The process of picking one place to visit in Europe, with its wealth of stunning travel destinations, isn't easy. But for budget travelers, we have a few excellent ideas for planning an unforgettable vacation that's both marvelous and within your means. These ultra-cheap vacation recommendations command a price of around $500 or less for a pair of travelers on a multi-day adventure and include accommodations for less than $100 a night, free or low-cost activities and affordable local transportation. These are excellent ideas for long-weekend getaways and multi-day stopovers. Or spend a little more and make a weeklong vacation of it.
Getting there -- whether it's by plane or train -- is extra. (But we have some tips that will help you book an ultra-cheap flight, too.)
Island Hopping in the Greek Isles
Though the news of late may be dominated by stories of the Greek debt crisis, this European country remains a beautiful destination for all travelers -- especially those on a budget. The Greek Isles are where you want to be for beachfront island adventures, sun-ripened produce and uncommon archaeological treasures.
What to Do: If you want to hop from island to island (our recommendation), your main expense will be local transport. No worries, though. There are cheap ways to do it. One idea: Buy an island-hopping package. GreeceTours.com sells five-day ferry-and-hotel packages starting at €179 per person (about $192). These packages include accommodations and high-speed ferry travel between the islands. Each isle offers its own special experiences, of course, but activities range from kayaking on glass-clear water to exploring ancient ruins.
Where to Stay: Accommodations on the Greek Islands are wonderfully inexpensive. Choose less touristy islands -- like Paros or Lefkada -- instead of more trafficked Greek Islands -- like Santorini or Mykonos -- to find cheaper options. Paros, for example, is abundant with hotel rooms for €30-40 per night and guesthouses with such luxurious amenities as beachfront views and balconies. At the garden-circled Marili Apartments, nightly rates for self-catering studios with kitchenettes start at €27 (about $29) and include airport transfers and a bottle of local wine. The beach is a short walk away.
City Escape in Zagreb, Croatia
Grabbing the number 12 spot on the European Backpacker Index for 2015, Zagreb is a wonderfully inexpensive destination. But affordability belies the cities' extraordinary cultural, culinary and architectural offerings. The Croatian metropolis is a world-class European capital with fascinating museums, enchanting medieval neighborhoods, massive old cathedrals and a rich Austro-Hungarian cultural heritage.
What to Do: Add Zagreb City Museum (30 kuna; about $4), the fascinating Museum of Broken Relationships (25 kuna; about $3.50), and the Croatian Museum of Naive Art (20 kuna; about $2.81) to your must-see museums itinerary. Spend a leisurely afternoon exploring the restaurants and vibrant cafe culture of pedestrian-only Tkalciceva Street. (The cost of a meal in Zagreb averages 84 kuna, or about 12 bucks, according to that Backpacker Index.) Haggle for flowers, local cheeses and fresh fruit at the Dolac Market, open daily. And when you tire of the urban bustle, head north of Zagreb to Medvednica Nature Park, where clearly designated hiking trails lead you past gentle fauna like deer and wild foxes.
Where to Stay: Not too far from the city center, the well-reviewed Roo Rooms offers comfortable, private accommodations starting at 169 kuna, or about $24 nightly.
Wine Tasting in Porto, Portugal
Portugal's second-largest city has plenty to offer by way of wine, but the art, food, and nightlife are equally thrilling enticements. Here, we focus on the vinho. Because tastings and cellar tours range from free to a few euros, they're a dirt-cheap way to enjoy a port-soaked European vacation.
What to Do: Entrance to the Sala Ogival wine-tasting room costs €2 per person. Take a €4.50 tour of the Sandeman wine cellars. You get the idea. A great place to get more information on wine-centric activities is the Visit Porto website. Additionally, you'll find lots of tastings and tours across the river from Porto in the town of Vila Nova de Gaia, where many port bottlers operate warehouses.
Where to Stay: Rates at the centrally set White Box House in Porto start at €31 per night in summer for a room with a private bathroom. Or snag a free breakfast with your stay at the Almada Guesthouse, where rates start at €53 a night during high season. You'll find that prices for accommodations are even cheaper during winter and shoulder seasons.
A Loire Valley Gite Stay in France
Find French-country romance in the Loire Valley, about three hours' drive south of Paris. It's amazingly affordable to explore vineyards, grand chateaus, and fairy-tale villages in this beautiful region of central and western France, which is a UNESCO World Heritage site.
What to Do: Visit castles. Taste wines. Discover ancient medieval towns. Explore caves. All of these activities are free or extremely cheap. At the Cave des Producteurs du Vouvray, for example, a wine tour costs just €2. Admission to the Chateau of Villandry and its garden--where you can easily while away an entire afternoon -- costs €10. In the medieval city of Angers, rent a bike and use a free app to navigate the towpaths through the scenic surroundings.
Where to Stay: To save money, avoid hotels. Instead, go gite. France's gite system offers a charming way to find unique accommodations--like chateaus, farmhouses, and cottages -- for very cheap prices. In spring and fall, rates for a four-night stay at La Closerie de la Herissiere, with a kitchenette and a private terrace, start at €230 for two people. Breakfast is included. This irresistibly romantic bed-and-breakfast is comprised of a collection of 15th-century stone cottages dotting an orchard of fruit trees.
A Ferry Cruise in Scandinavia
Can you plan a $500 getaway in famously costly Scandinavia? Find the answer aboard a luxury cruise ferry.
What to Do: Hop on one of the two major ferry lines that travel between Stockholm and Helsinki, Viking Line and Tallink Silja Line, for a very cheap mini-cruise. The popular Helsinki-to-Stockholm (or Stockholm-to-Helsinki) route is a good choice. And this isn't your typical no-frills ferry. As you sail through the dreamy archipelago of the Baltic Sea, you can take advantage of big-cruise amenities like spas, restaurants, bars, casinos, duty-free shopping, and swimming pools. Ferry cruises are popular getaways for locals, so expect full immersion in Scandinavian culture -- including plenty of Baltic herring and steamy saunas -- while on board.
Where to Stay: An overnight trip from Helsinki to Stockholm and back again starts at €110 (about $118) for two people in May via Viking Line; accommodations are in a standard cabin with a double bed and the rate includes breakfast. I found similar rates on Tallink Silja Line for sailings in June: A cabin for two costs €85 (about $91).
-- By Caroline Costello
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