Editor's note: Meet Rick Steves when he presents his Budget European Travel Skills workshop this weekend at the Los Angeles Times Travel & Adventure Show, 9-10 Feb., 2008, at the Long Beach Convention Center.
Just when I was getting used to the idea that a euro should cost $1.20, our dollar plummets 20 percent, and now a euro costs $1.50. Don't expect our dollar to recover any time soon because, frankly, we're not as rich as we think we are.
The euro comes with built-in fiscal discipline: countries in the Euro Zone are not allowed to run deficits. Here in the United States, on the other hand - free from legal constraints or political will - we simply deficit-finance our wars and tax cuts. Logically, there's no free lunch. It's paid for by a hidden tax on Americans: less buying power overseas.
I'm not going to tell you that travel to Europe is cheap. It's not. But 12 million Americans - the vast majority of them normal working people - had a blast in Europe in 2007. So don't mope. Just get smart and stretch that wimpy little dollar. To help you keep your travel dreams affordable in 2008, here are 20 ways you can take back that 20 percent drop in your dollar's value . and have a more rewarding trip.
1. 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 Zimmer, which is German for bed and breakfast. In Haarlem, in the Netherlands, I save 33 percent by sleeping a 10-minute walk from the center with Hans and Marjet at Haus de Kiefte (double with a shower for 55 euros) rather than on the square in the cheapest hotel in town (Hotel Amadeus, double with shower and toilet-85 euros).
2. Europe's 2,000 hostels have countless cheap dorm beds for half the price of beds in low-end hotels. And it's not limited to youths. Anyone can hostel. Most of my life I've shared hostels with American students and grown-ups from less wealthy countries. Now I'm seeing older Americans hostelling as well. And using the hostel's kitchen, you can cook for the price of groceries - a huge savings for traveling families.
On Italy's Cinque Terre, Manarola's Ostello 5-Terre charges 23 euros per bed in a four-bed dorm, or 90 euros for a four-bed family room. Just down the street, the little Hotel Marina Piccola charges 95 euros for a double. Berlin's Circus hostel charges 25 euros per bed - 7 euros less if you provide your own sheets and breakfast - or 50 euros for a double (double-room options are becoming more common in hostels everywhere). The nearby Hotel Kastanienhof - a budget hotel by Berlin standards - charges 103 euros for a double.
3. Throughout Europe, budget-chain hotels are driving small hotels and guesthouses out of business by renting efficient, if forgettable, rooms at near B&B prices. The cookie-cutter rooms - which cost the same for singles, couples, or even a family of four - offer the greatest savings for traveling families. In London, where it's hard to find a regular hotel room for less than 100 pounds, the huge Travel Inn chain rents one-size-fits-all rooms for 80 pounds (a 20 percent savings for couples, even greater savings for a family of four). If your schedule forces you to spend a night near the airport, there's no need to spend a fortune. Heathrow Ibis charges 70 pounds for a double and the Gatwick Travelodge charges 60 pounds.
4. Save by choosing simpler hotels. 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 a one-star place (e.g., no elevator, no restaurant, and no shoeshine machines in the hallway). In Paris, getting a 55-euro double in the one-star Hotel de Nevers rather than a 120-euro double in the three-star Hotel St. Louis Bastille - both in the Canal St. Martin neighborhood - shows you can save big by taking a simpler room.
Want to save even more? Only the simple one-star hotels still offer some rooms without a private bath. All rooms come with a sink, and walking down the hall to use the toilet and shower saves 20 percent. At Hotel de Nevers, a double room drops from 55 euros to 40 euros. And the dumpiest little time-warp mom-and-pop places, such as Florence's Soggiorno Magliani, charge only 50 euros and offer no private facilities at all.
5. Pack the room. Funky European hotels have rooms of all sizes, and hoteliers are often happy to pack in extra beds. The more people you put in a hotel room, the cheaper it gets per person. All over Europe, the average cost per person drops by about 40 percent in a bigger room, whether you're in Paris (for example, Hotel Sevigne: single-66 euros, double-85 euros, triple-102 euros) or London (Vicarage Private Hotel: single-85 pounds, double-110 pounds, triple-140 pounds, quad-155 pounds) or Vienna (Pension Schweizer: single-70 euros, double-90 euros, triple-110 euros, quad-130 euros). Typically, two couples sharing a quad room will save 33 percent - often 60 euros a night - enough for a simple dinner for all.
6. Skip the hotel breakfast. Hotel breakfasts, while convenient, are rarely a good value. If breakfast is not included in the cost of your room, you can save money and gain character by joining the local crowd at the corner cafe. Most Paris hotels charge extra for breakfast (10 euros for a continental breakfast, 15 euros for a buffet). And one of the most charming things about a visit to Paris is enjoying its cafe scene (where you can get a coffee, juice, and croissant for about 7 euros). In Madrid, just around the corner from where good hotels charge 8 euros for breakfast, you can eat traditional churros con chocolate with crusty locals for 4 euros. Add a wedge of potato omelet for 2 euros more. Result? You ate more memorably . and saved 25 percent.
7. Avoid touristy restaurants with "We speak English" signs and multilingual menus. Eateries that are filled with locals aren't always cheaper, but they serve better food at a better value. Restaurants open only workdays for lunch (such as Rome's Enoteca Corsi, a block from the Pantheon) are invariably serving savvy locals a fine-value meal. At Enoteca Corsi, you'll get great 6-euro pasta and 9.50-euro main plates, easily 20 percent cheaper than the forgettable "budget" cafeteria around the corner. In Vienna, you can enjoy rustic food and wine with the locals literally in the vineyards at a Heuriger wine garden. For instance, at Beethoven's hangout at Pfarrplatz, you'll get a quarter-liter of wine for 2.20 euros, a buffet dinner for 10 euros, and strolling violinist ambience to boot.
8. Picnics save you money: $20 buys a hearty 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 fine, even elegant, deli sections - giving you the ingredients for a classy picnic for much less than a restaurant.
9. Throughout southern Europe, drinks are cheaper at the bar rather than at a table. The table price can be a fine value if you'll linger and enjoy the view. But those just tossing down a quick drink can save 40 percent by standing (or leaning) at the bar.
10. 7-Eleven-style convenience stores are the rage in northern Europe . but bigger grocery stores will save you 30 percent on snacks, drinks, picnic fare, and take-away food. Grocery stores can be hard to find in the high rent, big city centers - they hide out in the basements of big department stores.
11. Some of the best cheap eateries are in or near open-air markets. They cater to market workers and savvy local shoppers. At Barcelona's Boqueria market, Juan's Pinotxo Bar has spinach tortillas and great people-watching, while the Kiosko Universal Bar - famous for its 12-euro fresh fish meals - is open only at lunch and always has a line.
12. To save money in restaurants, couples can order two side salads and split an entree. To save more, request tap water instead of mineral water, drink the house wine, and share a dessert. Know the local word for tap water and communicate it clearly, or you'll get it in a bottle and pay for it. These cheap tricks go over better if you eat early (before the European diners come out) and don't tie up the table all evening.
13. Don't over-tip. Only Americans tip 20 percent in Europe - even when it's already included or not expected. When in doubt, ask locals (customers rather than restaurant employees) for advice. In much of Europe, many travelers save that 20 percent by simply going local and forget the tip.
14. Fly "open jaw" - into one city and out of another - to avoid a needless, costly, and time-consuming return to your starting point. If you'll be traveling through France, Spain, and Portugal, don't be afraid to pay $150 extra to fly into Paris and out of Lisbon. The "cheaper" round-trip ticket will force you to take a 20-hour, $200 train ride back from Lisbon to Paris.
15. Cars are worthless and expensive headaches in big cities. Pick up your rental car after the first big city you visit, and drop it off before the final big city of your trip. You'll pay 20 euros a day to park in Florence and 25 euros a day in Paris (paying $35 a day to park a $50-a-day car while touring a city is a pricey mistake). For a France tour, sightsee Paris, pick up your car as you leave, drop it upon arrival in Nice and do the Riviera by train without a car. In Italy, you don't want a car in Venice, Florence, Rome, or the Cinque Terre.
16. Buses, while generally slower, are about half the cost of trains. Buses are especially economical in Britain, home of Europe's most expensive train system. For instance, traveling from London to Edinburgh costs roughly $195 by train (second-class, 5 hours) and only $60 by bus (9 hours).
17. Use public transit for airport transfers. Every major airport has efficient, money-saving alternatives to taxis. Most train, metro, and bus services will take you from baggage claim to the city center in about 30 minutes, saving you enough cash to cover dinner. Here are a few comparisons: London (Tube-4 pounds, train-15.50 pounds, taxi-50 pounds from Heathrow), Rome (train-11 euros, taxi-40 euros), Barcelona (train-3 euros, bus-4 euros, taxi-20 euros), and Amsterdam (train-4 euros, taxi-45 euros).
18. Do most of your shopping in the cheaper countries where gifts are more interesting and your dollar stretches the farthest. The difference is huge: For the cost of a pewter Viking ship in Oslo ($200), you can buy an actual boat in Turkey.
19. Anywhere in Europe, big department stores sell folk art, souvenirs, and postcards for 20 percent less than shops and stands on the streets and at the sights. Department stores (such as Spain's El Corte Ingles) also come with inexpensive cafeterias and free bathrooms.
20. 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 by making fewer and larger withdrawals. Changing $400 once rather than $200 twice cuts your bank fees by 50 percent. The downside is that you'll be walking around with more cash, but you can store it safely in your money belt. Another fee-cutting rule of thumb: Use your debit card exclusively for ATM withdrawals and your credit card for purchases - not the opposite.
What shouldn't you cut? As you seek out money-saving opportunities, remember that your vacation time is a precious resource (yes, time is money). Plan as much as you can before you leave home. And don't go to a country just because it has a reputation for being less expensive. The best value is found by traveling smartly in the country where your travel dreams are taking you. Don't whine about the weak dollar - enjoy spending it wisely. You'll save more money, make more friends, and create a more memorable - and truly richer - experience. Happy travels!
(Rick Steves writes European travel guidebooks and hosts travel shows on public television and public radio. An extended version of this article is included in his 64-page "Best Destinations 2008" newsletter. For a free copy, visit his www.ricksteves.com Website.)