When entering Europe after seven and a half months in Southeast Asia and West Africa, I had visions of a European ATM spouting tentacles and strangling me as it reached into the depths of my bank account to suck it dry.
But it hasn’t been quite so bad! Here’s why:
1. Budget Housing.
Portugal is packed with great hostels, each of which charges about 12 to 20 Euros ($18-$30) a night. While this is nowhere near the $10-for-a-beach-mansion deal of Southeast Asia, it’s still not awful, especially given all the benefits each hostel provides. (More on these hostel benefits in a few paragraphs, oh patient reader.)
Now, should you want to be even more economical (aka: spend exactly zero dollars), it turns out the Couchsurfing community in Portugal is robust and fabulous.
It was awesome! The people were friendly, kind, and interesting. One kind Couchsurfing party soul even offered to cook dinner for us the next day and take us around town, but alas, at that point we had to prepare for our flight to Madrid.
If we come back to Lisbon in the future, odds are that we will stay on the free couches of our new friends instead of paying for a hostel.
2. Budget Food.
Buying veggies at the local market and cooking a five star stir-fry (which lasted for both dinner and lunch the following day for both of us) cost exactly 1.50 Euros ($2) each. What a great deal!
Moreover, hostels are also often teeming with free cooking elements which have either been left behind by parting tourists or provided by the staff.
For example, my brother and I were able to supplement our cheap and nutritious (yet tasty) veggie stir fry with free tuna, spices, and virgin olive oil left behind by parting backpackers on the “FREE!” shelf of the hostel. We also had full use of some classy pots, pans, and dishes provided by the hostel to cook and serve our cheap feast.
But, should you feel a little lazy about cooking, another perk of all the hostels we encountered in Portugal was that they always provided free breakfast with the price of the room, and on top of this, most offered a discount, family-style dinner nearly every night.
This meant that if we were too fatigued to cook, we could get an abundant, piping hot meal with unlimited drinks for 6 to 8 Euros ($9 to $12) … with some nice new friends on the side (to chat with, not to eat). Not too shabby!
Finally, eating out in restaurants turned out to be much more manageable, financially, than we expected. In many places there was a 6 to 8 Euro multi-course meal package available, or there were at least a few discount menu items which we could scarf down to be full and happy without breaking the bank.
Further, since you don’t have to tip waiters as much in Europe as you do in America, you automatically save fifteen percent of what you expected to shell out… though I always feel deep guilt about this, no matter how often my European friends affirm that tips here are low! Yum and yay.
Portugal’s train system is gorgeous! Both intercity and intra-city networks were silk smooth for us, exactly on time, and affordably priced. Two or three hour inter-city train rides cost us between 11 and 15 Euros ($16-$22), and train rides inside Porto and Lisbon were just under 2 Euros. As a non-driver, I bow down to countries that have their public transport system down pat!
Furthermore, the European budget airlines like Ryan Air and Easy Jet are often even cheaper than the cheapest trains… and shave off a precious eight to ten hours of travel time.
While, in Iberia, there isn’t the Southeast Asia convenience of rolling out of bed and buying a $5 ticket for a 30-hour bus ride from your handy-dandy hostel receptionist, travel here is ultimately more manageable than I expected.
Portugal’s cities lend themselves extremely well to tourism by wandering. In Porto, Coimbra, and Lisbon, my sibling and I filled entire days simply by meandering up and down the hills, taking in the luscious architecture, breathtaking hilltop views, and free live music (heartfelt Fado!)… then bopping into cafes for one or two mandatory snack stops.
Cost: 1 to 4 Euros for snacks, depending on how big your sweet tooth is. Foot power is free! (Which is good because if it weren’t, I’d be deeper in debt than Wall Street.)
When it came time to take in the castles at Sintra, my brother and I splurged on a 25-Euro ($33) full-day guided tour, transportation luxuriously included. Though we worried at first about the cost, the amount of sightseeing the guide packed into ten hours was well worth the money!
The Bottom Line:
While I remain nostalgic about the boatloads of luxury I could attain in Southeast Asia for pennies, it turns out that what we’ve experienced so far of Europe ain’t so terrible, financially.
With a little bit of ingenuity, this notoriously expensive continent is even accessible to cheapskate backpackers like yours truly. And even if Europe does slurp some of your funds (which it inevitably will), the historied cobblestone streets, the creamy white twists of architecture, and the flaky golden pastries make it all worthwhile!