Are you putting together your itinerary to backpack around Europe this summer? It’s a time-honored tradition for students to make a 3-month trek around the continent, and even on this timetable there’s far more to see than any one person can manage. The travel experts at CheapAir.com want to share some of our picks for best budget destinations on the continent this year.
Our list has something for every kind of traveler, including medieval architecture, world-class and curious museums, historic city centers, delicious cuisine and vast and varied drinking cultures like Oktoberfest, the Budapest Ruin Bar scene and the clubs of the Greek Isles. Here are a few low-cost destinations to put on your must-see list so you don’t break the bank!
1. The Greek Isles
Greece was made for summer fun. There’s beaches galore, cheap food and the parties never stop on the islands. How many islands? Oh, there’s hundreds, in fact. Santorini, Paros, Ios (the gold standard for clubbing and EDM), Mykonos and so many more. $18 gets you a dorm bed at the beachside Hotel Katerina & John on Santorini and for just $13 you can sleep in a double room at the Princess Sissy Hotel on Ios. If you tire of the crowds, escape to Tinos and stay at the Vincenzo Family Hotel. Private rooms from just $35/night. There are beaches to lounge on if that’s all you choose to do, or there are hikes and walks and countless tiny towns to explore. Beyond that, check out verdant farmland and wineries. We dare you not to fall in love with Greece. Finn Air will get you direct to Santorini for around $1,500 round trip from San Francisco or fly KLM to Athens for $1,100 and take the ferry to save a bit more coin!*
2. Cornwall, England
If you’ve taken a hop across the pond, we know you’re visiting overpriced, congested, yet can’t-miss London. But true Anglophiles should consider venturing outside London to Cornwall, which is arguably more authentic, and definitely much less expensive. Romantic types looking for rolling hills, green valleys and quaint towns will not want to miss this hamlet just a few hours outside London by train. Embrace your inner Jane Austen and take a side trip to Cornwall. Stay steps from the beach at YHA Treyarnon. Beds from $15/night including breakfast. Fly round trip on Virgin Atlantic to Heathrow out of LaGuardia for $800.*
Here’s the thing. Bucharest as a capital city is still having major growing pains and is hardly a “pretty city” on par with most western European capitals. But the rest of the country of Romania is stunning, blessedly cheap on accommodations and food, and nowhere near as congested as you’ll find in most other destinations in the summer. You can see the whole country by train for a song. Highlights might include: the medieval Saxon town of Sighisoara, Bran Castle (local lore touts it as ‘Dracula’s castle’ but that’s a bit – or a lot – of creative storytelling, depending on who you’re talking to), the wooden churches of Maramures, and the painted churches of Northern Moldavia. While ethnic Romanians make up the large majority of the population, there’s also a number of Roma communities (one known as gypsies), with a fascinating history and culture all their own. You can even stay in a Roma-run hostel for about $14/night (price includes dinner with entertainment and a hearty breakfast), just 40 minutes from Sighisoara. Turkish Airlines has flights from Washington, Dulles to Bucharest for around $1,100 round trip.*
4. Budapest, Hungary
During its Communist years, Budapest wasn’t on any Westerner’s must-visit list. But these days, it gives some of the most popular capital cities a run for the money. No one should go to Budapest in the summer and not visit the so-called “Ruin Pubs” or (in local parlance), “Kerts” that spring up in abandoned courtyards and buildings all summer long. In the early days, you had to know where one was to gain access to crude wall maps that would indicate all of the rest. Today, these “unofficial” speakeasies have a bit more of a mainstream flavor, but they’re still the place to mix and mingle until the sun comes up. Try Szimplakert or Holdudvar. You won’t regret it. In the morning, work off the hangover with a visit to Szechenyi Baths. Then check out one of the concerts happening all summer long. Budapest is a stop on many major rock and pop international tours. Clean, friendly and well-appointed hostels are a dime a dozen in Budapest. Just plan to stay on the Pest side. Buda is beautiful but sedate. You’ll want to be where the action is – and all of the actions in Buda. Avenue Hostel has dorm beds for around $30/night in the summer and a laid-back, modern vibe plus free breakfast! Round trip airfare from Los Angeles on Iberia Airlines or Air France for just over $880.*
5. Krakow, Poland
Krakow is sort of a perennial favorite for us staffers at CheapAir and here’s the simple reason: Krakow does not disappoint. It has everything you want from a European vacation without the hefty price tag. Culture in spades, a quaint and spectacular historic city center with one of the largest town squares in the world, an impressive medieval castle (Wawel), delicious traditional dining, and a colorful and storied history. Krakow is also just an hour away from Auschwitz, the infamous World War II concentration camp, so it’s a must-visit day trip to gain some perspective and pay respects to those who lost their lives there. A bed in a dorm at the cozy Hostel Atlantis just outside the city center goes for just $9. O’Hare to Krakow round trip fares start at $866 round trip on Air Berlin.*
6. Cesky Krumlov, Czech Republic
Prague has a reputation to uphold for U.S. backpackers that pretty much guarantees it a stop on the summer holiday vacation. Make no mistake, Prague is gorgeous but its tiny historic city center means that during the summer you’re looking at wall-to-wall people at all of the major sights. And though it’s not going to compete with London or Paris as far as cost goes, it’s not the bargain you might expect. This is precisely why you should venture out to Cesky Krumlov, about two hours from Prague by bus. Once there, dine on some authentic Czech food, stay at a medieval hospoda (guest house), and get out into the Czech countryside. There’s a number of outdoor adventure outfits running bike tours and you’ll be glad you got some much needed downtime (and cheap Czech beer) before you’re on your way. We like Hostel Havana that has rooms for just $15/night. Flights start at around $760 round trip out of JFK on Air Berlin.*
7. Riga, Latvia
Don’t scratch your head at this one. Many a reluctant traveler has been coaxed to Riga over the years and once there had a hard time prying himself or herself away. Why? Riga is cheap as can be, with a bumping nightlife to rival any of the top party spots on the continent sans the expensive drink prices. Plus, Riga is charming, the people are warm and the vibe is laid back. Did we mention it’s dirt cheap? You can get a bed at Riga Hostel for just $6/night. The hardest part is getting there. Round trip flights from $800 on Aeroflot out of JFK.*
What can be said that hasn’t already been said about Constantinople? You’ve got the European side of Istanbul and the Asian side of Istanbul to tempt visitors. It’s a city of contrasts and mystery. In recent years, Istanbul had ceased to be the bargain it once way, but the political climate now has made Turkey once again a bargain hunter’s dream. Open air markets, stunning architecture/Mosques, delectable and exotic dining are all on offer. We can recommend the whimsically named Rapunzel Hostel for your stay. $22/night in a single sex dorm plus breakfast is what you can expect. Fly round trip on Aeroflot for around $1,000 from Los Angeles.*
9. Naples, Italy
Anyone on a tour of Europe doesn’t skip Rome or Venice. We understand. Truly we do. But how about the fantastic value of southern Italy, specifically Naples? The ruins of Pomepii are nearby and the historic city center is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Of course, this being Italy, the food is simply stupendous, and there’s no shortage of picturesque windy streets to get lost within. We love Naples for its off-the-beaten-path vibe. Naples is not rife with tourist types and that’s great for you, adventurous backpacker! Hostel of the Sun has dorm beds for $20. That’s a steal. Round trip flights out of JFK start from under $1,000 on Turkish Air.*
10. Madrid, Spain
Madrid might be an obvious pick for this list, but it rates a mention because it’s a decent bargain in the “Classic Europe” category (all other comers are just too expensive). Tapas culture makes dining a relatively inexpensive endeavor no matter what time of day, and stiff competition insures value in even the traditional hotel/private room category. For a big city, Madrid has a fine balance of must-see sights (the Plaza Mayor, the Puerta de Alcalá, the Museo del Prado) and low-key adventures (strolling in the plethora of city parks, throwing back some beers on streets like Cava Baja and Cava Alta, tuck into the world-famous churros at San Ginés). Las Musas Hostel is our pick for an inexpensive and funky night’s stay, at just $17/night. Flights from Miami to Madrid from under $1,000 round trip on Avianca, Tap Air Portugal and Turkish Air.*
That’s all for now. We’re hard at work on our next post which will cover how to visit the most popular and most expensive destinations in Europe while on a backpacker’s budget. Check back soon!
*Airfares include taxes and fees and are valid as of 4/12/16 on select dates between 65/1/16 and 9/21/16. Lowest fare seats are capacity controlled and may not be available on every airline, flight, or date. Fares subject to change without notice.