European Travel Skills: Part III
In this third of three shows focusing on travel skills, we'll visit the Swiss Alps, Paris, and London while covering tips for finding the best accommodations, getting around in big cities, and enjoying Europe's cuisine. This information is key to making the most of your travel time and, if you're on a budget, can help you cut the cost of your travels in half.
See Rick’s best Travel Tips.
Hi I'm Rick Steves back for the last episode of our three-part travel skills special. We're in a village, high in the Swiss Alps. In this finale, we'll show that in so many ways, you can actually experience more by spending less.
Our tips this time: finding the best value accommodations, getting around in big cities, and enjoying Europe's cuisine. This information can help you make the most of your vacation time and, if you're on a budget, it can cut the cost of your travels in half.
Whether you discover Norway's breath-taking fjords, explore ancient temples in Athens, hike along a Roman wall in England, sweat with locals in Finland, or enjoy a concert in Ireland, you'll find the kinds of places and experiences you incorporate into your itinerary shape the character of your trip.
In this three-part travels-skills special we start in the Netherlands, venture through Germany, dip into Italy, sweep through Switzerland and France before finishing in England. In this final episode we start in the Swiss Alps, take a high-speed train to Paris and finish in London.
When touring Europe, many travelers only visit famous and well-promoted hot spots, like Grindelwald, here in Switzerland. It's "the" famous Alpine resort in the shadow of the Jungfrau. Europe energetically markets its top tourist attractions. Alpine resorts like this are geared to large-scale tourism — helping the masses have fun...spending their money.
But, just one valley over, you can have an entirely different experience. Riding this gondola, you soar, landing in the sleepy, un-promoted village of Gimmelwald. In 30 years of researching guidebooks, I've found hidden gems like this in every country. Gimmelwald would have been developed to the hilt like neighboring towns but the village had its real estate declared an "avalanche zone" so no one could get new building permits. The result: a real mountain community — families, farms, and traditional ways.
Choosing places like Gimmelwald and then meeting the people, you become part of the party rather than just part of the economy. This is a realistic goal for any good traveler. Take a moment to appreciate the alpine cheese.
Once you're off the tourist track, make a point to connect with the living culture — pitch in... even if that means getting dirty. Here, Farmer Peter's making hay while the sun shines.
Whether in a big city or a small village, your major expense each day is renting a bed. You have lots of options. We'll review them from cheapest to most expensive. In rural settings — like here in Gimmelwald — I like simple, less expensive accommodations. Gimmelwald has a pension, bed and breakfast, and a hostel.
Europe has thousands of hostels — like Gimmelwald's Mountain Hostel — offering cheap dorm beds. While not for everybody, the price is certainly right. Rather than privacy and your own bathroom, you'll enjoy a convivial camaraderie: a helpful reception desk, a welcoming common room with lots of information and hiking partners, and the kitchen where hostellers cook for the price of groceries. It's dinnertime. And after a sunny day of hiking, travelers are sharing stories.
Today, European hostels come in all shapes and sizes. Modern ones are often big and institutional. They come with inviting lobbies and modern facilities. Rather than the traditional large dorms, more and more hostels are offering smaller rooms — family rooms and even doubles for couples.
In cities or villages, the young at heart — of any age — are entirely welcome. A great thing about hostelling — especially if you're going solo — is gaining an instant circle of friends.
For me, B&Bs offer an ideal combination of comfort and economy, privacy, and cultural experience. Every country here has private rooms for rent. You've just got to know the local word...husroom is Norwegian for chambre d'hôte which is French for [Gäste]zimmer which is what they say here in Switzerland for bed and breakfast.
B&Bs give you more than just a good night's sleep. Imagine, enjoying a renovated attic with a view of this small town Czech castle, being a guest in a home rebuilt after a civil war in Dubrovnik, savoring the salty ambiance in the captain's house on a Danish Isle, or being a noble for a night with Giorgio in the heart of Tuscany.
Tonight, we're sleeping in the home of Ollie and his wife Maria. They teach in the village and supplement their income by renting out three rooms in their house.
As is generally the case with B&Bs, the rooms are as comfortable as a hotel but homier. While you're living in someone else's home, you can be as private as you like — just take the key and do your own thing. Or you can go downstairs and get to know the family.
Typically, hosts enjoy sharing. Ollie knows the backside of the Jungfrau intimately.
Pensions are also a good value. A pension is a place without many of the services you'd expect in a hotel. This one is inexpensive...with the toilet and shower down the hall. The bedrooms are well-worn and traditional. And the place creaks just the way you want it to — and once again, humbler places seem to foster community.
Continuing our swing through the best of Europe, we're heading for Paris. After a full day in the Alps, this fast train gets us there in time to cap our day with a view of the Eiffel Tower.
A big city like Paris is bursting with world-class sights: towering monuments, magnificent boulevards, and glorious history. In a major city like this you have lots of hotel options. The neighborhood you choose as well as the hotel shapes your experience.
Many travelers opt for the big, international class hotels outside the historic center. I find that these, while very comfortable, build a wall between you and the people and culture you traveled so far to experience.
I prefer a small-scale hotel in a cozy neighborhood. For example, the area around Rue Cler is a pedestrian-friendly bit of village Paris, a 10-minute walk from the Eiffel Tower.
Accommodations are a classic example of how, spending less can actually give you a richer experience. Europe's big cities still have well-located, characteristic hotels at an affordable price.
There's a range of categories. Many countries have helpful rating systems. In France, plaques with stars are posted by the door. In a well-chosen one-star place, budget travelers can sleep well and safely. Rooms are pretty basic...but come at near youth hostel prices.
European cities have lots of night noise, and, especially in cheap hotels, this can be a problem. Rather than paying a premium for a room with a view, I'll take a quiet room in the back.
In France, two-star hotels offer, for me, a great balance of price and comfort — still basic but with good beds, private bathrooms, and often small but appreciated elevators.
The more people who share a room, the less expensive it gets per person. A double costs just a little more than a single. And many hotels are happy to squeeze in a cheap third bed.
While three-star hotels are more expensive, they can also be a good value. Here, you're paying for extras like a lounge, room service, and all the comforts.
Know your priorities. This hotel is great. But those on a budget may need to choose between these extras — for an additional $50 a night — and a nice dinner, concert, or city tour.
Throughout Europe, small family-run hotels offer fine values. This London hotel is plush, beautifully located, and more affordable than you might expect because it has no elevator. This historic former monastery in Florence costs no more than a top-end chain hotel, but is bursting with Renaissance character. Here, in Norway, you can enjoy feeling right at home on a fjord.
And a favorite of mine in Rome — small enough where the owner can go over your sightseeing plans — provides fine rooms and a breezy conviviality you simply can't find in bigger hotels.
Some travelers love the freedom of just finding hotels as they go. But, to get the best rooms in the popular places, book in advance.
Smart travelers use a savvy mix of guidebooks and the Internet. Web-based review sights are popular and powerful. But, while helpful, they can be misleading. So be careful. And, by the way, making reservations through a web-based booking service may be convenient, but it costs your hotel 15 to 20 percent. I get the best price by booking directly with the hotel.
Health concerns while traveling through Western Europe are about the same as traveling back home. While I take extra precautions when traveling beyond Europe, in Europe I drink the water and eat everything in sight.
If you do get sick, get help right away. Over here, a good first stop for medical advice is the neighborhood pharmacy. Also, hotels can refer you to a nearby clinic or phone a doctor who makes "house calls" — for far less money than you might expect.
Then, prescription in hand, you can head for the 24-hour pharmacy. Europe generally has whatever medicine you need. In case you need a refill, bring a prescription from home with the generic name typed or printed legibly.
My health tips are all about wellness. Being on vacation can be exhausting. Get plenty of sleep, eat healthy, drink lots of water, and pace yourself. Know your limits.
One of the great joys of travel is eating. Each country in Europe has its own distinct cuisine. Leave the tourist zones. Find places filled with locals enjoying seasonal and regional specialties. The variety of food is endless and if you know how to choose a good place you don't need to spend a fortune. A few basic rules for eating your way through Europe: go for the local specialties — you'll get better quality and price. Eat seasonally...don't miss truffles on your pasta in the fall or fresh berries in Norway in summer.
The location can make the meal. Bosnia may not be famous for its food, but dining under the bridge in Mostar makes a lifelong memory. Most of all eat fearlessly try things you've never had in places you've never been. There are eateries to fit every budget. And while I recommend an occasional gourmet splurge especially in countries famous for their high end cuisine like France and Italy, you'll save money and improve your experience with Europe's countless budget options.
Some of the most affordable and enjoyable food in Europe can be found, not while seated at a table but while standing in the street or the market. Every country has its own beloved street food. It's fast, cheap, and delicious. In Greece try the corner souvlaki stand, and in Istanbul on the Golden Horn grab a fish sandwich fresh from the guys who caught it at one of the venerable and very tipsy fish boats. For a step up and a seat, there are lots of casual bars and bistros; hometown hangouts where you can enjoy local cuisine in comfort without going broke.
One of the best examples of this is in Spain. Every town tempts you with tapas bars where you belly up to the bar and just point at things you'd like to try. In Denmark, I love the open-faced sandwiches which manage to be both simple and elegant at the same time. You can munch the best pizza ever, for the price of a fast-food hamburger in Naples where pizza was invented. The rustic simplicity of sausages and fondue feels just perfect high in the Swiss Alps.
And these days, pubs are more than friends just gathering for a beer — they can come with tasty meals too. By the way, interiors in Europe — from restaurants to hotels to pubs — are now essentially smoke-free.
Especially in France, consider the cuisine sightseeing for your palate. And when you know the budget options, eating at the corner cafe or bistro costs only a little more than lunch at a fast food joint.
Most countries have a plate of the day — that's a plat du jour here. A handwritten menu — in the local language only, with a small selection indicates a good value. And the house salad makes a quick and healthy meal. In France, bread is free. [svp]. Just hold up your basket to ask.
In France, a free carafe of tap water is either on the table or will be quickly if you ask. When it comes to drinking — I go local: in Bavaria, it's a liter of lager; Tuscany — a robust red wine; Provence — a nice rosé; Ireland — a hearty Guinness; Spain — a rich Rioja; in Denmark — a fiery aquavit [..."yes"] And in Greece — it's ouzo with a sunset.
Adapt to the culture you're visting. Over here, dining is not rushed. Slow service is often good service. In a nice restaurant, the table is yours for the entire evening. To get the bill you need to ask for it. As service is often included and waiters are generally paid a living wage, tipping is less expected and often unnecessary. This varies from country to country. Get advice from locals.
Picnics are fast and fun — and give you a purpose in Europe's colorful markets and shops. When picnicking, you can buy whatever looks good regardless of price.
Choose an atmospheric place to make your picnic memorable. We've put together a cheap and healthy meal for two; delightful cheese, a tiny quiche, strawberries, grapes, wine...a little something for dessert...and...a reasonable view.
Traditionally, on the Continent, breakfast is small. In France, locals just grab a croissant and coffee on the way to work. But these days, most hotels are offering hearty breakfasts buffets — complete with cheese, meat, yogurt, and fruit.
We're speeding — at nearly 200 miles per hour — to London, the final stop on our Best of Europe Loop.
Europe is continuing to unite — both politically and physically. From the start, the wealthier countries of the European Union have helped their less-affluent neighbors catch up. And, after a generation of huge investments, its transportation infrastructure keeps European commerce and trade moving faster than ever. And that includes us tourists.
The Eurostar train, which speeds under the English Channel in 20 minutes, is just one example. From Italy to Norway, great bridges, tunnels, and bullet trains are making this small continent even smaller. The fastest way now from the Eiffel Tower to Big Ben is not by plane...but by train.
London's giant wheel is an example of how the nations of the EU can work together. How do you make a spectacular Ferris wheel? Swiss motor, Italian steel, German design, and a capital English view.
As Europe continues to unite, nations are less threatened by regions. Within Spain, Madrid now lets Barcelona wave its Catalonian flags and speak its own language. The Irish gift of gab comes in Gaelic ...and London doesn't care. And for the first time in centuries, Britain has allowed Scotland to have its own parliament. For those of us who love Europe's cultural variety here, this is good news.
Unification does not threaten Europe's diversity. In fact, that diversity is both as vivid as ever, and more accessible. Imagine: today for lunch, it was quiche and fine French wine under the Eiffel Tower and, for dinner? Pub grub and a hearty ale in a classic London pub. Here's to diversity.
Throughout Europe, cities are becoming increasingly better organized. Visitors can easily master excellent transportation options: buses, subways, and taxis.
Even budget travelers need to remember that vacation time is valuable. Spend money to save time. Groups of three or four can travel cheaper and faster by taxi rather than by riding buses and subways. These days, throughout Western Europe, most cabbies are regulated, honest, and charge the metered rate. The extra fees are clearly explained — and legitimate. I round the bill up 5 or 10 percent.
London, like most big European cities, has a fine underground system — letting you zip anywhere in town, regardless of rush hour traffic — fast.
Big cities become surprisingly manageable when you get comfortable with their subway. To avoid ticket window lines, buy tickets from machines. Follow the signs to the right platform. You'll find helpful maps everywhere. In what Londoners call "the Tube" everything is labeled north, south, east, or west.
Each line has two directions and therefore two platforms. Signs list the line, direction, and stops served by each platform. Lost? Locals are happy to help. Because some tracks are shared by several lines, signboards announce which train's next and how many minutes till it arrives. Final destinations are displayed above the windshield. And always...mind the gap.
City bus systems are also worth figuring out. Buses are generally frequent, user-friendly, and come with a view.
Here in London, as in most cities, a 24-hour pass pays for itself in about 3 rides. It lets you just hop on and off both the buses and the tube as you like.
Even if you never use public transportation back home, try it over here. After a few rides, you'll be getting around like a local.
Once you've mastered getting around, your next challenge is to better understand your sightseeing. You can do that with a guide — either by taking a tour or hiring one privately. All over Europe independent local guides, while pricey, give meaning to the cultural and historic riches that surround you.
Tour Guide: Can you imagine 2,000 years ago a person who has never seen the photograph of a leopard? And then they see the first leopard ever pounce out of the floor live.
To enjoy the help of a local expert without the expense of a private tour, you can catch a guided walk. Especially here in Britain, you'll find hard working local historians taking visitors on fascinating walks through a particular slice of their town's past. Some tours hit the biggies. Others are more off-beat.
Tour Guide: Down below there of course is Cleopatra's Needle. Why is it called "Cleopatra's Needle"? Because she's the only Egyptian we know; that's the reason why.
Walking tours like these are advertised at tourist information offices and on the Internet. For me they're almost always time and money well spent.
While most major cities have your standard big bus orientation tours, all over Europe there's a more flexible option. "Hop-on hop-off" buses make a circular route stopping at the top dozen or so attractions with three or four departures an hour and a continuous narration of the sights. A single ticket gives you 24 hours of hop-on and -off privileges as you sightsee your way efficiently through town.
And, for the ultimate in economy and control, you can use your mobile device and download self-guided audio tours.
After every trip to Europe, I'm reminded we can never exhaust this continent of what it has to offer. The fine points of European culture survive and inspire. Its art-packed museums make it clear: The passions of the past are still with us. And, most of all, it's the people who keep me coming back. Whether truffle hunting with friends in Tuscany; going for a torch-light sled ride high in the Swiss Alps or joining new friends on the beach for a shrimp-fest in Denmark; Europe is both a playground and a classroom.
This concludes our three-part travel skills special. Remember, anyone who equips them selves with good information and wants to travel smart...can. Thanks for joining us. I'm Rick Steves...keep on travelin'. Cheerio.