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How to Make Your Dollars and Sense Carry You Further in Europe

We Americans have a stubborn travel streak. When a recession looms, we’ll quickly put the new SUV on hold for a year. But that trip abroad? Hey, we’ll just do what it takes to make our dollars (and sense) carry us a little farther. Here are my 50 favorite tips for doing just that in Europe in 2002.

Sleeping

•  A Bed and Breakfast offers double the warmth and cultural intimacy for half the price of a hotel. You’ll find them in most countries if you know the local word: Husrom is Norwegian for sobe which is Slovenian for Zimmer which is German for bed and breakfast.

•  Europe’s 2,000 hostels offer countless cheap dorm beds. A hostel membership pays for itself in four nights. And it’s not limited to youths. In fact, those over 55 get a discount on a hostel card. Using the hostel’s kitchen, you can cook for the price of groceries—a great savings for traveling families.

•  Know your hotel’s cancellation policy. No-shows are generally charged for one night. If you won’t make it, cancel long in advance.

•  Brussels and the Scandinavian capitals especially, which cater to business travelers, offer deep discounts to vacationers who arrive without reservations when business traffic is slow. During summer and weekends year round you can get a fancy business hotel room at a cheap 1-star hotel price. Just show up at the tourist information office; they’ll book the room for you. It’s not unusual to score a $300 double for $100.

•  Throughout Europe, budget chain hotels rent rooms at B and B prices. Since these cookie-cutter rooms cost the same for singles, couples, or even a family of four, they offer the greatest savings for traveling families.

•  Be smart about hotel choices. A 3-star place (with room service and a 24-hour reception desk) is a bad value for a budget traveler who’s satisfied with 1-star services. Opting for the shower and toilet down the hall can save you $30 a night.

•  Ask for a deal on your hotel room. You’ll have the best chance of getting a discount if business is slow. It helps if you go direct (a room-finding service costs the hotel a booking fee), offer to pay in cash, or stay at least three nights.

•  Pack the room. The more people you put in a hotel room, the cheaper it gets per person.

•  Avoid travel agent and tourist office room-finding services. They charge a fee and generally offer only the highest-priced rooms with no discounts. For the best accommodations values, use a guidebook, shop around, and go direct.

Eating

•  Avoid touristy restaurants with “We speak English” signs and multilingual menus. Those that are filled with locals serve better food for less money.

•  Picnics save money: $10 buys a fine picnic lunch for two anywhere in Europe. Stock your hotel room with drinks and munchies upon arrival. You can pass train rides enjoyably over a picnic meal. Many grocery stores have elegant deli sections.

• Eat with the season. Germans go crazy for white asparagus. Italians lap up porcini mushrooms. And Spaniards gobble their snails (caracoles)—but only when waiters announce that they’re fresh today. You’ll get more taste for less money throughout Europe by ordering what’s in season.

•  Avoid hotel breakfasts. While convenient, these are rarely a good value. If breakfast is optional, increase the character and lower the price by joining the local crowd at the corner cafe for coffee and croissants.

•  Adapt to European tastes. Cultural chameleons drink tea in England, beer in Prague, red wine in France, and white wine on the Rhine. They eat fish in Portugal and reindeer in Norway. Local specialties get you the best quality and service for the best price.

•  Throughout southern Europe, drinks are cheaper at the bar than at a table. The table price can be a great value if you linger and enjoy the view. But if you are just tossing down a quick drink, do it at the bar for about half the price.

•  Every country has early bird and “Blue Plate” specials. Learn your options and you can dine well with savvy locals anywhere in Europe for under $10.

•  Don’t overtip. Only Americans tip 15 to 20 percent in Europe. We even tip when it’s already included or not expected. Ask locals (who are customers rather than employees of a restaurant) for advice.

•  To save money in restaurants, couples can order a side salad and split an entree. To save more, request tap water instead of mineral water, drink the house wine, and skip desserts.

Transportation

•  Fly open-jaw—that’s into one city and out of another—in order to avoid a needless costly return to your starting point.

•  Cars are worthless and expensive headaches in big cities. Pick up your rental car after the first big city you visit, and drop it off before the final big city of your trip. Paying $20 a day to store a $40-a-day car while touring a city is a pricey mistake.

•  Know your rail choices: Eurailpasses can offer big savings—if you’re traveling a lot. For short trips, it’s cheaper to buy tickets as you go. Throughout Europe first class tickets cost 50 percent more than second class. If you’re on a budget, go second class.

•  Before buying a Eurailpass, research the options sold in Europe. For instance, Italy’s Kilometer Pass gives up to five people 20 trips for 3,000 kilometers in first class for just $160—that’s less than the cost of a 2-week Italy rail pass. Germany’s “Beautiful Weekend” ticket lets groups of up to five travel anywhere in the country all day Saturday or Sunday on non-express trains for about $20.

•  Find a good travel agent who knows Europe and sells consolidator tickets. Consolidator or “discount” air tickets are perfectly legitimate. By putting up with a few minor drawbacks (no changes allowed and no frequent flier miles given) you can save hundreds of dollars. Student agencies are not limited to students and offer some great airfares.

•  Buses, while often slower, are cheaper than trains—especially in Britain, home of Europe’s most expensive train system. For instance, traveling from London to Edinburgh costs $130 by train (second class) and only $35 by bus.

•  Groups save by driving. Four people sharing a car generally travel much cheaper than four individuals buying four railpasses.

•  Park carefully. Thieves recognize and target tourist cars. Paying to park in a garage with an attendant can be a good investment.

•  In many northern European countries train ticket holders get discounts on bikes rented at the station. In many cases you can rent a bike in one town and drop it at another for no extra charge.

•  Europe’s highly competitive no-frills airlines—such as Ryanair and Virgin Express—can often get you from one city to another faster and cheaper than the train. You can book by phone or on the Web. Beware though: cheap airlines often use small airports located far from town, which can cost a little extra time and money.

•  Make the most of public transit. Many single tickets are actually good for round-trip, transfers, or an hour of travel. Three rides generally cost more than a day pass. Airports almost always have cheap and convenient public transit connections to the town center.

Shopping

•  Family-run businesses offer the best values. In mom-and-pop shops you’re more likely to be served by people who care about their reputation and their customers.

•  Do most of your shopping in the cheaper countries where gifts are more interesting and your shopping dollar stretches the farthest. The difference is huge: for the cost of a pewter Viking ship in Oslo you can buy an actual boat in Turkey.

Take advantage of department stores anywhere in Europe for cheap folk art, souvenirs, postcards, and inexpensive cafeterias.

•  While flea markets are notorious for ripping off tourists, they can offer some great deals. Prices are soft, so haggle.

Money

•  Use ATMs rather than travelers checks. You’ll get your cash cheaper and faster. While ATMs give the best possible rates, they do come with transaction fees. Minimize these by making fewer and larger withdrawals. Store the cash safely in your moneybelt.

•  Pay with local cash, not credit cards. While credit cards get you a good exchange rate, many places offering Europe’s best deals—from craft shops to bed and breakfasts—accept only cash.

•  When changing cash, avoid exchange bureaus that don’t show both the buying and selling rate. By seeing both rates you can derive the profit margin—which should be within five percent. Places showing only the selling rate are hiding an obscene profit margin.

•  Wear a money belt. You’ll save money by not losing it to a thief. They target Americans not because they’re mean but because they’re smart. They know we’re the ones with the good stuff in our purses and wallets. Assume beggars are pickpockets. Be wary of commotions in crowds and fake police who ask to see your wallet. When you know the scams, they’re almost entertaining. [Editor’s note: See Jens Jurgen’s excellent “Foiling Pickpockets & Bag Snatcher’s” report. Order by credit card ($5) from 631-454-0880.]

•  Students, families, and seniors should ask for discounts. But be warned: because the U.S. doesn’t reciprocate, many countries don’t give their standard senior citizen discounts to Americans.

•  In any transaction, understand all fees and expenses. Ask to have bills itemized. Assume you’ll be short-changed. Do your own arithmetic and don’t let the cashier rush you. Smile but be savvy.

Miscellaneous

•  Travel off-season—generally October through April in Europe. You’ll get cheaper airfare, find more budget rooms, spend less time in lines, and meet more Europeans than tourists.

•   Use a guidebook—they’re $20 tools for $3,000 experiences. Saving money by not buying one is penny wise and pound foolish. An up-to-date guidebook pays for itself on your first day in Europe.

•  If you get sick, see a doctor sooner rather than later. While it seems stressful to get medical help, visiting a clinic in Europe is actually an inexpensive and interesting experience. Any hotel or tourist office can point you in the right direction. You’ll be diagnosed, have the proper medicine prescribed, and be on the mend in an hour.

•  Stay in touch cheaply by dialing direct to loved ones back home. International phone cards with PIN numbers are sold at newsstands throughout Europe. They offer calls to the U.S. for 10 cents a minute—a huge savings over the $3-a-minute rates offered by the big American services.

•  Look up friends, relatives, and contacts in Europe. Assume you are interesting and charming and enjoy local hospitality with gusto. This works best if you actually are interesting and charming. Bring a show-and-tell zip-lock baggie filled with photos of your family, house, and hometown.

•  Don’t let frequent flier miles cloud your judgment. Choose a plane ticket, car rental, hotel, or tour according to the best value for your trip, not in hopes of scoring a few extra miles.

•  Travel with a partner to share and save. A single hotel room often costs nearly the same as a double. By splitting taxis, chores, guidebooks, and picnics, couples save both time and money.

•  Buy your maps in Europe—at half the price you’d pay in America. And you’ll find a wider selection.

•  Communicate via email with a free Yahoo or Hotmail account rather than by mailing postcards. For the cost of a postcard and a stamp you can hop online in a cybercafe for about 15 minutes. Many libraries, hotels, and hostels offer free Internet access.

•  Hike in the Alps. Even if you pay for a lift ticket to get you quickly up into the mountains, the glories of the Alps are one of Europe’s great values. The Alps are littered with helicopter-supplied mountain huts offering cheap beds and menus that don’t go up with the altitude.

•  Museum passes save time and money. The Paris Museum pass, for example, pays for itself in three visits and saves you hours by letting you skip the long lines and scoot right into each sight.

•  For your next trip, plan ahead and research your options. Those who expect to travel smart do—and they save money.

For more money-saving tips, visit www.ricksteves.com. Happy travels!

Editor's Note: For more great money-saving budget travel tips, check out Rick's Dirty 30.

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