Monday, December 5, 2022

Budget trip to Europe: 6 countries, 11 days (flights, food & football)

In 2019, news broke that the Denver Broncos were expected to play the Atlanta Falcons in London during the 2020 NFL season. Because I've grown up in a Broncos-loving family and now blog about the team for Broncos Wire, I was excited about the possibility of making a trip to England to watch the team play across the pond. 

That game was moved stateside because of COVID-19, though, canceling my potential trip. There was a silver lining, though. The Broncos' trip to London being delayed gave me more time to save money, so I created an online savings account specifically for a trip to Europe. I put both my stimulus checks in the account and side money into the account sporadically while waiting for the Broncos' next opportunity to play in England. 

When the NFL's 2022 schedule was announced last May, it included a London game against the Jacksonville Jaguars at Wembley Stadium. Bingo! 

After saving for the trip, I began thinking that if I was going to go all the way to England for an American football game, I should also check out some other parts of Europe while I was already over there. My family loves soccer and the USMNT, so I thought it would be fun to check out some American soccer players across Europe, and the schedule worked out well. 

Denver's game against Jacksonville (in London) was scheduled for Oct. 30, which is a great time to travel to Europe because it's not the peak busy season but also not too late in the year and not too cold. Late October was also a good time to watch soccer, especially during the 2022 season because we were able to watch some of the best players in the world right before they left their clubs to play in the World Cup

We decided to make a game plan for where we wanted to travel and coordinate it around the Broncos game and several soccer games. England to watch the Broncos in London, Germany to watch Gio Reyna with Dortmund, Spain to watch Sergiño Dest with Barcelona and Italy to watch Weston McKennie with Juventus. Throw in Malta during the trip, Denmark on the way there and France on the way back and we mapped out an 11-day, six-country trip for the fall. 

Because we were going to do so much traveling, we didn't want to have suitcases we would need to take with us everywhere, so we searched for large travel backpacks. We found a fantastic 40-liter MATEIN Travel Backpack that was absolutely perfect for our needs. 

The backpack had a huge main compartment that was basically as big as a small carry-on suitcase, and it had multiple compartments, including a spot where my laptop fit in comfortably. I couldn't recommend the bag enough -- I'm going to use it for so many future trips because it's spacious but also convenient. Right now it's on sale for just $39.99 on Amazon

MATEIN Travel Backpack

After getting our "suitcase" backpacks for the trip, next we bought European outlet adapter converters to be able to charge our phones and my laptop during the trip. You can find European adapter travel chargers for less than $10 on Amazon

Now with our bags and chargers secured, we started to book flights for the trip. We found a $373.80 flight from Newark that flew to Copenhagen in Denmark on the way to Germany. We quickly booked that and then bought a return flight from Paris, France back to Newark for $192.87. You can check out WayAway to look up cheap flights to Europe. The flights there and back were the biggest and most important so we bought them first and then bought flights to get us from country to country on our schedule. 

I used my VISA Southwest Rapid Rewards signature credit card to book all our flights, and I used it for all of our card purchases during the trip because there are no foreign transaction fees with the Southwest card (plus I earned 1 point for every $1 spent). Foreign transaction fees really add up so that was a huge advantage. You can sign up for a Southwest credit card using my referral link and get 75,000 bonus points for meeting purchase requirements. I can't recommend it enough for international travel! 

The first day of our trip was getting from New York to Europe. The fun started on Day 2. 

Day 2: Germany 

Signal Iduna Park ("Westfalenstadion")

After a layover in Copenhagen, our first stop on the trip was Dortmund, Germany (Deutschland) to watch Borussia Dortmund play Manchester City in a Champions League soccer game. 

To be able to buy tickets to the game, I became a BVB member so I could access the member sale. Because I do not have a German bank account, I had to email the team (mitglieder@bvb.de) and ask how I could pay for membership. They emailed me back a form and said I could fill it out and they would send me an invoice that I could pay through Wise

I was able to become a member that way and I woke up at 4:00 a.m. on the day of the member sale about a month before the game and I was able to buy tickets in the Yellow Wall for $18 each! I was ecstatic to be able to get tickets that cheap thanks to the Bundesliga's 50+1 rule that ensures fans have a say in ticket prices. 

If you don't want to go through the hassle of becoming a member, you can buy Champions League tickets on resale websites such as Viagogo (but BVB fans would prefer you buy through the team to help keep prices low). 

The BVB-City game was an awesome experience. We were in the standing section and it was definitely crowded (and full of smoke), but it was enjoyable nonetheless. We went primarily to watch the USMNT's Gio Reyna play for Dortmund, but the match was full of international soccer stars, including Erling Haaland facing off against his former team. We got German pretzels, too, which are a must-have item in Germany! 

We stayed at a hotel that was a short train ride from the stadium. I booked all our hotels for the trip on Hotels.com because they give you a free room after every 10 bookings. I also made sure I had Rakuten activated for every online purchase I made for the trip. Rakuten will give you cash back for purchases simply for having their app active in the background. You can join Rakuten for free and get $30 cash back when you spend $30!

Day 3: Spain 

After watching the soccer game in Dortmund, we flew to Spain (España) to watch Barcelona play Bayern Munich in another Champions League match. I became a Barca member to be able to buy tickets during the member sale again, but resale tickets are also available on Viagogo. 

When I bought the tickets, we were initially hoping to watch the USMNT's Sergiño Dest play for Barcelona, but he was loaned to AC Milan after we bought tickets. It was still a fantastic experience to witness a game at Camp Nou, and again, there were dozens of international soccer stars involved. The food in Barcelona was delicious and the city was beautiful. 

Day 4: Spain 

(Cala Varques)

After watching Barca play Bayern, we had $19 flights the next day to fly from Barcelona to Mallorca (check out WayAway!). Mallorca is a beautiful island with breathtaking beaches. We stayed in Palma de Mallorca, which reminded me of San Diego, and we rented a car and drove across the island and witnessed beautiful farm country and countless vineyards. 

We stayed at Saulo Beach Hotel, which I cannot recommend enough. They had by far the best customer service of any of the hotels we stayed at during the trip. When we got there, they told us that they had upgraded our room from an interior room to a beachfront room for free! (Another nice potential perk of traveling to Europe during the offseason.) 

When we told the front desk that we would be leaving very early in the morning and asked what would be the best way to get to the airport, they immediately scheduled a taxi for us and then told us they would leave to-go breakfast bags at the desk for us since we'd be leaving earlier than their breakfast hours. The room was spacious and clean with a beautiful view and the front desk was incredibly helpful. The beach was right outside our room and there was a gelato shop right next to the hotel. I'd love to go back to Mallorca and I definitely plan to stay at the Saulo Beach Hotel when I do. 

We rented a car because our hotel was about an hour away from Cala Varques, which is the primary attraction that drew us to Mallorca. I recommend Economybookings.com for international car rentals. It's totally worth driving through the beautiful country to get to the secluded Cala Varques, and Palma de Mallorca is an ideal location to stay. 

How to get to Cala Varques beach: To get to Cala Varques, you have to drive to a private road that has a gated entrance. Even if the gate is open, do not drive down the road! The road is extremely narrow, especially at the end, and it would be easy to get stuck. If you approach the gated road on your right-hand side, continue driving about 100 yards down the main road and pull off in the makeshift parking lot. If you approach the gated road on your left-hand side, turn around and go back about 100 yards to park on the side -- you'll likely see other cars parked there. 

From that parking spot, you'll have to walk about five minutes down to the private road, then you'll have to walk down that for about 15 minutes until you reach the end where you'll see a stone wall with a path broken through it. You'll then hop over a second wall and then follow a path for about 15 minutes and you'll end up at the beach. It's a bit of a trek but it's totally worth it! 

The water at Cala Varques is crystal clear and absolutely beautiful. Most people will stay at the main beach area, but you will want to go off to the left and hike back up to check out some incredible rock arches. And a word of advice -- don't jump off the arches if you're not an experienced cliff jumper. It's not worth the risk as I found out the hard way. I did not land properly and it took more than four weeks for an injured bone bruise to heal, and it made the next several days of the trip pretty painful. 

My foolishness aside, Mallorca was one of my favorite stops on the trip and Cala Varques was one of my favorite destinations. You can check out our hike to Cala Varques and the beautiful water starting at the 2:17 mark of this video. I filmed all of our water activity on a brand-new GoPro Hero 10, which you can find for under $350 on Amazon, but I would recommend spending just $49 more to get the latest model -- the GoPro Hero 11 -- for just $399 on Amazon

Day 5: Italy 


After our stay on Mallora, we took a $9.61 flight back to Barcelona and then flew from there to Roma (Roma), Italy (Italia) for $52. We toured the Roman Forum (Forum Romanum) and the Colosseum and the Mamertine prison where Peter and Paul were held in a dungeon. Italy is, of course, known for pizza, but don't get Italy's famous Neapolitan pizza in Rome -- make sure you get the authentic Roman pizza experience with rectangle-shaped pizza (pizza al taglio). We enjoyed a delicious white pizza. 

Day 6: Malta 

The Blue Lagoon and Saint Mary's Tower in Malta

After a day trip to Rome, we flew to Malta to check out the famous Blue Lagoon. We took a ferry from the mainland to the lagoon's mini harbor and we went at the perfect time of day -- first thing in the morning. The lagoon is beautiful, but around midday, it turns into a bit of a tourist trap and becomes extremely crowded, even after the peak summer months. 

We got there early and beat the crowds and found Tony's Blue Lagoon Lockers to store our bags. Tony was extremely nice and gave us a free small compartment to store our valuables after we bought spaces for our two large backpacks. We then hiked over to Saint Mary's Tower, which you will definitely recognize if you've seen The Count of Monte Cristo. It cost just 2€ to enter the castle and it's worth it for the view from the top alone. 

We then went back down to the lagoon area and it was already starting to get crowded, so we swam across the lagoon to a tiny island that was full of caves and rock arches. We swam through one of the openings and discovered beautiful green water on the other side (check out our Malta adventures beginning at the 5:46 mark of this video). 

Before the trip, I bought a pair of swim shorts that were on sale on Swimoutlet.com. You can get 20% off your first purchase by using my Swimoutlet.com referral link

Day 7: London 

From Malta we flew to Milan (Milano), where we stayed overnight before an early-morning flight to England for the Broncos game. We were able to fly from Milan to London for just $13 (check out WayAway). We saw all the big London sights before heading over to the NFL game -- Big Ben, the London Bridge, the more-impressive Tower Bridge, Westminster Abbey and, of course, Buckingham Palace. 

We then took a "tube" over to Wembley Stadium to watch the Broncos face the Jaguars with more than 86,000 fans in attendance. We were able to buy tickets for the game directly through the NFL, but you can find NFL London tickets on resale sites such as Viagogo. 

After the Broncos game, we flew back to Milan for another overnight stay before an early-morning $20 flight to Naples (Napoli). 

Day 8: Italy 


We got a $20 flight from Milan to Naples (Napoli), where I was especially excited to visit because I am passionate about pizza. I love Neapolitan pizza, so much so that I have my own Ooni pizza oven, and I was so excited to try authentic pizza in Napoli. 

You don't want to go to a fancy sit-down restaurant to find the best pizza in Italy. Instead, you will find cheaper (usually about 6€) and often better pizza at small, hole-in-the-wall pizza shops throughout Napoli. We found Ammore Pizzareia and loved it (check out their pizza-making process at the 9:12 mark of this video).

From Napoli, we took a ferry to Capri, which is a small but beautiful island. We then made our way to Anacapri on the island and stayed at B&B Il Grappolo, a beautiful private home with a balcony overlooking the ocean outside our room (11:21). Maria was an absolutely wonderful host and though we don't speak Italian, we were able to communicate through hand gestures and Google translate on our phones. 

Maria provided a wonderful breakfast (seen at the 11:29 mark in this video) and we really enjoyed our stay at her bed and breakfast. I'd love to return to Capri and if I do, I'd stay at B&B Il Grappolo again. 

From the B&B, we made our way to Marina Piccola, where we had booked a rental from Capri Blue Boats online before the trip. We rented a "Lance Capresi" boat (without a skipper) that did not require a license. We rented for four hours, which was plenty of time to check out all of the famous rock arches (notably the Faraglioni) and we even anchored and went for a swim through a cave. 

We probably would have been fine with a two-hour rental, but we didn't want to feel rushed. You can check out our Capri Blue Boats experience beginning at the 9:37 mark of this video. I'd definitely do it again, their service was great. They provided a cooler with ice and there's a pizza shop right next store to the boat rental so we were able to bring two pies with us.

We also took a short tour of the Blue Grotto, which is a must-visit if you're on the island. 

We stayed in a beautiful, quaint town in Anacapri that seemed nearly unnoticed by tourists, at least when we visited in late October. Still in the Campania region with Neapolitan pizza, we found a delicious restaurant close to our B&B that had the best pizza I've ever eaten. The water, sights, boats, people and food made Capri one of my favorite stops on the trip. 

Day 9: Italy 


After our wonderful stay on Capri, we headed back to the mainland and traveled to Pompeii, an amazingly-preserved ancient Roman city that was buried in volcanic ash around 79 AD. While there we tried fried pizza -- "pizze fritte" (which looks like a small fried calzone) -- and it was absolutely amazing. I can't wait to make it myself at home. 

We then flew to Venice (Venezia), where we stayed overnight. 

Day 10: Italy 


We took a train to Venezia from the mainland and then went on a 30-minute gondola ride before getting more pizze fritte and then took a train to Milan, where we then switched trains to get to Turin (Turino). We purchased tickets to watch Juventus play Paris Saint-Germain in a Champions League game about a month earlier hoping to see the USMNT's Weston McKennie playing for Juve. McKennie was unfortunately injured for the match, but it was a pretty nice consolation to see Lionel Messi and Kylian Mbappé playing for PSG in person! 

We became Juve members to be able to purchase tickets during the member sale (and we landed front-row seats!), but you can find secondary market tickets on resale sites like Viagogo. 

We tried pizza on our way to Allianz Stadium, but that was a bad idea. Northern Italy is not known for its pizza the same way the Campania region is, and we found that out the hard way! Oh well, the soccer game was great!

Day 11: France 


After watching Juve play PSG in Turin, we flew to Paris (Pariz) to check out the Eiffel Tower and we ate delicious crepes, baguettes and croissants. We then took our $192.87 flight back to the USA that evening.  

A few lessons learned from the trip: We booked a bunch of budget flights, including the flights to get there and back. Because of that, none of the flights we took allowed for more than a single carry-on bag (without additional fees). That was fine for us because we only took backpacks, but even our backpacks were over the weight limit a few times, but they were never checked because airlines were primarily checking passengers with more than just one carry-on. 

Speaking of our bags, ours weighed about 26 pounds each. Toward the end of the trip, they did start to get a little heavy, but there were times when we were able to either leave them in the hotel room or check them in a locker. Traveling with backpacks was convenient and cost-effective, but just be mindful of how much weight you're taking if you go that route. 

Our trip was an absolute blast and I'm so glad that we were able to do everything that we experienced, but we did run ourselves into the ground a little bit. We had multiple late-night arrivals at a hotel that was followed up by an early-morning flight. That can work once or twice a trip but doing it three nights in a row was a little too much. Now we know for next time! 

With such a busy schedule, we also had a lot of breakfast and lunch meals at airports. That wasn't too bad, though, because there was a lot of good food (we love fresh mozzarella and tomato sandwiches), and it allowed us to maximize our time and see a lot of sites. 

Finally, one lesson that I already mentioned -- don't jump off a cliff into the ocean. It's just not worth the risk of something going wrong. Fortunately I was recovered after about a month, but others have suffered worse injuries. 

Overall, it was an extremely memorable budget vacation, and I'd love to go back to several of the places we visited. You can check out the full video recap of our trip below: 


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