Cheap, long term travel is usually associated with Central America or South East Asia…Europe, not so much. While those regions are affordable on a backpacker’s budget, the Balkans are a highly underrated region in Europe that is still very cheap, relatively safe, convenient and still considered to be off the beaten path compared to Central or S.E. Asia.
When I first started to plan this trip I scribbled Montenegro on a piece of paper, that quickly turned into a side trip to Croatia, a couple of days in Bosnia and then a two week stopover in Turkey. With a big trip in the works and little money, I was determined to travel on less than $50 a day on a month long trip.
Though the Balkans don’t have the price tag of Western Europe, they still do cost more than typical ‘shoestring budget’ destinations. With that said, I set out to travel hack an amazing month long vacation through Turkey and several Balkan countries.
Using my own set of travel hacking tools that I’ve picked up, 36 days in Europe cost me around $1,500 USD, averaging $42 USD per day and I wasn’t ‘roughing it’. This includes every expense I incurred on the trip–flights, hotels and hostels, food, transportation, drinking, shopping, and activities.
This is where you ask yourself: When was the last time I was able to travel in Europe this cheap? Or even better, how can I do this? The fact is, you can and it’s not hard.
Just think about that for a minute. $1,500 is close to what it costs me to stay at home and subsist on a graduate student budget. Instead I took a 36-day European vacation. You’re probably thinking: you must have stayed at some pretty low caliber accommodations and eaten peanut butter and jelly day-in-and-day-out.
How Did I Pull it Off?
Let me start by explaining the kind of trip I wanted to take—how I traveled, where I stayed, what I ate, and ultimately how I enjoyed my trip.
This wasn’t a backpacking trip through Europe. My goal was to have over a month long vacation and to show how it’s possible to travel well for very little money. These methods can be used for travel anywhere in the world, so even though I did it in Europe, you can apply them anywhere.
Before heading off on the trip I decided: I wanted to stay in very few hostels, I wanted to enjoy all the local food (thus eating out often), and I would not turn down an attraction because of the cost. With the money I was saving by not paying out-of-pocket for airfare and hotels I could budget more for daily enjoyments (e.g. grabbing a coffee at the street cafe or trying out the local beer).
Oh yeah, I also wanted to rent a car. In my opinion, this is one of the best ways to truly explore a new country. Although it’s often not as cheap as traveling on buses or trains it gives you the ultimate flexibility to choose your route, stop where and when you want, and mix-up the itinerary as needed. Note: I was traveling with my girlfriend so the cost of the car was split between two people.
With that said, let’s go over how I did it.
Using my United Airlines frequent flyer miles I booked a round trip flight with a stopover and an open-jaw to Europe. I flew in Business Class on Turkish Airlines to Europe, but was unable to book a business class seat on the return due to limited award seat availability. My round trip ticket cost me 80,000 United miles and $74.20 in airport taxes and fees.
I also took advantage of United’s generous routing rules and added a stopover in Denizli, Turkey for free. By doing this I flew two segments of my itinerary in Business Class and visited another destination for no extra cost. For the open-jaw portion of my trip I bought a cheap flight from Istanbul to Sarajevo, then traveled by bus to Dubrovnik where I picked up my rental car which I used for the rest of the trip.
Note: United recently devalued its award chart and it will now cost more to fly on partner airlines. Since airline frequent flyer miles are essentially a currency, they can be devalued over time, this is where thus earning miles on different airlines becomes key.
How did I earn all of the airline miles?
To tell you the truth, I got most of these miles from not even stepping foot on a plane. How? By signing up for lucrative credit card offers. The quickest way to earn a lot of free airline miles is by applying for one of these travel credit cards.
I have earned over a million airline miles and points through signing-up for credit card bonus offers, various promotions, and spending bonuses. I’ve written widely about these, but here is a quick rundown:
Sign-up for a co-branded airline credit card. Whether you are a frequent flyer on an airline of choice or just starting, you can greatly increase the miles you earn by signing-up for a travel credit card. Typically a sign-up bonus offer will give you 25,000 to 75,000 points after meeting a minimum spending requirement. That’s enough for a round trip flight to many international destinations. This is the best way to jump start getting free travel from airline miles and points. There are many credit cards that offer sign-up bonuses and you can work your way through the best ones, earning 25,000 miles here, 50,000 miles there. Soon you can have 200,000+ miles on each airline frequent flyer account.
Sign up for a co-branded hotel credit card. Apart from airline miles you can also get hotel points that you can use for free nights. Many of the co-branded hotel credit card sign-up offers are worth at least a couple of free nights, but depending on what level of hotel you want to stay at you can get a few free nights at a luxury hotel or up to 15+ nights at a lower-tier hotel. With the Club Carlson Visa you get 85,000 points as a sign-up bonus. When you use the points for free nights you can get up to 3 nights at a luxury hotel or 18 free nights at a lower-tier hotel. A huge perk of the card is that it gives you a second night free when you redeem points for stays of 2 or more nights.
Sign-up for a travel rewards credit card. Other cards, like the Barclaycard Arrival Plus™ World Elite MasterCard®, offer flexible miles or points that you can use for cash back. The Arrival Plus card has a 40,000 miles sign-up bonus that is worth $440 in free travel when redeem for travel. The best part about this card is that you can redeem these miles for any travel expense which makes them super flexible. I highly recommend any general traveler to sign-up for this card, but signing up for ANY travel rewards card with a bonus is a great way to get free travel.
Earn extra miles from promotions. You can earn extra airline miles and hotel points through special promotions. Hotels often have promotions that award bonus points for certain stays or offer discounted hotel stays using points. Similarly, airlines run promotions that offer extra bonus miles for flying certain routes, 100% mile purchase deals, and even extra miles for doing online shopping through their shopping portal. The best way to stay tuned to all of the promotion is to sign-up for airline and hotel mailing lists. Taking advantage of some of these promotions can quickly multiply the amount of points you earn in a short amount of time.
I always write about the best current deals, so if you want you can sign up for my free newsletter to get updates on the best ways to earn free airline miles and hotel points. There are numerous other great resources for learning about all of these deals such as FlyerTalk and FatWallet.
Since I signed up for four hotel credit cards within the year before the trip I had enough points for around 20 free nights at luxury hotels. I ended up only redeeming points for 12 nights since many destinations in the Balkans do not have large hotels.
The hotel credit cards I signed-up for leading up to the trip include:
Chase IHG Rewards Club Visa. This card offers 80,000 points that can go a very long way when staying at middle-tier IHG hotels. I stayed three nights at the Holiday Sisli in Istanbul which normally runs around $350 per night. I was upgraded to a suite with the Platinum elite status that comes with the card. I used 45,00 IHG points on this stay.
Club Carlson Premier Rewards Visa. I had actually signed-up for both the personal and business version of the card, but only used a portion of the bonuses on this trip. The sign-up bonus for the card is 85,000 points and the card gives you a free night when you redeem two or more nights. With this in mind, I booked two night stays at the Radisson Blu Bosphorus, Radisson Blu Dubrovnik, and Radisson Blu Split. On top of that I received room upgrades at all of these hotels with the free Gold elite status that comes with the card. I spent 138,000 Club Carlson points on these stays.
Marriott Rewards Premier Visa. The card offers 70,000 points and a free night at a Marriott category 1-4 hotel. I only used the free night at the Renaissance Beach Resort Antalya, so I still have the 70,000 points.
Citi Hilton HHonors Visa Signature Card. I also stayed two nights at the Doubletree in Zagreb using Points + Cash, and only used part of the 50,000 bonus points from the sign-up offer. Each night cost 12,000 points + $50.00.
Most of these hotels are 4 to 5 stars and these 12 nights would have easily cost close to $4,500. Not only did I save by not having to pay for accommodation for these nights, but I also enjoyed some very nice hotels.
For the other 24 nights during the trip I stayed at a mix of small hotels, pensions, or zimmers (a room for rent in someone’s house). I will admit I stayed in two hostels while in Turkey, but opted for a private room in both. Each night generally cost $10 to $25 per person depending on where we stayed.
The best way to maximize the value you get from airline miles and hotel points is to use them for their intended use. That’s why it is best to earn airline miles for flights and hotel points for hotel stays, thus signing-up for both an airline branded credit card for flights and hotel branded credit card for hotel stays. You can use airline miles for hotels, but you generally don’t get the highest value per point.
Note on applying for multiple credit cards: You should only apply for credit cards if you responsibly manage your credit score and pay off all your cards at the end of the month. Every time you apply for a new card you get a small ding to your credit score, but these drop off after several months and the free travel earned from the sign-up bonuses hugely outweighs the small ding. After four years of signing up for multiple credit cards per year I still have a credit score of about 780.
For the two weeks in Turkey I traveled by public transportation since buses are cheap and plentiful, but for the Balkan portion of my trip I wanted to rent a car.
As I said, renting a car gives ultimate freedom to travel on your own schedule and route. The best part is you can can leave when you want, stop when you want, and take any side trips without having to do extra planning and looking up travel timetables for a bus or train. Plus with a rental car you will save on any cab rides along the trip.
I booked a 14 day car rental for $470 through AutoEurope.com using their price matching to a competitor’s price. This came out to around $34 per day plus gas. Our car got very good gas mileage and the total amount spent on gas came to around $150. Again, since I was traveling with another person this cost was split. It may not make sense for a solo traveler to rent a car, and it’s often not as fun.
I love enjoying local foods when traveling, so eating out and tasting the local dishes was a priority. On this trip I did not want to subsist on pasta and cheap street food the entire time, but this didn’t mean splurging on every meal either.
Generally breakfast was included with my accommodations. For lunch I would either eat at a local cafe or buy local bread, meats, cheese and fruit and enjoy a picnic on the road. This was a cheap and quick meal and you’d be amazed at the places you can stop overlooking the Adriatic! Also, if there was a cafe that looked popular amongst the locals I would pull in and eat there.
For dinners, I generally went off our accommodation’s recommendations or found a restaurant to try out on TripAdvisor or Yelp. Generally I did not spend more than $10 to $15 on dinner, but occasionally I would splurge on a nice dinner.
Of all the meals I ate out Turkey provided the easiest and best selection. You can easily grab a kebab or sandwich from a bakery. Coffee is also very easy to come by and great. Along the coast of Croatia I did not want to skimp on the seafood even though it was not as cheap as I would have imagined.
Throughout the trip I did spend a bit on bottled water, coffee, and beer. These are mostly optional expenses, but even with that, I was able to stay under budget. I refilled the water bottles wherever it was safe to do so along the trip.
As I mentioned, I did not want to miss out on enjoying great food. I dined where I wanted to and ate what I wanted. The biggest thing is to mix the number of cheap meals with some more expensive ones. Eating a cheaper lunch can allow more budget to spend on dinner, vice versa.
Any well traveled budget traveler knows that good food does not mean it is expensive. The biggest tip is to go off the tourist streets or ask a local where they would eat, not where tourist should eat. You want to dine with the locals.
There are tons of free activities and attractions to take advantage of while traveling. On this trip I enjoyed many free daily activities as well as the paid attractions that I wanted to see. When I travel I figure I may never be back to these destinations, so see it while I’m here.
One of my favorite ways to explore and enjoy a city: walk around, get lost, and get off the tourist streets. Cost? Free. Hiking or going to the beach? Free. Exploring the historic streets of a city? Free. On top of those ideas most cities are have many free attractions and museums and many offer a discount with a student ID.
However, if you want to enjoy all of the attractions, you’ll have to pay for many. Some of the paid activities I included in my trip include:
- Full-day tours in Kas, Turkey and Mostar, Bosnia
- Visiting the Pamukkale baths
- Sightseeing the Blue Mosque and other tourist attractions in Istanbul
- Entrances fees to Durmitor, Plitvice Lakes and other National Parks
- Hiking up to the old fort in Kotor, Montenegro
- Ferries to various islands in Croatia
- Various museums and historic attractions in the Old Towns of Dubrovnik, Split, and Zadar
- 12 island boat trip in Fethiye
Much of my daily activities were free, but I also did not want to pass up attractions because of the cost. By saving a huge amount on my hotels and flights, I could easily spend more on attractions and buy some souvenirs along the way without killing my budget.
I spent around $150 on attractions, which is very reasonable for a 36 day trip. With a rental car we had access to a lot of free attractions without having to pay a guide or tour company. This was a great way to explore places off the beaten path–for instance exploring a beach along a secluded section of highway on the island of Korcula.
How Much Would This Trip Regularly Cost?
Had I paid for this entire trip out of pocket, this trip would have cost more than 9x as much as I paid.
A round trip flight to Europe during the summer runs around $1,200 USD, let alone the itinerary I had using United miles with a free stopover would cost around $8,000 USD to purchase on United.com. My one-way flight on Pegasus Airlines from Istanbul to Sarajevo to cover the open-jaw portion of the trip cost $42.00.
The hotels I stayed in were mostly 4 or 5 stars and ranged from $366 to $630 per night. For these 12 nights, this would have cost around $4,500, but instead I used 207,000 hotel points to cover these stays. I will be the first to say that I wouldn’t pay for these types of accommodations out of pocket, but when using points why not stay there. I spent around $400 to cover the remaining 24 nights on the trip.
The 14 day car rental cost $470, but was split between two people. Gas totaled around $150 for the whole trip. Thus, it cost around $310 per person, which is not bad considering we drove close to 900 miles total.
Had I cooked in instead of eating out most nights I could have saved $200+ USD, but the goal wasn’t to take a trip on a shoestring budget. All-in-all I spent around $500 on food during the 36 days.
If you total the value of the trip including the flight and hotels, it would have cost around $14,000 USD. The point I want to get across is that using rewards points and travel hacking tricks the cost of an amazing luxury trip cost less than an economy flight to Europe! This means that I saved ~89% off the total cost of this trip if I paid out of pocket. Not only did I travel cheap, but I did not sacrifice comfort or experiences. Using a little travel hacking knowledge and taking advantage of airline miles and hotel points can go a long way.
Contrary to popular belief, travel does not have to break the bank. On top of that you should never say, “I’m taking a trip of a lifetime.” By spending a little extra time planning and earning airline miles and points from credit card sign-up offers you can travel for a fraction of the cost. And this can be repeated year-after-year. So, the bottom line is that you don’t have to spend a lot of money to travel well and enjoy your trip. Writing up my total trip breakdown was to show people how easy it is to take a trip to Europe on a backpacker’s budget, but not travel like a backpacker. You can travel cheap AND travel well.
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