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How to plan a backpacking trip through Europe on a budget

For young Canadians hoping to take a trip on a budget, there's a new challenge on the horizon beyond finding a way to fit all of one’s necessities into a backpack: the lingering effects of high inflation.
Experts say booking ahead of time, watching for youth discounts and avoiding restaurants close to tourist attractions are ways to save money while travelling. Backpackers enter a youth hostel in Brussels, Thursday July 31, 2008. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-Robert Wielaard

For young Canadians hoping to take a trip on a budget, there's a new challenge on the horizon beyond finding a way to fit all of one’s necessities into a backpack: the lingering effects of high inflation.

According to StudentUniverse, a student and youth-focused travel agency, the top concern for young people who wish to travel is the financial cost. However, with the right approach and mindset, spending a few months in Europe may not be as far out of reach as you might think.

“One of the most important things to consider before planning a large-scale trip is to think about what kind of traveller you are,” said Will Jones, global brand manager at StudentUniverse. After spending years educating youth on frugal travel strategies, he's careful not to hand out general advice that doesn’t account for the specific goals of the each traveller.

“Different people are going to prioritize different things. For example, if you’re particularly keen on trying out different cuisines, then cutting costs on food by cooking in a hostel kitchen probably isn’t the best choice for you.”

Once you’ve figured out those priorities, it's easier to plan where to trim your budget and where to spend, said Jones. 

It might sound obvious, but Jones said many people ignore this critical piece of advice: set your budget before you leave home, and then stick to it. 

“It's easy to get caught up in the excitement of being away from home, and budgeting can be a bit boring and dry,” said Jones. “But I can’t emphasize enough how many young people make the mistake of refusing to budget when first starting their journey and find they’ve nearly run out of funds before making it to [the trip’s] halfway point.”

Liam Avalon, a 28-year-old Montreal native who backpacked Europe more than five times as a student, credited his strict adherence to a weekly budget with allowing him the ability to travel internationally so frequently. In fact, between 2016 and 2022, Avalon was able to hit 15 cities in six countries, including in Switzerland and France — often cited as some of the most expensive European countries to visit.

“When I was there, I had 250 euros — or another fixed amount — as my budget for the week,” he said. “You have to have an agreement with yourself to stick to that and also track it as you’re spending."

That inclination towards creativity tended to be most useful for Avalon when cutting down on travel fare, accommodation costs and experiences expenditures, which tended to make up most of his budget. Putting in the time to properly research packages offered by various travel agencies and travel-related search engines saved him hundreds of euros per month during his trips.

“It’s also really important to book ahead of time,” he said. “A lot of people think you can just show up in one country and travel cheaply throughout the continent by booking things while you’re there the day before … but that’s just not the reality of how travel works [in Europe] anymore.”

Jones also emphasized the advantage of one’s student or youth status, given many hotels, hostels, train systems and airlines offer discounted rates for both groups. But again, pre-planning and proper research is key.

“Some youth discounts go up to as high as 30 years old, and can save you a lot in the long run,” he said. “So, it’s worth planning ahead to see which travel routes you should prioritize based on that.”

Both Jones and Avalon also cautioned against committing many of the classic tourist blunders, including eating at restaurants located too close to tourist attractions, taking taxis rather than navigating public transit routes, skimping out on travel insurance given the ultimate cost of a potential emergency, and — perhaps most surprisingly — relying on travel bloggers for "cheap hidden gems."

“The things bloggers recommend tend to be great in the moment, but then a couple of months later, their information sort of becomes obsolete because other travellers take advantage of their great advice,” said Avalon. “Things that might have been cheap before aren’t necessarily that cheap afterwards.” 

Instead, Avalon now approaches advice from bloggers in the same way he approaches choosing restaurants — seeking out the locals and doing as they do.

“On YouTube, I subscribed to a couple of people who actually live in the cities I would be going to. That way, their tips are always up to date.”

And though planning a budget-friendly backpacking tour through Europe may prove to be quite a time-consuming task, Avalon said travelling the continent solo was an integral part of his young adulthood and education.

“It sounds really cliché, but those experiences really keep me grounded in what I’m passionate about, and it’s absolutely something I would recommend to anyone who can make it work.”


Alongside what’s been recommended above, consider some of traveller Liam Avalon's other cost savings advice:

Exchange money before you go: Never exchange Canadian dollars at an exchange kiosk or take money out of an ATM located at a high-traffic tourist spot — many of these places charge extremely high exchange rates and transaction fees.

Look for free apps: Save money on guided tours by doing your research and downloading free apps or videos ahead of time. There are thousands of audio tracks made for some of Europe’s most iconic destinations and sites. Often, these free audio tours are just as good — if not better — than the paid ones.

(Respectfully) attend a religious service: Sometimes, notable places of worship such as churches, synagogues or mosques charge entrance fees or have long lineups. However, they generally won’t during services. You may not be allowed to take pictures, but you will be sure to enjoy the experience all the same. 

Don't forget to negotiate: Some countries or regions treat bartering like a sport. Though it may be intimidating at first, once you get started, it can be a cultural experience in and of itself while also saving you a little bit of money.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 30, 2023.

Pascale Malenfant, The Canadian Press