When it comes to backpacking around Europe, no two countries are the same. That being said, when it comes to transportation it pays to know what you’re dealing with. Literally. Most people have no idea how much money they could be saving if they only did a little research on the transportation networks in each country they’re visiting. The difference could mean adding another city to your to-do list, which I think is reason enough to do a little digging!
For the most part, Europe is based upon three different types of public transport: planes, trains and buses. Bare with me here… there is a lot of ground to cover.
One of the best things about European travel is the insanely cheap, low-fare airlines. This means getting somewhere a lot quicker than on the ground and it is often necessary when heading places divided by bodies of water.
Ryanair is easily the cheapest airline in Europe. It’s also super ghetto, but that’s half the charm. It is based out of the UK/Ireland and hosts flights to a generous amount of countries across the continent. One of the first things you must know about Ryanair is that each airport only services certain airports. While you could allow this to make for a confusing zigzag route back and forth across the continent, I would suggest simply going to their website, entering in the airport you are looking to depart from and then choosing from the drop-down menu where to go. Half the fun of travelling is the spontaneity and, as I’ve said before, the places you least expect are often the most memorable and rewarding. Be a little adventurous and go somewhere just because it’s the cheapest flight leaving from your nearest airport!
Two more airlines to remember, especially for within the UK, are Easy Jet and Wizz Air. While a little more expensive than Ryanair, they offer a different selection of destinations and flights between larger cities not offered with Ryanair. One of my favourite features on their website is the ability to looks at fares for either 3 days, 3 weeks, or a whole year. This way, you know that you’re getting the best possible price for either the day of the week, month, or season. Prices really do fluctuate depending on the time of year, as I discussed in my last post, because of the tourist season. If you can, try to travel in off-peak times to saves tons of $$$!
3. The List
Because Rick Steves is the best guy in the biz, I’m sending you to his website for the ultimate list of budget airlines, depending on the area you’ll be in. If you’re smart, you’ll check out his whole site because, let me tell you, the guy knows what he’s talking about! After countless years of travelling and learning, no one knows Europe like Rick.
Check out his list of budget airlines here.
I can’t believe I almost forgot about this one. Rick mentions it in his list above, but it’s basically the ultimate site to finding your lowest fares. It sources countless websites and airlines across the web (including the ones I mentioned above, for the most part) to find the real-time lowest price for your journey. Always best to go to the actual site and make sure the price is correct first. Altogether, a really great place to start when looking for flights! Much easier than having 80 browsers open.
Things to remember with budget airlines:
Google the airport and find out where it is located. Many of the airports serviced through these carriers, especially Ryanair, are labelled with the major city they are closest to and then the city they are actually in. For example, “Oslo Rygge” is actually in Rygge, which is about an hour south of Oslo. What does that mean? You’re also paying the bus fare to reach the airport and that can sometimes cost a decent amount. Make sure that the flight and cost to get to the airport do not outrun the cost of flying out of a major airport with a major carrier. In the end, it will be more hassle and time for just as much money!
Be aware of baggage fees. Budget airlines make a good chunk of their money off of checked baggage. If you really want to budget your trip then travel only with a carry-on amount of luggage. This means only a small duffel or, preferably, a backpack, which allows you the freedom of your hands while walking around and is much more comfortable! You never know when you’ll spend 4 hours searching for your hostel because you forgot to map it out before you left (I mean, I’ve never done that……). I know that many of you are probably thinking, “how could I ever survive with that little?!” but, honestly, you won’t regret it. People don’t realize how little they need until they live out of a backpack for two months. Always check your airline’s allowance before booking anything, and that stands for any flight you take. Ryanair and Easyjet both only allow a carry-on and it must be the correct size to fit in the overhead, which is often smaller than on chartered flights. They will make you test it out before you board. Travelling light will not only help you save on your budget flights but also with buses or trains, which sometimes only allow you to bring on so much luggage. Once you travel Europe once with a full-size suitcase, you’ll never want to do it again. Trust me.
One of the most wonderful things about Europe, by far, is its extensive rail network. This is something that I know every North American or Australian will appreciate because it just doesn’t exist at home like it does in Europe. It makes sense, since there are so many places to go in such a small area. Take advantage of the convenience of trains! They are not only eco-friendly and extremely comfortable, but they also feature some of the best sights you’ll ever witness and may never see otherwise.
Unless you’re a European citizen or have lived there for at least six months by the time you depart for travel, if you want a rail pass it must be through Eurail (otherwise, you’re eligible for Interrail – much cheaper!). Basically, you’re paying a lump sum for a certain amount of allotted train travel during a certain period of time. While at first glance it seems like a screaming deal, it’s important to know what you’re dealing with and which situations truly warrant getting your hands on one of these. While they are awesome and convenient to use, they aren’t always necessary!
Things to remember when considering a Eurail Pass:
How old are you? The cheapest rates are available for those 25 or under. Sorry 26-ers! You’re out of luck and will be paying the full rate. This is just one of those examples of how it pays to travel while you’re young. In most European countries, these youth rates apply across the board for all sorts of things likes museums, buses, etc! Take advantage.
How long will you be travelling? Eurail’s best deals come with the passes that last at least 2 months. Furthermore, the continuous passes are a huge rip off (15 days continuous, 1 month continuous, etc). Think about it: how often will you be taking a train every single day? If you’re planning a trip where you hop from city to city every day then let me be the first to tell you that you’re wasting your time. Why bother going to one of the most densely historical places in the world if you’re whipping around each city in a day? Yes, there are some cities that only warrant a day, but these are few. Like I said in my last post: quality, not quantity!
Best Deal: 10 or 15 days within 2 month. If you calculate it, you’re paying around $50 a travel day, which is a lot cheaper than you’d pay for your average country-to-country journey. When you use a travel day, you can travel on as many trains during that day as you need. When you average in how many days you’ll be spending touring a city, you’ll realize you definitely don’t need a whole month or more of travel days.
Tip: Save your travel days for the longer journeys. If you’re taking a side trip to a nearby city, just purchase the ticket separately. These smaller journeys are often pretty cheap (around 10 euros, or so, depending what country you’re in) and it is better to pay for these separately than use your pass and get to the end and have to pay out of pocket for a journey from Berlin-Paris. The same tip goes for what kind of pass you get (Global, Select, Regional, One country): aim for less. There is no sense in paying for more than you’ll be using, so buy the pass that covers countries you’ll be guaranteed to visit and nothing more. It’s easy to add on one or two journeys out of pocket, but you can never earn back the money you overspent on your pass.
What does it even cost per journey? If you want an idea, going in, as to how good of a deal you’re getting based on which countries you want to see, then google it. Find that country’s train system, enter in a long journey you’ll be riding with them, and fully understand where your money is going to good use. National (in-country) journeys are always cheaper than those between countries. Check both.
What does your pass cover? Every country has different regulations for Eurail pass holders. When you buy the basic pass, you are only allowed in 2nd class. In certain countries, especially France, you are responsible for paying a rather large reservation fee on top of your pass in order to secure a seat. This is mandatory. Some countries require no seat reservation but this also means you could end up standing in the aisles for your whole journey. This happened to me… it wasn’t fun. Click here for the direct link to reservation fees across all countries offered by Eurail.
Bottom line? Read all the small print. Read the Eurail website from top to bottom because there’s a lot of it! There are so many conditions and loop holes and extra fees depending on where you go and it’s best to know what to expect before you make this large of a purchase. If you are winging your trip, a pass might not be the best idea. It really helps for those who are planning a certain route through particular countries or for those who are trying to do it all (like I did) with the Global Pass.
I know what you’re all thinking… buses suck. They really do! They are small, cramped and often have many stops, resulting in extra-long journeys. On the other hand, though, they can save you tons of money!
In almost all cases, buses are your cheapest form of transportation. They have buses for everything, going pretty much anywhere. Just when you think there wouldn’t be buses going between countries or through countless countries, there totally are. There are plenty. Here are my tips for when buses are appropriate and when they’re not, as well as some bus companies that I can recommend.
1. The UK
Since Liz thinks her country is too cool to join Eurail (or because the Brits love making us pay loads more money for everything, if the exchange rate wasn’t already bad enough), the United Kingdom is not included in the Eurail pass. Further, there is a rather large price discrepancy between trains and buses. Here is an example:
- National Rail: London-Cardiff (2 hours), one way = 40 pounds
- Megabus: London-Cardiff (3-4 hours), one way = 3 pounds
If that’s not enough to convince you to use the bus, then I don’t know what is! For shorter journeys, or if you have high tolerance for being on a cramped bus for hours, then this is your best bet. Otherwise, I suggest taking a plane, especially if you’re heading to Scotland or Northern Ireland. Unless you’ve got loads and loads of free time to spend on a 20 hours bus ride, then you’re wasting your time. Time is not only money, but time is experience. Experience is why you’re there, so don’t let it go to waste!
Buses are, by far, most important when you need to get to the airport. Obviously, no single airport is right in the middle of a major city so you’ll always need some form of transportation to reach them. While the major airports usually offer a high-speed train, it often comes at a higher cost for the convenience. If you’re willing to sacrifice an hour instead of 20 mins, then a bus is always cheaper. The easiest way to examine your options is to go to your airport’s website and look under “getting to and from the airport”. They’ll often have the most common options listed there, featuring the cheapest and quickest.
What I discovered while living in Sweden is that neither buses nor trains were more expensive than the other (assuming you’re choosing 2nd class), but it all depended on what time of day you’d be travelling. Personally, I always compared the bus and train prices for every journey I took. Going to the capital, Stockholm, was always cheaper by train. Heading to smaller towns, however, were cheaper on the bus. Do a little digging and find your cheapest option for where you are and where you’re headed. Make no assumptions!
Tip: Direct routes will always be cheaper than taking what seems to be the shortest distance. Once you start having to change trains on your journey, it takes up more time (consider your wait times) and can be more expensive. For example: getting to Stockholm Skavsta (Ryanair budget airport near Stockholm) is more easily reached by going to Stockholm, then getting the bus from there. Don’t take 5 different trains + a bus because it was the shortest distance on the map. Most ridiculously long travel day I ever took!
While each country tends to have their main bus lines, Megabus is easily your best option in the UK and also has service in France, the Netherlands, Belgium and Germany. It’s a good place to start and has insanely cheap prices for some extra-long journeys. If you’re willing to suffer through it for about $10, then by all means!
I think I said this before, and I’ll say it again: Google is your best friend. Obviously you aren’t going to know off the top of your head every different bus line for every country you visit. It’s 2014, people – just Google it! From there, it can lead you to many different options for bus services and anything else you may happen to need while planning your trip. Not to mention, I’m not the only travel blog out there with transportation information.
Getting around a particular city is completely relative to where you are. There is no rule for city travel but what I can tell you is to choose the most beneficial form possible. What do I mean by that? Choose local transport that best allows you to explore, learn and be flexible while getting from one place to another.
Best Local Transport:
1. Bikes, bikes, bikes! Nothing is more flexible, efficient and eco-friendly. Not to mention, countless European cities offer free bikes for daily use, especially in Scandinavia. Ask and look around and you’ll be sure to find them. There is no better way to experience Amsterdam as well, but be awake that bike theft is extremely common and bike rental will cost you!
2. Walking: This one is obvious. Most European cities were built for people to walk around. Though I do recommend some comfy shoes for tackling those pesky cobblestones, there really is nothing better than a nice stroll to experience a city. No need to worry about a bike or subway tickets, etc. All you have to do is step outside and explore.
3. Subway/Tube: While walking or biking would be lovely anywhere, it isn’t always the most efficient in big cities like London and Paris. They are simply just so big. Not to mention, incredibly intimidating to navigate if you’re unfamiliar with the territory. Get a subway map, find out where you want to go and don’t waste too much time. You will never run out of things to see in these cities!
If you’ve made it to the end, good for you. You get a gold star for putting up with my inability to condense information. I really hope this post can help you on your next trip and didn’t overwhelm you too much! Backpacking is not for the faint of heart and includes a decent amount of work in order to budget properly. If you truly care about maximizing your experience and your budget, this will all be more than worthwhile.
I mean, how many hours do we all spend in front of our computer screens anyway? The least you can do is put some of that time into planning an unforgettable life experience. Allow it to be fun just by thinking of all the amazing memories you will make!
A little work here goes a long way out there.
Look out for my next post…
“Doing Europe” Part Three: Where to Stay