While we were traveling last fall/winter, I started a list of all the small, somewhat uncommon ways we found to save money on the road and although many of these savings were rather insignificant, a dollar here and there, they really added up over our four months abroad. After returning home we completely forgot about all these little money-saving tips and started focusing on stashing away savings in anticipation for our next trip, however after meticulously reviewing our 2012 budget for our 4 week series on budgeting, I realized that much of the reason we are in good financial shape now, and can afford to leave again this fall, is because of the smart fiscal decisions we made during our last trip. Although it can be difficult at times, the money saved, or spent, while traveling forms the financial foundation for your next trip – and only you can decide how sound that foundation will be.
When it comes to money, I struggle – to spend. Some people may call me frugal, personally I don’t mind the word cheap, however like Scrooge McDuck, I prefer to count my dollars instead of spend them. I’m sure you can imagine how I struggled spending our hard earned money last fall while we traveled around Europe – not necessarily the cheapest destination in the world. However we quickly realized that there are many ways to take in a city without returning home broke. Here are a few tips we’ve picked up in Europe to save in each of our four “cost” categories – Accommodation, Travel, Food, and Activities.
Staying close to the city centre or a main attractions is convenient, and cuts down on the cost of transportation by allowing you to walk everywhere, however it can also be extremely pricey. When trying to decide between spending more for location or saving with accommodations outside the main centre, consider the city’s public transit system and location of the attractions you want to visit. While booking accommodations in Paris, we couldn’t find any affordable places in many of the popular arrondissements. However, as they have a great public transit system, and many of the main attractions are spread out, we stayed in a less-expensive area and took the underground train each day, saving more than 100 Euros over our five days in the city.
Another great way to save on accommodations is to change your expectations. Coming from North America, where large hotels dominate the accommodation arena, we weren’t accustom to small, family run pensions. However by opening our mind to these options, it became easier to find accommodations within our budget – and the proprietors of these establishments are wonderfully friendly, helpful, and a great source for information.
Also, due to the age of the buildings in most of Europe, it’s nearly impossible to construct a bathroom for each bedroom – there just isn’t enough space. Therefore, a private bathroom often comes with a surcharge. While the majority of the places we stayed in had shared bathrooms, not once did we have any issues with cleanliness, and we were able to save a good amount of money with little to no sacrifice.
If you are really looking to save some money, the best way to do so may be to not spend on accommodation at all. While we haven’t found any free accommodation options yet, opting to travel at night, via bus or train, does allow you to cut out this particular expense for a night. In addition to saving some money on accommodations, you can also save daylight and spend the time you would have used to travel instead taking in the sights of an incredible city or town. The one significant catch with this approach to travel is that traveling at night, no matter how deep a sleeper you may be, will leave you less-than-well rested for a busy day of exploration. Also, arriving early in the morning, you will need to find somewhere to drop your backpack, or carry it around with you until you can check in to your room.
When it came to returning home, we really tightened the purse strings. As a result, we spend the night before our flight in the Gatwick Airport (London) sleeping on benches to save on the cost of a hotel room. While it wasn’t comfortable and we were pretty cranky the next day, it also provided a quintessential backpacking experience that we wouldn’t trade for a pillowtop mattress. You can find more info on sleeping in airports at the conveniently titled sleepinginairports.net.
When it comes to travel between Paris and London, most people take the Eurostar, which is a little pricey, even when booked early, at $69 per person. However Travis and I, distracted by the wonderful things we were seeing and eating in Italy and Vienna, overlooked this booking until only a few weeks before our travel date, when two tickets cost nearly $400. Refusing to spend such a ridiculous amount of money for 2-3 hours on a train, we searched around and found an overnight bus for only $35 CAD each. Although it extended our travel time by almost 10 hours, we were able to cancel a night in a hotel and save more money, which to us was well worth it.
One of the best ways to save money on long-haul transportation is to book ahead of time. Tickets are often released 30-120 days before the date of departure, depending on the provider, so it’s best to do some research ahead of time for each leg you need to book.
For travel within a city, do what the locals do and forgo a pricey taxi for public transportation. Not only is it a cheaper option, but it also allows for excellent people watching.
If you plan to take public transportation frequently, it may be worth looking into a travel pass or card. While in London, we took advantage of their Oyster Card program and saved money each time we rode the tube.
When it comes to getting around, even cheaper than public transportation is walking. Although there were plenty of times we were tired and didn’t want to walk any further, it’s impossible to ignore how much money your can save by simply relying on your own two feet. Just remember to pack lightly and wear good shoes.
Speaking of packing lightly, not only will it save your back, but bringing less with you also means you won’t have to pay pricey surcharges for having overweight or excessive luggage.
Although most North Americans are completely dependent on their automobiles, we’ve found that a rental car is completely unnecessary in Europe most of the time. Not only is driving stressful, but fuel prices are steep, and parking is sparse and expensive. Before renting a car, we recommend looking into public transportation options and weighing whether the increased flexibility is worth the cost.
When culinary experiences are one of the main reasons you travel, it can be hard to limit yourself from spending on meals, however scrimping on a meal here and there can actually be extremely rewarding if it results in a worthwhile splurge later on. One of the best ways to save money while traveling it also how we save money at home, grocery shopping allows you to spend a fraction of the cost for a fully prepared meal and get a look at some weird and wonderful local products.
If you are lucky enough to have a kitchenette or access to a kitchen at your accommodations, cooking even one meal a day allows you to save a significant amount of money. However even without a kitchen, stocking up on bread, meats, and cheese for a picnic lunch or easy breakfast is cheaper than eating in a restaurant.
When booking a room, it’s often tempting to opt for accommodation that includes breakfast, in an effort to save money, however we’ve found that this isn’t always the cheapest option. Not only are these breakfasts not-so filling, but the rooms often cost quite a bit more than spending on accommodation and breakfast separately. If you do decide to reserve a room that includes breakfast, be sure to run the numbers and ensure it’s a good deal.
Another extremely simple and easy way to save money is to educate yourself about the safety of drinking tap water in the area you’re visiting. In many parts of Europe, and around the world, drinking from the tap is completely safe, even if it may taste a bit different than at home. When this is the case, refilling a water bottle in your hotel or a restaurant restroom, can save you a few dollars a day which really adds up on extended trips.
Although avoiding restaurants is the best way to save money on food when traveling, it isn’t always feasible or fun. When it comes time to eat in a restaurant, a little pre-meal research can help make it more affordable. Read up on the tipping etiquette for the country you are visiting to ensure you are leaving the appropriate amount and a gratuity hasn’t already been added to your bill. Although tipping for exceptional service is always appreciated, the 10-15% gratuity that is common in North America is completely unheard of in Italy.
It’s also important to understand common restaurant practices in the area you are visiting. Service fees, cover charges, VAT (tax), and other fees may appear on your bill as a surprise if you are not familiar with the practice ahead of time. For example, when in Spain we read that often times the server will bring you bread or some type of small snack before your meal and although you didn’t order these extras, you will be charged for them if you eat them. As a result, we simply pushed these “extras” to the side and kept a close look on our bill to ensure we weren’t charged for them. Although it only resulted in saving a few Euros here and there, these small amounts all add up.
Another great way to dine out and save money is to splurge on lunch, which is often cheaper, late in the afternoon and then skimp on dinner by picking up some bread and meats at the market/grocery.Eating away from the main attractions will also help you cut the cost of dining out, and find some deliciously authentic cuisine. It’s logical that the restaurants closest to the attractions and catering to tourists will charge higher prices than those the locals frequent. It’s also extremely likely that the quality of the meal will be less. Seek out the restaurants the locals frequent, and when in doubt, ask the owner of your pension or B&B for some recommendations.
Any discussion on saving money when traveling wouldn’t be complete without a look at the attractions we all want to visit. Although attractions and activities are one of the main reasons people travel, they also represent the opportunity for spending to quickly get out of control. Unlike accommodation and transportation that can be planned in advance, it can be difficult to say no to a good time in the name of saving.
Before opting out of an activity in an effort to stay on budget, look into free or reduced admission options. While in Paris, we learned that admission to Le Louvre is free for those under 26 years of age, on Friday evenings between 6pm and 9:45pm. By simply showing our passports, and being flexible with our visit, we were able to save on the full admission price of 11 Euro/person.
If your heart isn’t set on fully exploring a particular attraction, but you still want to check it off your list and snap a few photos, why not save on admission and admire from afar? When visiting La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, we were turned off by the long lines and post-Gaudy additions and decided to admire the building from afar, focusing more attention on Gaudy’s other masterpieces and saving big.
One last note on admission prices, if you are considering purchasing a city pass, please crunch the numbers before handing over your money. It seems that every city has their own version of this pass or card that offers admission into a list of attractions for one combined price. However, it’s highly unlikely that you will be able to make it to every attraction on your list, or that everything you want to see will be covered by the card, making it a big fat ripoff.
It’s also good to keep in mind that, while you can get up and close with these attractions by paying a steep entrance fee, getting the attraction in your photos can be achieved for free. While in Paris, we found that although we definitely needed to visit the Eiffel Tower, neither of us cared much about actually going up into it (it was a cold, gray day). Furthermore, any pictures we took out from atop the Eiffel Tower would be absent of one of Paris’ most recognizable landmarks. To capture some aerial shots without spending a cent, we rode to the top of the Galleries Lafayette shopping centre and snapped some photos of the skyline including the Eiffel Tower.
Another free attraction that we highly recommend is people watching. Relieve your sore feet or snack, catch public transport, on your picnic lunch for free on a shady park bench and watch how the locals live. Markets are another great free attraction with ample opportunities for people watching and a chance to sample fresh local products.
Unfortunately there is really no way around this next money saving tip – if you want to stay on budget, it’s crucial to keep the partying in check. With the cost of cover fees, overpriced drinks, and taxis or transportation added together, a night out in even the most affordable countries can easily add up to your entire daily budget for accommodation, food, transportation, and attractions. While we’d hate to crash the party, opting to stay in and say, blog about your day, will save you some cash and have you well rested for another day of adventure.
When looking to save money on activities and attractions, the best option we can recommend is to look at your own priorities and determine what attractions are right for you. They don’t necessarily have to be the most popular or cost a lot of money, and how you spend your time abroad should be aimed at what makes you happy. Traveling is often a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and making memories trumps checking items off a list every time.
A few last thoughts on saving money…
When it comes to switching between currencies, tread carefully. Although it’s a bit more work to plan ahead or re-visit a bank machine on your last days in a city, being stuck with a large amount of cash in a foreign currency means you’ll lose on the exchange rate when you go to convert it back.
It’s also a good idea to be aware of the currency conversions between your home currency and the one in the country you are visiting. While something may have look like a bargain in Euros or Pounds, after converting it to Canadian Dollars we were left with a new perspective of the “deal” we were getting.
While sticking on budget was crucial for Travis and I, not just to return home in good financial shape but for our sanity as well, we know it isn’t everyone’s top priority. However, hopefully some of these tips will prove valuable in saving here and there for something special later on.