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Get the best value for your Europe vacation

Kara Simard, a law student at Suffolk University in Boston, was skeptical about what she and a friend would get when they booked a $750 six-night airfare-and-hotel deal to London and Paris for March travel, even after paying extra for higher-class hotels.

In the end, however, she was pleasantly surprised with the results: “I was very pleased. The hotels were excellent and we did not have a single problem with our flights. If I had arranged my own air and hotel I would have spent a lot more money. The last time I went to Europe, I paid more just for airfare.”

With countless travel companies selling Europe packages and tours, it’s sometimes hard to know which provider will offer you the best value for your particular needs. What’s more, marketing ploys and less-than-honest advertised prices by some vacation providers can make it difficult to tell the good deals from the bad.

We can help. Use our list of top-value vacation providers to find the the best bargain for your next Europe vacation.

Airfare-and-hotel packages

Airfare-and-accommodations deals can save you a lot of money if you find the right deal. When various travel products like airfare and hotel are bundled together and sold under one price, the travel providers do not have to reveal the exact cost of each element, and can therefore undercut their published rates. You may lose the flexibility to choose the exact flights and hotels you want, but the savings can make booking a package a better option. You can avoid being disappointed in the package accommodations by doing research on the hotel choices before you book.

Best value vacations

SmarterTravel.com tracks the best Europe package deals in our Vacation section, and over the past several years we’ve seen the best deals for travel to major European cities come from online vacation discounters, particularly Go-Today, Gate1Travel, and Europe ASAP. All three offer a variety of package types (airfare-and-hotel, fly-drive, escorted) to top European cities, with a selection of hotels ranging from budget to deluxe, and the option to add extras like airport transfers, attractions passes, and city tours.

No one package seller consistently has the cheapest deals, so to find best package for your itinerary, you’ll have to comparison shop. For example, Go-Today, Gate1Travel, and Europe ASAP are all offering sale prices on six-night London and Paris vacations this spring that include round-trip airfare, three nights’ accommodations in each city, and tickets on the Eurostar for travel from London to Paris. We priced trips from all three including May 1 departures from New York, accommodations in similar tourist-class hotels, and all taxes and fees. For this particular trip, Go-today had the lowest price ($1,054 per person), followed by Europe ASAP ($1,069 per person), and Gate1Travel ($1,085 per person). Since there’s not much difference in price, the decision about which provider to choose boils down to which package includes the most appealing hotels to you.

Whatever the case, you’ll save more with any of these packages than by booking flights and hotels individually. To see how much you could save by booking Go-Today’s package rather than doing it yourself, we priced all the package elements separately for the exact same travel dates and hotels, and got a per person total of $1,246. Thus, with the Go-Today deal, you’ll get the best package price and you’ll save $192 per person over the do-it-yourself cost.

To find more deals from these discounters, go to the Go-Today, Gate1Travel, and Europe ASAP websites.

Other package sellers

Beside the airlines and big online travel sites, you can also book affordable Europe packages through Tour Crafters, Picasso Tours, and Liberty Travel. Visit the SmarterTravel.com vacation section to find the latest package deals.

NEXT >> Escorted tours

Escorted tours

A wide variety of tour companies offer escorted vacations to Europe, ranging from highly-structured, all-inclusive luxury vacations to more basic trips that cover accommodations, some meals, and the services of a tour guide, with lots of built-in free time for independent exploration. Some are tailored for specific age groups, activity levels, and interests, while others are designed to please a wider audience.

However, the benefits of all escorted tours are the same: having the nitty-gritty details of trip-planning mapped out in advance by someone else, and having experienced tour directors to guide you to the must-see attractions. Since most tour operators book hotels, airfare, and other travel services in bulk at a discounted rate, you’ll often pay less for a tour than if you booked and paid for all the inclusions individually.

Best-value tours

While higher-priced tours generally have more inclusions and higher-end hotels than less-expensive tours, you don’t necessarily have to sacrifice quality and service to save money. Friendly Planet Travel, a small wholesale tour company that has operated in Pennsylvania since 1981, packages creative itineraries, quality customer and guide service, and stays in top-rated hotels at budget-tour prices. Tours include round-trip airfare, accommodations in superior to deluxe hotels, breakfast and some dinners, attraction admissions, transportation during the tour, and guide services.

“Great value. Best tour for the money,” says traveler Mary Haslam of the 15-day “Great Cities of Eastern Europe” tour ($1,699 with air from New York) she joined last November. “Renata, the tour escort, was positive, professional, and always went over and above to help everyone. In my 20 years of travel, she is one of the best I have had.”

Friendly Planet currently has 11 escorted tours and cruises in Europe, although some are so popular they’ve already sold out for 2006. The company says it runs a limited number of Europe tours because it only offers itineraries it can arrange with quality inclusions at a low price-point. “Our business model is to actively seek out those interesting destinations where we are able to make a great deal,” says owner and manager Peggy Goldman.” If we can’t get a great deal, we won’t feature the trip on our website.”

One itinerary you can still book for this year is the 11-day “Budapest, Vienna, & Prague.” Airfare-inclusive rates start at $1,299 before taxes (if you book by April 28), breaking down to a per-day cost of $108. What do you get for that price? Round-trip airfare from New York, nine breakfasts and two dinners, ground transportation and one intra-Europe flight, a tour director and local guides, accommodations at highly rated hotels (NH Budapest, Hilton Vienna Danube, Dorit Don Giovanni Praha, and Scandic Grand Marina) and sightseeing in Hungary, Austria, the Czech Republic, and Finland. That’s a good value considering the average nightly rates at the four featured hotels are all higher than the $108-per-day tour cost.

For more information, go to the Friendly Planet website.

Other tour operators

There are too many Europe tour operators to list here, including many excellent small companies that specialize in travel to one particular European country or region. However, for a variety of affordably priced escorted Europe tours, you can start by looking at the trips offered by Collette Vacations, Gate1Travel, General Tours, Globus & Cosmos, and Go-Today.

NEXT >> Adventure tours

Adventure tours

With the growing popularity of adventure tourism, travelers who want to explore Europe’s mountains, waterways, and countryside—be it for a hardcore adventure like climbing the Matterhorn or a more laidback trip like cycling through Ireland’s County Kerry—have many tour options. Choose an adventure, say walking in Tuscany, and you’ll find outfitters offering everything from self-guided walks with stays in simple farmhouses to fully guided tours with accommodations in 16th-century hunting lodges and gourmet meals with wine. Whatever your style, you’ll want to find a tour operator that’s knowledgeable about the region (and works with reputable trip leaders, if you want a guided tour) and offers trips that match your comfort and fitness level.

Best value tours

Adventure Center, a California-based tour seller, offers hundreds of Europe tours at surprisingly low prices. Tour options range from very strenuous (eight-day Mount Blanc ascent from $2,200) to leisurely (eight-day Greek island sailing from $820) and tour activities can include anything from hiking in the Pyrenees (eight days from $730) to wolf tracking in Poland (eight days from $920).

Tour inclusions vary, but most cover accommodations, transportation during the tour, some meals and sightseeing, and the services of a trip leader and local guides. Group sizes range from eight to 24 people, and, because Adventure Center’s tours are marketed internationally, most trips have a good mix of North Americans, English-speaking Europeans, Australians, and New Zealanders.

Commenting on the cost of these tours, Adventure Center president Trevor Saxty says, “Thanks to the multi-national nature of our groups, our pricing is heavily influenced by pricing in very competitive overseas markets where consumers generally expect more affordable pricing than offered by many purely U.S.-based companies. Also, it’s possible to operate more departure dates and therefore spread the fixed costs of running and marketing these programs over more departures, therefore keeping the price lower for each participant.”

One of the better deals we found through Adventure Center was a seven-night Mont Blanc trek that includes camping accommodations, most meals, local transportation, and a trip leader and support crew for $937. You can also opt for the same trip but with hotel accommodations for an extra $180. In comparison, we found a similar seven-night itinerary from the upscale outfitter Mountain Travel Sobek for $2,690. The Mountain Travel Sobek trip includes stays in mountain inns, all meals, airport transfers, multiple expert guides, and a high level of service; but it’s up to you whether that’s worth an extra $1,700.

For more information about Adventure Center trips, visit the Adventure Center website.

Other adventure outfitters

To find other affordable adventure trips, check out the trips offered by Intrepid Travel, GAP Adventures, and iExplore.

NEXT >> Youth tours

Youth tours

While do-it-yourself backpacking trips to Europe are still popular among young people, a significant number of college students and travelers in their 20s and early 30s opt to book guided youth tours. The perks of youth escorted tours are the same as other escorted tours. However, to attract penny-pinching students and other young people, most youth tour companies make use of budget accommodations like campgrounds or hotels located outside city centers. Youth tours can also be quite long (12 days or more), catering to students or recent graduates who have their summers free. And most importantly, all the tour goers are within the same general age group and the tours are designed accordingly (think whitewater rafting trips in the Alps and nights at the Moulin Rouge).

Best-value tours

One of the top youth tour operators in the U.S. is Contiki, which offers more than 60 Europe tours ranging from the three-day “Check Out London” tour (land-only rates from $225) to the 48-day “Ultimate European” vacation (land-only rates from $4,439). Tour inclusions vary, but most include all accommodations, most breakfasts and dinners, transportation during the trip, the services of experienced guides, and many attraction admissions, guided tours, and other excursions. Travelers have the option to select lower-priced tours with accommodations in campgrounds and other budget lodgings or pay more for tours that include stays in higher-end accommodations.

Frank Marini, president of Contiki Holidays, says booking one of Contiki’s inclusive tours is cheaper than following similar Europe itineraries on your own: “We have set up contracted rates with our hotels and the airlines we use, we get discounted rates, and we pass these along to our passengers.”

Going on a tour with 30 to 40 other like-minded young people is also more fun than doing it yourself—especially if you’re traveling solo (Contiki will match a single traveler with a same-sex roommate at request)—according to many Contiki devotees. “I was a little nervous to be going on a trip with total strangers, but honestly, I ended up having the best time ever,” says Ohio State student Nicole Loy, who went on the “European Discovery” tour last August. “Meeting new people and exploring new places with them was definitely the best part of the trip.”

The 14-day “European Discovery” tour is one of Contiki’s most popular tours, and a good way for travelers to get a taste of Europe’s top destinations at a good price. The tour includes stops in London, Paris, Amsterdam, Munich, Innsbruck, Venice, Rome, Florence, and Lucerne. Land-only prices start at $1,619 (October departures). Rates that include airfare from New York start at $2,119 before taxes. Accommodations are in “superior” lodgings.

To learn more, visit the Contiki website.

Other tour companies

You can find other affordable escorted tours for young people from London-based Top Deck Tours and Cambridge, Massachusetts-based EF College Break. Both market to 18- to 30-year-olds.

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