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Fifteen ways to cut your Europe travel costs

by , SmarterTravel Staff
Gondolas in a side street canal, Venice, Italy (Photo: IndexOpen)
Editor's Note: This story was originally published on April 10, 2006. To see the most recent SmarterTravel articles on related topics, please click on any of the following links: airfare, bus and rail, car rental, destination, Europe, hotel, Jessica Labrencis, vacation package.

With transatlantic airfares at an all-time high and the euro continuing to pound the dollar, Europe travel will come with a hefty price tag this year. Fortunately there are some easy ways to shave unnecessary costs from your trip. Here's how.

Getting there

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1. Travel in the off season

Traveling in the off season is hands down the best way to save on a flight to Europe. When the weather turns cold and gray, fares drop. You can expect flights from November through February to be less expensive than during the spring, summer, and fall. Within the off season, there are travel "dead periods," like the weeks after Thanksgiving but before Christmas, and the week following New Year's Day, when you may be able to save even more.

2. Book an open-jaw flight

If you're planning to visit two countries in Europe, book a flight that arrives in one city and departs from another. Flying into London and out of Vienna, for example, saves you the hassle of returning from Austria to England for your return flight.

3. Compare fares

Be sure to compare prices from a variety of carriers. The three major online travel agencies (Expedia, Orbitz, and Travelocity) are good places to start your comparisons, as are meta-search websites that that search the airlines and the online travel agencies (including BookingBuddy.com, Kayak, Mobissimo, and Yahoo! FareChase).

Getting around

4. By plane

Flying can be a quicker way to zip around the continent, shaving precious hours and even days of traveling time off an itinerary. Europe has more than 60 low-fare carriers, including the popular easyJet and Ryanair. However, they often serve airports outside the city center, so be sure to factor in the time and cost of getting to and from these smaller airports before booking. And, note that these carriers may charge for baggage—overweight or otherwise.

5. By train

Europe is connected by efficient train systems that make traveling from city to city (and country to country) easy. Depending on your itinerary, it may make sense to purchase a multi-country rail pass like those sold by Eurail. Or, it might be better to buy a single-country or regional pass, or even point-to-point tickets. Think about where you plan to visit before buying a pass, and be careful not to pay for destinations you won't have time to see.

6. By car

Renting a car can sometimes be more economical than a flight or rail travel. Compare prices for rail passes or flights for each member of your party versus those of a shared rental car before you decide on transportation.

7. Within a city

Most major European cities (and some smaller ones) have excellent public transportation systems that are cheaper than taxis or rental cars. Consider making like a local and buying a public transportation pass, which are less expensive than buying multiple one-ride passes. Transportation passes can be purchased in most subway stations.

Where to stay

8. Hostels

Hostels are usually the cheapest accommodation option. For much less than a hotel room, hostel goers get basic shared accommodations and a bathroom down the hall. Many hostels now also offer private single or double rooms for those willing to pay extra. Before booking a hostel, check its customer satisfaction rankings on Hostelworld.com to make sure it meets your standards.

9. Budget hotel chains

Europe's budget hotel chains may be appealing to travelers who only use a hotel room to sleep. The least expensive of these hotels (including Etap and Formule 1) offer small rooms, shared baths, and minimal service. A step up from these so-called "super-budget" chains, Europe's other budget hotels (including Holiday Inn Express, Ibis, and Premier) are on par with budget chains in the U.S.

10. Vacation rentals

Staying in an apartment, a townhouse, or a villa can be a cheaper alternative to hotels. Vacation rentals tend to have more space for living and sleeping than hotel rooms, and also feature kitchen facilities, which can cut down on food costs. Sites like Vacation Rentals by Owner, CyberRentals.com, and VacationHomes.com list properties by destination, complete with photos.

11. College areas

If you're visiting a city with a strong college presence, you may be able to save by staying in the area surrounding the university. Since these areas are often off the beaten path, you'll be able to find cheaper accommodations, as well as less-touristy restaurants, cafes, and shops.

Exploring Europe

12. Getting cash

You'll get the best exchange rate by withdrawing cash from local ATMs after you arrive. Banks, hotels, and money-change bureaus charge a commission, so the ATM is the best bet, even if your bank charges a fee for using a foreign ATM.

13. Attractions passes

Purchasing a multi-day pass that includes admission to a handful of attractions (and may include unlimited use of public transportation) can be a great money-saver if you plan to visit several museums. Most popular European cities offer cards, which can be purchased online at a website like EuropeanCityCards.com and often at tourism offices, hotels, and museums. Note that EuropeanCityCards.com does not list the Paris Museum Pass.

14. Free days

Most museums in Europe have free days once a month or more. Before you go, check to see when the museums you plan to visit are free.

15. Food markets

Make like a European and shop for food at the local market. These daily or weekly markets offer produce, bread, cheeses, and other picnic essentials at inexpensive prices. A few picnic meals and bagged lunches instead of restaurant meals can help keep food costs down.

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