If you’re short of cash, it doesn’t mean you have to starve the travel bug entirely; simply choose your destinations wisely. Europe can be pricey but there are many places where your money will go further. Here are fifteen of our favourites.
For food: León, Spain
In the barrios near León’s cathedral, delicious tapas is served free with every drink. It’s nothing unusual in Spain, but in Léon they do it so well – and so reasonably. A glass of excellent Rioja costs as little as €1.50 and is accompanied by a generous portion. There may be no need for dinner after a lengthy bar crawl during which you’ve filled up on piquant sopa de ajo (Castilian garlic soup), hearty morcilla (blood sausage) stew or fine jamon or cecina (cured ham or beef) piled high on crusty bread.
For beaches: Albania
The Albanian Riviera is a gorgeous, yet overlooked, stretch of Mediterranean coastline. Its pristine beaches flanked by dramatic mountains easily rival the pricier tourist meccas of neighbouring Croatia and Greece. For an unforgettable introduction to the region, drive from Vlorë along the Llogara Pass, a spectacular switchback road that leads down to the turquoise bays of the Ionian Sea.
For nightlife: Krakow, Poland
It’s said that Krakow has the most pubs per square kilometre in the world. If that’s not fact, it certainly feels like it as you stumble merrily from one medieval cellar bar to the next. The Old Town and Kazimierz (Jewish quarter) are filled with atmospheric drinking dens where vodka flows, live-music venues and clubs that never seem to close.
For culture: Berlin
The German capital is, arguably, the most exciting cultural destination in Europe. Offbeat, cool and a little wild, this multicultural city is renowned for its creativity, with edgy galleries, independent museums, music, theatre and contemporary arts flourishing alongside major cultural and historic attractions such as Museum Island, the Reichstag, Checkpoint Charlie and Daniel Libeskind’s remarkable Jewish Museum.
For sun: Tenerife, Canary Islands
When the rest of Europe is suffering the winter chill, the Canary Islands are enjoying year-round warm temperatures. Fortunately, the islands are served by budget airlines and there are plenty of all-inclusive deals that help you get a bargain dose of sun. Tenerife is the best-value of all the islands and if you want to get away from the over-developed southern coast, there’s a spectacular volcanic landscape to explore.
For romance: Czech Republic
It’s hard not to be wooed by this central European country. With an abundance of classic fairytale castles, historic spa towns, fine restaurants, boutique hotels and wide rivers to cruise along, the Czech Republic does romance so effortlessly. Here, they even have a “Love Day” (1st May) when in Prague lovers climb Petrin Hill to lay flowers at the statue of romantic Czech poet Karel Hyneck Macha. All this, yet impressing your sweetheart won’t bankrupt you.
For wildlife: Tatra Mountains, Slovakia
The High Tatras – the highest part of the Carpathian mountain range that stretches across much of central Europe – are one of the best places in the world to see brown bears. In this peaceful landscape of granite peaks, glacial lakes, meadows and alpine forests, you might also spot tracks of a wolf, lynx, wild boar or spot a golden eagle soaring above the pines.
For hippies: Ibiza
If you thought Ibiza was all about clubbing, think again. There’s a laidback side to it too. The Balearic island has been a hippy hangout since the 1960s, when artists started coming here for the Mediterranean light, the easy lifestyle and the low cost of living. There’s still a hippy vibe, particularly in San Joan and at the markets of Punta Arabí in Es Caná (Wednesdays) and Las Dalias in San Carlos (Saturdays). Daily expenses here are still reasonable if you steer clear of over-priced super-clubs.
For skiing: Bulgaria
Bulgaria is easily one of Europe’s bargain ski destinations. The main resorts, Bansko, Borovets and Pamporovo, are ideal for beginners although the pistes may not be high enough to satisfy advanced skiers. Some facilities are a little antiquated, but you get what you pay for and the low food and beer prices means there’s a great après-ski scene to make up for it.
For watersports: Portugal
The long coastline of Western Europe’s cheapest country is its best destination for water-sports on a budget. Get out on the water in the Algarve, Lisbon or the North and show off your water-skiing prowess, learn to kitesurf, parasail or jet ski, or simply play around in the surf. Here, your money goes further so you can stay at the beach for longer.
For history: Sarajevo, Bosnia & Herzegovina
This extraordinary city displays its rich history at every turn. The Old Town hosts Ottoman mosques and ancient bazaars, while nearby are elegant Austro-Hungarian architecture and Latin Bridge where Gavrilo Princip fired the shot that sparked World War I. Throughout the city, bullet-scarred buildings are reminders of the war of the mid-1990s and on the hills overlooking town the abandoned bobsled track, a relic of the 1984 Winter Olympics, still just about stands. Despite past tragedies, this isn’t a melancholy place; it’s a vibrant party city that’s busy celebrating the present.
For outdoor activities: Transylvania, Romania
Thanks to diverse geography, Romania is increasing popular as a budget destination for multi-activity holidays. The Transylvanian Alps are one of several mountain ranges that are a stunning venue for hiking, horse-riding, rock-climbing, river-rafting and wild camping, along with magnificent caving in the gaping network hidden beneath the hills.
For getting off the beaten track: Kosovo
This is a sleepy Balkan gem where you can avoid the tourist crowds. Only in recent years have visitors been starting to rediscover Kosovo‘s rugged mountains, stunning Ottoman architecture, World Heritage medieval monasteries – and its super-cheap restaurants and bars.
For spas: Budapest, Hungary
Budapest is the only capital city in the world built on natural thermal springs and consequently it has many good-value spas. Although luxury options do exist here, the ancient bathhouses are more of a cultural experience. At Széchenyi Baths, expect to see handlebar-moustachioed men playing chess at the side of a steamy pool. Visit 16th century Császár Baths for a traditional Turkish-style experience or elegant Gellert Baths for Art Nouveau opulence.
For beer: Ukraine
It’s official: according to a 2015 survey by GoEuro.co.uk, Kiev is the cheapest city in the world to buy beer. Ukraine has a fast-growing beer market offering predominantly German-style pale lager. Pay a visit to the country’s oldest functioning brewery in Lviv – the 300-year-old Lvivske brewery and museum. (See fco.gov.uk or contact your country’s state department for the latest travel advice to Ukraine).
For a complete guide to backpacking through Europe, check out the Rough Guide to Europe on a Budget. Compare flights, find tours, book hostels and hotels for your trip, and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go.