Last week, I returned from an exciting 3-country solo tour of Europe, where I visited the cities of Brussels, Paris and Amsterdam. I made new friends, met my Sorors from the Belgium chapter and indulged in real Belgian chocolate, Belgian waffles and frites (with mayonnaise of course). After I returned from my travels, I received lots of questions including, was I afraid of traveling alone to a foreign country? (yes, at first), was it difficult getting around without knowing the language? (not really) and the most frequently asked question; was it expensive?
I think many of us (including myself previously) have the misconception that international travel has to be expensive. With some research, advance planning and an open (and slightly adventurous) mind, you CAN take an amazing trip that fits perfectly within your budget. Here are nine smart tips that I used to plan my Europe vacation that left me with more money in my pocket and most importantly, peace of mind.
- I found affordable airfare using Scott’s Cheap Flights and Next Vacay
I first learned about Next Vacay and Scott’s Cheap Flights from a travel post on Pinterest and I’ve never looked back. Both of these websites send you customized alerts for cheap international flights leaving from airports near you to places you want to go (or didn’t even know you wanted to go!) When I saw an alert from Scott’s Cheap Flights for a roundtrip flight to Brussels for only $399, I did some research on the city (Pinterest was super helpful here!) and then purchased my ticket.
- I took one carryon to avoid baggage fees
Yes ladies, this was a MAJOR adjustment, but I survived 7 days in Europe with just one carryon bag – it can be done! Let’s face it, the airlines make a killing on baggage fees and if you can learn how to pack efficiently (do you really need 6 jackets?), you’ll not only save money but you’ll feel great zipping your way out of the airport while everyone else is waiting for the stuff to arrive (or not) at baggage claim. My girl loaned me her eBags carryon and along with some packing cubes,(I swear by these!) I was all set.
- I saved on currency exchange fees by converting my US dollars before leaving the country
While you can’t avoid currency exchange fees entirely, you can avoid the inflated airport prices as well as the more limited options you might have at your destination by doing some research before hand. Shop for currency exchanges by contacting the branches of banks in your city to get the lowest rates possible. I actually converted my US dollars to euros at a well-known currency exchange kiosk at a local mall. Still much less expensive than I would’ve paid at the airport.
- I used AirBnb instead of an expensive hotel
One of the reasons why I love AirBnb is because living in someone’s home gives you the unique opportunity to live like a local but provides you with a more authentic experience and connection with the country you’re visiting. In addition to the more authentic experience, AirBnb’s can be quite affordable and will help keep your budget in check. My Brussels AirBnb was only $59 per night for a beautiful, spacious studio and my AirBnb studio in Paris was only $37 a night. I could have easily spent upwards of $200 per night in a Paris or Brussels hotel. I used some of the extra money I saved to buy some gorgeous accessories
- I cooked my own meals instead of eating out 3 times a day
Depending on your destination, food can be a huge expense, especially if you plan on eating out 3 times a day, every day that you’re traveling. The great thing about AirBnB is that most of the apartments come with a kitchen, stove, etc. Now I did eat out while I was there, I just didn’t eat out every single day. But I know what you’re thinking, “Who wants to cook on vacation?” Well it’s not as grueling as you think. I found a local grocery store and purchased a few breakfast items (juice, croissants, fruit) and some things to cook for a light lunch or dinner. I actually enjoyed grocery shopping in Brussels and Paris, it made my travel experience that much more authentic and memorable.
- I used local transportation instead of taxis
Rather than taking expensive taxis, I used local transportation to get where I needed to go. Both Brussels and Paris have extremely reliable and inexpensive transportation systems. Before leaving I downloaded the Brussels and Paris metro apps and researched info on fares. At only €2,10 per ride for the Brussels metro and €1,90 per ride in Paris, this was a no-brainer. I saved even more money on the Paris metro by purchasing a carnet (stack) of 10 tickets for €14,50. Carnet’s can be purchased from vending machines near the turnstiles in Metro stations. Yes, it was a little intimidating to ride the train in a brand new city (at first), but I survived and besides, it all apart of the adventure!
- I took advantage of free walking tours
Do some research to see if free walking tours are available at your destination. Walking tours are a great, inexpensive way to get familiar with your destination and make new friends all while being guided by locals who love their city! Walking tours, while technically free, operate on a tips-based model, which allows you to support and reward high quality tours. I took 5 tours during my time in Europe with companies like Sandeman’s, Viva’s Free Tours and FreeTour and paid between 6-10 euros for each tour. Compared to pricier tours I saw on Trip Advisor (upwards of 50 euros for each tour), this was a great deal.
- I used offline maps to avoid roaming charges
After returning from Lisbon last year, AT&T hit me with a $300 bill (and this was WITH an international plan) – mostly due to my use of roaming with Google Maps. On this trip, I used Maps.me, an offline mapping app which allowed me to get around without having to roam. It also helped to save destinations in the app in advance, like my AirBnb address and places I knew I’d be visiting (ex. Eiffel Tower) so I could pull them up easily in the app once I arrived.
- I researched free and low cost things to see and do
Research your destination in advance to discover all of the free and low cost things there are to see and do! I found this great article on Pinterest with a list of 25 free things to do in Paris and it was spot on. Thanks to the article, one of the most memorable experiences of my trip was an early morning breakfast where I enjoyed a warm, buttery Parisan pastry on a park bench at the tranquil Jardin du Luxembourg (Luxembourg Gardens). Absolutely beautiful and completely free.