Packing and planning tips for the budget traveler in Europe
It’s no surprise that I love Europe. I will never pass up an opportunity to come back to this small yet diverse continent, and with every visit I discover something new.
I’ve been giving lots of travel tips to friends recently, including my recommendations for things to pack and how to plan a trip through Europe. I decided to just compile this advice into an article, in case anyone else out there wants travel advice. Lots of these tips can apply to traveling anywhere in the world, but some of the websites are more specific to Europe.
Things To Pack:
Microfiber Towel: This type of lightweight towel is perfect for traveling because it dries incredibly fast and folds up super small. It takes up barely any room in your bags, making it way better than a heavy, bulky, normal bath towel that takes forever to dry. I use the brand Rainleaf which I ordered on Amazon for about $8.
Debit Card: Obviously you need money for traveling, and most people these days already have a checking account with a debit card. Withdrawing cash from an ATM is the easiest and safest way to use money abroad, rather than carrying tons of cash on you or using travelers checks. Make sure your card has no foreign transaction fees, so you can withdraw money in any country at no charge. I use Capital One‘s 360 checking account, which is a great online banking system that doesn’t charge unnecessary fees while traveling.
Student ID Card: If you ever attended university, keep your student ID card and have it on you. Tons of cities in Europe have student discounts at museums, attractions, and restaurants. Even if it has expired, keep it anyways and hope no one looks at the expiration date.
Reusable Water Bottle: Luckily tap water is drinkable almost everywhere in Europe, so always have a bottle that you can refill. This keeps you from buying plastic water bottles, which prevents plastic waste and saves you money. I use a SubZero stainless steel bottle, which is sturdy and keeps water cold. Some people like to use water bottles with a filter built in, and though I don’t think it’s necessary for health reasons, it can make tap water taste better. Some public places in Europe have water fountains which is awesome, but some places don’t so never be afraid to ask for a tap water refill in airports and cafes.
Plug Adaptors: The outlets in almost every European country are the round double prongs, so be sure to have an adaptor for your electronics. The UK uses the three flat prong outlets, so also be aware of that. You can find cheap adaptors from any hardware store or convenience store once you arrive in the country, or you can pay a bit more money for a universal adaptor that you can take anywhere.
Rain Jacket: After a few years of traveling, I have learned that umbrellas are useless. They are too easily lost, they break, and they don’t hold up well in windy, stormy weather. Just having a rain jacket has made my life way easier, and there are countless clothing brands that sell high quality waterproof coats. My rain jacket is Columbia, and is super lightweight which is perfect for warmer weather. If you’re traveling somewhere cold, buy a heavier one that also provides some warmth.
Drawstring Bag: Any sort of small bag is great to have for day trips or going to the beach. I also bring my drawstring bag to the grocery store and street markets to avoid using plastic bags for food.
Headphones: Having a comfortable pair of headphones for long travel days is essential. I just use regular Apple headphones, but I also have a pair of SleepPhones. This is basically a soft band that acts like an eye mask or headband, but flat headphones are embedded into the lining. With these, you can lie down on your side without bulky headphones hurting your ears, and they’re great for when you’re trying to sleep in a noisy hostel dorm room.
Websites To Use:
Skyscanner: I always use this website to find the cheapest flights, though Google Flights does essentially the same thing. Skyscanner allows you to search the “cheapest month” and shows prices on a full month calendar so you can pick the cheapest days. You can also set your destination to “everywhere” so you can compare the prices between different places.
GoEuro: This website compares flights, trains, and buses between cities all over Europe. Many have the idea that trains are so cheap in Europe, but that usually isn’t the case. Fast trains can easily cost up to 100 Euros, so buses or even flights tend to be cheaper. But GoEuro will map out all the routes for you, so this website is great for figuring out the quickest or cheapest option. A few countries in Eastern Europe aren’t on GoEuro though, so Rome2Rio is a good alternative website.
HostelWorld: I use this website every single time I travel and it is the best. Hostels are full of interesting people and are so affordable. Always read the reviews when you book a place, as you can learn a lot from past travelers. Sometimes it’s worth paying a bit more for places that have a 7.5 or higher rating, as they tend to be better quality and have a better atmosphere. Dorm rooms can cost between 10-20 euros a night in more westernized, touristy cities, which is still cheaper than a hotel room. In Eastern Europe, hostels can be as cheap as 5 euros a night. Most hostels also have private rooms or single-gender rooms available.
Airbnb: Usually a bit nicer and pricier than hostels, Airbnb‘s are great ways to meet locals and stay in a nice place. If you have a large group of people, sometimes it can be cheaper to rent out a big Airbnb and all share the space.
Couchsurfing: This is the cheapest form of accommodation, since you can stay in a local’s home for free. I personally have never done this because I love the social atmosphere and guaranteed safety of a hostel, but I know plenty of people who have had great couchsurfing experiences.
WorkAway: If you want to stay in one spot for at least three weeks, try signing up for a WorkAway. You get free accommodation in exchange for usually around 15-30 hours of work a week, though every WorkAway is different. Sometimes you get free meals, sometimes you need to speak the local language or have certain skills, sometimes you can just show up and get a job that day. Regardless, this is a great way to experience the local culture and become more immersed in a city for little money. I wrote a more detailed account of my WorkAway experience in Portugal here.
Though cultures and attractions differ between European countries, regions, and cities, there are a few general pieces of advice I’d like to give.
- Walk as often as you can. It saves money and you get to see more details of the city. So skip those double decker bus sightseeing tours because I guarantee you’ll miss so many interesting sights and you’ll speed by the city’s highlights too fast.
- Join free walking tours. Lots of cities have them and you can find info online or in your hostel. These are a great way to learn the history and cultural insights of a city.
- Go to the food market. Almost every city has some form of central market, whether it’s outside or in a large market hall. Here the street food tends to be cheaper, and you can try lots of local cuisines in one place.
- Eat and drink like the locals. Food catered towards tourists generally has higher prices and lower quality than the traditional cuisine. Drink local wine in Italy, or Rakija in Southeast Europe, or Brennevin in Iceland, or local beer in Germany and Belgium. Eat codfish cakes in Portugal, shortbread in Scotland, rye bread in Scandinavia, paella in Spain, a big Sunday roast in England. Food is a great gateway into a culture, so be adventurous and commit to the local foods.
- Take day trips to neighboring towns and cities. This allows you to see something new outside the major city if you are short on time, and you can usually find a cheap bus or train pretty easily.
- Try to learn a few words in the local language. Luckily most establishments in touristy European cities speak English, but even saying “hello” or “thank you” in the local language shows people that you respect and admire their culture.
- Be openminded and positive. Every European country is so unique and beautiful in its own way. Don’t underestimate the less popular places, and don’t be afraid to travel alone. Europe is generally pretty safe; the movie “Taken” does not represent daily life for every traveler in Europe. Yes, people get pickpocketed and bad things happen sometimes but just be smart and and confident.