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14 Tips for Planning a European Vacation on The Cheap

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Is a dream European vacation on your bucket list? For many Americans Europe seems so very far away – nearly out of reach. Until, that is, you jump feet first into planning and you realize that when taken in bite sized portions, and utilizing the tools you have at your disposal, planning that European vacation is just a few short baby steps away. What tools? Read on friend!

14 Tips for Planning a European Vacation on The Cheap

Planning a European Vacation on The Cheap

My husband Paul and I just experienced a nearly two week European vacation celebrating our ten year wedding anniversary. And it.was.glorious. We stayed a total of twelve days between London, Paris and Edinburgh, Scotland and we did the entire trip spending right around $3,500. This includes airfare, train tickets (we took the Eurostar from London to Paris and back and the train from London to Edinburgh and back), it includes our lodging, transportation, entry to all of the castles, churches and museums we visited AND our food. And lots of whiskey and wine. 😉

The trick to planning such an exciting European vacation for so cheap? Planning and research. It can be overwhelming and the task seems nearly impossible without spending a small fortune. In this blog series, we will explore each aspect of your dream vacation: how to plan your flights, if/when to take a taxi or Uber vs public transportation, where to look for discounts (without feeling like you’re getting the discounted version), how to score deals on lodging and more.

Lets start at the beginning: booking your flights. Let’s start planning your perfect European vacation.

1.Tips for Saving on International Flights

I have already shared with you my six top tips for saving BIG on airfare, be sure to catch up if you have not already! Paul and I travel a lot and you may think that we used our credit card rewards points to purchase our flights (and you would normally be correct) but no! Instead, by following number three on this list, we were able to watch those fares without the airlines knowing. Why is this important? The thing is: when they KNOW you’re looking (and you come back later to check again or to actually book your flight) they now know you’re serious and they’ll bump those rates a bit. Or they’ll jack them up so high you change your mind altogether.

The real trick is to watch the fares secretly and watch them often. Be somewhat flexible with your dates if possible and pounce when you see that stellar deal. We were able to score flights (including taxes and fees!) that got us BOTH to London and back for just $1100. Say whaaaa? From London we took inexpensive trains to where else we wanted to visit: Paris and Edinburgh. Bonus: we got to see some amazing French and English countryside on the way!

Every once in a while we see these fares dip to unbelievably low prices. Keep a watch on our Facebook page and I’ll let you know when I see those crazy deals. Be ready to pounce, friends!

2. Use Airbnb instead of Hotels

Airbnb is where it’s at folks. Instead of paying $150 per night at a hotel (not even a fancy hotel) we found lodging via Airbnb for just $84 – $100 per night. While that is certainly cheaper than a hotel to start, we were sure to look for places close to popular attractions AND to find flats that had a washing machine as well. This cuts down on the amount of clothing you need to pack, meaning that you 1.) don’t have to check a bag (this saves you later) and 2.) you have more room for souvenirs.

Want to know more about how Airbnb works? You’ll want to head over and get alllll of the details in this blog post.

3. Carry-On luggage only

You may be tempted to check your luggage. International flights on most airlines do allow you at least one checked bag for free. So why should you not? For us, it came down to ease of transportation. We wanted to use the inexpensive public transportation as much as possible and that would have been difficult (if not impossible) while lugging around a large piece of luggage (or four) to and from each location. Also, we ended up getting them to bump up our last flight to an earlier departure time which could have led to a nightmare retrieving our luggage later. Instead, we had it all with us and ready to go!

You are allowed one carry-on bag per person and one personal item per person. Use those to your advantage! Using carry-on luggage only also allowed us to use the let luggage lockers at various places (like Hampton Court) to see one more attraction on the way to the airport. Tip: if you find an Airbnb with a washing machine, this can cut your clothing needed by half!

See: how to pack your life into a carry-on

4. Cash or card in Europe?

We use our credit cards for nearly everything we purchase on a day-to-day basis at home. This racks up those credit card rewards points sure, but it also provides great fraud protection. That being said, we did take $400 in cash to use for bus fares, a beer here or there, locker rentals etc. While every place we visited did accept credit cards, some had a minimum purchase requirement. Cash is great for those instances to avoid overspending just to meet that minimum.

See: tips for choosing credit cards for their rewards programs

5. Know your International Credit card fees

Credit card companies encourage you to use your card internationally instead of travelers checks. It is important to note though, that some companies will tack on extra fees just for using your card abroad. We were sure to call my credit card company (Chase) and Paul’s credit card company (Capital One) to see what those fees were before our embarking on our trip. Had we used my card we would have paid an additional 3% on each and every transaction but Paul’s card charges no additional transaction fee. Needless to say we used Paul’s card for everything.

Note: be sure to watch your account to make sure nothing was charged twice or any fraudulent activity occurred.

6. Where to exchange your Cash in Europe?

Know your current currency exchange rates (a simple Google search will suffice) for the countries you will visit, and decide how much cash you wish to take with you. You will always be able to exchange your dollars for British pounds or Euros in any international airport, but that will almost always be your most expensive method, as they tack on commission fees for doing so.

Check with your local bank before you leave, and definitely check the commission rates at any currency exchange counter abroad before committing. Also, save your receipt if you do exchange at the airport because had we not used all of the cash we took (we came home with just £5!) we could have returned to that same exchange counter and exchanged back to dollars for no additional fee – IF we had saved our receipt!

7. Cellphone Data in Europe

International cell data can be expensive, and take it from me – you’ll use a LOT of it between Facebook, planning transportation and Google Maps etc. Before leaving, contact your cell provider and ask about international roaming and data usage. With Sprint, we were able to add a feature to our plan (for free!) giving us unlimited data and text messages. It was a slightly slower data speed, but hey – for free I’ll take it! We FaceTimed our kids using this data every night for free, while phone calls would have been 20¢ per minute. Plus we got to see their cute little faces!

If your cell phone provider does make you pay for texts or phone calls, consider communicating only through Facebook messenger, FaceTime or Skype. At nearly all of the hotels and/or Airbnb you’ll have free wi-fi (although not all restaurants or other locations).

8. Take a backup Phone Battery

Many of the public transportation systems you’ll find (which will save you a ton over taxis) have mobile apps that make it very easy for you to get around. You’ll also wants apps such as Uber, Google Maps etc that will make life that much easier while abroad. That being said, using these apps frequently (which you will) really drains your phone’s battery. We took two back-up batteries and two charging cords. These fit in your pocket and will fully charge your phone in no time at all.

9. Buy your European Train Tickets Early

If you’re planning to travel via train (which I highly recommend!) throughout Europe, you can purchase tickets at a kiosk the same day as travel. However, I highly recommend purchasing those tickets in advance. Paul and I purchased ours many weeks beforehand but watched our ticket prices as the trip grew nearer. The closer it came to the date of travel, the more expensive those tickets became. The Eurostar gets you from the center of London to the center of Paris in about 2 hours and is surprisingly affordable. You also get to see some amazing countryside along the way!

Planning a European Vacation

10. Eat like kings in Europe

Sure, you’ll want to eat at restaurants and on street cafes to enjoy the atmosphere and taste the local cuisine (fish and chips anyone?!) but that doesn’t mean you have to eat out every meal. Part of the allure of Airbnb is that you have a full kitchen. After several days of eating out every meal, we decided to stop by the local grocery store and pick up some rolls, cream cheese spread, cheese and salami. We were shocked at how inexpensive things were – so shocked in fact, that I’ll be diving into the art of eating on the cheap in Europe in its own article. For now just know that you do not have to eat out every meal, and it’s kind of fun not to! Here’s Paul making me breakfast (for about $5 total) in our flat in Edinburgh:

How to Eat like Kings in Europe

One other note before leaving the food topic – try eating a few blocks away from the main tourist attractions/streets. Take a little walk, see a little scenery and save a few (or a lot of) bucks.

11. Plan for Public Transportation in Europe

My #1 tip for transportation? Pack good tennis shoes and don’t be afraid to walk. Google Maps was my best friend. If you’re like us and not used to using public transportation in the States, you will be pleasantly surprised by the ease of use of the public transportation available to you and at a very reasonable price.

In every city we visited, you could either by public transportation tickets by the destination (much more expensive but still cheaper than a taxi) or unlimited rides for the entire day or for a number of days. In London, for example, you could get an off-peak day pass that gets you on the underground tubes, the buses, the overground rail and more for just £12.50 per person (around $15), or you could buy a pass covering multiple days – which could be a better deal depending on where you’re staying, what you’re planning to see, what is within walking distance etc.

Planning Transportation for Your European Vacation

In Edinburgh, a one-day pass on their bus system cost only £4 (about $5) per person! Unlimited rides! We will get more into the transportation aspect of your European vacation in a subsequent article, there is so much to discuss and explore, and you definitely DO NOT want to take taxis (or even Uber) everywhere you go. Stay tuned to our travel section and I will update this post when that article is completed. 😉

12. Check for discounts While in Europe

You know those little tourist stops with pamphlets and brochures at the train station, hotel or airport? Stop and grab a booklet! We saved at many locations we visited by using coupons from those handouts. At the Edinburgh “Dungeon” for example we saved £6 per person (about $7.50) just by clipping a coupon. Then we used that £12 we saved on wine and making dinner at the flat. 😉 Plus that allowed us to buy this hilariously funny photo of me thinking I was about to die. BAHAHA!! And I never buy those photos, but this time I just had to. 😀

Visiting the Edinburgh Dungeon

Another note? Before purchasing your tickets to popular attractions, see if there is a discount for purchasing online beforehand. When we visited Hampton Court (the palace of King Henry VIII) we bought our tickets just outside the gate (literally ten minutes before entering) and saved £10 (about $12!) off the desk price just by doing so. Pick them up when you get inside. Sa-weeet!

13. Know what’s free in Europe

In just about every city in Europe, there will be multiple tourist attractions and museums and churches/cathedrals that are free to enter. For example, the British Museum is enormous, interesting and free – as is the Museum of London. The Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris was also free, as was the Eiffel Tower, St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, the Victoria and Albert museum in London, the “Central Park” of London – Hyde Park, St. Giles Cathedral in Edinburgh and Arthur’s Seat etc.

Visit the Eiffel Tower

14. Know when NOT to tip

Did you know that in Europe taxes and gratuity is included in just about everything? Us Americans are so used to tipping, so remember that it is a very “American” thing to do, and an unnecessary expense. In Europe, servers there are paid a living wage instead of the $2.15 (or so) they earn here, so tipping is in many cases discouraged. In grocery stores or souvenir shops, all prices listed include applicable taxes etc. This was a refreshing change from the norm.

If I could change one thing about our European vacation, it would be that we would have stayed longer. Even twelve days was not enough! I will attempt to relive this trip over and over through this series on planning your European vacation on the cheap. We will also be planning a trip with our boys when they are a little bit older. It really is not as expensive as you may think! Stay tuned as I share more and more of our money-saving tips.

More travel tips before you go (and stay tuned for more!):

6 Secret Tips to Saving BIG on Airfare {without signing up for 100 credit cards}
9 Tips for Traveling with Crochet
Super Slim Hidden Fanny Pack Free Crochet Pattern
Six Reasons You Should *EXCLUSIVELY* Use Credit Cards
Ten Tips for Fitting Your Life into a Carry-on Bag
Tips for Choosing Credit Cards (for Their Rewards Programs)

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