Lately I’ve received quite a flurry of emails from friends seeking advice as they prepare to head from the US to Europe for the first time in several years. As it turns out, they’re not alone. According to several industry surveys, more Americans are planning to visit Europe in 2013 than in previous years.
So it seems like a good time for a travel tune-up—a refresher course on keeping it cheap in Europe.
I put together this list of the easiest ways to save on the most expensive and essential aspects of European travel: the flights, hotels and transportation. (For more in-depth advice about specific destinations, be sure to check out the cities we cover on EuroCheapo.)
Some of these tips will be “old hat,” of course, for seasoned travelers. However, if even one of these tips comes in handy you could save a bundle.
1. Book “open jaw” tickets.
Many North American travelers start their trips in one European city and wind things up in another city hundreds of miles away. If you fall into this group, for example starting in Paris and finishing in Rome, don’t assume that round-trip tickets to Paris (with a mad dash back to Paris from Rome at the end of your trip) is your only option. Look into “open jaw” tickets that will let you fly into Paris and home through Rome (usually bypassing Paris completely). These tickets will quite often be about the same price as the round-trip ticket into your initial city.
For example, consider a flight from New York to Paris on July 22, 2013 and returning August 5, 2013:
The lowest price I found on Kayak is for $1,178 on Aer Lingus. However, if your trip winds up in Rome, it would be much easier to simply fly home from Rome. A flight on Aer Lingus into Paris but back to New York from Rome is available for $1,196—only $18 more than the round-trip ticket to Paris. (Search done on 3/13/13 on Kayak.com.)
2. Get a “free” flight when you sign up for a new credit card.
Many credit card companies offer tens of thousands of frequent flier miles as sign-up incentives. (Several popular cards offer 50,000 miles.) There are often spending requirements (a minimum amount charged to your card within a set number of months). However, if you time it right, you could wind up with nearly enough miles for a free round-trip ticket from North America to Europe.
Do note, however, that taxes are not included, and vary by airline. (Most major US carriers will tack on at least $90 in taxes for a flight to Europe from the States. Some, such as British Airways and Air France, have much higher taxes.)
Here’s a list of popular cards and their offers.
3. Avoid peak travel dates.
The peak travel season for most European destinations, with the highest hotel rates and airline tickets, is mid-May through mid-September. This makes sense, as the weather is usually at its best and travelers (and their school-aged children) have vacation time.
Have a little flexibility with your schedule? Head over a wee bit before or after—early May or late September travel is not only less expensive, but it can be far less stressful, with fewer tourists, shorter lines, and more locals.
4. Pack lightly
If you haven’t flown to Europe in several years, you might be unpleasantly surprised to find that airlines have cut way back on the amount of luggage passengers in economy are permitted to check for free. Most carriers now only allow one carry-on bag, one “personal item” and one checked bag (usually up to 50 lbs.). Warning: A second checked bag can set you back about $100!
5. Book your preferred hotels early.
Have a favorite hotel in mind for your trip? Don’t put off booking it—if it’s popular, it will fill up, especially in the most popular destinations during peak travel season.
For example, the Hotel Tiquetonne in Paris is one of the most popular hotels on EuroCheapo (and for good reason, as it offers great old-fashioned and clean rooms in central Paris for about €60 a night!). However, I’ve been burned by trying to reserve one month in advance for summer dates at the Tiquetonne. It’s no secret and it will fill up two months in advance during the summer.
6. Flexible and adventurous? Wait to book until the last minute.
Conversely, you can often score great deals by taking the opposite approach and waiting until the last minute to book a place to sleep. Hotels with availability will often cut rates drastically in the days leading up to check-in to fill any vacancies. You can do last-minute searches on sites like EuroCheapo, or check out services that specialize in same-day bookings, such as HotelTonight (available as an app on the iPhone and Android).
This strategy, obviously, has its risks. During the peak season in Paris, for example, you might wind up with very few last-minute options, or those with availability may be in less central locations. Last-minute bookings are also clearly not for those who have a preferred hotel in mind, or for those who like to have everything squared away before take-off. I would recommend waiting until the last minute only if you see lots of availability when searching for your dates further in advance. If you sense that things are filling up, book a place in advance!
7. Consider apartment rentals, but be aware of the risks.
The popularity of apartment rental service like Airbnb and HomeAway is easy to understand—you can often score an apartment in London, New York City, and other expensive cities for about the same price as a hotel room. Throw in a kitchen and renting an apartment makes a lot of sense, especially for long-term stays and for families.
However, staying in apartments and homes does come with some potential downsides. They don’t generally offer any of the services you would expect from a hotel, such as 24-hour reception, help from the front desk, or security. (One of my family members recently lost the key to their apartment rental in Paris while out sightseeing, and wound up booking a room at a nearby hotel until the owner could be contacted the next day. They felt a bit odd checking into the hotel without any luggage…)
Also, this isn’t a great plan for messy travelers. You’ll be responsible for cleaning up after yourself during your stay—and paying for a cleaning service when you check out.
8. Factor in the extra hotel charges.
When comparing hotel rates, don’t forget that the price you see may not include extras, such as Wi-Fi and breakfast. How about parking?
Tally up all of these charges, and, while you’re at it, consider the hotel’s location. How easy will it be to arrive from the airport or train station by public transit? Will you rack up expensive taxi charges during your stay? Often a truly central hotel with a slightly more expensive nightly rate will end up costing less than a cheaper far-flung hotel.
9. Swing by the nearest supermarket.
You’ve checked into your hotel, and now you’re tired and thirsty. Don’t touch that minibar! Ask at the front desk for the location of the nearest supermarket. Stock up on the essentials, especially bottled water, snacks, toiletries, and anything else you may need (that would cost dearly from the front desk or as the result of a late-night minibar binge). While you’re there, consider the cool and quirky souvenir options available!
10. Take public transportation in from the airport, whenever possible
Most European airports are well-connected to the center of their cities by trains and/or buses. In the cities we cover on EuroCheapo, you’ll find plenty of public transportation options for getting into town that are far less expensive than taking a taxi. Do a little research before landing—or at the very least swing by the tourist information counter at the airport to hear about your options.
11. Buying a rail pass? Don’t forget point-to-point tickets and special fares.
Americans love Eurail passes, and for a good reason: They’re convenient and exciting to hold onto before your trip. They are not necessarily, however, a great deal. Before you plunk down a pretty penny for any kind of rail pass, compare the point-to-point ticket prices on the various national rail sites. On most European rail sites, you can book tickets and print them off using your home computer.
For example, heading from Berlin to Munich? Check out Bahn.de, the official site of the German railway to find tickets that are probably quite a bit cheaper than what you would end up paying for a rail pass or through a US-based rail agent.
Here’s a list of national rail sites to check out:
Austria (ÖBB): www.oebb.at
Czech Republic (CD): www.cd.cz
Dutch Railways: www.ns.nl
Finland (VR): www.vr.fi
Germany (Die Bahn): www.bahn.de
Great Britain (all rail operators): www.nationalrail.co.uk
Hungary (MAV): www.mav.hu
Italy (Trenitalia): www.trenitalia.com
Ireland (Iarnród Éireann): www.irishrail.ie
Poland (PKP): www.pkp.pl
Spain (Renfe): www.renfe.com
12. Buy your high-speed and long-distance rail tickets in advance
Whenever possible, book your long-distance rail tickets early! To compete with Europe’s low-cost airlines, railways offer some really great deals for those who book in advance. Generally speaking, follow the “three-month rule.”
For example, consider the 90-minute high-speed train from Florence to Rome. I would pay its “base fare” if I bought the ticket same-day (or even a day in advance) for €43. However, when I search on the Trenitalia website for travel dates two months in advance (in my case, May 14, 2013), I can book “Super Economy” seats for €19! Same seat — but less than half-price.
13. Traveling by long-distance train in France? Check out Ouigo!
In April 2013, the SNCF (the French national railways), will start service on “Ouigo,” a low-cost high-speed rail service that currently offers tickets for as low as €10 from the Paris region to southeast France (with more routes scheduled). If you’re planning a trip to France this year, you should definitely do searches on both the SNCF website (and keep it in French) and on Ouigo.
14. How much will that rental car really cost?
When you do a search for a European car rental, you may initially think you’ve found quite a deal (and maybe you have!). However, you’re only seeing the base price. Don’t forget to estimate costs for gas, tolls, parking and insurance. (Read our guide to calculating the real cost of renting a car.) Only then can you really consider whether to book a car, take trains, or book flights on low-cost airlines.
One more (rather obvious) note: When you do book your car, be sure to start your rental on the first day you actually need to leave town. Don’t book it for your first day in a city, like Paris, and then keep it in a garage for three days. Pick it up when you’re leaving the city. And drop it off as soon as you arrive in your final city, not on the day you leave. No need to pay for garages, etc. Just saying…
15. Be careful with your smart phone!
As we’ve discussed in great detail on the site, know how to set up your American smartphone… and know what your carrier will charge you for calls, texts, and data usage from abroad. It’s probably quite a bit more than you’re expecting. Certain travel apps that you think you can’t travel without can be “data hogs” and end up costing hundreds of dollars if you’re not careful!
When I travel, I call AT&T in advance to get a special calling plan, turn off data and all “push” notifications, and keep it in “airplane mode” as much as possible (relying on free Wi-Fi when it’s available).
16. Don’t over-pack your itinerary.
As a closing thought, I will encourage you to not over-pack your trip. It’s so tempting, I know, especially if it’s been awhile since you’ve visited. During the planning process back home, nothing is more alluring than adding another destination to the itinerary. Why not? Just cut one day off of Florence and add it to Venice! Presto!
However, unless the point of your trip is to leave you completely exhausted, I would caution against piling on additional quick city visits. Slow it down, and take it in.
That will not only save you money, with fewer train trips and mad dashes, but it will make for a far more enjoyable trip for you and your travel companions.
Have something to add to our list? Leave a tip in our comments section below!