How to Save Money on Your European Vacation
A perennial favorite for American travelers, Europe can also be one of the most expensive places to travel. First and foremost, you need to find a good transatlantic ticket, which can be challenging, since taxes, fees, and carrier charges can easily tack an additional $600 onto the average fare. In “How to Find the Best Fares on European Flights,” I outline strategies for landing the best flights. Here are some other ways to find value in Europe.
Pick the right destination.
Your dollar goes further depending on where you are—and what currency you’re using. The best values usually lie outside the euro zone. According to Hotels.com’s annual Hotel Price Index, Warsaw had the most-affordable luxury hotels in Europe in 2013, with an average room rate of just $124 a night. Budapest, Istanbul, and Prague also all had top rooms for less than $250 a night. (By contrast, Paris’s luxury rooms went for $504, on average, and London’s for $430.) This squares with the Economist’s Big Mac Index, which offers a quick (and playful) look at the relative cost of countries by charting the price of the ubiquitous McDonald’s burger around the world. According to this metric, the Polish zloty is undervalued by a full 35 percent against the U.S. dollar; the Czech koruna (undervalued by 25 percent), Turkish lira (19 percent), and Hungarian forint (17 percent) also offer bargains for Americans.
That doesn’t mean you have to avoid all euro-using countries. Portugal remains one of the Continent’s best value destinations. “You can have an extraordinary trip—including hotels, guides, meals, and special experiences—all for substantially less than it would cost in other countries, even at the luxury end,” says T+L A-List super-agent Joel A. Zach of Heritage Tours Private Travel. (To wit: Hotels.com found that Lisbon’s top rooms went for an average of $191 a night.) Berlin is also remarkably affordable. “It’s still a relatively new destination,” explains T+L A-List advisor Virginia Giordano of Germany-based Culture Trip. Thanks to a building boom in the city, high-end hotel rooms can be found for just over $200 a night on average. Lower rents also help to keep prices down at restaurants and stores.
Time your visit.
Hotel rates are often considerably lower during shoulder season, which runs roughly from late April until late May and then again from September through mid-October. (Airfares follow the same pattern.) This is especially true for resort destinations: a room in Mykonos, Greece, can more than double in price from the end of May to peak season in August. For city hotels in popular destinations such as Paris, you can frequently find deals in the heat of August, when the locals flee town. Otherwise, look later in the fall—October through November—when prices typically ease.
Rent a room.
Although Europe has a growing collection of stylish, affordable chain hotels, an increasingly popular alternative is a house or apartment rental, which has the added benefit of a kitchen. Sharing-economy juggernaut Airbnb actually has a larger presence in Europe than it does in the States, with about 300,000 listings; competitor HomeAway has roughly the same amount. Another big player is 9Flats, which is Europe’s answer to Airbnb; it’s particularly good in Germany, where it launched. There are also plenty of smaller rental agencies, such as Italy Perfect and Guest Apartment Services Paris.
Hop a boat.
The exponential growth of river cruising—at least 25 new ships are launching in Europe this year alone—means that you have more options than ever before. “River cruising is an incredible value right now,” says Carolyn Spencer Brown, editor of Cruise Critic. With meals, drinks, and most excursions usually built into your fare, “it’s hard to rack up a big bill on a river ship,” Brown says. Plus, you get to explore some of Europe’s legendary cities and countrysides without the hassle of repacking as you go. Brown also notes the debut of different kinds of cruise lines, such as the new Emerald Waterways, which offers prices below some of the region’s traditional luxury ships. Of course, you’ll have to book early, warns T+L A-List super-agent Mary Ann Ramsey of Betty Maclean Travel; prime cabins are going at least one year in advance. For the best fares, look for shoulder-season sailings in March and November. And don’t forget about Mediterranean cruises. “There’s a lot of capacity there,” Brown says. And where there are competing ships, there are deals to be had.
By the Numbers
1 to 3 Percent: The typical foreign transaction fee that many credit cards add to overseas purchases. (Exceptions include Capital One, Discover, and American Express Platinum and Centurion cards.)