8 little tips for super cheap European trips — planning and off-peak travelling

Being tight-fisted is both a blessing and a curse.

A blessing, because it helps me to be more savvy when planning my finances, and a curse because it does severely restrict some things — like travel.

For instance, up until the age of 26 I’d never set foot outside of Europe. I’d longingly research airfares to places like Thailand and Australia, before realising that for the cost of just one return flight, I could equip myself with four different trips around Europe. Budget, local travel has therefore been my forte for pretty much all of my adult life, prioritising flights over fast food, hostels over hangbags, Lonely Planet guides over nights out. And now, I get messages from people asking me how I get away so much and how I can afford to travel to all of these places.

In the defence of my wallet, my Instagram can be misleading, as I will continue #latergramming destinations long after I have departed them. And I like to think I make that obvious on my posts as to the realism of my travel, but perhaps I should be even more candid (after all, it seems we’re all being held accountable nowadays for the influence we may potentially have on others).

However there is definitely a knack for identifying cheap flights and not so cheap flights, and I reel in horror when someone explains to me the bargain inter-continental European holiday package they’ve just booked for £600+; the knowledge they’ve been taken for a ride by a high street travel agent who’s eyes must’ve glinted with commission as they clicked ‘Book’ horrifies me.

Here are my top tricks I’d like to share with you, rules I go by personally, when the aim is to book a cheap European getaway:

be open-minded with the destination.

Flight and holiday companies have supply-and-demand ideologies to ensure people are paying as much as possible for popular, or ‘in’ destinations — think Majorca or Tenerife in summertime, as iconic destinations that Brits swarm to once the kids break up from school. The prices are bumped up as these places are more desirable than others — particularly sunshine destinations with miles of beaches. Once you lose the idea that all holidays have to be traditional ‘holidays’, i.e. beach resort type places, suddenly a whole world (pun intended) of opportunity opens up for you — and for much cheaper if you’re worried about getting into debt in order to provide your family with a holiday.

I typically trawl accommodation and airline websites on a weekly, sometimes daily, basis, on the hunt for cheap destinations. And when I started doing this I thoroughly surprised myself with how much more I could afford to get away when I started planning trips to less popular places. By being open-minded with a destination (i.e. I started looking for flights to coastal Swedish cities, mountainous German towns, and countries such as Romania and Poland) I found myself able to book return flights for less than £30 per person, and accommodation coming to no more than £70 for a weekend.

(above: Cologne. Flight cost £19.99)

avoid summer.

It is incredibly tempting to want to book a nice warm getaway once May hits us — especially if you live in the UK and are used to our hit-or-miss summers. However, the prices of any getaway increase exponentially once you hit those hotter months of the year. If you’re able to take a holiday child-free, there’s no reason why you need to head somewhere in those summer months and if you prefer a less touristy destination: save your trippin’ for October to April.

For instance, during autumn and early spring I’ve found flights to Romania for £35, to Norway for £25 and to Denmark for just £20. Streets are less busy, cafes are quieter and you will have a more authentic vacation experience without the stereotypical Brit booming across a restaurant to a poor waiter: “whadda ya mean ya don’ serve chips ‘ere??” (I know I’ve stolen that quote from somewhere but I can’t for the life of me think where from!).

(above: an incredibly quiet Lake Como in March. Flight cost: £34.99)

fly on tuesdays.

Or Thursdays. I don’t know why these two days, but it seems that booking short breaks that are Tuesday to Thursday, or Thursday to Saturday, are always way cheaper than booking a Monday, Friday or Saturday flight out. Obviously if you’re needing to go on weekends due to a strict Monday to Friday 9-5 job, you may struggle with finding cheap flights, because everyone wants to find that perfect Friday evening departure/Sunday evening arrival city break away.

If you can be flexible with the days you choose, or do shift work so often have your weekends mid-week, it is likely that you can find European flights for less than £30 per person. If you need to travel just on weekends, it is possible to book cheap getaways — you just need to be persistent and research regularly.

never take cabin baggage.

If there’s one thing to put a emotional and physical heaviness on a quick trip away and a dent in your wallet it is taking big suitcases. One way to keep costs down is to pack the bare minimum and only take carry-on.

Unfortunately Ryanair have changed their policy that means you can only take on board a small handbag-sized carry-on unless you’re willing to pay for their (quite frankly, outrageous) “Priority & 2 Cabin Bags” scheme.

Easyjet and several other airlines (Jet2, Wizz, Flybe and Norwegian) only allow one bag on board for their basic airfare, but at least the size allowed is reasonable and will accommodate a small wheelie case if you wish for one — though be prepared if you’re last on the plane you may have it taken off you for free and put in the hold.

Will these other airlines follow in Ryanair’s footsteps and take away our carry on allowances? I sincerely hope not, and if their PR Managers have any say in the matter, seeing how much Ryanair has been reprimanded by customers and organisations alike, you’d think the smart thing to do would be to leave ‘what’s not broken, unfixed’.

Your best bet when travelling with just hand lugagge (excluding Ryanair) would be to pack your belongings in a small rucksack and put an even-smaller bag inside it with the necessities you need during the flight (a book, tablet, snacks etc) easy to reach at the top so you can grab it before buckling up. For Ryanair — well, unless you can fit your belongings into a 35x20x20cm space (though now changing to 40x25x20cm from 1 November), you’re probably going to have to purchase their ‘add-on’ bag package unless you are really really frugal with your packing…

There is a list of Ryanair approved-size bags on The Guardian website from as little as £6.99 which may help.

consider a daytrip.

Holidays don’t always have to be several days or a fortnight. By reassessing what determines a holiday, I’ve been able to experience and enjoy my annual leave from work by just booking daytrips away to different countries (obviously being realistic with flight times and not straying too far). Not only do you save money by not paying for accommodation, but you also save on the amount of money you spend in restaurants (though do ensure you do spend your monies in cafes and local places when you’re there to support the local economy).

Daytrips do massively reduce the amount of time you have in a foreign destination but it’s also a really good method of exploring-on-the-cheap a new place to help you decide if you want to return for a longer and more in-depth trip. I visited Copenhagen last spring just for the day on my own, not knowing what to expect of a trip to Denmark. I absolutely loved the city, the food and the architecture and now can’t wait to take the husband back for a longer trip. We also did a daytrip to Venice last year and decided that we weren’t a huge fan and probably wouldn’t want to go back for longer – simply because it was just too busy.

opt for a cheap AirBnB with a kitchen over a cheap hotel.

Why? Because you can cook for yourself, even if it’s just prepping sandwiches for lunch. Eating out at restaurants and cafes for breakfast, lunch and dinner can easily rack up to hundreds of pounds on a trip that could cost less than £150 in total if you ate wisely.

My advice is to visit local supermarkets and stock up on foods you can eat for breakfast and lunch for your trip — think croissants and fresh bread for breakfast, and picnic-type food for al fresco lunches in parks. By doing this, you can save the money to splash out on one or two nice meals on your trip, and on lots of gelato, so you don’t feel like you’re constantly on a budget.

prep plane snacks in advance.

There’s a variety of things you could make at home that would save ££s instead of purchasing food on-board. The plus side of taking food in advance means you have more options of healthy and nutritious foods, which are likely lacking at the airport shop (depending on country of course — Denmark had some wonderful options). For ideas, look up recipes for:

  • banana oat muffins
  • dried fruit granola bars
  • pepper and tomato egg muffins
  • chocolate peanut butter protein balls

Or if you can’t be bothered to make anything just take a couple of bananas and a packet of cookies from Tesco!

be careful with data and roaming.

Unfortunate holiday makers in the past have racked up thousands of pounds worth of roaming fees without realising. Thankfully most phone providers do now have caps to prevent this from happening. However I do have two ideas for saving monies on roaming: the first is to switch phone service provider to a company like Three that allow you to use your data as normal in certain other countries.

My second idea is to use the internet services at your disposal at home to plan in advance. Google Maps allows you to save locations in advance, so you can turn off roaming in your new country and still navigate around. Planning your trip’s agenda in advance can help save data too, by knowing exactly where you’re going and not having to Google new places when you’re there. You can also help yourself by using an offline notes app to save all key info you may need — for example, the address of every hotel/hostel you’ll be staying at, approximate currency equivalences for quick conversions, a few key words you may need (with written pronunciation!) if you don’t already know the language, and the number of a legit local taxi company for emergencies.

So there you have it!

Of course, not every trip has to be cheap, and many people rather opt for just one two-week holiday per year somewhere exotic and faraway instead of lots of little trips. Some people take three months of the year (I know some teachers who do this!) who spend their summer holidays in places such as Australia and New Zealand but do not take any other time off (not even weekends!) throughout the rest of the year. There are no right or wrongs with travel — you have to do what works for you and your budget. But just because you’re used to one way of doing things (like I was) doesn’t mean there aren’t more, undiscovered opportunities to be found. Definitely read a variety of travel blog posts, both of short trips and long trips, to help you decide what you like the sound of! And if you are wanting to book budget trips, the key thing to remember is: research, research, research!

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