You can travel to Europe on a budget without anyone thinking you are on a budget holiday!
A lot of people ask me how the two of us are able to travel so cheaply, so I figured I would create a (not so short) blog post about it.
- London City – $100CAD/night in August
- Downtown Barcelona – $74CAD/night
- Nice, 5 min walk from Medeterranian – $66CAD/night
I am going to make a few assumptions in writing this:
First, there are only two of you travelling. If you have a family of 3 or 4 some of these tips might work, some might not. If there’s only one of you it will be considerably more expensive as you won’t have a second person to split costs like rental cars, hotels, etc.
Second, you have access to premium credit cards like the RBC WestJet World Elite, Scotiabank Passport Visa Infinite, and Amex Gold Charge Card as these are the primary cards I use.
Third, you are travelling from the west coast of Canada, if you’re on the east coast you can disregard all of the flight information I’m listing below.
I keep hearing that London, the UK, and by extension Europe, are very expensive places to visit. For us, most of the time it is only marginally more expensive to travel to Europe than it is to stay within North America. Amazingly some times it’s actually cheaper for us to spend a week on the Medeterranian than it is to spend a week in the southern US. Which brings me to the first tip:
#1: Offseason is your best friend.
This is probably the primary reason we can afford to do the trips we do. We visit continental Europe in late January. When we spent 6 days in Nice in 2019 we stayed in a wonderful boutique hotel, Hotel Gounod, about 5 minutes from the beach for about $66CAD/night. The same room is going for about $195CAD/night for summer 2020. I think we were maybe one of three rooms occupied in the hotel. Rental cars were similarly dirt cheap, for the 6 days we were in France we rented a Peugeot 308 (a French VW Golf) for a total of $130CAD including all taxes.
Like Nice in 2019, we were able to stay in a very nice, “luxury” hotel in Barcelona’s Olympic Village, the H10 Marina, in mid-to-late January this year (2020) for an equally absurd price of $74CAD/night, normally upwards of $265CAD/night during the summer. Though the hotel was considerably busier than the Gounod was. While we did not rent a car in Barcelona we did rent two motorcycles. After doing some research we found a local rental agency that rents out “used” bikes for far less than the major rental companies who rent out brand new bikes each year. As a result we were able to get a 2015 Kawasaki Z800 and 2012 Honda CB600 Hornet for roughly half the cost of renting a ‘new’ bike of similar size and power. We were quite revealed when we saw the bikes were ‘used’ as we didn’t need to worry about putting the first scratch on the bike.
The other beauty of travelling to Europe during the off-season is that the flights are also cheaper. During the height of summer it is not unusual for a normal return economy ticket from YVR to London to be $1200CAD or more on the major carriers (British Airways and Air Canada). For the past two years our round-trip cost has been just over $850CAD/each on British Airways.
Another big benefit of traveling during the off-season is that there are generally few other tourists around. There are always exceptions to this, like the never-ending line we experienced to get in to the Sagrada Familia during the torrential rain Winter Storm Gloria brought. When we were in Nice, the very touristy car-free “high-street” was nearly empty.
I still remember the fear we had back in 2016 when we took our first trip outside North America. It was to Ireland and was a 9 day ‘self-drive’ tour and while the package we booked was decently priced we feared what our on the ground costs would be. That brings me to my second tip:
#2: Eat like a local, not a tourist.
I still remember one of our August trips to the UK a couple of years back, the most expensive meal we had was an “American” dinner. It was a middle-of-the-road bacon cheeseburger, fries, and a milkshake. It ended up costing just under $45CAD. A couple of nights later we ate a delicious three course Italian dinner in Central London for about $35CAD each, or an absolutely massive plate of Fish ‘n Chips at a very well known London ‘chippy’ for about $16CAD each. If you want to get really ‘cheap n cheerful’ any local Kebab outlet will feed you, and your whole family, with meat, salad, and chips for under $20CAD.
My point is if you try and keep to the ‘typical American’ restaurant foods we eat here it will cost you an arm and a leg. Especially in England “American” restaurants are a novelty and charge accordingly. Oddly, the same goes for Chinese too. To keep the food budget in check, stick to the local staples, Fish ‘n Chips, Kebabs, and Curry. Yes, it might not be the healthiest, but with the exception of the Fish ‘n Chips, one could incorporate quite a few vegetables in with the meals while still remaining well under budget.
The same holds true for when we were in Spain, France and Italy. Stick to the local cafes, boulangeries, and patisseries, and you cannot go wrong. The pastry, bread, sandwiches, and hot meals are all delicious and in most cases fresher, tastier, and cheaper than anything you will find back home. One other tip I will give for France. Search out the local O’Tacos fast food joint. They do what are known as French Tacos. Essentially a grilled burrito filled with your choice of meat, cheese, veg, and sauce and stuffed with french fries. It comes in various sizes, from a small that is smaller than the palm of your hand to an XXL that has the same footprint as an average laptop. Healthy, no, delicious, yes!
When searching out cheap, flavorful dinners we have always found Google Maps to be the best source. I pretty much totally ignore anything on sites like Yelp, Tripadvisor, etc now. Over the years we have had incredible luck finding excellent places by using filters on Google Maps. Within the Android app you can filter based on a) what is open b) “Top Rated”, effectively 4.0/5 rating or higher, c) 100 or more reviews. Once you narrow it down take a quick scroll through the reviews and it should give you a general feel for the place. In probably over 500 restaurants we’ve selected this way less than a handful have been duds.
There are always exceptions to that, like the pub near Carnaby Street we stumbled into one night we had a craving for Sticky Toffee Pudding. Two servings for £8 ($14CAD) and it was easily among the top two puddings we’ve ever had. Or the restaurant we stumbled upon while out riding in Barcelona. I had accidentally navigated to the wrong road and wound up in Sabadell, it was past lunch time and we were both feeling the effects of low blood-sugar. We saw an open parking spot in front of a restaurant with a tattered banner hanging over the front and for some (lucky) reason decided to go in. It was one of the best Catalan meals we had the whole trip. Traditional sandwiches, cured meats and cheese, and their take on chips covered in sauce. Only after we ate and throughly enjoyed the meal did I look up their Google Maps rating, a lowly 3.2 with 200 reviews. Ooops!
That is not to say all of our best meals have been cheap meals. Among the top 5 meals while travelling was the dinner we had at Delphi Lodge in Ireland. It is a ‘Bed and Breakfast’ in a 13 bedroom estate build in the early 1800’s about 90 minutes north of Galway on Irelands west coast. The dinner was €65 each but worth every penny. We spent two nights at Delphi and it was one of the highlights of our Ireland trip. Somehow it was included in our self-drive tour package we booked through Air Canada Vacations as they normally charge upwards of $400CAD/night. That brings me to tip number three:
#3: Not all tour packages are ripoffs
Tip 3 info here
#4: A little research can go a long way
Tip 4 info here
#5: Use your Credit Card Benefits
Tip 5 info here