I’ve just arrived in Ireland, and let me tell you, this is not a cheap country! In fact, most countries in Western and Northern Europe are hard on the wallet. A bit over a year ago, I found myself in Iceland and Scandinavia, and it was a real challenge staying within my budget.

While things are fresh in my mind, let me share with you a few tips to help you save money next time you plan a trip to an expensive European country.

Unlike travelling in Southeast Asia or Latin America, it pays to plan in advance in Europe. That’s because the locals themselves plan and book things in advance, just like we tend to do in Canada and the US.

Accommodation

1. Take advantage of the sharing economy

I rarely stay in hotels in Europe anymore. They’re way too pricey for a budget solo traveller. AirBnB, Homestay, and other peer-to-peer platforms is what I use exclusively in expensive European countries these days. (If you sign up through the previous links you’ll get a credit applied to your first booking.)

2. Use small guesthouses and hotels

If you really don’t want to stay in someone’s home or private apartment, you may be able to find economical one or two-star hotels, as well as B&Bs and other small guesthouses on sites like Booking.com. Spain, for example, has many such places that are affordably priced.

A small guesthouse in Malaga (save money in Europe)

Peaceful room in a small Málaga guesthouse

3. Try something different

If you don’t mind doing something a little different for your vacation, you can even get free accommodation. The English villages in Spain and Germany provide free accommodation for a week to English speakers willing to converse with students trying to learn English.

Italy adds another twist to the “work for accommodation” concept with its barter week. For one week in November, you can barter goods or services for your stay at thousands of Italian B&Bs. Some of them even keep the tradition going year-round!

Food

4. Self-cater from grocery stores

To avoid eating every meal in restaurants, visit a local grocery store and put together a meal. Many European countries (especially in the North) offer not only prepared sandwiches and salads, but complete entrées that can be reheated in a microwave (if your accommodation has one) or sometimes served hot in-store. Belgium and Sweden’s grocery stores, among others, offer filling, cheap and delicious prepared meals.

5. Take advantage of local markets

Cities, towns and even villages will have one or more food markets where you can try local products and dishes. The larger permanent markets usually have small eateries that serve local specialties for a fraction of the price of a restaurant. Markets are normally open in the morning and early afternoon, although some keep late hours.

Markey eatery in Goteborg, Sweden (save money in Europe)

Traditional Swedish meal for US$9 at the local market in Goteborg, Sweden

6. Look for set meals (menu of the day)

Some countries such as France and Spain offer midday set meals that include two or three courses and usually a beverage, all for a low fixed price. In wine-producing countries, that beverage could even be wine, which is often cheaper than soft drinks!

7. Find out where students eat

If the city you’re visiting has a university or college, there will be cheap eateries or cafés nearby catering to students. A little sleuthing or googling could lead you to some great bargains. This is how I found cheap places to eat in Copenhagen, with the help of a local.

8. Make sure you know how much to tip

If you’re from North America, you may be used to automatically tipping 15% to 20% of your bill. In many European countries, restaurant staff does not expect this much. Find out what’s a reasonable tip at your destination. In France for example, rounding up the bill or leaving one Euro at a mid-range restaurant is considered sufficient. If you eat out every day, these savings will soon add up.

Transportation

9. Avoid taxis as much as possible

Taxis in Europe are expensive and often unnecessary given the extent and accessibility of public transit. Find out if the airport where you’re landing has a train link or shuttle bus before getting into a taxi. You’ll spend a fraction of the price. This is also true while travelling within the city itself. Having said that, if you find yourself alone late at night, a taxi may be safer.

Paris metro (save money in Europe)

The Paris metro will take you anywhere you need to go within the city

10. Consider point-to-point train tickets instead of passes

Unless you’re travelling long distances by train every few days, it will probably be cheaper to buy individual train tickets rather than invest in a pass.

11. Book bus and train tickets online in advance

These days, you can book most train and bus tickets online. Planning and booking in advance pays, as many transport companies offer different rates (based on how much flexibility you need), just like airlines. The cheaper tickets get snatched first, so try to book at least a week or two in advance if possible. Also book on the company’s website rather than through a third party (such as RailEurope) which may charge a booking fee/commission. In cases when the company’s site doesn’t have an English version, Google Translate will come to the rescue.

Sightseeing

12. Free museums

Many museum in Europe are free, such as the massive British Museum. Others have a free day or evening. Sometimes you can get a discount at one museum after visiting another one, or get a combo price.

13. Look into city passes

Many cities offer various passes that let you visit a number of attractions and/or use the transit system for a fixed number of days. They could be a good deal if you plan on visiting many attractions within a short time. You’ll have to do the math. Brussels and Copenhagen both offer these types of passes, but more and more cities are adopting them. You may also be able to get a pass for public transit only (for one or more days).

Rosenborg Castle and Garden (save money in Europe)

Rosenborg Castle and Gardens are included on the Copenhagen Card (city pass)

14. Take “free” walking tours

Many cities offer free walking tours which last a couple of hours and give you a good overview of the city. However, they tend to be very well attended, so expect to be part of a large group. Even though the tours are advertised as free, the guides will expect a tip. Give what you want.

15. Do you really need the hop-on/hop-off bus?

Most hop-on/hop-off buses are expensive. Unless you’re really pressed for time, you can usually visit the same attractions using public transit or your own two feet.

Miscellaneous

16. Get a local SIM card

Avoid the high and unpredictable charges of roaming by simply buying a SIM card from a local telecom company at your destination. They’re usually good for a month and provide you with a local number and local rates. There are special versions more suitable for visitors, so make sure to ask. The SIM card should be cheaper if you only use it locally. To call other countries, you could simply use Skype.

17. Visit the tourist office

Besides providing maps and information, tourist offices in Europe often have city guides full of coupons for discounts at restaurants, on sightseeing, shopping, etc. They may also sell city or transit passes (see above).

Bonus tip: Consider staying longer in one place

Travelling slowly is really a pillar of cheap travel. If you have a lot of time on your hands, you may want to consider the hub and spoke approach where you stay in one place for a week or more and take day trips to surrounding towns or attractions.

The longer you stay in one place, the easier it is to live like a local and decrease your spendings. You have time to discover all the good cheap places to eat and shop, and you get to use loyalty cards and store coupons just like you do at home. You meet people and get invited for dinner, and so on.

If you like pets, house-sitting is the best way to travel and live abroad for a while for almost nothing. In the UK, TrustedHousesitters offers the most choices. For the rest of Europe, you may want to use Nomador.

House-sitting in Herentals, Belgium (save money in Europe)

Living in a full apartment while house-sitting in Herentals, Belgium

I’m currently using TrustedHousesitters and have written many posts about my house-sitting experiences. If this is something that interests you, check out this primer on  how to become a house-sitter and get free accommodation.

This concludes my list of tips for saving money in Europe’s expensive countries. Hopefully one or more of these will be useful to you on your next trip.

(Note: this post contains referral and affiliate links.)

Did I forget anything? Please add your suggestions in the comments.


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