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Affordable destinations in Europe for the average Singaporean and where to avoid if you're a cheapo

Affordable destinations in Europe for the average Singaporean and where to avoid if you’re a cheapo

To the average Singaporean, vacations with Europeans destinations seem to always be synonymous with burning a huge hole in your pocket.

Since the SGD is traditionally weaker than currencies like the pound and euro, everything just seems more expensive after conversion and we tend to hold ourselves back from splurging.

Additionally, the idea of blowing close to a thousand bucks on a two-way ticket and spending long hours cooped up in a metal bird mean such vacations don’t happen very often for me.

As intrepid travellers will know though, Europe is such a huge continent with many underrated cities passed over in favour of hotspots like Paris, London and Santorini.

So here’s the low-down on the most affordable destinations for the budget-conscious, and where to avoid if you’re hoping to keep holiday spending to a minimum.

READ: Places in Johor that’ll make you believe you’re in Europe

INEXPENSIVE TRAVEL DESTINATIONS

1. Poland, Eastern Europe and the Baltic States (Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania) 

The Polish city of Krakow is one of Europe’s best value destinations, and prices in the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania might astound you because they might even be cheaper than Singapore.

Despite being rich in culture and history, these places seem to often be passed over by Singaporeans, perhaps because of the language barriers and the amount of research required before a visit (if you’re taking the free and easy route).

If you’re willing to do the legwork, the cheapskate in you will be delighted with low accommodation and food prices, even within populous city areas.

In Krakow, rooms on Airbnb can go as low as $20 a night (it’s about $100 a night in London), and you can get a full meal for $5 (Polish pierogis are absolutely divine).

Love your booze? Alcohol in Eastern Europe is generally considered to be the cheapest in the region and a pint in Latvia will only set you back by $3 to $4.

2. Malta

A hidden gem that was virtually devoid of Singaporeans during my visit, I often receive puzzled looks when I mention that Malta is one of my favourite European cities because most people don’t even know of its existence.

A tiny republic half the size of Singapore, the Maltese archipelago is located slightly south of Italy and consists of three islands named Malta, Gozo and Comino.

For history buffs, medieval towers, wayside chapels and some of the oldest free-standing structures in the world can be seen for free atop a hop-on, hop-off bus ride.

Other free experiences include wandering around the majestic streets of Mdina (resembling Agrabah, the fictional home of Disney’s Aladdin), taking a stroll around the Barrakka gardens of Valletta (capital of Malta) or taking a dip in the azure-blue St Peter’s Pool.

With extensive bus networks where a single fare bus ticket ($3 in summer, $2 from November to March) is valid for two hours after purchase, you can make as many bus transfers as you want during that window and there’s no need to buy multiple single-way rides.

Food-wise, local bakeries are aplenty where you can get a pastizzi for less than a euro (S$1.50) and an entire pizza costs between €8 to €9. I managed to find hot chocolate for €1.50 which costs upwards of €5 in places like Paris or Rome.

3. Spain

Despite being one of the most popular travel destinations in Europe, a holiday in Spain will not set you back as much as a trip to cities like London or Reykjavík and can be quite affordable if you plan in advance.

Because of their tapas culture, Spain is not an expensive country for food, especially if you’re someone who loves to snack on small bites while ambling around the streets of La Rambla, Barcelona.

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A post d by Unifrog (@unifrogtravel) on Nov 1, 2019 at 5:28am PDT

Small bites of delicious food at reasonable prices can be found everywhere and you’ll feel better having small meals while shopping rather than stuffing yourself silly and feel too heavy to walk afterwards.

A small tapas dish in the capital city of Madrid typically range from €3 to €5 while the classic churros can be found for only €4 and d with a friend.

While accommodation in major cities may be more expensive, there are plenty of affordable options through hostels and Airbnb, especially if you book well in advance or travel during off-peak seasons.

For the fashion-forward, Spain is also home to retailers like Mango and Zara, and shops there offer discounts aplenty so be prepared to shop your heart out.

Want to save even more but not willing to compromise on the quality of your experience? Consider venturing out of the usual cities like Madrid or Barcelona and opt for views of peaceful villages in the Pyrenees that look like the Swiss alps at a fraction of the price. 

Other cheaper cities like Valencia also breathtaking scenery, a rich history and a more laidback spirit compared to the hustle and bustle of the capital. 

4. Croatia

Less thought about than the big hitters in European tourism, travels in Croatia used to be cheap but prices are increasing every year. 

Drawn by picturesque seaside towns, crystal clear Adriatic waters and famed for being the real-life King’s Landing (as fans of Game of Thrones will know), millions visit the Balkan country of Croatia every year in search of sun, sea and adventure. 

While prices within the most touristy cities have reportedly risen so high as to drive locals out, visitors to cities out of the usual Dubrovnik and Split are still relatively affordable

Public transport prices throughout the country are also low and there’s a highly efficient inter-city bus network in place so you won’t have to worry about skyrocketing prices. 

When dining out, the smartest thing to do is to avoid tourist restaurants in the old towns and walking out of the main attraction to find a decent place to eat with menus (and prices) not catered towards tourists. 

Plenty of free activities such as exploring local markets, sunbathing on the beach and visiting free museums are also available so you won’t have to spend a single cent on entrance tickets. But we’ve heard that the one activity worth bombing your budget for is truffle hunting. 

Organised by family-run outfits such as Karlic Tartufi and Zigante, a truffle hunt costs about €60 (S$98) a person and lasts three hours. Truffle products in Croatia also tend to be cheaper and they make great souvenirs for friends who are always trying to satisfy their cravings. 

Because Croatia is also a highly popular spot for European families to spend summer vacations at, it’s be wise to avoid the June to August period when school’s out. Officially, October to March is the low season where you’ll also find the lowest prices for food and accommodations. 

5. Slovenia

A fascinating country with rustic views and natural wonders, Slovenia is a good choice if you want a taste of Eastern Europe without being too far from other popular European cities. 

A former Yugoslavian state whose independence was gained in 1991, Slovenia was the first former communist country to join the Eurozone in 2007. After the Eurozone crisis hit Slovenia hard in the late 2000s though, prices dropped and has consistently been lower compared to neighbouring countries.

A casual meal will set you back by $10, a beer at $4 and coffee at just $2! And with lots of outdoor activities and free places to sightsee at, there’s also plenty to do at zero cost to your wallet. 

Most famous of all is Lake Bled — it’s free if you’d just like to walk around and admire nature, but you can also opt to rent a rowboat from the township of Bled and make your way out to the island in the middle of the lake. 

If you’re driving, other free spots to check out include the Vrisc Pass and Soca Valley as well as the Solcava Panoramic Road. 

Because locals love their food and drink to be of high quality and as fresh as possible, meals served are usually made from scratch with locally-sourced ingredients. For access to some of that produce at cheaper rates, keep an eye out for some farmers’ markets!

We’ve also heard from those who’ve visited before, that desserts and sea salt dark chocolate can be bought for a steal — perfect souvenirs for those back home. 

In Slovenia, prices in Ljubljana (the capital) and Lake Bled tend to be the most expensive so you can save some money on travel costs by minimising time spent in those areas. 

6. Czech Republic 

Although the capital of Czech Republic used to be famed for being extremely cheap, the cost of living in Prague has risen over the last few years. 

That said, food, drinks and accommodations continue to be affordable, and the city is teeming with attractions and points of interest that won’t cost a dime. 

Take a stroll along the banks of the tranquil Vltava river, marvel at the view atop Charles Bridge, feed birds at one of the many verdant parks or climb Petrin Hill for a gorgeous panoramic views. The best part? All these activities are free. 

Hostels are aplenty right smack in the city centre and while prices are cheap, not all of them will be worthy of your patronage. When I visited in 2016, the hostel I stayed in baited me with free breakfast but it was only during my stay that I realised it wasn’t the continental spread I had looked forward to, but cold, hard sandwiches. 

Since Prague is not a huge city by any stretch, it’s easy to travel from one attraction to the next by foot. Opt for public transport whenever possible and avoid taxis — a friend of mine was scammed and his cab fee came up to almost US$100 (S$136) because the driver kept getting “lost”. 

Avoiding restaurants in the main square and the Old Town can save you quite a big of money. There’s plenty of snack carts around and remember to give the delicious Trdelnik (Chimney cake) a try!

For those who love guzzling beer, the Czech Republic is known to consume more beer per capita than any other country, which means cheap prices for brews which can cost as low as $1.70! 

EXPENSIVE TRAVEL DESTINATIONS

1. The Nordic countries (Sweden, Finland, Norway, Denmark, Iceland)

Unless you’ve been saving up for a once-in-a-lifetime trip and chasing after the Northern lights is something you’ve always dreamed of doing, be prepared to empty your wallets if you’re taking a holiday in any of the Nordic countries.

Famed for having a high cost of living, plain hot dogs by the road start from 50SEK ($7) and a basic mid-tier restaurant meal is upwards of 150SEK in Stockholm.

Having studied in Sweden for a semester during my undergraduate days three years ago, I remember meals in school started from $12 and meal prep was something everyone got used to.

As someone who has visited all the Nordic countries except Norway, Iceland was the most expensive, with sandwiches starting from $15 and hot meals at $25.

Additionally, unless you opt to travel with a tour group, renting a car in Iceland is a must because public transport is only available within small towns and attractions like geysers and glaciers are much farther out.

I remember being surprised that paying for a public toilet is the norm in Nordic countries and it is usually around $2 per entry, far from the 10 or 20 cents we’re used to at the hawker centre.

2. Major UK cities

Once upon a time, before news of Brexit brought the pound to an all-time low, holidays in cities like London and Manchester seemed like a pie in the sky because of how much it’ll cost.

Now, despite the weakening of the pound, prices don’t seem to have dropped much, so food and accommodation are still expensive — although our purchasing power has increased.

Most travellers to the UK tend to stick to London, which is understandable, but food and attraction prices can be steep.

Admission fees to castles and other attractions can start at £10 (S$17). Entry into Buckingham Palace is a whopping £37 and the Tower of London costs £27.50.

While food that you can eat and carry along like fish and chips or kebabs will only cost a couple of pounds, lunch at a sit-down restaurant can set you back by £6 to £10 while dinner would cost approximately £25 for a main.

When it comes to accommodations in the UK, I’ve learnt that you can’t have it all. A good location, low price point and sufficient living space — be satisfied with getting two out of three.

I remember paying about $100 a night for a hostel room the size of a shoebox d with two others and we had a d toilet as well.

The only plus point was its location — the hostel was a 10-minute walk from King’s Cross station and close to many food joints and grocery marts.

Airbnbs would offer comfier options at a slightly higher price point. A spacious two-bedroom Airbnb apartment that my colleague recently stayed at around the West Kensington area area cost about $300 a night. Split between two couples, the price was still affordable for the amount of space that you get.

TIPS ON HOW TO TRAVEL EUROPE ON A BUDGET

With all that said, there are ways to save on logistical costs so you can spend more money on experiences and souvenirs to make your trip a more memorable one.

First, always keep a lookout for free walking tours no matter where you are in Europe (except maybe Iceland). As the name implies, it’s absolutely free to join the tour and all you’ll have to do is tip your guide afterwards. A good amount is about $5 but you can always choose to be generous and give more.

Secondly, always plan ahead and book early if possible, because prices tend to always go up in my experience, and it’s also better to stay paying off your holiday early so you don’t get a shock when the credit card bill comes in.

Third, get used to the idea of hostels and d toilets because hotels are a luxury in Europe that should be reserved for those travelling in a family with young children.

Affordable and comfy, hostels are a great way to save money on accommodation and a great way to meet people from all walks of life and bond over stories of home. Pro tip: Bring snacks or small gifts from home and give it away to friends you make on the trip or use it as a conversation starter!

Lastly, consider the path less travelled. While visiting the big cities are a must especially when it’s your first visit, consider exploring smaller towns or cities nearby because they offer a different side to the country and can be a lot cheaper.

joeylee@asiaone.com