How did we plan our first trip to Europe - in Budget!



Finally, I got some time and sat down to write what I have been procrastinating for long - a mega-post about all you need to know to plan your first vacation in Europe or anywhere abroad, especially when the dream "abroad" destinations are expensive, far and not somewhere you can keep visiting every now and then. We did a lot of research, on some hundred sites/blogs for hotels, trips, and itinerary while planning our first Euro-trip. I want this article (and the Part2 with more budget hacks for Euro Trip since it was getting too long) to serve as a one-stop DIY guide for backpacking in Europe. But before that a quick background-story as usual. (travel stories, remember? 😊)

Taking up a low-travel desk job and not settling abroad was a conscious decision that my husband and I took so that we could visit our parents (or have them visit us) as often as possible. However, I'd be lying if I say that I never envied the friends working abroad posting #wanderlust photos of Grand Canyon and  Niagara falls every other week while we couldn't even make time for Goa. The Europe trip was our first ever "vacation" together - in the sense, the first paid leave we both took not to visit our parents in Kolkata but to go and see the world. Before this our travel plans were limited to nearby escapades on extended weekends- Coorg, Wayanad, Ooty just to name a few (not to undermine the exceptional beauty of the Indian Ghats a bit). We planned our Euro-trip for almost a year and finally came up with a fully packed 15-day itinerary covering 6 cities with the complete estimate of what the middle-class me was most worried about - Budget! Here's an account of how we did it.


WHEN AND WHERE

The two most important questions to answer in any vacation planning- when and where? Since both of us work, and are fairly frequent at switching jobs, getting leaves at a common time is crucial. Another important factor for tropical people who are used to mufflers and monkey caps at 15 degrees, is the weather. The third factor is, of course, the availability and price of flights. Each of these factors conflict with each other - for most of us working in US-based companies December is the easiest time to get vacations sanctioned but we don't want to risk bronchitis on our long-planned holiday; again summer would be perfect, but it is also the peak season with airfares soaring high.
We finally decided on Spring, the season of blossoms in April and May. Now that we had decided on the season, the choice of one place was simple - Holland, the land of tulips. We booked a round-trip flight from Bangalore to Amsterdam for Rs. 38000 (€477) per person on a Friday night through a  MakeMyTrip offer - a great deal in the season I'd say. Read more about our Holland trip

#Tip 1: Always book air tickets well in advance and make sure you compare sites like MakeMyTrip, ClearTrip, Expedia, and Skyscanner
The second question that comes in where else? The answer to this question depends on the first question we answered - When? It also depends on your budget, your travel intent (slow travel, backpacking, tourist-ing, or a mix of both) and the number of places you want to visit.

Covering like 10 cities in 15 days can be a tempting idea, but it's silly. It just makes the tour more expensive and gives you no time to explore anything properly. Now when you have just 15 days there are two ways to go about planning- get your bucket list and tick the top places you always wanted to see, or just choose the one indispensable place and then find the places that can be covered in succession from there. Going by the second method this is what we planned :

Amsterdam --> Antwerp-->Bruges-->Paris--> Barcelona --> Madrid

Well, that was my dream trip so I would call it the best plan in the worldπŸ˜‰, but here are some other itinerary ideas for you:

If you want (or dare) to visit in the colder months of October to March, you would not want to miss the sighting of Northern lights, in which case you should include Norway or Iceland in your plan although they are quite expensive. Slow-travel backpackers love Italy for its diverse landscapes and Scotland (not covered in Schengen Visa but in UK Visa) to hike in the forests and explore the castles.
If you go by cost of living, the cities we selected are just below the creamy layer of Nordic countries and Switzerland (which is another itinerary if you are willing to splurge - an all Scandinavian trip, or just insert Switzerland somewhere in your itinerary). During the Tulip festival, who knows Amsterdam is perhaps as expensive as Sweden (not sure, just guessing). If you are on a slightly tighter budget than ours (Rs.3 lakhs for two), I'd suggest replacing some of the cities above with Vienna (Austria), Prague or Salzburg (Czech Republic), Warsaw (Poland), Budapest (Hungary).
Quick fact- Budapest also hosts a beautiful Tulip festival in Spring, a cheaper alternative to Keukenhof (which is the world's largest and most acknowledged tulip garden) 😊

Keukenhof Gardens, Holland
The centerpiece of our Euro planning - Holland's tulip festival

HOW LONG IN EACH CITY
Based on the points of interest and weather forecast, we decided to keep seven days for Spain- the joyous country in the Iberian peninsula known for great food and warm weather. We stayed three days in Amsterdam, one day at Antwerp, one day at De Haan, three days in Paris, four days in Barcelona and three days in Madrid from where we returned to Bangalore via Amsterdam.
The choice of 1 day each at Antwerp and De Haan may surprise many. Most of you may have heard of the world's diamond capital Antwerp but may have never heard of this place called De Haan in Belgium. We decided to stay 1 night at Antwerp because it would be on our way to Bruges and the arrival time at the stop would be ideal. Hence the slightly off-beat stopover at Antwerp, a historically significant city where we did a self-guided walking tour. The next stop was supposed to be Bruges - Europe's cultural capital as it is known to be; but how we ended up spending a night at the countryside of De Haan instead, is a story better saved for another day.

ACCOMMODATION

IBIS Budget City South, Amsterdam
Just reached our first hotel- IBIS budget, Amsterdam
This is where you are just spoilt for choices- there is a large number of youth hostels, hotels, Airbnb homes, hotels, and resorts everywhere in Europe- you just need to choose based on your priorities. Most budget travelers like us go for hostels located in the city center, which are affordable, has good living conditions and are usually located within walking distance from most important places. However, in most top rated hostels in the city center, the single rooms are pretty expensive, more than some budget hotels, so people usually go for dorms. Common dorms are a great option for budget stays but have few inherent cons that you should be aware of-
a. lack of privacy and peaceful sleep, with people going out or coming in the room throughout the day (and night); b. accessibility of common restrooms
If you are a seasoned solo traveler, these are nothing compared to the joy of meeting people and making new friends on the go, but if you are not used to it, you may consider a budget hotel. We researched online on all the well-known travel sites and found that a budget IBIS hotel costs around Rs. 5000- Rs.6000 (€60-€75)per night including breakfast in peak season, which is the same as any standard dorm arrangement would cost the two of us.

#Tip 2: For friends traveling in groups Airbnb is a great option to explore apart from the hostels, but for couples or family, budget hotels come at the same price with more convenience. 
Also,
#Tip 3: Do your due diligence while booking hotels. Compare prices on AgodaBooking.com etc. and also check on individual hotel websites for better information
And one thing I'm lucky we didn't do and you should avoid too-
#Tip 4: Hotels near the airport are cheap but avoid them since these are mostly far away from the city center and the transport to and from the hotel is often not covered under the travel cards

Except for Antwerp, we stayed in IBIS hotels in all other cities - IBIS budget and IBIS style. My review of their hotel rooms, hospitality and breakfast are pretty good for all- the budget rooms are very minimalist but are 100/100 in terms of maintenance and cleanliness. Detailed review.

GETTING VISA

I found the visa process for Europe fairly simple and hassle-free. You can get your visas from any embassy of any country in Europe, provided the country is included in your itinerary. We got our visa from the French Embassy in Bangalore with no assistance at all. Just go to the website, fill in the form carefully, book an appointment, have your documents ready and appear at the office on time for verification! If you make any mistake in the form, you will not be able to edit it once confirmed and will have to fill in a new form all over again. No money is deducted for refilling, but just a small hiccup in the process. On weekdays if you don't book a priority slot with extra money, you'd need to take a leave, because, from the crowd that I saw, it would easily take 4-5 hours. We booked a slot on Saturday morning (after we returned from the weekday slot) and the entire process took 30-40 minutes. We got the visa within five days.

TRAVEL & SIGHTSEEING

Travel-cards and city-passes are great tools to save both time and money in the expensive west European cities. Since most hotels we booked were away from the crowded tourist destinations, it was important to save on the frequent intra-city transportation we had to take. We booked the Iamsterdam card, the Paris Pass, and the Barcelona card online after much research and price comparison. For Madrid, we bought a transport card from the railway station, which gave us free access to the public transport network in Madrid. Read a detailed review of the cards and how we made each penny count.
Beautiful trams at Amsterdam

#Tip 5: Take comfortable shoes and be ready to walk an average of 10 km a day

No matter how good the public transport is, you can't avoid walking if you really want to explore the city. In fact, walking is actually fun in the European weather, on the clean cobbled streets, the picturesque bridges of Antwerp and DeHaan where we stayed for one night each, we just explored the entire place on foot. We loved riding the open hooded hop-on-hop-off bus for a guided tour of the city and all places of interest at Paris and Barcelona. We got one day tour on Hop-on hop-off for free with the Paris pass, while for Barcelona, we bought it at a discounted price for two days using our Barcelona card. Personally, I feel these audio guided tours of the city on open-hooded bus or cruises are a great way of exploring beautiful cities with rich cultural history - it feels like literally walking into the world of a NatGeo documentary of the place. In Amsterdam, I'd recommend the hop-on-hop-off canal cruises though for a similar experience, because canals are such an integral part of the city. We took a 1-hour audio-guided canal cruise at Amsterdam which had the same outlandish NatGeo type of experience, except the flexibility to hop off and hop on whenever you want to πŸ˜ƒ The other popular way to explore cities is by taking free guided walking tours, wherein the end of the trip you might be expected to pay a tip. We mostly could guide ourselves through all the major cities with the help of maps except on a day-trip to Toledo, for which we booked a package with bus-transfer + walking tour. It was amazing and I'm glad that we booked that😊

If you love cycling Europe is the place to be. All the cities we visited had special lanes for cyclists, including the small coastal town of DeHaan. The government here encourages cycling as the primary mode of transport which works really well for the Europeans - clean air, great figure. You can rent bikes (that's what they call bicycles) at low cost and explore the cities and countryside of Europe. I am not sure if the same is true for Eastern Europe, so if you have visited any of those countries please educate me in the comments section. I just wish, we had such cycle lanes in Indian cities, and we could see more of those "bikes" than the motorbikes here.

For transport between cities, we used a combination of all possible means based on budget, timing, and place of departure. We booked Flix bus from Amsterdam to Antwerp, and from Bruges station to Paris. This private bus transport network is amazing in terms of comfortable seating, large leg space, timeliness, and speed. We flew from Paris to Barcelona on economy flight Air France - you can call it the French Indigo 😜 except that they offered one complimentary soft drink. If you have time and love to see the countryside settings you can take the Euro rail, but using flight we saved at least six hours. We got our first class Euro rail experience when we traveled from Barcelona to Madrid.
#Tip 6: Plan and book intercity transport in advance, online - saves you your precious time and the stress of booking last minute tickets at the kiosk. If lucky, it can save you lot of money as well- we got our first class ticket at a price lower than the normal second class 😁
Tourist pass review in part 2

PACKING

No matter what season you choose to go to Europe carry some warm clothes and a rain-jacket or umbrella. Pack those shorts and florals for great photos at the backdrop of gardens and monuments and the blue sea, but always carry a jacket wherever you go. If you plan to stay in just one or two cities and take day trips, you can get a big rucksack as a literal backpacker. However, if you want to travel to multiple places, I'd recommend packing the majority of your belongings in a trolley suitcase, and carry only the bare essentials like a water-bottle, a scarf, a jacket and your passports in a handbag or small backpack. The roads were great so we never had a problem dragging along the trolleys from one city to another, rucksacks would have caused severe back-pain given the long distances we had to walk during these transfers.

Checklist of must-haves (Scroll down for discount coupons from my favorite budget and mid-range brands)
- Europe compatible adapter for charging

- Raincoat/umbrella/hooded windcheater

- Light woolens, thermals, stockings, and scarf for the cold

- A good Moisturizer or cold cream to combat the dry weather

- Comfy shoes

- A sim-card with sufficient internet for GPS on the go- all hotels and hostels, even major stations and city centers have free wifi, but when traveling on your own, using public transport in foreign countries with foreign languages, I think it is imprudent to depend entirely on WiFi

- Melinda listed some great apps that can be your best friend during Euro-trip. But you definitely need that sim-card with internet for accessing all that.

Good to have in this season - sunscreen, shades, cap, leather jackets, a chic hat

Europeans have a great dressing sense, so even the fashion unconscious girl like me wanted to look a tad-bit fashionable. Well, it was not possible with those light jackets I packed, which necessitated wearing all my layers one on top of the other when I caught a cold. (See below :( )
Wearing both the jackets I carried - full outfit courtesy Myntra

My Myntra Look
Couldn't help this hashtag - #mymyntralook

CASH vs CARD


We exchanged €600 for cash before we left for the vacation. Love digitization, but cash is still the most widely accepted form of money even in the developed world, so do get sufficient cash through online booking, instead of waiting till the airport. The cash card has a lower exchange rate usually but we were afraid of its acceptance. We rarely used credit cards, but when we did the interchange fees charged was way higher than the cash exchange rate.

Total amount we spent was little over Rs.3 lakhs for two, which is Rs.1.5 lakhs (€1850) per person - this includes flight, stay, sightseeing, inter-city travel, museums, day-trips outside the cities, special experiences like  Tulip festival in Amsterdam, entry to Barcelona FC stadium (the most expensive of all which you can't avoid if you have a  football-obsessed husband) and a lot more. Yes, the "little over" part could easily be avoided if you follow all the tips in this series. Read what we did on our Europe trip for a more detailed cost-benefit analysis so you can make an informed decision on what you want to do and where you want to cut your expenses.

If you are thinking of saving for a long vacation and struggling to do so, here's an inspiring post for you- how Laura saved over £12,000 in 12 months to sponsor her travel around the world! Isn't that inspiring? 
Pin it for future reference

 



So here's my Europe travel planning story - was it any helpful? Anything I missed or could have done better? What was your travel story? If you have any questions, or suggestions for improving the blog please write in the comment section. πŸ˜ŠπŸ˜Š

In Part 2  I've included free tips on how to make the best use of your travel cards along with details of how e executed our Europe plan. Thank me later :)

Special discount coupons from brands

Bata - Shoes and leather accessories
- 20% off on purchase above Rs.1499
Up to 20% off on footwear
- Up to 30% off on footwear

Subscribe to our newsletter to receive new travel stories every weekend and more discount vouchers to be mailed to you directly.

Comments

  1. Great tips! Warm layers are always important in Europe! In some places, it gets chilly quick once the sun goes down!

    ReplyDelete
  2. So awesome that you made it and experienced the best out of Europe. I would do a trip sometime in future I just dunno when. I will certainly take tips from your blog.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Inspiring post, this would definitely be a one stop destinstion for people planning to Europe. Informative one.

    ReplyDelete
  4. I've never been to the cities you went to on your trip - but I love your advice and appreciate you explaining why you chose to stay in Antwerp for just a day.

    ReplyDelete
  5. I'm returning to India after two years in the US for pretty much the same reasons except that I've to find a job once I'm home. Thanks for the guide! We'll possibly plan a Eurotrip in the near future and I'll bookmark this post. What was your budget for the trip?

    ReplyDelete
  6. Those are amazing tips to plan a trip to Europe. There is so much to see and all the tips you have shared about being budget friendly will definitely help us. Thanks.

    ReplyDelete
  7. That's amazing. These are great tips I can use this for my trip next year!

    ReplyDelete
  8. Your story seems to be relatable. We are also longing to explore Europe. Your post will help us in our exploration for sure. Thanks for sharing your story.

    ReplyDelete
  9. Great budget tips for Europe trip. Hope we get to enjoy like you, within the budget.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. You will surely enjoy your trip.Glad to be of help

      Delete
  10. You have such amazing tips! And since I anyway want to visit Budapest and Austria, hopefully it should be a tad cheaper for me.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. True. Both the places are fascinating and cheaper than the ones I visited this time

      Delete

Post a Comment

Thanks for your time. Glad to know what you think about it




MeTripping - Intelligent Travel Search