Cycling cheaply in Europe - CycleBlaze

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Cycling cheaply in Europe

Erika Brewer

Some day, when I can figure out how to save some money and also have a good chunk of free time, I really want to ride bikes in Europe. The woods of Estonia, the beaches of the Mediterranean, the fjords of Norway, the peaks of the Dolomites in Italy -- they all seem so magical.

And so expensive.

It's hard to save a good chunk of money if you don't make that much, so once I get to that point, I need to make it last as long as possible. That seems tougher to do in Europe, where I've read of lots of people talking about how expensive meals and beer and camping and such can be. Plus there's the cost of just getting there (from California in my case). Maybe it's not as bad as I've made it out to be, but compared to riding near home, where I can just leave from my apartment and often camp for free in the woods, the costs seem high. High enough that I wonder how I can manage it if I'm riding for two or three months, or maybe more. Especially if it's the summer, when I'm guessing camping is more pricey.

So I guess I have two questions. Is Europe actually as expensive as I think it is? And if that's true -- how could I deal with that and ride there on the cheap?

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6 months ago
Mike AylingTo Erika Brewer

Yes, Erika most of the European  journals here are by reasonably well off who seem to have enough money to get by. However have a look at my "cuz" Jon Ayling who manages to wild camp in Europe from time to time. Also backpacker hostels may be a bit cheaper than some of the camping places. Cheap airfares are available if you book and pay some time in advance. I know that times are tight in the workforce these days but work out your budget and start saving for your big trip in a few years time.

Mike 

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6 months ago
Jon AylingTo Mike Ayling

Hi Erika and thanks "cousin" Mike!

So I'd be lying if I said your cost concerns were entirely unwarranted - Europe can certainly be an expensive place, especially in the North and West. As someone who gets a kick out of the egalitarian nature of bike touring, the high cost of hotels, transport, food can somewhat burst that bubble of thinking that even if I was moderately broke I could still get by touring around.

The good news is that, while I've had some shockers (the 60 euro for a simple tent pitch in Mora, Sweden springs to mind) with a bit of planning it is possible to get by cheaply in North/Western Europe. It's actually surprised me that I spend less on the essentials of life when I'm touring than when I'm at home!

Now, your mileage may vary a little here, since my baseline is home-counties UK where costs are not particularly low. But for continental Western Europe, for me the cost of food is somewhat cheaper in both supermarket and mid-range restaurants; alcohol and public transport is much less expensive; and official camping much more available and cheaper. It's been a while since I visited California (2011 - not on a bike!) - but I remember that costs weren't dramatically different from what I was used to in the UK (food may have been a little cheaper).

  • For food, all through Western Europe you'll be able to find budget supermarkets where (often surprisingly good quality) produce will be available cheaply. If you can prepare food yourself - either carrying a stove or in hostels or the like, you'd be able to feed yourself in a wholesome way for about 5-7 euros a day. Maybe add on a euro for fuel. Of course, there are lots of luxuries that could quickly expand this: if you go to local bakeries to get (excellent) bread in Germany, for instance, you could easily spend that just on confectionery. Generally, cost of food is the most regionally variable: Scandinavia is notoriously more expensive (particularly Norway, where there's very little farmland, and you could easily spend 20euros/day just on groceries).
  • When it comes to restaurants, pubs etc, I find that the classiness of the establishment is the main determinant of the price. Even in a big city in Western Europe, it generally will be possible to get a wholesome and filling meal somewhere for 10-12 euros (maybe not Switzerland). When in doubt, Indian, Chinese and Italian places are often good bets (and delicious), albeit maybe not as regionally authentic. In Southern and Eastern Europe, expect much lower costs than this. The financial crisis hit Italy, Spain and Greece hard - visiting Naples in 2016, I was astonished that it was still possible to get a Margherita pizza in a restaurant for 2-3 euros. Interestingly, in Sweden I found the restaurants good value.
  • On the continent alcohol is much cheaper than I am used to, and generally very high quality for wine (France/Spain/Italy/Greece) or beer (Germany, Belgium, Czech Rep). In the UK, alcohol is considered ubiquitous but also somewhat sinful and hence is heavily taxed, so it's not unusual to pay £5 for a pint of beer or glass of wine in a pub (or about £2 in a supermarket). They have a somewhat healthier attitude on the continent and having an alcoholic drink with dinner is fairly standard, and shouldn't set you back more than a few euros (unless you have a taste for vintage wine or high-class restaurants!). In the supermarkets of France and Germany, I found booze almost comically cheap: in Speyer, I spent some time trying to find any beer in Netto that cost more than 1 euro. I failed! I figured it must be horrid if it was so cheap but it turned out to be an excellent wheat number. The exception is Scandinavia, where alcohol price is high as a matter of policy. Even in Sweden, though, I found beer and wine in the state-owned alcohol shops was not drastically more expensive than the UK.
  • You can certainly break the budget staying in high-end hotels, especially in cities. The good news is that there are lots of options (certainly more than I'm used to at home). First, camping with tents is really very well supported, at least through France, Germany and the Low countries. Cycle touring is a real phenomenon there as well, so campsites know what to expect, with late arrivals, etc. I travelled right along the border of France and Germany this summer, mainly staying at municipal and private campsites, none of which I booked (or frankly, planned) in advance. The most I paid was 12 euro, the least 6. Campsites are also generally well geared up for tents (not just motorhomes etc) - they can be basic, but often this is part of the charm. One thing is that they will nearly always be seasonal. As mentioned, I do enjoy a bit of wild camping too. Again, this is a bit of a function of what you're used to. South-East England is very densely populated and arable, but is still remarkably possible to find patches of secluded land to camp on. So when I went to France and Germany - and especially Sweden - the amount of forested area I could disappear into and wild camp made it seem very straightforward. Coming from West US your perspective might be somewhat different! I had some great camps and was never disturbed (even when I camped directly below a bike route) - one thing to note is that while, because of the denser population, every inch of land will be owned by somebody; but conversely, the worst that's likely to happen if you get "caught" camping somewhere you shouldn't is a mild telling off. In England, while wild camping (even on "public" access land) is technically trespass, confusingly it isn't actually against the (criminal) law, so it is not exactly a risk and in practice I've never been stopped. Further afield (Eastern Europe in particular) there may be fewer official campsites, but wild camping will be easy; and in places with a low population density (like Sweden, Norway or Scotland) the right to wild camp is even enshrined in law. Beyond this, there is the whole warmshowers scene, which I have to say I haven't dipped into but hear good things. And of course there are hostels and budget hotels, which (outside of very popular areas) may be surprisingly cheap - you can probably get a hostel bed in many places for <10 euros, and hotel rooms for 30-40 euros per person. This is refreshingly cheaper than England, where even B&Bs can be excruciatingly expensive...
  • Transport is an interesting one. In general, I find public transport: trains, buses and boats - much cheaper in continental Europe than the UK. In France, Spain and Italy, if you take the "slow" trains (often still very fast and sometimes the only option that takes bikes), you may pay only 35 euros for 4-5 hours of transport for you and your bike, as I did getting from Paris to Dijon. In Germany it will be more expensive (but extremely fast and reliable). In general, if you need to get somewhere by public transport, it will not break the bank (unlike in the UK, where it can be cheap if booked months in advance, or extortionate if bought on the day. Nobody knows why this should be). I have taken very expensive ferries in Norway, but through most of continental Europe it generally won't break the bank to hop on a train or bus. Ferries are generally fairly good value and taking a bike is easy: they make all their money on people taking cars, so often the cost to take a bike will be very cheap (think 5-10 euros on top of a passenger price, which might only be 30-40euros to). Plane tickets can be very cheap indeed, especially on budget airlines to fly around Europe. Persuading them to take the bike may be another matter!
  • Incidental costs depend a little on what you do. Often cultural sights outside big cities don't get huge numbers of visitors, so can be fairly cheap (I would be surprised to pay more than 5-10 euros). Natural sights, national parks etc are nearly always free. In the UK, many museums are completely free (though those that aren't can be a bit ridiculous - it's something like £25 to go to the tower of London now). If you're into city living and shopping then it might quickly rack up; if you're more happy cruising through the landscape and stopping at the odd castle, a few euros a days will see you right.

I'm making a few (rather sweeping) generalisations here, but I hope this gives you a sense of the sort of costs that might be realistic. To me, the biggest cost would be getting here in the first place - once you're on the bike, you could see and do a lot even on something of a shoe-string.

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6 months ago
Jeff ArnimTo Jon Ayling

Just a quick note to say that I found this a very helpful response. Always good to know where one can go to find comically cheap booze!

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6 months ago
Mike AylingTo Jon Ayling

Very informative post, Jon.

Mike

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6 months ago
Scott AndersonTo Erika Brewer

Europe is a big and very economically diverse place, and you can’t really generalize about costs.  It matters enormously which part of the continent you’re biking in.  Some countries are quite expensive (Switzerland, for example), and others are much less so.  I feel certain that you could tour on a smaller budget in some countries over here than you could back in the states.  Spain, Portugal, and Greece are very inexpensive places to travel, particularly if you’re not going to hang around in Barcelona, Athens, or Lisbon the whole time.  Italy can be quite inexpensive in places too.  We were in Albania this spring, and it was a real bargain.

I can’t speak to what it’s like to camp, since we haven’t done that in many years; but if you’re staying in lodging the other big consideration is which season you travel in.  If you can manage to travel in low season the room prices drop significantly.

I just discussed this with Rachael, and she agrees.  We both think that you could tour on a lower budget - possibly much lower - if you’re careful.  The big unavoidable expense is the flight, but once you’re over here I think you’d be pleasantly surprised.  And if you’re looking for a recommendation, I’d consider Spain and Portugal as outstanding budget destinations.  We’re in Spain now for I think our sixth time, and we keep being amazed by it.

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6 months ago
Erika BrewerTo Mike Ayling

I hadn't really considered backpacker hostels. We don't really have many of those in the U.S. Or when we do they're usually not all that cheap. Thanks for the tip!

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6 months ago
Erika BrewerTo Jon Ayling

Thank you for taking the time to respond to my questions/concerns/etc. in so much detail. I always like to hear from people who have actually done what it is that I'm hoping to do. I've bookmarked it to refer back to it in the future.

I think my traveling style is probably similar to yours, with lots of camping, cooking for myself, finding the absolute cheapest flight, that kind of thing. It sounds like southern and eastern Europe might make the most sense if money really is tight, but it's good to know that if I can find cheap or free places to put up my tent, that I can still get by even in western Europe.

Also, I will remember to avoid camping in Mora in Sweden. 60 euros is about how much I'd like to spend every four or five days!

Anyway, thanks again, this is super helpful .

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6 months ago
Erika BrewerTo Scott Anderson

Maybe I will just do a big circle around Switzerland!

It's interesting to find out that Spain and Portgual and Greece aren't that expensive. I just assumed they were, I don't really know why. I'm mostly interested in seeing the countryside and meeting people outside the cities, so it's really good to know that such areas can be done cheaply.

I'm guessing it probably varies depending on where you are, but what's the low season for the places you mentioned... Spain, Portugal, Greece, Albania? Both spring and fall? Just one or the other?

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6 months ago
Scott AndersonTo Erika Brewer

What a brilliant idea, looping a country without crossing its border!  I’m going to have to look at the map and think about it.  There aren’t many possibilities like that in Europe.  If we ever take such a journey we’ll be sure to credit you for the concept.

Yes, spring and fall are the best times.  Before we retired, most of our tours were in the 4-6 wekek range, and we nearly always pegged them in late April/May or September/early October.  If you’re looking at Southern Europe, the other consideration is heat.  It’s starting to get uncomfortably hot by late May and through September and in places like southern Greece or Andalusia.  We’ve been to Andalusia twice now - the first time in September, the second in October/November.  The first was still too hot, the later one was brilliant.

Even later in the year is a possibility too though.  We’ve never biked over here as late as we are this year.  It’s early December, and the cycling along the coast in Catalonia is fantastic.  Roads are empty, as are the busy resorts that we tend to avoid because they’re normally too crowded and expensive.

Start saving!

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6 months ago