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Budget Travel in Europe: Careful and Informed Planning is Key

Europe’s a Sweet Deal...for Smart Travelers

Budget Travel in Europe
When young Norwegians “eat out,” they drop by the grocery store for a disposable “one-time grill” and head for the park.
Photo courtesy of Rick Steves’ Europe Through the Back Door.

In today’s Europe, a nickel is the new penny. Yes, rich countries like Finland and the Netherlands have actually taken their one-cent and two-cent euro coins out of circulation. Prices are high for locals—and, with our dipping dollar, they seem steep for Americans, too. Yet regardless of the soaring cost of living, Europeans remain experts at living well. Even those who don’t have much money manage plenty of la dolce vita.

If you travel like a European, you can live well, too—enjoying a memorable and affordable trip anywhere in Europe, traveling “through the back door” for $100 a day. If everyone says, “Portugal is cheap,” but your travel dreams are taking you to the Swiss Alps, then your best value is in Switzerland…traveling smartly.

Budget travelers simply need to know their money-saving options, and take advantage of them: ride the shuttle rather than the taxi from the airport (saves $40 in Vienna). Order a carafe of house wine instead of a bottle of fine wine (saves $20 in Rome). Choose a 2-star hotel rather than a 3-star one (saves $60 in Paris). Buy the transit pass rather than individual tickets (saves $5 per ride on London’s Tube). Buy a scratch-off PIN card at a European newsstand for calls home, and you’ll pay pennies rather than dollars per minute.

Your biggest budget challenges are accommodations: hotels are pricey just about everywhere in Europe. But, equipped with good information, you can land some fine deals­—which often come with the most memories, to boot. On recent visits, I slept well at a hotel in Helsinki built primarily to house visiting sailors (Hotel Skatta, $115 double with breakfast, www.hotelskatta.com), a private home on the Italian Riviera (Camere Fontana Vecchia in Vernazza, $90 double, m.annamaria@libero.it), and a welcoming guest house in Dubrovnik’s Old Town (Villa Ragusa, $100 double).

If you’re willing to “rough it,” you’ll save even more. Consider the Norwegian YWCA in London ($40 beds, www.kfukhjemmet.org.uk), a renovated jail in Luzern (Jailhotel Löwengraben, $50 per bunk-bed double with reinforced doors and breakfast, www.jailhotel.ch), or a convent in Orvieto ($70 doubles, institutosansalvatore@tiscalinet.it)

When choosing a restaurant, look for small “mom & pop” places filled with enthusiastic local eaters. If a short, handwritten menu in one language is posted out front, that’s a good sign. Early-bird dinners, “blue-plate specials,” and “business lunches” let you dine well for under $20 anywhere in Europe.

Eastern Europe is both a fine value and a new frontier for many travelers. While hotels are nearly as expensive as in the West, other items are a relative steal. A mug of Czech beer—the best in Europe—costs $1 (versus $5 in Britain or Ireland, or $8 in Oslo). A ticket for Mozart in a sumptuous Budapest opera house runs $20 (versus $60 in Vienna). And your own private Polish guide is $60 for half a day (versus $200 in Scotland).

Even in Scandinavia, Europe’s priciest corner, the locals are taking the high cost of living gracefully in stride: Norwegians “eat out” in the parks, barbecuing their groceries on disposable “one-time grills” ($3 in supermarkets). The last time I was in a restaurant in Oslo, 16 of 20 diners were drinking only tap water. While you’ll see crowds of young people drinking beer along Copenhagen’s canals, that doesn’t mean consumption is higher in Denmark—it’s just that many young adults can’t afford to drink in the bars, so they pick up their beer at the grocery store and party al fresco.

When you travel, time really is money. (Divide the complete cost of your trip by your waking hours in Europe, and you’ll see what I mean. My cost: $15 per hour.) Don’t waste your valuable time in lines. I queue as little as possible. (Speaking of IQ, I find there are two IQs of European travelers: those who wait in lines, and those who don’t.) In Europe’s most crowded cities (especially Paris, Rome, and Florence), easy-to-make reservations and museum passes—which pay for themselves in four visits—let you skirt the long ticket-buying lines. If paying $1 to use your mobile phone to confirm a museum might save you trekking across town to discover the sight is closed, that’s a buck very well spent. And sometimes, calculated “splurges” save both time and money: a taxi ride split by four people can cost less than four bus tickets.

But regardless of your room-and-board budget, the purpose of travel is to enjoy rich experiences. The best travelers are not those with the thickest wallets, but those with a knack for connecting with locals and their culture.

Between Sunday services at Paris’ St. Sulpice Church, you can scamper like a sixteenth note up the spiral staircase into the organ loft, and literally sit on the bench—for free—next to Europe’s greatest organist (Daniel Roth) as he plays one of Europe’s finest pipe organs.

If you’re wandering through Santiago de Compostela and you hear music and dancers in a gym, pop in and observe. As you enjoy the Galician folk club practicing their traditional dance, you realize northwest Spain is actually Celtic—where flamenco meets Riverdance.

In Helsinki, rather than sweat in your hotel’s sterile steam room with a bunch of tourists, ride the public bus into a working-class neighborhood for a rustic-and-woody $10 sauna. Surrounded by milky steam, knotty wood, stringy blond hair, and naked locals, I had no idea which century I was in. But one thing was clear: it was Finland.

Sporting events immerse you in the local scene affordably. Joining 60,000 Dubliners for a hurling match at Croke Park costs about $30. Taking my seat, I was among new Irish friends. They gave me a flag to wave and taught me who to root for, the rules of the game...and lots of new swear words.

Even in London—arguably Europe’s most expensive city—you can have a world-class experience for next to nothing. In Italy, the three museum tickets required to see Michelangelo’s Last Judgment, Leonardo’s Last Supper and Botticelli’s Birth of Venus will cost you $50; but in London, seeing the Tate Gallery, British Museum, and National Gallery won’t cost a pence. And when the seats at London’s Royal Albert Hall are sold out, standing-room spots are often still available. For $8, you’re part of the arts scene—up in the nosebleed section, with the students and struggling musicians. (The same strategy works at the opulent opera houses in Vienna and Budapest.)

When you stumble into a Barcelona square and see locals celebrating their Catalan heritage in the Sardana circle dance, join in. (A generation ago, Franco would have locked you up.) Connect with the British expat community in Rome by going to the English-language Mass, then hang around after for coffee and cookies. Match your hobbies with a local in Helsinki’s “Meet the Finns” program—and suddenly, you’re searching out classic comics at the flea market with a new local friend.

Join the Scotsman who runs your B&B in a game of lawn bowling, the Frenchman who runs your chambre d’hôte in a game of pétanque, or the Greek who runs your dhomatia for a game of backgammon. Even if you don’t know the rules, the experience will leave you with a memory that’s easy to pack and doesn’t cost a dime.

When I re-read my past trip journals, I’m always impressed by how often the best experiences (like many of those listed here) were free. Even more important than saving you money, these tips bring you rich experiences that become indelible memories...the kind of souvenirs you’ll enjoy for a lifetime.

Thanks to Clay Hubbs and Transitions Abroad. It has been my joy and honor to be a part of Transitions Abroad for many years. Dr. Clay A. Hubbs, a good friend and the founder of the magazine, believed wholeheartedly in the value of thoughtful travel as a way to broaden our perspectives and better understand our world. His spirit and commitment were an inspiration to the thousands of people whose lives he touched. Many thanks to Transitions Abroad for being a print conduit between my love of travel and your great readers.

R.S.

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