A reader recently posed a simple question—with a complicated answer:
"How much does a weeklong vacation to Europe cost?"
The wiseguy answer would be the same as in the old joke about consultants. Client's question: "How much is two plus two?" Consultant's answer: "How much do you want it to be?" Actually, that answer has more validity in the travel context than in business—variations are tremendous. But we can at least zero in on some lower limits.
One of the two least expensive options for a one-week European trip to stay in just one major city. Then, you only costs are round-trip airfare, hotel accommodations, meals, local transportation, sightseeing and admissions, and incidentals. Let's look at a trip with seven nights in Europe. (A tour operator would call it eight days and would count the overnight flight to Europe as one of the tour's nights, but in practice, you lose at least a half day on your arrival and your departure days.)
- Airfare, of course, depends on your origin, destination, and season of travel. If we assume a trip in June, currently quoted round-trip fares range from about $850 from Boston to London to about $1,150 from San Francisco to Rome. You may find the usual fare quirks—you could knock $150 off the Boston-London fare, for example, by flying an extra three hours and connecting in Washington. And future "sales" could knock $100 to $200 off those rates. Same goes for traveling in spring or fall.
- Hotel costs obviously depend on your preferred level of comfort. You can still find plenty of acceptable, if basic, hotels and B&Bs in most European capitals for under $75 per night, double occupancy, including taxes. Reasonably comfortable hotels are available for around $100 a night in many cities, but they're a bit more in London. At the low end, you'd be looking at around $600 for seven nights. Consider air/hotel packages from the big online agencies such as Expedia, Orbitz, or Travelocity, which often add to less than individual bookings. For bottom pricing in a few big cities, try Hotwire or Priceline: Hotwire, for example, is quoting rates for three-star hotels well under $100 a night in London.
- Restaurant meals are another imponderable. If you stay in a B&B or hotel that includes breakfast in the room rate, you could get by for as little $50 per person per day, but that would require a few McDonald stops and little or no wine with dinner. Let's say $1,000 for two people for the week.
- Local transit: Figure on up to $50 per person for local transit daily or weekly passes. That limit probably means no side trips to such places as Oxford, Giverny, of the Villa d'Este. And stay away from the taxis. For the full trip, call it $100.
- Sightseeing and admissions: Again, there's a huge range, but I'd figure at least $150 per person, or $300 total.
At a minimum, then, you're looking at airfare plus around $2,000, per couple, give or take $100 or so depending on your preferences.
The other lowest-cost way to visit for a week Europe is to stay in the countryside. You can either set up a single base and do day-trip excursions to nearby attractions or you can move around every day or two, in short hops. Obviously, this sort of trip requires a rental car.
- Airfare: You'd have the same airfare as a city trip.
- Accommodations: Staying in countryside inns would cut your hotel bills substantially. Plenty of budget hotels are available for under $50 a night, double occupancy, so call your bill $350 for the seven nights. You could also find a one-week one-bedroom vacation rental or "gite" for around that figure.
- Restaurant meals: Eating, too, can be less expensive in the countryside than in the major cities, and in a vacation rental you can prepare some of your own meals. Call it $800 for two.
- Rental car: You can rent a small car for under $300 a week, including taxes and fees, in most of Europe; less than that in some countries. Use your credit card to provide collision coverage; buying the rental company's CDW would add another $250 to $300 a week. Add $150 for gas, for a total cost of $450.
- Sightseeing and admissions: Again, you'll probably spend less in the country. Call it $200, total.
This trip adds up to airfare plus $1,800 for a couple—a bit less than the big-city stay, but, of course, a completely different experience.
Adding additional destinations adds to you cost. Figure each move costs a minimum of $100, out of pocket, for train fare and travel between stations and hotels. A city-to-city move also uses up a lot of travel overhead. Each move takes, at a minimum, a full half day, and most moves take more than that, given the amount of time you need to pack, check out, head for a train station or airport, ride to another town, get to a hotel, check in, and unpack. Figure around $300 or so in travel overhead per move.
My conclusion: If you're traveling on your own, for just one week, it's almost imperative that you confine yourself to no more than two cities—London and Paris, for example, Zurich and Geneva, or Rome and Venice.
If you feel the need to see three or more cities in a trip as short as a week or 10 days, your best bet is probably one of those "If it's Tuesday, this must be Belgium" package tours that include hotel, intercity travel in a tour bus, sightseeing, and some meals. Several tour operators run such tours; typical costs start at about $300 to $350 per day, per couple, using mainly superior-tourist to first class hotels. These days most of them take at least nine or 10 days, but you can still find some one-week options. Hotel-to-hotel tour bus transportation, included in the price, cuts out much of the travel overhead of individual rail or air travel; the tour typically stops to visit intermediate cities and attractions between base cities, and the tour operator takes care of much of the hotel paperwork and schlepping the baggage.
Of course, you can do a multicity trip independently. In that case, your best bet is to get a one- or two-country railpass. Plan to stay at hotels within short walking distance of the main rail stations—you find plenty of budget hotels clustered around just about any big-city main station. You can even wait until you arrive to arrange a room, through the local tourist agency desk that you find in most big cities.
My figures are based on my best guess about what a typical adult American couple would find acceptable. Students and dedicated bottom-cost travelers can do better; as some of the super-budget guidebooks suggest. And there's no limit to the upside: luxury hotels, taxis, private guides, even business class air can run the costs into many thousands.
Each traveler has to decide for him/herself the right level for a trip. I hope my estimates can provide at least a starting point.
(Editor's Note: SmarterTravel is a member of the TripAdvisor Media Network, an operating company of Expedia, Inc. Expedia, Inc. also owns Expedia.com and Hotwire.com.)