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Backpacking Across Europe? Here’s How to Budget for Travel

Key Takeaways


Don’t just buy the first plane ticket you see. Look for deals on apps and check out different modes of transport like trains.

Lodging & Site Seeing

Hotels and events can be expensive. Check out local tours and hostels instead.

Think Small

Credit unions have better interest rates and fewer fees. Those dollars can really add up while you save for your trip.

Let’s say you’re in college and have decided to study abroad next year. Or maybe you’ve spent the past few years at the same job waiting for that promotion that would give you more PTO. You’re feeling hella excited for your European excursion … until you hit up REI and start looking at the price tags on backpacks.

And ticket prices.

And hotel rates.

And rental cars.

Suddenly that trip you’re planning is causing you more stress than excitement. You’re a Gen Z or a Millennial, and it’s 2020 — you don’t have money for all those expenses, no matter how long you’ve been trying to save because, well, the economy has screwed us over. So you’re wondering how to budget for travel.

We can’t wave a magic wand and make traveling completely free, of course, but we can offer you some tips and tricks to make your trip as cheap as possible, whether you’re backpacking across Europe or glamping in South America.

Note: We’re all social distancing over here at FCU, and we hope you are, too! In the meantime, bookmark this post. It’ll be useful for your celebratory We-Can-Socialize-Again Party when this is all over. Stay safe and stay HOME!


The first thing on your mind is probably transportation. How will you get there, and how will you hop from city to city? Here are a few ways to cut your travel expenses (without cutting your safety).

1. Hitchhike…JK!

The safety risks are NOT worth it. Instead, look for cheap hop-on-hop-off buses. They’re available in most European cities. It’s like hitchhiking, but with lots of people (and a company keeping bus drivers accountable).

Public transportation in general can be a great cultural experience, like TukTuks in India or bullet trains in Japan.

2. Compare Different Modes of Transportation

A flight might be your only option for that first initial flight overseas (unless you have two extra weeks to take a ship across the Atlantic) but there are plenty of other ways to hop between cities once you arrive.

Within Italy, for example, taking a train from Florence to Cinque Terre is cheaper than renting a car or flying.

In other places, a flight (or hovercraft!) might be cheaper, like from London to Paris. And check out rail passes. Many places like the London Underground offer passes that give you unlimited access for a few days, which can be significantly cheaper than Ubers and Lyfts or car rentals. Ubers and Lyfts can even be a good option, too, if you’re sharing a ride.

In short, don’t limit yourself just to flying. Check out all modes of transportation to find whatever is cheapest. And if you’re able, walk where you can! Pack good walking shoes, and you’ll be able to explore every little corner of the city you’re visiting by walking around.

3. Pack Minimally

Even if you spend hours planning and budgeting, there’s always a surprise fee that tends to sneak up on you — like baggage fees. (Ugh.) If you’re hopping from one city to another multiple times, those checked bag fees can be a pain in the ass.

The best way to avoid baggage fees? Pack minimally and rewear outfits!

Outfit Repeater Lizzie McGuire

We know, we know — you want to look super cute at that flamenco club in Barcelona. But think about it: if you’re hitting up a new city every couple days (or exploring a new bar every night?) repeating the same outfit shouldn’t be a problem. (Tbh, we don’t think you should worry about repeating outfits anyway. Do you really think anyone will notice…or care?)

Many hostels and Airbnbs even give you access to washers and dryers which makes it easy to rewear clothes over and over again. And you’d be amazed how much you can fit in a carryon. Pack a few space-saving bags and you’ll be able to fit dozens of outfits in one backpack. That way, even if you end up going over the size limit, you’ll only have one bag to check, not two. And believe us when we say it’s way easier to travel light.

4. Apps and Deals

HitlistAh, technology. It may not always be great, but it sure can help you find great deals for traveling.

Check out apps such as Hopper, which watches flight prices and alerts you when prices rise or fall and tells you when to wait and when to buy so you can get the best flight deal. And sometimes it offers bundles or cash back when you book a hotel through them in the same purchase.

If you’re not afraid of last-minute trips, check out Hitlist. They’re great for finding last-minute flights. Got a random 3-day weekend? Use Hitlist to find deals. Pick a random place that fits your budget and go! Great for the spontaneous traveler or those of us with unpredictable work schedules.

5. Hit Two Birds with One Stone

Are you trying to see a ton of cities in a short amount of time? Check out overnight trains! You’ll get travel and a place to sleep and you’ll save time. You don’t even have to get a sleeping car if you’re okay with sacrificing some sleep quality and sleeping while sitting up for a night.

6. Get Rewards Points

Many credit unions offer credit cards and debit cards with travel rewards points. If you start putting every purchase on that card before your trip (and paying it off on time, if it’s a credit card) you’ll be surprised how quickly points can add up!

And they’ll keep adding up as you continue to use the card while you travel. Save them up to redeem them for a whole flight, or use them to cover smaller purchases throughout your trip like Ubers or one-night hostel stays. Either way, you can save some serious cash with travel rewards as long as you’re paying the card off to avoid interest.

Jet Setting on a Budget?

Save money with a credit union.

Find Your Credit Union


Remember the days when we all used to have a limit of 500 texts a month and a certain amount of minutes? While most cell carriers have nixed these limits in favor of unlimited plans, international phone plans can still carry a high price tag. When deciding how to budget for travel, adjusting your communication plan may not have crossed your mind.

The main question you should ask is do you even need an international plan? Most hostels, Airbnbs and hotels have wifi, as do many restaurants, shops and cafes. If all you need is a wifi connection to post to Instagram or check in with your family, you may not need an international plan at all.

Worried about getting directions? Don’t be. Remember when we all had to print out a MapQuest map before we drove somewhere new? Just use that same tactic abroad! The same hostels and Airbnbs that have laundry services often have printers, too. If you’re headed to a new city tomorrow and you know you’ll need a map to find your new hostel once you jump off the train, print it out beforehand.

Plus, it’s not like your camera stops working when you don’t have data…you can wait to post all your pictures to Instagram until you get back to the hostel.

If this makes you nervous, you can also opt for a local SIM card. These can be cheaper than an international plan, depending on how long you are abroad (and how long you stay in the same place). Just be careful not to lose your original SIM…those tiny bad boys have your whole life on them.


1. Hostels

Want to meet other backpackers and solo travelers while saving money? Try hostels! They’re usually cheaper than hotels and Airbnbs and make for great experiences.

Some companies such as Selina have a network of hostels all over the world. You can find private rooms or community rooms depending on your budget. (How does two weeks in Costa Rica for $200 sound?)


2. Couchsurfing

Don’t mind sleeping on a couch? Sharing a bathroom and a kitchen? Couchsurfing is a great way to find a place to crash, often for free! You can also use the site to find locals to hang out with during your stay. If you’re wondering how to budget for travel, couchsurfing is a perfect option for the backpacker on a budget.

3. Airbnbs

Airbnbs might be more expensive than hostels or couchsurfing, but if you’re looking for nicer accommodations (and still hoping to save money in other areas) they can be a great way to save money on things like food because they have kitchens! Instead of eating out during your stay, head over to the local market (almost every city has one) and buy food to cook at your temporary home.

Every Little Bit Counts

Better interest rates, fewer fees — it all adds up in the end.

Find Your Credit Union

Site Seeing

So you made it to your destination. NOICE!

Noice budget vacation

So now what? Did you just save a ton of money getting to your destination only to spend it all on too many shots at a flamenco bar or an $80 ferris wheel ride? No thanks.

Instead, look for cheap (or free!) ways to explore the city you’re in. Nearly every city has free walking tours. All you need to do is tip the tour guide at the end. (And make sure you tip. Don’t take advantage of your tour guides. Usually, they’re poor students trying to make a living.)

If walking isn’t an option for you, find a tour company that offers accessible tours such as this wheelchair-accessible tour in Munich or this tour in Sicily.

And if you’re a student (or still have your student ID laying around) do some research — many museums are free for those with student IDs.

Public gardens are another great (and free) way to people-watch and get a feel for the local cultures. You can meet some interesting locals by chatting on a park bench or trying some street food. They may even have suggestions for the best affordable hole-in-the-wall restaurants and attractions.

Find Deals

When traveling, it’s easy to get super excited about something and drop money without thinking. But the more often you take a second to breathe and search for deals, the more money you’ll spend.

Check out sites like Groupon which often have deals that include the price of the flight. And companies like EF Ultimate Break frequently offer payment plans, too. Just be careful that you only choose trips that you know you’ll be able to pay off (in cash, dammit. Don’t save money just to lose money by getting charged interest).

Also, consider traveling in the low season. You might encounter some un-ideal weather, but if you’re up for the added adventure, this can be a great way to save. Many attractions and transit ticket prices get hiked up during high season…simple economics of supply and demand screwing us over (again).

Getting Money

1. Avoid ATM Fees

Inevitably, you’re going to have to spend some money while you’re traveling, and that often requires taking cash out of ATMs. While banks will often charge exorbitant fees to do this, you can trust that most credit unions will have your back. Banks rarely wave ATM fees, but credit unions do. And since you’ll probably want to take out smaller amounts of cash for safety purposes (getting $100 pickpocketed isn’t nearly as bad as $500), those ATM fees can really add up if they aren’t being waived.

2. Start Early

Wondering how to budget for travel? No matter how many different ways you find to cut corners financially, you should still start saving as soon as possible to take more financial stress off your shoulders.

If you haven’t already, set up a savings account. Find one that has few fees (or none at all) with good interest rates. Credit unions are usually a good option, because they’re not-for-profit — meaning that unlike banks which give all the fees and interest you pay to the bankers in the conference room, credit unions take any money they earn from its members and give it right back in the form of lower fees, lower interest rates on credit cards and higher interest rates on savings accounts. That can add up quite a bit over time — and the sooner you join a credit union and start saving, the better!

Exploring The World?

Avoid those pesky international ATM fees.

Find Your Credit Union

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