Traveling to Europe can be costly – we explain how to save money for a trip, and how to best enjoy spending it.
A lot of people wonder how we manage to afford traveling to Europe so often. Here are a few of our suggestions about saving for a trip:
1. This may seem obvious, but you have to make travel a priority. That means, for most of us, sacrificing other comforts or goods to save for a trip.
In our case, we wear inexpensive clothing, and wear it for a long time; keep the house at 80° in the summer and 60° in the winter (and turn off AC whenever possible and use fans instead); eat out about 5 times a year; change insurance companies often to get good deals; drive an old used car; cook from scratch; buy things on sale and in bulk; and live quite close to work so we only drive about 20 miles a week. For us, scrimping in these other areas is well worth it to take the memorable trips we take every year; we love talking about them before and after we’ve gone and there is no material item we could buy that could replace them.
Everyone has their own choices to make, but most of us are frittering away money on things we wouldn’t really miss if they were not there. If you want to travel and feel like you don’t have the money, that may be the case, or there may be areas you can save. Buying small items like tissues, toothpaste or nonperishable food at full price seems like a small amount of money, but it all adds up. Saving by buying those and similar items on sale and in bulk will help you reduce your daily expenses without feeling any deprivation. Another big money-sucker is eating out: if two people get takeout twice a week, that’s about $50. That adds up to $2600/year, which could be two plane tickets to Europe and a rental car with gas. If you get four coffees at Starbucks each week, that’s $20, or just north of $1000/year, which is one plane ticket to Europe. Sometimes we miss out on coffeehouse/salon/restaurant/bar experiences here in the States, but we’re OK with that as for us it’s an acceptable tradeoff. Over time we’ve actually found that doing those things less often makes them feel more special when we do go.
2. Start a travel savings account. Plan to pay for all your trips before you take them.
You can’t really enjoy a trip if you have to come home and spend months paying for it; plus, while you are on the trip itself you’ll likely be obsessing about money and worse, possibly arguing about it. If you have it all paid off in advance you can really relax and enjoy spending the money.
Our usual trip budget is broken down like this:
Airline tickets: $2000 (these kind of rates only apply to off-season travel)
Car/gas/tolls: $600 (this accounts for a lot of driving, and is usually whittled down)
Eating out: $1500 (that is a big number, but trust us)
Hotels: $1000 (This is easy to whittle down as well in small towns, especially if you stay for multiple days in one location)
Stuff $400 (e.g. gifts, food items to take home, etc.)
UPDATED NOTE: For a trip in November 2016, we just got flights, a rental car, and all lodgings for an 8-night trip to County Mayo for a combined total of $2300 for two people. Winter travel can be very affordable!
These numbers can get shifted around a little. For example, if you spend less money one day on food than anticipated (we budget 150€/day when in Italy), you can roll the extra over into the next day, or use it to splurge on something to bring home. Or if you do less driving, you can lower your budget for that. (Google maps helps you plan out exactly how much to expect to spend in gas, which is a useful feature.) In Italy we like to get cheaper hotels/B&Bs that are in small towns, then spend the lion’s share of our money on the excellent food and wine we find there. In the UK and Ireland we get self-catering places in stunning locations, like cliffside lighthouses or farms near stone circles, and cook a lot of our own food (but we still leave quite a few quid for pub lunches and beers). This sets us up well to hike the incredible walking paths that criss cross the islands and circle the coastlines.
By following this general model, we’ve successfully taken dozens of trips to Europe without breaking our budget, or panicking about money while there. We don’t count every penny while we are there, but we keep a general tab on how expenses are going and that helps us decide whether or not to buy that extra bottle of oil, buy a beautiful scarf or coat, take a lunch at a more expensive restaurant — or eat a picnic lunch in a park. When we get home we add up all the numbers and figure out how much our ‘trip fund’ owes our checking to cover the trip costs. Each month we go over finances to determine how much goes into the trip fund. This also helps cut back on buying other stuff we don’t need, or deciding to just fix something instead of replacing it.
3. Get out of debt, and then make your credit cards work for you.
We can’t recommend travel if you have debt (other than a mortgage). If you have debt, especially a credit card balance, our best recommendation is to attack it and pay it out as soon as possible, so you can have the best travel experience. Once that is accomplished you can start making your credit cards work for you. We have one general card that gives us double points on all purchases; we charge everything we possibly can on that card and pay it off every month. By using the card this way we manage to get at least one or two free airline tickets every year. Travel is fun, but travel for free is awesome! We can also use our card to deduct hotels or rental cars if we need lower ticket items.
Another good option is to carefully review airline miles cards. Many times we have signed up for a card in order to get 30,000 miles or more. This is only useful if you already have some miles on an airline, because you always have to pay an annual fee on these types of cards. If you have miles in a program, adding a huge amount of miles like this can get you a free ticket to Europe. (You also have to have flexibility in your schedule and destination, seats can be limited). This method is more risky and more complicated than the first, but if you carefully review the rules and plan appropriately you can score a free ticket. We’ve used this method repeatedly over the years to get tickets, especially in the summer.
4. Make sure you and your travel partner have the same priorities.
Before you go on your trip, make sure you discuss in detail with your travel partner your wishes and desires.If one of you wants to eat at great restaurants and the other doesn’t care, it will become of point of contention. If you are both spending money on experiences you both want, the benefits are obvious. If you find that you have different agendas, you just need to compromise so everyone feels they are getting the most out of the trip. Money can be a trigger point for arguments unless you can openly speak about it; the last thing you want on a vacation is hurt feelings or resentment. Before we leave on a trip, we sit down together and plan out itineraries that appeal to both of us, and find times to do things we both enjoy. We might pick one or two bigger ticket items (e.g. a private guided tour, overnight accommodation at a castle, destination restaurant), then balance out the day by choosing free or cheap sights (e.g. walking through a medieval walled town, driving a known gorgeous route, choosing a stunning rural road lunch spot and picnicking). If you follow a plan you have picked together, the sacrifices you have to make to pay for the trip won’t seem so bad.
5. Stay small.
Skip the big towns like London, Rome, and Florence, and head to small towns like Pienza, St. Just, or Baveno. Everything is more expensive in big cities: food, lodging, sights, transportation, plus you’ll be surrounded by tourists and businesses catering to tourists. In smaller towns you can see great sights cheap, eat cheaply and authentically, and stay in small B&Bs or hotels for much less than hotels in the city — and you’ll really get to immerse yourself in the culture. To our surprise, we’ve also found many castles to stay in that were cheaper than hotels in big cities! Trust us, you won’t miss the hustle and bustle of the big city when you are watching the sunset from a medieval castle’s walls while drinking a nice glass of vino.