out for holidays. The 25th of April in Italy, for example, is already booking up eight months out! If you’re traveling around major holidays. try to stick to villages or countryside hotels for better prices.

What Does it Cost– Hotels

This is a range of prices for accommodations based on northern vs southern Europe. It is also a range based on time of year. The low end will be off-season in southern Europe. These are my estimates for a double room.

Business Class City Hotel– $200-500+

Family-run 3 Star Hotel– $100-300

B&B– $50-150

AirBnB– $50-200

Countryside Inn– $75-150

Hostel dorm bed– $10-40

Overall, I suggest budgeting $120 per night for a hotel for two. That gives you space to splash out or save money to suit your time of year and location.

Food

I used to be of the opinion that bread and tomatoes constituted a perfectly acceptable diet while traveling in Europe. I’d splash out for cheese if I was feeling frisky, and a 500 lira bottle of wine (blech!). What my backpacker self didn’t understand is that the food is a big part of the experience. Missing the local cuisine is like going to Disneyland and not riding the Matterhorn.

While you shouldn’t eat a fancy meal every day, plan at least one “event” dinner on your trip. Make cheapie picnics for lunch, that will keep you moving during prime sightseeing hours anyhow. Humble take-out dinners or homey local restaurants can fill the gaps.

What it Costs– Food for 2 people

Cheapie picnic–$5 for bread, few slices of cheese, piece of fruit, box of wine

Take-away meal– $10 for shareable pasta, meat, or Indian

Local pub or homey trattoria– $20-40

Mid-range restaurant– $40-100

Splashy Fine Dining Experience– $200+

Overall, I’d budget $25 per person per day for food. It can be way less than this, but I think you’d be missing out if you scrimp too much. This will need to be more if you’re focused on Northern Europe or anywhere in Switzerland. But even in expensive countries, a grocery store lunch won’t cost you more than it would at home. Bread, cheese, and tomatoes are always good.

Sightseeing

Spend your money here. Yes, I know there are some serious rip-offs these days (Westminster Abbey is over $20!), but hold your breath and pay the money. It’s what you came for. You can tighten your sightseeing budget by being smart about tickets. Most biggies, like the Uffizi or Eiffel Tower, have timed entries that you MUST buy way ahead if you want the base price. If you don’t you’ll end up with tickets from “agencies” (i.e. scalpers) which cost much more. Pin down those big sights ASAP.

Some cities like Paris offer combo ticket museum passes. I absolutely love these. They usually let you skip the line and give entry to things you’d probably not pay to see along with the biggies. Pay the money for these passes and go crazy. See everything. I am specifically thinking of the Paris Museum Pass, the London Pass, and (to a lesser degree) the Florence Pass. They may not be the best value, but they are worth it for kamikaze sightseers like me.

Don’t forget to budget in bigger experiences as well. Paragliding in the Alps, truffle hunting in Croatia, a pub crawl in Venice. Take a walking tour or two. These are well worth throwing more money at.

Overall, I’d budget $15 per day for sightseeing. This is assuming there will be days you don’t do much, and some where you’ll spend a bit.

Contingency

There will be other costs. Surprise airline fees. Taxis and umbrellas in a downpour. Flea markets with Stuff you MUST HAVE. Bandaids for your tired feet. New shoes to replace the ones giving you blisters. Who knows, you may even just want a little fun money to blow indiscriminately. That’s cool.

Give yourself what you need to have fun, but I’m going to pin it at $10 per day. Yes, that’s not much, but you don’t really need that plaster David, do you? Ok, fine, buy it, but negotiate and tell them you’ve been put on a budget and I’m the one to blame. It’s cool, I’ll take the heat for it.

Total Cost, Budgeting for European Travel

Let’s do the math, assuming you’ll be gone two weeks.

Airfare $1000

Transport $350

Hotel $840

Food $350

Sightseeing $210

Contingency $140

Grand Total: $2890 per person

So, for around $3000, you can have a comfortable adventure with all the trimmings. Single travelers may think they need to budget more, but that’s not necessarily so. I travel alone often and can hit these numbers, especially since I’m not going out for as many dinners or carousing with friends. It’s all about planning ahead to get the best prices.

Budget travelers could shave $500 or more off this price by going in the deep off-season and/or staying in hostels. And eating lots of bread, tomatoes, and cheese. Don’t forget the wine in a box.

Is this estimate totally right? Probably not. There are so many variables. But the larger point is that $3000, while not a small amount of money, can be doable if you’re a diligent saver. That’s saving up $250 per month for a year. So, no excuses. You can do this. Get out there, adventure is waiting, and doesn’t cost as much as you think.

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Sarah Murdoch is a tour guide and guidebook writer for Rick Steves Europe. Her blog, Adventures with Sarah, focuses on packing tips, travel stories and advice for planning the best trip possible.

6 replies on “Budgeting for European Travel”

  1. I think it’s fair to also consider what you’re not spending at home while on vacation, groceries and eating out mostly. Good advice here although I’d add the cost of a SIM-enabled cell phone in the budget.

  2. Great post! Thanks so much.
    I’ve traveled to Europe 6 times in the past five years, each time for two weeks, and spent roughly $3500 each time. So, very close to your estimate. I also fly from the west coast and usually travel April/ May although once in September to Southern Italy.
    I definitely agree that splurging on museum passes and entrance fees is so well worth it.

  3. I absolutely agree that international travel can be cheaper than domestic and there are definitely ways to make money go farther. A few years ago I was in Berner Oberland in January. We didn’t ski, but we did some sledding by the ski slopes. Last winter I researched a ski trip for my family to go to Colorado from the Midwest. i couldn’t believe what it cost. My lodging at an Airbnb apartment in the Lauterbrunnen valley was cheaper than any accommodation I could find in Steamboat. A rental car from Denver was going to be $1000! In Switzerland, one can get by just fine with local transportation all the way from Zurich airport. I think with my Delta credit card, I could take our skies so we wouldn’t have to rent, etc. Anyway, people should do some research and they may likely find a way to make international travel work.

  4. Thanks for the budget lesson. I have a similar budget approach. As a solo traveler, I think the lodging could go up a little – I budget $100 cdn ($77US) a day for lodgings – but then I like a proper apartment. My sightseeing is more, as I rarely miss a day of it, and may do 3 – 7 sites. My overall figure, however, is close- even if it is in Cdn dollars. Add an extra week, if you can manage it, and the per day cost drops even further, as the airfare is the biggest chunk. I often get away with $5000Cdn ($3750US in Nov ’17)) for 23-25 days in Europe which is $150 – $165 US a day, compared to $214 per day, for the $3000/2 week scenario above.
    It can take a lot of research, however, to really make a budget work, which might be more than some can afford (ha ha).

    1. I know I’m posting late on this topic:) But I wanted to thank you Sarah for posting this article. I found it extremely helpful. And I also wanted to thank Juli and Jackie for their posts. I had heard skiing in Europe could be comparable or maybe even cheaper than a big sky trip in America, as surprising as that seems. And Jackie, I had never thought about researching staying at a convent. Thank you so much for sharing that idea. I truly love unique travel experiences, and that one is defiantly on my radar now.

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