Budget Travel: European Spring Break

Europe. For Spring Break? You must be joking right? Surely in this time of economic crisis and tightened budgets the European continent is out of reach for most, especially for the student traveler looking to save a few bucks on their Spring Break. And that’s why we’re here to tell you just how remarkably affordable AND easy it is to spend that week off partying it up in Prague, museum-hopping in Madrid or beer drinking in Berlin.

Believe it or not, Spring is one of the best times to visit most European countries. Most travelers wait until summer to hit the continent, but that’s exactly why Europe has a reputation for being so crazy expensive. By traveling in the off-season you’ll have access to some incredible deals on airfare, not to mention you’ll get most of the museums, restaurants and trains all to yourself.

So why blow all that money on a Spring Break trip to Florida, the Caribbean or Mexico? For not much more money, you could be hanging out in world class museums during the day and partying till dawn at some of the world’s best nightspots. How’s that for some Spring Break fun? Come along on Gadling’s Budget Travel Guide to Spring Break in Europe.
The European Airfare Game
I like to think of finding a cheap airfare to Europe as a game. Getting from North America can often be one of the biggest expenses facing the European budget traveler – an obstacle that often threatens to break the bank. But fear not, with a little flexibility and planning, you too can win the European airfare challenge. Here’s how to do it:

  • Check the “Big Five” – the vast majority of European flights from the U.S. are funneled through just five airports: London Heathrow, Paris Charles De Gaulle, Frankfurt am Main, Madrid Barajas and Amsterdam Schipol. Even if you plan on heading somewhere else, flying into one of these hubs and then connecting elsewhere is often the cheapest option. Once you arrive, consider grabbing a flight on a European low-cost carrier or taking the train to your final destination.
  • Use the Budget Carriers – Europe is known for its cheap inter-country low-cost carriers like Ryanair and EasyJet. Even if you fly into one of the “Big Five,” the low-cost carriers ensure that getting to your final destination can still be a bargain. For the full rundown on the low-cost carrier game, make sure to read Scott’s great Low Cost Carrier post from last week.
  • Be flexible – as Grant pointed in this cheap airfare post, finding reasonable tickets to Europe is all about being flexible. Try and avoid flying on the most popular days like Friday and Sunday and schedule your trip at off-peak times. And don’t get your mind dead-set on one particular destination. Is London showing up too expensive? How about Dublin instead? Can’t find a cheap European flight out of Philadelphia? What if you took the train up to New York for your departure? The more options you give yourself, the more money you can save.

So just how much money are we talking for Spring airfares? A quick search of Kayak for European filghts in March pulls up flights from New York to Dublin ($308), Madrid ($367) and Berlin ($380) among plenty of other options. Boston has fares to Dublin for $365 and Chicago has flights to Frankfurt starting at $424. Anything to Europe for under $450 is practically a steal.

Where to Stay
Not surprisingly, the fallback option for many budget-minded European Spring Breakers is going to be the hostel. Sites like Hostel World let you review ratings and prices and make bookings right from the web.

But if you’re like me and you’ve reached an age when a dude strumming his acoustic guitar in the lounge until 3am is not going to cut it, consider renting an apartment. Most decent size European cities offer a thriving market in vacation rental apartments, many of which can be had for not much more than your average night’s stay on an uncomfortable bunk bed. Check out sites like VRBO or Craigslist’s “Vacation Rental” category and look up something you like. Couch Surfing can also be a great option for thrifty travelers looking for a more adventurous experience staying with a local.

Top Three Spring Break Cities
It’s not any fun to be in Europe if you don’t have the money to enjoy it. Here are our picks for the best “cheap” European destinations that mix great nightlife with some interesting sights at a lower cost.

  • Berlin – Berlin offers the best of both worlds for Spring Breakers, combining world class art and culture with one of the world’s more hedonistic and creative nightlife scenes. Not to mention it’s one of the cheapest cities of all the big European capitals. During the day make a stop at the Pergamon, home to one of the world’s greatest collections of Greek and Middle Eastern antiquities (8 euros). Art lovers should check out the Hamburger Bahnof which houses works from 20th Century masters like Andy Warhol and Robert Rauschenberg (free on Thursdays!). Berlin is also home to a thriving music scene. Electronic music fans should head to the Watergate Club, where partiers can dance till dawn against the club’s floor-to-ceiling windows along the River Spree.
  • Dublin – Dublin has the honor of being one of the closest cities to the U.S. mainland, ensuring a cheap flight over. That said, Dublin is also hugely entertaining base for a Spring Break week, offering a lively pub scene in the Temple Bar area, as well as interesting sights like the Book of Kells at Trinity College and the National Museum of Ireland. Booze-lovers can head for either the Jameson Distillery or the Guinness Storehouse to learn more about how the beverages are made and get a free sample.
  • Prague – Prague is the Spring Break trip’s secret weapon. The Czech capital is not yet on the Euro, meaning your dollar goes a lot farther and there’s also plenty to see and great nightlife to be had. Start your visit with a trip to Prague Castle, an imposing fortress that sits across the river from the main city center. On your way you’ll cross the atmospheric Charles Bridge. It’s free and the wide stone footbridge is lined with vendors, street artists and ornate statues of the town’s historical figures. End your evening with some Jazz at one of Prague’s many underground Jazz clubs or dancing at the Roxy, which operates out of an old movie theater.

European Money-Saving Tricks
So you snagged an insanely cheap flight, you’re staying in an apartment or hostel, and you’re traveling to one of Europe’s bargain-priced cities. What else can you do to keep costs manageable? Never fear, here’s a few more money-saving tips to make that Europe trip all the more affordable.

  • Carpe Diem – as Latin majors can attest, Carpe Diem translates as “seize the day.” And with the Dollar to Euro exchange rate hovering at its most favorable point in almost 2 years, there’s never been a better time to take advantage. Skip this Spring Break and who knows if your money will go nearly as far for Spring Break 2010.
  • Eating In – sure, it might seem painful to skip out on a plate of tapas or that extra croissant, but cooking your own meals can save you some serious money (while also being quite delicious). Virtually all hostels have a kitchen for guests – not to mention if you rent an apartment you’ll have a kitchen all to yourself. And shopping for fresh local ingredients at markets like La Boqueria in Barcelona or the Campo de Fiori in Rome can be a fun experience in and of itself. Feel bad about passing all that great food? Consider using the Euros you have left over at the end of your trip on a big fancy meal to make up for your frugality!
  • City Pass – are you planning to visit museums and attractions like it was going out of style? Many European capitals offer city passes, which bundle admission to a variety of attractions along with unlimited access to public transportation for one price. Sites like European City Cards sell passes for a variety of European tourist destinations. And check your guidebook – many museums offer FREE admission on certain days of the week.
  • Public Transportation – whenever possible, stick to the metro and buses. Most European transit systems are extensive and will take you just about anywhere in the city confines for one low price. And consider buying an unlimited pass for the length of your stay – it will be much cheaper than paying as you go if you plan to take a lot of trips.