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Dear Savvy Traveller: What are some of the affordable cities to visit in Europe?

-Virginia Thatcher

Dear Virginia,

One of my two greatest missions in travel is to help people realize that it does not have to be expensive.  The other is to convince them that travel isn’t scary/confusing/difficult, but that’s a story for another time. For now, I just want to thank you for recognizing that the amount we spend while travelling is a decision, and there are ways to do it without needing a well-stocked vacation fund. Too many people immediately disregard travel as an option because they live on a tight budget, and they’re depriving themselves of an entire world unnecessarily. Thanks for giving me the chance to highlight some ways to see the world for less.

From picturesque seaside towns to bustling capitals, there are a surprising number of affordable cities in Europe—but before I get to the list of my favorite suggestions, I want to take this chance to help others, and you, better understand ways to make any city cheaper.

Your largest expense for any trip is typically airfare, and there are plenty of searchable hacks that may or may not help you snag cheaper rates.

This tactic almost always works in for Europe, though: Fly into the cheapest point of entry in the continent and take a budget airline to your goal city. Google Flights will show you a map of Europe at a glance so you can quickly identify the cheapest flight, and then you can find flights as cheap as $10-$50 between that entry point and your target destination. I once booked more than 25 flights for under $2,000 USD, and that included two transatlantic flights!

Budget airlines within Europe are cheaper than trains, and some budget airlines are even flying from North America to select European cities now, so take advantage of this combo and you’ll save buckets on airfare alone.

Accommodation is often your next most expensive commitment. If you’re adventurous and looking to make fascinating new friends, make a profile on Couchsurfing.com and stay with someone for free. It’s safe, a lot more fun than a hotel, and comes with insider knowledge you can’t get elsewhere. More to come on this in the future, but for now suffice it to say that this is a stellar option, and cuts your accommodation budget to $0.

If you just can’t bring yourself to do it (after researching it to dispel your misconceptions), I suggest Airbnb over hotels. For lower cost, you’ll generally get more space, more comfort, possibly some bonus amenities depending on the generosity of your host, and access to a kitchen, which is another major savings opportunity.

The more meals you can cook yourself, the lower your food budget will be and you’ll have a chance to cook with fresh, local ingredients.

Before you go, spend ten minutes online researching whether or not your city is walkable. If it is, walk. You’ll see more, you’ll burn off all those vacation calories (admit it: You eat more when you’re travelling), and it’s free.

If it’s a more sprawling city and you’ll be hopping on and off trams, buses and metros constantly, invest in an unlimited transit card offered by many cities. The upfront cost may seem steep, but calculate how many individual trips that’s worth and you’ll quickly see that if you use it even a few times daily, you’ve saved money and travelled much greater distances.

In many cities (especially in Scandinavia, where transportation is not cheap), these are available at airports and major train stations, so you’ll want to know where to grab these before you arrive. These are especially useful for avoiding otherwise complicated fares structures, which can vary dramatically from city to city. Unlimited passes usually cover you regardless of rules and escalating fares for various zones—a beast you don’t want to tackle.

Cutting back on these major budget components will make any destination cheaper than you likely anticipated, and there are a host of other tips and hacks that continue to bring travel expenses lower and lower, but you did ask me a specific question, Virginia, and now I’m going to answer it.

My five recommendations for worthwhile European cities that are unbelievably affordable, even if you ignore all of my above advice, are:

  1. Bucharest, Romania: Everything in this city is insanely inexpensive, but most of the major attractions—from spectacular parks and the world’s largest parliament building to the fascinating outdoor Village Museum—are either free or close to it.
  2. Budapest, Hungary: Life is all around cheap here, but this also is a great spot to take advantage of awesome thermal spas at low cost.
  3. Krakow, Poland: It may not stay so cheap for long as it continues to grow in popularity, but for now, this remains a cultural city worth seeing on a dime.
  4. Split, Croatia: Not a lot of seaside towns top the charts of affordable European getaways, so take advantage of Split’s spectacular setting at bargain basement pricing.
  5. Valletta, Malta: Odds are you haven’t even heard of this, the smallest capital in the EU, but the whole town is a UNESCO World Heritage site, and the cost of visiting here is hardly noticeable, so check it out.

And if you were hoping to hit a more major-league city with a minor-league budget, head to one of these well-known cities that won’t break the bank: Berlin, Germany; Istanbul, Turkey; Lisbon, Portugal; Madrid, Spain; and Naples, Italy.

For Brandon’s tips on how to couchsurf safely, click here!