Budget Travel: A Trip to Italy and France

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I love to travel.

I was just out of university and my husband (then boyfriend) had never traveled outside of North America.  I wanted to share my love of travel with him and bring him to all of the wonderful places I’d had the chance to visit around the world.  I figured a nice place to start was Europe.

When I was younger, my parents brought my sister and I on a trip around Italy and I absolutely loved it, the food, all the history and the scooters!  I wanted my husband to discover this wonderful country and decided to plan a 10-day trip to Europe for our annual vacation.

One small problem: we didn’t have the money to do a 10-day trip in Europe, or so I thought.  I had just started at a new job and he was still in school.  I decided to do a bit of research to see how we could manage.  Here are the different steps of our process.

1)  Where are we going?

The first step was deciding what cities we were going to visit.  I had narrowed down our search to Italy, but we didn’t know what cities we would visit within the country.  In order to decide where to go, I had to look at a few different things.  I like to use an excel spreadsheet to keep track of the different options and add in links for the different websites I find the information on for later reference.

Where to fly to and from?

The biggest cost of any trip is the flights.  We had to look at flights from Montreal (our hometown) to Europe that were as low as possible.  Also, to save on internal travel, it is best to fly in to one city and out of the last city on the itinerary.  We also preferred direct flights as it made the flight portion much more pleasant, and allowed us to enjoy more of our time at the destination.

Since we were flexible about the cities we visited, and I mostly wanted to bring my husband to visit Europe, we opened up our search to all of Europe.  The cheapest and most direct flights are often to large cities, so we started our search with Rome and Milan, but the flights were over 1000$.  After many different city combinations, we found that we could get a direct flight for 700$ in to Rome and out of Paris, France.  When choosing the cities to arrive and leave from, it is also important to ensure that there could be a geographically interesting itinerary between the two.  In order to save on travel costs, it is always best not to go back and forth too much.

It may seem like there are too many possible city combinations to find the best price.  As a starting point, I recommend looking at promotions from several airlines.  I looked at Air Canada and Air Transat.  I noticed that certain cities were always much cheaper than others (Paris, Rome, Madrid, etc.).  You can also use sites like skyscanner.com and enter Everywhere in the to field and even select a whole month in the departure and arrival fields to really get a view of what the prices are to different cities, this can also help you narrow down your dates if you are very flexible.  You can also use travel sites such as hipmunk.com to look at the different city combinations for the dates you want to travel, using the multi-city search option that many sites now offer.  Hipmunk.com rates the flight options in terms of Agony, a combination of price, duration, connections, takeoff and landing time, which reduces some of the work of looking at all these variables.  They even allow you to add 3 days of flexibility to your departure and arrival dates if you are flexible to try to get the best rate.  Unless it makes sense for you to travel on a Tuesday or Wednesday, the other days of the week will be similar in price. I also recommend signing up to receive alerts if your tickets price drops.  Usually the optimal time to book a flight is 7-8 weeks in advance, which means you should know your itinerary before that to be able to jump on a low price when it arrives.  Once you to book your ticket, some airlines offer a 24hr free cancellation that you could use if you find a lower price after having booked. Finally, it seems that Tuesday’s are the best days to book flights as that is when the airlines’ promotions come out.

How much do things cost in each city?

Most often, the bigger the city, the more expensive things are, from hotel rooms to restaurants.  On the other hand, they are easier to navigate on foot or with public transit, not requiring a rental car or taxi rides, and provide more varied options when it comes to accommodations, restaurants, free events, etc.  In the end, we usually find that larger cities work best for us, allowing us to visit all the big sites without spending too much.

Knowing we were flying in to Rome and out of Paris, two of our stops were dictated.  We then looked at other Italian cities such as Venice, Naples, Florence to see what there is to see and how much hotels, restaurants, public transit and sights cost on average.  As a rule of thumb, I try my hardest to find accommodations under 100$/night for two people, using sites like AirBnb and other travel sites like booking.com.  As such, we quickly ruled out Venice where the availability was low for out dates and the cost was easily over 150$/night.  Both Florence & Naples allowed for budget accommodations and had interesting sights to see.

Seeing as we were not planning on renting a car, we also had to consider the cost and timing of trains from Rome and a flight or train to Paris.  Although both Florence and Naples were more or less the same distance away from Rome by train, we found out that Naples had a direct flight to Paris for under 130$!

How many cities and how long in each?

Once you have an idea of the cost in each city and the cost to travel from one city to another, it comes the time to finalize the itinerary.  With 10 days, we decided that 3 cities at around 3 days each made sense for us.  We felt we could visit most of the major sites in a city within that time-frame, but we also didn’t want to be jumping from city to city every day and the cost of trains between cities quickly added up.

2)  Finalize the itinerary

Once the questions above are answered, you can work on finalizing a day-by-day itinerary.  We decided on Naples as our third city as we were really interested in visiting Pompeii and Vesuvius, which allowed us to get to see how people used to live in Pompeii before they were caught by the erupting volcano, excellently preserving the city and its buildings.  We were also looking forward to getting some exercise hiking up the volcano and catch some beautiful views at the peak of Mount Vesuvius.

In the end, here is what our itinerary looked like.

Sun, Oct-6 Leave Montreal
Day 1 Mon, Oct-7 Arrive Rome
Day 2 Tues, Oct-8 Rome
Day 3 Wed,  Oct-9 Rome
Day 4 Thurs,  Oct-10 Rome
Day 5 Fri,  Oct-11 Leave Rome for Naples
Day 6 Sat,  Oct-12 Pompeii
Day 7 Sun,  Oct-13 Vesuvius
Day 8 Mon,  Oct-14 Leave Naples for Paris
Day 9 Tues,  Oct-15 Paris
Day 10 Wed,  Oct-16 Paris
Thurs,  Oct-17 Leave Paris for Montreal

At this step, you need to look at train schedules and opening hours of the attractions you want to visit, keeping in mind that most things are closed on Sundays in Europe or that trains during rush hour will be more expensive and more likely to be sold out.  We also had a look to see if there were any festivals or other activities going on in any of the cities as often these types of events will have free activities that you can enjoy while traveling on a budget.

3)  Make a budget

We didn’t have a strict budget for your trip but we knew we didn’t want to spend more than 2000$ per person (approx. 1300 euros). We did however want to keep the total cost to a minimum to give us more breathing room for the rest of the year’s budget.

On the excel spreadsheet that I started earlier, I made a table for each city with the following categories.

Accommodations

I did research to fill in the amounts from each line as best I could.  For accommodations we used AirBnB as the nightly prices were lower or the same as hotel rooms but an apartment with a kitchen allowed us to make our own food and save money on restaurants.  Below are the average accommodation prices we found in each city:

City Nights Cost/night Total/City
Rome 4 105$ 420$
Naples 3 60$ 180$
Paris 3 95$ 285$
Total ($/couple) 885$

Food

Coffee
A little coffee break while sightseeing!

For food, we budgeted 50$ a day for both of us which would allow us the flexibility of eating out at least once or twice per city.  We knew this was the item where we could potentially save the most money, but being on vacation we wanted to allow ourselves to splurge a bit. This brought us to approximately 500$ for food for both of us.

More than saving money on food, having breakfast in our apartments also helped us save time, not having to find somewhere to eat before heading out to explore the city.  We could have a quick coffee and orange juice with a toast or croissant and get to a museum before the line-ups got too long.

Pasta and wine in our apartment at the end of an adventurous day of sightseeing in Rome.
Pasta and wine in our apartment at the end of an adventurous day of sightseeing in Rome.

Even if I wasn’t looking to save money, I found that shopping for groceries in a different country really gives you a feel for how locals live.  Grocery stores are mostly in residential neighborhoods so you end up venturing into small streets you would not normally as a tourist.  You also get to see all the different things people eat in that region and even how they get their groceries.  We are used to going to a big grocery store and getting our food for the week.  In Europe, we found that people like shopping at specialized markets multiple times a week.  This led us to stopping at many bakeries to pick up bread and pastries then heading over to a fruit and vegetable stands to get fresh tomatoes and other vegetables for our pasta or fruits for snacking.  We were also able to try out some excellent local wines for a couple of euros or some local delicacies such as pâté, fresh pasta, delicious cheeses or marinated olives for much less than it would cost us at home.  One of the highlights of our trip was wondering through an outdoor market in Naples and having to hold myself back from buying all the fresh foods that had my mouth watering!

Transport

We researched transport and attractions together.  We had to look at the price of bus or metro tickets in each city, but also to various attractions outside the city center.  For example, in Naples, we wanted to visit Pompeii and Vesuvius which required a train ride each (luckily it was only 7$ round trip!).

We also had to factor in the transport from one city to the next as well as transport to and from the airports.  To get to and from the airports, we did not use taxis but instead found buses, trains & shuttles that were much more cost effective.  For example, a taxi to Paris’ Charles-de-Gaulles is easily 80$, but instead we took the bus which cost 14$ each.

A popular way to travel between cities in Europe is by train.  In doing some research, we found that there are 6 different classes of trains in Italy alone with varying price-tags as well.  We decided to take the cheapest class (regional trains) between Rome and Naples.  These trains take longer than the high-speed trains, taking 2.5 hours but only costing 10 euros (vs 70 mins for 45 euros for the high-speed trains).  The hour and a half difference was well worth the money for us as it was a once way trip and the 100$ we would be saving could pay for one night’s accommodations!  These trains do not have reserved seating, but seeing as they start from Rome, arriving early will pretty much assure you of a seat and room for your bags.

Below are the amounts we budgeted for transport:

Rome Naples 27$
Naples Paris 128$
Naples Pompeii 7$
Naples Vesuvius 7$
Rome Public Transit 14$
Paris Public Transit 14$
Naples Public Transit 8$
Orly to Paris 10$
Paris to CDG 14$
Airport to Rome 12$
Naples to Airport 5$
Total ($/Person) 246$

Attractions & tours

A view inside the Coliseum
A view inside the Coliseum

We also knew we wanted to visit big attractions such as the Coliseum, the Roman forum, the Vatican museum and the Louvre. So we researched the best way to get cheap tickets and tours (which often came with the benefit of being able to skip the lines!).  We bought tickets in advance for the Coliseum and Forum online which also gave us access to a backstage tour of the Coliseum. Having the tickets in advance allowed us to enjoy more of our time in Rome by not having to wait in line for tickets.  We also found out that the Forum offers free tours at certain times of the day and so we ensured our visit coincided with one of these free tours.

Ruins in the Roman Forum
Ruins in the Roman Forum

For the Vatican museum, from reading other travelers’ experience, I knew the biggest issue was extremely long wait times.  By buying our tickets online, even though we didn’t save money on the cost of the ticket, we were able to skip the line (and feel bad for everyone waiting in the heat to get in!).

In Naples, as I mentioned earlier, we wanted to Visit Pompeii and Vesuvius.  While researching these sites, we discovered Ercolano (or Herculaneum), a site less popular but similar to Pompeii which was both cheaper and also better kept.  Ercolano was covered by much more lava than Pompeii and as such the buildings were much better preserved including many two story buildings.  We also splurged and joined a tour for a total of 30$ each (tour and admission), which was well worth it as our guide was able to tell us stories about how people were living in the city and also how things looked at that time.

Remains seen in Ercolano
Remains seen in Ercolano

In Paris, the Louvre was a must.  You can buy tickets directly from the Louvre’s website  (www.ticketlouvre.fr)  with the caveat that the tickets were bought for a specific day.  Since we had already planned our itinerary, this was not a problem for us.  We got these tickets at 23$ and once again got to skip the line.

Venus de Milo as seen in the Louvre.
Venus de Milo as seen in the Louvre.

The other necessary sights in Paris are free to view: Eiffel tower and Notre-Dame-de-Paris Cathedral. Notre-Dame-de-Paris offers a few free guided tours a day in various languages to explain the history behind the site.  We very much appreciated this tour and were lucky to have had an extremely knowledgeable tour guide whom you can tell really wanted to share his knowledge and passion with the tourists.  Having gone to visit the Louvre before our tour of Notre-Dame-de-Paris, we were able to appreciate many of the references between paintings at the Louvre and carvings and stained glass in the Cathedral, closing the loop nicely on our trip.

Front facade of Notre-Dame-de-Paris
Front facade of Notre-Dame-de-Paris

In the end, our preliminary budget is shown below:

Budget
Flight 700$
Hotel 442.50$
Transport 246$
Food 500$
Attractions & Tours 146$
Total ($/person) 2034.50$

Our first look budget seemed acceptable as we were close to our 2000$ limit and we knew we could save some money on food and potentially other areas as well.

4)  Book your travel & Enjoy your trip

The last step before leaving on your vacation is booking your travel.  The best way to save money is by planning ahead and giving yourself enough time to find good deals on the things you will be buying anyways.  We set-up alerts on travels sites such as hipmunk.com to get email alerts when the price of our flight decreased.  This way we could get a better deal on the flight.

We booked our accommodations on AirBnB, but not after looking at local hotels & hostels as well as more unusual accommodations such as university dorms, farmhouses or monasteries.  We wanted to be close enough to public transit without being in the most expensive parts of town.  We were also looking for a certain level of comfort; we did not want to stay in large dorm rooms in hostels or have to share a bathroom.

Finally, we booked our attractions & tours after searching for ways of saving money on different travel forums online.

Once we left for our vacation, everything went very smoothly and we were able to enjoy the trip and all the new experiences without worrying too much about money.

5)  The Aftermath

After coming home all relaxed and enlightened with our cameras full of pictures to share with family and friends, we decided to look back at our budget to see how much our trip ended up costing us compared to our initial budget. In the end we managed to cut our food budget in half (pasta and pizza in Italy really isn’t expensive!) and reduce our attractions & tours (we couldn’t visit Vesuvius because of the weather in the end). The grand total came up to 1788$/person, which was more than 200$ under budget!

Budget Actual
Flight 700$ Flight 721.5$
Hotel 442.50$ Hotel 442.5$
Transport 246$ Transport 226.31$
Food 500$ Food 262.26$
Attractions & Tours 146$ Attractions & Tours 135.50$
Total ($/person) 2034.50$ Total ($/person) 1788.07$

We ended up having a very memorable trip and were excited to start planning our trip for the next year.  With proper planning and research, any destination can be a budget travel destination!

Have you been to Europe on a budget? Share your budget travel tips and tricks in the comments below!

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