Backpacking Europe last summer changed a lot of things for me.
There’s of course my plumper waistline and newfound devotion to Belgian beer, but more importantly, I had some pretty big epiphanies about traveling and money.
Now, don’t get me wrong – traveling is a huge expense, but for the longest time, I always saw it as impossibly expensive. I never knew that there were alternatives to hotels, I didn’t know it was possible to cook for yourself, and genuinely, I thought airplanes were the only way you could travel places.
Guys, I didn’t even think about buses or trains. I was Class A clueless.
But I’m not alone! After I came home, so many people kept asking me how I was able to afford 6 weeks in Europe. In spite of all the budget travel resources out there, I’ve noticed that there’s still a massive gap in common knowledge about how to backpack smartly and milk the most out of your dollars. Thankfully, I picked up a lot of tips and tricks along the way. Here are some of my favourites.
1. Walk more often.
Walking is the absolute best way to explore a city. Bus and taxi fares add up quickly, so walking from place to place will save you a ton of money. You’ll also get to see the city better while working off all those carbs you’ve been inhaling!
Restaurants are expensive, no doubt, which is why you’ll quickly learn that picnicking is your best friend. Grabbing some grocery store meals or street food is much cheaper than eating out, so bring your goodies to a park and enjoy. To be even more cost-effective, split picnicking costs with a friend. A hunk of cheese and a huge baguette can feed more people than you think!
3. Cook your own meals.
If you’re really looking to cut your food costs, you can always prepare your own meals. Many hostels and guesthouses will provide kitchens (and often free food shelves left by other guests). I didn’t do much of this because a) I’m an awful cook and b) cooking is time-consuming, but this is an amazing way to save.
4. Eat away from tourists attractions.
If you must eat out, steer clear of food establishments close to big tourist destinations. It shouldn’t be a surprise that prices around these areas are grossly inflated, and the quality is often questionable as well.
5. Drink less (at bars, pubs and restaurants).
Before you call me a monster for denouncing alcohol, let me reiterate that this tip refers to drinking less when you’re out at bars, restaurants, etc. Alcohol is usually very cheap at grocery stores, so why pay 5 euros for a glass of wine in a restaurant when you can get a full litre for 1 euro? It’s nice to indulge every so often, but drinks are an added expense that can be easily avoided. This tip applies to non-alcoholic beverages too. One time, I paid 4 euros for a small can of Coke in Milan. It’s insanity!
If you’re worried about sacrificing the social experience, why not have a boozy picnic? Most countries in Europe are fairly lax with drinking in public. One of my most valued memories from Paris was drinking wine along the Seine, surrounded by locals. Get creative – you don’t need bars to be social.
6. Buy refreshments at grocery stores.
In addition to alcohol… snacks, drinks, water and pretty much everything will be cheaper at a grocery store. If you feel like you need fuel throughout the day, buy some goodies in advance so that you don’t make hungry and impulsive spending decisions.
7. Steer away from tacky souvenirs.
You know that saying, “collect moments, not things?” It’s definitely true. While it may be tempting to collect small trinkets throughout your trip, these little expenses add up and also take unneeded space in your bag. In my experience, the best souvenirs are free, like photos, ticket stubs, etc. Save money AND space by forgoing souvenirs – it’s a win-win.
8. Seek out free activities and attractions.
Everywhere you go, there will be free things to do and see. Be sure to research beforehand and see what free things there are to do at your destination. A lot of museums especially offer free admission on particular days of the month. Take advantage of these offers!
9. Take advantage of discounts.
Many attractions will offer special discounts for particular groups like residents of that country, students, military, etc. In addition, discount codes and coupons are just a Google away. If you know you’re hitting up a particular attraction, be sure to check the Internet quickly for deals, and ask your hostels & local tourist centres if they have coupon books.
You’ll be amazed at how much money you can save by haggling at markets. It doesn’t matter what you’re buying, whether it’s clothes or a keychain, you’ll be able to drive the price much lower if you stand your ground. One time in Brussels, my friend Natalie even managed to haggle on her breakfast. All she did was ask if she could pay less!
11. Stay at hostels with free meals.
A lot of hotels and guesthouses will provide free meals to their guests, and I’m not just talking about breakfast! I stayed at a hostel in Prague that had a free dinner every night, and at others that offered free dinners a few times per week. Not only is this cost-effective, it’s a great way to meet new people too, which brings me to #12…
12. Make friends while you’re on the road.
Making friends while you travel brings an infinite number of benefits. In terms of saving money, you can split costs of supplies and food, plus, you can view these friends as resources. Let’s say you cut your foot while snorkelling one day and have no bandaids. Instead of paying for a whole box of them, you can rely on your new buddies for help.
13. Plan well and book ahead.
I saved this tip for last because it’s a bit controversial. One of the biggest draws of the backpacking lifestyle is the spontaneity, freedom and ability to go wherever you want at your own pace. While booking and planning ahead can often impede on this flexibility, the truth is it really will save you a lot of money. Planning out your itinerary and booking buses, flights, hostels, etc. in advance will help you secure the best rates possible (and often the best accommodations too).
These are some basic but essential tips for saving while you’re on the road. Let me know in the comments if I’ve missed any of your essentials!