Matt’s Note: This post was updated in 2016 to reflect recent changes in the travel industry, new experience, advice, and insight!
Even with the incredibly falling euro, traveling around Europe can still be fairly expensive (especially if you don’t use US dollars). While getting around Europe is cheaper than in previous years, I sometimes get sick to my stomach at how much transportation can cost — even for the shortest of distances.
However, a few things have gone the traveler’s way: weaker currencies, the rise of the sharing economy, new bus options, and lots of new budget airlines. All this has combined to make getting around Europe quite affordable. Here are 7 ways to criss-cross the continent without breaking the budget:
Megabus is a cheap way to get around the United Kingdom (England, Scotland, Wales), as tickets can cost as little as 1 GBP. You’ll need to book at least a month in advance on popular routes to get these fares. And even if you don’t scoop up these amazingly cheap deals, you can still travel for a more reasonable price than on the national bus system, as fares rarely top 20 GBP. Additionally, Megabus also operates trains to some destinations around the UK, usually starting at 10 GBP. Megabus is definitely the cheapest way to get around the UK and now is also the cheapest way to get to Paris, Brussels, or Amsterdam: they just launched routes from London to these cities, with fares as low as 10 GBP.
Busabout is a hop-on/hop-off bus service primarily used by backpackers, similar to the Oz or Kiwi Experience in Australia and New Zealand, respectively. You can get on and off whenever you want along one of their set routes. Additionally, you can buy tickets that let you travel their whole network with a set number of stops. For example, you can buy a nine-day flex-pass, which gives you nine stops from your starting city. Those stops can be wherever you want, for as long as you want. That pass is $669 USD, which works out to be $72 USD per trip. That makes the pass competitive with the long-distance and high-speed trains. The only downside to Busabout is that if you want to visit a city not on their route, you have to make your own way there. It’s not as versatile as a regular bus or train pass.
Over the last few years, a new company has come on the market that has totally changed the bus system in Europe! German based Flixbus has routes between 20 European countries with prices starting as low 5 EUR. Their buses include WiFi, electrical outlets, and up to three 3 free bags. It’s essentially like Megabus, but for the whole of Europe. They also offer a 5-city pass for 99 EUR. If you are planning a few long-haul trips, this is a great budget option as they do long treks through the night on routes not really served by Eurolines or the trains. (Don’t worry, they do short haul too!) Flixbus quickly became my favorite non-train way to get across Europe after it came out. To be honest, it’s even better than Eurolines!
By far the cheapest option for getting around Europe, budget airlines are so prolific that competition helps keep fares low. You can often find tickets where the fare is just the taxes. Companies like Transavia, EasyJet, Ryanair, and Vueling offer mind-blowingly cheap flights throughout Europe. My friend just flew from Porto to Barcelona for $25 USD, while I flew from Barcelona to Nice for the same price. It cost me $30 USD to fly from London to Amsterdam.
Book at least a month early to scoop up great deals. There are also regular sales, especially during the off-season.
Remember to read the fine print. It’s important to remember that these budget airlines make most of their money through fees, and the second you mess up, they whack you with a fee. They are very strict about baggage limits or forgetting to print out your boarding pass. Be sure to follow their rules to the letter! Sometimes these budget airlines cost more money because of all their fees, so if you’re traveling with a lot of gear, it may be cheaper to fly with one of the larger airlines (which have also lowered their fares in the face of tough competition).
For more information, here is a complete guide to finding cheap flights around Europe.
Getting a rail pass is a good option if you are going to be traveling across vast distances. The European rail system is very good and very cheap over short distances; however, when you start boarding night trains across multiple countries, the rail system becomes a bit more expensive. Fares can cost well over $100. Rail passes are a great way to save a lot of money and are a must for anyone looking to take the trains for extensive, long-distance travel. I managed to save a few hundred dollars each time I bought a rail pass.
For more information, here is a complete breakdown of Eurail passes and when they should be used to save money.
In Europe, buses are way cheaper than trains. Every country has its own national bus service, but for international long distances, there is Eurolines, the umbrella organization for international bus travel in Europe, and it will take you throughout the continent. Taking Eurolines from Berlin to Paris is $100 USD, while a last-minute booking on the train is $248 USD. The downside to bus travel is that instead of the much roomier train, you are cramped on a tiny bus. For this reason, I tend to pay a bit more and travel by train, but if you are on a tight budget, buses are the way to go.
The rise of the sharing economy has allowed people to hop a ride with locals going their way, and BlaBlaCar is the reigning king of this service. Hugely popular and widespread in Europe, I used this service to get around Switzerland in 2015. This website lets you rideshare with people, and though I only used it once, it saved me $50 USD and I met a cool French father-and-son team on their way to Germany (and got to practice my poor French). Moreover, this way is amazing for getting off the highways, seeing more the countryside, and meeting locals. It’s money-saving and much more exciting than taking the train or bus!
The best way to travel for cheap is to not pay for it. Hitching is quite common in Europe, and I’ve met a number of travelers who have done it. I myself traveled this way in Bulgaria. It’s important to use your head when hitchhiking. Just because someone stops doesn’t mean you need to get in the car!
The cheapest way to travel around Europe is by bus or budget airline, but what it really comes down to is planning: the earlier you book your bus/plane/train ticket, the cheaper it will be. Last-minute high-speed train and bus fares are double what they cost during early bookings. Ryanair fares can go from one pound to 50 pounds in a day! The key to traveling around Europe cheaply is planning. Plan, book in advance, and save. However, if you are as fickle and indecisive as me, buying a rail or bus pass can help you reduce your prices while maintaining flexibility.
Next step: keep planning your trip to Europe with these articles:
- Continent-Wide Europe Travel Guide
- The Cost of Western Europe Travel
- The Cost of Traveling Eastern Europe
- Is a Eurail Pass Worth the Cost?