All Aboard! 10 Tips For Frugal European Travel
By Guest Blogger Kim Fuller
Traveling frugally is more than backpacking and witnessing the blur of landscape from the seat of a European railcar. Having a tight pocketbook, however, doesn't mean you can't dream of venturing into the large and small pockets of Europe: To stroll on uneven cobblestones, wander past archaic treasures of history, or spend a leisurely afternoon watching the world go by from a café patio.
For all its glam and glory, Europe is also known for making us dig, deeply, into the depths of our American bank accounts. Dreams of gondolier rides and frothy cappuccinos diminish as quickly as the weight of the dollar, which is short-changed by the uneven exchange to the euro.
But for a traveler, dreams caught amidst perils are usually never lost. Careful planning and mindful exploration can put you on a plane faster than time wasted on financial worries.
1. Pack Lightly
You may hear it often, but bringing only the essentials will save you money and sanity when traveling in Europe. The average price to check bags on international flights is at least $50. Also, once one you're abroad, you'll save money and hassle while moving around. You can more easily keep all your belongings in one place, whether on your back, in a hostel locker, or at a train-station luggage check.
2. Take Advantage of Timing
If you can visit Europe in the off-season—generally October through April—then do so. A lot of accommodations are cheaper and easier to find during these slower months, not to mention there are fewer crowds.
Also, try to book your flights and hotels at least a couple months in advance to get the best deals. Waiting until the last minute can often result in price inflation and added fees. Hostel reservations are easier to make spontaneously, but make sure to reserve a spot if it’s high season.
If you're a a student, a youth (age 12-25), or a senior (age 65 and over), now's a great time to travel Europe. Tail passes offer extreme discounts for youths, and many sights are usually discounted for students and seniors.
3. Make a Budget
It would be nice to flit through all the cities of Europe with no financial concerns, but if you’ve read this far, let’s assume you'll need to be on a budget. This awareness is important unless you want to come home from a fabulous vacation with a debt hangover. Create a budget in whatever format makes most sense to you.
You should know how much you can spend on your total trip, and then break it down into every-day expenses (converted from dollars to euros). Categories should include accommodations, transportation, food, drinks, activities and then, of course, “unexpected expenses.” Even if you stray a little from your budget, at least you can stay on track as much as possible.
4. Do Your Research
It pays to research the small and large details of your trip. You can save on everything from a night’s stay in Paris to a weekend of sightseeing in Rome. The more you research and read advice from fellow thrifty travelers and guides, the better idea you'll have about the cheapest type of transportation (sometimes one-way flights are cheaper than rail tickets); the best places to stay for the least amount of cash; and the secret spots to dine on a dime.
A lot of cost-cutting coupons and bargain trip packages can be found along the way if you can jump online during your trip. You can also download free audio guides for sightseeing trips if you want the benefits of a guide without the cost or crowd.
5. Know That Your Money Matters
Your trip will have plenty of opportunity for impromptu saving, but there are a few things you should do before you leave. You should know what kind of fees your bank will put on your overseas ATM and debit card transactions (between $3 and $10 for every transaction), and try to get a card that will make smaller dents in your account. A lot of credit cards will also tack on a high-percentage charge every time you swipe, so look into getting a card, like a Capital One, that has no foreign-transaction fees.
Bringing a lot of American cash with plans to exchange it overseas is not the most cost-efficient or secure way to pay your way. However, assuming that you will need to exchange a little bit of cash, be aware that different exchange centers offer different rates, and the most convenient ones (like those found in airports) are usually the least saver-savvy. If you can, pull out some euro-cash from the ATM at the airport for your lunch and bus fare (remember to get change!), and wait until you get where you're going to find a bank with the best exchange rate. Bring your passport with you to make the drop.
6. Make the Most of a Meal
Exploring the culinary culture of different European countries can be one of the most fulfilling parts of your journey, but it can also be one of the most expensive. There are always ways to save on meals, but let’s face it: bread, butter and cheese sandwiches every day aren’t exactly going to allow you to experience the taste of a place. It's a big bonus when you find hostels or other accommodations that offer an inclusive breakfast. You can fill your belly to sustain you for the day, and you can generally find something in the spread to pack for later.
Afternoon and evening food and drink deals can usually be found in Europe, with similar styles to our happy hours. If you can sustain yourself until 4 p.m. or 5 p.m. with your breakfast-plus-lunch fixings, you may be able to construct an affordable early dinner from a local-fare, “apertivo” menu.
7. Buy Groceries
Considering the fact that you'll need substantial sustenance and maybe even crave some simple and hearty grains or greens, buy some groceries along the way. This is all the better if your current accommodation provides a kitchenette—or even just some fridge space—to give your goods the shelf-life or preparation they deserve. Such places are high on the list of a best buy.
Granola bars, nuts, dried fruit, chocolate, bread, olive oil, red wine and spices can be sacked and kept anywhere at room temperature. It would be smart to pack a few other accompaniments (might I suggest a spork and a wine cork). These food staples will save you money after getting off a late Sunday night train and help you avoid the fate of a vending machine-dinner or an over-priced café. Also, definitely bring a reusable water bottle. Always refill when you know the water source is safe.
8. Think Like a Local
Always keep in mind that the places you target count on making lots of money from foreigners, particularly Americans. Individuals and entire economies capitalize on the fact that you're curious about their country. You can still steer clear of most of the tourist traps and have a genuine European experience.
Think about the things you do to save money when you're at home: shop at cheaper markets; find good and affordable restaurants; go to museums on discount days; clip coupons; use spare change; and walk instead of drive. You can apply all these things to your European adventure and still have room for the escapades and adventures that will be sure to make it a trip of a lifetime.
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