Thrifty 50 Travel Tips

By Rick Steves

The economy may be wobbly, but our travel dreams are still strong — for good reason. Europe is every bit as magical as ever, and no recession can change that. What matters is how well you manage your travel budget, and how you use those skills to create a better trip. Playing your cards right, and spending less will lower the barrier that separates you and the culture you've traveled so far to experience.

To help you keep your dream trip affordable, here are 50 thrifty ways to stretch your travel dollar in Europe...

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 Gästezimmer which is German for rooms in a private home.

Avoid touristy restaurants with "We speak English" signs and multilingual menus. Those that are filled with locals serve better food for less money. I look for a short, handwritten menu in the local language only. Go with the daily specials.

Fly open-jaws — that's into one city and out of another. Save time and money by avoiding a needless costly return to your starting point. When considering the beginning and end points of a long trip, try to start in mild countries (such as England) and work into the places with greater culture shock (such as Turkey). This way you'll minimize stress, and save countries offering the cheapest shopping — and greatest health risks — for the end of your trip.

Travel off-season — generally October through April in Europe. You'll get cheaper airfare, find more budget rooms, spend less time in lines, and meet more Europeans than tourists. Big cities such as London, Paris and Rome are interesting any time of year.

Family-run businesses offer the best values because they employ family members to get around Europe's costly labor regulations. In mom-and-pop shops you're more likely to be served by people who care about their reputation and their customers.

Picnics save money. Ten dollars buy a fine 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 elegant deli sections. Know the metric system for buying produce. In Italy 100 grams (about a quarter pound) is a unit in itself called an etto.

Eat with the season. Germans go crazy for the white asparagus. Italians lap up the porcini mushrooms. And Spaniards gobble their snails (caracoles) — but only when waiters announce that they're fresh today. You'll get more taste for less money throughout Europe by ordering what's in season.

Use a guidebook. Guidebooks are $20 tools for $3,000 experiences. Saving money by not buying one is penny-wise and pound-foolish. An up-to-date guidebook pays for itself on your first day in Europe.

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 fees by making fewer and larger withdrawals. Store the cash safely in your money belt.

Stay in touch cheaply by dialing direct. International phone cards with PIN numbers are sold at newsstands throughout Europe. They offer calls to the US for ten cents a minute — a huge savings over the $3/minute rates offered by the big American services.

Cars are worthless and costly headaches in big cities. Pick up your rental car after the first big city and drop it off before the final big city of your trip. Paying $20 a day to store a $40 a day car while touring a city is an expensive mistake.

Do your shopping mostly in the cheaper countries where gifts are more interesting and your shopping dollar stretches the farthest. The difference is huge: For the cost of a pewter Viking ship in Oslo, you can buy an actual boat in Turkey.

Look up friends, relatives, and contacts. Assume you are interesting and charming and enjoy local hospitality with gusto. This works best if you actually are interesting and charming. Bring a show-and-tell Ziploc baggie filled with photos of your family, house, and hometown.

Adapt to European tastes. Cultural chameleons drink tea in England, beer in Prague, red wine in France, and white wine on the Rhine. They eat fish in Portugal and reindeer in Norway. Going with the local specialties gets you the best quality and service for the best price.

Look for consolidator tickets for overseas flights. Consolidator or "discount" air tickets are perfectly legitimate. By putting up with a few minor drawbacks (no changes allowed and no frequent flier miles given) you can save hundreds of dollars. Student agencies are not limited to students and offer some great airfares.

Don't let frequent flier miles cloud your judgment. Choose a plane ticket, car rental, hotel or tour according to the best value for your trip, not in hopes of scoring a few extra miles.

Know your railpass options. Railpasses can offer big savings — if you're traveling a lot. For short trips, point-to-point tickets are cheaper.

Second-class train cars get there just as fast as first-class ones. Throughout Europe first-class tickets cost about 50 percent more than second-class. The difference in comfort is usually minimal — it's not like first versus coach on a plane. The vast majority of Europeans don't travel in first class unless someone else is paying for it.

Buses, while often slower, are cheaper than trains — especially in Britain, home of Europe's most expensive train system. For instance, traveling from London to Edinburgh could cost $145 by train or only $45 by bus.

Groups save by driving. Four people sharing a car generally travel much cheaper than four individuals buying four railpasses. And don't worry about gas costs. Even at $6 a gallon, you'll find cars get great mileage and distances between sights are short. A single two-hour train ticket can cost you the price of a full tank of gas.

Park carefully. Thieves recognize and target tourist cars. Judge the safety of a lot by how it twinkles. Broken glass means thieves like this spot. Paying to park in a garage with an attendant can be a good investment.

In many northern countries, train-ticket holders get discounts on bikes rented at the station. And in many cases you can rent a bike in one town and drop it at another for no extra charge.

Pay with cash, not credit cards. While credit cards get you a good exchange rate, many places offering Europe's best deals — from craft shops to bed & breakfasts — accept only cash.

When changing cash, avoid exchange bureaus that don't show both the buying and selling rate. By seeing both rates you can derive the profit margin — which should be within 5 percent. Places showing only the selling rate are hiding something... an obscene profit margin.

Wear a money belt. You'll save money by not losing it. Thieves target Americans not because they're mean but because they're smart. They know we're the ones with the good stuff in our purses and wallets. Assume beggars are pickpockets. Be wary of commotions in crowds and fake police who ask to see your wallet. When you know the scams, they're almost entertaining.

Students, families, and seniors should ask for discounts. But be warned: Because the US doesn't reciprocate, many countries don't give their standard senior citizen discounts to Americans.

In any transaction, understand all fees and expenses. Ask to have bills itemized. Assume you'll be short-changed. Always ask how much. Do your own arithmetic and don't let the cashier rush you. Smile but be savvy. You'll save lots of money.

Travel with a partner to share and save. A single hotel room often costs nearly the same as a double. And by splitting taxis, chores, guidebooks, and picnics couples save both time and money.

Buy your maps in Europe at half the price you'd pay in America. And you'll find a wider selection.

Communicate online rather than by mailing postcards. For the cost of a postcard and a stamp you can be online in a cybercafé for about 15 minutes. Many libraries, hotels and hostels offer free Internet access.

Europe's 2,000 hostels offer countless cheap dorm beds. A hostel membership pays for itself in four nights. And it's not limited to youths. In fact, those over 55 get a discount on a hostel card. Using the hostel's kitchen, you can cook for the price of groceries — a great savings for traveling families.

Take advantage of department stores anywhere in Europe for cheap folk art, souvenirs, and post cards. Local shoppers eat cheaply at department store cafeterias and restaurants. Savvy travelers can too.

While notorious for ripping off tourists, flea markets can offer some great deals. Prices are soft, so haggle.

Consider using a budget airline to connect distant cities. Europe's highly competitive no-frills airlines — such as Ryanair and Virgin Air — can often get you from one city to another faster and cheaper than the train. You generally book the flights yourself by phone or on the Web. Beware though: Cheap airlines often use small airports located far from town, which can cost a little extra time and money.

Hike in the Alps. Even if you pay for a lift ticket to get you quickly into the high country, the glories of the Alps are one of Europe's great values. The Alps are littered with helicopter-supplied mountain huts offering cheap beds and menu prices that don't go up with the altitude.

Know your hotel's cancellation policy and keep track of what you reserved. No shows are generally charged one night. If you won't make it, cancel long in advance. Reconfirm all hotel reservations two days in advance. Even a fine hotel can mess up a booking. Arriving and finding no room can become a huge and costly headache.

Avoid travel agent and tourist office room-finding services. They charge a fee and generally offer only the highest-priced rooms with no discounts. For the best accommodations values, use a guidebook, shop around, and go direct.

Find rooms on the fly, and check business hotels for off-peak deals. Brussels and the Scandinavian capitals, which cater to business travelers, offer deep discounts to travelers who arrive without reservations when business traffic is slow. During summer and weekends year-round, you can get a fancy business hotel room at a cheap one-star hotel price. It's not unusual to score a $300 double for $100.

Throughout Europe, budget chain hotels rent rooms at B&B prices. Since these cookie-cutter rooms cost the same for singles, couples, or even a family of four, they offer the greatest savings for traveling families.

Be smart about hotel choices. 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 one-star services. Lavish lobbies can hide crummy rooms. See, smell, and hear the room before accepting it. If you're interested in sleeping, choosing a view room overlooking a noisy square is a mistake. Opting for the shower and toilet down the hall can save you $30 a night.

Ask for a deal on your hotel room. You'll have the best chance of getting a discount if business is slow. Go direct (a room-finding service costs the hotel a booking fee), offer to pay in cash, or stay at least three nights.

Pack the room. The more people you put in a hotel room, the cheaper it gets per person. A quad is only a little more expensive than a double.

Avoid hotel breakfasts. While convenient, these are rarely a good value. If breakfast is optional, increase the character and lower the price by joining the local crowd at the corner café for your coffee and croissant.

Throughout southern Europe, drinks are cheaper at the bar than at a table. The table price can be a great value if you'll linger and enjoy the view. But those just tossing down a quick drink do it at the bar for about half price.

Every country has early bird and "Blue Plate" specials. Know the lingo, learn your options, and you can dine well with savvy locals anywhere in Europe for under $15.

Don't overtip. Only Americans tip 15 to 20 percent in Europe. We even tip when it's already included or not expected. Ask locals (who are customers rather than employees of a restaurant) for advice.

To save money in restaurants, couples can order a side salad and split an entree. To save more, request tap water instead of mineral water, drink the house wine, and skip desserts.

Make the most of public transit. Many single tickets are actually good for round-trip, transfers, or an hour of travel. Three rides generally cost more than a day pass. Airports almost always have cheap and convenient public transit connections to the town center.

Museum passes can save time and money. The Paris Museum pass, for example, pays for itself in three visits and saves you hours by letting you skip the long lines and scoot right into each sight. Also, with some passes, you'll pop painlessly into sights that might otherwise not be worth the expense.

If you get sick, see a doctor sooner rather than later. While it seems stressful to get medical help, visiting a clinic in Europe is actually an inexpensive and interesting experience. Any hotel or tourist office can point you in the right direction. You'll be diagnosed, have the proper medicine prescribed, and be on the mend sooner in your trip.