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Even with the value of the dollar approaching that of the euro, Americans traveling in Europe on a budget still need to be creative and mindful. The following suggestions can help any traveler, but especially those who prefer traveling independently.
Finding the lowest airfares to Europe can be incredibly time-consuming. I turn to a reputable travel agent who may charge a fee but knows the fine print and has quick access to all the possibilities: online discounts, consolidators, wholesalers. You’ll find a blizzard of information and links to “cheap travel packages” on the internet. Some are useful, some not.
I suggest doing enough research to know what you want, then go to a travel agent who can find the latest deals and packages that will meet your travel needs.
Trains in Europe are fast, efficient, and comfortable (the U.S.A. could learn from them). If your travel plan calls for frequent use of rail, save money with a Railpass. Auto rentals and gas are expensive in Europe, but for off-the-beaten-path travel you really do need a car. We have often found reasonable rates from Europcar, but on our last trip, Avis was the best. While train, bus and bicycle are are certainly cheaper travel options, they are also interesting and fun.
– Stay in small neighborhood hotels where the room rate does not reflect the cost of ballrooms and bars. On the other hand, large chain hotels do sometimes offer great discounts.
– If you’re traveling a good distance, consider booking a compartment on a night train; it costs much less than a hotel room.
– Stay in a bed-and-breakfast; many are listed online and in tourist information offices.
– Rent a city apartment instead of a hotel room. You’ll feel like a resident, and having a kitchen will allow significant savings by eating some meals in. You will also have the experience of shopping for food at local markets and shops. Apartments are also listed online and usually have a minimum rental of one week.
– Share a house with others. We rented a villa in southern France, and eight of us were quite happy with the savings.
– Try camping. Europe offers some great campsites, but this is something we have not explored.
– Have a picnic instead of a restaurant meal. Buy bread, cheese and fruit at a local market or choose from a wide array of prepared foods at one of the many delis you’ll find in most European cities and villages. Enjoy your local feast in a park or your hotel room, if that’s permitted. In Paris, we munched our baguettes in the Luxembourg Gardens, Place des Vosges, the Tuileries, and the tree-shaded north tip of Ile de la Cité.
– Don’t pay for the pricey hotel breakfast. Instead, go to the cafe on the corner for your coffee and pastry. In most places, you’re charged less if you stand at the bar rather than take a table. I like more than a croissant for breakfast, so sometimes I bring cereal in a zip-lock bag from home, buy fruit and yogurt at the market, and eat in the hotel room, then go out for coffee.
– Eat where the locals do. Ordinary neighborhood cafes and restaurants may not offer high cuisine or English menus, but they provide tasty food at reasonable prices and they aren’t crammed with other tourists.
– The fixed-price menu is often the best buy for a full meal. In France it is at least 3 courses: appetizer, main dish, and dessert.
– Ask for a pitcher of tap water (free) instead of bottled water. In France, say “un carafe d’eau, s’il vous plait.” (Uhn car-aff doe, see voo play)
– Buy a pitcher of house wine instead of a bottle or half-bottle. In France, a “pichet” (peeshay) of wine is about 3 glasses.
– Ask if service is included in the bill. If it is, you’re not expected to leave a tip. If service is included, we do as the local folk do, and leave a few coins if the service is good.
Skip the sightseeing tour bus and ride the city bus. You’ll see the important landmarks, and with a map and guidebook you’ll get most of what the tour bus offers.
Look for free concerts and programs, both outdoors and in churches. Check on free-entry days at museums.
We mostly window-shop, admiring the 63-euro cashmere baby booties and the 10,000-euro ovens. Then, if we’re in Paris, we go to Place Monge on Sunday and shop at the outdoor market for scarves and bangles and, mostly, atmosphere. For souvenirs and small gifts I can tuck into a suitcase, I buy samples of regional specialties (jams, teas, flower seeds, candies, soaps). Sometimes you can still find bargains at outdoor markets and flea markets.
– Travel with others and share the cost of car rental, gas, and lodging. In restaurants, order one appetizer and one main dish and share them. Eat lighter.
– Look for discounts. If you’re over 60, a student, or under 18, ask if there is a senior, student or youth rate wherever entry fees are charged.
– Pack light. If you can manage with only a carry-on bag, you’ll save, as airlines are now charging for checked baggage. Use hotel shampoo or buy it and other liquids (which airlines only allow in minuscule sizes) when you get there.
– For international phone calls, the cheapest way to communicate with friends and family back home is to buy a phone card, good for a certain number of minutes, at your destination.
– Purchase regional maps after you get to your destination country. They’re almost always cheaper there than in the U.S.
– Do your own laundry. Wash out the undies and socks in the sink at night, and you’ll be able to pack lighter.
A FINAL IMPORTANT TIP
Don’t focus only on the cost of everything and complain about prices. You are in Europe to enjoy yourself, to learn about another country’s culture, not to comparison shop. Do what you must to minimize the cost, and then let it go. Happy Travels.
Written by Marilyn McFarlane for EuropeUpClose.com