After spending a year living in Edinburgh, it was sadly time for my husband and I to pack our bags and head back to San Diego.
However, we weren't going to leave Europe without one last hurrah trip, so we packed up some small backpacks and armed ourselves with some easyJet tickets and Airbnb reservations in big-name cities across the continent. Since we only had a month to travel and a limited budget, we were determined to make the best of our time and money by saving money any way we could.
Over the next few weeks, I'll share with you our tips and tricks for staying in central locations in European cities on a shoestring budget – and how to save money on food, attractions and transportation so you can get the most out of your European vacation.
London's iconic Big Ben clock tower
Our first stop was London. London has had quite the summer. From festivities for the Queen's Jubilee to playing host to the Olympics and Paralympics, the city has seen a constant stream of visitors. So when my husband and I went to stay in the city for a few days, you better believe London was on its utmost behavior.
Initially, I was afraid there would be masses of people, as the Olympics had only concluded the week beforehand and the Paralympics were set to start any day, but instead we were greeted with open arms and short queues. Every time we went out, there was someone who was volunteering or working for the city to help visitors find their way around town. While they were mostly there for the Paralympics, they helped any needy tourist get directions, find good food, book tickets for a train, etc. (To be honest, this spoiled us for our upcoming travels, where we half-expected there to be a nice concierge service awaiting us at the boarding gate every time we got to a new city.)
London itself has so much to offer, and between museum visits, viewing old churches, and trying to spot the Queen, you could easily spend a week or more here without running out of things to do.
While we've been to London before, we continued to talk ourselves out of paying the exorbitant fees for touring the inside of Westminster Abbey. I'm here to tell you that this is a big fat giant mistake. If you ever want to visit the Abbey, don't hesitate, just do it! Thankfully we went one evening when they had a special reduced-price tour for summer nights.
Initially we thought it would only take us an hour or so to tour the entire place. Three hours later, the guards had to kick us out because they were closing and we still hadn't read every headstone and memorial and visited every chapel. To say this place is huge would be an understatement. It is filled to the brim in history and memorials of the famous, as well as a museum with several interesting artifacts.
Afterwards, walk over the Thames and enjoy some fish and chips at Hole in the Wall, a truly local pub located underneath the Waterloo train station bridge.
We spent one morning at the London Transport Museum in Covent Garden. While this might sound like an odd choice, the engineers in our group thoroughly enjoyed it. The museum chronicles London's rise as a major city and the public transportation that made it what it is today. After spending several hours in the museum, treat yourself to some people-watching at Covent Market, buy unique souvenirs, eat delicious food, and watch the buskers as they perform their acts for the crowd (video below).
One afternoon we walked through Kensington Gardens, joining the other 300 families who opted to spending their sunny Saturday at the park. While enjoyable, the lake centered in the middle of the park could use a little more love from city workers and a little less from the swans, ducks and pigeons. Be sure to check out the Peter Pan playground and Princess Diana memorial at the edge of the park.
Diehard music lovers should not miss the Hard Rock Cafe in London. They have special vault tours everyday where you can visit their basement vault filled with rock memorabilia – most of which you can touch. They have everything from Bo Diddley's guitar he made in a woodshop to Kurt Cobain and Courtney Love's wedding cake topper.
We've found there's a way to save money on every trip, even in a city as expensive as London. If you absolutely have to visit Windsor Castle, for instance (left), don't book an expensive tour, just purchase tickets for the train and walk the two blocks from the train station to the castle yourself. It will be much more enjoyable and cheaper than booking a spot with a large tour company.
As for museums, take advantage of their free admission days or reduced prices for students and seniors. In regards to museums in London, there are hundreds of them – so if you aren't dead set on a particular one, check out some of the smaller free art galleries.
One amazing place I visit whenever I'm in London is called Lassco. While this architectural salvage store set in an old Victorian house isn't an art gallery, it sure feels like one. You could spend an entire day at their 30 Wandsworth Road house going from floor to floor admiring all of the unique pieces they have for sale.
Also, to save money on food, we set a budget for ourselves in each city. You'll save by eating breakfast at home before you go out, then eating a large lunch and finishing off with a light dinner. Lunch prices are typically less than dinner prices in major cities.
Next up, we hop on an EasyJet flight to explore Berlin!