How I Made It Through Europe on Less Than $1000: 10 Affordable Travel Tips for 20-Somethings

My whole life I’ve dreamed of traveling abroad, but never believed that I could actually afford it. I’d been told it’s too expensive for my income to travel (which is not too far off from the truth), and that I would never be able to save enough to pay for an entire trip.

Well guess what, doubters and haters? I just recently returned from an eleven-day excursion to Amsterdam, Paris, and London! And I spent less than $1000 USD the whole time. How did I do it on a part-time salary? Read on to find out.

1. The first and most important tip I have for you is only three words long: EF College Break. This company organizes trips around the world at affordable prices for students (and non students!) aged 18-26 (sorry if you’re 27+… you can stop reading now before I make you any more depressed). Honestly, I would not have been able to travel if it weren’t for this company. They take care of everything – flights, hotels, excursions, and travel between cities. All I had to do was give them my credit card (always painful, but this time was worth it). All of this (with insurance!) only cost me about $2500.

I can just hear so many saying “only” $2500?! It sounds like a lot, yes, but if you break it down, it’s so much cheaper than trying to figure all of this out on your own. Flights alone can total over $1000 easily. For me, the convenience of someone else taking care of the details made this worth the money and completely hassle-free. All I had to do was pack and show up at JFK airport on time.

2. Book your trip months in advance. Remember when you all thought $2500 was a lot of money? I booked my trip one year in advance and EF let me pay on a payment plan of about $230/month until one month prior to departure. Luckily I was able to super-save all summer and pay it off in July, letting me save spending money for the rest of the time leading up to the trip. I cannot stress enough that this is the absolute best way to plan a trip. If you’re not keen on using EF, then make your payment plan if you can; I, however, will continue to shamelessly endorse this company (no, they’re not paying me; they actually have no idea that I’m even writing this).

3. TAKE ADVANTAGE OF FREE SIGHTS AND EXHIBITS. As I traveled around, I hardly paid for any extra excursions. A lot of places are free of charge, and are just as interesting and worthwhile as something that might cost you 100 Euro (about $140 USD). In London, ALL museums are free to the public. In most any country, you can see all of the major sights free of charge (notice I said “see” not “enter”).

4. Don’t eat in fancy restaurants. Unless you’re an extreme foodie and your only purpose for travelling is to eat your way through a given country, it’s not worth your time or money to go to expensive places. I survived my entire trip on street vendors and cafes and didn’t go hungry; neither will you. Going to five-star restuarants is not only expensive but also time-consuming. I’d rather spend my time exploring than waiting to eat.

5. Don’t go crazy buying souvenirs. In my opinion, your souvenirs are your memories and pictures. Are you really going to keep that miniature Eiffel Tower replica on your desk forever? I have a personal hatred for knick knacks, so I never buy them. When traveling, all they do is use up precious cargo weight that could be used for clothes. Instead of doing that, I saved every ticket, map, postcard, etc to put in a scrapbook (which I’ll probably never ever finish, but it’s a nice thought). On that note, postcards make excellent souvenirs for family members: they’re inexpensive and take up virtually no space. The same applies to pens and key chains.

6. If you’re not going to use EF or some other company, stay in hostels! I have not seen the movie of the same name (which apparently I “need” to do), but my hostel experience was not that bad. They’re cheaper and generally close to the heart of the city (Stay Okay in Amsterdam was only a 10 minute metro ride away). Of course, you have to be mindful of your things, but I wouldn’t say that the hostel was unsafe in any way. If you really can’t bring yourself to stay in one, look for cheap hotels. You aren’t spending much time in the room, so you don’t need a five-star palace. The only time I was in my room was to sleep and shower. You can rough it for a few days, I promise.

7. Pack light. You don’t want to be that guy whose suitcase is two pounds over the weight limit, frantically trying to cram more crap into your carry-on (how’s that for some alliteration?). My suitcase only weighed – brace yourselves – 35 pounds! And I didn’t even wear everything I brought!

Sub-tips for #7:

  • Re-wear your jeans. Let’s face it: You don’t wear-and-wash once at home, so you don’t need seven pairs of jeans for a week. I brought three for eleven days and made out just fine.
  • Ladies: Bring camisoles to wear under your sweaters, that way you can wear them again. Gents: tanks work for the same purpose.
  • Plain shirts and scarves: less space, less hassle.
  • Don’t bring your entire shoe collection. I brought 4 pairs with me: black and brown boots, one pair of flats, and sneakers. Wear your heaviest shoes on the plane.

8. Don’t go out drinking every night of the trip. Alcohol is the absolute number one way to deplete your savings before you can say “Cheers”. My group and I only went out one night in each city. Prices seem reasonable, but remember they’re not in USD. “Only 4.50 Euro for a beer?! What a deal!” Yeah, not so much. That’s about $7. And don’t forget cover charges. They exist over there, too. I’m not much of a drinker, so this wasn’t issue for me. Shameless EF promotion time: My tour director hooked us up pretty well with places to go where alcohol was included in our meal price (Yes, I’m referring to you, unlimited wine night). Their tour directors know which bars to go to and where you’ll get the best bang for your buck. They also know what places are shady.

9. Public transportation – USE IT. EF (oops I did it again!) made sure that we had day passes for the metro systems in each city, which meant you could ride the metro as many times as you needed to with that one ticket each day. In big cities, the metro will be your best friend. It’s fairly inexpensive and can get you everywhere. Cabs cost an arm and a leg, and can be hard to find (on NYE it cost us 20 euro to go about 6 blocks).

10. Walk when you can. If for no other reason, walking around cities lets you see things that you wouldn’t have seen if you’re taking a cab or bus or train. Walking is also ideal for stopping to take pictures of everything. Generally, we would take the metro from our hotel to center city and walk from there. I found that I really learned the area more from walking. Europeans walk everywhere, so you’ll meet lots of interesting locals. I also managed to lose five pounds while on this trip (a wonderful surprise when I arrived home).

This trip was one of the single best experiences – no, THE best experience – of my life. Save your money, plan wisely, and anything is possible. I strongly encourage everyone to travel as often as they can. I’m already trying to figure out my next trip…but now I’m broke again.

(I took that picture, too. There’s nothing quite like the first time you see the Eiffel Tower lit up at night)

Samantha Glassford

A born-and-raised Jersey girl with a chronic case of wanderlust, Samantha spends her days reading, writing, and planning adventures. She currently teaches classes at the community college while living at home with her parents, trying and failing to become a part of the proverbial real world. Her dream is for someone to pay her for writing and traveling, but in reality she'll probably be teaching forever. Follow her mundane musings on Twitter @SamanthaG2012, and check out her personal blog, wanderlustingmillenial.blog.com

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