Planning to visit Europe? Great choice! It's an awesome destination, with some insanely beautiful locales steeped in history and tradition. However, it is also one of the world's most expensive places to explore. But does this mean you can't do Europe in a budget? NO.
The thing to do is to plan well in advance and do your research. Here's how my family did it.
Pick the right season
Europe's peak travel season is mid-June to August when the weather is good, and that's when all the tourists flock there—of course, the prices are higher at this time.
We booked Emirates about three months in advance and got our Bangalore-Rome return tickets for ₹38,000—a steal.
The period of April to mid-June has good weather too, fewer tourists and is way easier on the pocket. That is why I planned my trip in April end extending until the second week of May. I could explore places of interest in a leisurely way and really soak in each city's culture and lifestyle.
Go for a relaxed itinerary
For budget tourists, a 14-day stint is highly recommended. Plan for your leaves in advance. Having it in children's summer vacation helped us.
I know of people who have covered a city/country in two days. That's not how I would advise you to do it. Europe has too much to see and enjoy. Do it at a slower pace. We covered Italy and France and felt we could have stayed longer despite our two weeks. You can cut down on a place or two in Italy from my itinerary and also include Switzerland if your heart so desires. It is a short train journey from Venice.
In Italy, we reserved four days for Rome, which included a day trip to Naples and the Pompeii ruins. We then spent three days in Florence, which also covered a day trip to Pisa and a winery tour to the Tuscan countryside. We spent two nights in Venice.
In France we spent five nights in Paris to really get to know the city. We went to a lot of monuments, spent one day at the Louvre and another at Disney Land. You can skip any of these and add more places in France depending upon what you enjoy doing. I was satisfied to see the Eiffel Tower multiple times and also get a better feel of this amazing city.
Your Schengen visa fee will come to roughly ₹5000 per person. Apply at least 2 weeks in advance before your travel date. Medical insurance is mandatory to travel to Europe. It costs about ₹800 per person and you can buy it online. We used ICICI Lombard.
Do keep your eye out on ticket sales of major airlines. We chose Emirates, one of the nicest airlines in terms of service and got return tickets in economy for ₹38,000 each. It was a total steal. And it included one leg in an A-380, icing on the cake. We got such a good deal because the booking was done in January for an April-end trip (for advance bookings, do check for cancellation terms). This was a Bangalore-Rome round trip flight. An open-jaw ticket that would allow us to land in Rome and to fly back from Paris would have been preferable but the price differential was a lot, so we dropped that idea.
European trains have dynamic fares, so the sooner you book the better.
I chose the low-cost flyer easyJet for the Venice to Paris leg for ₹6000 per person. This included buying extra luggage of 20kg. These low-cost airlines are way stricter than in India and make you pay through your nose if you carry even a bit of extra luggage. So account for that when booking with them. Double check their terms and conditions on baggage.
For the Paris to Rome leg, we picked Air France. Booked in advance (by January), the price was on par with low-cost carriers. One ticket cost ₹5000 and included breakfast.
Europe has excellent and very user-friendly public transport. High-speed trains within Italian cities not only save time, but are also very cost effective if booked in advance. European trains have dynamic fares, so the sooner you book the better. Try out the Trenitalia website for Italian trains. Do all your bookings well before time. We kept printouts but they are OK with mobile tickets as well.
Regional trains like the one we took from Naples to Pompeii do not require prior booking. They are similar to our local trains. This journey is great fun as you really see a lot of local culture.
European cities have excellent public transport, with efficient networks of metros and buses. Use them extensively to avoid taking expensive taxis.
You can buy metro tickets at the train stations or even at neighbourhood cafes or tobacconists on street corners. A €1.5 metro ticket once punched entitles you to 90 minute of travel within the metro network if you don't leave the station. Else it is good for one journey. The same ticket can be used for one journey in a bus. You have to punch or authenticate your tickets manually before using them. Not doing so can lead to heavy fines on inspection.
Paris, of course, has an extensive train network with multiple metro lines. Every station displays maps and lines and you can also check Google maps before starting.
I can't praise AirBnB enough for not only letting us stay cheaply and lavishly, but also for giving us a local host who gave valuable suggestions and inputs. But, to be on the safe side, always research your host and their property well. I went through a number of reviews and keyed in only on those hosts who had multiple 5-star ratings. Read through the reviews to know what to expect. And also check the cancellation terms. I only booked in those places where I could cancel till five days before the stay without any penalty. Take these precautions when you are booking so well in advance. And, you get free wi-fi. That is always good.
A big advantage of living in an apartment is that you can do your own groceries and cook food.
Booking.com is another site that was useful, and that's what I used for getting a luxurious apartment right in the heart of Rome.
A big advantage of living in an apartment is that you can do your own groceries and cook food. Not only does it give you more choice but it also saves a lot of money. I loved cooking with fresh produce in Italy. Grocery stores are similar to Indian supermarkets. Italians are helpful though not fluent in English, and France poses an even greater problem in that department. It helps to learn some useful phrases in the local language.
Mostly we had one meal outside the home. We also packed sandwiches for our sightseeing jaunts for those random hunger pangs.
Vegetarians don't have to worry in Italy as you have a lot of choice in terms of pasta, pizzas and paninis (sandwiches), although Paris is a little more challenging in terms of veg options. Luckily, Chinese groceries stock Indian staples (!) like dals, rice etc. and we really enjoyed cooking some meals on our own here.
Entrance fees to major attractions are very steep in Europe. You must buy them in advance. Having a Rome Archaeological Card or Paris City Pass can get you free entry into many museums. Skip-the-lines passes are available in a number of attractions (such as the Vatican), but make sure, again, to book in advance. You can get good discounts on entrance fees on websites such as 365tickets.com.
Rather than going for expensive conducted tours, I went for audio guides that let you explore the monument at your convenience. You can rent them for less than €5 per person.
It is expensive to use your Indian credit card in Europe or get currency converted on the go. And airport exchange rates tend to be very high. Buy foreign exchange online in India. It is cheaper. Take about €500-1000 in cash from here and a debit card in multiple currencies to be used in Europe. This came very handy when purchasing groceries, gifts and so on.
Carry fewer clothes. If you're using Airbnb, choose apartments with a washing machine available. Easy peasy. Note that Northern Europe will be quite cold in April-May, so plan for woollens accordingly, but don't go overboard.
Remember you will need to carry your own luggage in trains, stations etc. So travel light with good trolley bags that are easy to stow and carry around.
Keep your passport, visas and other documents safely. Always be vigilant of your belongings as Rome, Florence and Paris are notorious for pick pockets.
These are tourist friendly places and you can stay out till late, but be extra careful in secluded locations.
A Break-Up Of My Costs
Here are the details of expenses incurred per person for our 14-day Europe trip.
Bangalore-Rome flights ₹37,149
Air France tickets from Paris to Rome ₹5034
EasyJet Venice to Paris ₹6022
Paris Airbnb ₹8011
Venice Airbnb ₹3986
Florence Airbnb ₹4625
Rome stay ₹9880
Rome to Napoli train ₹1397
Rome to Florence train ₹1125
Florence to Venice ₹1707
Rome Archaeological Card ₹1078
Pisa + Tuscany wine tour ₹3832
Disney Paris ₹4337
Miscellaneous Expenses ₹29,029
Total expenses per person: ₹1,18,351
Yes, you read that right. A family of four vacationed for 14 days in Europe in under ₹5 lakh. (The expenses mentioned above are pro rata for 1 person.) It required a lot of planning and research but it was totally worth it in terms of the memories we brought back with us and the money we managed it in.
Hope, you've got enough pointers to plan a similar vacation that is fun, helps you pack in a lot of travel, really enjoy the place as if you're living there and is also light on your pocket.
Do share any experience and tips of your own.
This post was previously published on Money View blog.