I had fun drawing my route on this map. Looking at it, I am amazed that I traveled to all these places!
The map shows my approximate route through Europe, starting in Berlin and ending in Zagreb. I traveled by train, bus, ferry and car from September 18 to December 5. Though the mileage shown is not dead accurate, I went at least 5428 miles (8736 km)!
Although I booked my trans-oceanic departure and return flights early, I made up my overland route a week or two ahead. I liked the flexibility to change plans if the weather was bad, or I had a new idea.
My accommodation was in hostels, homes and occasionally a hotel. I stayed with locals as much as possible.
My concept of budget travel includes being comfortable and safe in a clean place. I would rather spend extra on experiences than accommodation.
Do you want to explore Europe overland for a few months on a budget, but still be comfortable? Here are my 7 tips. I share my experience using different travel modes on this trip, as well as how I used apps to identify cost savings.
1. Travel in shoulder season. This is why I did not have to book everything in advance, and it created significant ongoing savings. I noticed a huge drop-off in the number of tourists by October 1, and that continued through most of November. (One October day in Uppsala, I noticed I was the only tourist outside the castle – thank you, shoulder season!)
With fewer customers, transport and hotel prices drop; some Airbnb hosts also adjust their prices. For example, I paid €20 for a room in Prague with a castle view that the host marks up to €80 in December.
Traveling off-season was my first big advantage.
2. Travel on cheaper days of the month/ week. Transport and accommodation prices vary tremendously. Online booking sites and apps let you compare prices. Booking.com and Hotels.com show weekly hotel price drops for the off-season. For flights, Skyscanner features a super-handy bar graph; at a glance you see the cheapest months and days. It showed me how trans-Atlantic flights progressively drop in price each week in September, for example.
Let’s say you want to travel from L.A. to Berlin in the spring – what is the cheapest day? The Skyscanner graph currently shows the best likely airfare is $243 if you depart on Feb 4. If that date is fine, book your flight. If not, you can easily spot your next-best days. (Note that prices fluctuate daily.) The app includes airline schedules and links to booking sites.
Train and bus line websites list their prices. GoEuro lets you quickly compare and book bus, train and ride share prices and schedules.
3. Stay in hostels and home stays. There are many clean, safe, friendly, well-managed and well-located hostels in Europe. There is usually a choice of room types (4, 6, 8+ bed or private). Hostels are excellent places for meeting fellow travelers; in a home you meet locals, as well as have more space and privacy. I used HostelWorld and HostelBookers to check ratings and book hostels. Trip Advisor is handy as well.
The price filter on Airbnb reveals plenty of budget options – in many cities, you can rent an entire flat for €25-40. In Riga, Latvia I rented a flat in the old city for €32; in Zagreb, Croatia a cute apartment downtown was only €23. Even in Trondheim, Norway I found a cozy, though tiny, cabin for €22 (okay, no bathroom, but it had wifi!)
4. In hostels and home stays, make use of kitchen and laundry privileges. If the locale was costly for meals out, I sometimes cooked a simple breakfast and made sandwiches when I had access to a kitchen. For laundry, homeowners typically offer their washing machines and drying racks, which saves the trip to a laundromat.
5. Make use of online bus and train discounts, and book early. Train and bus tickets are cheaper at earlier dates, and when booked online. I saved 50% on a train ride from Zurich to Lausanne booked online, and 81% (according to the site) on a bus ride Vilnius to Warsaw (only €3 for a full day trip.)
6. Take advantage of buses and ride sharing options. I combined the use of a Eurailpass with bus, ferry and occasionally ride sharing. Rail Planner shows train schedules.
I loved my budget-friendly rides on clean, modern, double-decker buses through the Baltics and Poland. The buses arrived on time, and in October (a great off-season travel month), they were also 2/3 empty.
A spectacular ride I highly recommend is on the Nord-Norgekspressen public bus/ferry, which I rode for 6 hours to see the fjords between Narvik and Bodoe. This ride only cost €33 – quite a contrast to a pricy cruise as a way to see Norway’s breathtaking fjords.
GoEuro let me compare the train price from Lausanne to Milan at 70-80 francs, to a ride share on BlaBlaCar (with ratings for the driver), that would cost €21 and save 3 hours of travel time – guess which I chose?
BlaBlaCar works similarly to Airbnb, rating both parties in a transaction, in this situation it is driver and all passengers. The service ensures the driver is not paid until you are delivered at your destination. My experience was positive. I predict ride sharing services with ratings will grow in popularity.
7. Walk, bike and use the local metro wherever you can. I enjoyed great sight-seeing on foot or bike in many cities, combining that with metro rides. If I had 3 days in a city with good metro, I bought a 3-day pass. In Warsaw and Kraków I enjoyed terrific free walking tours with knowledgeable and delightful guides, and happily paid tips.
Tradeoffs for Off-Season Travel
Traveling in off-season lets you avoid lineups and crowds, which I appreciate. A potential disadvantage is the weather; this season I lucked out, though, with mild temperatures and sunny days throughout.
A city’s finest events may be only in high season. I caught the early part of the Christmas season – wonderful seasonal markets and lights in Slovenia and Croatia – then flew to India before the crowds and higher prices came to Europe. That tradeoff was fine by me. Yes, it felt odd to spend Christmas day in Udaipur, India – I had to console myself with an awesome Ayurvedic massage for 1200 rupees!
In Narvik, Norway I enjoyed the northern lights and the fjords, but not much else. Oulu, Finland was uninviting in October, while in summer I hear it’s a vibrant destination for many festivals. You can balance out the opportunity/cost to suit your own interests.
What is your experience with off-season travel? Any special experiences or tips to share on budget travel in Europe? How do you view the tradeoffs? Let me know in the comments!
See you on the road!
Still postponing your dreams?