“How do I budget for my Europe trip?”
I am in the business of planning personalized trips to Europe. I book every single component and design complicated itineraries. One thing I can tell you is that no two trips are exactly the same—at least not if I’m planning them! “How much does a trip to Europe cost?” is a question I am frequently asked by clients and friends alike. I am a direct person, but I always find it tough to give people a straight answer. If I don’t know what’s important to you, how can I offer an estimate of how much you’ll spend?
The truth is, a Europe trip can be done in many different ways. You can go in like a high roller and spend a small fortune. Or, you can go as a backpacker, take crumby flights, sleep in hostels, and get by on tapas for an entire summer…and spend less than a family of 4 would going to Mexico for the week.
Most of us don’t fall in either of these two categories. We know that we might have to compromise a thing or two along the way to keep a Europe trip from hitting our “squeal number”. Or, conversely, we are happy to spend whatever it costs to get it the way we want it—but that doesn’t mean we are looking to throw Euros off a Tuscan cliff!
How much a Europe trip costs really comes down to clearly defining your wish list and budgeting appropriately.
Let’s get right down to business. There are a lot of ways to “do” Europe. I am constantly preaching the gospel of value-minded travel planning. To me, this means starting with a wish list of what’s most important to you. What are the aspects of this vacation that really need to shine? For some people, the top of the list is to simply go as cheaply as possible. These people are not my clients because my purpose is to help you dig deep and enjoy your travels. As the guidebook writer Rick Steves says:
“He who returns home with the most money doesn’t win.”
If your only ambition is to save money, perhaps you should consider why you’re spending it in the first place. Sure, if you’re a student or young person backpacking around the world, you need to do it on the cheap. But realistically, that doesn’t define meaningful travel for most of us. I’m all for getting good value—the most bang for the best spent buck. Sleeping in hostels is a cheap choice, but it isn’t a value choice for most people.
Alternatively, some people seem to want to use their travels as a chance to showcase their wealth. Let me say that these people usually aren’t my clients either. Don’t get me wrong, I design plenty of high-end, luxury-level travel itineraries. But there is a difference between money not being an object and spending for spending’s sake. At the end of the day, spending money (or saving it) doesn’t give anyone’s heart true pleasure. I want to tap into what does.
Crafting a Travel Wish List
Let’s talk travel components. These are the items that will make up your wish list. I will give you some ideas on budgeting appropriately, but only you can prioritize. Consider thoughtfully how important each component is to you and your travel companions.
Air travel is pretty much a fixed expense. You have to get where you’re going, right?!
To some, flying private is a necessity while to others, flying first class is a luxury. But regardless of how you get there, you’ve got to get there. Only you can assess your comfort level. If you have the cash or the airline miles to upgrade to business or first, you should do it!
My compromise is typically to upgrade to premium economy when it’s available. This option costs between $100-200 each way, depending on where I’m flying. I get several extra inches of legroom, seat width, and pitch, plus priority boarding. For overseas flights, one of the best perks of premium economy is that your row will probably only have two people on it. For those of us who prefer aisle seats, it is money well-spent to only have one person climbing over your blanket fort to use the restroom!
My flight wish list also includes good timing. Minimal connections are a must. If I have to connect, I care a great deal about where that connection is and how long it takes. If it is international, will I have adequate time to make it through border control? Can I ultimately get to my destination faster with a different route? (I love that I have access to complex flight itinerary builders that allow me to geek out over this!)
Yes, the price matters to me, but not nearly as much as the cost. Will $200 buy me six hours on my trip? Save me running through an airport with my carry-on? Give me a more comfortable seat and better boarding position? Then it is $200 well-spent. The cost of those discomforts would be greater.
Generally, where you stay is going to take up a fair chunk of your budget. And it should! Staying in a convenient, safe location is a critical element to enjoying your vacation. Do you really want to shlep your kids back and forth across town on a 45 minute metro ride just to save $50/night? And how do you feel about staying in an area that is perfectly fine in the daylight, but gets pretty sketchy at night when you just want to go to the neighborhood bar for a drink?
Where you stay is also part of the deeper cultural experience that I think is one of the best things about Europe. It’s important to feel like you’re part of the neighborhood. Rarely do I situate guests on the main drag or in an overly-touristy area (i.e. Times Square in NYC). There are better areas that offer equal conveniences but don’t leave you feeling like an outsider.
Your accommodations also matter because we are creatures of comfort.
You can argue with me that you “won’t be in the room enough for it to matter,” but please trust me on this. When you are in the room, it does matter. There is literally nothing worse than knocking out an aggressive day of sightseeing, only to return to a cramped, dark hotel room. I’ve been there. There are plenty of 3* and 4* properties in Europe that are nothing more than a shoebox filled with drab. I’ve been there, too. This is the place you lay your head, not the place you try desperately to avoid.
Accommodations are a major part of the travel experience.
Are you a couple on a honeymoon? You deserve to have a romantic suite. Are you a family who needs some breathing room? An apartment or villa may be the wiser choice. Perhaps you would like something unique—like sleeping in a castle, winery, fortress, dome, or igloo! These may sound like a real splurge, and sometimes they are! However, you don’t have to take an unnecessary risk on an Airbnb to find a quality place that will meet the needs of your crew.
Ultimately, I try to help my clients break down this list into the things that really count. What kind of experience are you looking for? How will you be spending your time (or – what conveniences are going to make or break your trip)? What are your non-negotiables (do you need coffee in the room? a gym on site? a kitchen? room service options?)? I carefully scout out all sorts of accommodation options (NOT just hotels) until I find what truly fits my clients’ personality the best.
Okay, this category includes the following things:
- Admission tickets/City passes/Skip the line passes
- Group tours
- Private tours
- Expert Guides
- Transportation to and from the sight
There is clearly a hierarchy, and many factors come into play when I evaluate what will best suit the needs of my clients. The first is location. Some sights (example: the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris) really don’t benefit from a tour. In these cases, I recommend purchasing the tickets in advance (or the city pass, depending) which will usually come with some sort of skip-the-line option (a must in high season). Grab the audio guide at the door for just a couple of euros. This will be enough to help you learn about the sight and get something from the experience.
Other sights, however, practically necessitate a tour (such as the Vatican). But not all tours are created equal! I try my best to keep my clients out of group tours with more than 20 people. Yuck. You can’t hear. You get herded around like cattle. No one can ask questions or stop for pics. This is not a good place to save money—even for sights that are better suited to a tour experience.
Small groups (16 or fewer people) are usually the happy medium between expensive private tours and gross-me-out big group tours. You meet a few new friends, but still have some level of intimacy with your family. These are a great value when a private tour isn’t in the budget.
Some private tours do come at a tremendous value, especially when they include transportation. Private tours also allow you to set your own schedule and go at your own pace. These are placed pretty high on my wish list!
Not all tours…or tour guides…are created equal.
You may be thinking that expert guides are part of the tours. But again, not all tours are created equal. Every country has its own designation of what it means to be an expert guide. An example of this is a Blue Badge guide in London. One of the biggest tasks of my job is finding local tour guides who really know what they are talking about and give you more detail and insight than you can find on your own. Guides who know the roots and the gritty details of the city.
Subject guides such as wine experts or chefs are some of my favorite to splurge on. If you are into art or history, there are guides who are particularly knowledgable in these fields who will make the museums and heritage sights come to life. In Rome, for example, there are guides who do nothing but Ancient Rome tours. These guys are worth the splurge if you’re a history buff.
The last time I landed in Paris, I took an airport taxi across town to Gare de Lyon to catch a train to Beaune. When I travel, I scout. Constantly. Sometimes, it’s worth the risk (or extra expense) to see what I may have missed by doing it “my way”. The taxi wasn’t unreasonable—90 euros—or at least it wouldn’t have been if I had euros on me. Whoops! I assumed this taxi took credit cards like most of them do and neglected to ask. So, in order to talk him into accepting my American money, I had to pay him $120!
Why did I tell you that story? I assure you, it wasn’t to make myself look wise. It was my simple reasoning for why pre-arranged transport is almost always a good idea. I already have my car arranged for my arrival into Paris with my family in March. He will be waiting for us in baggage claim. With a sign. And a car big enough for our American luggage. He accepts credit cards and will take us promptly to our apartment, calling ahead to let our greeter know we are on our way. Oh, and he’s cheaper than the taxi guy. No uber surge pricing either!
Yes, there are plenty of times to take a taxi or an uber.
There are even times to take public transportation if you can deal with it. A great thing about pre-arranging your major transport needs (like to/from the airport, trains, a night out, etc) is that you know it’s handled and you’ve already figured it into your trip cost. Sure, there are times it works out to be more expensive. But again, cost and price are two different things.
Planes, trains, and automobiles.
Trains in Europe are brilliant, but not all of them are high-speed. Regional flights are a great, if not cheaper and faster, alternative in many cases. If a train would take 5 or 6 hours and a flight would take one hour (plus a couple at the airport), and they are the same price, why take the train? The exclusion here is, of course, the particularly scenic routes around Switzerland and Austria!
Both trains and flights are almost always better than a rental car in my opinion, unless you’re visiting the countryside. If you don’t speak the language, you may have quite a time driving your car, for there are highway signs to read there just like there are here! For city stays, rental cars just aren’t worth the headache.
Finally, an often overlooked alternative is to hire a chauffeur! Drivers can work for 8 hours a day in Europe, and you can hire them for multiple days at a time. No, it isn’t cheap, but it is a better value than you might think. There are companies who will hire out a chauffeur (with car) and/or guide to take you on a specific tour lasting several days. Or, you can design your own tour and tell the chauffeur where you want to go.
Recently, I hired a chauffeur for some clients who wanted to spend two weeks in Ireland. One week was spent on their own in Dublin and Belfast, and the other was spent driving the south and west coasts up to Shannon. They absolutely loved having a chauffeur drive them around and tell stories about the towns and his Irish upbringing. They especially appreciated having freedom to enjoy lots of pints and Irish whiskey along the way!
I am a major advocate for protecting yourself and your finances when traveling. Admittedly, I wasn’t this way before having a child. When Chayce was 3 months old, my husband and I planned a quick weekend getaway to Vegas. We were excited to leave our baby with my mom and go feel like grown-ups for a couple of days.
Tragedy isn’t always convenient.
Two days before we were to leave town, we got the tragic call that my father-in-law had just passed away after battling a long illness. Of course, we hadn’t sprung for the additional travel protection on our Southwest Vacation package. Fortunately, Southwest is one of the best companies in the world, and they gave us a credit that we later used toward another trip. But the thing was, our hearts were desperately hurting and yet we had to spend a lot of time and energy dealing with this situation or else totally lose our limited discretionary income. It would have been such a relief to know that we only had to call one phone number, speak with one representative, and have the whole thing resolved.
That event was a wake-up call for us.
Though we always hope for the best, we realized how irresponsible we were being to not be prepared for the worst. What if we’d been on the trip and something happened with our baby girl? How much would it have cost us to get home to her? We’ve purchased some form of travel insurance ever since. Now, we even carry an annual policy for travel professionals that I buy from Travel Guard. It is quite similar to the policy I generally recommend to my clients—the Travel Guard Gold policy.
Like tours and guides, not all travel insurance policies are created equal. You shouldn’t just trust the “optional coverage” to apply to your individual situation. Ask questions before you purchase a policy and make sure you are covered for more than just cancellation. Taking a few minutes to read over the policy really might be one of the most important decisions you make!
For me, this boils down to shopping and food + beverage. I have a strategy for keeping food and beverage under control, which I address below.
You probably know what kind of shopper you are and how much of your travel time you plan to devote to it. Shopping doesn’t have to be the designer boutiques where nothing fits correctly on the Champs Elysée. Nor does it consist of rinky-dink keychains and magnets from a street side kiosk in from of the Louvre.
Great, worthwhile souvenirs are to be found all over Europe. Linens, glassware/china, clothing, shoes, bags, wallets, ties, and jewelry are some of my favorites. My daughter collects scarves from different countries, so those are on my list. As you know, I also love picking up some wine and regional foodstuffs while I’m in Europe as well!
Determining an Appropriate Budget for a Europe Trip
So where does this all end up? The range is clearly pretty broad. But, if you promise not to come back and say “but you saidddddd,” I will tell you how it usually shakes out for my clients.
How much does a trip to Europe cost?
Airfare: $1,400 average per person, coach.
Depending on when you buy and when you travel, you may get it a few hundred cheaper. Flying out of an east coast gateway can save you quite a bit, but then you’d have to get there first, wouldn’t you?
While you’re there: $250 per person, per day
This will buy you better-than-average accommodations, transportation, some small-group or private tours, trains, travel protection, etc. I consider this to be the minimum price of a good quality trip.
Discretionary spending: $125+ per person, per day (much less for children)
I have a rule that works as an average for me.
$6 for a snack or glass of wine during the day
$12 for breakfast + coffee (any extra goes to the wine fund)
$24 for lunch or dinner (I like to eat at the more expensive places for lunch and save on dinner whenever possible. 24 is for the non-splurge meal)
$48 on dinner (with wine or cocktails)
This adds up to $90/per person, per day in food and beverage. The remaining $35/day goes to souvenirs and incidental expenses as needed. If you pick a couple of days and eat dinner in a pub or café or have a picnic for lunch, you will have enough left from the food/beverage budget for a blowout dinner. And if you know that you’re a big shopper, you might simply plan on a bigger shopping budget!
This per person guideline serves me well. It’s a balancing act. The great thing about Europe is that you don’t have to spend a fortune to have an amazing meal, and plenty of meaningful gifts and souvenirs can be found on the cheap if you look in the right places. I make it my personal quest to find the gems. I love eating where the locals eat, shopping where they shop, and experiencing their culture as if I was one of them.
So if I want a customized Europe itinerary designed by The Jetlag Experience, how much should I expect to pay?
Every single trip we design is tailor made. Each detail is crafted with the traveler in mind. The following are only averages.
The Jetlag Experience’s customized Europe itineraries generally start at $4,450 for one couple (7 nights) + the cost of airfare and discretionary spending.
You can expect that to cover the cost of better-than-average accommodations, some private or small-group tours, transportation to/from the airport, travel insurance, and itinerary development for up to 2 locations.
Our clients who prefer an upgraded experience—what I call “total detail management” in terms of transportation and sightseeing; 4* or greater accommodations (including villas, castles, apartments, etc.); exclusive, private tours (culture, history, art, wine, food, etc) with transportation and expert guides; 24 hour on-location concierge assistance; reserved dining, and so forth—usually spend at least $11,000 per couple (10 nights) + airfare. These travelers also utilize a higher discretionary spending budget.
I fully recognize that there are many schools of thought on this subject. You may just now realize that you got totally ripped off on a group tour at your kid’s school or church. Perhaps you are reading this thinking that I’m a lunatic because you just know you could book a trip to Europe online for cheaper. You’d be right—you can book it online cheaper.
I can book it for cheaper too. I choose to book it better.
I promise you this: the money you “save” will cost you a lot. You’ll spend months studying guidebooks, blogs, consumer reviews, and maps only to create an itinerary that will be full of holes. That flash deal won’t spare you from a single hassle, worry, headache, scam, or ripoff, and you won’t have more than an automated help line to fix the problems a booking engine creates.
My encouragement to you is to be thoughtful and strategic about your wish list. Whether you consult with a travel designer like me or another travel agent, or even if you decide to go it alone, craft your wish list first. Having an idea of the things that are most important to you, and knowing exactly where you’re willing to compromise, is the first step to planning a European vacation.