10 secrets for stretching your dollar in Europe this summer


If travelers follow these rules, they can maximize savings on a dream vacation through Europe for about the same as a visit to a big US city.

With the dollar taking a beating from the euro, a fast-food lunch in London can cost $40, and a hotel room in Paris will set you back $500 a night. Maybe you should just stay home?

Well, don’t believe everything you read.

Newspapers, TV and radio seem to always have some kind of overpriced story about Europe since the euro has been doing a tap dance on the dollar over the past few years. However, traveling to major cities in Europe costs about the same as visiting a big city in the United States.

Here’s how to save money and keep from being overwhelmed by the costs of a continental vacation this year.

1. Plan ahead. Buying packages, tours, hotels and car rentals always costs more when purchased piecemeal at the 11th hour. Packages almost always mean bargains; however, they come with restrictions. I have purchased a “package” and only used the portion I wanted to and still ended up with a better price in the end.

2. Buy the daily specials. Live like the locals and buy the Tagesmenu, Plat du Jour or Menu del Dia. In France during a recent trip, the Plat du Jour cost only euros 9 (about $15) for salad, a main course and dessert. In Spain, the Menu del Dia is a requirement and sometimes includes water or wine as well as three courses. In Germany, the bargain Tagesmenu is always filling, matched with a beer, and will sustain touring for a long day. I don’t choose bargain restaurants by reading guidebooks; I look for places packed with working class locals and students for filling meals.

3. Use good guidebooks to research hotels. Rick Steves’ guidebooks have some of the best-researched bargain lodging and Michelin Red Guides have the most accurate upscale ratings. I normally look for the least expensive hotel listed in Michelin to know I am getting a well-kept, well-run establishment. For more out of the mainstream spots, try the Rough Guides — its writers do a good job of doing their homework.

4. Go online or to travel agents for packages. Use the Internet to purchase “dynamic packages.” When using Expedia, Orbitz, Travelocity, Cheaptickets and many others, purchasing air and hotels together can save a bundle of money. The Internet sites allow travelers to select the types of rooms, the location and have detailed maps of the hotel areas. It is hard to go wrong. Or, check with a travel agent. They often can match online package prices, provide added personalized services and a point of contact if things go wrong. Plus, discount sites such as 1800FlyEurope, Travelzoo, LivingSocial and Groupon are getting into the package tour game.

5. Check into transportation passes for the city bus and subway systems.
Tourist passes are almost always a bargain. Take the train from the airport into the city, if possible, to save even more — these transfers are often included in the transportation pass. Some online travel sites sell these as an add-on to your package.

6. Buy a museum pass. If you are planning to visit more than three museums, these passes save you money. You also will avoid any lines at the ticket window when arriving at popular museums. In Paris and Venice this can save hours. Some online travel sites also sell these as an add-on to your package.

7. Get cash overseas using your credit card for the best exchange rates. Be aware of the added credit-card fees. Credit Union credit cards normally are the best deal. Avoid credit cards that have overseas charge fees, extra exchange rate fees, cash machine fees and cash advance fees. If you use the right credit card, you will only be charged a $1 transaction fee and the 1 percent minimum exchange fee.

8. Do not exchange money at the airports. If you insist on bringing cash or traveler’s cheques, avoid airport banks (both in the U.S. and overseas). The difference can be as much as 10 percent between airport banks and others downtown. All airports have cash machines. Use your credit card or debit card following rules in item 7 above.

9. If you want to rent a car, always call back to the USA and make your reservations a day in advance. I suggest calling AutoEurope at 1-800-223-5555 (check their Web site, autoeurope.com, or call in advance for their toll-free numbers from Europe). Their minimum three-day rental is often less expensive than a one-day local rental.

10. Buy a telephone card for local and international calls or use Skype. There are many types of telephone cards — all require that you dial a toll-free number and then follow the prompts (in English) to make your call. Cards that cost as little as 5 euros will give you hundreds of minutes of talk time with the USA. For Skype, find a WiFi connection and call virtually for free from device to device or phone. With a smartphone, download the Skype app and use it seamlessly whenever you find good WiFi connections.

Is traveling to Europe too expensive?

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  • charlieo

    I have been traveling to Europe for many years now, on my own. My opinion is that much of your information is mostly wrong. City passes/museum passes not worth the money unless you are going to take FULL advantage of the them. Package tours are expensive and really not much fun, example – from Paris you can get a tour to Versailles for $100 and up and be lead around or for half that amount you can take a train, spend the day and come back with an “experience”. Traveling this way (on your own) is only for the “brave” anyone can do it with a little research. No one should ever assume a package is “best”, I have frequently found that not to be so.

  • charlio

    I meant to say the traveling on your own is NOT only for the brave, anyone can do it with some research – – and the benefit is how much you learned while doing the research and proud you will be with your accomplishment.

  • http://upgrd.com/roadmoretraveled MeanMeosh

    As far as hotels, I suggest looking at places a little away from the city centers, and then taking advantage of mass transit to visit the big tourist areas during the day. Last time we were in Ireland, we stayed at a hotel about 3 miles or so from Dublin’s city center. It was probably a good 1/3 cheaper than similar hotels downtown, and was just a 20-minute, EUR 1.80 bus ride away. Saved us a lot of money that we were able to use for an Irish cultural show with dinner at a local pub instead. Airport hotels can also be an option – take the free hotel shuttle back to the airport, then catch a bus or metro downtown.

    I would be careful with tourist transit passes, though. We bought one in Madrid during our trip there a few years ago, and to break even on the cost, we would have had to take something like 6 rides per day. Needless to say, we ended up wasting some money. Check the price and really think about how many times you plan to hop on the trains and buses each day before getting one.

  • Ton

    i fully agree had the same in dusseldorf, 200 euro p night became 75 with a 10m tramride, or rome where via veneto is 300euro per night (and 15 euro for a glass of wine) while around via nationale it’s half that and 15 euro buys you a meal

    must say doing this requires a bit of reseach as not all areas have what you need, transport is an obvious first but safety is one, plus the vibe

    london has areas which are good but also some (maida vail tower hamlets and most areas on the southbank (apart from southwark) that i would avoid like the plague

    same with rome around termini station (unless drugaddicted prostitues are your thing)

  • http://tsanewsblog.com/214/news/history-repeats-itself-with-tsas-strip-search-tactics/ Lisa Simeone

    Love the Rough Guides. Have used them for years and they’ve never let me down.

    Just got back from 3 weeks in Europe (well, the first week was spent crossing the ocean on the QM2). We got great hotel deals ahead of time in Hamburg, Berlin, and Vienna — fantastic rooms in centrally located areas for only $150 a night. Hell, our overnight in New York, at the super-budget Herald Square Hotel was way more than that.

    We love to walk walk walk. When we take public transportation, we’re careful to check out whether a day/week pass is really worth it. Vienna, for instance, has a superb public transportation system, but the city is small enough that you can walk virtually everywhere; so it didn’t make sense for us to buy a pass. We used the U-bahn more in Berlin.

    Icing on the cake: we flew back First Class on British Airways’ dime. (Well, ok, we paid 12 bucks each.) The flight was paid for entirely by miles, accumulated painlessly and almost imperceptibly through my credit card. I use it all the time for ordinary everyday expenses, and those miles add up.

  • bodega3

    Packages come in various ways. I put packages together at great savings and these packages are for independent travelers. Having sold travel for decades, I often have first timers want someone to show them around for their first trip, then for their next trip they are very comfortable going it alone. Keep in mind, not everyone is comfortable on their own and respect that. As for your comment on Versailles, there is a bit of a walk from the train station to the long line for the tour. Not everyone can do that. Fortunately you and I can and I hope that continues for several more decades! Museum passes have other benefits, like avoiding long lines, so you have to weigh what it important with the use of your money.

  • Greentravelgal

    I concur with comments below – much of the advice above is not great. I just returned from a self-planned Europe trip. I saved money and time by NOT buying packages, but making individual travel choices (often with advance purchase savings – for trains/ferries, etc.) In all of the major cities I saved more money by not buying the transit pass, but paying as I went – and the Museum passes were also more expensive than paying for (sometimes combo) tickets to the ones I truly wanted to see. I bought those passes online or through a department store vendor, so still avoided the museum lines. Most “tourist pass” options are moneymakers for the vendor – not savings for the tourists – and can end up driving you to make choices based on getting value out of the card – rather than concentrating on your own travel preferences. There are some good tips in the article as well. Local eating of the menu of the day is great advice, and I was thrilled with using Skype as my only phone for nearly 3 weeks.

  • Marcin Jeske

    While I have employed the strategy of staying outside the city center near a train line in many places I have visited… you do have to be careful that the savings on paper don’t cost you something more valuable: your travel experience.

    Staying amongst the attractions in the city center means you can quickly stop by your room to change or resupply. A full hour round trip (using your 20-minute example and factoring in walking and wait times) can be time costly enough that you force yourself to not return until you are done for the day.

    Again, I do it all the time to save a lot of money on hotels, but it has hurt me on several occasions, where the time needed for a trip to the hotel has made me miss events, be late to appointments, or end up dragging everything I need all day with me because I don’t want to waste time going back and forth…

    Everyone should figure out how much each hour of vacation time is costing them (cost of flight, hotels, transport, time off – divided by the number of waking hours at your destination) and consider whether the difference in hotel prices justifies spending an hour or two a day commuting. A trip for two to Europe for a week? Even with affordable flights of $1000 each, $1000 spent on hotels, that means each of the (16 x 6 ) roughly 100 hours is costing you about ($3000 / 100 =) $30 bucks… so that hotel 20 minutes outside the city center better be significant;y more than $30 a night cheaper, or you are not really saving anything.