Vagabonds can still see Europe on the cheap

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 Skyscanner.com. 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 Hostelworld.com.

Another way to sleep inexpensively is to rent a bed in someone’s home. Airbnb.com 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 (www.ricksteves.com) writes European travel guidebooks and hosts travel shows on public television and public radio. Email rick@ricksteves.com, or write to him c/o P.O. Box 2009, Edmonds, WA 98020.

© 2013 Rick Steves/Tribune Media Services, Inc.

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