Looking forward to your summer trip to Europe but can’t shake the dread of high prices and bad exchange rates? Here are ten tips for cutting expenses without sacrificing your vacation experience.
Compare and buy travel services in dollars before you go
Purchasing air-and-hotel packages in U.S. dollars before you set foot on European soil can be an effective way of sticking to a budget, as you won’t be so vulnerable to exchange rate spikes.
Often, you’ll get a better deal booking air and hotel together rather than a la carte. For instance, on Travelocity, packages were priced from about $20 to over $100 less than separate air and hotel bookings. But, as always, it’s best to compare prices before you settle on the package. Look for packages from online travel agencies such as Expedia, Orbitz, and Travelocity; and from Europe package providers like go-today, Gate 1 Travel, and EuropeASAP.
Find a vacation rental
In cities, you can find well-appointed apartments in central neighborhoods, while in the country, you can take advantage of amenities such as large gardens or swimming pools. No matter where you want to stay, vacation rentals can offer great value, especially for families or groups.
Not only do costs tend to be lower than comparable hotel stays when you divide them out by person, but you’ll have the comfort of more space and you won’t have to dine out every meal since you’ll have your own kitchen.
SmarterTravel.com’s Ed Perkins recently reviewed European vacation rental websites.
Seek out alternative accommodations
Browsing a major online travel agency won’t give you the full picture of the available accommodation types in Europe. Small, family-run hotels, hostels, and pensiones offer private rooms and tend to be more affordable than chain hotels. They provide a more authentic cultural experience as well.
Consider attractions passes
If you’re planning on visiting a number of museums or attractions, look for passes that include entry into many major sights. Usually, you pay a flat rate and get access to participating institutions for a set number of days. Not only is there a savings potential, but you won’t have to wait in line to buy tickets at each attraction. Some passes include public transportation as well.
To decide if a pass is worthwhile, consider how many attractions you plan on seeing in the length of time the pass is valid. To find out what pass options are available, visit EuropeanCityCards.com.
Expand your dining horizons
Eating in Europe is one of the great pleasures of a visit, but restaurants aren’t the only place to savor local dishes. Covered markets, farmers’ markets, and grocery stores are a great way to eat well at a fraction the cost of dining out. Whether you purchase items for picnics or to cook in a vacation rental or hostel kitchen, you’ll save money, and chances are you’ll eat well too.
To figure out where to shop, do a little online research before you go, consult a guidebook, or ask locals once you arrive. If you do plan on picnicking, be sure to pack a Swiss Army knife, a cutting board, and a plastic cup or two. Read Secrets for eating in Europe on the cheap for more dining tips.
Consider purchasing train passes before departure
Though Eurail train passes don’t always offer the best value, when they’re worth it, they’re really worth it. You’re most likely to see the savings when covering long distances. For instance, a three-country pass good for five days of use over two months costs $399. At about $375, a round-trip train ticket between Paris and Barcelona costs almost as much, but with the pass, you’ll still have three extra days of travel left.
Traveling smart can help you maximize your value. If you take a direct night-train that departs after 7:00 pm, you’ll use up only use one day of the pass. And, if you travel with a companion, you’ll save about 15 percent off the total cost of the pass.
Unless you score a sale seat, flights on intraEuropean low-cost carriers aren’t markedly less than train passes. For instance, a round-trip ticket between Paris and Barcelona on easyJet in June came out to $255.
Time your visit right
Summer is the most expensive time to fly to Europe from North America. It used to be that come September 1, flight prices would drop back down to reasonable levels, and savvy (and flexible) travelers could reap the benefits of cheaper fares, smaller crowds, and good weather.
These days, prices tend to stay at peak-season levels for travel into at least the first half of September. But if you can wait until the second half of the month or later to travel (and can wait for the fall sales that start to crop up in the latter part of summer), you should be able to find a better price on airfare to Europe.
Take advantage of free attractions and free days
The British Museum. Notre Dame. The Spanish Steps. These are just some of Europe’s most famous attractions that won’t cost you a thing to visit. You’ll also find amazing parks and gardens open to the public free of charge.
Even museums and attractions with entry fees may offer free days. For instance, the Louvre Museum in Paris waives its admission fee the first Sunday of every month, and Madrid’s Reina Sofia Museum is free for a few hours on weekends.
Find lists of free activities online by searching with the terms “free” and the city name. City tourism sites often supply this information, as do many guidebooks.
Convert money wisely
For Americans in Europe, the exchange rate is already unfavorable enough, so it’s vital to make sure you’re not losing more money than you have to in the exchange. Generally, using your credit card for purchases (though it’s a good idea to check on what kind of foreign transaction fee is associated with your card) will yield a better overall exchange rate than Travelers Cheques or currency exchange offices.
Even better is withdrawing larger sums of money at ATMs. Most banks charge a flat fee for withdrawals, so by taking out a larger amount you’ll minimize your exchange loss. Some banks don’t charge a fee for transactions abroad. Citibank customers can use Citibank ATMs in Europe without paying extra, and Bank of America allows you to withdraw money at certain banks—including Barclay’s, Deutsche Bank, and Paribas— without extra charges.
SmarterTravel.com Contributing Editor Ed Perkins recently reviewed the current state of currency exchange, and lists recent changes as well as surcharges associated with different credit cards.
Get VAT refunds
You’ll pay Value Added Tax, or VAT, on your purchases in Europe. But for larger purchases, there’s a way to get the tax refunded on your way home. You have to spend a certain amount, which varies by country, in a particular store to qualify for the refund. Find out the minimum amount for the countries you’ll be visiting, and then ask for a VAT refund form at the time of larger purchases. At the airport, take the receipt and the filled-out form (you may also have to show the purchase) to a kiosk in the airport and request a refund.
You can also look for stores with the “Europe Tax-free Shopping” program poster in their front windows. Show your passport at the time of purchase and you’ll receive a voucher for the refund, which you can process at the airport. Rick Steves offers a comprehensive primer on claiming VAT refunds that includes a list of minimum qualifying amounts by country.
(Editor’s Note: SmarterTravel.com is a member of the TripAdvisor Media Network, an operating company of Expedia, Inc. Expedia, Inc. also owns Expedia.com.)