Cheapo Basics: 10 ways to save on the “big items” in your travel budget
By Tom Meyers—
If you’re planning a trip to Europe this year and nervous about how to afford it, we have a few basic rules that, if followed, should help you save on the biggest items in your travel budget.
Sure, everyday small charges like cafe cremes in Paris (€2-4) and vaporetto rides in Venice (€6.50) do add up and can make a Cheapo panic. However, these are relatively minor charges when compared to the big-ticket items in your budget: flights, hotels, car rentals and train tickets.
Luckily, there are simple steps you can take right now to minimize these big expenses. Some of these tips may be old news to you, bien sur. But even if one tip comes in handy, it could save you a whole wad of euros.
1. Set up airfare alerts
On Kayak, do a search for your desired travel dates and then click “Get a price alert” on the left side of the page. Once you register, they’ll email you with daily or weekly airfare deals for your route.
On Airfarewatchdog, “Deal Hounds” sniff out the lowest ticket prices for your route and send similar email updates. On both sites, you stand a much better chance of scoring a deal if your travel dates are flexible.
2. Pack lightly
As we mentioned last week, most transatlantic airlines have introduced ridiculous baggage fees for checking a second, third or overweight bag. For flights from the US to Europe, these fees can be as high as $200 per bag (one way!).
Check out our roundup of airline baggage fees and only check one bag.
3. Take public transportation to and from the airport
Alas, how many people have we dissuaded from taking a taxi from Charles de Gaulle to their hotel in Paris! Every one of the major European cities we cover on EuroCheapo offers public transportation from the airport to the center of town, and the majority offer both train and bus options.
Whether you’re getting from Charles de Gaulle to Paris or Schiphol to Amsterdam, there’s a budget-friendly (and usually quite efficient) way into town that doesn’t involve an expensive taxi. Check out our city guides for more information.
4. Think twice before booking a rail pass
For Americans, the lure of the Eurail Pass is strong. Just reading the descriptions of the passes on their Web site can get you excited and ready to hop on board!
It’s easy to forget that these rail passes are not always a good deal. Sure, they offer some convenience and peace of mind, but they don’t always save you money over simply buying individual point-to-point rail tickets (like the millions of Europeans who take trains daily).
To find out if a rail pass offers “rail” savings, compare the pass price to the point-to-point ticket prices found on the railways’ official Web site (and not the Web site of a rail pass re-seller).
For much more information on this, read these posts: Read this before you buy a European rail passes; Extra charges for rail pass holders; Deutsche Bahn fares better than rail agents; How to book French rail tickets (in French)
5. Book major train tickets in advance
If booking rail journeys directly with the European railways, like the SNCF (France), Deutsche Bahn (Germany) and Renfe (Spain), book those seats in advance. For long-distance train travel, ticket prices climb as the travel date approaches, so advance booking is essential to getting a deal. Most of these railways release tickets three or four months in advance. (Local trains for small jaunts, however, do not need to be booked in advance.)
For more information, read our post on the “three-month rule.”
6. Know the real cost of renting a car
How much will that rental car really cost you? When you do a quick rental car search online, the rates you see will most likely not include taxes or insurance, and certainly won’t include the price of gasoline or the tolls you’ll pay on major highways.
7. Choose your hotel wisely
Your hotel expenditure will probably be the most expensive part of your trip. Here at EuroCheapo, we’re obsessed with hotel values. That’s why our editors spend so much time snooping around hotels, taking photos and writing reviews. We can tell you that two hotels sitting side-by-side can charge radically different rates for remarkably similar rooms.
When choosing a hotel, consider “losing a star,” downgrading perhaps from a three-star to a two-star hotel. Decide which amenities you require in a room: Do you need a minibar? cable TV? elevator? If you’re open to a simpler hotel, you can save a bundle and you might find the hotel to be more charming, as well.
Also, give careful consideration to the hotel’s location. If you decide upon a hotel located outside the city center in order to save money, will there be an easy and affordable way home at night? We usually opt for simpler hotels near the center, within walking distance of nighttime activities, if possible.
Read our reviews of budget hotels all over Europe and take our advice–we’ve been there!
8. Know what’s for breakfast
This may sound minor, but breakfast is a big business for hotels. Whether or not breakfast is included in your room rate can add a jarring amount to the bill or save you in the end. It’s a tad confusing, too, as breakfast offerings tend to change by city.
In Paris, for example, most hotels do not include breakfast in the room rate. When you pay for breakfast, you’ll often be disappointed by what’s set down in front of you: a croissant or piece of baguette, butter and jelly, coffee and juice–for about €10. You’d pay about half that if you headed to a neighborhood cafe, stood at the bar and enjoyed breakfast with the locals.
In London, meanwhile, hotels and B&B’s pride themselves in their included breakfasts, which often come with eggs, bacon, sausage, beans and toast. It’s not necessarily healthy, but it’s good for your budget! (It also helps you eat a lighter and cheaper lunch.)
In many cities, hotels sometimes include breakfast in the room rate, depending upon conditions when booking. The only way to really know if it’s included is to check when reserving your room.
There’s another easy way to eat a healthy breakfast and pay a fraction of the price: Head to a neighborhood supermarket after checking into your hotel to pick up the essentials (bottles of water, oranges, bananas, etc.). If your room has a mini-fridge, you could store yogurt, milk or juice. Bon appetit!
9. Be careful with American iPhones
Americans heading to Europe should be careful before powering up their iPhones abroad. AT&T offers various European travel plans, and almost all of them are too expensive to be a serious option for budget travelers.
We recommend leaving your iPhone set to “Airplane Mode” throughout your trip, and only using it when connected to a Wi-Fi network. Read more in our guide to “Using an American iPhone in Europe… without going broke.”
10. Understand bank fees before using your credit cards or an ATM
How much will your bank charge you to use your credit or debit card abroad? How about withdrawing money from an ATM? When’s the last time you checked?
American banks have “adjusted” their fee structures during the past few years, so we’d recommend checking in with your banks before heading to Europe. If you have multiple cards at your disposal, chances are that they’ll charge different foreign transaction fees. Knowing who charges what will save you money in the end.
Read our quick overview to ATM, Debit and Credit Card charges abroad.
Your tips for saving on European travel
What tips do you have for saving on your “big ticket” items when traveling in Europe? Have a question about any of the tips mentioned above? Share your thoughts in our comments section.