Just two short days ago I finally purchased plane tickets for my first trip over seas. For as long as I can remember I have wanted to explore Europe, but it never seemed possible for me to travel there. I was always too busy with school or hockey—not to mention low on funds—but last month when I started to seriously look into booking a trip I realized that I was simply finding ways to tell myself no. So I got to researching, and number crunching, and most importantly saving, and I found a way to make my dream a reality.
Upon announcing my plans, I received a mixed bag of reactions. My mother was worried about me venturing to a part of the world that has experienced a lot of negative press lately (read: terrorist attacks). I argued that it was happening everywhere, which in and of itself is a scary reality to grasp, but that I couldn’t allow myself to live in constant fear. If I were to do so, I would never leave my house! A lot of my family members were excited, or jealous, but they all were unsure how I was going to be able to afford it. I work an entry level job, and Europe isn’t cheap. When I first began my research I figured that out rather quickly.
But I also figured out that there are ways to make it work. Just like with anything in life, if you want it bad enough you are going to have to make sacrifices. I made a budget, I mapped out a savings plan, I have eliminated a lot of “extras” from my life over the next few months in order to do so, but the numbers are all there. I can do it, and so can you!
Cefalù (Sicily) source
Pick your location
Whether it be an extended stay in one country, or a multi country adventure like I have planned, you must first decide where you are looking to explore. This may seem like a no brainer, but it plays the most pivotal part in your planning and budgeting. Some countries use the Euro while others like England use their own currency, which is important when computing the exchange rates. There are also parts of Europe that are notoriously more expensive than others. Take Norway for example. When researching the country I found that their hotel rates, transportation fees and food were much more expensive than say that of Denmark.
If it turns out you are interested in visiting a more expensive country, then this will determine how big your budget will need to be, along with how and where to save money.
Create a Budget
When I first set out in creating my budget I stretched it as far as I could before looking for areas to cut back on. By doing this I gave myself a realistic goal to meet. The best way to map out your budget is on a spread sheet like those found on Google Sheets. I am traveling with a friend so we can both add to the document and share with one another in the months leading up to our trip.
For my trip we put together two charts side by side. One represented our estimated budget, while the other we filled in finalized costs. We created a rough budget for flights, hotel, transportation, food, and entertainment. We also wrote down how many days we would need to budget for, the conversation rate for each country, and what our cost differential would be between our estimated and actual budgets. This proved to not only be incredibly helpful but also eye opening. There were so many smaller details that we hadn’t originally factored in like the cost of trains, cars from the airport, and ferry rides. With all of our information formulated in front of us, we set about finding rates that were lower or on par with our projected costs. This made sticking to a budget much easier!
There isn’t a perfect formula for booking flights and scoring the best deals, but we did learn that there is a lot of research involved in finding the best ones. When booking a trip to Europe from the U.S. you must determine first how you wish to get ahead of the jet lag that will undoubtedly ensue upon arrival in your destination. If you are someone who has no trouble sleeping on planes, then I suggest taking an overnight flight (this is what we went with). If you are not blessed with the ability to pass out anywhere, then taking a day flight may be best. It is significantly less expensive to travel on a week day, and since we are flying out at night, I get a full day of work in before I leave.
We booked our flights over 6 months in advance, and scheduled our trip for shoulder season. This also helped to keep costs down, but when we began our search we made sure to exhaust all avenues. We compared flights out of different airports, connecting flights, booking multiple one way flights as opposed to round trip…all of which were very eye opening but also helped us to find the lowest rates. One of the best discoveries we made and took advantage of was Icelandair’s stopover option, in which you can spend 10 hours or multiple nights exploring Iceland before connecting on your flight to Europe. Not only was the opportunity to discover Iceland hard to pass up, but taking a connecting flight and adding on 10 hours to our trip actually saved us money. This is a great option if you are looking to do the same.
Finding a Hotel
Once you’ve figured out how to get there, you must find a place to stay that fits the bill for your ideal location and budget. Are you willing to spend some money paying for transportation from the airport or do you wish to stay close by to it? Is there a location that is central to all of the tourist attractions you wish to see on your stay? How does it fit into the budget you have planned?
When staying in a larger city there are far more options for you, but that means more research. Sure, there is the option of staying in a hostel but for my trip my friend and I wanted to stay in a hotel. This meant scouting an ideal location, and trying to find the best rates. We made a list of 15, and began to cut it down to 5. If some rates were a little bit higher but included free breakfast we took it into consideration. We also checked for offers like 3 nights for the cost of 2 and staying in more than one place during our visit. If feeling safe and comfortable while on your trip is one of your top priorities then make sure your budget will accommodate for you!
Create a Realistic Itinerary
The last thing you want to do is book all of these tourist attractions in advance and find that you don’t have the time or the money to do all of them. If you are centralized in one city but want to visit a landmark or tourist attraction that is further outside consider your timeline and itinerary before committing to it. I went into this trip with a rather long list of attractions I wished to see but once I discovered how long it would take to get to some of these locations, along with the additional costs of train or bus fares, I simply did not have enough time to do them all.
That being said, there will be a few key points and locations that will serve as your must sees. These should be at the top of your itinerary, and the days should be built around them! Are there any that naturally group together in terms of location? Are there tours that cover more than one of these attractions for you to take? Consider all of these points before spreading them out or booking them individually. The other great thing about travel is just taking the time to explore freely. We set aside a day to wonder and have no concrete plans. Sometimes those are the best days!
Okay so you have a location, a whole list of activities to check off your list and a place to stay while there. It is time to make your savings plan and stick to it. Everyone’s budgets and salaries will be different than mine, but the key is to make sure it is achievable. Don’t be stretching your budget so far that there are days you skip meals, just make it realistic. When we realized the rough estimate of costs we made sure we had enough time between now and then to save up that much. If you can pay for your trip upfront instead of putting it all on a credit card and paying it off afterwards, I think that’s a smart move.
I once again used a spread sheet and calculated how much money I needed to save, then broke it down into monthly and then weekly. I also created a separate savings account where the money I need to save on a weekly basis goes directly into the account so that I cannot touch it. Out of sight, out of mind as they say. If I find that I have any additional money left over some weeks, I put that towards paying off my flights that I booked on my credit card, or throw it into the savings account as well.
Creating this budgeting and savings system has proven extremely helpful but most importantly I have realized that you can budget for anything if it is a true priority. A little money put aside each week and month can go a long way over time, and whether it be for travel, a new car or even a down payment on a house, creating a budget and mapping it out like this is both rewarding an effective. Cut back on the things you want but don’t need in order to achieve the goals you have always wanted but never thought were possible.