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11 tips for traveling Europe on a budget

Feb. 21, 2021
8 min read
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Traveling Europe — in Normal Times — can be an expensive splurge or an affordable adventure depending on where you go, how you plan to arrive and what you plan to do at your destination. Although the continent seems small, a quick hop to Ireland is a world away from a five-hour flight to the Canary Islands or an Interrail adventure to the Swiss Alps. With so many diverse countries to choose from, it can often be overwhelming to plan a trip -- especially if you're tight on funds. But if you follow the below tips, you can have a fantastic vacation that won't blow your budget.

Budapest. (Photo by Dan Novac/Unsplash)
Budapest. (Photo by Dan Novac/Unsplash)

1. Get creative with points and miles

Having a stash of points and miles is great, but if you don't really know how to use them, they won't get you very far. So get creative with your points and miles and remember to think outside the box when using them.

For example, if you can't find award availability on British Airways using your Avios, you can transfer them to Iberia or Aer Lingus for a whole slew of other redemption options.

Remember that partner airlines are always an opportunity and that your credit card points are transferrable to airlines that maybe aren't as common. For example, American Express Membership Rewards points transfer to airlines like Aer Lingus and Air France-KLM.

Read more: The ultimate guide to Amex Membership Rewards

2. Fly low-cost

With many spots in Europe just two-hours or less away by plane, flying a low-cost carrier isn't so bad -- as long as you know the rules. Remember that you'll be charged extra for pretty much everything, so plan ahead if you want to check a bag, board first or reserve your seat. If you are country hopping, consider choosing a home base and planning weekend trips so you don't have to check all your luggage. And when you snag a deal for $50, $25 or even$10, just grab your under-the-seat backpack and go -- you won't regret it.

(Photo by JannHuizenga/Getty Images)
(Photo by JannHuizenga/Getty Images)

3. Travel in the off-season

Traveling in off-season or shoulder-season will save you money on flights, hotels and award redemptions. Plus, you'll deal with fewer crowds and avoid long lines, especially when visiting major tourist attractions.

Flights and hotels may offer cash deals in the off-season and remember that most airlines have peak and off-peak calendars when it comes to award redemptions, charging fewer miles/points during off-peak dates.

And consider that some hotel loyalty programs, such as Bonvoy, now have both peak and off-peak points redemptions, so if you choose to redeem during off-peak dates, your points will extend even further.

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Generally speaking, most European countries' off/shoulder-seasons are October to November and January to June. Of course, avoiding major celebrations like Christmas and Easter, as well as busy bank holiday weekends, will also ensure you get the best rates.

4. Visit affordable destinations

Visiting Paris and Amsterdam (even if you do get an affordable flight deal and are able to use points for a hotel stay) won't run cheap. Instead, consider some cheaper cities in Europe, such as Krakow, Porto, Bucharest, Kiev, Budapest and beyond. A good rule of thumb is to decide what type of vacation you hope to have and then look for alternative options.

Sicily. (Photo by holgs/Getty Images)
Sicily. (Photo by holgs/Getty Images)

For lazy beach days, skip the French Riviera and head to Sicily or the Albanian Riviera instead. Ditch Santorini for a lesser-visited Greek Island like Paxos, Sifnos or Symi. Wine taste in Estonia, not Bordeaux, admire art in Madrid, not Vienna, or ski in Spain's Sierra Nevada instead of the Swiss Alps. Whatever style of European vacation you'd like to have, you can do on a budget -- just pull out a map and think outside of the traditional hotspots.

Read more: Long layover in Madrid? Here's all you need to know

5. Stay in a home rental or hostel

Home rentals can actually save travelers a lot of money -- and not just on the actual rate of the rental, but also on dining out or doing laundry. Since home rentals often come with amenities like a full kitchen or washing machine, you can cook your meals and wash your clothes at home, which is a huge money saver -- especially for a lengthy stay. And living like a local has cultural benefits, too, like getting a real feel for a city and how its residents go about their daily routines.

(Photo courtesy of Airbnb)
(Photo courtesy of Airbnb)

Hostels are another cost-effective alternative to hotels. And it's not what you think: these types of lodgings aren't all bunk beds and backpackers. In fact, many European hostels come with private bathrooms and bedrooms, more like small hotels than anything else. Plus, Europe is seeing an uptick of trendy boutique hostels such as the Generator brand, meaning you can still have a comfortable accommodation experience while not overspending.

6. Use the right card for purchases abroad

Unfortunately, some points-earning credit cards charge a foreign transaction fee (about 3%). However, depending on the value of the points you can earn, you may (or may not) come out on top when using it abroad. To find out, check out the TPG's monthly points valuations to see how valuable certain point currencies are.

While we almost never recommend using a debit card, but it may make sense in many instances when spending abroad. For the best cards to use, check out this guide on best cards to use abroad.

7. Know the tipping rules

Whether it's 10% or nothing at all, understanding the tipping culture can help you avoid a faux pas post-meal or after a taxi ride, as well as ensuring you don't spend money unnecessarily. Apps like Gratitude Tipping can help, showing you the rules by country for tipping drivers, guides, restaurant waiting staff, bartenders and hotel staff.

8. Don't discount trains

Although trains aren't always super cheap, sometimes they can be affordable and easy -- especially when booked in advance. Trains will help you avoid airport delays, turbulence and are generally more comfortable than a teeny airplane seat. If you need to travel with a lot of baggage or extras, trains can also be an ideal choice. And some European train journeys are incredibly scenic, making the train ride a vacation in itself. For those heading off on a backpacking adventure, Interrail passes are a valid option.

The Jungfrau railway in Switzerland. (Photo by JaCZhou/Getty Images)
The Jungfrau railway in Switzerland. (Photo by JaCZhou/Getty Images)

9. Travel light

Almost all European airlines charge for checked baggage -- and many taxi drivers around Europe will also add on fees for luggage, too. You can avoid this by packing light and right, using things like packing cubes or wearing travel clothing.

10. Do a free walking tour

Most European cities offer free walking tours. Check online before traveling, sign up in advance if necessary and enjoy your free tour. Although tipping is suggested, it's likely you'll still spend a lot less, even after generously tipping your guide. You may also meet other like-minded travelers, which can be welcome if you're traveling alone or looking to make new friends.

(Photo by SolStock/Getty Images)
(Photo by SolStock/Getty Images)

11. Check on your mobile data

While some mobile networks offer free roaming in Europe, it's a good idea to confirm to ensure you won't see any added roaming charges. There's nothing worse than receiving a hefty mobile bill upon return when you're already dealing with post-vacation blues. If your network doesn't offer free-roaming, see how much roaming rates cost before traveling, or consider buying a local SIM card upon arrival to your destination.

Editorial disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airline or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

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Our points-obsessed staff uses a plethora of credit cards on a daily basis. If anyone on our team wouldn’t recommend it to a friend or a family member, we wouldn’t recommend it on The Points Guy either. Our opinions are our own, and have not been reviewed, approved, or endorsed by our advertising partners.
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TPG featured card

Best premium travel card for value
TPG Editor‘s Rating
Card Rating is based on the opinion of TPG‘s editors and is not influenced by the card issuer.
4 / 5
Go to review

Rewards

1 - 10X points
10xEarn 10x total points on hotels and car rentals when you purchase travel through Chase Ultimate Rewards®.
5xEarn 5x total points on flights through Chase Ultimate Rewards®.
3xEarn 3x points on other travel and dining.
1xEarn 1 point per $1 spent on all other purchases

Intro offer

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Earn 80,000 bonus points after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening. That's $1,200 toward travel when you redeem through Chase Ultimate Rewards®

Annual Fee

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Recommended Credit

740-850
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Credit ranges are a variation of FICO© Score 8, one of many types of credit scores lenders may use when considering your credit card application.

Why We Chose It

If you are looking to take your premium rewards to the highest level, this card is really a no brainer in our eyes. Chase's Ultimate Rewards make points easy to redeem, with a wide range of 10 airline and three hotel transfer partners and a friendly user interface. Despite the high annual fee, Chase is consistently adding new benefits to keep the card competitive in a fierce premium rewards field.

Pros

  • $300 annual travel credit as reimbursement for travel purchases charged to your card each account anniversary year
  • Access to Chase Ultimate Rewards hotel and airline travel partners
  • Unlimited 3x points on the broad category of travel and dining
  • 50% more value when you redeem your points for travel through Chase Ultimate Rewards®
  • Broad definitions for travel and dining bonus categories

Cons

  • Steep $550 annual fee
  • May not make sense for people that don't travel frequently
  • You must spend the $300 travel credit before earning 3x points for travel and dining
  • No automatic hotel elite status
  • Earn 80,000 bonus points after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening. That's $1,200 toward travel when you redeem through Chase Ultimate Rewards®
  • $300 Annual Travel Credit as reimbursement for travel purchases charged to your card each account anniversary year.
  • Earn 5x total points on flights and 10x total points on hotels and car rentals when you purchase travel through Chase Ultimate Rewards® immediately after the first $300 is spent on travel purchases annually. Earn 3x points on other travel and dining & 1 point per $1 spent on all other purchases
  • Get 50% more value when you redeem your points for travel through Chase Ultimate Rewards®. For example, 80,000 points are worth $1,200 toward travel
  • 1:1 point transfer to leading airline and hotel loyalty programs
  • Access to 1,300+ airport lounges worldwide after an easy, one-time enrollment in Priority Pass™ Select and up to $100 application fee credit every four years for Global Entry, NEXUS, or TSA PreCheck®
  • Count on Trip Cancellation/Interruption Insurance, Auto Rental Collision Damage Waiver, Lost Luggage Insurance and more
Best premium travel card for value
TPG Editor‘s Rating
Card Rating is based on the opinion of TPG‘s editors and is not influenced by the card issuer.
4 / 5
Go to review

Rewards Rate

10xEarn 10x total points on hotels and car rentals when you purchase travel through Chase Ultimate Rewards®.
5xEarn 5x total points on flights through Chase Ultimate Rewards®.
3xEarn 3x points on other travel and dining.
1xEarn 1 point per $1 spent on all other purchases
  • Intro Offer
    Earn 80,000 bonus points after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening. That's $1,200 toward travel when you redeem through Chase Ultimate Rewards®

    80,000 bonus points
  • Annual Fee

    $550
  • Recommended Credit
    Credit ranges are a variation of FICO© Score 8, one of many types of credit scores lenders may use when considering your credit card application.

    740-850
    Excellent

Why We Chose It

If you are looking to take your premium rewards to the highest level, this card is really a no brainer in our eyes. Chase's Ultimate Rewards make points easy to redeem, with a wide range of 10 airline and three hotel transfer partners and a friendly user interface. Despite the high annual fee, Chase is consistently adding new benefits to keep the card competitive in a fierce premium rewards field.

Pros

  • $300 annual travel credit as reimbursement for travel purchases charged to your card each account anniversary year
  • Access to Chase Ultimate Rewards hotel and airline travel partners
  • Unlimited 3x points on the broad category of travel and dining
  • 50% more value when you redeem your points for travel through Chase Ultimate Rewards®
  • Broad definitions for travel and dining bonus categories

Cons

  • Steep $550 annual fee
  • May not make sense for people that don't travel frequently
  • You must spend the $300 travel credit before earning 3x points for travel and dining
  • No automatic hotel elite status
  • Earn 80,000 bonus points after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening. That's $1,200 toward travel when you redeem through Chase Ultimate Rewards®
  • $300 Annual Travel Credit as reimbursement for travel purchases charged to your card each account anniversary year.
  • Earn 5x total points on flights and 10x total points on hotels and car rentals when you purchase travel through Chase Ultimate Rewards® immediately after the first $300 is spent on travel purchases annually. Earn 3x points on other travel and dining & 1 point per $1 spent on all other purchases
  • Get 50% more value when you redeem your points for travel through Chase Ultimate Rewards®. For example, 80,000 points are worth $1,200 toward travel
  • 1:1 point transfer to leading airline and hotel loyalty programs
  • Access to 1,300+ airport lounges worldwide after an easy, one-time enrollment in Priority Pass™ Select and up to $100 application fee credit every four years for Global Entry, NEXUS, or TSA PreCheck®
  • Count on Trip Cancellation/Interruption Insurance, Auto Rental Collision Damage Waiver, Lost Luggage Insurance and more