Once you’ve been through the ordeal of getting approval for a Schengen visa, it’s very tempting to wave your passport in the air with triumph and declare that you plan to visit all 26 countries in the Schengen zone. While I understand the idea of wanting to see as many countries as you can after submitting to pounds of flesh and a lock of hair from your firstborn, it’s not realistic or budget friendly.
I actually don’t consider Europe a particularly easy place to travel in.
It’s different from Pakistan or Uganda where- for a reasonable price- you can hire a local driver/guide and have them take care of your luggage, navigation and generally looking after you. The same level of care in a European country is not accessible for the budget conscious traveller. You have to figure out everything by yourself; it requires a lot of planning and research.
I don’t think myself any sort of expert in European travel BUT two Schengen visas later and I do think I have some advice to offer other travellers particularly ones who want to DIY their first Euro-trip but are overwhelmed. And unlike other bloggers, no annoying pop up is going to appear asking you to subscribe to my newsletter or purchase my e-book… all my information is going to be right here, 100% free for everyone to access.
Planning the trip
Where to start?
A good place to start is the country that granted you the Schengen visa. While it’s not mandatory to enter the country that issued the visa, it’s a good place to start to avoid unnecessary questioning at passport control. Based on where you start your trip will determine what other places/regions/countries you can visit.
Remember that Europe is a large continent and it’s not always cheap or quick to travel to all corners. Two search engines I find useful are Omio and Rome2Rio which help you to plot bus, train or plane journeys between countries. This will help you plan your journey and pick the transportation option that best suits you.
Using Google Maps, make the most of neighbouring countries. For example, Antwerp in Belgium is only a 1.5 hour train journey away from Amsterdam, Netherlands as opposed to a 9 hour train journey to Milan, Italy. If you have a strong desire to see a place and it’s far from where you start, research how you can break up a long journey by stopping and exploring places on the way.
Top tip: Flying might seem like the quicker option but that’s not always the case. With flying, you often have to give yourself enough time to go through security checks and then wait to be boarded. Whereas with a bus or train, you can show up and jump straight onto your train, no waiting around involved. Overnight buses and trains are often more comfortable than a plane (you can lie down) and you also save on a night of accommodation.
Plan as far in advance as you can
I do not recommend booking anything before you have your Schengen visa on hand. But, you can apply for the visa six months ahead of your proposed travel dates and the earlier you apply the better your chances are of getting reasonably priced accommodation and the train/plane tickets you want. If you’re travelling between June-September, be aware that its peak time in Europe and things will be booked out in advance.
I strongly recommend having all of your hotels and major transportation (travel between destinations) booked and ready to go. This dramatically cuts down on stress levels, makes it easier to budget and plan out your days, and generally helps your trip run more smoothly. Smaller things, like metro tickets for getting around cities, can be handled once you arrive.
Money saving tips
Many of us applying for the Schengen visa are coming from countries where the currencies are weak. This can mean a lot of budgeting to enjoy the quality of holiday you desire in such expensive destinations. While you don’t have any control over exchange rates, you do have some control over how you spend your money. Here are some of my top tips for budgeting:
Location, location, location
Not everyone wants to hear this but the more popular destinations are the more expensive ones. For example France is more expensive than Hungary, Ireland is more expensive than Slovakia and well… you get my drift. Start researching what accommodation and travelling around your destination will cost to have an idea of what to budget.
In my personal experience, it’s better to mix in some expensive places with some cost effective ones. This doesn’t have to mean different countries but can also mean mixing cities with smaller towns and/or villages.
As a general rule, the more North you go, the more expensive countries tend to be (think Scandinavia or Iceland) and the more East you go, things tend to be cheaper (think Poland or Bulgaria). Countries not using the Euro as their primary currency are ideal choices. Bulgaria, Czechia, Croatia, Romania, Poland , and Hungary are some wonderful options that you can use your Schengen visa to enter and tend to be less costly than their Western European neighbors.
Getting around places
While in many places I enjoy renting a car and driving myself, this is not the most economical or convenient thing to do in Europe. First of all, fuel is wildly expensive in many European countries and secondly, if you plan to stay within a city, most European cities are not car friendly with tiny roads and exorbitant parking costs.
It’s worth researching the best ways to get around by reading blog posts and using Google Maps. In most European countries, public transportation is your best bet (this was the case in Amsterdam for example) but in other places, taxi apps are affordable and convenient (like Bolt in Budapest). I had rented a car when I visited Ireland but in the major cities, I had to park it outside the city and take the bus or walk within the city to avoid spending major cash on parking. Many cities also have specific buses/trains from the airport directly to the city centre which are convenient for travellers. Check out what’s best for you, your preference and budget!
The grocery store is your friend
I know this sounds a bit strange but eating out in Europe can get pricey very quickly. A tip for saving money to visit the grocery stores wherever you are. European grocery stores often have extensive bakery and deli sections where you can buy sandwiches, salads and I even bought a delicious poke bowl at Monoprix in Luxembourg. You can purchase alcohol and coffee much cheaper than at restaurants as well. If you’re staying at a place that has a kitchen then you can even cook.
Wander away to find food
Something I read online has helped me to find good food in places; wandering away from the main tourist areas in places usually leads me to better restaurants. The closer a place is to a tourist site (for example, the Eiffel Tower or Colosseum), the more the place caters to tourists. They usually have photos of food on the menus and while this can be helpful, it usually means the place is far more expensive. I try to walk away from busy areas to find those family run places where I can avoid the noisy tour groups.
Top tip: Google Translate has an option to point your phone at text and have it translate it for you. While not perfect, it can be helpful if a place doesn’t have an English menu.
Always pay in the local currency
As of right now, the vast majority of places that I visited in Europe preferred for people to pay with their bank cards- foreign cards included. However, when you swipe your card, the card machine gives you the option to pay in your bank’s currency or in the local currency. It can seem like they are helping you save money when they say, “Oh, would you like to pay in local currency or your bank’s currency?. Paying in your bank’s currency would seem to be the more convenient option, but in reality, it’s not. In fact, it’s a total rip-off, since the stores that do this charge a higher exchange fee than your bank back home does. So, remember to always pay in the local currency of the country you’re in.
While getting the Schengen visa is an ordeal, if travelling to Europe is something you’re serious about, there are ways to make it cost effective while being enjoyable for you. Maximize your travel opportunity and take time to appreciate the hustle of Paris, the charm of Belgium villages and the quaintness of Budapest. Hike the alps, sip beer in Germany and island hop in Greece. Even if you’re staying in the same country, you’d be surprised at the difference in a city like Amsterdam compared to one like Rotterdam that’s just two hours away on the train… embrace it all and make sure you get your money’s worth for that Schengen Visa!
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What are you top do’s and don’ts for travelling to Europe? Let me know in the comments below!