How to (Successfully) Backpack in Europe on a Budget

When money's tight—and even when it's not—these are the smart tips to help get through Europe.

Romanticizing backpack excursions through Europe has long been the bread and butter of travel writing.

Riding gondolas through the waterways of Venice, peering out over the steel infrastructure of the ever-sexy Eiffel Tower or riding a slow-moving train over the snowy Alps: while every European backpacking dream can be a reality, it comes at a cost.

"I think the trick was to make friends with fellow backpackers who were all traveling on a similar budget," said Monica Stott, The Travel Hack blog founder. "That way, you're all in it together and you don't feel like you're missing out because you're all enjoying these budget experiences together."

As far as rewards for budget backpacking, there's no feeling quite like having saved money and seen the world. 

"It is always a thrill to score a good deal—especially on big ticket items like plane tickets," said James Feess, The Savvy Backpacker co-founder. "And, after the trip is over, it does feel great to come back to a bank account that isn't empty." 

There are thousands of voices telling the world how to save money on that epic backpacking trip through Europe. These are the tips and tricks we think hold the most weight, specifically in accommodation costs, technology, transportation and more.

Make a Budget and Stick to It

While Europe's allure—and mental currency conversion necessary for USD to Euro transactions—makes it easy to fall off a budget, sticking to a prescribed spending cap isn't as hard as it might sound. 

"A successful budget traveler tracks their spending every day," Feess said. "They also have a budget and they stick to it. If they overspend today then they'll underspend tomorrow."

One of the trickiest places, according to Feess, is the budget for food. While it's simple to research budget dining options, it can also be easy to overspend on food and alcohol. Cooking a few meals for yourself or buying simple groceries as snacks to eat throughout the day is one of the ways Feess combats excessive food costs in his travels. 

"Eating out can get very expensive, but it would be a shame to eat cheese sandwiches and ramen every day because food is such a big part of any culture," Feess said. "So when you do eat out you want to make sure you're getting a good value." 

Among the ways to score a good value for meals—and nightlife—would be to seek out local eateries and cheap nightlife spots for a bit of local bites and booze. These spots are promising for deeper interaction with locals and break from the touristy areas of town.

Young boy peering out of a plane window

Bring the Family: Travel Is for Everyone

While budget travel through Europe is typically a single, twenty-something’s endeavor, family travel through Europe is not only possible but can be relatively inexpensive.

“My kids are both under 2, so I’m making the most of not having to pay for their flights while I can,” Stott said. “Once children are over 2, you have to pay for their flights and this really bumps up the price. When traveling with kids, we rarely have nights out so we save a lot of money by not visiting restaurants and bars and that money can go towards more family-friendly activities.”

Stott also encourages traveling families to take advantage of “private houses or apartments” like those available on AirBnBVRBO and other sharing-economy accommodation sites.

“You can cook your own meals, have some extra space to stretch out and stick to your kids’ routines,” Stott said. “I’d also recommend starting your day as early as possible. It's more difficult to get through crowds with kids, so get to all the sites and attractions early to beat the crowds.”

Subway train whizzes past the platform

Transportation: You Get What You Pay For

When looking at train, bus, rental car and airfare fees, there are a few things to remember.

Keep flight times in mind, according to Stott. If there’s an early-morning flight that necessitates getting to the airport before public transit starts, factoring in a taxi or ride-share is essential in weighing how deep the discounted flight really is.

"Be flexible," said Brenna Holeman, blogger of This Battered Suitcase, who resides in England. "I have found that, by being flexible, with both my destination and the dates of traveling, I've discovered tons of cheap flights. I check out sites like Expedia and Skyscanner every few days and just play around with dates and locations. I bought flights to Italy for less than $15 that way."

Holeman also recommends that if travelers can base themselves in one area for a long period of time—especially if they can find work in that area—to take shorter trips from that home-base location.

"Europe is such an easy continent to travel around," Holeman said. "And with the boom of budget airlines transportation is cheap, too. Now—I live in London—I regularly find flights around Europe for $50 or less." 

During the rush to visit as many cities and countries as possible, there's usually a temptation to cram in at least a dozen destinations. However glamorous this seems, it's usually ill-advised to attempt for bodily health and wallet health.

"A lot of young people want to make a grand trip around Europe where they visit 10 different cities in two weeks," Feess said. "The amount of cash they spend getting from city to city ends up being a huge budget killer. Plus, that much travel wears you out both physically and physiologically." 

Feess also mentioned that while budget transportation tickets might be cheap—that $25 bus ticket from Paris to Amsterdam, for example—it'll also cost a backpacker eight hours of drive time versus a slightly more expensive train ticket or budget airline fare that might make it there in less than half the time.

Luxurious livingroom

Accommodation: Think Value and Budget

While hostels and cheap hotels are the trademark of many backpacking trips, splurging on a private room or apartment shouldn't be out of the question. After days—or weeks, maybe months?—of sharing a room with a roommate, or several, a splurge on a boutique hotel might sound like nirvana.

“I recommend websites like Doris and Dicky for affordable, boutique hotels as they specialize in unique hotels that cost less than £100,” Stott said. "We prefer to stay in self-catering apartments that can be equally as luxurious as a posh hotel and cost a similar amount."

Other resources for cheap hostels and hotels include HostelWorld and HostelZ. If the budget for accommodation is minimal to non-existent, there are also home exchanges and hospitality exchanges that can provide shelter for free or work exchange.

When skimming apartment rental websites, sometimes a simple request or barter for a lower fee can reduce costs as well.

"I've [renegotiated rental fees] with apartments via email," Stott said. "If you have the option to contact the owner or the manager, then it's fairly easy to do. Send them a message explaining that you love the look of their apartment but it's over your budget. Tell them what your budget is and the dates you'd like to book it for and, you never know, they might accept."

While this tactic works with apartment owners and boutique hotel managers, Stott said it's harder to achieve these types of negotiation deals at corporate hotels with a larger chain of command where only the top authorities have the ability to apply discounts on a case-by-case basis.

What's in my bag photo

Technology: Travel Light and Bring What You Need

While there are thousands of tech gadgets on the market—chin hammocks or suitcases that you can ride, for example—sticking to tried-and-true devices is advisable.

“I try to keep things simple especially if I’m traveling carry-on and need to keep the weight down,” said Dave Dean, founder of Too Many Adapters. “My go-to pieces—other than my phone, of course—are some noise-isolating earphones, a Kindle Paperwhite, a multi-USB travel adapter and a combo portable battery and Wi-Fi extender.”

Use that tech also in the pre-travel planning phase to hone in on great deals, local hotspots and other attractions.

“My first step is sitting down with my iPad and collecting as much information as I possibly can,” Stott said. “I read blogs, articles, reviews and social media comments. I then use Pinterest to collect all my research together before I start booking things.”

Cellphone Service Abroad

While it always seems like a chore to stay connected to friends via data, texts and calls, Dean has a few simple solutions and a warning for travelers hoping to stick to a budget.

“If you’re from the U.S., both T-Mobile and Google Fi offer low-cost or free calls, texts and data use around the world,” said Dean. “Failing those, though, roaming still tends to be a horribly overpriced option.”

Dean said that his personal strategy involves buying local SIM cards for his phone, which typically includes local texts, calls and data for a month, ranging from $10 to $50 per SIM card.

International coins, SIM cards and two cellphones

Buying and Filling Your Backpack

Many travel-specific packs are on the market along with tech-enhanced bags and traditional packs. While everyone has their preference, Feess and his wife vouch for Osprey and Kelty bags with dozens of bag types to choose from.

The age-old question of what to take on your trip is inevitably the fount of beginners' travel advice columns. While some swear by a strict one-size-fits-all packing list, others tailor their list to their needs. 

"During my first year of backpacking I packed absolutely every travel gadget under the sun," Stott said. "I had so much stuff it was ridiculous. By my second year of backpacking I learned to pack light and realized I needed very little."

Stott's tried-and-true go-to items now include a sarong—a multi-use item for both men and women—and a camera. Among Feess' tips were a cotton sleep sheet—for those less-than-pristine hostel beds—and the bare minimum in toiletries.