Europe offers the fullest possible range of accommodation for all budgets. Book up to two months in advance for a July visit or for ski resorts over Christmas and New Year.
Hotels Range from the local pub to restored castles.
B&Bs Small, family-run houses generally provide good value.
Hostels Enormous variety from backpacker palaces to real dumps.
Homestays and farmstays A great way to really find out how locals live.
Stay for Free
Online hospitality clubs, linking travellers with thousands of global residents who’ll let you occupy their couch or spare room – and sometimes show you around town – for free, include:
- Couchsurfing (www.couchsurfing.com)
- Global Freeloaders (www.globalfreeloaders.com)
- Hospitality Club (www.hospitalityclub.org)
- 5W (www.womenwelcomewomen.org.uk)
Check the rules of each organisation. Always let friends and family know where you’re staying and carry your mobile phone with you.
During peak holiday periods, particularly Easter, summer and Christmas – and any time of year in popular destinations such as London, Paris and Rome – it’s wise to book ahead. Most places can be reserved online. Always try to book directly with the establishment; this means you’re paying just for your room, with no surcharge going to a hostel- or hotel-booking website.
B&Bs & Guesthouses
Guesthouses (pension, Gasthaus, chambre d’hôte etc) and B&Bs offer greater comfort than hostels for a marginally higher price. Most are simple affairs, normally with shared bathrooms.
In some destinations, particularly in Eastern Europe, locals wait in train stations touting rented rooms. Just be sure such accommodation isn’t in a far-flung suburb that requires an expensive taxi ride to and from town. Confirm the price before agreeing to rent a room and remember that it’s unwise to leave valuables in your room when you go out.
B&Bs in the UK and Ireland often aren’t really budget accommodation – even the lowliest tend to have midrange prices and there is a new generation of ‘designer’ B&Bs, which are positively top end.
Camping is popular in Europe, although, on such a crowded continent, it's less of a wilderness experience than it is in North America or Africa. Glamping is also gaining in popularity. Most camping grounds are some distance from city centres.
National tourist offices provide lists of camping grounds and camping organisations. Also see www.coolcamping.co.uk for details on prime campsites across Europe.
There will usually be a charge per tent or site, per person and per vehicle. In busy areas and in busy seasons, it’s sometimes necessary to book in advance.
Camping other than at designated grounds is difficult in Western Europe, because it’s hard to find a suitably private spot. Camping is also illegal without the permission of the local authorities (the police or local council office) or the landowner. Don’t be shy about asking; you might be pleasantly surprised.
In some countries, such as Austria, the UK, France and Germany, free camping is illegal on all but private land, and in Greece it’s illegal altogether but not enforced. This doesn’t prevent hikers from occasionally pitching their tent, and you’ll usually get away with it if you have a small tent, are discreet, stay just one or two nights, decamp during the day and don’t light a fire or leave rubbish. At worst, you’ll be woken by the police and asked to move on.
In Eastern Europe free camping is more widespread.
Homestays & Farmstays
You needn’t volunteer on a farm to sleep on it. In Switzerland and Germany there’s the opportunity to sleep in barns or ‘hay hotels’. Farmers provide cotton undersheets (to avoid straw pricks) and woolly blankets for extra warmth, but guests need their own sleeping bag and torch. For further details visit Abenteuer im Stroh (www.schlaf-im-stroh.ch).
Italy in many ways invented the modern farmstay movement through its rich network of agriturismi that first grew up in the 1980s. Agriturismi are state-regulated and participating farms must grow at least one of their own crops. Otherwise, accommodation runs the gamut from small rustic hideaways to grand country estates known as massarías. See www.agriturismo.it for more details.
Agritourism has since spread to the UK, France and other countries. See www.farmstayplanet.com.
You can organise a lengthy excursion in Europe based purely in cheap hostels – as any nostalgic InterRailer will happy relate.
HI hostels (those affiliated to Hostelling International; www.hihostels.com) usually offer the cheapest (secure) roof over your head in Europe and you don’t have to be particularly young to use them. That said, if you’re over 26 you’ll frequently pay a small surcharge (usually about €3) to stay in an official hostel.
Hostel rules vary per facility and country, but some ask that guests vacate the rooms for cleaning purposes or impose a curfew. Most offer a complimentary breakfast, although the quality varies. Hostels are also great places to meet other travellers and pick up all kinds of information on the region you are visiting. They often usurp tourist offices in this respect.
You need to be a YHA or HI member to use HI-affiliated hostels, but nonmembers can stay by paying a few extra euros, which will be set against future membership. After sufficient nights (usually six), you automatically become a member. To join, ask at any hostel or contact your national hostelling office, which you’ll find on the HI website – where you can also make online bookings.
Europe has many private hostelling organisations and hundreds of unaffiliated backpacker hostels. These have fewer rules, more self-catering kitchens and fewer large, noisy school groups. Dorms in many private hostels can be mixed sex. If you aren’t happy to share mixed dorms, be sure to ask when you book.
Hotels are usually the most expensive accommodation option, though at the lower end there is little to differentiate them from guesthouses or even hostels.
Cheap hotels around bus and train stations can be convenient for late-night or early-morning arrivals and departures, but some are also unofficial brothels or just downright sleazy. Check the room beforehand and make sure you’re clear on the price and what it covers.
Discounts for longer stays are usually possible and hotel owners in southern Europe might be open to a little bargaining if times are slack. In many countries it’s common for business hotels (usually more than two stars) to slash their rates by up to 40% on Friday and Saturday nights.
At the cutting edge of the market, boutique and design hotels continue to push the envelope. Look out for creative options set in old castles, monasteries or even former prisons.
Some university towns rent out their student accommodation during the holiday periods. This is a popular practice in France, the UK and many Eastern European countries. University accommodation will sometimes be in single rooms (although it’s more commonly in doubles or triples) and might have cooking facilities. For details ask at individual colleges or universities, at student information offices or local tourist offices.