Europe 2000 Travel Planner
by Rick Steves
When it comes to European travel, big tour operators and $300-a-night hotels have one thing in common: They build a wall between you and the people and culture you traveled so far to experience. Isolated in a fancy highrise hotel room and being spoon-fed your culture by a guide, you risk spending more money and actually experiencing less.
In so many ways, spending less means a better, richer, more European trip. And you don't need to stay in youth hostels. Europe abounds in clean, pleasant, low-cost hotels and reasonably-priced restaurants popular with locals and virtually unknown to tourists.
Here are my best tips on how to plan your trip and enjoy maximum travel thrills for every mile, minute, and dollar spent in Europe.
Plan a thoughtful itinerary. A careless trip plan could get you the worst weather and the heaviest crowds.
In April or October, you'll waltz alone in Versailles' Hall of Mirrors and enjoy a chateau with a roaring fire all to yourself. When possible, choose the shoulder seasons (spring and fall) to visit the most crowded places: France, Spain, and the Greek Isles. Italy can be crowded any time of year but less so in fall and spring.
Big cities and summer heat can be grueling. All guidebooks have a weather chart. Basically, I figure north of the Alps is like Seattle, south of the Alps is like southern California.
It's been 10 years since I flew in and out of the same city. By flying "open jaws"--into one city and out of another--you avoid the time-and-money-consuming return to your starting point. (On a short trip you shouldn't cross the English Channel twice.) You can moderate culture shock by flying into the mild end of your itinerary (such as England) and flying out of the exotic end (such as Turkey). Consider buying all your souvenirs and gifts near the end of your trip in the more inexpensive places where your shopping dollar stretches furthest. For the same price, you can buy a four-inch pewter Viking ship in Oslo or an actual boat in Turkey.
The most common reason people have for taking an organized tour is the worst reason: They don't think they can enjoy Europe on their own. Anyone who's read this far has what it takes to enjoy Europe without being pushed and pulled by a guide.
I'm not saying you don't need a guide. I'm saying you can be your own guide. That means equipping yourself with information and expecting yourself to travel smart. Guidebooks are $15 tools for $3,000 experiences. With a good guidebook you can "master" Paris on your first visit: taking the metro anywhere in town for a dollar, enjoying a fine dinner in a bistro for $18, and staying in a $75 double room in a one-star family-run hotel on a pedestrian street just a few blocks from the Eiffel Tower.
Packing light is essential for happy budget travel. Think about it: Have you ever met a person who, after five trips, brags, "Every year I pack heavier?" You'll learn now or you'll learn later the importance of being mobile with your luggage. I limit myself to a 9 x 22 x 14-inch carry-on-the-plane bag. Whether traveling for two weeks or three months, I pack exactly the same. Rather than pack for the worst scenario, I pack for the best scenario and buy myself out of jams if necessary. I leave home with just enough toiletries to get me going. If Europe doesn't have one of your essentials, ask yourself how 400 million people can live without it.
Know if and how your health insurance covers you away from home. Most policies do. If yours doesn't, your travel agent can recommend travelers' health insurance. Trip interruption and cancellation insurance is worthwhile only if you're booking a lot of upfront costs and if you figure there's a greater than 1-in-20 chance you'll need to cancel or interrupt your trip. If you or a loved one is in frail health, trip insurance is a fine way to avoid the risk of having to cancel a tour and lose the entire cost of your vacation . . . but it'll cost you about 5 percent. Baggage insurance is statistically a rip-off.
The bureaucracy of European travel is simple. You need only a passport and money.
These days, flying to Europe is one of the best values in travel. The difference between an inexpensive European trip and a costly one has little to do with airfare.
I don't mess with the Web or the Sunday travel section ads. I maintain a solid and loyal relationship with a good travel agent. My agent knows what's out there and what I need. Remember, you can't save money by going directly to the airlines--unless you have a bad travel agent. Airlines barely know what they're charging, much less the competition. And they won't play the rules aggressively in your favor as an agent can. Discuss your itinerary and review your options with an agent. Then let him or her find you the best deal.
Your biggest daily expenses are room and board. When I travel through Europe with my PBS film crew, our per diem is $80. This is a good target for your room and board costs in 2000. That's per person for two adults traveling together: $50 each in a $100 hotel room with an included breakfast, $10 for lunch, and $15 for dinner. That still leaves you $5 for cappuccino and gelato. Of course, if you have more money, it's more fun to spend it in Europe. But if your trip will last as long as your money does, figure $80 per person. Add to that your transportation (car rental or railpass), sightseeing ($25 for bus tours, $10 for big sights, $5 for smaller sights), shopping, and entertainment.
Throughout Europe you can find clean, well-located, friendly, and comfortable hotel doubles for $100. Many countries have helpful rating systems. In France I look for two-star hotels with elevators, good beds, and private bathrooms. The rooms are generally small and sparsely furnished and the service is bare bones. Three-star hotels are not necessarily a bad value, but they come with $50 worth of extras I don't need or want. I'd rather spend the money on dinner, a concert, or a tour than on hotel bells and whistles. I don't need a restaurant in the hotel, room service, air-conditioning, and a swimming pool.
Hotels are a good value in France, Spain, Portugal, and Greece. Bed and breakfasts (B and Bs) are best in Britain, Ireland, Scandinavia, the Low Countries, Eastern Europe, Austria, and Bavaria. Scandinavian youth hostels have more BMWs than bikes in the parking lots and offer comfortable $20 beds. Famous cities in Italy can charge about what they want. Big cities in northern Europe cater to business travelers and therefore sell their fancy $200 rooms for half-price on weekends and in the summer. All over Europe, Motel-6-type hotels litter freeway off-ramps with $50 or less rooms for local businessmen wanting to go home with a little of their per diem still in their pocket.
Don't rely on your travel agent or local European tourist information offices to recommend hotels for you. Travel agents don't learn about the budget alternatives to hotels at travel agent school. And since local tourist information offices favor fancy hotels that pay a commission, budget travelers need a guidebook's hotel listings more than ever.
Get a guidebook that matches your style of travel. Keep in mind that one guidebook writer's slum is another guidebook writer's splurge. For instance, in my country guidebooks I recommend hotel doubles in the $50 to $150 range. Karen Brown writes fine guidebooks for fancier hotels, and Harvard students fill their Let's Go guidebooks with sleepable rooms in much cheaper digs. My splurges are Karen Brown slums and my slums are Let's Go splurges.
While it's more fun simply tooling around the countryside finding rooms as you go, if you're traveling to famous places during peak season and hoping to get a good value, it's wise to book rooms in advance. This is easier than ever these days with email, faxes, credit cards, and English-speaking hotel clerks.
To make reservations, first call the hotel to check on availability and agree on a price. Then follow up with a fax with your credit card number and its expiration date. While you can mail bank drafts to secure a room, it's easier and quicker to simply use your credit card number.
Keep in mind that that if a hotel doesn't have a room available, they likely won't spend $6-$10 to send a fax to tell you. In general, no fax back means no room.
The key to eating well is to look for a local favorite, for a place packed out with loyal local return customers enjoying good meals. For alternatives to restaurants in virtually any country, look for delis that serve up fine cuisine to professionals who want to eat well at home without cooking.
Picnics are the fast, healthy, fun, and cheap choice for lunch. When picnicking, you can buy whatever looks good regardless of price. Strive to make classy picnics in memorable settings. And remember, just as we don?t choose to spend the time and money to eat out every night when we're home, you can eat in, too, even in Europe. A picnic dinner in your hotel room can be a relaxing end to an intense day of sightseeing. When moving into a hotel I borrow a few plates and utensils from the breakfast room and make a quick shopping trip to stock a makeshift hotel room pantry.
While I was slow to drop traveler's checks, I see no reason to travel with them these days. ATMs are easy to find. They offer the same utopian rates 24 hours a day and save you time as well as money since you won't be enduring long lines and piles of paperwork inside the bank. Consider bringing two cards, one which accepts CIRRUS and the other for PLUS. This way you'll have access to twice as many cash machines, cutting your searching in half. And if a machine eats a card or it becomes demagnetized, you'll have a spare. And remember, you're old enough now to carry $500 in your money belt. Don't go back to the ATM each day. Even with their great rates you'll be hit with a fee each time you use one.
If you rely solely on traveler's checks, you'd be appalled if you knew how much of your money you lose to banks over the course of your trip. Minimize these losses by understanding how the banks make their money. They profit off their buy and sell rates and from fees. (If an exchange desk advertises "no fees," the other half of the equation is "and lousy rates.") Look for places that list both buy and sell rates. If there's a five percent or less spread between what a place buys and sells currency for, it's fair. Avoid the rip-off exchange desks that list only one rate: they're hiding something . . . an obscene profit margin.
Smart budget travelers often use hard local cash rather than credit cards to pay many of their expenses as they travel. You can get a better experience by patronizing the small places that don't take credit cards: homey little pensions, cozy hole-in-the-wall restaurants, and mom-and-pop shops. And these days, more and more of the shops that do take credit cards require a $50 or so minimum purchase.
The new euro currency is big news, but it won't directly affect travelers for a couple of years. January 2002 marks the first appearance of euro coins and bills. For now, it doesn't make sense to get traveler's checks in euros.
Price lists and menus throughout Europe show prices in both local currencies and euros. The euro is worth almost exactly one U.S. dollar. Leave your currency converters home. Throughout the 11-country euro-zone the approximate cost in dollars is right there in print on nearly everything you'll buy.
Upon arrival in a new town, stop at the tourist office. Get a city map, learn what's on that evening, and find out where you can rent a bike or wash your clothes. Some tourist offices organize fine two-hour tours with local students or retired folks who enjoy giving visitors an intimate insight into their town. For me, this is always time and money well spent.
Using the Phone
You can travel smart without speaking the local languages but you can't travel smart without using the telephones. If you spend two minutes looking for a coin-operated phone booth, you're traveling in the 1980s. Buy a phone card for $5 to $10 at a post office or most newsstands and tobacco shops.
Direct-dial calls from Europe to the U.S., which used to cost about $4 a minute, are now cheaper than ever: From most European countries (if you avoid calling from your hotel room), you can call the U.S. for about a dollar a minute. You can actually leave a speedy message for the same 35 cents you might spend for a local call in an American phone booth.
New PIN cards sold in many countries in Europe allow travelers to make trans-Atlantic calls for as little as a dime a minute. Ask for an "international calling card" at exchange bureaus or newsstands, scratch off the grey stripe to reveal your Personal Identification Number, and dial away.
The USA Direct-type deals (offered by AT&T, MCI, and Sprint) are no longer the great value they used to be.
Staying healthy in Western Europe is essentially the same as staying healthy while traveling through North America. While I border on paranoid in India or Mexico, in Europe I drink the water and eat everything in sight. If you do get sick, hotels have a line on a local doctor who is happy to make "house calls" for far less money than an American doctor would charge (my experience is around $30 a visit). They prescribe suitable medication and send you to the 24-hour pharmacy down the street.
Europe has little violent crime, specializing instead in petty purse-snatching and pickpocketing. European thieves target Americans. If I were a street thief in Europe, I'd have a card that says "Yanks R Us." Solve this problem simply by wearing a money belt. Pack it with such essentials as your passport, plane ticket, railpass, driver's license, credit cards, ATM card, cash (big bills only), and traveler's checks. I leave the rest of my valuables tucked away in my hotel room. I've never used a hotel safe and I've never had a problem. But then, I don't bring anything valuable to Europe that doesn't fit in my moneybelt or that I'm not prepared to lose.
Getting around Europe's big cities efficiently is an issue of time and money. Subways are slick, inexpensive, and free from rush-hour traffic jams. Buses are more frequent and user-friendly than Americans will be accustomed to. Taxis--generally regulated and charging the fair meter rate--can be smart budget travel, especially for groups of three or four who will taxi cheaper and faster than riding buses and subways.
A new innovation is the "hop-on hop-off" tourist bus. Throughout big cities in Europe, tourists will now find buses making a circular route stopping at the predictable sights with four to six departures per hour and a continuous narration of the sights. A ticket gives you free use of the route for 24 hours and you can hop on and off as you sightsee your way effortlessly and efficiently through the otherwise overwhelming city.
Vacation Time is Money
In this age when many travelers have more money than time, remember to make decisions based not only on what saves money, but what saves time. Spend a little money on phone calls to confirm that restaurants and museums are open and to reconfirm hotel reservations. A bed on an overnight train avoids a long all-day ride and saves you an entire day in your itinerary. And with one day of your life in Florence, it doesn't make sense to spend a quarter of it comparison-shopping for plaster models of Michelangelo's David. See the real thing. Happy travels!
RICK STEVES (www.ricksteves.com) is the host of the PBS series Rick Steves' Europe and the author of 30 European travel guidebooks, including Europe Through the Back Door, all published by Avalon Travel Publishing.