Travel Money 

How to plan a European city break on a budget

 

Thinking of heading off to Europe for a quick city break, but don’t want to break the bank? We’ve shared some tips on how to save money both when planning a trip and while you’re away, wherever you end up visiting.

 

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Weaker exchange rates and fluctuating flight prices have made some destinations in mainland Europe expensive for British tourists in recent years. And big developments like Brexit and the Covid-19 pandemic have made knowing where to travel cheaply even trickier – if it’s been possible at all.

 

With a little preparation and research, though, it’s possible to plan and take a city break in exciting European destinations without spending a fortune. Just make sure you’re following the latest official travel guidelines and advice on when and where it’s safe to travel.

 

Planning your trip

  • Find out where’s cheap to visit 

    Although flights to some destinations may be cheap, you may find the places themselves expensive on arrival, which defeats the object of taking a budget trip.

    A good place to check is the annual Post Office City Costs Barometer. It pulls together the cost of everything from transport to food in major cities on the continent, ranking them from cheapest to most expensive. 

    Choosing to visit somewhere other than a country’s tourist hotspots can be another way to avoid the inflated prices the captive audiences there end up paying.

    Consider options like the German city of Passau rather than its popular Bavarian cousin, Munich. Or Barga rather than Florence if you’re heading to Tuscany, Italy. Other alternatives include Avignon over Paris in France, or Warsaw in place of Krakow if you’re heading to Poland.
  • Be flexible about when you fly 

    If you’re looking for low costs, it pays to be flexible about when you’re prepared to travel. That means both flight times and the days on which you’ll start and end your trip.

    Flying on a Friday is usually more expensive than flying on a Tuesday. If you can take the time off, the flexibility to choose the latter flight may save you money. Your destination might also be quieter.

    If you know when you want to fly but are less concerned about where, sites like Skyscanner will give you a list of the cheapest destinations for specific dates. Some great European countries are surprisingly cheap, even in summer.

    If you have a translation function on your browser, the German site Swoodoo shows you the cheapest flights in a table format for any given days. You can easily compare against the three days surrounding the one you choose without having to resubmit your search.

    Often flying late at night or early in the morning will work out cheaper than at peak times. Just bear in mind this may mean you have to catch taxis to where you’re staying on arrival if public transport isn’t running at that hour, which will usually be more expensive. 
  • Keep your options open on trip length 

    Think about taking shorter trips each time you go, like visiting somewhere for two days rather than three or four. You can get a flavour of the place but avoid cost of an extra night’s stay and expenses while you’re there. Going for shorter periods may also mean you can fit in more trips more often.
  • Be versatile about how you travel

    Flying is usually the cheapest way of getting to Europe. But keep an eye open for train deals, as these sometimes offer great value as well as being a more fun and unique experience. If you don't mind taking a little longer to reach your destination, then travelling by coach can mean serious savings.

    Driving can be more liberating if you’re going somewhere rural and not too far into the continent. But remember that petrol and insurance costs can soon add up. And check what you need to drive in EU countries since Brexit and the end of the UK’s transition period. 
  • Give yourself plenty of time

    As a rule, prices go up the nearer to the travel dates you get. If you know when you’d ideally like to get away a few months in advance you can get the best prices on flights and hotel stays.

    Last-minute deals are available, but they’re usually reductions on more expensive trips. If you’re hoping to travel on a budget they might not offer you the best value.

    Undersold flights can be booked last minute and can mean major savings, but these are rare and more suited to very spontaneous travel.
  • Use search engines cleverly

    When searching for flights (for example), websites will often work out what you're doing and gradually increase prices beyond the original quote. But you can prevent your browser from retaining your search history, making it harder for websites to target you with higher prices.

    This is done by turning on a function in your browser window. It’s called “incognito” in Google Chrome. In Internet Explorer and Edge it’s “InPrivate Browsing.” And for Safari and Firefox search engines it’s just “Private.”
  • Stay in an Airbnb or hostel 

    Staying in an Airbnb is often a way of saving money compared to what you could spend on a hotel. They are in great locations as well as more out-of-the-way places and, because they're normally parts of someone's residence, they often have a more personal touch than hotels.

    Staying in hostels is another way to make trips cheaper. Options in your preferred destinations may include shared dorm rooms or private and family rooms, which can still be cheaper than hotel rooms.
  • Read up on where’s best to stay

    Find out whether you’d be better to book accommodation that’s central, so you can walk to and between attractions easily, or stay in a more affordable out-of-town area and catch public transport in. 

    Staying in a cheaper area might mean you get a nicer place as well as giving yourself a more intimate experience of the area you’re visiting. If you know in advance what transport links are like you can have a cheap holiday while getting to know somewhere really well.
  • Check when it’s best to book activities

    Booking online in advance can sometimes be more expensive, but it’s worth checking upfront to see if attractions offer discounts for early bookings. It may still be cheaper to book tours when you’re there, so check other travellers’ reviews and tips on reputable sites and forums. And see our tips below on booking tours once you’ve arrived. 
  • Buy currency when the pound is strong

    If you know where you’re going, or have a choice of places, then you can use a currency converter to keep track of how the value of the euro or other currencies used on your trip compare against the pound. Buy your travel money when the pound is performing well against them. Or, if you prefer to take plastic, prepaid travel money cards can be a safe and easy alternative to carrying cash. 
  • Safeguard against unexpected costs

    All travel comes with risks that could be costly if you don’t take steps to safeguard against them. 

    Make sure you have a free Global Health Insurance Card (Ghic) or an in-date Ehic, which the Ghic replaces. These give UK travellers access to low-cost and sometimes even free emergency medical treatment in EU countries. 

    Don’t forget to get good travel insurance for your trip too, as the Ghic won’t cover everything. Depending on the policy, insurance may cover you for emergency air rescue or transport back to the UK if you need them, lost, stolen or damaged belongings like luggage, and even cancellation or curtailment of your trip. Shop around to get the cover you need and always check the policy wording.
  • Pack light

    Putting luggage in the hold is a guaranteed way to increase your spend. Lots of bags are available that comply with maximum size hand-luggage regulation and are surprisingly roomy. Just make sure you check what you can take into the plane cabin as well as your airline’s baggage allowances so you aren’t stung with excess charges.

    If you do need to take hold luggage, take a look at our packing guide. There’s also a checklist of travel essentials and items to consider taking, including for city breaks.


Ways to save money during your trip

  • Walk or take public transport 

    Often the best way to see a place is to on foot, and lots of destinations in Europe are very walkable. Besides potentially seeing more than you might on that pricey tour bus, it’s also completely free.

    Taxis to and from the airport and around towns and cities can cost quite a lot of money, especially when you’re visiting a tourist hotspot.

    Other than on foot, the most cost-effective way to get around is almost always public transport. While it might be a bit daunting to navigate bus networks and metro systems in a new city it can save you money and be a rewarding experience too. 

    If you do catch taxis, make sure it’s with a reputable firm, agree a price upfront with drivers if you can, be clear on how much to tip in that country – then stick to it so you can budget effectively. 
  • Eat like a local

    Restaurants and cafés in tourist areas are usually expensive, so stay off the beaten track. Often walking just five minutes from the main drag will reveal options that are cheaper and potentially more authentic, varied and enjoyable. 

    In many places, local and street food is one of the main attractions and usually cheaper than eating in somewhere. Ask for recommendations that will suit your tastes and budget. Or check review websites like TripAdvisor to see where other diners recommend.
  • Buy food in the supermarkets 

    If you’ve got the facilities to make an easy meal, buying supplies at a supermarket will almost always save you money compared with eating out. 

    You can pick up something for breakfast from local bakeries. Try your hand at cooking local dishes and regional food for a fraction of the price of a restaurant. Or make yourself a packed lunch or picnic for the next day. 
  • Book tours when you’re there – and shop around

    If you’re booking tours and excursions when you’re there, don’t book with the first provider you find. Look into the different tour agencies in the area. Ask at your accommodation’s reception too. Then get and compare a few prices. 


Need more cost-saving holiday tips? 

We’ve also compiled 34 travel hacks and tips to save you money on holiday

 


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Some common questions

Answers to other questions about European travel on a budget.

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