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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.