Vagabonds can still see Europe on the cheap

  • By Rick Steves
  • Friday, May 24, 2013 3:41pm
  • Life

When I was 18, I wrote a postcard to my grandmother from Austria, describing how I slept for free on the porch of a hostel in Innsbruck. While I wouldn’t do that now, it’s fun to reminisce about my backpacking days.

Back then, bars were inundated with smoke, currency changes were required after each border crossing, and it took about nine hours to travel from London to Paris.

Yet despite the changes, the adventure and thrills of good, old-fashioned vagabonding survive.

One of the most amazing changes over the past decade is the speed and ease with which you can get around. In my 20s, I traveled around Europe on a two-month Eurail pass that cost about $200. I slept on trains as much as I could to save time and money.

But fast and cheap transportation options — especially the proliferation of discount airlines such as Ryanair and EasyJet — have changed the way budget travelers can see Europe.

My first stop when seeking cheap flights is This no-frills website provides a fast way to determine which European budget airlines serve the route you’re eyeing.

Although flights may look cheap at first glance, it’s important to factor in the extra costs, such as the price for getting to and from the airport. Also they look for other ways to pad their profits, such as charging for food and drink, priority boarding, seat reservations, checking bags and checking in at the airport (instead of online).

With a little planning, a few sacrifices, and light packing, travelers can avoid most of these costs.

One mode of transportation I advise backpackers to steer clear of is a car. The daily fee may be low, but the extras, such as tolls, gas and parking, make it far more expensive than it seems. Also, Europe is dotted with automatic speed guns and cameras that will issue a ticket and track you down even across the pond.

When it comes to economical accommodations, hostels are still some of the cheapest beds in town. But while being a member of the Hostelling International network used to be the mark of a respectable hostel, that’s no longer the case.

Most independent hostels have just as high standards, and they are often more interesting and fun. The best way to find hostels these days is through

Another way to sleep inexpensively is to rent a bed in someone’s home. is a great way to find such accommodations. You can read reviews, and it’s also relatively safe, as cash never trades hands (payment is handled via the website).

During my early trips, travelers would gather at AmExCo offices. Today, even cybercafes are becoming dated, as most young travelers carry smartphones, tablets or laptops, and connect to Wi-Fi in either cafes or hostels.

Cellphones are cheap and easy to buy, even for a short trip.

But the best deal is to make phone calls via the Internet. If both parties have iPhones and access to Wi-Fi, you can enjoy a FaceTime connection. Otherwise, Skype is a good and inexpensive standby.

Free walking tours are other money savers. Guides work solely on tips (and they make sure to remind you of that). At first I wasn’t hot on these “free” tours, as guides are known to take some liberties with historical events and characters. But they’re still an enjoyable and affordable way to get to know a place.

Rick Steves ( writes European travel guidebooks and hosts travel shows on public television and public radio. Email, or write to him c/o P.O. Box 2009, Edmonds, WA 98020.

© 2013 Rick Steves/Tribune Media Services, Inc.

More in Life

Gardening tools: Experts help through hotline, drop-in clinics

The WSU Extention program is meant to help gardeners with their plant and pest problems.

Here’s how to add your plant sale to the Herald’s yearly guide

We’re taking listings now for our annual list of sales in April, May and June. Don’t forget yours.

Another sign of spring: Fun facts about the Pacific tree frog

This time of year, chorus frogs can be heard singing for a mate in evenings and mornings.

Great Plant Pick: Abies koreana, Korean fir

What: Aristocratic in appearance and slow growing, Abies koreana, commonly called Korean… Continue reading

Here are 7 locally made beers to try for this St. Patrick’s Day

Sound to Summit in Snohomish made one of the brews especially for Shawn O’Donnell’s restaurants.

Walla Walla nearly as famous for its grapes as for its wines

More than 130 wineries call the valley home, making it a destination for wine tourists.

The customer is king at Tabby’s Coffee in Everett library

Starbucks barista-turned-coffee shop owner Tabitha “Tabby” Tarter is big on customer service.

Here are 8 ways celebrate St. Patrick’s Day in Snohomish County

Local events include Shamrock concerts, leprechaun sightings and Celtic dancing, bagpipers and more.

Schack’s juried art show features 121 Northwest artists

The show’s two judges awarded Rick Holst with the grand prize for his U.S. map, a work titled “Avoca.”

Most Read