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Cheapo Basics: 10 ways to save on the “big items” in your travel budget

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Charles de Gaulle train terminal
The train terminal at Charles de Gaulle airport. Photos by Tom Meyers

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.

Kayak's price alert

1. Set up airfare alerts

Haven’t booked your airline tickets yet? Set up airfare alerts to find a flight deal on Web sites like Kayak.com and Airfarewatchdog.com.

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.

RoissyBus Paris

The RoissyBus taks passengers from Paris to Charles de Gaulle.

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).

Renfe train

Aboard the Renfe train between Cordoba and Granada. No need for a rail pass.

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.”

Rental car in Berlin

The EuroCheapo gang rented this car in Berlin. We weren't smiling two weeks later when we paid the bill.

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.

Read our quick guide to calculating the real cost of renting a car in Europe. Then weigh those costs against other options, like trains or budget flights.

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.

Hotel Tiquetonne, Paris

The Hotel Tiquetonne in Paris is central, clean and cheap.

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.

Water bottles Venice

These water bottles in Venice are cheaper at the supermarket.

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.

About the author

Tom Meyers

About the author: Tom Meyers created and launched EuroCheapo from his Berlin apartment in 2001. He returned to New York in 2002, set up office, and has led the EuroCheapo team from the Big Apple ever since. He travels to Europe several times a year to update EuroCheapo's hotel reviews. Tom is also a co-host of the New York City history podcast, The Bowery Boys. Email Tom. [Find Tom on Google Plus]

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8 thoughts on “Cheapo Basics: 10 ways to save on the “big items” in your travel budget”

  1. We are two seniors heading to Copenhagen in Oct for 3 nites then to london for 4 nites and then Barcelona for 4 nites

    need advice on most economical and easy ways to get fm Airport in Copenhagen to Central terminal

    need advice to get from Gatwick to hammerschmitt tube in london

    we like buffett restaurants gives us a chance to try many different foods in one spot so any ideas in the above cities for buffett at economical prices

    any suggestions on your past experiences in the above three cities would be greatly appreciated

    we will sail out of Barcelona on Sunday Oct 26 for 13 day trip back to Ft Lauderdale

    Thanks gang

    Reply
  2. Hey Carrie
    There are TONS of short term apartment rental sites …..I have really good luck with VRBO.com, an acronym for Vacation Rentals By Owner. Lots of variety, lots of price points and degree of budget to luxury. We are traveling to France in a few weeks and I have two cottages rented, one near Bordeaux, the other ( with pool)in the Dordogne Valley. As we fly out of Paris, I have a sweet studio apartment near Place des Vosges. All three have been rented thru VRBO.
    One thing to look into is method of payment, the Paris apt owner accepts Paypal, the two country cottages I had to bank transfer deposit, which was a bit of a pain, I had to go to a bank( when was the last time that happened?), had to have correct address for receiving bank, IBAN number, correct address for recipient and the fee to send a wire transfer was $27.50 Canadian.
    I have heard good things about AirBNB.com, but many of these are actually sharing space with the owner. Couchsurfing.com is really budget and you are crashingon some bodies couch! That is a little too much for my sensibilities!
    If apartment rental sounds like something you would be interested in, just use your Google fu and start searching……Have Fun!

    Reply
  3. Another good tip is short term apartment rentals. Most cities have apartment rentals and the minimum rental is usually three days, but can be negotiated! Renting apartments also means having access to laundry and a kitchen. The laundry is essential to traveling light. I do, however, have some reservations with European washer/dryer combos. The full cycle can be hours. Drying is usually some kind of steam dry. Once I figure out the shortest wash cycle, I usually opt for hang dry. If a clothes rack is not provided, the bathroom shower rod and some hangers work well. Once in Barcelona we had a terrace facing onto an inner courtyard. Every resident hung there laundry on lines on their balconies. I felt like a real local.
    Obviously having a kitchen saves tons of money, and shopping like locals in markets and the the local stores adds so much to ones travel experience. Not that I have spent hours in European kitchens, but it is nice to not have to rely on restaurants for all meals.

    Reply
  4. I’m also a budget traveler – I mainly travel to France and Italy and I follow many of these excellent tips!

    Something else to consider if you will be renting a car – tickets. Cameras in Italian cities will capture you (and your license plate) driving or parking where you shouldn’t be – and you WILL get tickets sent to your home address. Fines can be hefty.

    And in regard to #10 – I use my local credit union credit card and ATM oversees – they offer me the best rate and don’t tack on any extra fees.

    Reply
    1. Oh man, how right you are about tickets, Robin. We also found that in various cities the traffic police on foot can be aggressive in handing out fines. We were fined twice in London, both times for being 10 minutes late in feeding the meter. Granted, we were late, but still…

      Reply
  5. We had a hard time with breakfast in Paris. The cafes near our hotel were either gross or overcharged for a basic meal. By lunchtime, after walking for hours, we were usually famished. One way we saved money was to buy bread, cheese & meet from the local markets and picnic at the parks, under the trees. Our lunches were much more economical than going to a restaurant and the settings couldn’t be beat. My only recommendation is to avoid drinking Orangina if you’re eating Camembert.

    Reply
  6. Timeless Drifter

    Also keep in mind not all bed and breakfasts actually include breakfast in their fees. Weird?! Indeed! Just cruising around Italy, I was surprised how many B&Bs charge extra for the second ‘B.’ (Do they think B&B simply means ‘we serve breakfast’) I don’t get it, but it’s a real fact and important to check before you ‘ciao.’

    Reply

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