What is the real cost of traveling Europe?
How do you afford to do it full-time?
How much do I need to save if I want to travel in Europe for a year (or two years or a month or six months)?
As someone who has been traveling full time for seven years, most of that time in Europe, these are probably the questions I get most often about my lifestyle.
Money, unsurprisingly, is the biggest obstacle people think they’ll face on the road. Because if vacations are so pricey, wouldn’t full-time travel be even more so?
This is why for the last 7+ years, while I’ve been traveling full-time, I’ve kept track of my budgets all over the world. Because the truth is that full-time travel can be expensive (just like staying put can be expensive), but it doesn’t have to be. And the only way I know to prove it is to share my own real budgets.
Today, I’m back to share more budget updates with you. More insights into how I travel full-time and what it costs to live and travel in Europe.
First, though, let’s talk about travel styles…
Luna sporting bedhead in Gozo, Malta.
What full-time travel looks like for me
First, it’s important to say that there’s no right or wrong way to travel full time. There’s no standard. Every person I know who does it does it differently.
I have friends who circle back to their favorite places every single year. I have friends who are always chasing new adventures. I’ve met digital nomads who live out of hostels and move every few days and nomads who spend a year or more in one place.
So, before I dive into how I travel, I’ll caveat it by saying that my way is not the way. There are people who travel on a much lower budget than mine and people who travel on a higher budget than mine. There are people who travel faster and people who travel slower. This budget breakdown is based on my experiences and my experiences alone.
Okay, so what are my experiences?
A moody Gozo landscape.
We mostly travel around Europe, though we’ve also done a bit of North and South America in the past few years (and before I hit the road full-time, I visited every continent except Antarctica).
We prefer to stay in one place for at least a month (and sometimes two or three) and we tend to rent comfortable apartments in local neighborhoods.
We’re foodies through and through, so we devote a large portion of our budget to good, fresh, usually organic food and we eat out pretty regularly, especially if we’re in a place known for its cuisine.
Chad works full-time (on software development and strategy) and I work part-time (on content strategy and copywriting). This means big chunks of our week are devoted to work, so someone retired or vacationing is likely to spend quite a bit more than we do.
In our spare time, we love to cycle, hike, read, explore, and eat, most of which is cheap or free and keeps entertainment budgets on the low side. We rarely do museums or indoor attractions.
Sheep fleeing the scene on a long hike in the Swiss Alps.
The cost of traveling Europe: monthly expense breakdown
Before we get into individual budgets around the world, here’s a breakdown of my general monthly expenses and how I approach them:
Housing: This was my biggest expense in the US, and it’s my biggest expense now. Back when I was traveling solo, I spent about $1,000 per month. These days, Chad and I split the rent, so we can afford a nicer space and usually keep our individual spending on the lower side. I shoot for under $800 per person per month and we often come in under $600 each.
So, what’s the secret to affordable accommodations while traveling in Europe? Traveling slow. Monthly rental costs are significantly lower than nightly or weekly rentals. On sites like Flatio and Airbnb, monthly discounts run anywhere from 40% – 70%.
My summer room in a Swiss farmhouse pre-Chad.
Food: Perhaps unsurprisingly, this foodie’s second highest expense is meals. I track my spending on groceries separately from my spending on eating out. I don’t put a budget ceiling on groceries because eating fresh, high-quality food is really important to me and I’d rather spend a bit more on groceries (and a bit less on other things) than take shortcuts with my health or joy.
In the states, I shopped at organic grocery stores and tried to buy healthier options, which were often a bit pricier. In Europe, I shop at fresh markets, local butchers, and tiny bakeries most of the time and stay away from imports that might have questionable chemicals or ingredients.
I always strive to only buy what I need and to buy it in the best quality, most local form I can. I mostly cook at home instead of eating out and when I do eat out I go for quality over quantity. Chad and I can usually share a single entree (and perhaps a dessert) and walk away satisfied, so even though we eat at rather fancy restaurants much of the time, our final bills don’t add up too much.
Recent grocery budgets have run about $329 (Zagreb, Croatia), $336 (Brasov, Romania), and $273 (Prague, Czechia). Eating out budgets in those same locations were around $188 (Zagreb), $130 (Brasov), and $278 (Prague). This means totals for those three places landed at $517 (Zagreb), $496 (Brasov), and $551 (Prague). As you can see, food spending varies, but not enormously.
Bull-heart tomato, Switzerland.
Transportation: Since we tend to stay longer in one place, transportation costs generally run pretty reasonable (e.g. far less than I spent when I owned a car). Every month or two, we buy a long-distance train ticket or two, and maybe once or twice a year we take a flight (though we try to fly as little as possible both because we hate flying and we try to be conscious of our environmental footprint).
In between big train journeys, I choose to walk whenever possible (which, in Europe, is nearly always) and only take buses and metros when the weather is walking-prohibitive, if the walk would be more than an hour long, if I’m carrying something heavy, or if I’m in a particularly busy city and the walk would be crowded or stressful.
These days, I spend anywhere from about $25 (Prague unlimited monthly transit pass) on a month where I’m staying put to $300ish (trains from Rennes, France, to Prague, Czech Republic) on a month when I’m moving from one base to another.
Waiting for the train.
Luna the traveling pooch’s food and care: This varies a little from country to country, but rarely exceeds $200 per month. Luna eats a homemade diet of brown rice, white fish, veggies, and lentils/beans. In general, these ingredients aren’t too pricey (except sometimes the fish).
As with human health care, I’ve found vet care to be significantly more affordable in Europe (compared to the US). In Latvia, four injections, a blood test, two weeks of pancreatic enzyme pills, a vet consult, and an exam cost just over $100. In Dubrovnik, Croatia, in a similar vet emergency, the bill for the sedation, IV fluids, blood work, x-ray, exam, anti-nausea shot, and 100 days worth of pancreas pills was about $150. In the US, the cost would have been at least tripled in each of those cases. A single blood test in Colorado cost us upwards of $200 last time we were there.
Entertainment/fun money: When I’m traveling, most of my activities are free or cheap, so this line item is always pretty small compared to the others.
Supplies: These tend to run less abroad as well, in part because I am careful about what I buy, since I carry everything on my back, and, in part because I’m less bored and thus feel less of a need to shop. The ironic and wonderful thing about this is that the things I buy are often higher quality and more expensive, yet I generally spend less overall than I did in the states.
Lunch in Rome!
Health insurance and healthcare: I pay $190 per month for GeoBlue insurance that covers me anywhere in the world except the US. I’m pretty happy with them. They’ve set up direct billing for me multiple times (which made doctor visits very smooth) in places like Rome and Dubrovnik and they recently and very quickly reimbursed me for a hospital visit after an overenthusiastic puppy bit me too hard at a dog park. I recommend them highly.
Previously, I tried travel insurance through World Nomads, which I found wildly frustrating (despite marketing themselves to travelers, they require you to jump through a LOT of paperwork hoops that require access to printers, scanners, and copy machines) and IMG Global, who ignored my emails and took months upon months to even acknowledge my claims after I was hospitalized on Malta. I would not recommend either company.
For anyone who’s used a healthcare system abroad, it’ll come as no surprise that pretty much everywhere in cheaper than the US. Pre-Obamacare, I paid $150 for three months of birth control pills in the US. A three-month supply (and a doctor visit to get the prescription) in Germany cost me under $100. In Switzerland, that number dropped to around $50. And in Vietnam, the same pills (same ingredients, different brand name) were $10 and available over the counter.
In all, I try to keep monthly spending under $2,000. And even with this as my budget ceiling, I very often come in far under. I recently did the math on the 30 real Europe travel budgets linked below (scroll down for links) and the monthly average came in at $1,637.
Soca Valley, Slovenia.
For those who’d like a more detailed look at my monthly budgets around the world, here they all are categorized by price range (click on the links for in-depth details on the budgets):
My real monthly budgets
(From cheapest to most expensive monthly budget. Click on each location for a more detailed breakdown. Non-European locations are marked with an *. My favorite places appear in bold.)
Under $1350 per month:
Tulum, Mexico / one month ($1232)*
Kotor, Montenegro / one month ($1253)
Sayulita, Mexico / one month ($1301)*
Split, Croatia / one month ($1317)
Zagreb, Croatia / one month ($1337)
Playa del Carmen, Mexico / one month ($1350)*
The trail to Unspunnen Castle, Wilderswil, Switzerland
Under $1,500 per month:
Taormina, Italy / one month ($1364)
Toledo, Spain / one month ($1388)
Kobarid, Slovenia / one month ($1422)
Brasov, Romania / one month ($1433)
Dubrovnik, Croatia / one month ($1443)
Tallinn, Estonia / one month ($1460)
Hiking Kobarid, Slovenia.
Under $1,700 per month:
Rennes, France / one month ($1648)
Nerja, Spain / one month ($1689)
Edinburgh, Scotland / one month ($1697)
Having a moment in Bled, Slovenia.
Under $1,800 per month:
Grenoble, France / one month ($1739)
Prague, Czechia / one month ($1752)
Under $2,000 per month:
Perugia, Italy / one month ($1882)
Flagstaff, Arizona / one month ($1893)*
Rome, Italy / one month ($1911)
Chamonix, France / two weeks ($962)
Vancouver, Canada / one month ($1988)*
Over $2,000 per month:
Biarritz, France / one month ($2029)
Innsbruck, Austria / one week ($511)
Paris, France / one month ($2118)
New York, New York, USA / one month ($2297)*
Day one: cycling across France.
It’s worth noting that you won’t see any business costs in the above budgets. My business expenses vary greatly based on what I’m working on, how much active marketing/sales I’m doing, and what kind of side projects (blogs, self-published books, etc.) I’m taking on.
The few consistent things I pay for business-wise include:
Subscriptions for Microsoft Word, Adobe Photoshop, and a business journal or two.
$10 at a time for credit on a Google Voice account, which allows me to make outgoing calls cheaply all over the world (my TextNow number is a US number). I use it for things like restaurant reservations abroad and the cost tends to range from one to three cents per minute. This isn’t a set monthly expense and if I had to guess I’d say that I probably spend $10 every year or two right now.
I don’t own a cell phone and instead use TextNow on my iPad. It’s free (because they serve up ads), and it’s perfect for me since I rarely ever use the phone. (I literally have to send a test message to Chad once a month to keep the account open. That’s how infrequently I use it.)
Once a year or once every few years, I also have expenses for web hosting and domain renewal for the website. This usually costs me less than $100 per year.
Luna breaks in our workspace in Flagstaff, Arizona.
Taxes: Finally, a note on the most unavoidable of all expenses – taxes. In general (though not in every case), you are expected to pay taxes in the place you reside. If you live in the US, you pay in the US. If you live in Switzerland, you pay in Switzerland.
If you’re from the US, you’ll always have to file US taxes even if you’re a resident abroad, but you may be eligible for the FEIE, which is basically there to prevent you from paying double taxes.
(Rather than get into it further here, I’ll suggest you book a consult with a US tax accountant. Many do free first consults and they will know so much more than I do about all the ins and outs of your particular situation.)
NOTE: If you’re paying in the states and self-employed, taxes are due quarterly, not yearly. This means when I’m paying in the States, I sit down every quarter and calculate the taxes I owe and send the government a check. At the end of the year, I hire a tax whiz (which generally runs me another $300 – $350) to help me make sure everything has been paid and filed properly.
Air travel expenses (& other big one-time costs)
There are a few things I don’t budget for monthly (or include in my monthly budget posts) because they are yearly or quarterly expenses and may vary greatly from month to month. One of these things is plane tickets.
I’m not a traveler that flies a lot, preferring to explore one continent thoroughly at a time and take trains where possible both because it’s simply a more pleasant way to travel, because it’s more environmentally responsible, and because the older I get the worse my motion-sickness gets, so flying has stopped being even a little bit fun.
So, since I’m not buying them monthly or even bi-monthly, I usually don’t track plane ticket costs monthly and instead factor them into my budget on a quarterly or yearly basis.
In 2018, I took five flights (one-way Colorado to NYC, one-way NYC to France, return NYC to Minneapolis for a conference, and one-way Romania to Croatia). In 2019, the number will be two (one-way Switzerland to Estonia, one-way Lithuania to Italy).
Replacing technology (my laptop or tablet), big one-time medical expenses, and other large one-time purchases (like my folding bike) are also something I look at quarterly or annually rather than monthly.
Saving money while traveling full-time
Finally, for me, part of feeling comfortable starting my business and then, a year or so later, leaving to travel full-time was having a decent financial buffer in the bank. I was advised while starting my business to have at least six months worth of expenses in the bank just in case. Being a bit neurotic about money, I waited until I had 10 months and enough clients that I was already almost breaking even.
Similarly, when I started traveling, even though I would be working normally and hopefully earning normally, part of feeling comfortable was the knowledge that I had a buffer. If all my clients ditched me in month one, I could live for a year without income (assuming I lived relatively frugally).
Luna living large.
Everyone operates differently on this. When my aunt started her business, she quickly went into debt. Yet she was wildly successful over time. I’ve also heard stories of those who moved to a cheap part of Asia to start their business, which meant the limited funds they had could last them much longer while they got things off the ground. I know one man who told me it’s going to take $150,000 to start his business. Another woman told me a success story that started with just 3,000 euros in the bank. An old roommate told me she’s been traveling and working for years with just a few hundred euros to her name.
My income is variable, but I also try to set aside a decent percentage (my ambitious goal this year is 75% pre-taxes) each month for the future–both to tackle unexpected expenses or emergencies, to be prepared for my yearly tax bills, and, of course, to create more security for myself in case I ever cannot or no longer want to work.
Last year I managed to save almost 50% of my income, so I’m hopeful for this year’s goal.
Pizza in Naples.
Any expenses you tend to have during travel that I haven’t mentioned? Any questions about travel expenses and budgeting? Toss them in the comments.