Hot Savings in Europe's Winter

Making plans to travel to Europe during the off-season? "Move fast in the north and hang out in the south," advises Rick Steves, author of "Europe Through the Back Door" ($17.95, John Muir).

"The north is worth the expense, but if you are going to relax and just enjoy the sweetness of doing nothing," one of Steves' suggestions is to "do it where the phrase dolce farniente is famous, in Italy."

Steves has gained his insights while researching 10 editions of his book and PBS series "Travels in Europe." His philosophy is that it is possible to travel in Europe for $50 per day plus transportation costs, and he adds that budget travel has advantages. "In many ways, spending more money only builds a thicker wall between you and what you came to see."

Weather is one drawback to off-season visits. There are, however, advantages.

"One of the great things about the off-season is connecting with the universities," says Steves, who points out that in addition to the action around campus, "University cafeterias, which are government-subsidized are wide open and they welcome tourists."

Off-season travelers will also be able to catch the culture designed for the locals, which is in full swing in the winter. For example, in Vienna in the summer there are a lot of festivals; however, "winter is the time for the real heavy-duty culture, which is what the locals get dressed up for. If you go in the winter you'll find the Spanish Riding School, the Vienna Boys Choir and the Opera all performing. If you go to Vienna in the summer none of these things are available."

Beyond dressing for the weather there are other special circumstances you must keep in mind when traveling in the off-season, including shorter daylight hours. "Make a point to get an early start," Steves advises. "You should also expect more frustrations on hours for tourist information offices or museums. They will likely be closed for lunch, closed on weekends or closed earlier in the evening."

He suggests you could save yourself some frustration by double-checking hours with a tourist office, and if you are going to arrive late in the day, call the tourist office in advance to confirm hours and get information on accommodations.

When it comes to being tight with your funds, "Do it where you are going to save some serious money," Steves says. "If I stay in a youth hostel, it saves me $30 in Norway and $3 in Portugal. If I'm going to splurge, I'll do it where my money will buy me the most decadence--in the south. Why not loosen up and live high on the hog where it's affordable to do that."

So where do you watch it, and where do you spend?

Switzerland is one country where you should watch it, Steves warns. Not only does he feel its currency is overvalued, but "they've had a lot of taxes that have forced them to raise prices. Switzerland is brutal, even to the Germans, and Germany is expensive compared to the rest of Europe."

"Italy is a relative bargain," Steves finds, "because their country is one of the few that has a currency that in the last year has done worse than the dollar."

Spain has gained a reputation for being in the same price range as more northern countries, but that has changed, according to Steves. "You can still travel there much cheaper than you can in France or Germany."

He feels that the budget destinations in Europe are Portugal and Turkey.

"Portugal is the place that is really a relative bargain from an accommodation viewpoint. You can find rooms in private homes for $12 a night. Portugal is still a place where people who want to get close to the culture can do it by roughing it. It's hard to rough it in a country as advanced and affluent as Germany or Denmark, but you can in Ireland, Turkey, Greece or Portugal."

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