Europe for The Savvy Independent Traveler

Deciding to stay in Europe was a spontaneous decision for me and I was still able to do it on a good financial standing even if it was peak travel season. What I have learned from that is that Europe can actually be a pretty sweet deal for any independent traveler. Any savvy traveler can tremendously enjoy this fascinating continent just with little creativity. I spent roughly $3200 all in on my three month trip.

Just as the European continent is rich in sights, cultures, languages, food, and the like, there’s also no shortage of information for independent travelers to Europe. In here I will show you simple ways on how you can also make your European dreams come true by maximizing your travel money in this fabulous continent.

1. Decide where you want to go
Do you want to visit the beaches? Or cultural heritage sites? Mountain trekking or skiing in the Swiss or French alps? I basically winged my whole trip to Europe and going around countries as I feel like it. But if you have limited time in Europe and want to do it independently, one way you can do is by copying itineraries from tour companies on places you want to go. Another one is by talking to other travelers who have traveled around the region where you intend to visit. Since I was here during the summer, I did a combination of expensive countries like Switzerland, Belgium, The Netherlands and relatively cheaper countries like Hungary and Spain. I did this so I can balance out on my travel money, maximize my 90 days and still have fun.

2. Decide when you want to go
The crowd waiting for the dancing fountains in Barcelona, Spain
Ask yourself, do you want to carry light clothes and maximize Europe during summer when the sun sets at 9 pm? Or do you want to avoid the crowds and travel around Europe during autumn when the weather is finer and students are back to school? Or maybe you want to explore and see the Scandinavian region during the winter? Deciding when to go is important simply because just like in any country you intend to visit, when it’s peak season, everything else is expensive.
If I had a choice I would have traveled any time of the Europe except summer just because I am a budget traveler and I love traveling during shoulder season when there are not too many crowds and I can negotiate on prices. However, as I decided to continue my travels in Europe I then understood why people travel to Europe in the summer. It’s a lot more fun to explore when the days are long.

3. Pack light
The transport system in Europe is super efficient and organized so you can carry either a rolling bag or luggage and still have a breeze traveling to different countries. However, you will have the easiest and most convenient travel experience if you pack light. It’s hard to not find something interesting in Europe so make space for new purchases on the road and still be able to fit in your pack.

4. Use a Card with Great Rewards
The best parts of traveling in Europe is being able to use credit cards since in Asia cash is the form of payment 90% of the time. Two of the cards I recommend and use are the American Express Platinum card and Chase British Airways Visa card because of the air miles that I earn from them. Don’t bring too many cards, you might end up burned when you go home.

5. Use frequent flier miles for sudden bookings
The best part of travel hacking and earning a lot of miles is that you can book tickets anytime you want and there’s almost no blackout dates. I have used this technique on very spontaneous decisions such as when I missed my flight from Kuala Lumpur to Manila and booking from Zurich back home to New York. This has helped me book last minute tickets and saved me from paying expensive tickets during peak season.

6. Using low cost carriers vs taking the train
If you don’t acquire frequent flier miles, I suggest checking low cost carrier airlines such as Vueling, Easy Jet and Ryan Air. These low cost carriers in Europe are your best bets in getting better deals. I prefer taking the trains because I don’t need to worry about excess baggage fees and I like watching the views from trains but international train tickets in Europe can actually be more expensive than flying. If you would like to take advantage of a great offer with train tickets you will have to book at least 2-3 months ahead of time. Though sometimes last minute train tickets are available in some countries like when I was able to buy a first class ticket from Amsterdam to Gent, Belgium for EUR 25 on a two day notice.

7. Travel Insurance
This is mandatory just because Europe is such an expensive continent to get sick and if the worst case happens to you, you don’t want to buy a hyper inflated plane ticket to go home.

8. Couchsurf or stay with a friend
Accommodations in Europe are expensive. On average, a dorm bed at a hostel in Switzerland would cost CHF 25. This was a huge difference from the $10 private room guesthouses that I was staying at in South East Asia.

I saved a lot of travel money in Europe because I had a lot of European friends. These were the same people that I have met and traveled with in Asia and were generous enough to accommodate a nomadic friend. The only time I paid my accommodations were in Eastern Europe and Barcelona and they were relatively cheaper in European terms.

9. Reserve a space at the hostels
Depending on the time of the year that you are traveling, call in advance for your first night’s stay at a hostel just because it can get really packed during peak season. I have experienced this when I took a train to Bratislava, Slovakia and found out that the hostels were all full. Luckily, I found one in the end that had 1 bed available for the night.

10. Ditch the guidebook and connect with the locals
If you’re staying with a friend or couchsurfing, you already have a local in the area who can give you more valuable insights about their city than a guidebook. I relied on my friends knowledge and they were more than happy to show me what to see and experiences not to miss and it was way better than checking guidebooks while exploring.

11. Explore the city with a bike
Biking at my favorite park in Amsterdam, The Netherlands
I have biked in the countries that I visited in Asia and of course Europe wasn’t an exception. Although bikes in Europe are more expensive to rent, they are a cheaper alternative to taking public transportation. Biking is simply the best way to explore a city just like Amsterdam (where there are more bikes than people) or Barcelona and makes your trips so much more fun and interesting.

12. Buy bundle passes for bus or subway tickets
Depending on the time you are spending on one particular place, it is better to opt for an unlimited metro or bus tickets than buying single ride tickets or joining a hop on hop off bus tours. Most cities in Europe have very efficient and convenient forms of public transportation. Taking this route will not only give you more chance to interact with locals but also is a cheaper alternative than taking bus tours. With information from tourist centers and your weekly or monthly pass, you can explore the city of your choice at your own time.

13. Create your own walking tour or join a walking tour
Fisherman’s Bastion at night in Budapest, Hungary
So if you feel like walking by yourself could be boring, European cities have free walking tours. The tours come with guides and it’s tip based only so it’s up to you how much you want to pay. But I have to say that the free walking tours I’ve joined in Budapest and Bratislava were all excellent.

Also, take a stroll at night. Most European cities are just too pretty to be ignored at night. Go for a walk and see all the tiny streets and beautifully lit castles and buildings and indulge your eyes with delights.

14. Cook your own food
It can be really hard to eat well/nutritiously in Europe when you’re on a budget. The same $2 meal I’ve been eating in Thailand costs $18 in a fast food store in Zurich. This is just an example of how expensive Europe can be. My recommendation is buying food from the groceries and cooking your own food. I did this a lot on my trip and even cooked for my hosts during my stays. This enable me to have days when I splurged at amazing restaurants in Madrid.

15. Tap water is safe in most countries
One of the things I missed about the US while traveling in Asia is being able to drink tap water. In Europe I drank tap water all the time. This included my time in Barcelona where I had my first ever stomach problem caused by tap water. After this, Barcelona was the only city I drank bottled water.

16. Volunteer
One of the most memorable parts of my European adventure was my time volunteering in the incredible countryside of Avila. Not only did I spend $0 the whole time, it was also a great venue to meet locals and other volunteer travels.

17. Try to learn basic words in their language
Europe, being a small continent can make you feel so lost with different languages, accents and dialects. I am not fluent in any European language but I have tried to speak the basic words in every country and this has always delighted locals. Show that you are genuinely interested in learning about the culture of the country by learning courtesy words. You will go a long way even if you only know how to say please and thank you in their language.

18. Splurge once in a while
I fell in love with the vibrant city of Madrid
Traveling on a budget in Europe, sucks… big time. There were times in my trip where I want quit being a budget traveler. But there are many ways that I made sure to reward myself in my travels. A few of the things I love and brought are: a spring coat from Amsterdam, a pair of sandals from Madrid and a wonderful perfume from France. Actually, traveling on a budget can be fun because you are challenging yourself and your creativity to make do with what you have. Just remember that the healthiest way to enjoy your budget travels is to reward yourself once in a while.

19. Balance periods of travel time and rest
Europe is a smorgasbord continent with so many sights to see, places to go, food to try, there’s almost no time for rest. I wouldn’t blame you if you would want to pack all the places you want to see in your limited time. But I recommend not. Not only will it be more expensive for you but it will also exhaust you. I, myself had tried to do everything in Spain with the amount of time I had there and it got me super tired that on my last country to visit, I chilled for a whole week. Going to the French countryside and did nothing for a week balanced out all my restless wanderings.

20. Balance planning and spontaneous travels
It’s always good to plan ahead of time but it’s even better when you open yourself to other opportunities while on the road. I have to say that my spontaneous trips were the best trips of my life. If I was able to do Europe on a spontaneous decision, you can definitely do it too!

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One Response to “Europe for The Savvy Independent Traveler”

  1. December 6, 2012 at 11:00 pm #

    Thanks for posting the article, was certainly a great read!