Although Europe is one of the smallest continents, there is such a wide variety of landscapes, architecture, history, cultures and foods that many travellers still call it “The Continent” — as if there weren’t half a dozen others on the planet.
With 28 countries in the European Union alone, a trip to Europe takes a traveller through different countries and cultures making memories that last a lifetime.
There are plenty of reasons to go, but hopping across the pond is no small undertaking and the travel costs alone can deter some people from actually booking the trip they have always dreamed of taking. Even though airfares can be expensive and exchange rates can be high, there are ways to stretch your dollar and experience more of The Continent for less.
When to go
If you can travel during the off-season, you’ll generally get a cheaper airfare, find more budget rooms, and spend less time in lineups to see the major sites.
In general, October through April is the slower season in Europe. Spring and fall have pleasant temperatures, but the major sites are interesting at any time of year.
Where to go
London and Paris are amazing cities to visit, but they tend to be more costly than some of the other Eastern European cities like Krakow, Prague or Budapest.
To save money, you could plan to spend less time in the expensive cities and more time in the less costly ones.
Small villages outside the major centres also tend to have less costly food and accommodations and provide an authentic cultural experience.
Hopping the pond
When you’re booking flights to Europe, it is generally best to book as far ahead as possible.
Flights may go up in price when you wait and good lower priced accommodations can sell out. If you are planning to visit several countries in one trip, you may be able to save time and money by booking an open jaw flight that goes into one city and comes home from another.
This saves you having to double back to your starting point.
If you are planning to visit London and several other countries, you’ll generally save money by flying into London and home from another European city instead of the other way around.
This is because London has a very high tax added to departing flights.
• There was a time when rail was the best way to get from one country to another in Europe and today it is still a great option — though not always the least costly one.
Budget airlines like Ryanair (ryanair.com), EasyJet (easyjet.com) and Vueling (vueling.com) have made flying less cost prohibitive.
One catch is that baggage weights are more strict on these airlines and they weigh all bags including carry-ons to ensure they are within limits. Extra weight fees can be very expensive.
Travel light and you’ll have no worries.
If you know your bags will be overweight, purchase extra baggage allowance in advance and save money. You may also want to pay a little extra to pre-assign your seat and get early boarding.
• If there are several people travelling together, a car rental may be the least costly and most convenient option.
• Public buses can also be a cheap way to get from one country or city to the next.
• Use public transit wisely in major centres. If you are taking more than three trips in a day, you will probably be better off buying a day pass instead of individual tickets. If you are in a city for several days, a multi-day pass may be the best deal.
Rail tickets and passes are cheaper when booked in advance from Canada, because there are special discounts for tourists.
Sometimes a rail pass can save you money and sometimes it can be cheaper to book point-to-point tickets.
To determine which is best, consult a travel agent or visit www.raileurope.ca.
• Many major cities have museum passes that are a real bargain and provide express entry into museums and attractions. The Paris Pass (www.parispass.com) for example, allows you to avoid the long lineups at the Louvre and the Eiffel Tower and other great attractions and saves you money. Some museum passes include transit passes in the cost.
• Purchasing tickets in advance online can also allow you to skip long lineups. The wait for the Vatican Museum and the Colosseum in Rome can take several hours if you don’t purchase tickets in advance.
Car rental considerations
• Check the licensing requirements for the countries you plan to drive in. You may need an International Driving Permit (IDP) to drive in some countries and if you don’t have it and are stopped by the police, you can get a big ticket. You can obtain an IDP at any AMA office in Alberta for about $25.
• Some rental companies restrict travel to certain countries. Make sure you are allowed to drive your rental vehicle into the countries you plan to visit before going there. If anything happens to the vehicle while you are in a country where you are not allowed to be, you could pay a hefty fee.
• It’s also a good idea to make sure you have car rental insurance before arriving at the car rental counter. There are credit cards that have good coverage, but you have to make sure you charge the rental to the card with the coverage or you won’t be insured.
• Car rentals are almost always wasted in a large city, because traffic is congested and parking can be costly. You are better off using public transit in most cities and saving the car rental for the day you are leaving.
• If you are able to drive a vehicle with manual transmission, you’ll usually save a substantial amount on rental costs.
• Bring your own GPS from home and it will save you the cost of renting one and make it easier to navigate in places where you don’t speak the language.
There are two prices at many European cafes — the counter price and the table price. In most cases, you save money by eating standing up at the counter as opposed to sitting down at a table.
Check out bed-and-breakfast-style accommodations, hostels (some have private rooms with en suites), college dorm rentals and apartment rentals to save money on accommodations in Europe.
Almost nobody travels with traveller’s cheques anymore.
ATMs are plentiful in Europe and the exchange rates are excellent.
There are fees each time you use an ATM though, so you should try to take out as much money as you will need for a few days at a time.
If you have a Wi-Fi connection, Skype and Google Chat are free ways to call home.
Most McDonald’s Restaurants in Europe have free Wi-Fi.
Debbie Olsen is a Lacombe-based freelance writer. If you have a travel story you would like to share or know someone with an interesting travel story that we might interview, please email: DOGO@telusplanet.net or write to: Debbie Olsen, c/o Red Deer Advocate, 2950 Bremner Ave., Red Deer, Alta., T4R 1M9.