How to Backpack Europe on a Budget

budget holiday

If you’re backpacking through Europe, chances are you want to keep to a fairly strict budget. Seeing and doing as much as possible for as little money as possible is key. Most people immediately think of a rail pass – and if you truly do want to see as much as possible and maintain flexibility with your travel plans, a rail pass is probably a good idea for you. Passes cover anywhere from one to 24 countries, so they appeal to many travelers with many different itineraries.

rail pass isn’t the only answer, however. If you’re only taking two or three trains while you’re in Europe, it might be better to just purchase individual point to point tickets. Again, it all depends on your personal itinerary, and if money is a concern then it’s a good idea to price out everything before booking tickets or passes.

Budget-friendly benefits of this itinerary:

  • Overnight trains (save money on hotels)
  • Good exchange rates: Germany and Slovakia are on the euro (1.2 USD to 1 euro); 40 cents USD is 1 Hungarian forint; and 30 cents USD is 1 Polish Zloty (at the time of this blog post’s publication)
  • Each of these cities is known for being fairly affordable compared to other European cities in terms of dining, attractions, and general sightseeing activities

1. Try out a city pass in Berlin

Brandenburg Gate

As far as European capitals go, Berlin is one of the most affordable and one of the most impressive. Brimming with history and culture, Berlin has something for everyone: museums, street art, underground concerts, historical landmarks, renowned restaurants, and quirky bars. Despite the large variety and high quality of attractions it offers, Berlin remains more affordable than its neighbors Paris and Barcelona, among others.

There’s a lot to see in Berlin and that’s where a city card can come in handy. City cards are perfect for travelers on a budget because they often give discounts on public transportation, museums, and other attractions. For example, with the Berlin Pass, you get a choice of 2 or 3 days of consecutive travel on public transport, complimentary admission to over 50 attractions, a free 1-hour cruise on the River Spree, and a guidebook. If you know you’re going to be doing all or most of these activities anyway, you might as well take advantage of a discount.

Getting to Berlin by train:

The Berlin Central Station – or Berlin Hauptbahnhof – is considered to be the biggest train station in Europe, and it’s a pretty impressive welcome to an already impressive city. You can travel to this station from so many other European hubs (to name a few: Munich, Prague, Vienna, and Zurich).

2. See what all the hype is about in Warsaw

Warsaw

Full disclosure:

I have never been to Warsaw, but every single time I’ve traveled to Europe, I’ve met travelers who absolutely rave about how wonderful it is. Poland in general gets rave reviews. One of the things I hear most often is how affordable it is, and how it’s still more off-the-beaten track than a lot of other cities in Europe.

Don’t miss:

The Place of Culture and Science, the tallest building in Poland and quite an imposing one at that, considering its Communist-style. It currently hosts concerts and movies, and it houses cafes and museums as well. You’ll get a pretty nice view of the city if you take the elevator to the top.

Berlin to Warsaw by Train:

The Berlin-Warsaw Express Train takes travelers between the two cities in under six hours. The ticket price of this train is covered by a rail pass or combination of passes that includes Germany, Poland, or both countries, so only a seat reservation supplement would need to be purchased for the specific date and time you’d want to travel. Point to point tickets can also be booked for this route.

3. Get a good dose of people-watching in Bratislava

Bratislava

One of the smallest cities in one of the smallest European countries, Bratislava is still full of charm. Its main attractions are all essentially free: the classical old town area, the view of the “UFO bridge” from the castle grounds, the castle grounds themselves, and the locals playing chess in the park in the center of town.

Bratislava also offers excellent people-watching opportunities in the evening, as the place is a hotspot for British stag parties. If you’re visiting on a weekend in the spring or summertime, you’re pretty much guaranteed to see young adults running from bar to bar dressed in ridiculous outfits. Maybe you can even tag along.

Between the stag parties, the chess-playing locals, the view of the city from the castle grounds, and the tourists posing with that weird statue peeking out from a pothole in the old town, Bratislava is pretty much a jackpot for anyone who loves one of the most budget-friendly sightseeing activities of all: people-watching.

Warsaw to Bratislava by train:

There is an overnight train between Warsaw and Bratislava, so you can arrive in this tiny city well rested for all of that people-watching and stag-partying.

4. Ride a bike and take a bath in Budapest

Budapest

Though Budapest is becoming more and more popular lately, it’s still fairly affordable as far as large European cities go. It’s a wonderful city for biking in the summer – despite the hills – and if you travel along the shores of the Danube, you’ll probably come across a little restaurant where you can try a bite of freshly fried fish before setting off on the rest of your trek, or a park where you can take an afternoon nap with the locals.

One of the most popular attractions – the famous Hungarian baths – is extremely affordable as far as European attractions go (usually about 10-15 euro!), and unlike most European attractions, you’ll feel relaxed and rejuvenated when you leave. For budget shoppers, the Ecseri Flea Market is pretty much heaven: stroll the aisles of scarves, jewelry, furniture, hats, old photos, you name it – and be prepared to haggle.

Bratislava to Budapest by train:

There are direct trains that run between these two cities often; travel time is just under three hours. There are also services that require a train change along the way in Vienna, and even then the journey time will be about 4-5 hours. If you choose the latter route, you’ll get to experience a high-speed rail jet train for the journey between Vienna and Budapest.

Have any tips for backpacking across Europe on a budget? Share them in the comments…

Jacqueline Des Forges is a European rail expert and community manager for Rail Europe, the place to plan and book your Euro rail trip if you’re from outside the EU.

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