This past weekend, my boyfriend surprised me with a trip to Ivalo, Finland. It was beautiful, and romantic, and well-planned — and a complete surprise. Also, we came back to London engaged. 🙂
While we were flying there, Jarin pulled up a map of Finland to show me where it was and, as usual, I was surprised by how close the countries are. We could have easily driven to Sweden, Norway, and Russia from Ivalo. That’s one thing I’m still getting used to in Europe – there are SO MANY countries so close to each other! A three-hour drive in the States will only get you one state over, and that’s only if you’re semi-close to a border. In Europe, however, three hours will get you to at least one new country, if not a couple (or four, in Ivalo’s case). Since the countries are so close, it makes it incredibly easy to travel around Europe. There are obviously several ways to travel — plane, train, ferry (for those traveling across any of the channels or seas), hiking, biking.. but how do you know you’re getting the best deal??
The first and most important thing when trying to get the best deal for your money: you need to be ready to buy tickets and reserve hotels/hostels/airbnbs as early as possible. I’m talking months (three or four at least, six is best). Start looking at and comparing airfare on sites like skyscanner or google flights, and think about using websites from the country’s destination (google.co.uk vs google.com) — Sometimes you’ll find slightly better prices, and if nothing else the currency will be local so you can start getting used to the exchange rates.
A nice feature on skyscanner is their ‘Price Alerts’ option, where they send you an e-mail if the price drops below the price you’ve set as your lowest. Don’t get crazy and set a price alert for $2 because you’ll never get an e-mail, but if you set a realistic price and they find an airline with lower prices, they send you a notification. This is also only useful if you’ve started planning in advance, because once you buy your tickets they don’t offer to refund the difference.
Some great, inexpensive airlines around Europe are Ryanair and EasyJet, but make sure you check that they fly to your destination because they only have certain cities to which they fly inexpensively. However, you can grab a super cheap flight to a city near your destination and then take a train or hike or bike or find the most appealing mode of transportation to get you to your final destination.
Trains are the most fun way to travel, in my opinion. I just find the novelty endearing. (Trains are not as common in the States.) I’m sure it will wear off eventually, but I love being able to enjoy the scenery, bring as much liquid as I want without restriction (if you’re sneaky, you can even bring your own adult beverages!), have a dining car to grab slightly better food than what’s served on airlines (and for semi-reasonable prices, too), use your phones and actually have service, and stand for as long as you want. I think Jarin appreciates the standing areas more than I do. 🙂
Eurostar is the train service I’ve used to get from London to Western Europe, and if you sign up for their mailing list they have fantastic deals on tickets every three months or so. Currently, you can get a round-trip train ticket to Paris for £69, but I’ve seen offers where it’s £59 round-trip. However, you have to be willing to travel at slightly less popular times and/or days to get those rates.
Locally, train tickets are incredibly inexpensive. We took a day trip to Bath, England, bought round-trip tickets a couple of weeks beforehand, and only paid £20 each. Tickets to Oxford are less than £15 round trip if you are willing to leave during off-peak hours (not during rush hour). Again, if you have time, make sure to play around with times and days…often a Saturday morning departure is surprisingly less expensive than a Friday evening departure, and same for Monday morning vs Sunday evening.
One tip for my local readers, check out the rewards programs at stores you frequent. I have a Nectar card through Sainsbury’s and rack up points all over the place, since groceries are essential (obviously). The best part is I can redeem my points with travel companies like easyJet, Eurostar, or Expedia. And oftentimes when I check out and use my Nectar card, they’ll give me a coupon for double points on my next visit. Cha-ching!
An extra card to carry around…but completely worth it.
If you have a credit card, chances are you can redeem your rewards points for travel of some sort — cash in on those! And if you fly a lot, use your air miles and/or hotel points to help make your travel less expensive. When it was official that I would be moving to London, I switched my credit card to a CapitalOne Venture Card because it had no foreign transaction fees and also because it gave me the best ratio for earning miles.
Takeaway tidbit: Plan European trips in advance to get the best deals. And use rewards programs to get free trips!