When wanderlust strikes and you have that irrepressible desire for far-flung travel, the place that automatically pops up in the head is Europe. Yes, Europe is a great tourist destination, with breathtakingly beautiful scenic spots steeped in history and tradition. However, it is an expensive place to visit. Hotels cost you the moon, train fares are sky-high, and the steep cost of living, particularly in Scandinavian countries, makes even minor purchases burn a hole in your pocket.
However, it is eminently possible to cut down on expenses and yet have a blast. If you plan well in advance, research as thoroughly as you can, seek advice from friends and relatives who might have already visited, or who might be residents, or who might simply be in the know, you can blaze a trail on a budget.
Europe has three distinct seasons for travel – peak season (roughly mid-June through August), shoulder season (April through mid-June, and September through October), and off-season (November through March). If you plan your trip in the off-season, you will make hefty savings on almost all counts – air fares, stay, even shopping. Some of the most popular European beaches, such as the Cote d’Azur and Amalfi Coast (southern Italy), are busiest in the months of July and August, but can still be enjoyed in the off-season for a fraction of the cost. Cities such as London, Rome and Paris are interesting any time of the year.
Generally speaking, northern Europe is the most expensive, followed by Central and Western Europe. The cheapest countries, where you can really make the rupee stretch, are located in the eastern part; the Balkan Peninsula is fairly cheap as well. Among cities, Vienna is, by far, among the most expensive destinations, while Budapest and Prague are quite affordable.
Your travel itinerary
If you apply for a Schengen visa (issued by the following 15 countries: Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Iceland, Italy, Luxembourg, The Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, Slovakia, Slovenia, Czech Republic, Hungary and Switzerland), you can country-hop much more easily.
For budget tourists, a 10-day stint is highly recommended. You can cover Germany, Austria, Italy, Switzerland, The Czech Republic and France. Here’s a rough travel plan:
Day One: Land in Munich, drive south into Bavaria to the city of Berchtesgaden. Stay overnight.
Day Two: Spend the afternoon exploring Berchtesgaden, which is a municipality in the German Bavarian Alps. Go to the salt mine near the town. Visit Hitler’s hideout at Obersalzberg, and the Kirche St. Bartholomae. Check out Lake Konigssee. Drive northeast to Salzburg in Austria in early evening. Stay overnight.
Day Three: Explore Salzburg and spend at least half a day doing so. Then drive east to the amazing town of Hallstatt. Check it out for a few hours; then drive south to the Austrian town of Gmünd. Stay overnight.
Day Four: Drive south to the Italian city of Venice. There’s so much to see — the Grand Canal, San Marco’s Square, Rialto Bridge…make the short trip to Murano Island and stay overnight.
Day Five: Drive southwest to the Italian city of Florence. Visit the Duomo in the heart of the town and the Ponte Vecchio bridge over the Arno River. Stay overnight.
Day Six: Drive east to the walled-town of Lucca, the quintessential central-Italian town. Visit the market and walk around the city. Climb one of the towers and enjoy a commanding view of the surrounding countryside. Stay overnight.
Day Seven: Drive north to the Italian town of Menaggio. Drive around Lake Como, hike to the Rifugio Menaggio, which is a hostel for travelers/hikers. Stay overnight.
Day Eight: Drive northwest through Switzerland to the German town of Garmisch-Partenkirchen, which once hosted the Winter Olympics. Check out the ski resort of Zugspitze and ride the funicular (cable-car) to the top, where you can have lunch above the clouds in a rotating restaurant. You can also ski and even cross the border into Austria at 10,000+ feet. Stay overnight in Garmisch-Partenkirchen.
Day Nine: Check out Neuschwanstein Castle, and be sure to take a tour of it, then drive northwest to Munich. In the city, visit the Munich Residence, the central train station, and the ancient clock tower in Marienplatz (city square). Stop by the Dachau Concentration Camp, the first of the Nazi concentration camps in the northern part of the town. Visit a nearby Beer Hall. Stay overnight.
Day Ten: Make the three-hour trip northwest to the city of Prague in The Czech Republic. Drive north for two hours to the German town of Nuremberg. Be sure to visit the Old Town. Drive eastwards to the French city of Strasbourg in the Alsace. Then drive to Munich.
Your amazing journey will have ended.
How to save as you go along
Europe is expensive, and that is a given. The trick lies in finding ways and means to save money as you go along. For instance, instead of booking hotels, or even hostels, opt for AirBnB. For the uninitiated, AirBnB is an online marketplace that enables people to list, find, and rent vacation homes for a processing fee. It has over 1,500,000 listings in 34,000 cities and you are sure to find something that suits your taste and budget. Do remember, AirBnB will provide you apartments of individuals; do not expect this option to be like staying in a hotel. You will be living in a lived-in accommodation, but it will be much cheaper than any other form of stay, and you can also cook your own meals and do your own laundry.
The next thing to focus on is the transportation. You can rent a car, but it will not be cheap. However, it provides you flexibility and gives you greater control over the distance you want to cover in a day. You can travel by train – it is the easiest, fastest and most comfortable. It is also the most expensive. You can try the Eurail or an Interail pass, but you can use it only for a few days from the time of booking (around two months). This is quite cost-effective if you are travelling long distance intercity within, say, Germany.
But the real saving comes from travelling by bus. The downside is that you will have to spend a lot of time searching the major national or private carriers in the countries you want to go to. You might also need to translate web pages or figure out how to read the cities and scheduled times, as these will be published in the local languages.
If possible, check ferry services, especially in Greece. However, be aware that summer and winter schedules vary, and not all islands are served daily (some are served only once a week).
Last, but not the least, compare as many airlines as you can for cheap tickets. If you book well in advance, and choose economy airlines, you will end up with a considerable saving.
Your financial plan
Needless to say, the success of your trip depends on sound financial planning. Let’s start at the very beginning.
Your Schengen visa fee will come to roughly Rs 5000. (In order to get a Schengen visa, it is necessary to apply for multiple entry visa from one of the Schengen countries.) For accommodation, you will need to budget at least 50 Euros per night and another 50 Euros per day for food, travel and attractions. This adds up to Rs 70,000 for 10 days. The air fare to and fro should cost you somewhere around Rs 50,000-Rs 60,000. And remember, it is mandatory to have medical insurance to travel to Europe, but the cost is fairly reasonable – just about Rs 800 per person. Add some miscellaneous costs, and you arrive at a neat sum of Rs 1.3 lakh-Rs 1.5 lakh for your trip.
Do remember it is very expensive to use Indian credit cards in Europe. And do not get your currency converted as you go along. It is best to buy foreign exchange online well before you start your trip. Take 700-800 Euros from India itself, and use your debit card loaded with multiple currencies for other expenses.
While travelling in Europe, it pays to remain vigilant always – some European cities are notorious for pick-pockets. Keep your documents handy – visa, passport and other important papers. Familiarize yourself with local rules as much as possible; you may, inadvertently, end up breaking the law. For instance, when using train tickets, you will need to authenticate them manually. Not doing so can lead to heavy fines. You might face some difficulties in non-English speaking countries. Even the place names will sound different. For instance, Vienna will be referred to as “Wien” locally because that’s how they say it in German, the language of Austria.
If you keep simple things such as these in mind, you can cut down on a number of complications. And, as with many things in life, travelling in a group with people you gel will make your Europe trip even more worthwhile.
So go ahead, and return with wonderful memories.