Many Americans never travel outside of the country because they believe Europe is outside of their budget. Well, I’m here to tell you what Europeans already know: Travel can be cheap! So, grab a pencil and start taking notes
Travel Off Season
There are a few reasons to avoid travelling during the Summer months. Peak tourist season falls between May and September, so prices for nearly everything will be higher. Not to mention nearly every European city will be more crowded than usual. Both hotel and airfare prices are almost double during peak season and drop dramatically during off-season.
However, prices are also high during the Holiday season in December when large numbers of people travel to see family members.
So, when is the best time to go? As soon as the holidays are over, prices plummet. Since so many people travel for Christmas and New Year, by mid-January everyone has returned home and is settling in to their routine. Ergo, nobody is travelling and the travel industry is desperate for your business.
If you’re someone who prefers cool air to the high summer temperatures, or someone who has been yearning to see Europe but budget is a major issue, keep in mind that the second and third weeks in January is when prices nose dive to some of the lowest all year. They stay generally low through February and March, but begin to rise in April. By May and June, airfare and hotel prices will sometimes be double what they were in January.
Okay, so not everyone wants to travel in the cold weather. But here’s the catch: Europe get’s their spring a little bit earlier than America does! While half of the U.S. and most of Canada are still buried in snow, the earliest signs of Spring are budding in Europe. It may not be bikini weather, but the temperatures in many European countries from February to March will be markedly milder than much of the U.S. and Canada. It is not unusual to see Spring blossoms popping up by the end of January and in bloom by February. It won’t be beach weather, but unless it’s a freak weather year, chances are it will be pleasant.
Transportation Is Cheaper Than You Think!
Getting “across the pond” will be the most expensive part of your adventure. But, if you booked off season you got a good price.
Another way to bring that price down is to travel mid-week instead of on the weekend. Plan your vacation so that you fly between Tuesday and Thursday. Prices are higher on the weekends.
Look for alternative airports. For example, most Americans travelling to London fly into Heathrow airport. Take a look at airports that are slightly outside of the major cities, like the London Luton or Gatwick airports. You may find cheaper rates in these alternative airports because other tourists prefer to land closer to the city.
However, what some Americans don’t realize is it’s much easier to get around on public transportation than it is in most of the U.S. Most airports have a train or subway terminal. Flying in to a slightly out of the way airport should not be too inconvenient.
Once you arrive in Europe you can get almost anywhere inexpensively. If you want to see more than one country, do not book your transport on one of the major airlines! Europe has many cheap airline deals. Look for cheap airlines before you leave, or wait until you arrive because there will be ads for them on billboards and in the subways.
Two great examples are Ryan Air and Easy Jet. You can usually book last minute and still get an awesome deal. To the right are two screen shots of quoted rates from today (6/10/13) for one way tickets just three days ahead (6/13/12). Note that these are summer prices, so off-season prices will be even lower. Also note that my hypothetical dates were chosen mid-week for cheaper rates.
Use The Trains!
With the exception of New Yorkers, Americans don’t use trains nearly as often as Europeans do. To be blunt, that’s because our rail system is sadly inferior to theirs. Europe has high speed rail at reasonable prices so you can get from point A to point B quickly and inexpensively.
You can purchase one way tickets, or unlimited passes in various packages. With a Eurail pass, you can explore many cities in one country, or zip through many countries all on one pass.
And, don’t forget the subways! While New York subways are known as filthy, most of Europe’s subways are clean and efficient. There are travel passes available for every major city. Most passes give you access to the subways and the bus systems. This way you can avoid taxis, which are usually much more costly.
Many airports link right up to the subway system, so you can usually hop a train from the airport.
Say Hello to Eastern Europe
Many Americans fantasize about Paris, London, Berlin, and all the major romanticized cities of Western Europe. And rightly so, they are beautiful with rich histories. However, Eastern Europe is a veritable treasure trove of stunning Medieval architecture. And, the best part is… it’s cheap!
This is not to devalue these countries in any way. Quite the opposite. Many Eastern and Central European cities, such as Prague in the Czech Republic, offer the very best value Europe has to offer.
Everything from hotels, to dining out, to cultural activities can cost half as much in Eastern Europe than in the West.
You may find a little more of a language barrier in Eastern Europe than in the West. However, as the years go by since the fall of the Soviet Union, these countries are rapidly modernizing and improving their educational system. Therefore, more and more young people are learning English in school.
But, it is always a good idea to study up on the language before you go abroad. If traveling in Slavic countries, most people will understand Russian, even if you are in Poland or Belarus, for example. Many people in the Baltic and central Europe speak German in addition to their mother tongue. So having a background in one of those languages should help.
Get Over Your Need For Luxury
Let’s face it, Americans are spoiled. We want the best of everything at the lowest price point. But if you want to see Europe on the cheap, get over that real quick.
Americans forget that Europe lacks one thing that America has a lot of: space. We have big houses and big cars because we have the space to spread out. European countries tend to be smaller and densely populated. Ergo, hotel rooms are generally smaller than what you are used to in America.
Your double room may have two twin beds instead of two queens. Another thing we’re not used to is shared bathrooms in hotel rooms. To get the lowest rates, you may find that you’ve booked in a place where bathrooms and showers are communal. Usually they are not co-ed, and shower stalls are private, so it’s no big deal.
I booked a hotel in central London, third week in January, for £30 per night. At the time that was about $45. Again, it was off-season, and I was perfectly happy to walk down the hall to use the bathrooms. If you’re not cool with that, expect to pay more.
Budget Tight? Do The Free Stuff!
Sure we all one to see the big tourist attractions like the Tower of London and the Louvre. And, there’s good reason for that, they are awesome! Because we’re such a young country, we simply do not have the old Medieval and Renaissance treasures that Europe has.
The problem is that these attractions get real expensive real fast. At €10 and £10 and up, you can easily drop $200 in a matter of days.
Luckily for us, there are plenty of free things in Europe! Many of the top museums and art galleries in London are free to the public. Likewise, cultural sites such as the famous Notre Dame Cathedral are free in Paris. Simply Google “free attractions” and whatever city you’re planning your visit.
Not to mention that many European streets are living museums themselves! America is simply too young as a nation to offer the grandiose Gothic and Baroque architecture you will see all over Europe. If it’s your first time abroad, you will see amazing things just walking the streets! If you’re on a tight budget, you won’t regret simply taking self-guided walking tours through many of these fabulous cities.
Eat On the Cheap
Sure, you will want to experience the cuisine of your host country to really experience the culture. But don’t forget that the food markets, grocery stores, and street food carts still offer a foreign dining experience! You may have breakfast included in your hotel or hostel, so take advantage of that. But also find out where the nearest market or grocery store is. You may find prepared foods and snacks you’ve never heard of before at a fraction of the cost to dine in a restaurant. Street vendors offer hot local meals at a low price as well.
Don’t be afraid to use hostels! Most hostels are clean, cheap, with friendly staff, and varying levels of privacy.
Hostels usually have reviews online these days, so do look for reviews before you book. Many offer very cheap dormitory style bunks, but many also do offer private rooms at a higher rate.
Most hostels provide lockers to stow away valuables when you’re out seeing the town, and some even have their own bar or lounge. Sharing space in the dorms or mingling in the communal lounges with fellow travelers can be a great way to meet interesting people.
Plus, many hostels have funky, fun themes and are lively places. They are not the dirty, scary hostels you’ve heard horror stories about!
Some hostels are for youth only with an age cut off of 28, others are for all ages. So, if you’re over 28 check before you book.
Last Minute Tips
Many of the prices on websites are quoted in British pounds or the Euro. Some sites will allow you to choose your currency so you can see it in American dollars. If not, just Google “currency converter” and you’ll be easily able to figure out the price in U.S. dollars.
If you are planning on bringing anything electric, such as a razor, hair dryer, laptop, cell phone, etc, bring a voltage converter. You can often find them in kits with different adapters for different countries.
Make use of internet cafes. They are found in most areas of most cities, and they are cheap. You can use them to plan the next leg of your journey on the fly, or keep in touch with the folks back home.
Use ATMs to get foreign currency. They often offer the lowest standard currency converter rates, and there is no need to carry more than €100 at any given time. You can use your American credit or debit card to make the larger purchases like your rail pass.
And last but not least… Backpack it! Pack light, and carry just one bag. Too much baggage will weigh you down.
Good luck and happy travels!
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