Travelling to Europe for the First Time
If you are travelling to Europe for the first time, it can be overwhelming. There are so many amazing places, and so little time. Can you really afford it? Yes you can.
It comes down to making informed decisions about your flights, accommodations, and the way you get around. There are so many different ways to save money. Once you learn some tricks, your trip of a lifetime will start to become reality.
Before you know it, you will be sitting at an outdoor cafe, enjoying a fresh pastry and coffee, taking in the local vibe of a beautiful European neighbourhood.
How to Travel Europe Cheaply
“Our happiest moments as tourists always seem to come when we stumble upon one thing while in pursuit of something else.”
- Lawrence Block
Let's clarify. You aren't looking to travel Europe cheap, you are looking to travel smarter. You are a smart traveller. Who wants to stay at a cheap hotel or vacation home? Travelling smarter means knowing how to stretch your dollar.
What does saving €100 a night on a place to stay mean to you? That could be €100 you could spend on two or three train rides, or even the taking advantage of the Interflix bus deal of 5 Cities for €99. Renting a vacation home, not only can save you money vs a hotel, but you can cook meals saving money on food. There isn't one thing that will save you money on your trip. It's a learning about all the options available to you and making smart choices.
Europe doesn't have to be a once in a lifetime trip for you. I'll show you all the options which will help you see that you can plan that Europe trip you've dreamt of. A big part of it to be flexible and be spontaneous! There is so much to experience.
Best Time to go to Europe
The best time to go Europe can be determined by many factors. If you have specific plans like Oktoberfest in Munich or skiing in the Alps, well when you go is pretty much a given. If you are planning a general trip to Europe to go and experience a variety of things, then it can come down other factors.
June - August is always the most popular time to go to Europe. That's when most people take their holidays and kids are off school. Weather-wise it's the most optimal. That also means everyone else is going too. Bigger crowds, higher prices.
April - June, and September - October the weather is actually quite nice, and there are a lot fewer tourists. Certain tourist attractions may not be open, so check before you go. These are often referred to as the "shoulder seasons".
November - March, the cheapest time to go to Europe is the winter months, and you could experience things like the Christmas markets that Germany is famous for or go snowboarding in the Alps. Some countries around the Mediterranean like Greece, Portugal, and many others still have beautiful weather in the winter. So don't rule out this time.
European Travel Seasons
I've enjoyed Europe in May and October many times. Not the prime tourist times, not the prime work vacation times. Still Europe. These times may turn a three-week trip into a four-week trip because you are saving some money.
Winter maybe changes your location and what you do. Why not try dog sledding in Scandinavia? Naples, Italy is on average 8.2C (46.7F) in January. That's a lot better than the -35C (-31F) my home city has in January.
If you are traveling to Europe for the first time, don't get caught up trying to see everything all in one trip. You'll drive yourself crazy. Pick a time that gives you the most amount of time you can afford to take.
The nice thing is, Europe is so compact that you can experience different countries and cultures in a small amount of space and time so take advantage!
The minimum amount of time I would recommend is two weeks in Europe. The ideal time would be three to four weeks.
Choosing Where to Go in Europe
There are so many places to visit in Europe. When you start planning your trip, you probably have your heart set on a country already. As you start researching that country or region, the internet will give you all the best places to visit in Europe. You might ask what are the best European cities to visit?
What I have found in my travels is, some of my favourite experiences were found by accident. Don’t be afraid to take a “wrong turn”. Honestly, I haven't been disappointed with any place I've visited. That being said, everyone has their own preference of what they want to see.
Europe can be expensive, but it doesn't have to be. Are you looking to travel on a budget? Then considered Eastern Europe. Countries like the Baltic countries, or Poland, Slovakia, Slovenia, and Hungary, the list goes on. They are, in my opinion, the hidden gems of Europe. They are less traveled than more popular western countries. They have stunning nature, and fantastic history and culture.
When I traveled to Lithuania, I rented a hotel room and paid $30 CAD a night. Food was also really cheap. Some people have apprehensions about going to these countries due to "safety concerns". How safe are these countries? Well according to the Global Peace Index, much safer than you would expect.
Western Europe has most of the countries and things we know, Paris, London, Berlin, Stockholm, Rome etc. The more popular it is, the more tourists you can expect, also meaning the cost will be higher to travel in these countries.
Western countries offer very efficient public transportation, great road systems, and much of the population speaks English.
Safety - Eastern Europe vs Western Europe
We often associate the safety of a country with our familiarity of that country. Before I went to Lithuania I knew little of it. My ignorance made me feel nervous about going there. My perception at the time (and completely wrong) was that it would be safer to go to a place like France. But is it?
You'll find pickpockets all over Europe. Especially in popular cities like Paris. That's because you get crowds of tourists making for easy targets. In many smaller Eastern European countries you don't see the crowds, therefore less of the crimes or scams that target tourists. That doesn't mean it doesn't exist, just means that it's less prevalent.
Global Peace Index (GPI)
The G.P.I. or global peace index comes out each year ranking the countries of the world based on a list of 23 factors.
"In assessing peacefulness, the GPI investigates the extent to which countries are involved in ongoing domestic and international conflicts. It also seeks to evaluate the level of harmony or discord within a nation; ten indicators broadly assess what might be described as a safety and security in society. The assertion is that low crime rates, minimal incidences of terrorist acts and violent demonstrations, harmonious relations with neighbouring countries, a stable political scene and a small proportion of the population being internally displaced or refugees can be suggestive of peacefulness."
So how much more peaceful is France over Lithuania? Well according to the GPI France ranks #60 and Lithuania ranks #40 as of 2019.
For example, here are some of the 2019 rankings on the Global Peace Index for Eastern European countries.
What about where we might live?
Let's compare that to some popular Western European destinations:
What does this mean for choosing a place to visit? Be open minded. Europe is so much more than Paris and London. There are so many unique places to visit, so don't limit yourself. Do some research and you will be surprised.
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Finding Things to do in Europe
Find Your Own Hidden Gems
I was looking to rent a place near Koblenz. In the reviews of the place I was looking at renting, a person commented that the host had recommended to visit Burg Eltz. I had never heard of it.
So I looked up more info on it, and thought that would make a good day trip. When we got to our place, I told my host we were going to visit Burg Eltz. She then recommended we should go visit the city of Trier then, it was only 45 minutes or so past the castle.
That day we decided that was a good plan! So all from a tucked away review on AirBnB, we went to visit an 800-year-old castle, and one of the oldest cities in Germany.
See what people are talking about on the internet, always talk to the locals. Above all: Be flexible! Be spontaneous!
If you want to hear about others experiences in countries and get honest opinions, come check out the Aciu Facebook Group.
Find Things to do in Europe With This Trick!
Here is a great way to find some things to do and see using Google Maps. You'll find things you would never find normally through a Google search. This is great for exploring the rural areas just outside of big cities to find those unique things. No tourist brochure will do this for you.
Check out the quick video below on how to do this! It's really simple!
So the point is, don't limit yourself. You'd be amazed what you can find off the beaten path. Sometimes going somewhere can be half of the adventure. And if you don't make it to your intended destination because of all the stuff in between, that's a pretty good day.
Five Factors for Finding Cheap Flights
Let's be realistic, finding a seat sale for a flight to Europe at the exact time when you plan on going would be as lucky as winning the lottery. Sure, it can happen, but don't bank on it.
First you have to get to know your prices. If you don't know what the going rate is for a flight from your city to your destination in Europe then you won't know what a "deal" is. So check regularly to see the average price of flights.
The Time of Year You Fly
Flying in the off season or shoulder season will save you money on flights. Summer and around Christmas/New Years will always be expensive.
Day of the Week You Fly On
Tuesdays, Wednesday, and Saturdays tend to be the cheaper days to fly on. Fridays and Sundays often are the most expensive. Keep an eye on the day of the week for both your flights there and back. This isn't a set rule but seems to be a trend. It can vary from your location.
Number of Stops
This is the classic convenience over cost. If you have more stops, it will be generally a bit cheaper. The more direct you want it to be, the more you will pay.
There is a balance. Taking three stops and having a 20 hour travel day to save $300 might not be worth it for you, but for someone else it might be. Everyone has their own threshold, find yours.
Flight Time and Stopovers
You can save money on having a longer overall flight/travel time. This is often due to longer stopover time. Sometimes it can be a 4 hour stop versus a 2 hour stop. If that saves you money, is it worth the extra two hours?
Sometimes you can find flights that have an 8 hour + stopover. Is it worth it? It can be. It could save you money on your flight, but also give you enough time to explore a city for the day you may not have planned to see.
The Airports You Choose
This can make a huge difference. Taking off or landing in certain airports can save you money. If you live in a place with multiple airports, check them all for flights.
If you are visiting multiple countries on your trip, check which cities are the cheapest to fly in and out of. If you are travelling with a family, even saving $100 per flight per person can make a difference. Check out the example below.
My family (2 adults, one child) to fly to Frankfurt: $3399 CAD ($2579 USD)
If I decided to land in London instead of Frankfurt: $2882 CAD ($2187 USD)
Savings flying to London versus Frankfurt: $517 ($392 USD)
So even if I wanted to go visit Germany, for between $150 CAD and $225 CAD we could get to Frankfurt from London with a regional airline, bus, or train. That still saves us up to $300 CAD ($228 USD), which could be used for quite a few meals, admission fees to sites, or four-night accommodations.
In the end finding a good price on flights to Europe comes down most often to the balance between convenience and cost. This will be different for everyone. A family travelling with young children will not want long stopovers at an airport. Whereas a couple or solo traveller might enjoy the adventure of spending a day exploring a city while waiting for the next leg of a flight.
Learn More Great Tips!
Below are some great posts that can teach you more about flights to Europe. One post takes a more in depth look into finding the best flights for you.
The other is about how to prepare yourself and how to deal with a delayed, missed, or overbooked flight when travelling to Europe. Did you know you could be entitled to up to 600 EUR for any flight delays you have experienced in the last three years? You'll want to read this post for sure.
Finding Accommodations in Europe
Did you know there are at least eight different types of accommodations that you could find to stay at in Europe? There is a place to stay in Europe to match every budget from high-end hotels to even staying for free with Couchsurfing. It really comes down to what suits your style. It doesn't matter if you are solo travelling or travelling with a group, there is something that will suit your needs and your budget. Each has a different requirement, so get know the options available and make an informed decision.
Finding a Good Place to Stay in Europe
Things to look for when picking a place to stay:
I often use vacation homes when I travel Europe. I get my own space and can cook my own meals, which saves a lot of money. You might prefer a hostel or even a hotel. Regardless of what type of place you stay in, make sure the area you are staying is a good, safe area.
Location, Location, Location
Finding the coolest place to stay is only good if you just planning on hanging out there. You are going to Europe to see things, so your accommodations should be a clean, a safe place to stay, that is a conveniently located home base. Where your place is located can really make or break your stay. This is one of my number one factors when I pick a place.
When you stay in a big city try and find a place close to public transit. Often I get even pickier because I try and find a place close to a subway or tram. Why? There is nothing wrong with buses, but subways and trams are super easy to navigate because they follow a fixed route. This makes planning really easy.
Subways especially run every couple of minutes, so you don't have to plan to leave at a certain time. Just go when you are ready to go. If you miss a subway, the next one is probably only five minutes away. Also, the subway will almost always go to all the major sites, including to the train station and airport. This makes the day you arrive stress-free. The stations are easy to find, whereas bus stops, can be a little trickier.
On the flip side, having a car in a big city is a hassle. Parking is hard to find, traffic can be a nightmare. If you plan on renting a car, consider staying on the outskirts of the city. This allows you to use the public transit to get into the heart of the city, and avoid the traffic and parking when you want to go visit smaller towns nearby.
If you plan on visiting smaller towns outside of the big cities, try finding a place in a small town, that is in a central location to the sites you want to see. You don't want to spend all day driving. You can always visit the big cities, just use the Park and Ride system when you go. You can find some great places to stay like a farm stay or bed and breakfasts that can really make your trip a memorable one.
Use Google Maps to check out travel times to and from your accommodations. This way you get an idea how much time of your day is going to be spent traveling. If it takes you 40 minutes each day to get to what you want to see, are you okay with that? The nice thing about Google Maps is you can pick, walking, public transportation, biking or driving.
Depending on how you plan on getting around, you can find that perfect location. You won't be close to everything, but being close to a quick driving route or a subway will get you there quickly give you more time to explore.
Learn More Great Tips!
Learn the eight different types of accommodations that are available to be rented in Europe. There is more out there than hotels and hostels.
If you are considering renting a vacation home then check out the post below that will tell you the ins and outs of doing it. It's your Vacation Homes 101.
What are the Best Ways to Get Around Europe?
How to get around Europe is always a question that comes up. There are so many factors that come up when you consider how to get around. It really depends what you plan on seeing. Like mentioned before, the smaller towns and sites are sometimes only easily accessible by car. So if your trip involves a lot of "out of the way" places, then a renting a car may be the option. If you just plan on staying in bigger cities, then using a train or bus to get from city to city could be the most economical.
Driving around big European cities is not fun, so I recommend using the Park and Ride services and taking the train into the city if you are renting a car. It saves you the headache of parking and the traffic. It will save you time and stress. Generally in big cities I always public transit.
One drawback to driving in Europe is that driving in a different country can be a challenge, especially if you have to drive on the other side of the road than you are used to. If you are driving through the mountains, for example, the driver is missing out on some the beautiful scenery as they are focused on the road. I love taking the train through countries like Switzerland and Austria just to watch the countryside. You can walk around on the train to stretch your legs, play cards, and just relax.
Distance also makes a difference. I took a bus for 16 hours (each way) because the price was cheap. I could have paid double (120 EUR) and got there in an hour and a half. Lesson learned. So for long distances, you may lose valuable vacation time. So you have to weigh the options of time versus money.
So ask yourself:
Learn More Great Tips!
I always enjoy every part of a trip. That includes my flight there, the experience of driving or taking a train from place to place. Think of it as a big part of the experience, not just how to get around Europe. Is it better to rent a car than take a train in Europe? That's for you to decide is best for your trip. You can always do both to experience a bit of everything. To learn more check out these posts!
Planning Your Itinerary
" There isn't inappropriate weather, just inappropriate clothing."
Some people like to plan every minute of every day while on vacation. While it's nice to know what you are doing day to day, you don't want to come home and need a vacation from your vacation.
My recommendation when you plan an itinerary for Europe is to definitely plan some things you want to see, but also be open-minded and ready to change the activities or days that you do them on.
If you have a day by day list of times and places, and weather changes, you may not make the best use of those days. If it's rainy and windy maybe switch up to some indoor activities. That being said there is an unwritten rule amongst the locals. There isn't inappropriate weather, just inappropriate clothing. So be prepared for anything so you can make the best out of every day.
Leave some flexibility in your day. You don't want to feel pressure to clock watch and be leaving before you are done. You are on vacation! There can also be unexpected delays (which I have always encountered at some point), whether it is with a traffic jam on the highway or rail repairs when taking the train.
Don't be afraid to take a wrong turn, or leave a day unplanned. I say have a trip guideline. An itinerary can lack spontaneity. I often plan what I want to see, but don't have a certain day that I have to see it. So the night before I make a decision based on the weather and everyone's mood. Sometimes a full day can leave you exhausted, so you might change your mind to have a lighter day.
Some things you may discover while walking around. This is why my first day in a city, I just go exploring or do a free walking tour. I almost always discover something I didn't know existed that I end up checking out. Most of my favourite experiences have happened this way.
Make sure to incorporate some relax time in your trip. You don't have to sit in your place and do nothing, but take a pause and soak in the surroundings. Walk the Old Town of a city. Sit and have a coffee and pastry and people watch.
When we were in Trier, everyone in the outdoor cafe sat on the same side of the table facing the Town Square just to watch everyone go by. Even on cooler days, in Innsbruck we were offered blankets as we sat for our midday coffee break.
In Hamburg there was a cafe on a dock and you could watch the giant ships go by on their way in and out of the harbour. These experiences were just as rewarding as some of the sites I visited.
- Find things to do.
- Decide on the time of year.
- Think about how you will get there.
- Consider how you will get around once you are on the ground.
- Look for accommodations that work with your location and mode of transport.
In summary, consider all factors when planning a trip. I would recommend picking a few countries as a starting point. Then do some research in the surrounding areas and countries. Be open-minded and research experiences over locations. This way you find things you want to do, and the locations will fall into place. Can you do/see these things in the "off-season"? Then consider how you will get there, and how you will get around. From there start looking at accommodations.
Remember: Be flexible! Be spontaneous!