How to Do Europe on the Cheap in the High Season

Kim Foley MacKinnon, July 08, 2015
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    The prevailing wisdom is that you shouldn't travel to Europe in peak season—meaning summer—but that's the exact time that many people want or need to schedule their vacations. School breaks and warm weather are among the most common motivating factors. 

    Since the dollar is getting the most favorable rate against the Euro in years, that's one plus for travelers looking to minimize the costs of a pricey vacation. But there are plenty of other ways to keep a European vacation under budget, too. Here are 10 tried-and-true tips for visiting Europe on the cheap in the high season.

    Seek Alternate Accomodations

    With the rise of vacation rental companies, the variety and scope of nontraditional accommodations available means you can find great deals at a fraction of what a hotel stay costs. In addition, with a kitchen, you can make some of your own meals, which will save you a bundle and have the added bonus of getting you out among the locals. There's nothing like shopping at the neighborhood farmer's market or picking up staples at the local grocery store to firmly ensconce you in the culture. Finally, if laundry is an issue, many properties will have facilities, again saving you money and, more importantly, time.

    Related: 8 Essential Rules for Vacation Rentals

    Buddy System

    Sharing accommodations with friends is another way to significantly cut your costs and potentially upgrade your digs. Maybe then you could book a house with better views, a pool, or other perks that would be out of your price range if you weren't combining resources.

    Families with kids can swap babysitting duties, which eliminates having to hire an expensive sitter in a foreign country (if you even feel comfortable doing that in the first place). Other perks include sharing costs for meals cooked in and renting a car. Finally, sometimes more is just better. Maybe two people want to break off for a sailing adventure or a hike, while others want to explore museums or take in a show. Later, everyone can compare notes and share what they discovered.

    Truthfully, having a little space and time with different people on a vacation can offer a welcome breather to everyone.

    Skip the Lines

    Time is money, especially when your vacation is involved. I recommend that you buy everything—museum passes, train tickets, subway cards, theatre tickets, and anything else you plan on seeing or doing—before you leave home. This will not only cut out time wasted in long lines fumbling with money or unfamiliar credit card machines, it will also save you actual money.

    If you've ever seen the incredibly long lines at the Eiffel Tower or know people who simply gave up trying to get into the Vatican, then booking in advance is the only way to go. Most major cities have some sort of city pass or card. For example, the Madrid Card, which gives you admission to numerous museums and attractions as well as discounts at shops and restaurants, can be purchased at home (and picked up at numerous places once you arrive) and lets you breeze in front of everyone else in line.

    Related: 10 Cheapest Airlines for Flying to Europe

    Manage Your Mobile

    Once again, do the research before you leave home. There's nothing worse than returning from a vacation and weeks later receiving a hefty cell phone bill resulting from the data you used texting selfies to your friends. Almost every carrier has some sort of international plan, and, if they don't, then you'll need to consider other options.

    Free WiFi is more and more common everywhere, especially in hotels and many cafes, so if you can leave your phone on airplane mode and do what you need to, then that's the cheapest option. You can also purchase an inexpensive phone once you get to your destination, many of which come with prepaid minutes. They're fairly simple to use and you'll be assured of exactly how much you're spending.

    Better yet, order one online before you even start your trip. While you're at it, order a prepaid international SIM card, too. You can then get familiar with it at home and won't need to waste time dealing with logistics when you're on the ground.

    Carry-on Only

    Despite the fact that this piece of advice is repeated so often, it's often one people ignore anyway and then get surprised when they are faced with pricey baggage fees. Sure, many airlines with international flights to Europe offer at least one free checked bag, but why would you want to waste time waiting for your luggage? Instead of milling about with the crowd at the baggage claim, and then getting in line for customs, those with only carry-on bags walk on through, or at least get to the head of the line, and get their vacations started that much faster. In addition, if you plan on taking any flights within Europe, those smaller airlines will tack on a baggage fee.

    Other things to consider: If you only have a carry-on, you can move faster and be more flexible if flights change or get cancelled; you never have to wait for porters to deliver your bags (and to be super cheap, this eliminates one tipping scenario); and, in the end, having less to worry about will save you packing time, maximizing vacation time.

    Related: Europe with Just a Carry-on Bag and No Purse (It Can be Done!)

    Money Matters

    You'll always need some ready cash on hand, but forget the currency exchange booths, as they tend to have the highest fees. Same goes for hotels. Your best bet is taking money out at an ATM once you get to your destination. Keep in mind that the smaller the town or the more remote the places you visit, the less likely they'll take credit cards. Bring enough cash for those situations.

    As with phones and those pesky fees that show up later, credit cards fall into the same category. International fees, transaction fees, currency conversion fees, any way a fee can be tacked on, count on it being done. One way to safeguard against this is to call your credit card companies and get the lowdown. If the fees seem too high, see if you can get a credit card with no fees or low-cost fees. Also, bring two cards, one to use, one for back up, and make sure you let them know in advance that you'll be traveling out of the country so a fraud alert doesn't lock you out of using your own card.

    Use Public Transportation

    Europe has some of the best public transportation in the world and usually it's easy enough to navigate. Many cities offer some type of transit card, which also saves you money in the long run. An excellent example of one you can purchase at home is the Madrid Tourist Tours, which you can customize as to zone and amount of days (from one day to one week) and includes unlimited rides on the metro, buses, and light rail. 

    Besides saving you money on expensive cab rides or rental cars, you'll be traveling like the locals do, seeing parts of the city you might otherwise miss, and cutting out time dealing with traffic and parking (not to mention paying garage fees, tolls, and the like). It's a lot less stressful missing a train stop than it is getting lost in a strange city.

    London's Oyster Card, which you can purchase in advance at home, is a plastic smartcard you can use instead of paper tickets. You put on as much money as you think you'll need, and you can add more if necessary. It's definitely the cheapest way to pay for single journeys on the bus, Tube, tram, and most National Rail services in London. Plus, the Visitor Oyster card entitles you to offers and discounts at more than 25 restaurants and shops.

    Related: 10 Essential Tips for Riding the Rails in Europe

    On/Off Buses

    This might seem like an odd way to save money, but taking an on/off tourist bus is one of the best ways to both get an overview of the city you're visiting (audio commentary is available in numerous languages via headphones) and get all-day transportation to any number of attractions and sights. Especially if it's your first time in a city, it's a great way to get your bearings instead of going on an often pricier guided tour. 

    One example is the comprehensive tour on the Paris Hop-On, Hop-Off bus (with one-, two-, or three-day options), which has more than 50 stops on four different routes with an optional boat tour add-on. You can buy the ticket in advance online (which gives you a discount) and map out your exact itinerary for your trip (which you definitely should do so you don't have to backtrack if you miss an important site). Most big cities have some kind of hop on/off bus or trolley, and more often than not, your ticket gets you discounts at some shops and restaurants.

    Budget Airlines

    Low-cost airlines like Ryanair, easyjet, and countless others can be a boon to travelers hopping between cities in Europe. If you can fly at off-times, such as early morning or late at night, you can get better deals; or if you have flexibility and aren't locked in to being somewhere on a certain date, you can hunt around for even better deals. 

    A key thing to keep in mind when looking for a cheap summer flight in Europe, though, is how the budget airlines keep costs low. Sometimes they fly to lesser-known and more distant airports, which is fine if it's in the area you want to visit, but it defeats the purpose if you then have to pay for transportation to get to your final stop. Luggage fees, locking in aisle or window seats, picking priority boarding, and other optional fees can stack up fast, so you have to figure out if the ticket makes sense in the end. 

    This is something that should be planned way in advance rather than waiting until the last minute, because the cheapest seats are definitely sold first.

    Trains

    High-speed trains in Europe are among the best and most efficient in the world. If you're hitting major cities throughout Europe, there's no better, more scenic away to travel. And while you can certainly get some great deals with flights, you still have to build in extra time at the airport (with security checks and lines) that you don't need to plan for at a train station. Once again, this is something you can take care of at home. 

    The more places you plan to visit, the more money you'll save traveling by train. Eurail passes make a lot of sense if you're traveling to more than one country. Options abound, but a popular choice is the Select Pass, which allows you to visit four bordering countries of your choice (such as France, Spain, Italy and Germany). There are dozens of options and 28 countries in total. Other discounts, such as for families, youths, and groups of as few as two people (as well as free shipping to the U.S.) also reduce costs.

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    Read the original story: How to Do Europe on the Cheap in the High Season, by Kim Foley MacKinnon, who is a contributor to SmarterTravel.

    (Photo: Woman in Mallorca via Shutterstock)

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