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In the summer of 2020, my wife and I were in a unique situation – as Americans living in Europe during the pandemic, we had access to the continent otherwise closed to outside travelers at the time. We knew we had to take advantage of this opportunity to see some of the most visited destinations without crowds and with low prices.
We settled on the Greek Islands, many of which are overrun by tourists during the peak travel months. But which ones, exactly? We just couldn’t decide… so we didn’t, and we set off with a flexible itinerary.
We decided it would be a spontaneous vacation, starting in Athens and ending wherever we ended up. We would decide each day what to do and where to go next.
The result was the adventure of a lifetime, seeing amazing different places on the spur of the moment, making it even more exciting than usual. You’d think there would be some stress with making such spontaneous travel plans, but we found that if done properly, you can minimize that.
And while the summer of 2020 was a special situation with the whole worldwide-pandemic-tourism-shutdown thing, making your travel plans as you go was such a great experience that I’ve done it several times since. I’ve learned that flexible travel in Europe is unique.
The continent is easy to get around, as it’s extremely well-connected with reliable, inexpensive transport and full of tourist-friendly places that you can hop to on a whim. As more and more travelers get interested in this type of trip, I thought I’d share my experiences to help others save money, travel with ease, and, most of all, enjoy the journey.
Choices: Where to Start, Regions, and Potential Destinations
The whole point of spontaneous travel is to avoid planning your route and destinations in advance. But you’ll have to start somewhere in Europe, and if you don’t want to spend an arm and a leg, you probably shouldn’t just show up at the airport and buy a flight ticket to a random city. That component, at a minimum, should be planned beforehand.
It’s also not a bad idea to base that starting destination on general regions and potential places that you may want to visit. For example, if you want to hop around the warm and sunny destinations of the Mediterranean, it probably makes more sense to start somewhere down there than up in Scandinavia.
In my experience, there are some “hubs” that are well-connected and well-suited for this type of spontaneous travel, as well as other places that I would avoid without advance planning. Once you’re there, you can (and should) bounce around to all kinds of fun places, whether they’re major cities on your bucket list or an off-the-grid countryside.
See Related: The Best Times to Buy Flights to Europe (Backed by Hard Data)
You can start or transit through any place that makes sense in your travels. But if you’re totally new to Europe or this type of travel, here are some of my suggestions for launching your adventure:
There are three major airports with some seriously cheap flights, both long-haul and intra-Europe, for your arrival and continuing travels. There are high-speed train services all over Italy, including to hotspots like Rome, Florence, the Cinque Terre, and Venice – book your gondola rides in advance, even if it’s just the day before, to save on the price. There are also really great deals on low-cost airlines to countries like Greece, Spain, Croatia, and many more.
It definitely makes the most sense to start here if you want to hop around the UK, but London can definitely serve as a hub for connecting much further into Europe. It’s often cheap to fly into London, thanks to an abundance of flights from the US. Dublin and smaller cities in Ireland are cheap and easy hops to make, while France is a quick train ride under the chunnel away.
Starting from Vienna is not so much for cheap arrival flights as it is for onward travel opportunities. You can hop on a train here to Bratislava, Budapest, Ljubljana, most of Germany, and Switzerland, for example. Plus, Vienna is a hub for low-cost airlines like Ryanair and Wizz Air that can take you much further into Eastern Europe or beyond. Be sure to see the Schonbrunn Palace and Gardens before moving on!
My favorite, especially for flex travel! Getting around is easy thanks to tons of ferry services, but note that they aren’t always cheap. However, accommodation can be very fairly priced on non-hotspot islands – just look at Kefalonia, for example, where you can get a crazy-cheap city center apartment or “splurge” on a villa with a pool for a comparatively amazing deal.
These are just a few of my best ideas for great places to set off from – and they happen to be cities that you should absolutely love while you’re there. But you can start from wherever makes sense!
On the other hand, you might want to avoid certain places that are very expensive or not well-connected to other places. Some destinations are best planned in advance to make sure you’ll see what you want, stay in acceptable accommodation, and avoid paying too much.
The land of fire and ice is not a cheap place to visit – just look at the prices of the famous Blue Lagoon and rates at a simple Radisson Blu. Being distant from mainland Europe, it also won’t be as easy to travel onward from the country.
You may be tempted by unbelievably cheap fares on Norse Atlantic Airways from the US to Oslo. However, that’s where the savings stop. Norway is a very expensive country, and you’ll pay a lot to get around, eat, and stay – again, just look at the prices for the Radisson Blu! It’s also far from most places for onward travel.
These Eastern European countries do not suffer from the price problems of the places above – just look at how cheap activities like city tours or white-water rafting are in Albania, for example. The issue is getting around, as these countries don’t have well-developed rail systems, nor are there many flight connections between them. If you’re okay road-tripping or traveling by bus, the Balkans are an excellent choice.
These are lovely places to visit; they just have their limitations. Don’t be discouraged from visiting if they are your top destinations, but it may be a good idea to at least do preliminary research to know what to expect before traveling spontaneously.
Getting Around Europe With A Flexible Itinerary
Now that you’re in Europe, you’ll need to know how to hop around each time you decide on a new destination. Luckily, it’s easy to find connections at a good price if you know how to look for them. Try to plan your next move at least a few days in advance to avoid paying too much.
Explore by Train
Train travel is the quintessential way to get around for your European holiday. It often makes a lot of sense when flex-traveling, as prices are less likely to spike at the last minute for most routes. If you buy a Eurail pass, most of your travel will be free, and you’ll just have to reserve tickets on your train of choice shortly before departure.
I like to use Omio to search for train connections. This app pulls schedules from almost all rail networks plus displays buses, which are sometimes faster and cheaper. I usually prefer to go to the provider’s website to book my actual ticket, though.
See Related: The Arctic Circle Train From Stockholm to Narvik: A Life-Changing Experience
Travel via Flights
For longer distances, it often makes more sense to fly. Flight time in Europe is never more than a few hours at the absolute most, anyway. And with ultra-low-cost airlines like Ryanair, flights can be ridiculously cheap here, often even cheaper than trains.
Cheap fares make traveling on a flexible itinerary even easier. Search for flight connections with the usual tools like Skyscanner, Momondo, or Google Flights.
Use the best practices for finding cheap flights. Don’t forget that if you have a lot of stuff packed into anything more than a small backpack, low-cost airlines will charge you (a lot) for your bags, so factor that into your budgeting.
See Related: Ways to Find Cheap Flights to Europe
Hop on a Ferry
My first thought for ferries is the Greek Islands, where you travel in style and relax in between islands. In fact, there are ferry connections all around Europe. Spain to Morocco, Italy to Croatia, Germany to Lithuania… there are some really cool routes that often end up more comfortable and more efficient than road, rail, or plane.
My sites of choice to find ferry connections are FerryHopper and DirectFerries, which should return results for just about every ship operating a route in Europe. In the vast majority of cases, it’s no problem at all to book a ferry even a few hours before departure, if not on the spot.
Take a Road Trip
Finally, if you have a car or are willing to rent one, there’s nothing quite like a European road trip. Crossing international borders on your own schedule with your own wheels is so much fun. And if you’re traveling with friends, it can be one of the most cost-effective ways to get around.
I use RentalCars.com to see what the best possible deal is in my starting point, but I try to stick with the big-name companies when it comes to actually renting. Consider picking up travel insurance that covers rental car damage, just in case. You can find these types of policies on TravelInsurance.com.
See Related: Essential Travel Tips for Tourists Driving in the UK
Finding Accommodations In Europe
The last major component of your spontaneous European adventure is deciding where to stay in each place you hop to. In major cities, and even minor ones, it’s no problem to find cheap hotels, even at the last minute. For example, I just found an Ibis Budget in Paris, a very expensive city, for tomorrow night, at less than 100 Euros per night.
However, you might be scared by the prices you find on Booking.com for certain destinations; and you may not find a hotel at all. That can be the case in remote, off-the-beaten-path places.
That’s why it’s essential to check vacation rentals at the same time, as they are often far cheaper than hotels. Many of the Greek Islands (such as the party ones) are better visited in a vacation rental.
Yes, I could have paid over a thousand Euros per night at a place like Mystique, a Luxury Collection Resort in Santorini, where I would have received five-star treatment. But I opted for The Ivory Suite, which had the same Cycladic cave house architecture, jacuzzi tub, and caldera view for a fraction of the price. If I really wanted to watch my budget, I could have gone with an apartment on the beach for even less.
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Woodrow is a travel writer who wants to do and see just about everything. He’s been to 40+ countries, all 50 US states plus Puerto Rico and the USVI, and is currently living in France and exploring Europe. Woodrow is an expert in travel hacking, finding bargain flights, and coined the term “upgrade engineering” referring to his talent to upgrade simple hotel room bookings into suite stays. Woodrow loves SCUBA diving, fishing, and all things aviation.