The Ultimate cheap European itinerary for 2 to 4 weeks

One problem that nearly everyone faces when choosing European cities to visit is that the most popular ones also tend to be the most expensive. Many people start with London only to discover that it feels like they are being pick-pocketed all day because trivial-sounding expenses add up so quickly.

Paris and Rome are almost as bad when it comes to your budget, so once you’ve hit the highlights you might be in the mood to travel through places that are wonderful and relatively cheap at the same time.

With that in mind we’ve created a perfect itinerary for those who want to spend between 2 and 4 weeks in Europe on something of a modest budget. There are cheaper cities for sure, but most of the cheapest ones are quite remote and may not be as memorable as the ones we’ve included below. Check the European Backpacker Index to see all major cities ranked by price, and that the ones below are all in the top group.

Note: This article was written in 2012, and revised and expanded in 2016.

Best four cheap European cities to visit together

  • Berlin, Germany
  • Prague, Czech Republic
  • Budapest, Hungary
  • Krakow, Poland

Each of the cities listed above is strong enough to be the highlight of almost any trip, and fortunately they are relatively close together so they work really well as a group. On the map they sort of form a box, so skipping one is easy, and there are plenty of side stops and trips possible in between for shorter or longer stays.

A version of this itinerary can also be found on my new best Europe itineraries for first-time visitors article.

Best cheap and gorgeous small town to add to your trip

  • Český Krumlov, Czech Republic

You may not yet have heard of Český Krumlov, but either way you are in for a treat if you can add 2 or 3 nights to your trip. It’s located just 3 hours south of Prague by bus or train, and it’s an excellent contrast to the large cities on the list. Better still, it’s incredibly cheap, and a favorite of almost all who visit.

Getting there and back

While none of these cities is among the cheapest in Europe to fly into, at least 3 of them have cheap enough flights that it’s worth flying directly into one of them.

Of the four cities, Berlin will have the cheapest inbound flights from almost anywhere, and Krakow usually only has cheap flights from within Europe. So your best bet is to check airfares from your city to each of these four, and fly into the cheapest of them.

In many cases you can save the most money by buying a one-way ticket into one of them and a one-way ticket back out of another of them, but you have to price them out to see. Keep in mind that if you buy a round-trip ticket it means most of a day and about US$50 to $70 to get back to that first city, so an “open jaw” ticket might still be a better deal even if it’s US$100 more.

Getting between the cities

There’s little doubt that the most enjoyable way to get between these cities (and most European cities) is by train, but you do have two other main options to consider, namely, flights and buses.

Trains

With the exception of Berlin and Prague, which are about 5 hours apart, these cities are about 7 to 10 hours apart by train, and therefore perfect for overnight journeys. If you are the type who sleeps well enough on trains, this method is ideal because you save a night in a hotel or hostel, and you still have all day to see the sights. Taking daytime trains obviously means more scenery, but some of them are quite a bit more expensive than the night trains.

Flights

If you can get a cheap train fare at a time that works well for you then it’s probably best to avoid all the hassles of flying and security and airport transportation. But if the train schedule doesn’t look great, it’s worth checking for low-cost flights between them. Some don’t appear on the aggragator sites so it’s worth checking whichbudget.com to see all your options in one place.

Buses

Rarely discussed in most circles, many don’t even know that most European cities have comfortable and cheap long-distance bus service between them. They aren’t as comfortable as trains, but often they are astonishingly cheap, especially if you find a promotional price. Check the Eurolines website and if you are skilled or patient enough to navigate its quirks, you might find a great deal on a bus that takes about the same time as a train.

Berlin, Germany

2016 Backpacker Index: US$60.78/day

Berlin isn’t such an obvious tourist city, but it’s absolutely the kind of place where either you love it, or you’ve never been there. Everyone can find something to enjoy about it, partly because it’s especially trendy and dynamic lately as a new hub of European and world culture, picking up where London and Paris left off.

One challenge is that Berlin is a huge and spread-out city, so it’s important to choose where you stay wisely. Most budget travelers will prefer the former East Berlin section around Mitte and Prenzlauer Berg, which is where most hostels are as well as the best and cheapest nightlife and shopping. Check our list of recommended cheap Berlin hotels for a place to start.

What to see and do in Berlin

Start with the Berlin Free Walking Tour on your first morning, and you’ll have enough ideas for what to do for the rest of your stay from that alone. Being honest, the Reichstag (capital building) is a bit disappointing from the inside, although the city does have a handful of great museums clustered together that appeal to many.

But mainly Berlin is about exploring the weird and funky neighborhoods for food, shopping, and nightlife. Fortunately, most of it is quite cheap as well.

Prague, Czech Republic

2016 Backpacker Index: US$41.77/day

You may not realize that most large cities in this part of Europe were practically flattened during WWII and then rebuilt just after. Fortunately, Prague is one where the historic center survived mostly intact, and it remains one of the continent’s most beautiful and interesting. The downside is that the city center is almost always packed with other tourists, so you might have to work around them a bit.

Prague is also fairly compact, with most things walking distance from each other. The city is also quite cheap still, at least compared to Western Europe, although hotel prices can seem high if you want to stay in the middle. Check our list of recommended cheap Prague hotels for some really good ones only a quick and cheap tram ride away.

What to see and do in Prague

Aside from the famous clock in the town square, Prague has a few other very worthwhile checklist attractions. The Prague Castle is one of the largest and most incredible in Europe, and the Charles Bridge and its statues feels like you should have to pay to cross it.

There is plenty more to fill a few days, plus you can catch a cheap classical concert in one of the many venues offering them, or just indulge in cheap and excellent beer like everyone else.

Budapest, Hungary

2016 Backpacker Index: US$30.99/day

Though it’s in the heart of part of Europe that isn’t known for being well off, Budapest is quite a grand city that makes it feel rather rich. Still, it’s among the cheapest European cities, and it offers very good value. Even if the castle up on the Buda side of the river isn’t a stunner, and that the parliament building on the Pest side is a copy of the one in London, this is an attractive city with a feel of its own.

Budapest is also compact enough that budget travelers can stay in the cheap hotels and hostels a bit inland on the Pest side, and still walk everywhere while sightseeing. The Free Budapest Walking Tour covers highlights on both sides, and is a great introduction.

What to see and do in Budapest

During daylight hours, Budapest has the standard selection of munuments and museums in addition to its castle complex, but separates itself from other big cities with its abundant hot springs and spas. Tourists can easily mix with locals and take a dip at a modest fee in one of the unique facilities spread around town.

At night, however, Budapest really comes into its own, with some of the most interesting nightlife in Europe. Head for what are known as “ruin pubs” on the Pest side in the old Jewish Quarter to quaff cheap drinks in converted courtyards that each has its own weird vibe.

Krakow, Poland

2016 Backpacker Index: US$24.71/day

When you hear that Krakow is among the very cheapest cities in Europe you might not expect much. But in reality, Krakow is also one of Europe’s loveliest and most pleasant cities, with quite a lot to do. At its center you’ll find about 30 square blocks of a historic medieval town, surrounded by a peaceful park, and with an enormous cafe-lined town square at its heart.

For those who like hearty portions of meats and sausages, Krakow is wonderful, but there are also many Italian and other international cuisines, including many vegetarian options, so something for everyone. Hotels just on or near the central square are reasonable, but you can stay for a lot less by going a few blocks away.

What to see and do in Krakow

As in many other cities, taking the Krakow Free Walking Tour is a great way to get oriented on your first day so you’ll know what you want to explore more deeply. You can also cover many of the main central sights on that tour, which leaves time for day trips and hanging out. Sad though it may be, a half-day trip to nearby Auschwitz is something you’ll never forget, and there is a fun salt mine attraction not far away as well.

In the evening you’ll probably find out why Krakow is very popular with the weekend party and stag-do crowds. You can sip affordable wine at one of the cafes on the square, but it might be more fun to do a pub crawl through the varied drinking establishments in the nearby Jewish Quarter. It’s easy to find a .5L beer for around US$1.50, so getting carried away is common.

Český Krumlov, Czech Republic

2016 Backpacker Index: US$31.77/day

With a population of only about 13,000 people, Český Krumlov will be an extremely welcome stop in between Prague and Budapest, or Prague and Vienna or Salzburg. This well preserved town was forgotten and almost abandoned in the later years of Communism, and it wasn’t rediscovered and renovated until well into the 1990s. Since it’s still a relative newcomer to the tourist scene, it isn’t yet “touristy” even though it’s very tourist friendly.

There are almost no chain hotels or restaurants of any kind, so staying here will be a very local experience. Better still, hotels and food here are much cheaper than even in Prague, so the value is outstanding. The historic town center is small enough to walk through in less than 10 minutes, yet you can still get nice hotels in its heart starting at around US$50 per night. If you are willing to stay a few blocks away from the center, it’s even cheaper.

What to see and do in Český Krumlov

Český Krumlov does have an impressive castle perched above the compact town center, and you’ll definitely want to tour at least part of it. But really the main reason to visit the town is to slow down and appreciate being outside of Europe’s large cities for 2 or 3 days. Those other four cities are always busy and crowded, while this one is gentle and lovely, although you will be surrounded by quite a few other tourists.

As with the other cities on the list, there is a highly recommended free walking tour in Český Krumlov, which is a great place to start. That tour will also show you and explain all of the other worthwhile nearby sights, but I won’t blame you if you just prefer to grab a seat at one of the cheap restaurants with outdoor seating on the main square, and relax over a few delicious and inexpensive beers for a while.

Additional photo credits: Berlin by Philippe AMIOT on Flickr, Prague by POldi♬24 on Flickr

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

All Comments

  1. PeterP says:

    Thanks very much, Roger. Booking these tickets was the most frustrating thing, and it actually took over a week to accomplish, what with the problems, trying to talk to them on the phone about the system errors, rejection messages and still having my account charged. I still have two such erroneous charges to sort out. I found the German company and they were so helpful. They called me back when I said I was running out of credit on my phone. I was able to easily book three tickets through them. So next time around, I will start with them and avoid SNCF if I can. The German company even has a number in the USA so I did not have to worry about being cut off due to prepaid phone credit running out.

    Thanks again for all your help in planning this trip. At least the most stressful part is over and now I just have to show up and enjoy. You do great work and I, for one, sincerely appreciate you.

    Blessings to you!
    Merna

  2. PeterP says:

    Dear Roger,
    I am having an extremely difficult time using the oui.en.sncf website and I wonder if you or anyone you know have encountered this. I successfully bought 4 tickets already. My problem is that when I get to the end of the transaction, I get an “authentication failed” message. This happened yesterday and today. I contacted my bank and they said they have cleared it on their end, so I need to contact the TGV company and see what is the problem on their end. Trouble is, I can’t seem to get past holding and listening to a recording indefinitely; I have yet to talk to a human. I need to have it cleared before I can try buying this ticket again, and I have one more to go.

    Can you think of a Plan B? I am thinking of waiting until I get to Berlin and go to the station and buy the ticket, knowing it would be at much higher price; but would that be foolhardy? Do they take debit cards in Europe? I have only one credit card to my name so there is no trying with another card. 🙁

    Thank you.

    1. Roger Wade says:

      PeterP,

      That sounds frustrating and I’ve been through things like that. One other thing you could try is to look for that same ticket on Bahn.com, which is the German rail company. They seem to have the most availability of tickets outside of their own country. If that doesn’t work you could just try again. Sometimes these credit card systems have outages and they resolve themselves.

      One other thing to try would be to Google for “train tickets in France”, which will show SNCF and also probably third-party ticket companies. Those companies charge more for the same ticket, but often they have much more user-friendly interfaces, especially for non-native speakers. If they charge a 10% premium it’s still probably cheaper than buying in person after the price has gone up.

      Yes, they take debit cards in Europe, although in some places they can only use a 4-digit code. I’ve heard that some banks in some countries don’t have compatible systems, but generally you can just go to any ATM and pull out cash. I hope this helps. -Roger

  3. PeterP says:

    Thank you Roger. I will buy the ones I know for sure now, in July. The daily ones within cities, I will do as I go. Some days I may just walk and experience the places.

    Thanks again.

  4. PeterP says:

    Roger, I do have a follow up question on the trains. Once I am in a city, and I want to go far afield and must use the train, do I simply take the train and pay the daily price, since I would have purchased only a train ticket in and one out? Should I consider this before I buy the individual tickets in advance? Thanks.

    1. Roger Wade says:

      PeterP,

      You might have a look at my article on buying European train tickets in advance. Generally speaking, long intercity train trips within Europe all start at a cheap price and then the fares get higher as more seats are sold and the date draws near. So if you buy train tickets between, say, Amsterdam and Berlin on the day of the departure, it will cost a small fortune. But if you bought it a month in advance it will be surprisingly cheap.

      The exception to that are trips on suburban trains or commuter trains. For example, the train from Pisa to the Cinque Terre is a local train (that stops at every station) and it’s pretty cheap even if you buy on travel day. If you want to take a train from, say, Amsterdam to Rotterdam it will be pretty cheap because it’s used for commuters. You just have to check fares for any trips you have in mind, and buy as far in advance for the expensive ones. I hope this helps. Let me know if you have any other questions. -Roger

  5. PeterP says:

    Thank you, thank you, thank you, Roger! I will get on booking those hotels and such today. This is early July so hopefully I will be able to get good prices. I will be getting back to you, I am sure. I wish you could go with me! 🙂

  6. PeterP says:

    Roger, below is my updated potential itinerary. Would you be so kind as to take a look and see if it makes more sense? Then I have specific questions: a) For the the trains, do I just buy a rail pass, and from where? b) If I want to reserve a seat and perhaps pay a bit more for comfort, is that possible? Thank you again.

    DATE CITY # NIGHTS BY>>>
    Sept 1 – Sept 3 Paris 3 Train
    Sept 4 – 7 Reims 4 Train
    Sept 8 – 10 Bruges 3 Train
    Sept 11 – 13 Amsterdam 3 Train
    SEPT 14 – 16 BERLIN 3 Train
    SEPT 17 – 20 Prague 4 Train
    SEPT 21 – 23 CESKY KRUMLOV 3 Train
    SEPT 24 – 27 VIENNA 4 Train
    SEPT 28 – 30 Salzburg 3 Train
    OCT 1 – 4 Munich 4 Fly to Barcel
    Oct-05 BARCELONA 1

    1. Roger Wade says:

      PeterP,

      This itinerary looks fantastic and very well organized and optimized. One thing to keep in mind is that Oktoberfest runs from September 21 to October 6 this year, so you’d be there in the final week. On one hand, it’s a really fun event, especially if you like to drink beer and eat pretzels the size of steering wheels. But on the other hand, Munich is really crowded during that time and hotel and hostel prices literally double or triple for those dates, especially near the Oktoberfest grounds (which are near the main train station). If you do go then I’d check for hotels very soon and book something because prices tend to go up as the dates approach.

      As for the trains, it should actually be best and cheapest to buy your tickets online at least a couple months in advance. Eurail Passes are great for long trips where you want to make plans as you go, but the per-day price of most passes is actually quite high. European train tickets typically go on sale 3 to 4 months in advance and at first the fares are low (often “supersaver” tickets) and then the fares go up as more seats are sold. So if you buy far enough in advance you’ll find that most of these tickets are surprisingly cheap. Better still, when you buy individual tickets in advance you’ll almost always get to reserve a seat for free at the time. Second class trains on most of these will be quite comfortable, but you can usually pay 50% more for First Class, which gets you more legroom and 3 seats across instead of 4. I’m a big and tall guy and I’m comfortable in most Second Class seats.

      Also, from Prague to Cesky Krumlov it’s better to take the bus. Both the bus and train take 3 hours, but the buses are cheaper, have wifi, leave more frequently, and drop you off much closer to the town center. From Cesky Krumlov to Vienna there are shuttle services that can pick you up at your hotel and drop you in Vienna in a large van for a reasonable price, and they are faster than the trains so I’d look into those. Let me know if you have any other questions. -Roger

  7. PeterP says:

    Thank you, thank you, thank you, Roger. What you do is most valuable. I will immediately make those recommended changes to the plan. Fortunately I have time to make changes with no impact whatsoever, except in worksheet preparation. (^_^)

  8. PeterP says:

    Dear Roger,
    Thanks again for your help. I have drafted an initial plan, for which I have not yet researched whether trains or planes would be better to go from city to city.

    POTENTIAL ITINERARY BEFORE CHECKING TRAIN TIMES VS FLYING

    DATE LOCATION TOTAL NIGHTS

    Aug-31 BKK to Paris

    Sept 1 – Sept 4 Paris 4

    Sep-05 * Check out Paris
    * Train to Nice

    Sept 5 – 7 Nice 3

    Sep-08 * Check Out Nice
    * Train to Bruges

    Sept 8 – Check in Bruges ; relax
    Sept 10 – 11 Bruges 4

    Sep-12 *Check out Bruges
    *train to Amsterdam

    Sept 13 – 14 Amsterdam 3

    Sep-15 *Check out Amsterdam
    *Train to Prague

    Sept 15 – Prague; REST RELAX
    Sep-16 PRAGUE – REST
    SEPT 17 – 19 – Prague; 5

    Sep-20 * Check out Prague
    * Train (??) to Vienna???

    Sep-21 Vienna – REST; RELAX
    SEPT 22 – 23 VIENNA 3

    Sep-24 * Check out Vienna
    * Train to Berlin?

    Sep-25 Berlin; REST, RELAX

    SEPT 26 – 27 BERLIN 3

    Sep-28 * Check out Berlin
    * Train to Salzburg

    Sep-29 Salzburg 2

    Sep-30 *check out Salzburg
    * train to Munich

    OCT 1 – 3 Munich 3

    Oct-04 * check out Munich
    a) Fly to BKK ….or
    b) Barcelona for cruise

    SEPT TOTAL NTS 30

    Based on the location of the countries, is my city order ok, in terms of time travel and logistics or should I change some things around? e.g., When I leave Amsterdam, should I go to Germany or Czechia? Thanks for your patience.

    1. Roger Wade says:

      PeterP,

      Nice is nice and early September would be a good time to visit, but it’s in the exact opposite direction of your next stops so I might save it for another trip. In other words, if you DID take a train you’d end up taking a train from Nice back to Paris and then a train to Brussels and then a local train to Bruges.

      From Amsterdam you can take a train to Berlin in about 5.5 hours, and then an even shorter train to Prague, instead of a VERY long train ride from Amsterdam to Prague. After Prague those cities are all fairly close together until you fly to Barcelona, so it should work out well. So I’d save Nice for a future trip and probably add in Cesky Krumlov after Prague and before Vienna, or you could add a different city. I think you’d be happier going to cities that are closer together like this. Let me know if you have any other questions. -Roger