Yesterday you might have seen my post “Europe on $150 a Day” about a standard two week Euro trip by an Average Joe young professional. To be honest, I was kind of trolling. I got a couple of responses from readers saying things like “Wait seriously? That’s like my weekly budget.” Truly many of you are built from the hardiest frugal stock ever to exist this side of the 21st century. I hope to regain some of your trust and credibility today because I’m going to talk about my own budget while traveling Europe on 40 a day. I’ve been on the road since July 8 and to date I’ve spent $4,090, which includes the cost of my round trip airfare from the US to Europe. This amount works out to just above $40 for each day I’ve been over here. So going on my fourth month in Europe, how have I managed to spend a similar sum to the hypothetical young professional on a two week vacation from “Europe on $150 a Day” ?
While I’m sure my spending is well below the norm, I am far from being an extreme example of thrift over here on the Continent. We will reserve Friday for the most extreme class of frugal superstars. So today we will look at my luxurious lifestyle. I’ve been in 24 countries so far, some extremely expensive and some very cheap, so consider this an average that would roughly correspond to what you’d actually experience if you stayed in a middle of the road spot like Central Europe (ie Germany, Hungary, Austria, etc).
I do everything that I can to keep my hostel spending down to under $15 a night. I use Hostels.com and Booking.com to cross check against their listings. Most people seem to use hostelworld.com but I’ve found these first two sites to be very adequate. I try to find deals on hostels that are too new to have ratings yet because they are probably fine but just haven’t had time to be reviewed.
When I am choosing a place to stay, I also look for a hostel between 1-3km from the city center. This strategy allows me to be close to everything I want to see, but far enough away that I get to get savings without having to give on quality. When I do look for a hostel in a generic city I try to keep the rating above 70% because anything less can signify a real problem and necessitate reading the reviews. There’s no need to stay in the top rated place, after all I’m not a diplomat or something. A lot of people just mindlessly click sort by rating and go with the top one. I think it makes more sense to take a hybrid approach and look for combo of rating, price, and location.
If I go to a super expensive place like Munich (during Oktoberfest) or Switzerland (during every day of the year), I try to see if I can stay with a friend I’ve met along the way. It’s important to offer to buy some groceries, meals, or drinks for your host to make them feel appreciated. Though you might feel awkward about imposing on someone, a lot of people enjoy the company and the ideas they get from hosting others. One time I saved a guy thousands of dollars by showing him how to book half price train tickets in his own country and giving him the idea of converting one of his extra rooms into a paying roommate. I’ve had great experiences staying with friends in these costly towns and it’s helped keep my budget in check big time. However, I would say 95% of the time I stay in hostels because it’s just easier.
Food and Drink
For the most part if I’m going to grab a beer it’s gonna be at the grocery store. At Oktoberfest, where the cheapest beer is $11, I saved a ton of money because my average cost per beer was less than $1. I had a 10x cost advantage over my peers so I could stay out longer and still stay on budget. Guys next to me had to pull out 100 Euro bills (~$110) to pay for their merriment meanwhile I was flying high on $5.50. Furthermore, they only offered one kind of beer in each tent and I got to try a bunch of different kinds since the grocery store had a way better selection. Most of the brands they were serving had corresponding equivalents in the grocery store so I wasn’t missing out on anything.
My food budget is usually about $10 a day. Breakfast is the really easy meal, usually costing me less than $1. If I’m staying in a place for three days, I’ll buy a liter of milk and cornflakes. The total usually comes out to about $3. If I really want to go crazy, I pick up some bananas, nectarines, and pears to go with the cereal.
Lunch is a little more luxurious. My go to food is the Doner Kebab, which is a sandwich with pita bread that tastes a lot like a gyro. You can expect to get a good one for $3 to $4. I have found Arabic and Turkish oriented food to be a fantastic deal over here in Europe. Because of the low barrier to entry for a Kebab stand and the influx of new immigrants who know how to make great Arabic and Turkish food, competition is fierce in this sector and has driven prices down. I fill up my water bottle every day so I never add on the soda that would add another $2 to the meal. For dinner I will sometimes go a little crazy and find a cheap diner somewhere and grab a $6 salad. So sometimes I go a little over but in general I’m able to keep things under control by avoiding restaurants and alcohol and liberally shopping at discount grocery stores.
There’s a big difference in my typical travel day and that of the train traveler. I have found that buses are a way more affordable option almost everywhere. They are not as on time as trains or as comfortable, but they almost always depart and arrive from central stations in the city center. Sometimes the bus and train stations are right next to one another.
Another option that I like even more than buses is BlaBlaCar (I use the blablacar.co.uk site in Europe). It’s an absolutely incredible car sharing site that connects drivers with passengers. It’s kind of like Airbnb but way more chill. Furthermore, I’m not sure how the site is profiting because the transactions are usually done between the driver and passenger in cash. The general idea is you want to go from Berlin to Munich. Maybe the bus station is way on the other side of town and only leaves at 10pm. You check BlaBlaCar and can search that route and what day you want to leave. It will show you all the drivers traveling that route, their ratings out of 5 stars, how many Facebook friends they have, if it’s no smoking, if they play music, and more. A BlaBlaCar trip usually costs around $5-$10. A lot of the people seem more interested in just helping out rather than making money. Whenever possible my first choice is BlaBlaCar followed by a local bus company. I’ve been able to visit dozens of cities using this approach for far less than if I’d taken the train.
Clothing and Souvenirs
Outside of an occasional postcard, I’ve avoided buying clothes and trinkets on this trip. Part of this is because my pack is so small there’s no room to put anything in it. Literally it usually feels like it’s bursting from the seems. Another reason is that the things I’ve bought from other trips around the world have been sitting on my desk collecting dust. Before leaving, I sold or donated almost everything I owned and it was one of the most freeing experiences of my life. Right now I have maybe 5 shirts, two pairs of pants and two shorts along with several pairs of socks and underwear and I feel like I could live like this forever. I just rotate outfits so that I have at least 20 different combinations of looks I could show (ok maybe 10 that match). Whenever people talk to me about how they need plenty of clothes to choose from, I would dare them to ask their friends what they remember them wearing the day before. I bet most people will not be able to tell you. That means you could have a rotation of 5 outfits and no one would notice. Instead, the Average Joe goes on a trip and buys a shirt in each city he visits, further adding clutter and unnecessary material possessions to further complicate his morning routine of getting dressed. So my budget here is almost $0 a day.
Museums and Attractions
I like museums a whole lot. If you have a student card showing you are in university, please bring it with you to Europe. You get so many discounts it’s ridiculous. I’ve even seen restaurants that give 50% discounts to students. I’m paying full price to go to these spots, and even so they’re pretty affordable. Most museums will charge in the single digits dollar price, and those that don’t are usually good enough to spend an entire day looking around like the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam or the Science Museum in Munich.
I will typically plan two things a day and let the rest of the day take care of itself. This can mean a museum and a free walking tour, two museums, a climb to the top of a mountain and walking to the top of a church tower observatory, visiting one of the world’s most impressive libraries, etc. It’s always different but I try to keep the cost at $10 a day.
Most People Could Do Europe on 40 a Day and Not Feel Uncomfortable, Unsafe, or Deprived
I’ve lived a fantastic life over in Europe rich in material comforts. Every night I’m staying in a nice hostel or with friends I know. I’m not going to the trouble of making my meals and I have a mix of fruits, veggies, carbs, and meat. I go to most every reasonably priced museum, attraction, or point of interest that I want to go to. I travel efficiently between cities at almost the same speed as a train for a fraction of the cost. I also don’t have to deal with a bunch of extra souvenirs and clothes weighing me down and jacking up my daily budget.
A waiter or waitress in Florida saving a high percent of their take home pay could replicate this trip and still have money leftover. The great part about a $40 a day budget is it’s doable for a lot of people. If you live the $150 a day lifestyle over here you will only be able to afford the trip with a continuous stream of uninterrupted income from corporate America. If you are willing to be creative and watch your spending though, you can come over here for months at a time while everybody in the US is looking at your Facebook pics wondering how the heck you can possibly afford your trip of a lifetime. Friday we will discover the frugal superstar travelers of Europe how even I look like a careless spender by comparison. To continue the tradition from my first article about what you can do in my favorite European country (Ukraine), here’s a bonus section below for laughs.
Bonus: What You Could Do in Ukraine for $40 a Day
- Stay in a nice hotel
- Eat at high end restaurants every meal
- Buy any cocktails you want from any bar you go to
- Book an all day excursion to tour 13th century castles
- Eat unlimited, extremely fancy dessert
- Go to a cafeteria style eatery and load your plate up so much you can’t carry it by yourself
- Have a private guided tour of any museum you visit