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You CAN Afford Europe This Year!

Tips for saving money from experienced travelers

Kathy Wood (Kaydee), Pauline Kenny (Pauline) and Slow Travel Community members, March 2008

As the dollar has declined relative to the euro over the past several years, and fuel prices have risen, the same European vacation you took in 1998 is much more expensive today. Some people may believe that Europe is too expensive, but we strongly disagree! A European vacation can still be very affordable, especially if you listen to the advice of experienced travelers. Some of the biggest savings are possible by traveling the Slow Travel way and staying in vacation rentals.

Slow Travelers offered their tips for traveling economically in Europe in this message board discussion that started in late September 2007. We’ve summarized their great suggestions and included some of our own.

Before we get started, we want to emphasize that you need to decide what is important to you on a trip. If we suggest that you avoid London, Paris or Rome to save money, but these are your favorite destinations, then just ignore that suggestion! If you are such a jet-lagged mess when you get off the plane at your destination that you must have a car service waiting for you, then splurge on the car service and save using our other tips. Or, if eating out in a highly-recommended expensive restaurant is a priority for you, definitely do that and save money elsewhere. Set a budget and know your priorities and trade-offs. Some travel things are worth spending money on; if others are not as important to you, you can save money there.

Saving for your Trip

Build a travel fund. Save on other things at home - travel instead.

  • Live more cheaply at home so you have more money for your travel. Save your "eating out" money for when you travel. Cut back on some of your extras to leave more in the travel budget.
  • Put a visible “Save for Travel” reminder in your wallet to remind you every day what you are saving for.
  • Start a travel fund and put a set amount of money in it every week.
  • Clip coupons and use them! Be more focused on finding good deals for small purchases in your everyday life. If you can save just $10 a week, that's $520 a year to apply to your European vacation fund.
  • Work out a budget. If you haven't carefully tracked trip expenses in the past and are just assuming it is much more expensive now, figure out exactly what you spent on your last trip and see what the same trip would cost now. Maybe it is not that big of a difference! Maybe there are obvious areas where you can make cuts!

Use frequent flyer and hotel programs for free travel. Use credit cards to earn more points or get cash back.

  • Join frequent flyer and hotel programs and make sure you understand the rules for each program.
  • Whenever fares are comparable, focus all your travel on one airline (or its partners) and hotel chain to build up the most miles and points possible. If you travel a lot, you will qualify for a higher-level membership that usually allows you to earn even more points. Plus, you may get special travel perks like upgrades, preferential seating, and being able to board first.
  • Choose a charge or credit card(s) that allows you to earn miles or points for travel. Some cards provide an option for cash back—if this type of card makes more sense for you, apply the cash back to travel expenses.
  • Charge everything possible to this card to maximize the miles/points that you earn. In addition to travel expenses, this may include many of your normal expenses like cell phones, gasoline, utilities, groceries, and big ticket purchases. You may be able to charge business-related expenses, too. But be sure to pay your balance every month to avoid expensive finance charges.
  • Read newsletters and promotions that tell you about special deals and opportunities to use and earn points. For example, you may be able to make normal online purchases through an airline or credit card “store” to earn bonus points.
  • Use your miles or points to get free flights, upgrades, hotels or rental cars for your European trips. You will have to plan ahead (often 11 months in advance) or be very flexible to get free airline tickets to Europe, but many Slow Travelers have had good success getting thousands of dollars of free travel.

Planning your Trip

Travel at less popular, less expensive times of year.

  • Plan your trip for the off season—October through May.  Flights are less expensive in this time period (often much less expensive), and so are hotels and vacation rentals.
  • Plan to visit the most popular summer vacation destinations for Europeans some time other than July and August. Visit places like the Cote d’Azur or the Amalfi Coast in other months when accommodations will be less expensive and it won’t be so crowded.

Travel to less-popular, less-expensive places.

  • Choose an “off the beaten tourist path” destination. You can still go to Italy, even to Tuscany, but stay in a lesser known part. Vacation rentals, hotels and restaurants will be less expensive.
  • Avoid spending too much time in large cities or very popular areas, where hotels, vacation rentals and restaurants are often more expensive. However, don't assume that all cities are too expensive; Paris, for example, has many budget apartments, often available for less than a week.
  • Consider staying outside the city and taking the train in for day trips. Or, stay in the city, but a bit outside the most expensive central area. You may have to take a bus or subway into the center, but you get to experience living in a neighborhood instead of a tourist zone.

Travel more slowly (and make fewer, longer trips).

  • Limit your travels and stay longer in fewer places. You'll spend less on transportation and can probably save on the cost of accommodations, too. Plus, you'll have more quality time to enjoy since you'll be spending less time traveling between places, checking in and out, and getting oriented.
  • Drive less—see what’s near you and use less gas.
  • Go to Europe for three weeks once a year instead of making two 10-day trips. You only pay one airfare, and car rentals are cheaper for longer periods of time. In addition, you won't lose as much travel time!

Use vacation rentals.

  • Apply the Slow Travel philosophies and stay in a vacation rental! It's usually less expensive than a hotel (especially if you are traveling with a group). You can also save a meaningful amount of money by cooking some of your meals or having deli/carry-out food.
  • Consider renting directly from an owner instead of through an agency. (If you are unsure about this, rent a place that has positive rental reviews on Slow Travel.) Agencies often charge more to support their services and marketing costs, and you may find better prices by renting from an owner.

Photo of a Vacation Rental in Europe

Stay in a simple rental you rent from the owner

  • Find lower-cost rentals that are listed with the local tourist office. These rentals aren't necessarily marketed to English-speaking tourists and can often be very economical.
  • Smaller places are usually less expensive.  Consider a studio instead of a one-bedroom in order to save money on your trip.
  • Go for the simpler vacation rental instead of the one with lots of extras. In France, look for a “gite” instead of a “villa.”
  • Give up the pool! Staying at a place with a pool is much more expensive than a place without (this only applies in high season when you can use the pool). How much will you really be using the pool anyway? Is it really worth the extra cost?
  • Give up expensive appliances like a washer and dryer or a dishwasher. These all add to the cost of a rental.
  • When selecting a vacation rental, be sure you know all the charges. Is there a cleaning fee? Do you pay for heating? If they provide free wireless, you don't have to pay for Internet Cafes.
  • Travel at a time of year when you can live without air conditioning. Because energy costs are higher in Europe, air conditioning can really add to the cost of a rental.
  • Choose a rental where you can pay in your own currency and lock in the price.
  • Ask for a discount! It doesn't hurt to ask, especially if you are staying in a place for two weeks instead of just one. You might also get consideration for a discount if you are booking a two-bedroom and will only be using one of the bedrooms (because that was all you could find in the location you want) or if you are booking at the last minute.

Pursue more economical hotel options.

  • Step down a star. If you like 4 star hotels, this is the chance to hunt for the good 3 star hotels so you can save some money.  Two star hotels can also be very acceptable. In Italy, agriturismo (either with rooms or with apartments), B&Bs, and affittacamere are usually family run and generally offer better prices than hotels. Guest houses or small B&Bs are other low-cost options.
  • Check a variety of resources to find the best prices, including booking websites that may get volume discounts.
  • If you visit Europe in the off-season, consider finding your accommodations as you travel. Tourist offices can provide information on accommodations in their area to fit all budgets, and often will call to make reservations for you.
  • Stay in budget European chain hotels. They may not have much charm, but they can be very affordable and you are not going to spend that much time in your room.
  • Skip the expensive breakfast at the hotel and have breakfast at a nearby café instead.
  • Or, stay in a hotel or a B&B with a free breakfast included.  If the breakfast is substantial, it might suffice for lunch, too.  You could also ask if the price can be reduced if you don’t take the breakfast—then decide whether to eat there or elsewhere.
  • Consider staying in alternatives to hotels:  hostels, convents, monasteries, university facilities, even rooms in private homes.  These types of accommodations aren’t just for students and often offer a great value.

Maximize your use of the internet to get information, compare prices and plan your travel.

  • Use airfare comparison sites (like www.kayak.com) to find the best airline fares.  Also, check out online travel agencies (like www.orbitz.com) and consolidators to potentially find even lower fares.  You may be able to save even more by booking flights, hotels and/or rental cars at the same time. 
  • Learn how to search for flexible travel dates and alternate airports to find your best airfare. 
  • Use website tools to try to determine the best time to buy your tickets based on historical patterns.  Set alerts so you’re notified when fares change.    
  • Consider “open jaw” flights that enable you to fly into one city and out of another, thus avoiding the time and cost of getting back to your arrival city.
  • Do an internet search to see if you can find your desired rental on more than one website and can get a better price.  Rentals are sometimes listed by one or more agencies who have different mark-ups.  The owner may list the property direct in addition to listing it through an agency.
  • Hotels are also often available from several sources, and you may be able to get a better price from an online booking agency like www.venere.com.
  • Use the message board at www.slowtalk.com to get information from experienced travelers.  They can help you save money!
  • Use the internet to find a cheap airport hotel (preferably with a free shuttle) if you have an early morning flight hom

Consider lower-cost, non-traditional travel options.

  • Stay with friends or family who are in Europe and have an extra bedroom. Even if you pay something for the room, take your hosts out to eat, or chip in for groceries and you'll likely save money and have a more unique local experience, too.
  • Look into house-swapping or house-sitting. Stay somewhere for free and enjoy living in Europe for a more extended time.
  • Participate in a volunteer trip. These are often very economical and you can do something to help others, too.
  • Consider camping, as many Europeans do.
  • Participate in a hospitality exchange” group, where you can stay in the homes of other members and host others in your home. Or, look into couchsurfing, where travelers can stay for free in private homes. If you are a member of Rotary, see if your chapter participates in the “Friendship Exchange.”  You may belong to other groups that provide some avenue for low-cost accommodations overseas.
  • Find a way to incorporate business travel to Europe into your job. Not only do your expenses get paid, you do, too!

Travel with others and share expenses.

  • Travel with friends and share the costs of a vacation rental. A two bedroom place may be only 25-50% more than the cost of a one bedroom place, so everyone saves if you divide the costs four ways. If someone is willing to sleep on the fold-out couch and you can eliminate a bedroom, it's even less expensive.
  • The cost of the car rental is also less expensive if it is shared between three or four people instead of two. You can also split the costs of gas, tolls and parking.
  • A group meal that you cook yourself at a vacation rental can be much more fun than eating in a restaurant—and cheaper!  Look into having a local cook come to your rental and prepare dinner for the group. This can also be surprisingly economical.

Economize on transportation.

  • Fly coach. It may be uncomfortable, but the flight does not last forever.
  • Consider picking up your rental car at a city location instead of at the airport. (You’ll usually save some taxes and fees.)  This works well if you are spending a few nights in a city on arrival; you can pick up the car the day you are leaving the city.
  • Rent a smaller car, which is usually more practical when traveling in Europe anyway. Small cars are less expensive to rent, use less gas, and are easier to park.

Rent a Small Car Photo

Rent a small diesel car

  • Ask for a diesel car. They’re often cheaper and they get better mileage.  Diesel fuel is cheaper than regular gas in Europe.
  • And, while you’re at it, reserve a manual transmission car.  You’ll pay more for an automatic and have fewer choices.
  • Pick up and drop off your car in the same country to avoid extra drop-off fees.
  • Plan a car-less trip.  Stay in cities, towns or villages with train or bus service that will enable you to make day trips.  When traveling between your major destinations, use trains or the cheap European airlines.
  • Check with your credit card company to see if they will cover your car rental insurance (most do not cover Italy). If they do, rent a car without full coverage.
  • When taking the train, do some research to see if you can get discount fares by booking ahead.  If you are planning to do a lot of train travel, you may also save money with a train or transportation pass.

Be flexible for last-minute opportunities.

  • Be sure your passport is always current so you can travel at the last minute.
  • Sign up for newsletters from airlines and travel providers.  They frequently send out information on last minute specials as space is available.
  • Watch the specials from the Slow Travel classified advertisers.  They often offer Slow Travelers good discounts for last minute openings or cancellations.
  • Check for last minute opportunities for frequent flyer tickets.  Sometimes more free tickets are opened up as the date approaches and the plane isn’t full.
  • Use Priceline or Hotwire to bid for last-minute flights, hotels, cars and vacation packages.  Sometimes you can get some great deals

Other Planning Tips.

  • If you need guidebooks to help you plan your trip, you can find some great deals on new or almost-new guidebooks on the internet.  Check out Amazon, half.com or ebay.  If you don't want to spend anything on guidebooks, visit your local library or borrow guidebooks and maps from friends.
  • Figure out all the cell phone options and go with an inexpensive solution. Maybe you don’t even need a cell phone and can use public phones.
  • Don’t buy special clothes for your trip. Find things that will work in your current wardrobe.
  • Buy inexpensive luggage on sale.  It gets battered anyway, and as long as it’s sturdy, you don’t need to make a fashion statement.  eBags is one source of very reasonably-priced luggage.
  • Speaking of luggage—take less of it!  Plan your packing around a small rolling suitcase and a carry-on that you can manage on your own.  You will be able to take public transportation from the airport to the city and even to walk a few blocks, instead of taking more expensive cabs and limos.  You won't have to tip anyone to help you with your bags.  You can rent a smaller, less-expensive car.  And you will avoid potential fees for excess baggage.
  • Talk to your health insurance company to see if you are covered when traveling internationally. If you are, you don’t need extra health insurance.
  • Give yourself a splurge or two on your trip! You are saving money with all these tips, so treat yourself to something that you really want.

While You’re Traveling

Cook meals at your vacation rental or buy carryout food.

  • Find a large supermarket where prices on everything, including toiletries, will be less.
  • Make sure you have a good amount of food for meals at your vacation rental, so you feel obligated to cook “at home”.
  • Shop at local farmers’ markets. The prices are usually great, but don’t buy more than you can really use during your stay or you will end up wasting money.

Eat Meals at your Vacation Rental

Shop at local markets and enjoy a meal at your vacation rental

  • Buy pre-prepared carryout food at markets, grocery stores, and street vendors.  Combine this with fresh fruit, cheese, bread and wine for a great meal back at your vacation rental.
  • Have a picnic while you’re out for the day.  Bring a packable cooler with you and carry your meal with you in the car.  Stop in a scenic spot and eat outdoors.
  • If you are staying in a small hotel or B&B, ask if you can use the fridge to store some snacks.  Or, look for a hotel or B&B where there are small fridges in the room.
  • Take along a few easy snacks like Granola Bars, so that when you’re out touring you don’t have to stop in a café if you get the late afternoon hunger attack.
  • Bring a water bottle with you and fill it from the tap at your apartment before heading out in the morning. If you buy bottled water, buy it at a supermarket instead of from a food stand.

When you eat out, eat more simply and inexpensively.

  • Aim for only one meal out per day – usually lunch when you are out exploring.  Snack in your hotel room or cook a light meal at your rental for dinner.
  • If you want to go out for an expensive meal, enjoy a special lunch instead of dinner.  (Lunch is often less expensive than dinner.)
  • Find less expensive restaurants. Look for the neighborhood restaurant where locals eat, not the one in the middle of the tourist area.
  • Eat more casually. In Italy, have pizza for dinner. In England, try dinner at an Indian restaurant or have a pub lunch.
  • Consider fixed price meals at restaurants—these can be a great bargain.  In France, order the “plat du jour” or daily special.
  • Don’t order all the courses when you go out for a meal.  Share a course with others in your group or just have one or two courses.
  • Don’t tip more than the locals. If the custom is to just round up to the nearest Euro or Pound, do that.
  • If the café charges more to sit and have your coffee, as they do in Italy, then have your coffee standing at the bar.
  • Don’t order things without knowing what they cost. Some menus sell things by the weight and can be shockingly expensive. Sometimes the house wine is not the least expensive choice.
  • Drink water. It’s good for you and less expensive than soft drinks or alcohol.  Order tap water instead of paying extra for mineral water.

Spend less on local transportation.

  • Take public transportation from the airport to your hotel. You can save a lot over the cost of a taxi or limo.
  • If you will be using a lot of public transportation, look into special passes that may enable you to save money instead of buying individual tickets.
  • Purchase your gas at supermarket gas stations where prices are usually less.
  • Walk or use public transportation to get around the city instead of taking taxis.
  • Focus your driving daytrips within an hour, saving money on gas.
  • Meander on the local roads and save expensive tolls.
  • Park on the edge of a town or village where there may be less-expensive or free parking. Some places offer free shuttles into the center.
  • Take a day off and just enjoy your rental house or B&B and the village where you’re staying.
  • Enjoy a hike in the immediate area. Many European countries have excellent and well-marked hiking trails. Some villages are very close together, and you can walk to the next village or to an interesting site nearby. This is a fun and inexpensive activity, and you get good exercise, too.

Many villages are close enough to walk to

Walk through the countryside to the next village

Manage money conversions to minimize costs.

  • Get your cash from ATM machines.  This is the easiest and least expensive way to access cash.
  • Check with your bank to be sure you understand how they handle withdrawals from foreign ATMs.  They may be affiliated with a European bank where you can make withdrawals without a service charge.  Find out how much you can withdraw each day, and consider withdrawing the maximum possible each time to minimize fees.
  • Use a credit card that has low or no extra fees for foreign conversion.  (This can cost you an additional 3% of everything you charge.)  Several Slow Travelers recommend the Capital One Visa card, which has no additional fees for foreign conversion.
  • Don’t sell euros back at the airport money-changing stands.  The currency exchange rate is not favorable.  Bring your euros home to use next time, or use www.xe.com to check rates and sell what you have left to a friend who is going over soon.

Take advantage of freebies and discounts.

  • Enjoy what’s free.  Take a walk in a park, a stroll in a beautiful part of town, a drive or a hike in the countryside.  Enjoy the monuments, churches and fountains.  Watch the street performers.  Strike up a conversation with a woman walking a dog.  Savor a perfect sunset.  So much of Europe is free to enjoy.  Your best memories can involve things that don’t cost anything.

Enjoy the free things to do and see in Europe

Enjoy much of Europe’s beauty for free

  • If you belong to AAA or AARP, check to see what special discounts might be available related to travel. You may also have discounts available through other organizations or affiliations.
  • In some places, some historic buildings or museums are free—all the time or on certain days. Do your research and find out where and when to visit to minimize admission costs.
  • Don't feel that you need to visit every place in the tourist guidebook—those admission fees can add up. Pay for admissions only to those places that really interest you. You might enjoy looking at the Eiffel Tower (free) just as much as riding the elevator up to the top (not free).
  • Look into special cards or passes that offer discounts on local transportation and/or admissions. Depending on what you plan to do, you could save a lot of money.
  • If you are over 60, ask if there is a senior discount for museums and other activities.
  • If you are traveling with children, ask if there is a children's or student price or a family ticket.
  • Ask locals for tips! Ask the people who run your vacation rental for money saving tips (where to park for free, where to shop).
  • Visit the Tourist Office for free maps and information. Sometimes the Tourist Office has information on discounts or inexpensive options for visitors.

Be a smart shopper or don't shop at all!

  • Don't buy things unless you really need them. Your souvenir of your trip is your memories. Maybe you don't need physical souvenirs.
  • Digital photos are a great souvenir of the trip. You don't even have to print them to enjoy them. Be sure to get yourself in some of your photos.
  • If you are a sucker for books, as we both are, force yourself to NOT BUY BOOKS!
  • Don't buy expensive English-language newspapers and magazines while you are traveling. Use the internet if you need to keep up with the news in your own language or find an English-language news channel.
  • Often the Tourist Office has free booklets about the area that make nice keepsakes. Or, collect brochures or inexpensive postcards to make an album when you get home.
  • For each purchase, take a moment to think if you really need and want it.
  • The supermarket is one place to find a few things to take home some food items that are appropriate to take through customs, items for your kitchen or home, even health and beauty products. This way, you spend money on something you will actually use that can remind you of a place you enjoyed.
  • Don't forget to pursue the VAT tax refund, if you had eligible purchases.

Other Traveling Tips.

  • Use long distance phone cards and call home from land lines to save money.
  • Take your laptop and use free WIFI for e-mail and internet research instead of internet cafes. With your laptop, you can also use Skype or other free or low-cost internet phone services to call home.
  • If you are paying cash for something expensive, like a hotel stay, ask for a discount. You may not get it, but you might!
  • Bring travel-size toiletries with you so you don't have to buy things in Europe that you won't finish while you are there.
  • If your vacation rental has a washing machine, do your own laundry. If not, find an inexpensive self-serve Laundromat or do hand-washing in your room.

More Information on Smart Saving

See these discussions on the Slow Talk forums:

About the Authors

Kathy Wood is a Slow Travel moderator who has traveled extensively in Europe for over 15 years.  A former Human Resources executive, she now works as a college professor and consultant.   Kathy and her husband, Charley, also lead The Luberon Experience, a week-long, small-group trip based in Provence. See her Slow Travel Member page.

Pauline Kenny is the founder of the Slow Travel website and community. Her new travel website Cotswolder is a destination guide for the Cotswolds area of England. Pauline and her husband, Steve, spent a year traveling in Europe in 1988, staying mostly in vacation rentals. They travel to Europe regularly. See her blog Views from the Slow Lane and her Slow Travel Member page.

© Kathy Wood and Pauline Kenny, 2008

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