When you hear the words “budget travel,” do you cringe and think, “Oh no, sleeping in noisy, dirty hostels and eating on a dollar a day?” Well, not quite—although that may be fun for some. Here are some ideas on how you can save major cash as you traipse through Europe’s landscape of cobblestones and castles and more importantly, travel less like a tourist and more like a local.
One of the cheapest flight options from the United States can be to fly into the United Kingdom first, then switch to low cost carriers, also known as budget airlines, to get to mainland Europe. Try Aer Lingus, which flies from New York City, Boston and a few other major U.S. cities directly into Dublin for about $500 round trip. Then fly over to the Continent via RyanAir or EasyJet, which both offer incredible deals. With low cost carriers, the earlier you book the better. Their already cheap fares go fast, so they have no need to offer “last minute deals” as a major airline might do to fill up seats. When you start your airfare research, subscribe to airline newsletters if they offer one. That way you will be the first to know about their special sales, discounts, and promotions. Also try Travel Zoo (http://www.travelzoo.com/) for the latest information on airfare promotions and package deals on destinations worldwide.
If you qualify, definitely check for student, youth, or senior citizen discounts before you book a flight. Even teachers can get discounts through some travel agencies. Get a hold of an ISIC card (for youth, students and teachers) that will get you discounts in major cities worldwide for things like museums, restaurants, hostels, etc.
Volunteer to be bumped to a later flight. If you’re waiting at your gate for the longest leg of your journey, the transatlantic segment, and you suddenly hear the half-apologetic announcement about an “oversold” flight, don’t be the first to offer yourself as a sacrifice just yet. By the second or third call for volunteers, the amount of the free travel voucher will be generously higher. If you are not in a hurry and can bear to spend the night (on the airline’s tab) and take the morning flight out, why not relax and take in free travel money?
Lufthansa recently offered a travel voucher of 600 Euros, good for a year, and free hotel stay for the night. Definitely worth it.
Frequent flier miles, though no longer such a hot item, can still be useful, so always mention your account number when booking or checking in, or if you prefer to log your miles later, save your boarding pass stubs. The information given on the stubs is required when you are logging your flights to request the miles.
By Train, By Foot
If you prefer to travel by train and actually watch the countryside pass by, keep in mind that this option is more time-consuming and expensive than a flight on a low-cost carrier. If possible, purchase your train tickets once you are in Europe. If you are taking the train from Paris to Prague, for example, buying the tickets from the train station in Paris will be cheaper than buying them online from the United States. In some countries, you can purchase a national railways pass that offers discounted travel within the country. Also, always ask for a group ticket (less expensive than several single tickets) if you are traveling with one or more persons.
Transport passes are essential if you are moving about the city on the trams, buses or metro. If you will be frequently using public transport for a week, purchase the weekly pass. Buying single tickets every day, several times a day, gets expensive.
Look up free walking tours for each city you visit, or ask at your hotel desk for information about this excellent and fun way to see the sights. Walking tour guides usually work off of tips, so if you enjoyed your tour, be sure to tip your guide.
And before you head out to explore for the day, stock up some small snacks. Grab some bottles of water or juice, fresh pastries and breads from a bakery, fruit or cheese from a corner shop, and you won’t be paying dearly when you suddenly get hungry, and there’s only a Hard Rock Cafe or some other tourist rip-off cafe nearby.
Don’t Lug Your Luggage
If your trip around the continent is only a couple of weeks or less, try packing all your belongings into carry-on bags only. Not taking extra suitcases will save you the checked-in baggage fees as you fly around within Europe, and also relieve you from the frustration of having to drag all that heavy stuff around. You’re on vacation—leave everything behind at home and take only the essentials. You can always wash your clothes in the hotel sink—just carry a bit of washing powder with you in a plastic baggie.
Home Away From Home
At least a couple of months before you head to Europe, sign up to be a member on couchsurfing.org or hospitalityclub.org. Both of these established organizations are free to join and have proven to be safe and reliable ways of getting to meet the locals and possibly get an offer to crash at someone’s house for a night or two. My husband and I were able to meet generous, friendly locals in both Paris and Prague, and spend an entire week in each city for free in their apartments, saving tremendously on hotel expenses and avoiding crammed hostels. Also, we were shown around the city by actual locals who taught us much about their culture, history and traditions. Of course, we continue to return the favor and host travelers in our flat whenever we can, or if not, at least meet them for a coffee and show them around our favorite spots.
For those who own a home or an apartment, home exchanges are also an interesting option. This can of course incur some risk, so make sure you get to know and trust the person or persons with whom you will be swapping homes. Here are several trustworthy organizations that can help you with such an arrangement (some may charge an annual membership fee): www.exchangehomes.com; www.jewettstreet.com; http://sabbaticalhomes.com(mostly for academic professionals)
Happen to be an artist or writer? Try applying for artist retreats and residencies in Europe that pay for your room and board, and sometimes even a living and/or travel stipend. Check www.resartis.org for international programs.
Low Cost, High Value Souvenirs
When the end of your trip is nearing and you’re scrambling to find the perfect souvenirs for friends and family back home, don’t just head for the first souvenir kiosk or boutique you see! Instead, keep your eyes open for unique shops and items everywhere you go, such a used bookstore with old or rare sketches or maps of the city. When you see locals perusing alongside, know that you’re likely in a tourist-free zone and safe from abusive tourist prices. Happen to catch a local musician or band giving a concert? Pick up a CD for a meaningful souvenir.
Even something as simple as a collection of various beer coasters or free hotel goodies can be a small and fun way to share your trip with someone. And of course leftover coins and bills from your travels are always a wonderful present. When you get home, go through your hundreds of photos from the trip, choose a few of the best ones and have them enlarged and framed, or arranged into a photo collage or even a calendar. Most photo processing places will create these types of gift items for $20 or less.
Suchi Rudra Vasquez is a writer and journalist living in Prague with her husband.