I love Paris in the springtime ... or anytime ... but what I don't love is the exorbitant cost of airfare to get to Paris, or any other exotic European destination (Italy is my personal favorite). Other things that fall under my "don't love" peeve list when it comes to all-things European are the cost of hotels, cost to eat in restaurants, cost to rent Vespas, take gondola rides, go on excursions ... actually, the only thing I really hate about Europe is how expensive everything is.
And yet it still doesn't negate my intense, dare I say Shakespearean love for that spatter of countries across the pond, and so I'm forever cursed to be saddled with a love/hate relationship, like one who foots the bill on dates with someone who has much-too-expensive tastes. You just know each tete-a-tete will be one you probably can't afford, but the outings are so fun that you can't say no. Oh Europe, if loving you is wrong, I don't want to be right.
Even during these recession-riddled days, where the euro far outweighs the dollar in terms of value, there are still deals to be had and ways to make a trip to Europe happen on the cheap. All it takes is time, careful planning, and a patient determination to stick to your financial travel goals once your sipping espresso in some back-alley cafe in Venice. (Believe me, once you start shopping and partakething in food and drink, your "budget plan" you made states-side will dissipate faster than a roll of quarters in a trucker's backpocket in a Vegas casino.)
In July I blogged about "how to be a jetsetter on a budget," where I touched on a number of important factors to watch for to score the cheapest airfare (i.e., what's the best day of the week to buy tickets, best time of day, etc.) For more tips, the New York Times compiled a fabulous list of "10 Ways to Keep Europe Within Reach:"
Find the airfare bargains. Check the low-cost airlines, including Zoom, Flyglobespan and Eurofly, that now fly between the United States and Europe. Zoom Airlines, for example, recently started daily flights from Kennedy Airport to London Gatwick for as low as $199 each way. On major airlines, look for new flights with low introductory fares. (When Air France started a new morning flight from New York to Paris in 2007, for instance, one-way fares started at $199.) And sign up for fare alerts, which offer a heads-up when airfares drop. Expedia and Orbitz have automated versions. If you’re more concerned with price than what city you fly in to, sign up for e-mail alerts from Travelzoo.com or Airfarewatchdog.com that tell you about all sorts of deals from your home city. A recent Airfare Watchdog alert for travelers flying out of Newark in August included round-trip fares of $593 to Amsterdam, $636 to Oslo and $623 to Stockholm.
Think twice about hotels. Eurocheapo.com offers no-nonsense reviews of budget hotels in dozens of cities; in Rome, it recommends the Suore di S. Elisabetta, a convent on a hill just south of the Piazza Santa Maria Maggiore, for anyone who doesn’t mind an 11 p.m. curfew or a religious environment. Doubles start at 64 euros, $90, at $1.41 to the euro. Eurocheapo’s new CheapoSearch, which shows availability for budget hotels in central neighborhoods, recently turned up 187 hotels in central Paris with rooms for less than $150 a night for Aug. 2 to 4. And you may do even better by renting a villa or an apartment. Two-bedroom villas can be reserved for as little as $1,200 a week near Florence. HomeAway.com and Rentalo.com connect travelers directly to property owners and managers.
Try Europe’s budget airlines. No-frills carriers fly Europeans cheaply from city to city. Ryanair ran a large summer sale last month, for example, with fares as low as 10 euros to Brussels, Pisa and Dublin from London. Pack light to keep costs down; these airlines may charge for checked luggage or bags weighing above specified limits. Be aware that these airlines often fly out of smaller, somewhat more inconvenient airports, and you should add in the extra travel time to get to them.
Avoid airport cabs. If you pack light, you’ll find it manageable to get to and from the airport on commuter trains and subways. From the two Underground stations at Heathrow Airport near London, for example, the trip into central London takes about an hour and costs about £4, $8.20, at $2.10 to the pound, compared to £15.50 for the faster (15-minute) Heathrow Express, and roughly £60 for a cab ride into town. The cheapest way to get to Paris from Charles de Gaulle Airport is via the Paris regional commuter train, or RER, which has several stops in central Paris. It also connects with the Métro system. Cost: 8.20 euros against roughly 50 euros by taxi, depending on traffic. At Venice Marco Polo Airport, go to the Alilaguna ticket booth and purchase a boat ticket for 12 euros to the Piazza San Marco. Europeforvisitors.com offers helpful tips on airport transportation.
Ride cheaply in town. Off-peak Day Travelcards that cost £5.10 can be used after 9:30 a.m. for unlimited travel that day on either the Tube or the Dockland Light Railway in central London. A one-day ticket for unlimited travel on Berlin’s public transportation system, the BVG, costs 6.10 euros for travel in Zones A and B, where most tourist attractions lie. Taxi fares in Berlin start at 2.50 euros and 1.53 per sixth-tenths of a mile, according to the Berlin Tourism Board Web site, www.berlin.de. But if you hail a taxi from the street, rides of up to a mile and a quarter can be had for a flat rate of 3 euros. Just say “Kurzstrecke” when you enter the cab. Copenhagen has 1,300 free bicycles for getting around between May and December. Look for City Bike Parking places in the city center, deposit 20 kroner (about $3.50) and ride off. Return the bike to any rack to get your change back.
Splurge at lunch; save at dinner. Meals at the popular Paris restaurant Taillevent average 120 to 140 euros, but its prix-fixe lunch costs 70 euros a person. Arbutus, a restaurant in London’s Soho neighborhood that has a Michelin star, offers a three-course pretheater meal for £17.50 with dishes like plum tomato gazpacho, roast rabbit leg and English strawberries with sorbet. By contrast, just the gazpacho and the strawberry dessert cost £11.45 à la carte. In Rome, head to the many trattorias in the Testaccio neighborhood for cheap, authentic cuisine. And you can usually pull a nice picnic together with staples from any local market or grocery store.
Save on telephone charges. If you have access to broadband or Wi-Fi and a computer, use Skype or another Internet telephone service, which usually costs about 2 or 3 cents a minute for international calls. If you have a cellphone that operates on GSM networks, used by most countries in Europe, use a local SIM card, a removable chip that determines the phone’s network and number. It makes local calls inexpensive, and incoming calls are typically free. Telestial offers a $49 Passport SIM card that includes $10 of air time; after that, rates to call the United States start at 49 cents a minute.
Watch the bank fees. Before you leave, check with your bank and credit card issuers to find out what fees they charge for purchases and A.T.M. withdrawals made abroad. Most credit cards charge from 1% to 3% of a purchase after conversion to dollars. Bankrate.com posts a list of what some of the major banks and credit cards charge (search “currency conversion costs” and sort by relevance to find it).
Pick the low-hanging fruit. Free cultural summer opportunities in Europe include Wednesday concerts at St. Petrikirche in Hamburg, Germany, and free midweek tours and Sunday organ recitals at Notre Dame in Paris. Entry is free to all national museums and galleries in Britain, including the Tate Modern and the British Museum in London. In Berlin, you can enter many state museums free for the last four hours on Thursday evenings. And in Dublin, there’s the summer-long Diversion Festival; all events are free, but some require tickets. For information go to www.templebar.ie.
If you’re making a big purchase, ask if the shop participates in a tax refund program. European value-added taxes can add up to 25% to the purchase price, but if you follow the rules you can often get much of this money back at the airport when you head for home. [NYT.com]
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