Tips for great travel despite the weak dollar
Like us, many of our readers are American. And regardless of nationality, probably all of our readers are aware of the unfortunate exchange rate currently greeting US travelers abroad. Today, for instance, the euro costs US $1.58. Yet we’re still traveling to Europe.
Newspapers and magazines have been abuzz lately with articles about stretching the dollar abroad. Some of our favorites include The Seattle Times, Budget Travel Magazine, Philadelphia Inquirer, The Daily News, and the Austin American-Statesman. As pro-cheapo travelers, we’re happy to see so much interest in budget travel, although saddened to think that many potential travelers might feel discouraged and choose not to travel to Europe at all.
“Maybe next year I’ll get to Spain,” one of my friends told me last week. “I can’t afford it now.” Alas!
1) Watch out for the small stuff!
Those little, incidental purchases got us, biting away at our budgets. Why? Because we spent without thinking. Cups of coffee, bottles of water, chocolate bars, little snacks, the newspaper… each only cost two or three euros, but they added up very quickly. I felt like I was leaking euro coins everywhere I went.
These are “invisible costs,” because you don’t remember spending the money and you don’t have anything to show for the purchases afterward. Some of these things, like water, you need. But you need to be smart about where to buy it. After draining my pockets of a week’s worth of euros, I got smart in Bruges and started buying water and snacks at a grocery store near my hotel. Who knew that Evian could be purchased for less than a euro per bottle? (Above, I’m doing a week’s worth of laundry in Brussels for about €5.)
2) Hunt for your meal
Each night, the three of us roamed the city, taking in the sights and sounds, but also looking for dining deals. In the end, because we were “on alert,” our dinners were surprisingly affordable. We converted menu prices into dollar amounts (not simply imagining a dollar sign in place of the euro!) and steered clear of the pricier eateries.
In Berlin, meal prices are fortunately already low, so this wasn’t a problem. In pricey Brussels, however, we checked out plenty of charming restaurants—most of them quite crowded—and hit the road as soon as we saw a bloated menu. €18 starter plates? That’s $27… I don’t think so! We took time every night to find affordable set-price menus, and usually found something for less than €15, which at about $22, was in our budget. Of course, you have to be careful to avoid tourist traps (like the rue du Bouchers in Brussels, pictured above), which lure you in with low set-price menus, serve mediocre food, and charge you like mad for every incidental item. It’s best to ask the locals.
3) Lighten up at lunch
This won’t be for everyone, but we chose to make only dinner a sit-down affair. In years past, when hotel hunting I would often treat myself to a nice relaxed lunch, sometimes accompanied with a little red wine. It was so euro. This year, I slimmed down, stopping for a quick sandwich or salad and a bottle of water. It was cheaper, faster, and dare I say, better for my afternoon hotel visits!
Pete and Mere did the same in Brussels. Pete lunched several days in a row at “Mer du Nord,” an outdoor oyster and fish soup joint on Place St. Catherine, where a bowl of soupe du poisson could be had for €3.50. (See photo.)
4) Take advantage of breakfast… or not!
Breakfast is another time to save cash. In all four of our hotels, in Brussels and Bruges, a buffet breakfast was included in the price of the room. Thus, we could fill up at breakfast, making the light lunch more bearable.
This is different in every city. In Paris, for instance, breakfast is rarely included and, when offered, is usually quite expensive for what you get. Rather than fork over the cash for a dismal hotel breakfast, head to a cafe or, better yet, to the grocery store or outdoor market.
5) Sleep cheap!
This seems rather obvious, as this is EuroCheapo, but come on, Cheapos, watch that hotel bill! When searching for your hotel, if you’re American, choose to see hotel rates in US dollars. (On CheapoSearch, prices show in dollars by default.) This will prevent you from momentarily pretending that the euro and dollars are “roughly the same.”
When choosing a hotel, consider a 1 or 2-star hotel over the pricier 3-star option. Fewer stars doesn’t mean the hotel isn’t good and clean. It could simply mean that it doesn’t have an elevator, ground-floor reception, or certain amenities (like hairdryers, TV, telephone, etc.).
In Brussels, we stayed at The Moon Hotel, a perfectly fine 2-star sleeper two blocks from the Grand Place. Our rooms weren’t fancy (they were, in fact, kind of “dormy”), but we slept peacefully knowing that we were paying a fraction of the rate that travelers across the square in the 3 and 4-star hotels were paying. In Bruges, the lady running ‘T Keizershof, a small 1-star hotel I visited put it to me best when she explained, “When you’re sleeping, we look just like one of those big fancy hotels.”
Serious Cheapos should also consider a room or a bed in a hostel, which can cost much, much less than a hotel. Travelers visiting a city for an extending period should look into apartment rentals, and adventure travelers might also consider couch-surfing for free.
6) Do free stuff!
We always recommend that travelers head straight for the visitors information center when they arrive into town. Conveniently, many of these are located very near the main train stations or main squares. There, you can pick up a list of free or cheap activities happening in town during your stay. In both Brussels and Bruges, I walked out of the visitor centers with stacks of information, maps, and walking tours.
In Brussels, I bought a guide to the city’s comic-book themed self-guided walking tour for €3, and spent the afternoon learning about the city for next to nothing. In Bruges, the woman working at the tourist office wrote down a list of free concerts happening that week that she thought I might find interesting. All of that information was free, and most of the activities were free, as well.
7) Budget flights and rail deals
Before you book that rental car or buy that Eurail pass, consider flying between European cities on Europe’s budget airlines. Using the newly launched CheapoSearch Flights, our guide to European budget airlines, you can find some seriously low prices. Not to be outdone, the national rail companies are starting to fight back, lowering their prices for train trips booked in advance through their websites.
These are just a few of the tips we’d like to share following our recent trip. What advice do you have? Please add your tips, ideas, and suggestions below!