Now most questions I got from people when they heard of me traveling to Europe would be what’s the budget like? Where are you going? How are you going? These are some of the questions in people’s mind. I used to spend hours just talking about the way to travel and decided would be good if I actually list it down.
I have heard of numerous people who went on tour which costs them a huge amount of money and they only get to spend a day or two in a particular country as well as being advised to follow the schedule and not wander off too far (God forbid if you see anything interesting that caught your eye which you may want to explore). If you are keen to having more time to explore a place to soak in the culture, beauty, food, people and etc. I might be able to share a few tips with you as I have had to many of my friends.
I know and understand it’s a huge task to do planning but trust me, as you go on it becomes easier, you’ll get better at it and you’ll even enjoy it later on. I have been there 3 times and April 2014 will be my 4th time. It gets easier each time Planning ahead is essential to enjoy greater savings.
WHERE TO GO
When people ask me where should they go in Europe or what’s my recommendation? I would tell them it’s really subjective, they have to make that choice. Firstly, Europe is a large continent with many countries, it depends whether you want to go to the well-known ones such as France, UK, Italy, Switzerland, Spain etc or their lesser counterpart Slovenia, Croatia, Bulgaria, Hungary, etc. Secondly, it all depends on your interest: shopping, food, museums, arts, culture, history, nature, etc. I have done a 10 days trip to 2 countries, 3 cities with RM4,000 (all inclusive), 21 days 5 countries, 14 cities with RM11,000 to a 31 days 7 countries, 13 cities with RM13,000 (all inclusive). I know it may sound cheap to some but not the cheapest to others (P/S: I did not sleep in tents or couchsurf, I bought all my transportation tickets and ate well even had a wine or two in various places, however I once did jump onto a hop on hop off tourist bus in Barcelona without buying a ticket just because I was too tired to walk anymore) What I am trying to say is that you can save a large amount of money by planning ahead and still stretch your money
My suggestion is this: take your pick on countries and cities/towns that interest you on your first trip to Europe (what you have always dreamed of visiting) such as Eiffel Tower, Stonehenge, Disneyland, Mozart, Charles Bridge, etc. On your second trip back to Europe (which I told friends who said to me they will only go Europe once in their lifetime, it’s never true once you have gone there and see for yourself), get into the smaller towns to enjoy the nature, local hospitality and more authentic cuisine. Picking more famous cities would increase your costs. I would suggest a big city, a small town then a big city as a traveling guideline so you won’t be too overwhelmed if you intend to go for more than 2 weeks.
After you have listed them down, for cities which have more to see and more time consuming to get around lining up into tourist attractions and etc, you might want to allocate at least 3 days 2 nights considering the get and get out timing, it’s really quite short to see everything and enjoy your stay. I usually stay for 4 days at least in a big city. In fact, I stayed 5 days in Lisbon itself and went on a day trip to Sintra, Cascais and Cabo da Roca. Unless you have a pair of super strong legs, I recommend you to really make time in the city. My first time in Europe, I had a 2 days 1 night in Rome once and it was horrendously rushed. I had to plan night walk to Trevi Fountain, first half of the day at Roman Coliseum, Palatine Hill, Roman Forum and rushed to Vatican City, Vatican Museum, St. Peter’s Basilica(only to faint looking at the ticket queue, I can show you later in this post how to jump the ticket queue legally) and take the next morning flight out of Rome! Boy, I have learnt my lesson and did not repeat that in my following Europe trip. I pre booked and printed all my attraction tickets or pre buy them at tourism offices/hotels reception instead of at the actual site.
For small towns, I suggest go for 2 days 1 night or 3 days 2 nights if you want to enjoy slow walks and talk to locals and visit the grocery stores(I enjoyed buying a decent bottle of wine which costs me RM15-30 then bring it back to my hostel and share with other fellow travellers compared to drinking it in a restaurant which costs more) Having pastries and coffee in Marseille was definitely cheaper, tastier and fresher than in Paris, it costs even cheaper than Starbucks in Malaysia!
WHEN TO GO
Timing is also a great factor to determine whether you will be paying more or less. Personally, I was traveling end of Winter(March, expect the cold but Spring is around the corner) most of the time to stretch my money and once beginning Autumn (end Sept, not too bad with plenty of sun still). If you plan to see Lavender fields in Provence,France (you’ll need to go in summer), Tulips in Keukenhof, Amsterdam is in spring (end March-mid May). Beach holidays(end spring/summer/autumn). Here’s the pricing guide: SPRING (MOST EXPENSIVE), SUMMER(Second most expensive), AUTUMN(Less expensive and low season kicks in), WINTER (Least expensive and least crowded at attractions)
If you choose to go in winter, don’t fret! Choose the least harshest time in winter such as March and put on a good down-feathered winter coat and warm shoes/or sneakers with thick socks and you can still get comfy. When you need some heat, just walk into a café or restaurant and you’ll get warmed up in no time
The most expensive ticket should be from your home country to the first point of Europe. For me,I always have a lookout on online sales or MATTA Fair or Malaysia Airlines Fair to compare the prices and budget beforehand. At this point of time, a flight ticket from Kuala Lumpur to any point of Europe can cost RM2500 to RM3800 depending on airline and destination. Some airport charges quite a lot of airport tax hence the price difference.
If you have time to spare and want to save some money, I would suggest you to buy to the cheapest destination and get a connection by train/bus from there to your next city if the price difference for flying direct to your desired city is more than RM300 difference. For example, if you flying Kuala Lumpur > Frankfurt = RM3200, to save some money, you may want to fly Kuala Lumpur > Paris = RM2600 then take a train to Frankfurt which might costs you only RM200 extra totalling up to RM2800 instead of flying direct. However, it’s entirely up to you because some might not get used to flying 13.5 hours and then hoping on a next 5 hours train after you arrived. Look at the air craft type when you buy your air ticket will prove its worth throughout the long flight as well. An Airbus A380 double decker air craft is my favourite choice with a lot of leg space
Tips: MATTA FAIR happens twice a year in PWTC, KL Malaysia. Once in March/April another in Sept.
Malaysia Airlines Travel Fair (MATF) is usually in Jan/Feb yearly but they also offers online sales some time in OCT/NOV.
It’s also good to like various airlines Facebook pages so you’ll get to see their promo updates in case they suddenly offer a good deal periodically too.
So look out for it!
There are plenty of cross country transportation options available such as train, coach, low costs flights etc. Please check out your flight/train/coach connection from a place to another if you intend to travel to many places. Some might not have the connection you are looking for. Such as when I wanted to go to Prague(Czech Republic) from Mannheim(Germany), if I choose to fly I need to get to the airport in Frankfurt which is 30 minutes high speed train away cost around RM135 then pay another RM220 for air ticket to fly to Prague. So it’s actually cheaper to get on a coach about 6 hours overnight from Mannheim straight into Prague’s central bus station at only RM270. Even if train travel costs a few Euros more than the flight ticket, I might still choose to take the train because I still save on travels between city to the airport and airport into the city. Some cities have a few airports which may costs a lot more and time consuming to get from city to airport and vice versa. The train gets you straight into the city centre. Do check out more than 1 website for various pricing on train/bus/air travels so you’ll get the best deal/options with less changes.
Personally I do not recommend Euro rail passes, reason because if you pre book your tickets early enough, you may save up to 50%-70% off the price of a rail pass if you compare it. Plus the Euro rail pass do not cover local transport as well as some lines from town to town and also requires a top up on seat reservation. Pre buying a ticket if you already have your dates and itinerary set is way cheaper than buying a flexi rail pass. I have met a Taiwanese friend who bought these expensive Euro Rail Pass but tried his luck on getting from one place to another without seat reservation, he ended up staying a night in the train station then catching the next day’s train because he couldn’t get a seat on the train he was supposed to get on. Risky stunt there!
Train travel in some eastern Europe countries cann’t be bought online such as my trip from Slovenia to Budapest. I had to buy it at the ticket counter at Slovenia station (don’t worry, they always have tickets) I find train travel in Spain quite expensive so I opted to fly instead vis Easyjet.
Check all the connections available for the travel destinations you have selected to make sure it’s do-able before buying the tickets, also swap the places around to see if other combinations are cheaper. Sometimes even though a country is just right next to each other, travel to another further one first before coming back may end up a cheaper option. I use an excel spreadsheet to list down and plot in the prices before I decide to purchase on which route.
Bus: Eurolines www.eurolines.com , Student Agency www.studentagencybus.com
Train: France TGV www.voyagers-sncf.com/en/ , Germany ICE www.bahn.com , Austria OBB www.oebb.at/en , Switzerland www.sbb.ch/en , Italy www.italiarail.com , Spain www.renfe.com/EN/viajeros ,
Low Costs Flights: Easyjet www.easyjet.com , Ryanair www.ryanair.com , Wizz air www.wizzair.com , Aegean Air www.aegeanair.com , Transavia www.transavia.com , Veuling www.vueling.com , German Wings www.germanwings.com
- Tips: Sometimes I may get cheap flights from British Airways, Air France or other premium airlines when they have promo for the destination I am flying. So check them out as well . In Germany which they encourage group traveling, you may be happy to find that if you are traveling 2-5 people together, you’ll get a super good deal when you buy the ticket together to the same destination.
Important: Most promo train tickets are available for purchase online 90 days in advance, Italy 120 or some 90 days in advance, Swiss it’s 14 days in advance. It helps to buy the train tickets first day of sale for your travel dates in order to secure the limited promo fares. If those are sold out, you may be stuck with buying at normal fare which can add up to your cost up to 100%-200% of your budgeted price. Flights can be bought best 6 months in advance for promo pricing, buses same price anytime.
I have stayed in hostels, self catering apartments, home stay and slept at the airport before. Some are very good and some are just stinky. Here are some tips to hopefully stay at clean, nice and decent places, however it also comes down to who are your room mates when you book a bed in a hostel. The categories are en-suite which has a bathroom attached, shared bathroom means the bathroom is in a common place which you need to bring along your slippers for bathroom usage, private room within an apartment (your stay in one of the rooms within an apartment shared by a few people), a whole apartment.
If I travel alone, I would usually book a bed in a 3 or 4 bedded dorm to maintain a low cost but not get myself into a crowded situation. Most girls don’t have a snoring problem but I have had dorm mates out to a party/club and comes back late night around 4am fumbling over light switches or half drunk case. The lesser you dorm mates, the less likely you’ll get such mates. Check the hostel’s rating by other travellers and read about what they like or dislike a place before you make a decision. I will usually go for at least an 80% and above rating hostel. All hostels being hostels and NOT a hotel usually do not provide toiletries or towel unless stated when you book. So make sure you pack along all your necessary items such as shampoo, conditioner, shower gel, soap powder if you intend to handwash your own clothes or just find a self catering laundry place nearby your hostel and get it done.
If you have 2 or more traveling party, it just might be cheaper and more comfortable to stay at self catering apartments or private room in an apartment. Some of the apartments will have facilities such as toiletries, kitchen, washing machine & dryer, etc. Just compare all prices before you decide.
Next thing about booking of accommodation is you must pre book your travel tickets first so you’ll know what time you arrive and depart. This also helps to determine which accommodation is suitable for you. Example, if I arrive in Munich at 7am in the morning on an overnight train from Amsterdam, I may want to book myself a place where they accept 24hrs check in rather than drag my bags and walk around until the standard 2-3pm check in ritual most accommodation practice. Also check out the location map of the accommodation to see whether it’s convenient for you to walk with your bags. You may not want to carry a 12-15kg bagpack and walk 3km to your booked hostel unless you have been working out in the gym for a while before the trip. For your info, my bagpack is usually around 9kg only and I will never book a hostel more than 800m from the nearest train/tram/bus stop. Watch out for downloadable hostel apps as well such as if you book on hostelworld.com website, they charge service fee but if you book on their mobile app, it’s free. This saves a lot if you are booking multiple accommodation with them.
For some exotic places such as the beautiful Hallstatt, when I was there I found the best accommodation facing the lake on it’s Tourism website’s accommodation tab, personally wrote to the owners to book direct.
MONEY & SAFETY
As far as safety is concerned, Europe is more famous for pickpockets than robbery. If you are too flashy or standout with a thick wallet with stacks of cash when you flip it out to buy a train/bus ticket, you might be a good target for those observing nearby. Wear modestly and try not to bring valuables, I usually advise only put your daily cash needed for the day in your wallet and hide the stack of cash elsewhere. Put your wallet close to you or in a hidden compartment in your handbag (I prefer a big handbag than a sling pouch because I want to look as though I fit in compared to other tourist). I also put my camera in my handbag and only flip it out briefly to take some pictures when I need it. Sometimes I estimated too little for my daily cash for the day and usually only do my cash refill into my wallet when I am in a restaurant toilet cubicle. This way, no one will notice it.
PACKING & LUGGAGE
In any length of travel above a week, I only pack a week of clothes max, traveling light is essential so leave your matching shoes, hats at home when you travel. Try packing your clothes by rolling them instead of folding, bring along travel sized products so when they have finished, you can give it some space to souvenirs which you might want to buy. I have met a Taiwanese traveller who needed to drag her 30kg trolley bag up a 4 storey building without a lift and her face turned white by the time the reception opened their doors to welcome her. She funnily recalled the incident and now laughed herself off as a “fake” bagpacker with an oversized trolley bag. Also most pf Europe the roads are made of cobble stones as well as staircases in and out or METROs/ UNDERGROUND, so give your bag and arms a break by carrying a body hugging backpack for easy moving about.
If I don’t already have an electronic version of the city map with street names clearly displayed, it’s good to get one when you arrive at a new place. I will either get a free map at the hostel or simply walk to a tourism information office to buy one. It’s very useful, trust me!
It helps if you can learn a bit of the language to get the locals to be friendly with you. Learning words like Hello, Excuse me, Thank You in their local language will get you much smiles. I learnt to ask for bill in a restaurant in French and the waiter gave me a big smile. You can start to learn some phrases on your long flight there as well. Just ask the flight attendants for help, they usually know some of the language.
FOOD & DRINKING WATER
Being a typical Asian, I drink plenty of plain water. Most of Western Europe’s water is safe to drink from the tap so bring along a water bottle and refill at the tap as you go as buying bottled water costs more than beer in some places. I best love the water in Rome where it actually tastes sweet to me. Water in London is a no no for me even after it is boiled, it still tastes weird to me. Hoever even if the tap water is drinkable, you will not see locals filling up their bottles, and you will look odd doing so in public and may get some distasteful stares, I only fill water at my hostel before I leave for the day and in restaurants or a super clean toilet at an attraction without people looking.
FREE WALKING TOURS
Most renowned cities have this available. Now let me explain what are free walking tours, it’s a bunch of volunteers/freelance tour guides who dedicate their time to bring a group of people (usually random tourists) to explore the city like the locals. They will tell you the historical significance of each site they bring you, the myth, the festivals, the culture, hidden treasures, the eateries, the bars and story behind some famous personalities who grew up, stayed or died in that place. It’s really a good way to learn of the city and a good orientation provided as you walk your way to all the sites together for about 2-3 hours with the free walking tour guide. As the name goes, it’s free! However the guides live on tips given by tourists at the end of the tour, so you can either tip them or not, it’s up to you. But I suggest if the group you joined is big such as 10-15 people, tip around 2-3 Euros, If the group is small such as 5-9 people, you may want to tip 5 Euros for their time spent with you. The good news is, if it’s your first FREE WALKING TOUR, you are not obligated to tip. Just raise your hand when the tour guide asks if it’s your first, now be honest about it ok?
Tips: Type in the destination+Free+Walking+Tour in google search and you’ll be able to find many. The timing and meeting place is stated there.
Most tourist attractions are bustling with people and the queue may be overwhelming. You can do the research online before you fly there and pre buy your entrance tickets online and print it out at your home and bring it along to cut the queue. Some they charge an extra fee which costs less than 2 Euros per ticket compared to buying at the gate, I’ll tell you it’s all worth it! You may line up for 30-45minutes just to buy a ticket and line up again for 30-45 minutes just to use that ticket to enter an attraction if you don’t do so earlier. I have learnt my lesson and paid almost doubled the actual ticket pricing to join a guided tour just to cut the queue the first time and didn’t know about pre buying tickets online.
Tips: When you search online tickets for the attractions, make sure you go to their official website as agents tend to sell them online too and the pricing is quite different buying from the official website versus buying through agents.
Happy Planning and Traveling!