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How to Live and Travel in Europe with a Weaker Dollar

Traveling with a weak dollar

Europe remains among the most popular overseas destinations for Americans who wish to travel, study, work, and live. However, the relatively low exchange rate of the U.S. dollar against the euro—even with the recent relief—has had a serious impact on the budgets of Americans traveling or living in Europe. The dollar’s decline against the euro is not a recent phenomenon, but it has weakened so much in recent years that Europe is no longer an easily affordable travel destination for most Americans. When I lived in Portugal in 2003, the dollar was still a little stronger than the euro. Compared to today’s exchange rate, my living expenses in Lisbon would be about forty percent higher than they were only a few years years ago.

Since the beginning of the worldwide recession in 2008, financial and exchange markets have been very volatile. Exchange rates can change fairly quickly in reaction to financial and economic news, which can significantly impact your budget for your stay in Europe. At the same time, with the continuing U.S. budget deficit, negative trade balance, and relatively sluggish economic recovery indicate that the U.S. dollar will likely not gain long-term parity against the euro, though it is inching closer. Americans planning to spend an extended period of time in Europe should plan and budget for a lower exchange rate for quite some time to come, even given recent EU economic problems of their own.

Millions of Americans come to Europe every year to travel, study, and work where visa and work permit regulations allow. Unfortunately, it is still easy to exceed your travel budget in Europe, even by just indulging in the modest pleasures, such as eating out on occasion or visiting museums. To avoid unpleasant surprises, travelers need to figure out ways to stretch their dollars while in Europe, which requires a bit of foresight and planning.

Traveling in Europe

Europe’s most famous tourist destinations are only the tip of the iceberg of what Europe has to offer. By shortening your visit to famous and expensive cities and by seeking out lesser-known and off the beaten track travel destinations you can save and extend your travels. Countries in Eastern and Southeastern Europe are still quite a bit cheaper than Central or Western Europe, and these destinations have their own unique culture and charm. Instead of visiting the Mediterranean coast in France or Italy during peak season, why not spend time along the Adriatic Sea in Croatia or Montenegro, which are more affordable?

Travel Off-Season

Traveling off-season is another great way to save money. Once European children are back in school in early September, the tourist season winds down all across Europe. The weather in early fall is still warm and pleasant enough to spend a lot of time outside and enjoy any outdoors activities you might be interested in. Traveling to Europe in spring or fall is not only cheaper in terms of airfares and accommodations, but there are fewer tourists, which offers you a more authentic and enjoyable travel experience. Also, keep in mind that many cities offer public transportation passes that are cheaper than single tickets, and many museums all over Europe have reduced admissions on certain weekends and evenings.

Another way to cut cost is to stay away from credit cards. All major credit cards charge a fee for foreign currency transactions, anywhere from 1 to 3 percent of the purchase price, in addition to finance charges. It is much cheaper to withdraw money from an ATM with your debit card. In most cases, you won’t pay any surcharges (check with your bank before leaving) and the exchange rate is better than exchanging cash or traveler’s checks. Another advantage of debit cards is that you won’t be surprised by credit card bills after your return home, since you are paying for your trip as you go along.

Living and Working in Europe

Most European cities are great places to live. They consistently rank among the cities with the highest standard of living and the highest quality of life anywhere in the world. In recent years Zurich, Vienna, Geneva, Düsseldorf, and Munich have topped the worldwide rankings of the most livable cities—but we all have our favorites. Unfortunately, they are also among the most expensive cities to live in. Unless you earn a high salary as an expatriate, have large amounts of retirement or investment income, or have scholarships and grants as a student, living comfortably in one of Europe’s most attractive cities can be very difficult.

Finances are among the most important factors that impact expatriates’ lives in Europe. Planning your expenses for moving abroad and getting settled can make or break your extended stay in Europe. Determine what kind of lifestyle you would like to have at your European destination, and then find out what you are actually able to afford depending upon your income and your finances.

Americans who are legally working in Europe don’t have to worry too much about the relative strength of the dollar, since they are earning their salary in euros. Still, to make the best of your stay in Europe, it is important to plan your finances well. Research housing and living costs before committing to a move, or you might have to deal with unpleasant surprises. Also keep in mind that depending upon your work arrangement you may still have to face other costs associated with your move abroad. You may not only have to rent an apartment, but also make a security deposit and arrange for utilities and furnishings some time before you get your first paycheck. In many countries, work visas and residency cards do not come cheap and are often restricted to 3 months unless you have a sponsor. You should thoroughly research all the fees and costs of your move to Europe to find out if you can actually afford it.

To get an idea of cost of living and quality of life in the cities you are interested in, you might want to check out some of the quality of life and cost of living surveys conducted by large Human Resources firms, banks, and other institutions. These surveys are usually conducted to cater to multinational companies with high-earning executives and professionals—and often are not free as a result—but they are also useful for other expatriates as well. You just have to keep in mind that quality of life in these surveys is largely determined by disposable income. If you have an executive position in Vienna you can no doubt enjoy the city’s rich cultural life, but if you are an English teacher at a local high school, you are more likely to take the subway to a park on the weekend than go to the opera or dine at an upscale restaurant. Fortunately there are some crowdsourced databases available that can offer you information based upon input by thousands of visitors, not to mention the exptratiate websites where forums may provide such information or access to people who know where such information can be found.

Advice for Students

For North American students, studying in Europe has become a very expensive endeavor. There are numerous exchange programs between universities in the U.S. and Europe, but the cost of student exchanges varies significantly. To avoid paying more than you expect, it is important to get all the details about the student exchange before signing on. If your university has an exchange agreement with a university in Europe, you usually just pay the tuition and student housing fees at your home university. But there are many exchange programs that operate independently and charge a very high fee for student exchange programs in Europe. Private exchange programs charge the full fee of tuition and housing in Europe, which increases with any devaluation of the dollar. Each country has its own laws about student work, but in some European countries foreign students are allowed to work part-time or during the summer, which can be very helpful to cover your daily living expenses. Part-time work is a great way to avoid accumulating high debt while studying abroad, and if finances are an important consideration, you might want to make sure that you study in a European country where foreign students are allowed to work part-time. Generally, if you are planning to study in Europe, your best choice is a smaller city with a lower cost of living, such as Aix-en-Provence in France.

For More Information

Numbeo is a crowdsourced database that is fairly accurate in estimating costs for many items in countries worldwide.

The Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) Worldwide Cost of Living Survey:
The EIU Worldwide Cost of Living allows you to compare cost of living indices in different cities, calculate equivalent salaries among cities and research city information. Full access to the data requires a subscription.

He has extensively traveled in Europe, mostly during off-season.

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