As a 26-year-old heading to Europe on a solo trip, I often heard rueful comments like, “I definitely couldn’t afford that,” or “I’m not brave enough for that.” Trust me, I get it – traveling seems inherently expensive, and traveling alone (especially in a foreign country) can be daunting. Traveling to any faraway destination is a big deal, and everyone wants to have the perfect trip.
The tourism industry takes advantage by saying, “Why take the risk of ruining it? Buy our (insert expensive product here).” Travel amenities and package deals are sold in twos. It’s hard to find encouragement for a solo trip of any kind.
For some budgets, a trip to Europe is full-speed ahead with no consideration needed. For me, traveling per the tourism industry’s standards would mean never getting to see the world. And that just isn’t going to fly – unlike me and you. Amidst my student loans, trying to put something in retirement, and paying off my car, I was determined in 2017 to make a European adventure come true.
If you live on a limited income (like me) in a field that doesn’t pay well (also like me) and have plenty of bills (sadly, like me) but want to see the world (definitely like me), I invite you to read on!
This post examines a trip I took to Copenhagen, Denmark’s capital, in February and March of 2017 and showcase how I spent just under $1,000 for the trip of a lifetime. Northern Europe isn’t known for being budget-friendly, but I was determined to make it work. Of course, please remember that prices change, currency conversions fluctuate, opportunities open and close – and I’ve tried to document those as much as possible.
Enjoy my recap!
Without a plan, it’s overwhelming to visit any airline’s website and search for a flight. Specific dates, times, layovers, prices, taxes, fees, and, oh yeah, the destination, make for a lot of research!
First things first, consider where you live. If you’re in a large metropolitan area or, even better, a city like Chicago or Atlanta that serves as an airline’s hub, you’re in luck with typically cheaper fares. Everyone else in smaller markets might have to work a little harder, but it’s not so bad. I promise! Cleveland, where I live, is a relatively small market, but has plenty of low-cost flights.
Flying to Europe from Cleveland for many years has always included a domestic layover and an exorbitant amount of money for budget travelers. For both of my recent European trips, I took extra time by driving to New York (in 2016) and Washington (in 2017) for better fares. Now, starting in May (next month!), low-cost international airlines have joined Cleveland Hopkins airport to take travelers to Europe for a few hundred bucks roundtrip. It’s an absolute steal, and I bet many of those carriers fly out of your city’s airport too.
In 2017, I used Icelandair, which made the booking process seamless. My seating room was manageable, the meals were decent, and their flight attendants made the trip comfortable. Overall, I was happy for the price I paid! Plus, the layover is a breeze through tiny Reykjavik’s airport rather than a busy hub such as Paris or Munich.
- Google Flights is a great tool for comparing flights between destinations and nearby airports and for price-shopping. For example, you can learn if it’s cheaper to fly out on a Monday versus a Wednesday or if prices in April are generally cheaper than those in May.
- ExitFares is a wonderful e-newsletter sharing eye-poppingly low fares but with specific caveats. For example, a round-trip flight from Seattle to Tokyo from June 24 to July 7. Any other destinations or dates might result in a different fare.
- Low-cost airlines that travel to and from Europe: try Icelandair, WOW Air, and Norwegian Air for starters.
- I purchased my flight months in advance, allowing me to absorb a big chunk of the trip’s cost far before I actually left. This allowed me to set aside money each month before the trip.
- I should note my trip to Denmark was in February and March when it’s freezing. I didn’t mind considering my birthday is in March – I was willing to bundle up for a birthday gift to myself! Plus, being a Clevelander, I’m used to cold weather. Keep this in mind: small compromises based on your trip goals can definitely save you some cash.
I chose Copenhagen because I was able to purchase a cheap ticket using the tools I listed above, and I thought, “Why not?” If you’re open to where you travel based on cheaper fares, you’ll be able to get away more quickly. Of course, if you have your heart set on Rome but flights to the Eternal City are pricey from airports near you, take the time to save up. Better to fulfill your travel goals than visit somewhere that you aren’t really interested in.
Flight from Washington, D.C. to Copenhagen and back: $433.46
Hostels are definitely the #1 way to stay cheaply in Europe, but those deals usually come with trade-offs. Privacy can metaphorically go out the door, and light sleepers might be miserable with fellow travelers coming and going at all hours. I can’t stress enough that if you make the decision to stay in a hostel: don’t look for the cheapest option; do conduct comparisons; and do read my post called “What the Hostel?”
Though hostels have been my lodging of choice for years, I gradually transitioned to AirBNB starting in 2016. I decided to look for a private room, not an entire apartment, because I wanted to get to know my host and glean recommendations from them. Thankfully, I found a great space with WiFi, access to a kitchen, a coffeemaker in the room (a perk you never knew you wanted!), and my own bathroom.
As with my flight, I purchased my Airbnb well in advance to obtain a good rate. Airbnb also has a feature, at least on some listings, where you can pay half up front and the other half later. On hostelworld.com, almost all of the cost is paid upon arrival at the hostel.
Airbnb with private room in Copenhagen for seven nights: $282
Food and Fun
Costs that trip up many travelers is the most essential: food! Everyone has to eat, but for many, a destination’s cuisine is a huge reason to travel. If you know in advance that you’ll be trying many different restaurants, be sure to budget for it. I’m not a foodie and am perfectly content to hit up a grocery store and cook at my Airbnb. This is definitely overkill, but I even brought protein bars from home that I’d bought on sale.
Before leaving home, I tried researching budget-friendly places to eat and where to buy groceries, but it was too difficult from home. Once there, I used Google Maps and pounded the pavement. SuperBrugsen and Netto were two grocery stores I visited during my time in Copenhagen.
Switching gears to think about sightseeing, I made sure to budget funds for museums, train rides, and coffee – three of my favorite elements of travel. Here is a sampling of how I spent my time:
- Nationalmuseet (National Museum of Denmark)
- Our Saviour’s Church
- Lund Cathedral (a short trip from Copenhagen in neighboring Sweden)
- Louisiana Museum of Modern Art (another short trip from Copenhagen up the Danish coast)
- Botanisk Have (Botanical Garden)
- The Living Room (a cozy café I visited day after day)
- The Coffee Collective (contender for the best espresso I’ve ever tasted)
Cost for food and attractions: $257.70
Conclusion: Total trip cost: $973.16!
Keep in mind some of these transactions occurred in USD, and others occurred in DKK. Currency conversion rates can change any time. Also, my trip to and from Washington, D.C. (rather than flying out of Cleveland), pushed my trip cost over $1,000. However, that was last year with fewer low-cost options. If I were to take the same trip now, a transatlantic flight is possible from Cleveland with no need to drive to D.C.
Remember, some European cities are far more expensive to tour than others. Always do your research before impulsively booking a flight! A cheap flight can seem exciting, but if lodging, food, and attractions are outrageously priced for a budget traveler, your enthusiasm can quickly deflate.
No matter what, be proud of yourself for resolving to see the world! Backpacking in Europe is an experience everyone deserves to enjoy. What are your tips for traveling cheaply?