travStep 1: Make a list and check it twice. And several more times after that.
One of the most common mistakes the virgin-traveler makes when planning their “dream European vacation” is being overly ambitious. You give them a pen and paper and ask ‘which countries and/or cities would you like to visit?’ and they’ll name every one they can remember from 8th grade geography. And when they run out, they’ll pull out a map and start copying down the ones they missed. This is ok. In fact, I would encourage you to list out every country that interests you initially. And once that is completed, be prepared for the chopping block.
Look over your list carefully. Ask yourself why you listed certain countries and cities. If you can’t name a single reason other than ‘I just want to see it!’, scratch it off your list. I know it sounds harsh, but believe me, you’ll thank me later.
Now that you’ve shaved your list down a bit, look at it again, but this time think on terms of location. For instance, you’re planning a week long trip and you want to visit Ireland because your ancestors are from Cork, and you want to go to Italy to see the Leaning Tower of Pisa. It can be done, and if these are your only two places of interest you should be fine. But once you start adding additional “side trips” (i.e. just a quick stop at the Eiffel Tower) you’ll spend more time on the road and less time enjoying the sites. My suggestion would be to extend your time in Europe or chose between Ireland and Italy. You can visit Edinburgh, see Big Ben, and spend ample time in the country of your ancestors. Or you could take a gondola ride, see the Colosseum, and still view the iconic tower at Pisa. Remember: Quality is more important than quantity.
Once you’ve established your list of “must-sees” and determined a time frame in which they can be enjoyed fully, you have conquered the first, and arguably most difficult step. Give yourself a pat on the back and go on to step two.
One of your biggest expenses of the trip will probably be the plane ticket for the journey “over the pond”. I have one word: Search, search, search! Don’t visit just one website, punch in your information, and hit ‘buy’ for the first ticket option that pops up. Visit multiple web sites. Try different departure times, city arrivals, and dates. If your dates are flexible you ‘ll have a better chance at snagging a better deal. When I was searching for a round trip plane ticket to London, I browsed online for nearly two weeks looking for a bargain. It paid off. And I forked over almost $300 less than I would have if I had bought the first ticket I found.
The next thing you want to start thinking about is a means of transportation in Europe. There are many options available but to save you time and hassle, take a train. Any city you want to visit, whether a large metropolis or a tiny town on the coast, can probably be reached by train. They are fast, efficient, flexible, and affordable. RailEurope.com. is a great website to use when buying your tickets. They have everything from single passes, customizable 15 day passes, country and region specific passes, as well as discounts for groups and students. When I most recently spent a month in Europe, I calculated how many “travel days” I would need and purchased a Select path (8 days in 2 months for 5 countries). This allowed me to travel from Paris-Munich-Vienne-Salzburg-Venice-Florence-Rome-Paris for just over $500. For some people and their itinerary’ s, buying single passes as you go might be a cheaper alternative. Do some research and find out your best bet. Buses and flying could be cheaper, and renting a car more flexible, but I guarantee you will spend an increased amount of time “commuting” and less time enjoying Europe. Do you want to bring back pictures of terminals and taxis or towers and churches?
Step 3: Where to rest thine head?
Don’t let the Hollywood horror flick ‘Hostel’ scare you out of taking advantage of this great, affordable alternative to pricey hotels. Hostels.com is a wonderful site that allows you to select the city and time and will generate a list of all available hostels. Included are amenities (yes, some hostels have them!), location, distance from the city center, reviews from people who have stayed there before (crucial!) and what types of rooms are available. Many offer group rooms that can sleep up to 50 people in some cases, as well as private rooms for 2-4 people. Some offer complimentary breakfast, free tours, internet, game rooms, and information on the various hot spots in town. Not all provide linen and towels so be sure to check.
The idea of a hostel might be a turn off. But remember, how much time are you going to be spending sleeping? I paid 11 euro per night for a private hostel room in Paris compared to the 50 – 100 euros I could have paid for a hotel with a brand name. I used that extra money to buy more souvenirs, eat more crepes, and pay entrance fees to more museums and monuments.
Eating can be a highlight of the trip, it certainly is for me when I travel! However, dining out at expensive eateries and ‘quaint cafe’s’ can take a toll on the pocketbook. If you are visiting several cities, my recommendation would be to limit yourself to one ‘nice’ meal per city. You’ll appreciate the experience a whole lot more when you consider it a ‘treat’ and your credit card will thank you. Most European cities offer a plethora of feeding options that are quick, convienient, delicious, and cheap, such as side walk vendors and train stations. You’ll find everything from cold and hot sandwiches, enormous slices of pizza and brats, hot wine, chocolate crepes, salads, pastas, and more. With all the time and money you’ll save, you’ll have more of both to splurge on something not quite as temporary.
Step 5: Shopoholicism. Cure it before you leave!
We Americans love to spend, and countries we visit love it that we spend! We’ll drop 20 euro here for a replica miniature statue of David, 10 euro there for a sketch of the same, as well as key chains, playing cards, spoons, and cooking aprons with the famous sculpture plastered on it. Pretty soon, your luggage just got a whole lot heavier and you’re hauling around a lot of junk that will most likely end up in a kitchen drawer. Don’t get me wrong, I like to buy stuff. The important thing here to remember is what KIND of stuff are you buying?
You would be amazed how much money the typical tourist spends on nonsense junk. It often takes a big chunk out of their budget, not something the thrifty traveler wants to hear! I give the same advice with souveniers as I do with food. Limit yourself to one nice, meaningful purchase per city or location. Try to avoid shops that specifically say “Souveniers” which are full of mass produced items that weren’t even made in its native country (It isn’t uncommon to flip over a replica of ANYTHING and see the words ‘made in China’). I choose to search out thrift shops, antique stores, or road side markets. You will probably pay a little more but it’s worth it! And, if you successfully stick to the policy of “no junk” and focus on that one special purchase, you will actually save money! When I went to Paris we browsed through a lot of tourist-targeted souvenier shops. I’ll admit, they had some really neat items that looked really appealing under the floursent lights next to the sign that said “we speak English”. I even broke down and bought a tiny Eiffel Tower for 6 euro. The following day we went to a mile long road side antique market where I purchased an old silver mirror for 15 euro. The mirror and tower are both displayed on my coffee table, but I get twice as many comments about the mirror than the plastic French icon. And if I would have had to choose just one of the two to bring back to the States, the winner would be the mirror hands-down.
Step 6: What a sight to behold!
My final piece of money-saving advice is to do plenty of research about the sites you would like to visit, either by looking online or in guide books (Some people wouldn’t recommend guide books to the thrifty traveler, but that is one area I say to NEVER compromise in; they often include city, train, bus, and subway maps, but also give invaluable information with regards to the best time to visit a certain city or landmark, prices, good places to eat complete with cost estimate, and hundreds of other attractions you might not have considered or even heard of). My top two recommendations are anything by Rick Steves or Fodors. Try Amazon or eBay for used copies, but keep in mind to buy the most recent version possible so that all the information is up-to-date.
Guess what? You’re done! In just six simple steps you have created your own personal, customized, unique European experience. And the best news? You will save TONS of money if you apply these tips. So what are you waiting for? Grab a map and some paper and start planning!