How to Budget for an Affordable European Vacation

We travel to Europe 4-5 times a year, and we are not rich people, so budgeting is extremely important to us. We create custom itineraries for clients that want to travel to Europe, and in our consultations with them, the issue of money almost always plays a big role.

Here are a few tips on what you can expect to spend, and how to budget so that you have a trip that is immersive, authentic, and affordable -- and you won't even notice the 'budget' aspect of it.


1. Decide that travel is a priority. 

One of the ways we afford to travel so often is that we skip most of the other luxuries many people take for granted: eating out, coffee in coffee shops, new clothing and shoes, nice car, fancy haircuts, expensive cable and phone plans, new gadgets. If, for example, you like to get coffee out every day, 5 days a week, at $4 per coffee, that's $20 a week. Skipping that for a year adds up to over $1000 --- or a plane ticket to Europe. I have a stovetop espresso maker at home and enjoy coffee cheaply that way. I do drink coffee "out" at bars in Italy (where they are very cheap). For me, that is a fine tradeoff.

The coffees in Italy are a lot better anyway... and cheaper too!

The coffees in Italy are a lot better anyway... and cheaper too!

If travel is something you want to do, take a look at your spending and think about what you might feel you can cut off. Put the money you would have spent on coffee (or a haircut, or a car payment), in a savings account specifically for travel. It helps to take the sting off missing whatever you were going to buy to imagine what that saved money will pay for -- instead of spending $80 on a meal out, imagine that $80 as one night in an incredible B&B in small-town Tuscany.

2. What you can reasonably expect to spend on a ticket

Plane tickets are by far the largest single expense in a trip. Assuming a stay of one week, it's easy to keep expenses under $3000 (not including airfare) for two people, and that is with little to no budgeting. A traveler interested in seriously frugal travel could pare that number down quite a bit and still have an incredible trip.

If you are traveling in the high season (June through beginning of September), you can expect to pay upwards of $1200 per ticket. It's possible to find great deals in the summer (we have often done so), but you can't count on them. In the shoulder season (roughly, September/October and April/May), tickets can be in the $1000 range. In the off season (November-March), tickets can be as low as $700, but you should still count on $800 at least.

These figures are what we have experienced living in the middle of the country. On the west coast, you can generally expect to pay more. Coming from major airports with direct flights (Chicago, NYC, Philadelphia) you will be able to find great deals, especially if you have a flexible schedule.

Don't forget to include the flight schedule in your budgeting. If you buy a cheaper ticket that has a long layover (e.g. 7 hours in Newark), you are going to spend much more money in the airport, probably just on martinis to forget that you are in Newark. Months ahead of time, when you book a ticket, you might think you won't mind a bad flight schedule -- but when you are on your trip, you will probably wish you had spent the extra $50 to get a better flight.

3. Timing is everything

Travel in the off season and shoulder season is always cheaper, including flights, lodging, and car rentals. If you want to see large towns like Rome, Venice, London, Florence, and the like, you'll find them very walkable and accessible in the off season. During the summer, they are absolutely jam-packed with tourists. Most hotels have seasonal pricing, so you'll find the lowest rates in the off season, and medium rates in the shoulder season. When we travel in June, July, or August, we usually find good deals by renting an apartment, and taking day trips from a small town. Small towns in Italy, England, and Ireland are great to visit in the summer. Save the tourist locations (like Cinque Terre, Venice, Dublin, Florence) for the off-season and you'll be much happier, and have a much more relaxing experience.

Cinque Terre's Vernazza in the winter. See all the tourists? Neither do we.

Cinque Terre's Vernazza in the winter. See all the tourists? Neither do we.

We visited the famous Cinque Terre in the off-season, and so experienced this wonderful place in the most authentic and immersive way. Read about it here: January in the Cinque Terre

4. Save money by eating in

It's important for us to eat out -- we learn a lot about the culture, and of course really enjoy ourselves, by enjoying traditional, local food. We set aside a large chunk of money just for eating out. That said, meals in Italy are generally multi-course, take a long time, and involve a huge amount of food. Having a multi-course lunch and a multi-course dinner is just not realistic (stomach-wise) for most people, and it obviously costs a pretty penny too.

An affordable picnic: Local cheese, bread, wine, fruit & vegetables, salami. 

An affordable picnic: Local cheese, bread, wine, fruit & vegetables, salami. 

The good news is, excellent, locally sourced, organic, delicious food is very affordable in Italy, England, and Ireland. In Italy, a good way to cut your food budget (and lodging as well), is to rent an apartment. Plan to have an 'epic' lunch every day with multiple courses, then eat a light dinner at your apartment at night. Many days you will likely find that you don't need dinner. You'll find that shopping for local ingredients is fun -- a chunk of local pecorino, fresh bread from the baker, sliced meat from the grocer, fresh fruit and veg from the vegetable stand. You don't even have to cook -- just an assortment of the items above will be delicious (and cheap). If you prefer to stay in a B&B or hotel, you can still have a light meal like this without a kitchen.

In England and Ireland, you can easily find farm shops stocked with local beer, cheese, bread, meats, vegetables, and baked goods. We like to rent seaside cottages or lighthouses on cliffs, wander out and hike during the day looking for castles and stone circles, have lunch at a gastropub, then come back at night to enjoy the crashing waves and a meal made from an assortment of farm produce.

A beautiful meal from Irish farm shop ingredients - cheap, local, delicious.

A beautiful meal from Irish farm shop ingredients - cheap, local, delicious.

5. Pay before you go

It's important for your peace of mind that you save the money for a trip before you take it. It's very stressful to be on a trip, knowing that every dollar you spend is going to be stuck on a credit card you can't pay off when you get home. Figure out in advance how much you will need, then make choices based on that budget. While you are on your trip, keep a general idea of what you are spending each day. You don't have to count every dollar, but if you have saved the money in a special account before you leave, you'll be able to actually enjoy your trip, knowing that you can afford it. If you go a few dollars over budget, it won't be a disaster.

6. Overall budget tips

Our general budget for a week-long trip (for two people) looks like this:

Airline tickets: $2000 (on average; see entry #1 above)

Car/gas/tolls: $600

This $600 figure can usually be whittled down. One obvious way is to drive less. This is a good idea in general -- if you stay in one place and do small day trips nearby, you will get to experience that place more immersively, instead of spending most of your time on the highway driving long distances. You can also avoid toll roads altogether if you have the time and you aren't needing to drive hours each day. The earlier you book a rental car, the cheaper it will be. As your trip gets closer, check in on rental car prices -- you might find a deal that is better than your initial booking, and you can swap them out.

Eating out: $1500 (that is a big number, but trust us)

This figure applies to Italy. It counts on eating out two large meals with wine for 6 days, plus one or two picnics. This is an easy number to whittle down. In Italy, the house wine is actually quite good -- restauranteurs choose something they like that is local and pairs well with their food. The wine is also quite affordable -- not like the swill they keep stored next to the furnace in American restaurants.

Affordable and  excellent handmade food in Tuscany

Affordable and  excellent handmade food in Tuscany

If you want to cut your food budget, plan one or two very nice meals at more upscale places, then have the rest of your meals out at mom-and-pop places. The food is traditional, authentic, unbelievably cheap, and handmade. (You'll have to do some research to find good places, but if you use our guidebooks, we've already done the leg work for you in Tuscany and Emilia-Romagna.)

In England and Ireland, our food budget is less -- we usually shoot for $1000. This includes a gastropub lunch every day, stops in pubs for a pint here or there, and a farm shop dinner every night. We usually come in under budget wherever we travel, but setting a higher number allows you to indulge if you find something really special.

Hotels: $1000

This is also an easy number to whittle down. I rarely reach this number for a week's stay, unless I am splurging on something for a particular reason. The easiest way to cut lodging budget in Italy is to rent an apartment for a few days, or stay at an agriturismo (farm stay). You'll find plenty of affordable, nice B&Bs and hotels in small towns too.

The balcony view from an affordable B&B in northern Italy.

The balcony view from an affordable B&B in northern Italy.

In England and Ireland, an apartment rental where you can cook (referred to as "self-catering") is also a good way to go. Another option is to stay in a pub that has rooms. This has the added benefit of having a bar downstairs, and how can that be a bad thing?

In May 2016, we went to Tuscany and Emilia-Romagna for two weeks. I booked us an apartment in a Tuscan hilltop town that has a private terrace and also a private flowerful garden, a medieval tower converted into an apartment in a historic town in Emilia Romagna, and a room with a four poster bed in a medieval walled castle. For two weeks, our lodging budget was less than $1000! If I rented a hotel where I live here in Nashville, I couldn't possibly find anything halfway decent for that budget.

"Stuff": $400 (e.g. gifts, food items to take home, etc.)

We do almost all our Christmas shopping overseas. We never give big gifts, but we give honey, jams, chocolates, scarves, soaps, and ceramics that are specialties of the places that we've visited. We also cook a lot, so I like to come back home with bags full of olive oil, honey, beans, farro, cheese, cider, etc., and serve them to my friends at dinner parties. As a result, our 'stuff' budget is important to us - it's a great way to re-live the priceless experiences from your trip!

A typical haul from one of our trips. This is why we pack light on the way over!

A typical haul from one of our trips. This is why we pack light on the way over!

I should mention that we always travel to small towns, where food, parking, and housing is cheaper. If you plan to go to big cities, you should plan on expanding all of these figures. But trust me -- the small towns have plenty to see, lots to do, excellent food, beautiful places to stay, friendly people, and you won't be tripping over guided tours filled with dozens of people screaming in English (or German, or Mandarin, or whatever). Your trip will be memorable, authentic, immersive.... and affordable.

Do you want to travel like we do - discovering small towns, out of the way sights, and great local food? Consider using our Itinerary Building Service - we've had dozens of happy clients who have used our service to create the most immersive and memorable trips!

Or, check out our award-winning Little Roads Europe Travel Guides. Current volumes include: Emilia-Romagna: A Personal Guide to Little Known Places Foodies Will Love and Tuscany: Small-Town Itineraries for the Foodie Traveler, recently the Winner of the "National Indie Excellence Award" for Travel.

And look for our upcoming guide to small-town foodie Ireland, coming in Summer 2017!