The land home to ancient history, pizza, beautiful beaches and first world public transportation.
In my teens, I dreamt of travelling to France and living out my own Passport to Paris fantasy. I wanted to go on a subway, peer through the gates of Buckingham Palace, and see my favourite bands play live at Download Festival.
For years, it remained a dream I never acted upon.
I knew Europe wasn’t a cheap place and had the mindset that I’d never have enough money to go.
Fast forward almost a decade later, and I’ve been to Europe not once, not twice but three times.
And I didn’t have to sell everything I own or work crazy long shifts in shitty retail jobs to make it happen.
Travelling Europe on a budget is possible. You just need a dash of flexibility, a sprinkle of planning and a cup of frugality to get the most out of your Rands.
Here’s how to travel Europe on a budget!
Table of Contents
- How to Find Cheap Flights From South Africa to Europe
- When is The Best Time to Travel to Europe on a Budget?
- What’s the Cheapest Way to Travel Europe?
- How to Find Budget Accommodation in Europe
- How to Save on Food Costs in Europe
- Visit the Cheaper European Destinations
- Compare Tourist Passes
- Cheap Things to do in Europe
- Managing Your Money While Travelling Europe on a Budget
- Travelling Europe on a Budget is Possible
How to Find Cheap Flights From South Africa to Europe
Does your credit card wince when you look at prices of flights from South Africa to Europe?
Have you experienced the phenomena of internally sobbing while typing in each digit and watching your bank account run dry?
You’re not alone.
Before I discovered flight comparison site Skyscanner, I thought the only way I could go to Europe was if I signed up for those ridiculously priced Contiki Tours.
Since then, I’ve picked up a few other tricks on the way that have helped me find return flights to Portugal and Italy for under R 5000.00.
How did I do it?
I’ve written an in-depth 9-step process blog post, but the main tool in my cheap flight arsenal is Skyscanner’s “Everywhere” tool.
All you need to do is enter your departing destination as “South Africa” and your arrival destination as “Everywhere”.
The search engine will then find the cheapest flights departing from South Africa. It’s an easy way to see what deals are flying around and which European destination will be the most affordable entry point.
When is The Best Time to Travel to Europe on a Budget?
The cheapest time to visit Europe is during its low season. From November to March, you’ll find low hotel rates, cheap flights and far fewer people hogging the best sites. It’s the perfect trifecta if you want to stretch your money as much as possible while travelling Europe on a budget.
Plus, it’s winter. So you can finally see snow!
Get ready to make those snow angels, learn the lyrics to “Do You Want To Build a Snowman” and develop an appreciation for thermal underwear.
The only exception during low season is the Christmas and New Year holidays. Prices do peak again especially in countries like Germany that are famous for their Christmas markets and traditions.
If you’re more of a summer child or you hate wearing layers, plan your trip to Europe between April to May or September to October.
These are Europe’s two shoulder seasons. Temperatures and prices are slightly higher for these months, but it’s still way more affordable than Europe’s popular high season.
Speaking of the high season, that’s the one you want to avoid if you’re travelling Europe on a budget. From June to August, prices skyrocket.
I’m talking R 2000+ for a one hour flight that’s typically R200-R300.
With so many people heading to Europe for summer, hotels and hostels double their prices.
I paid EUR 50 for the shittiest dorm room in Rome that’s usually less than half that price.
But if you can’t avoid travelling to Europe in the summer, then it all comes down to picking the right destination.
More about that below.
What’s the Cheapest Way to Travel Europe?
Fly With Budget Airlines
You know what’s a great feeling?
Paying R 300 for a RETURN flight between Italy and Germany.
But if you want to reap those savings, you need to book your flights in advance – especially if you’re travelling Europe during high season.
For example, that same exact flight will end up costing you around R 1,400 in July.
There are tons of airlines that make travelling Europe on a budget possible and will help you get to your next destination faster.
Travel Europe via Train
Want to explore Europe at a slower pace?
Hop on board one of the hundreds of trains that zigzag across the region!
Take a high-speed train between Amsterdam and Belgium, travel around Italy or use it as a way to see more of the countryside.
The only downside is that train travel is not the cheapest transport option in Europe.
Greg and I paid EUR 100 (R1,500) for our train trip from Berlin to Amsterdam (full guide dedicated to train travel in Europe is coming soon!).
The high season definitely impacted the cost of our ticket. In fact, when I checked back a week later, the price had almost doubled.
If you want to explore multiple European countries by train, the Eurorail Pass can work in your favour. It’s valid for 28 countries and offers multiple days of travel extended over a month or two.
But it will make you poor.
Keep a look out for discounts if you’re under 26 and book your tickets well in advance to maximise your savings.
Use Cheap Bus Travel in Europe
Bus travel in Europe is not for everyone – but it’s cheap.
You can travel from Munich to Nuremberg for as little as EUR 6 (R 94.00) with Flixibus.
I used them for my trip between Berlin and Krakow.
Eurolines is another affordable long-distance bus I used to get back to Berlin from Amsterdam.
That trip cost me EUR 25 (R 394.00).
Want to save even MORE money?
Book an overnight bus or train and save on a nights accommodation.
Save Time Finding the Cheapest Transport Option
With so many budget flights, trains and bus companies – finding the cheapest way to get somewhere in Europe is a pain.
Unless you use GoEuro.
It quickly became the butter to my bread pre-trip and during my adventures around Europe.
All you need to do is pop in your departure and arrival destination, and the search engine will find the cheapest flights, train and bus fares.
Try Out BlaBla Car
Never heard of BlaBla Car?
It’s a carpooling service in Europe that connects drivers with empty seats to people travelling the same way.
For most South Africans, that just sounds like a bad idea.
But it’s a thing in Europe and people actually get to their destination in one piece.
So when in Rome…
Select your driver based on their level of chattiness (introverts who hate small talk unite!), their music preferences, smoking or non-smoking and even if pets are in the car.
It’s one of the best ways to travel Europe on a budget.
Use Public Transportation
Public transport in European cities is extensive and cheap.
It’s one of my favourite things.
I don’t know what it is about subways, but I love them.
If you’re planning to use it a lot, do some research to see if there is a day pass you can buy.
Italy, Berlin and Amsterdam all had various options I used while in those countries.
- It cost me EUR 7 (R 110.00) for a 24-hour pass in Rome;
- In Amsterdam, I bought a 48-hour pass for EUR 12.50 ( R197.00) and;
- In Berlin, I spent EUR 2.80 ( R44.00) for a 2-hour ticket and EUR 7 ( R110.00) for a day pass.
In some countries, the day pass will include public transportation to and from the airport.
If you buy a tourist travel card, like the Berlin Welcome Card, you’ll get unlimited public transportation included in the price.
More about the tourist cards later on.
Hit the Pavements
But the ultimate way to keep your transportation costs low while travelling Europe on a budget is to walk EVERYWHERE.
The good news is that a lot of European cities are terribly flat.
Factor in that a lot of the attractions around the city centres aren’t that far apart, and your Samsung Health App step count won’t know what hit it.
How to Find Budget Accommodation in Europe
Okay, so besides your flights, accommodation is going to be your biggest cost.
If you’re struggling to find hotels within in your budget, consider staying outside of the city or in a smaller town and commuting in.
Below, I’ve listed the sites I use the most while travelling Europe on a budget.
Find Deals on Booking.com
Booking.com is by FAR my favourite accommodation site.
It has everything from low-budget hostels to swanky five-star hotels. You can filter the search results to see places that offer free breakfast or are a close distance to a particular landmark and more.
If you use the site often enough, you’ll eventually unlock their Genius tier and get discounts as well as special perks.
Live Like a Local With Airbnb
I stayed in an Airbnb apartment during my 3-week trip to Sicily. It had everything I needed and quickly felt like home.
Prices on Airbnb aren’t that expensive especially if you travelling with a friend. Some cities even have “hostels” where hosts have a room with multiple bed bunks.
I found one in Paris within walking distance of the Eiffel Tower, and it didn’t cost my entire salary.
So if you’re not a fan of hostels and want to blend in with the locals, browse through the listings to see what’s available for your travel dates.
Become The Ultimate Backpacker with Couchsurfing
Couchsurfing is the mecca for backpackers.
It’s a way to stay in a city without paying a single Euro for your board.
Yip. FREE accommodation in Europe!
All you need to do is sign up, create an account and start reaching out to hosts available during your travelling dates.
If you’re worried about safety, only stay with hosts that have been verified by Couchsurfing and have tons of positive reviews by other surfers.
I’ve couch surfed in South Africa, Turkey and kinda in Germany and the Netherlands.
One of my followers on Instagram offered to host me in Amsterdam. For Berlin, Greg’s old colleague from South Africa happened to be in town and had a spare bed.
That still counts, right?
How to Save on Food Costs in Europe
Cook Your Own Meals
Head to the nearest supermarket, grab your favourite things and get your chef on.
It’s the cheapest way to feed yourself in Europe.
I spent EUR 20-25 ( R 315.00 – R 394.00) on groceries that lasted me the entire 3-weeks I stayed in Sicily.
And yes, the majority of my meals were some kind of pasta.
Stay at a Hotel or Hostel That Offers A Free Breakfast
Breakfasts at hostels are usually continental.
But free food is free food, and it should keep you fuelled up until lunchtime.
If you’re staying at a more posh hostel or a hotel, your breakfast will probably include a continental with a few other things like eggs, baked beans and some meat.
Keep an Eye Out for Lunch Specials
If you’re travelling to Rome, save money by taking advantage of the city’s lunch specials.
For EUR 10 (R 157.00), you can get a starter, a main and your choice of beer or house wine.
With most main meals costing EUR 8 and a glass of wine usually around EUR 6-7 (R 94.00 – R110.00), it’s an excellent deal.
Eat Where The Locals Eat
Stray from the well-trodden path and find restaurants that are full of locals instead of other tourists.
The prices are usually lower, and you’ll have a more authentic experience.
Eat Street Food
When travelling Europe on a budget, street food will make its way into your diet.
From the delicious arancini balls in Italy to Poland’s famous Maczanka sandwich – there are cheap eats for your taste buds to discover in every country.
Visit the Cheaper European Destinations
Not all European countries are created equal.
Some like the Netherlands will evaporate all your hard earned savings in the blink of an eye.
While your money will stretch much further in countries like Poland or Romania.
Here are 10 of the best Rand-friendly destinations if you’re travelling Europe on a budget:
- Prague, Czech Republic
- Gdansk, Poland
- Rome, Italy
- Porto, Portugal
- Budapest, Hungary
- Tallinn, Estonia
- Transylvania, Romania
- Berlin, Germany
- Istanbul, Turkey
- Saranda, Albania
Compare Tourist Passes
Tourist Passes are travel cards specifically designed for, well, tourists.
The perks of buying one include:
- Unlimited use of public transportation.
- Free entry to specific museums or attractions in that city.
- Discounts for restaurants, tours and other attractions.
- Transportation to and from the airport.
- Access to the city’s hop-on-hop-off bus.
If you’re only in one city for 24, 48 or 72 hours, these cards pack A LOT of value.
But before you flip open your purse and pop out your credit card, do your research to see if it’s actually WORTH the money.
If you’re a museum geek and you want to go to the museums that come with the card – it’s a no-brainer.
But when you’re travelling Europe on a budget, it might work out cheaper to skip the card and do your own thing.
That’s what I did for Rome.
Instead of getting the Roma Card, I walked everywhere, bought one 24 transport ticket and only went to the free attractions.
Cheap Things to do in Europe
You don’t need to spend a hella lot of money.
There are loads of free things to do.
And that’s music to any cash-strapped South African’s ears travelling Europe on a budget.
Here are just SOME of the things you can do for mahala:
- Visit museums and galleries with no entrance fee.
- Check to see which day the museums are free. For, e.g. The Vatican Museums are open for free on the last Sunday of every month.
- Sign up for a free walking tour.
- Explore some of the ancient cathedrals and churches.
- Go to a free concert. E.g. Amsterdam hosts free shows every Tuesday from September to May.
- Wander past a city’s free monuments. E.g. The Trevi Fountain in Rome won’t cost you a dime and neither will that iconic selfie with the Eiffel Tower.
- Head for the hills and go on a hike.
- Grab your bikini and catch some rays at the beach.
Want some more frugal inspiration? Check out the 50 Free Things You Can Do in Europe by Hostelworld.
Managing Your Money While Travelling Europe on a Budget
When you’re dealing with the terrifying exchange rate that is Rand to Euro – you need to make every last penny count.
Here are a few simple money tips to use while travelling Europe on a budget:
Use ATMs Instead of Currency Counters
You’ll get a better rate of exchange. Currency counters at airports add a markup for their services that you don’t need in your life. Call up your bank before you leave South Africa, and unblock your card for international usage.
Get Yourself a Credit Card That Doesn’t Charge For International Withdrawals
All those little fees start to add up each time you go to the ATM. If you can’t get a card that doesn’t charge, try to find one that has minimal fees or limit the number of times you withdraw cash.
Use Your Credit or Debit Cards
Most credit and debit cards have a strong exchange rate. Try to get a card that doesn’t include fees for foreign purchases or has the lowest surcharge.
Travel With Two Cards and Keep Them Separate
I learnt this lesson in Chiang Mai. Three days before my flight back to South Africa, an ATM ate my card, and I only had THB 2,000 to my name. I still had to buy food, pay for accommodation and transportation to the airport. Since then, I make a point to travel with two unlocked cards and keep one in my suitcase and the other in my purse.
Travelling Europe on a Budget is Possible
That was a monster of a post.
If you’ve made it this far down, kudos to you my friend.
I hope you’ve found it useful and it’s inspired your frugal travelling ways!
Enjoy Europe, and it’s totally acceptable to eat your weight in gelato while you’re there.
Want more Europe travel inspiration? Check out my other posts:
- How to Travel Rome on a Budget as a South African
- Amsterdam Coffeeshops: How to Get Stoned Like a Pro
- The Muggle’s Guide To The Harry Potter Studio Tour In London
- How to Apply for Your Schengen Visa
- 16 of the Best Rand-Friendly Holidays Destinations in Europe
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