If you are embarking on your first big trip then Europe is the perfect continent. With hedonistic capitals, heavy supply of culture, and a healthy tinge of familiarity, a eurotrip is a fantastic gap year option. But although many people do the annual European gap year migration, not all of them do it well. Going on your first big trip can be daunting and it is hard to know where to begin. Eventually everything falls into place but it is good to have a helping hand; so here is my tried and tested Ultimate Guide To A European Gap Year.
Cost break down
Your budget in Europe can vary dramatically depending on your spending habits. For me, I was on a mission to spend as little as possible and managed to travel Europe for almost a year on under $50AUD per day. It could’ve been done cheaper, but it also could’ve been done way more expensively.
Accommodation (~$22AUD per night)
Take this with a grain of salt because costs vary a lot in Europe. The quality, safety and price of accommodation can seem worlds away despite being in the same continent. Your average young traveller will spend about $25AUD for a dorm bed in a fairly good hostel. In most Eastern European cities hostel beds were about $17AUD although in cities like London, Copenhagen, Stockholm and Paris sometimes it’s impossible to find them under $40AUD per night.
Make sure you read the reviews and the hostel amenities. Sometimes you might think you’ve bagged yourself a deal but you have to pay more for extras (or there is no kitchen, etc.) so it ends up costing more.
Food and drinks (~$15AUD per day)
Cooking at your accommodation will drop your food costs by a mile. The easiest way to save money in Europe is by cutting out unnecessary food and drinks. Home cooking will only set you back €2-€4 per meal which is great.
If you want to eat out and sample the cuisine then it’s best to stick to the local restaurants and shops rather than the touristy ones. Meals in restaurants can be anywhere from €5-€infinity depending on the quality of the restaurant. Anything around €10 will still be a filling restaurant meal without breaking the bank.
Coming from Australia, drinks are crazily cheap in Europe. A can of beer will set you back around 30-40c in the supermarkets and bottles of wine/2L bottles of beer for around €2. Not bad. Out in nightclubs, restaurants and bars, beers may cost around €3.50 cocktails might be around €5.
Transport (~$4 per day)
Planes and trains are the most costly, albeit convenient, way to get around. Keep your eye on the budget airlines like Ryanair.com for cheap flights if your journey is long.
There are very good quality bus services such as megabus, eurolines and Flixbus which travel between many destinations in Europe. Yes buses do take longer but you will pay less than half the cost of flying or taking the train.
Trains are a great way to get around and see the landscapes. To save money on long trains book well in advance (~6 weeks). Many people use rail passes in Europe which, in my opinion, are overpriced and most of these journeys can be done by bus for half the price. If you are considering a rail pass then use eurail.com.
Public transport is cheap in most European cities and is around €2 for a trip. There are obvious exceptions to this like London where a single trip can be almost £5. If you are in a city for a while then consider getting a week pass because this can make transport significantly cheaper. Cycle hire is now in most cities as well and can cost around $5AUD per day to hire a bike.
READ MORE: How To Travel Europe On A Budget
When to go
Europe is fantastic because it has such a varied atmosphere depending on the season. You can visit somewhere in summer and it’ll feel like a totally different place if you are revisiting in winter. Each season has its pros and cons, so let’s quickly run through them.
Pros: it’s shoulder season so prices and crowds remain lower. It’s the best weather for hiking.
Cons: weather can be temperamental. A lot of the party destinations haven’t filled with people or started up their pub crawls yet.
Pros: amazing weather, cities feel vibrant, and nightlife is pumping.
Cons: sky-high costs and having to share your experiences with hordes of other tourists.
Pros: back to shoulder season which means prices and crowds begin to drop off. Many landscapes and palaces look gorgeous with the deciduous trees.
Cons: temperamental weather, nightlife begins to slump.
Pros: barely anybody around = lower accommodation costs, short/no queues, barely any crowds. Plus it’s ski season!
Cons: completely freezing. Nightlife can be pretty dead and it is sometimes harder to meet other travellers. Be prepared for some transport to be cancelled.
Planning the trip
The first thing to decide is how long you want to be away for. Whether you’re looking to go for the full year or just a couple of months will greatly change the destinations you go to, how much you are saving up, and how fast-paced the journey will be. There are many combinations of eurotrip/gap year which work for people.
Mine was: work 3 months at home, travel 10 months, work back home for 2 months before university starts. Many others do a half year of work and a half year of travel, and some people go away for the entirety. It all depends on the structure of the holiday and how much cash you have.
You don’t need to decide definitively how long you will go for but having a rough idea means you can sort out funds and figure out if you are going to need any visas before you leave.
Booking the flights
Book your big international legs a few months in advance to secure decent prices. Keep your eyes on skyscanner.com for good deals. It is worth going with a decent airline and having good connections.
Where to go
Deciding where to go can be hard and often once you arrive in Europe and get talking to people, the plans totally change. However it is a good idea to have a rough plan in place and fiddle with it once you arrive. Figure out what you and your travel crew want to get out of the trip and schedule some places that are fun for everyone.
Before you leave you need to know how much money you have to spend and whether you intend on earning more when you’re in Europe. Figuring out roughly how much you have to spend each day can help keep things in perspective and make sure you aren’t spending outside of your means.
Who to go with
Pick your travel buddies wisely because they can make or break your trip. Keep in mind that you will be meeting people along the way who you can journey with as well. Choose people that are reasonably easy going and up for adventures. Don’t commit to travel with people that already annoy you at home — travel amplifies everything in any relationship. And of course, you can always go alone! Europe is a safe place to have your first solo adventure.
Despite the ‘eurozone’ existing, there are a surprising number of different currencies in this continent. The euro is the currency in most western European countries but this is not the case elsewhere. The U.K. has the pound, Poland has the zloty, Russia has the ruble, Norway has the krone… you get the idea. Always keep some euros on you just in case because all banks in Europe will exchange euros, but also check your bank card and see the exchange rates for the different currencies.
How should I get out money?
Your Australian debit card should work in ATMs all around Europe. It is generally best to get out money in relatively large sums (~€100-€150) to avoid international exchange fees/bank withdrawal fees every time you get money out. Most hostels can be paid for on card and most transport tickets can be paid for online.
There is also the option of getting a travel money card (Cash Passport, Commonwealth Bank, AusPost etc.) which are cards that you pre-load money onto and then use to withdraw cash in different currencies overseas. Most of these cards have approved currencies on them (usually GBP, euro, USD, AUD, and a couple of others) and for these currencies there are better exchange rates. If you are withdrawing more obscure currencies like the Polish zloty then the exchange rate on these cards is the same as your normal debit card. These cards don’t really serve any purpose except occasionally smaller withdrawal fees. They are useful to have as a buffer though, so if you lose your debit card you still have a way to get out money or vice versa.
Do you research on the bank cards and see which option is more financially viable for you. I would recommend getting a travel money card even if it is just to have it as a back up.
Passports and visas
If you’re an Australian passport holder then you shouldn’t have any problem getting into Europe. Most European countries are covered by the Schengen Zone, you can only spend a total of 90 days out of 180 days in these countries. That’s not 90 days in each country, that’s 90 days in them all put together which can create some problems.
There are exceptions to this though…
- The United Kingdom allows Australian passport holders to stay in the U.K. for 6 months without needing a visa.
- Many countries not in the Schengen Zone allow you to spend ~90 days in them individually including Croatia, Romania, Montenegro, Serbia and many more. Visiting these nations will not contribute to your Schengen time.
Countries where you will need visas in Europe include, but is not limited to: Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus.
If you wish to overstay your Schengen visa then you can get a visa for an individual country within the Schengen Zone, such as Germany, and this will allow you to stay in Germany for longer.
If you are intending to stay longer than the visas allow, or you are wishing to work or study, then you will need to check out the individual visa requirements for each country. This is best researched and done before you leave Australia.
++ plus ensure your passport is valid. Many countries will not let you in if you do not have at least 6 months’ validity left on your passport. Make sure you have more than enough time left on your passport to cover your ass for at least 6 months after your intended ‘go home’ date.
READ MORE: How To Legally Overstay Your Schengen Visa
Pick your transport wisely because costs can quickly skyrocket. Because Europe has so much to see in such a small amount of land, the journeys are rarely very long (but they can be costly). You are spoiled for choice with transport here and it is all fairly high quality. Buses, trains, planes, ferries and rideshares offer a huge amount of options for any journey.
Which transport medium?
If I had endless money, I would always take the train. You get to move pretty quickly, don’t have to deal with the stress of airports, get dropped off straight in the centre of town, and you get to enjoy the views along the way — a pretty good deal if you ask me. But… trains can cost a lot, so the next best option is the bus. Buses share most of these epic train qualities for the budget-savvy traveller but they are definitely slower.
Unless you’re really pressured for time or have a long way to go, I would avoid planes. They cost a lot, you spend too much time in transit, and you don’t get to see much during your journey.
I have never done this personally but many travellers do. Hiring or buying a car gives you a tonne of flexibility with destinations, travel times and you often get the “full experience” of a country. This does however come at a price. The laws differ on hiring or driving a car depending on the country but most require at least a full drivers license.
There was an old advertisement which still sticks in my head — “if you can’t afford insurance, you can’t afford to travel”. This is very true. You do not realise how much you need travel insurance until you need it. I learned this last year when I had to cancel my European trip halfway and fly home, this would not have been possible without insurance.
Make sure you get the right level of insurance for the activities you are doing and the locations you are going. Prices vary between continent and activities (i.e. if you’re going skiing/snowboarding then insurance will cost you more).
If you check out this portal for travel insurance by World Nomads, they can give you a quote and if you book through my site then I’ll earn commission whilst you don’t pay a cent more — win-win! If you’re a medical student like me, then check out Avant because they do free travel insurance for medical students.
My favourite European experiences
Hiking the High Tatras Mountains, Slovakia
Exploring the galleries of Paris, France
Watching the sunset over the walls of Dubrovnik, Croatia
Hiking in the Swiss Alps
Watching the ballet in Prague, Czech Republic
Seeing Neuschwanstein Castle
Clubbing in a nuclear bunker in Bratislava
Eating way too much in Greece