A lot of us want to travel, but a lot of us cannot afford to go. Or so you might think.
That’s what I thought when I dreamed of a family holiday travelling through Europe for a couple of months. The quote from the Travel Agent came back at $40,000!!!
I saw my dream fly out the window until I started researching myself. Finding out about all the accommodation available and talking to travellers who told me about cheaper airfares.
Another world opened up. Suddenly I knew questions to ask that would not have occurred to me before. I suggested the airfares I wanted Travel Agents to look at instead of the ones they suggested. I saved $4000 on Round the World Tickets alone.
I discovered apartment rentals (long before Airbnb existed) and self-catering.
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Understand Your Travel Choices
If you are like me, you might take a holiday idea to a Travel Agent and get a quote. You may look at that quote and decide there and then if you can or can’t afford it.
But that shouldn’t be the end of it. Anyone used to budgeting knows that the best bargains come from research.
The issue arises because organising travel is not something you do regularly. Think about it. We can save money on groceries because we are familiar with prices and products because we buy them every week.
Travel is rare, or at least it is for most people. Unless you travel regularly, how do you know what your options are? You are relying on a Travel Agent to tell you, but they only have a certain number of service providers from which to choose. And they earn commissions, so it’s only natural they provide you with quotes from their suppliers.
And then, of course, there are the stories of Travel Agents and hidden fees, the less honest ones that add money on top of the quote. If you are at all curious if an agent is doing this, ask them for an itemised account.
In my opinion, Travel Agents most certainly deserve to be paid a fee for their work. Too many times they put in a lot of hard work planning a client’s dream holiday only to have that client take the quote (and the itinerary) and see if they can get a lower price. Or decide to book it themselves, using the itinerary. And that’s not fair.
But those are not the Travel Agents I am talking about. I am talking about the ones who add even more. I am not here to create controversy. I am here to make sure you are aware.
If you find an excellent Travel Agent that you trust, then stick with them. Someone who develops an understanding of what you like and your preferences is invaluable.
But you need to realise you have choices — lots of them. And if you don’t have a lot of money, but want to see what where you can go and what you can do with the money you have then it’s in your best interest to know all your choices.
In this post, you will find budget saving ideas and alternatives for – Travel and Transport, Accommodation, Activities and Food. Each section contains a list and then a more in-depth explanation.
Travel and Transport
Public Transport instead of Private Transfer
I used to organise a private transfer from the airport because it was easy. But on recent trips, I have caught the train from the airport. I wanted to travel longer, and that meant stretching my budget further.
Public Transport Pass
I don’t like taking buses. But that’s just me, I get very anxious, and it just isn’t worth the stress.
But I love trains, and once I conquered my fear, I was able to master the Subway in New York, the Metro in Paris and Tube in London.
If you are staying in one place for more than a day, consider purchasing a pass, like a Metro Pass. Most of the time they will be valid on trains and buses.
We purchased a 7-day Unlimited MetroCard in New York with a current price of $33 US. One ride (regardless of destination or length) costs $2.75 US.
We averaged four rides a day – 28 rides for the week – which would have cost a total of $77 if we paid individually.
Most cities offer a transport pass of some kind, so do your research before you go. You might even be able to pre-purchase yours and not have to worry about organising your ticket once you land.
You will save a lot of money by using the public transport system instead of relying on taxis or Uber. I only use these if I really need to. Check if Uber is available in your destination, it is not legal everywhere.
An easy way to see a destination is via the Hop on Hop off buses that operate in most cities. I agree it is convenient, but you will have to decide if the extra cost is worth it.
Car Leasing versus Car Hire
We did incur a one-way drop off fee, but I was aware of that beforehand included it in the car budget.
I cannot remember the saving, but it was considerable. We could lease the car because our stay in Europe was over 21 days.
We leased from Citreon, but you also have the option of Peugeot, Renault and DS.
For up to date information on the Vehicle Leasing Program, check out this article by Holidays to Europe – A Step by Step Guide to the Tax-Free Vehicle Leasing Program in Europe.
Indirect Flights versus Direct Flights
In 2010 we purchased Round the World Tickets for a family of four flying from Australia to New York, onto Europe. From Rome one family member flew to Japan, I flew to Athens (and later back to Rome) and the other two back to Australia.
The Travel Agent provided a quote. I had been told by a work colleague to check out Finnair (who is now part of the OneWorld Alliance, but I don’t think it was then).
The overall cost of the tickets was $4000 cheaper than the original quote — the only catch was we had a five-hour layover in Helsinki on our way from New York to London.
Was the five-hour layover worth it? Absolutely! Had there been more money in our budget, I would have planned a stay in Helsinki. We already had a lot planned and I don’t like to cram too much into an itinerary.
The moral to the story is to check out all your options yourself. Then you can go to a Travel Agent to book it for you.
The trip I am currently planning, walking the Camino in Spain, I have decided to fly with Korean Airlines. The ticket cost $1100 return (compared to Etihad $1465) but does have a 20 layover in Seoul which is free, accommodation at the Hyatt paid for by Korean Airlines.
I will write a blog post on the experience when I return in December and let you know how it goes.
Stay Longer in Fewer Places
It’s called Slow Travel, and I am a HUGE fan. I love staying in a place longer than a few days. Yes, it means fewer places in my itinerary, but I have more time to explore, relax and take it all in.
More destinations mean more travel between each place. Travel costs add up. Fast. Add taxis or transfers for hotel pickups at either end, even public transport, and your travel budget is in trouble.
Be honest, does spending a day and a night or two in a place mean you have really experienced it or have you just ticked it off your list?
Travel in Off-Season
Prices drop in Europe around mid-September and are even lower in the winter months.
Why not throw in a few extra clothes (layering works a treat) and explore a new destination without the crowds?
I know a lot of people fear the cold, but honestly, Europe is prepared for winter. Once inside, you will be peeling off the layers because of the generous central heating.
I travelled to Italy for three weeks in November and December last year and packed a carry-on suitcase only. And I was more than fine.
Win-win really, fewer people and less cost!
Research Transport Options
Research all your travel options before booking. Rome2Rio is an excellent way to find your way from Place A to Place B., But it is still a good idea to do your research. Here’s why.
I am currently planning my Camino trip. I need to catch a train from Paris to St Jean Pied de Port,
Prices were different depending on the day I travelled and whether I booked both sections of the journey together. Or separately.
My suggestion: Enter the starting point of the journey and endpoint first. Take note of the cost, train times and changes. Take particular note of the actual stations. For example, Paris has a lot of main train stations (as do most cities), don’t make the mistake of going to the wrong one. Then enter each leg of the journey separately. It might not make a difference, but it can. It is worth checking out.
Swap 5 Star for Budget
Even if you are not looking at a Five Star Hotel, but a Three or Four Star, you can try the alternatives.
I stayed in a Two Star Hotel last year on my trip to Florence. It was basic. Very basic. But I was travelling on my own, and the small room was all I needed. It was clean and comfortable, and the friendly staff at the reception desk happily provided me with any assistance or information I needed.
Staying in nicer accommodation would have been great, but it would have meant less time in Italy.
Weigh up your options, do your research and read the reviews provided to gauge if you will be comfortable.
Consider Last Minute Bookings
On that trip to Italy, I had to change my accommodation. It was my mistake. I had booked a B&B 15-minute walk from the centre of Verona. If I had been travelling with someone else, it would have been OK. But since this was my first solo trip, I hadn’t realised that I needed to think about things differently. Like walking back into the city at night for dinner, which I was not comfortable doing on my own.
So, I booked a small budget hotel closer to the centre and realised it was a lot cheaper than when I had looked at it in the planning stages of my trip.
Next time I will be confident enough not to pre-book all my accommodation and see what is available at the last minute. I travel in the off-season, so it is not likely accommodation will be booked out.
Hotels versus Alternative Accommodation
There are so many accommodation choices other than hotels. I love apartments because it means I have access to a kitchen. I like to cook and enjoy shopping at local markets which is a cheap alternative to eating out for every meal.
You can also consider Airbnb (click the link for a discount off your first stay). Not only will you find apartments but also studios, cabins, private rooms in homes and all manner of different, quirky and alternate accommodation. When checking prices, don’t forget to factor in service and cleaning fees. To see the full charge, enter your dates, and you will see on the right-hand side of the page, the cost per night and any associated fees.
I also like to search for Super Hosts, and I read the reviews. You should only communicate with your host on the Airbnb site. Do not use any links they provide (which they should not), log onto your account first to ensure you are on the Airbnb website before communicating.
You can also consider Glamping or camping. Camping grounds in Europe provide fantastic facilities, including grocery stores and restaurants. If you want ready-made facilities such as tents, cabins, mobile homes and more, check out companies like EuroCamp (highly recommended by a work colleague) and Canvas Holidays (I have no recommendation for this one), both UK companies or we used the Dutch company, Tentsetters (you will need to use Google Translate for this website) for a week in Lake Bled.
It was a fantastic experience. I would be happy to do it again. This type of holiday is how a lot of Europeans spend their summer holidays.
I like to join a walking tour in each new destination, usually as soon as I arrive so I can get my bearings and learn more about my new location. Most cities have free tours, and for the most, these have been good. Even though they are free, you should tip what you think is fair for the tour. In Europe, I usually tip between €10 and €20, depending on how good the guide was. Tipping is the only way some of these guides get paid.
Use the opportunity to chat with the guide and gain local insight into places to eat and what to see.
Global Greeters Network is another excellent way of discovering a new city for free. Jump onto the website, check for your destination and register for a Greeter and wait for a response.
Global Greeters Network is run by locals passionate about their city who volunteer to show visitors around. It is NOT a tour of the city, but a local showing you their favourite places. It is entirely free, and they will not accept any tips. I joined Fabio in Milan as he showed me around his beautiful city. He showed me many places I would never have seen on my own or with a tour guide. I highly recommend them.
I know this is about saving money, so why would I be talking about paid tours, but stay with me.
If you decide to pay for a tour, make sure it does what I call double duty. For instance, I love food, and I like walking tours. So, if I don’t join a free tour, I am happy to pay for a guided food tour. This way I indulge a passion, learn some history and get my bearings walking around the city AND I don’t need to buy myself a meal because there is usually ample food tastings.
If you don’t want to pay anything, but want to get acquainted with your new destination you can try a self-guided tour.
Occasionally the Tourist Information Office can provide one, or websites like Rick Steves may offer a downloadable self-guided tour. I found one for the Roman Forum, which was great.
Or perhaps a travel blogger has created one which you can follow like Sydney Expert who has fabulous ones self-guided tours to follow in Sydney, Australia and surrounding areas.
If visiting museums, it is worthwhile looking at the website and seeing if they offer self-guided tours. I downloaded one for the Louvre in Paris that the kids could follow. It was a great way to find our way around to all the major exhibits.
Look for Plan Your Visit on those websites.
Free and Discounted Things to Do
Every city seems to have free “stuff” or heavily discounted things to do.
For example, the Central Park Conservancy in New York has volunteer-run tours, some free, others charge a small fee, of all areas of the park (no tips accepted).
And did you know they sell discounted Broadway Show tickets in Times Square? Find the TKTS stand in Times Square and purchase tickets for 25-50% off. Just buy your ticket in the morning for a Matinee show or in the afternoon for the evening session. I purchased from the TKTS booth twice and had great seats each time.
There are museums and art galleries that have either discounted days or free days, usually once a month. Or check if they have late opening hours during the week at a lower admittance fee.
I understand you are on holidays, and supermarkets usually mean grocery shopping, but I love exploring supermarkets in other countries. It always seems like such a novelty.
Venturing into a local supermarket will usually yield something easy and tasty to eat, and because it’s different from what you have at home, it will seem like a treat.
Here are just a few examples of meals I have thrown together over the years of travelling on a limited budget. And if you have an apartment with a kitchen even better.
Antipasto Platter – laden with dips, olives, local cold meats, fresh, crusty bread and local condiments. Sometimes an antipasto platter doesn’t sound like much of a meal, but it fills you up quicker than you think and accompanied by some delicious wine it is the perfect meal to throw together after an extended, tiring day sightseeing.
Salad. I know, sounds a bit boring. But if you start with lettuce, throw in chunks of crusty bread, some nice cheese and crispy pancetta or prosciutto (or similar) mixed with a tasty dressing from the supermarket and anything else that takes your fancy – pine nuts, anchovies, avocado, tomato or boiled eggs – you have your version of a Caesar Salad. Yum!
Seafood. Prawns, oysters, lobster – ready to go. Add them to toasted bread with a delicious mayo, some lettuce and avocado. Or cook some pasta, add some herbs, garlic and onion, a healthy dollop of cream and then the seafood to warm through. Or throw it in the salad you created before instead of the pancetta.
Bruschetta. No, you don’t have to be in Italy to enjoy a tasty bruschetta. Just chop some tomatoes, add some chopped onion, torn basil leaves (or any other herb that takes your fancy) and a good slug of olive oil and let it sit for the flavours to infuse. Spread some sliced bread (doesn’t matter if it’s not fresh) with butter, pan fry till golden and add your tomato topping. Delicious! You can add some tapenade if you like, or see what other delights the supermarket has, maybe pan-fried eggplant, zucchini or topped with mozzarella. Get creative!
Fried Sandwiches – one of my favourites (not healthy, but you’re on holidays!). Bread smeared with mayonnaise topped with shredded chicken (or ham/prosciutto) and layered with a generous serving of cheese – any cheese will do – and then pan fry it until that cheese is oozing and delicious.
Eating out can create a massive hole in your travel budget. If you are planning on eating out three times a day plus snacks and coffee, then you will spend a substantial amount of money.
I have found cutting down on eating out to be one of the most significant ways to save money when I travel. Don’t get me wrong; I love to dine at a lovely restaurant, and I do, just not for every meal.
And did I mention that in Europe, you can buy inexpensive, but good wine at the supermarket?
Supermarkets can also yield cheap gifts for family and friends at home. On a trip to Holland, we wanted traditional butter lollies for the kid’s friends and found them in lovely traditional tins while picking up some groceries and wine.
Markets have great food stalls which are an excellent way to sample the local cuisine for a fraction of the cost of sitting down for lunch in a restaurant.
If you want a local experience, find out where the locals go shopping or for lunch. A lot of the time you can find hot food as well as fresh food stalls.
I ate twice at Mercato di Mezzo in Bologna, Italy sitting shoulder to shoulder with local workers at lunchtime. The pasta was excellent, the wine delicious, and the atmosphere priceless.
Get out of Tourist Areas
When we were in Venice, my friend and I posted a photo online of her drinking an espresso.
A lady commented on how she hoped it was worth the €12 we had paid.
We were puzzled. It only cost €2 (which was a double our morning espresso).
It turns out that the lady had been visiting Venice while on a cruise and had sat in St Mark’s Square for lunch and coffee.
Suddenly we understood. We were within walking distance of St Mark’s Square, but it was not crowded with tourists. St Mark’s Square is NOT Venice, but so many think it is and therefore has a very skewed opinion of it.
Venture away from the famous sights. Everything will cost a lot less and be of better quality. And you will probably get better service.
If you must visit those sites, go as early as you can to avoid the crowds. And don’t buy anything there!
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Find Cost-Effective Travel
The key to cost-effective travel is research and planning. It takes time and effort, but if you are passionate about travelling and want to maximise your budget, then it is worth it.
Don’t rush; take your time. And don’t panic. Yes, you want to save money, but don’t get crazy. A few dollars here or there won’t make a difference.
I love the challenge of travelling with a small budget and seeing how much I can achieve for little. Somehow it makes my travel experiences more meaningful because everything I chose to do is done so with purpose.
Even with a lot of money, I would still choose to research my options and choose the alternatives. I prefer this style of travelling. For me, it’s a richer experience, unique to me and my travel style and personality.
Make your travel dreams come true. Don’t wait for lots of money, see what you can do with what you have.
At the very least, research a trip and plan a budget you are comfortable with, then do whatever you can to reach your goal.
It’s easier to make things happen with an actual dollar amount in mind instead of a perceived cost.