My friends know that they can tell me their budget, preferred destinations and travel style, and I’ll find them the trip of a lifetime that’s right for them.
Being able to travel is definitely a privilege. For many though, cutting back on a few frivolous expenditures each week can fund an amazing trip. Also, knowing what travel tools to use is key to saving money without sacrificing luxury.
For me, I have always preferred to travel as often as possible rather than in luxury. In college, I got a cheap ticket from Denver to London, an even cheaper round trip from there to Amsterdam, and a rail pass. Then I attempted to stay in hostels for $10 a night (it didn’t quite work out). $600-$700 could finance everything but food, and we mostly ate inexpensive street food (Belgian waffles, baguettes, cheeses, stroopwafel, amazing strange fried things, etc.)
In law school, I got a direct flight from Miami to London, a decent hostel bed for the week and an Oyster card for under a grand. (My rule on staying in hostels by then, by the way, was female-only rooms, four-bed max, so it was a bit pricier).
Stashing a $20 bill each week for a year ($1k total) would finance a week-long trip to Europe. If I couldn’t find anyone to go with me, I hopped on a Contiki or G Adventure tour, which cost more but provided group security and instant friends for the week.
Note: You can always opt for the camping tours to save even more money on accommodations and meals—though I found during my first (and only) camping trek that this option isn’t for me!
Now that I’m older and have a built-in travel companion (the hubby), I’ve doubled the budget for a European trip from $1k to $2k per person. My rule is that saving a dollar an hour from your paycheck each year will finance an amazing trip. The budget includes air and ground transportation, accommodations and excursions. The bigger budget combined with savvy planning for independent travel has quadruple the luxury and overall experience. We stay in better locations in the heart of the action, we take private tours, and we travel at our own pace.
That pace is sometimes fast! On our most recent trip, we traveled to 5 countries in 10 nights, took three private day tours, stayed in wonderful accommodations and still kept to our budget. Here are some tips on how to do it.
Note: I’ve included links to the travel tools we use. I’m not getting paid to do so (though maybe I should?). These are the tools we use, and I am including them because I love to travel, write, and share our experiences to encourage others to see the world.
- Find the cheapest direct flight to Europe and take a budget airline from there
We really wanted to go to Dubrovnik on this trip, but flights from Washington, D.C. (with a layover) ran about $1,150 pp–which is more than half our budget. Flights into Croatia’s capital, Zagreb, could be found for $750, but instead, we found direct flights to Amsterdam for $600 per person and a direct one-way on easyJet from there to Dubrovnik for $50 each. We knew we’d be flying around the region, so the savings to cross the pond really helped.
It’s a good idea to play around with flights. Look for the cheapest direct flight to Europe and take a budget airline from there. I swear by Google Flights because you can type in your origin city and then put “Europe” as your destination and see what comes up.
Save even more by opting for a layover on that first oversees flight. Right now you can find flights to Europe for less than $300.
Pro tip: keep in mind that Europe’s budget airlines often run from smaller airports. We could’ve flown direct to London Heathrow for $480, but we would have had to change airports for the flight to Croatia and that would’ve cost more time and money.
2. Get alerts on flight deals
We subscribe to Next Vacay for $25 a year and get daily emails on cheap flights from our origin city and other close-by airports. This service has led to $175 tickets to Guatemala, $450 tickets to Barcelona on major holiday travel dates, $750 tickets to Japan on a great flight route, and our $600 direct to Amsterdam. Some people use Scott’s Cheap Flights, which offers a free limited service and an upgraded paid feature.
We also use Hopper—an app that tells what a good flight prices looks like for your route and dates and alerts you when flight prices drop. This service got us $214 tickets to Panama from DC on a direct flight.
3. Stay in apartments instead of hotels
Staying in an apartment is almost always cheaper, more spacious and a better experience than staying in a hotel. You can use Airbnb or VRBO for this, or you can check out local sites for the cities you need. Orbitz also shows apartment listings, which we’ve booked successfully in the past for Paris and St. Martin.
The only problem is that individual apartment owners are more likely to cancel on you. This has happened to us three times, but everything ultimately worked out. You just have to accept it as part of the experience and come up with a new plan.
Apartment owners could be more flexible, too. Our Airbnb host in Barcelona generously gave us a full refund when we cancelled due to political unrest.
Apartments can save you even more money because you can use the kitchen for breakfast and lunch and just go out to experience local cuisine for dinner. In Dubrovnik, we stayed near a gorgeous hotel that cost more for one night than are apartment cost for 4 nights. We still wandered over to the hotel and enjoyed the on-the-water view with a bottle of Croatian wine without paying the steep price of staying there.
We try to book places with a washer because we pack really light, so this saves us on luggage fees and laundry service.
Our accommodation cost per person for 8 nights in Croatia, Bosnia and Serbia was $300 per person, and our places were beautiful. Our Amsterdam apartment cancelled on us and we couldn’t find another, so we wound up paying much more than anticipated: $250 per person for two nights in a hotel (only $50 pp less than what we paid for the next 8 nights combined!). This is way more than we usually spend, but the hotel was centrally located by the train station for our 48-hour stay in the city.
4. Book private day trips
OK, this is NOT cheap, but it would be way more expensive to book a fully guided group tour to Europe. So if you want to get out of the cities and see the major sites with a local, this is a great way to do it.
On this trip, our 3 private day tours and 3 private airport transfers cost $500 per person and were worth every penny—especially considering that one of those trips got us from one destination (Dubrovnik) to the next (Sarajevo). We got to see the beautiful countryside in between and make stops along the way.
In Amsterdam, we used Withlocals to book a private food tour and it was awesome. We felt like we were wandering the city with a good friend and we stopped at places we wouldn’t have found on our own and sampled all the local cuisine.
To get from Dubrovnik to Sarajevo, we used MyDayTrip.com which offers one-way drivers between many cities in Europe. This is a great way to see the countryside and you can add stops at major attractions for an added cost. This is how we got to see Mostar and some other beautiful Balkan towns. We had an amazing driver who became a friend who we keep in touch with now.
While in Dubrovnik, we took a private day trip to Kotor, Montenegro. For this trip, we booked through Viator. I like Viator, which is now owned by TripAdvisor, because they provide guarantees and assurances when you book local guides through their website. But if you find a reputable guide independently, it’s always better to book directly. I also book airport transportation either through Viator or directly with local drivers. Prearranging private airport transfers is definitely more expensive than some other options (we use the train whenever it’s available), but it makes me feel safe. I always research the transport provider in advance and make sure there are plenty of positive reviews.
Safety tip: Research taxi, Uber and other ride options before you leave for your trip. In some cities, it’s perfectly safe to hail a taxi, in others it’s extremely dangerous. When in doubt, tuck into a hotel or restaurant and ask an employee to call a reputable taxi company for you. Carry your hotel’s business card with you (or the address of your apartment) in the local language so you can hand it to the driver. We use Uber where it’s available because it’s easy. The address is plugged in, the charge is automatic, and the ride is GPS tracked.
Save even more money by staying in one place and renting a car to explore on your own. We could’ve hopped along the Dalmatian coast of Croatia and took day trips to Kotor and Mostar on our own, but we opted to hire guides for the convenience and the insider tips. We really like supporting the local economy while we travel.
You can also take group day tours for way cheaper than private trips, but the individual attention and experience is really valuable to us.
5. Consider trains, planes and automobiles
Because the scenery and stops along the way were extraordinary, we opted for the pricy day tour from Dubrovnik to Sarajevo. It’s only about a 4-hour direct drive, so there aren’t direct flights from the major airports. There also aren’t any trains.
But I always look into each option to consider comfort, exploration, price and time value. A train, plane or car could be better in one situation and not in another (also research road safety when driving in unknown territory).
From Sarajevo to Belgrade, Serbia we decided to fly. A $110 plane ticket and 45-minute flight seemed way better than the 5-hour drive in that case.
It cost us $178 per person to fly back to Amsterdam because we wanted a direct flight that gave us plenty of time to make our separately booked overseas flight home. Otherwise, there were direct flights on budget airlines available for about $55.
I absolutely love the train, and I usually go with this option if the trip is less than 4 hours, but rail transport wasn’t an option on this trip. Also, in some areas of the world, budget air travel is cheaper, safer and faster.
6. Travel in the shoulder season
Summer and holiday travel comes with expensive flights and accommodations, huge crowds, and sold out attractions. Sometimes this is when you have to travel because of work, school or other life demands, but if you can travel in the shoulder season, I highly recommend doing so. The shoulder season is different, depending on where in the world you are traveling, so do some research first. Find a time outside the high season when the weather is still comfortable and it’s not too rainy. October in most parts of Europe is lovely, but it’s a risky time to explore the Caribbean because it’s hurricane season—so consider March or April for that region. Another off-travel time to get a good deal is the weekend after New Year’s Day. Everyone in the world just got home from visiting family and isn’t going anywhere for a while.
The Budget Results
So for our most recent trip this October to Amsterdam, Dubrovnik, Kotor, Sarajevo and Belgrade, we had a luxurious experience all within the $2k per person budget:
- Airfare: $1,000 (DC -> Amsterdam. Amsterdam-> Dubrovnik. Sarajevo-> Belgrade. Belgrade -> Amsterdam. Amsterdam -> DC. Including seat upgrades.)
- Accommodations: $550 (for 10 nights).
- Private day tours and transport: $500 (food tour in Amsterdam, round trip day tour from Dubrovnik to Kotor, one way day trip from Dubrovnik to Sarajevo, airport transport in Dubrovnik and Belgrade).
OK, so that’s $50 over budget. Not bad!! Do you have budget tips for world travel? Tell us in the comments.