Take It Back! 20 tips for stretching your dipping dollar
Just when I was getting used to the idea that a Euro should cost US$1.20, our dollar plummets 20%, and now a Euro costs $1.50. Don't expect our dollar to recover any time soon because, frankly, we're not as rich as we think we are. The euro comes with built-in fiscal discipline: countries in the Euro zone are allowed to have only minimal deficits. Here in the USA, on the other hand — free from legal constraints or political will — we
simply deficit finance our wars and tax-cuts. Logically, there's no free lunch. It's paid for by a hidden tax on Americans: less buying power overseas. I'm not going to tell you that travel to Europe is cheap. It's not. But twelve million Americans — the vast majority of
them normal working people — had a blast in Europe in 2007. So don't mope. Just get
smart and stretch that wimpy little dollar. To help you keep your travel dreams affordable in 2008, here are twenty ways you can take back that 20% drop in your dollar's value…and have a more rewarding trip.
1. A B&B offers double the warmth and cultural intimacy for half the price of a hotel. You'll find them in most countries if you know the local word: Husrom is Norwegian for sobe, which is Slovenian for Zimmer, which is German for bed and breakfast. In Haarlem (Netherlands) I save 33% by sleeping a ten minute walk from the center with Hans and Marjet at Haus de Kiefte (double with a shower for ?55) rather than on the square in the cheapest hotel in town (Hotel Amadeus, double with shower and toilet, ?85).
2. Europe's 2,000 hostels offer countless cheap dorm beds for half the price of beds in low-end hotels. And it's not limited to youths. Anyone can hostel. Most of my life I've shared hostels with American students and grown-ups from less wealthy countries. Now I'm seeing older Americans hostelling as well. And using the hostel's kitchen, you can cook for the price of groceries — a huge savings for traveling families.
3. Throughout Europe, budget-chain hotels are driving small hotels and guesthouses out of business by renting efficient, if forgettable, rooms at near B&B prices. The cookie-cutter rooms — which cost the same for singles, couples, or even a family of four —
offer the greatest savings for traveling families. In London, where it's hard to find a regular hotel room for less than ?100, the huge Travel Inn chain rents one-size fits all rooms for ?80 (a 20% savings for couples, even greater savings for a family of four). If your schedule forces you to spend a night near the airport, a four-star hotel will cost you a bloody fortune, yet the Heathrow Ibis charges ?70 for a double and the Gatwick Travelodge charges ?60.
4. Save by choosing simpler hotels. A three-star place (with room service and a 24-hour reception desk) is a bad value for a budget traveler who's satisfied with a one-star place (e.g., no elevator, no restaurant, and no shoe-shine machines in the hallway). In Paris, getting a ?55 double in the one-star Hotel de Nevers rather than a ?120 double in the
three-star Hotel St. Louis Bastille — both in the Canal St. Martin neighborhood — shows
you can save big by taking a simpler room.
Want to save even more? Only the simple one-star hotels still offer some rooms without a private bath. All rooms come with a sink, and walking down the hall to use the toilet and
shower saves another 20%. At the Hotel de Nevers, a double room drops from ?55 to ?40. And the dumpiest little timewarp mom and pop places, like Florence's Soggiorno Magliani, charge only ?50 and offer no private facilities at all.
5. Pack the room. Funky European hotels have rooms of all sizes, and hoteliers are often happy to pack in extra beds. The more people you put in a hotel room, the cheaper it gets per person. All over Europe from Paris (e.g. Hotel Sevigne: Sb-?66, Db-?85, Tb-?102) to
London (Vicarage Private Hotel: Sb-?85, Db-?110, Tb-?140, Qb-?155) to Vienna (Pension Schweizer: Sb-?70, Db-?90, Tb-?110, Qb-?130) the average cost per person
drops by about 40% in a bigger room. Typically, two couples sharing a quad room will save 33% — often ?60 a night — enough for a simple dinner for all.
6. Hotel breakfasts, while convenient, are rarely a good value. If your breakfast is not included, save money and gain character by joining the local crowd at the corner café. Most Paris hotels charge extra for breakfast (?10 for a Continental, ?15 for a buffet). And one of the most charming things about a visit to Paris is enjoying its café scene (where you can get a coffee, juice, and croissant for about ?7). In Madrid, just around the corner from where good hotels charge ?8 for breakfast, you can eat traditional churros con chocolate with crusty locals for ?4. Add a wedge of potato omelet for ?2 more. Result?
You ate better and more memorably…and saved 25%.
7. Avoid touristy restaurants with "We speak English" signs and multilingual menus. Eateries that are filled with locals aren't always cheaper, but they serve better food at a better value. Restaurants open only workdays for lunch (like Rome's Enoteca Corsi, a block from the Pantheon) are invariably serving savvy locals a fine value meal. At Enoteca Corsi you'll get great ?6 pasta and ?9.50 main plates, easily 20% cheaper than
the forgettable "budget" cafeteria around the corner. In Vienna, you can enjoy rustic food and wine with the locals literally in the vineyards at a Heuriger wine garden. For instance, at Beethoven's hangout at Pfarrplatz, you'll get a quarter liter of wine for ?2.20, a buffet
dinner for ?10, and strolling violinist ambiance to boot.
8. Picnics save you money: $20 buys a hearty picnic lunch for two anywhere in Europe. Stock your hotel room with drinks and munchies upon arrival. You can pass train rides enjoyably over a picnic meal. Many grocery stores have fine, even elegant, deli sections — giving you the ingredients for a classy picnic for much less than a restaurant.
9. Throughout southern Europe, drinks are cheaper at the bar rather than at a table. The table price can be a fine value if you'll linger and enjoy the view. But those just tossing down a quick drink can save 40% by standing (or leaning) at the bar.
10. 7-Eleven-style convenience stores are the rage in northern Europe…but bigger
grocery stores will save you 30% on snacks, drinks, picnic grub, and take-away food. Grocery stores can be hard to find in the high rent big city centers — they hide out in the
basements of big department stores.
11. Some of the best cheap eateries are in or near open-air markets. They cater to market workers and savvy local shoppers. Rome's Testaccio, the historic slaughterhouse district, is famous for serving enthusiastic locals the "fifth quarter" — less desirable animal parts
in unforgettable, uniquely Roman dishes (Trattoria Da Oio A Casa Mia is a great scene and a fine value). At Barcelona's Boqueria market, the Kiosko Universal Bar — famous
for its ?12 fresh fish meals — is open for lunch only and always has a line.
12. Don't over tip. Only Americans tip 20% in Europe — even when it's already included
or not expected. When in doubt, ask locals (customers rather than restaurant employees) for advice. In much of Europe you'll save that 20% by simply going local — forget the
13. To save money in restaurants, couples can order two side salads and split an entrée. To save more, request tap water instead of mineral water, drink the house wine, and share a dessert. Know the local word for tap water and communicate clearly or you'll get it in a bottle and pay. These cheap tricks go over better if you eat early (before the European diners come out) and don't tie up the table all evening.
14. Fly "open jaw" — into one city and out of another — to avoid a needless, costly, and
time-consuming return to your starting point. If traveling through France, Spain and Portugal, don't be afraid to pay $150 extra to fly into Paris and out of Lisbon. The "cheaper" roundtrip ticket will force you to take a 20-hour, $200 train ride back from Lisbon to Paris.
15. Cars are worthless and expensive headaches in big cities. Pick up your rental car after the first big city you visit, and drop it off before the final big city of your trip. You'll pay ?20 a day to park in Florence and ?25 a day in Paris (paying $35 a day to park a $50-a-
day car while touring a city is a pricey mistake). For a France tour, do Paris, pick up your car as you leave, drop it upon arrival in Nice and do the Riviera by train without a car. In Italy, you don't want a car in Venice, Florence, Rome or the Cinque Terre.
16. Buses, while generally slower, are about half the cost of trains. Buses are especially economical in Britain, home of Europe's most expensive train system. For instance, traveling from London to Edinburgh costs roughly $195 by train (second-class, 5 hours) and only $60 by bus (9 hours).
17. Use public transit for airport transfers. Every major airport has efficient money-saving alternatives to taxis. Most train, metro, and bus services will take you from baggage claim to the city center in about 30 minutes, saving you enough cash to cover dinner. Here are just a few examples: London (tube ?4, train ?15.50, taxi ?50 from Heathrow), Rome (train ?11, taxi ?40), Barcelona (train ?3, bus ?4, taxi ?20). Amsterdam (train ?4, taxi ?45).
18. Do most of your shopping in the cheaper countries where gifts are more interesting and your dollar stretches the farthest. The difference is huge: for the cost of a pewter Viking ship in Oslo ($200), you can buy an actual boat in Turkey ($200).
19. Anywhere in Europe big department stores sell folk art, souvenirs, and postcards for 20% less than shops and stands on the streets and at the sight. Department stores (like Spain's El Corte Inglés) also come with inexpensive cafeterias and free bathrooms.
20. Use ATMs rather than travelers checks. You'll get your cash cheaper and faster. While ATMs give the best possible rates, they do come with transaction fees. Minimize these by making fewer and larger withdrawals. Changing $400 at once rather than $200 twice cuts your bank fees by 50%. The downside: you'll be walking around with more cash — store it safely in your money belt. Another fee-cutting rule of thumb: use your debit card exclusively for ATM withdrawals and your credit card for purchases — not the
What shouldn't you cut? As you seek out money-saving opportunities, remember that your vacation time is a precious resource (yes, time is money). Plan as much as you can before you leave home. And don't go to a country just because it has a reputation for being less expensive. The best value is found by traveling smartly in the country where your travel dreams are taking you. Don't whine about the weak dollar — enjoy spending
it smartly. Those who travel wisely will save more money, make more friends, and create a more memorable — a truly richer — experience. Happy travels!
Rick Steves (www.ricksteves.com) writes European travel guidebooks and hosts travel shows on public television and public radio. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or write to him c/o P.O. Box 2009, Edmonds, WA 98020.
Photo of Mama Rabatti with caption: Mama Rabatti will rent you a double
in Florence for ?60, or a quad for ?25 per bed. Credit: Rick Steves