It can be easy to get so wrapped up in the eager anticipation of a Eurotrip and pretty important considerations can easily be overlooked. All things considered, Europe is pretty accessible for US travelers. But if you’re not careful, you might end up shelling out more money than you intended, and spending your last few days penny-pinching (or Euro-pinching) instead of enjoying that long-awaited cappuccino on the Piazza di Spagna. We spoke to experts in European travel for advice on how traveling Europe on a budget can be done.
There are a myriad of common mistakes most travelers make during a trip to Europe, from not understanding the local tipping culture to sinking all their money into car rentals and mishandling their phone plans. These common financial faux pas are easily avoided, here’s what the experts advise.
Quotes have been edited for length and clarity.
Exchanging currency at home
“I do not recommend buying Euros in the US before departing for Europe,” says Annie Erling Gofus, a travel consultant who specializes in Central and Eastern Europe. “The same goes for the currency exchange booths that you’ll find in the airport — skip those. Travelers will get the best exchange rate if they wait to withdraw Euros from a local ATM.”
Not getting a local SIM card
“Every major US mobile carrier now has special international plans that make using your cell phone abroad super easy,” according to Gofus. “Unfortunately, these international plans can get expensive, especially for trips longer than 10 days, and in my experience, the data never works properly…Instead, I recommend unlocking your phone and buying a local SIM card upon arrival. This process usually takes less than 15 minutes and will cost less than $50.”
This recommendation is echoed by Patricia Palacios, co-founder of España Guide.
“Even though most US providers offer some type of roaming package for international travel,” she says. “The truth is that if you are going to spend more than a few days in Europe, it won’t be cheap. Verizon, for example, charges $10 a day for internet usage. Getting a local SIM card can be so much cheaper! Moreover, getting a prepaid SIM card in Europe is very easy. In most places, you can even get a SIM card directly at the airport. In the Netherlands, for example, you can get 8GB and unlimited international calls for around $20 (or 15 GB for around $30) with Lebara. And you can use that SIM card all over the EU, not just in the Netherlands. Those prices are similar to the ones found all over Europe. This means that you can have internet in your phone for the whole trip for the price of two or three days of roaming with Verizon!”
Purchasing Eurail passes
“European rail passes sold to American passengers rarely save money,” says Matthew Bowley, marketing manager for Solmar Villas, a European resort rental company. “Unless you spend most of your travel days on long-distance high-speed trains, purchasing a rail pass is likely to be a waste. For instance, on a recent vacation to Paris, Munich, and Venice, I took two train excursions, one high-speed (TGV and ICE) from Paris to Munich and one Intercity train from Munich to Venice. The first ticket purchased directly through the official train websites roughly two weeks before the journey cost $81, while the second trip cost only $75. These two travels took me to various places for only $157 in first-class fares. These would not have been more affordable with a rail pass.”
Splurging unnecessarily on hotels
According to Shawn Richards, expedition co-ordinator at Ultimate Kilimanjaro, “One of the biggest mistakes you are probably making on your Eurotrip is spending money on hotels. While they do come with a sense of escape and comfort, Europe is home to some of the most beautiful house rental getaways that you can imagine, and they typically come at a fraction of the cost of a hotel. Not only will you save money on the actual stay, but they typically come with their own kitchen, meaning you won’t have to rely on spending every meal at a restaurant.”
Richards does acknowledge that we all like to treat ourselves on a holiday from time to time, but that “being able to save for some of the meals will definitely be a blessing that you didn’t realize you needed.”
Spending too much on Ubers and taxis
“Most European cities have great public transport networks that are super easy to navigate, affordable and convenient,” Palacios says. “A lot of times there is no need to take a taxi or Uber, because public transportation is as fast and cheaper. I also think that using public transport is a great experience to have in any city. You will see a different part of the city — away from monuments and landmarks, but such an integral part of everyday life for locals.”
She goes on to suggest, “You can also save money by foregoing planes for trains or buses, even from one country to another. For example, did you know that you can travel from Paris to Amsterdam by train in just over two hours? Or from Munich to Vienna in under four hours?”
Tipping too much
“Although tipping is customary and appreciated in Europe, tips here are seen differently than in the US” says Palacios. “Waiters and kitchen staff don’t depend so much on them. Don’t get me wrong, I am not trying to get people to stop tipping, but the standard 18-20 percent US tipping is generally too much in Europe. In some places, 10 percent is a good tip while in others just rounding up one or two euros might be enough. Checking locally with the front desk of your hotel is always a good idea.”
Not booking attractions directly
“When it comes to Europe, many travelers are unknowingly spending more money than necessary on popular attractions,” says Karen Rosenblum, founder of Spain Less Traveled, a boutique travel consultancy service. “Why? Mistakenly buying advanced entries and time slots from resellers and third parties. For example, if you were to Google “Alhambra tickets” most of the first results that come up are ads for third-party retailers. Sometimes these websites look very official, making travelers believe that they are buying directly from the source. But they aren’t, and these websites are adding additional fees to the cost of the tickets. Always ensure you are buying your attraction tickets from the official website, or even better, work with a travel advisor who will take care of this for you.”
Paying too much for a car rental
“A lot of people have a dream of doing a multi-country road trip, renting a car in one country and dropping it off in another,” says Charles Neville, marketing director at JayWay Travel, a custom European tour operator. “The problem with a lot of car rental comparison sites is they leave out the one-way fees, so your bargain (ok, not so bargain in 2022, with rental prices sky-high) car rental ends up costing you approximately one dollar per km for the distance between pickup and dropoff. Unless you rent and drop-off in the same country, expect a very high return fee. We advise moving between countries by public transport or private transfer, then renting within the country for the few days you need a rental.”