Since arriving in Europe in mid-May, I have traveled just over 16,000 kms, visited ten countries and stayed in some thirty-odd cities, some more than once. The following gives not only some of the costs broken out in terms of travel, lodging, food and “other” (the odd piece of clothing or added unexpected expense) but some of the other “issues” to be considered by anyone who might consider a similar journey. The overall goal was to keep the costs at roughly 150 Euros or $200 per day to try to maintain a reasonable budget for such a trip. In the end it is more than just costs that determine what is or is not a successful venture in traveling to Europe or elsewhere for that matter.
Getting Around: Europe is renown for its public transportation with excellent metros, buses and subways within the large cities and excellent trains and buses between them. For various reasons I choose to lease a car, rather than either buy one to return to the US at the end of my travel or to use trains and other public transport to get around. I decided against the later primarily because of wanting the flexibility of having a car to make last minute changes in my itinerary as well as the convenience in terms of moving myself and luggage from one end of Europe to another. I wasn’t going as a young backpacker and the thought of schlepping several large luggage bags, including art supplies, around train or bus stations simply did not appeal. In hindsight I think it was a good decision overall despite the one or two times when finding parking in medieval European cities proved challenging.
In the case of buying a car, there are special programs available from certain European auto companies, such Volvo in Sweden where you can get free airfare to Sweden, take delivery, drive the car for several months and then have it shipped for free to the US. While tempting I was not interested in owning a Volvo in the US. Other models I explored (BMW, Mercedes, Volkswagen and Peugeot) didn’t have any special programs for sale and export and/or could not deliver a car in time to meet my travel dates. As such I decided to lease a car for the time I expected to be in Europe (up to six months) and return it when I left. Peugeot Open Europe was my company of choice (Fiat, Mercedes, BMW also have similar programs) and I was able to get a brand new Peugeot 308, diesel, standard shift car for roughly 22 Euros per day, including insurance and delivery fees (there are no delivery fees if the car is taken and/or returned in France). I picked it up at Frankfurt and will drop it off in Milan but other sites throughout Europe are available.
One reason for selecting a diesel versus a regular gas motor was the cost of gasoline or petrol in Europe. Gas at the pump varied from a low of 1.39 Euros/liter (~$7.22/gal) in southern Sweden to 1.75 Euros/liter (~$9.10/gal) in Italy. Diesel costs about 10% percent less per liter (or gallon). In addition the new diesel motors get better mileage. In the case of my Peugeot I averaged about 42 miles per gallon depending on my driving conditions (autobahn at 90-100 mph or Italy limited to 70 mph or so. Over three months of driving my diesel leasing costs averaged about $23 per day. While tolls exist in most parts of Europe, some countries are more egregious than others in applying them to the public roads (actually many are privatized, especially in Southern Europe). France was the worse culprit where the average daily costs for tolls were roughly $16 per day during two and a half weeks of travel, followed by Spain and Italy. Tolls during this same period of travel overall cost almost as much as the fuel ($732 versus $790)!
Where to Stay–Lodging is always an interesting issue for travel and depends heavily on your priorities for costs, security, convenience and comfort levels. Traveling alone I have a higher (lower?) tolerance for what is an acceptable level of comfort and convenience with price often playing a major role in deciding where I have stayed. In my case I was also interested in learning more about the culture and people of a particular area than simply finding a place to hang my hat. As such when not staying with friends I used two methods for finding lodging—one, an international bread and breakfast organization, Airbnb (www.Airbnb.com) which specializes in matching an individual’s needs (a private room, an apartment, private bathroom, shared kitchen, etc) with willing hosts who can meet those needs in cities throughout Europe and much of the rest of the world. Unlike other travel related websites that can find you a hotel room or apartment, hosts with Airbnb have to agree to you staying with them since often you are talking about a room or accommodations that are part of their actual home. As such you put in your request and then have to wait (no longer than twenty-four hours) for the host to either accept or reject your bid. With time as you stay in one or more of these accommodations you get reviews that help other hosts to decide to accept (or not) future requests.
While this may be a turnoff for many it turned out to be a great way to meet a whole host of new friends and interesting people from the professional classical musician in Sweden to a Russian chemistry professor in Germany to a British couple running a kite surfing school in Southern Spain. The costs are considerably cheaper than a regular hotel ranging from 18 to 75 Euros per night depending on the city, room/apartment, etc. My best deal was a room in a country manor, on an elegant estate in Northern Germany for only 20 Euros.
My backup method for finding accommodations was Booking.com, much like other hotel websites but with reasonable costs for sometimes really good deals, especially in the larger cities or during the high tourists times when Airbnb was not available or acceptable. It was possible to get high rated or medium rated hotel rooms with little advanced notice at very reasonable or highly discounted rates. Depending on your tastes you can book anything from Marriott to Best Western or their equivalent with costs commensurate with their rating. These costs ranged from 40 Euros per night on the low side and 200 Euros (the Marriott in Nice) on the high side. Other than somewhat higher costs the other downside from my perspective was the rather sterile atmosphere that comes with the normal hotel experience, no matter where you are. Nonetheless having the known qualities of a name hotel often outweighs (and did on more than one occasion for me) the unknown qualities of a bread and breakfast room in a private home.
Food and Nourishment—without getting into the debate of which countries or cities have the best food or drink I will make a few general observations that may or may not find agreement with others’ experiences. From a purely monetary point of view I found it was possible to spend approximately 35 Euros, generally on two meals, maybe three, per day. Often the hotel or room would come with a continental breakfast so one of the meals was included in the lodging costs. One of my hosts not only included me in their Sunday beach day picnic but made a special home cooked paella on my last day with them!
Obviously, on a given day or with a given meal I could and did spend considerably more (75 Euros in a small restaurant in Gotenberg, Sweden specializing in Spanish cuisine which had Don Julio tequila for 12 Euros a shot!). Spending more in Europe is not a problem! However, it is possible to keep food costs reasonable without giving up the truly wonderful food and beverage tastes for which Europe is renowned. A few commentaries—I don’t know who came up with the idea that Europeans are far more fit and leaner than Americans because they generally have smaller portions of food served at their restaurants. From my own experience it simply isn’t the case. Most European menus offer a “first plate” and a “second plate”—in Italy it can be as many as eight plates (!). Only one is generally needed. Even if it is a “small” salad it usually will be more than sufficient for even the most hearty of appetites. On those occasions when I had a dining companion I would share two if not just one plate, preferring to get an extra glass of the house red or white wine rather than more food.
Good beer and wine are plentiful throughout Europe with Germany and northern Europe being best known for their hearty beers, including some of their fruity “peach” beers and France and the more southern climes known for their fine wines, including bordeauxs and merlos from St. Emilion or Chiantis from Tuscany. Generally, you can find a decent beer or wine for as little as one or two Euros, a good bottle of house red in France or Italy for under 10 Euros a bottle. Again you can spend more but it isn’t necessary to enjoy the wonderful flavors of these countries. One exception is Norway. By and large it is one of the most expensive countries in Europe to drink any alcoholic beverage. A Heineken beer from Denmark will cost no less than 8 Euros ($10) ; interestingly, Corona imported from Mexico was only about 6 Euros a bottle. When I asked my hosts why they simply shrugged and said “the government doesn’t want us to drink” (!). Fortunately, Norway has many other attributes than its food and drink laws to attract visitor.
In summary I was able to meet my overall goal of roughly 150 Euros per day. My calculations, including extraneous costs for an occasional fine for parking, or a “must have” souvenir hunting knife from Norway, came to 145 Euros/day not including the costs of the car lease and 166 Euros, including the car. For me the costs were only a small part of my overall calculus for making such a trip. As the old American Express commercial put it: cost to visit Europe: $215 a day; value: priceless!—Paul Maxwell
Paul Maxwell is on extended sabbatical and periodically reports on his observations across various borders.