Tuesday, May 31, 2016

The Golden Rules of a stingy, Euro traveler

The Golden Rules of a Stingy, Euro Traveler

When home in the states, I often hear complaints about how expensive Europe is, or worse, people automatically assume that just because you went on vacation to Europe that you enjoy fritting away your money.  In some cases, these can both be true and can be a good thing, that is if you actually have the money to frit away.  If you don't, however, and have been thinking about a good cheap European vacation, this blog post is for you and comes from my substantial experience traveling as a horrendous stinge.

Getting to Europe

The first, and perhaps, most important step to saving money in Europe is how you get there.  Not only is this the most expensive one time payment of your trip, but it also can screw you over in later costs as well.

There is always a cheaper way!  

Just looked for flights and the cheapest one is $1800 round trip?  I can promise you, unless you are flying for a single weekend in August, or are late in the game in booking your tickets, that you can find a cheaper price on another site or another day.  Always check different sites for prices even if you are almost certain your site will be the cheapest.  I use www.skyscanner.com as my go to for world travel, but Kayak, Expedia, Vayama, or a whole host of other sites are great to cross check.  Also, when booking remember that sites keep track of when you visit their site(cookies), and they raise the price accordingly.  One way to get around this is to use the incognito tab on your browser, but if you search for the same flight enough, you can still cause the flight to go up in price.  If this happens, just chill for a few days.  Prices aren't going to skyrocket in a week(well, unless you have a week before you leave), and after a few days, the price should settle back down again.

Another great tip is to look into airlines like Norwegian, Iceland, and Turkish airlines, which aren't partners with many of these websites.  They have really cheap flights to and from different hubs in the US and Europe, but you will oftentimes need to have a layover in Iceland, Turkey, or Norway, and I can think of worse things than a 24 hour stop in one of these sweet countries.  Also, when you go this route, you can't be quite as flexible with dates as they only fly on certain days of the week.

Also one great way to have a cheap flight is get a credit card with 30,000-50,000 extra miles and then use the miles to fly.  It's simple and easy, and as long as you keep up on payments and cancel your card soon enough, it's a great idea.

One last tip to booking a flight is usually premium prices are reached if you stay at least two weeks, but this isn't always the case, much more often it's dependent on when you fly.  July and August are the most expensive for flying into Europe, same with over Christmas.  There are often Groupon trips for really cheap, but they cover horrendous dates(early Dec, don't even dream that they'll have snow in Europe then).  The cheapest time to go is in February, and if you're a skier, that might not be that bad of a time for you(My last ticket to Norway was $650 round trip).

Location matters

Not only do plane prices change depending on where you fly from and where you fly to, but there are inherent costs associated with your landing city.  Most of these costs are associated with transportation to and from the city.  Pay attention to the time of your flights, sometimes the reason tickets are so cheap is because no city transport goes that early or that late at night.  You can guess why this would be problematic.

Once you're there

Don't ever take a taxi or train (Unless you're stranded or in Eastern Europe....OR BOTH)

Here, I'm guessing I hit some nerves for some Euro travelers, who would say but taxis are great, and trains aren't that expensive.  Once again this can be true.  Late at night taxis can be the only option for transportation, and sometimes, like I said, in Eastern Europe, they can be extremely cheap as well.  Of course, if you do take this route, follow normal taxi rules, pay attention to the ticker, use some official company, just be smart with it.

As for trains, trains can be a great experience, especially if you plan to go through the Alps, BUT these great trains also carry steep charges.  You can try to mitigate them by buying a country pass, but even then you pay an extra $20+ dollars per train ticket that you get on top of the cost of your pass.  Also different countries charge different amounts for the same trip.  I'll never forget the first time I took a train from Bratislava to Vienna(like a half hour to an hour ride) and it was 7 Euros to get to Vienna, but it then became 30 to get back to Bratislava.  This is why I strongly recommend buses or cars, but if you insist on trains here are my tips:

First of all, there are small companies joining the competition for trains in many countries such as France, Austria, Czech, Slovak Republics, etc. that offer limited room trains that you need to book beforehand.  Oftentimes, these are bare-bottom prices and are a great option, but you need to plan and book them beforehand.  Also, sadly, these still only offer limited routes, and so once you miss the train....well, let's just say, you become depressingly poor.

If these side companies are booked, some countries also offer pre-booked tickets for cheaper amounts that you can find on their websites if they are navigable, sometimes countries' train websites can be extremely difficult to understand, or worse, they just plain don't work(ahem C.R.)

That being said, price-wise, you're looking at costs like $100 for three hour trips in most of Western Europe.  In the Alps that can go up even more.  On the other hand, if you are in Eastern Europe, trains can be extremely cheap (say $10-15 for a three hour trip), and very worthwhile, but buses can still beat their costs.

Hence buses are my preferred mode of travel, but once again it depends on the country.  Germany, UK, and Eastern Europe have good bus systems.  France, Austria, and Italy on the other hand do not, so in those countries you will probably be forced to take trains.

Recently, however, there has also been an invasion of small scale airlines which fly for rock-bottom prices.  But they charge an arm and a leg if you have almost any luggage or want to pick a seat, and then you add that you still have to get to and from the airport which oftentimes costs at least $20 and you might be better off taking a bus.  (tip: speaking of luggage, sometimes you need to buy tickets for your luggage on trains and buses, but it's usually not much, just don't forget because you can be fined for not having one).

All this said, my preferential mode of transport is just to rent a car.  But once again there are all kinds of fees associated with car rentals.  The easiest one to see is busier airports charge more per day, but many airports also charge extra fees, like a location fee to rent from Charles de Gaulle for $50, or an extra 4 Euros a day to use the car.  Some charge mileage fees, etc.  So be careful with that.  It's also important to consider the extra costs to traveling by car.  So for example gas is about $4.70/gal right now in Europe.  But also remember that Europeans love their toll roads!  And they can be extremely expensive(France) or not as expensive say in Italy(of course depends where you are, busier highways charge more).  Also many countries like Switzerland require a vignette(like a car sticker) to drive the highways.  In Switzerland this is $50 in other countries like Austria it is only $8 for a ten day vignette.  Parking can also be problematic with a car, it makes staying in cheap hostels very difficult as few have parking spots.  Usually in most cities parking is free after about 7 pm til about 8 am, but once again that means you either have to move it later or you'll have to pay for it then.  Most parking garages charge about 20-30 Euros to park in the center.  And of course there's always the prospect of wrecking the car or getting a ticket(they have speed cams in Europe, they are required to have signs before them to show you where they are, but if you're not watching it can be a $30-50 fine, which is what happened to me in Spain: saw a bright flash of light, got the ticket six months later)....Also don't forget to hide your things if you take a car, most rental hatchbacks have a cover you can put over the trunk.  I remember my brother telling me once that the first thing he learned when he moved to a big city was to make sure not even a quarter was left out because junkies will break your window for it if they think it will help them get a fix.

So after all that you might ask why I would prefer renting a car, and here's why...

Mobility, you don't get later random unseen charges like taking a train to a station only to pay extra to get into the city.  You can also stop anywhere and see just about anything. You can pick up anyone and split gas and other costs along with being able to get to the pretty little villages easily.  And finally there's something awesome about hauling balls down this tiny Euro road in your pipsquek diesel engine car.  Like racing a bullet bike in your little 1.2 liter engine car down a steep windy road in the Alps...Why else would you travel?????

Second, if you are not traveling alone, it really is cheaper, just so long as you are smart with it and don't incur all those other random costs, because you can avoid toll roads(I'll talk about how to do that with phones)

Finally, I'll be honest, I think there is a lot of adventure to taking public transport.  But it's nothing like driving a car.  You want to really be the captain at the head of your Euro ship, take a car. 'nuff said.

Exchanges are for spies and mafia bosses

But seriously.  Have you ever looked at how much money you have to exchange at one of these hole in the wall exchange places to get a premium rate?  I mean the only person I can imagine doing something like that has got to be like some mobster boss or a CIA agent.  But stinges like me don't belong at exchanges.  We trade countries too often to rely on one form of currency, and who really knows if I'll spend it all?  Fact is, stinges never reach a premium rate.  So how should you exchange while traveling?

The best way is to use ATM's.  This can be problematic, however, as many debit cards charge a withdrawal fee.  So for example I once had a card that charged me $5 every time I withdrew money from an ATM internationally(yeah, that blows) but it also charged me 3% every time I used it to make a purchase internationally(Not bad, but still not good).  There are, however, good international banks that don't charge any fees at all or charge a 1% fee.  Capital One checking for example has NO, yes you heard right, NO INTERNATIONAL FEES.  So every time I withdraw from an ATM it's like I was at home.  One problem with this is Debit cards usually just have a swipe stripe, which means they don't work at European gas stations unless you go inside(once again a problem late at night unless you're on a toll road).  They often also don't work to buy items.  Now, however, the phone pay is becoming much more common in Europe, so that does help.  Chips are great for gas stations in Europe though, so getting a card that has one and has no fees is great too.  One possible way is the American Airlines credit card, which has no transaction fees and has a chip, but after the first year it's a $90 fee so that can be a bit steep.

Also with ATM's it's becoming more and more common to see more options as you withdraw money.  It asks you if you want to exchange to the currency at a fixed exchange rate set by the bank.  Don't do this!  It's their way to scam you out of money, and oftentimes your home credit company charges extra fees when you push this button too.  So just hit the non conversion button, whichever one that is.  These are tricky and hard to explain because different banks ask you different questions, but when given a chance to convert, don't do it.  It'll convert itself later at the premium exchange rate.

Data let's you rule the matrix

I put this here because you can literally travel Europe with no phone.  But in our age, let's be honest, do you really want to go all around and take all these beautiful selfies and not be able to instantly share them?  So you may want to take the 3 hour wait in line at your mobile phone provider to see what kind of plans they offer for Europe.  If you will be there for awhile, this could be advantageous as they have some plans for around $30.  But what you really need, is data!

This you can get relatively easy and cheaply if you plan to stay in one country for awhile, like we're talking $10 for 2 gbs. They also have plans covering different countries but these can also be more expensive and it might be worth getting

Why do you need data?

Of course you need it to post your beautiful pictures, but more importantly data can really save the day when it comes to knowing how to get places either when walking or when driving.  Of course, you don't need data for that.  For that you just need wi-fi, which surprisingly is becoming more and more open throughout Europe, but if you need trusted wi-fi that works, find a McDonald's or a shopping center(which most likely has a Macdo).  This is also about the only way besides buying a gps to avoid tolls because literally every road leads back to a toll road, unless you're lucky enough to be traveling in Spain.  But if you're really stubborn, you can try to use a map like my friend and I did once.  But avoiding those blue signs is an almost impossible task.

No matter what route you choose, there are many open wi-fi networks in Europe, even in the East.  Use them to download offline city maps and get directions.  This could save your life....like literally.

Sleep is for sissies

This one may seem pretty self-evident, but I'll say it anyway.  If you are trying to be a stinge in Europe be prepared to get out of your comfort zone.  You can usually find pretty cheap hotels for about $30-50 if you're not quite a true stinge using sites like booking.com and hotels.com or airbnb.com.  But if you want to really save, Europe offers some wacky ways to sleep.  Hostels are always a cheap option and you can check hostelworld.com, but if you're a true stinge, $10 a night is waaaaay too much every night, so you got to skip at least a couple, and live!  So here are some options:

Sleep on the beach(not always legal, but fun, and a friend got robbed doing this once...just btw)
Sleep in a park with other bums just like you
Sleep in a parking garage
Sleep in your car or on a train
Sleep in the train station
Sleep in an air-conditioned mall until you get kicked out.
Skip sleep and go to a club all night(not recommended for repeat sessions)
Put a hat on the ground for money and fall asleep on the street
Try couch surfing
Go inside an actual hostel and ask if they have space for a reservation.  If they say yes, say their price is too much and ask if you could come back at like midnight to see if they still have space and if you could pay half price then?(I did this once in St. Petersburg...and the sun didn't even set til 1am, soooo I wouldn't have wanted to sleep anyway.)
(Please add any additional advice in comments at the bottom)

Don't under or overuse public transport

This can be one of the finest lines to draw in the sand because most cities have tickets where you can buy a day pass, some even let you buy a city pass, with reduced or free admission to billions of attractions, or one time use passes that usually last one trip in the metro or for a certain amount of time, like one hour.

So what should you do?  I honestly think that there is something quitessentially European to using public transport on your trip, so I would advise spending at least some money on it.  But don't become dependent on it.  City passes seem nice, but usually don't have attractions you want to use or the ones that do are usually just discounted, which you paid for with your pass anyway. Also, some day passes only last for one day not a 24 hour period, so that can suck too.  But last and perhaps most importantly, don't spend your day in the metro!  True tight-wads walk!  And a lot of times that's when you'll find the best hidden gems of Europe.

Food stands and small restaurants-there's really nothing better

I can't explain how much it hurts to see tourists walk into a "Czech" restaurant in the center of Prague, where not one of the staff is actually Czech.  Centers are tourist traps!  In smaller cities, centers are the only places to buy things, in big cities like Paris walk just a little bit outside of the center, turn down a little side street.  Find a hole-in-the-wall restaurant. That's where you want to eat!  I will caution, however, that not every city has these, if you've tried to walk out of the center for awhile and all the stores are still pricey, then that may just be your luck. (Ahem...Vienna)

Don't be afraid of stands either, many of the stands in the center are tradional food, and offer very good prices.  There's nothing quite like a thin slice of pizza from a stand in Italy, or a crepe in Paris as you walk to the Eiffel Tower, or of course, a savory trdelnik in Prague surrounded by church towers.

It is also important to note, that most places in Europe charge to use the bathroom, so you may want to get used to finding a McDonald's or Starbucks or shopping center and finding the bathrooms there.  Beware, however, these too are starting to charge, so sometimes it's best to just take a hit.

Be smart with markets

Markets are a tried and true European tradition, but not all of them have authentic products, and not all of them will charge good rates.  Make sure to peruse for awhile.  Also, sometimes you can barter with them on the price.  This of course, depends on where you are, but don't go in asking what the price is and be happy when the price is $40, instead be like well if it was only $15 I'd get it(usually I've found if you're younger, you can play the I'm too poor, if you're older, you can play the that item is ridiculously overpriced).  Some of the best of these bartering places are the little Asian shops, also sometimes you can find actual built markets with little dealers packed inside(with the flies).  These are great places to buy just about anything.  Also don't be afraid of the food, a lot of times they'll even let you try something.  And enjoy tasting the local cuisine.  The best burger I have ever had just so happened to be from a market in London.

Small Euro shops=good quality, cheap clothing

Of course, if you have the money, sure go into those expensive Louis Vuitton shops, but if you're a stinge, you need a good alternative to returning all Euroed up from your trip, and the best way to do this is to walk!  The more you walk around the streets of Europe, the more you will realize that there are billions of little stores and shops with local brands or discount prices that can take your style to the next level.  Of course, you will also find some small shops that offer Rodeo Drive prices for clothes, my rule of thumb with that is: look, don't touch.

So you might ask for some concrete examples...well generally speaking, guys can get pretty nice clothes for these prices:

dress shirts-$10-30

But if you walk into a shop, and they try to sell you a suit for $1,000, I'm sure it's a nice brand, but you can, and quite frankly should, do better in Europe.

Don't be afraid to make friends

This can be one of the most rewarding and fun parts of your trip.  Make friends with natives and other tourists.  You'll be surprised at how many would love to take an American on a tour of their city and practice English.  Of course, be careful as sometimes their English may not be quite up to the task, and you may feel like you didn't see as much at the end of the day as you wanted.  But this is a great way to avoid tour costs, as well as seeing the city off the beaten track.  But most importantly, you make friends, and natives know where tourist traps are located and can steer you clear of them.  One caveat here is, you should be wary of any natives that come and talk to you of their own volition.  Europeans don't usually start conversations with strangers unless they want something.  This is strange for them, and so usually it's a good rule of thumb to remember that natives that talk to you are strange(unless you're in a club or like a really, like I mean really hot girl).  This happened to me once in Budapest, and I found myself losing money for nothing because I went along with natives that approached me.  The next day, however, it was I approaching others, and made some really great friends, and had a much better day.

Beware the loud herds

If you are an American going on vacation in Europe, it is also likely that sometime during your trip you will be the typical "loud" American tourist traveling with the rest of your herd.  When this happens beware!  This is when most people get pickpocketed.  There are many reasons as to why this is the case, but mainly it's because thieves are tipped off by the loud English.  They're drawn like wolves to the scent of blood.  And they really are a wolfpack, most pickpockets and thieves work in pairs or groups.  One will bump you or distract you in some way, the other will sneak behind you and check your pockets or backpack.  They also usually wait for you to move before doing anything.  So for example, you will step off the metro and as you cross the gap, they'll stick their hand in your pocket or open a zipper of your bag.  Most of the time, you can be on your best guard and you still won't notice.

The best way to avoid this is to keep all your valuables in zippers that are hard to open, or in your front pockets.  Also it's good to have a decoy zipper, one that is easier to get to that almost determinately your thief will try to reach for.  I have a ski bag that is perfect for this, it has an almost locked down vault of zippers except for one vulnerable one on the top.  I have had thieves try multiple times to open this zipper, but I never keep anything in it, so they usually get it half open only to see that there is nothing inside, and by then, they've missed their chance.

Also as a sidenote, while working at an embassy I found out that most of the time, thieves take the money and the credit cards, and they throw everything else on the ground, and so months later the wallet will show up at the embassy.  So in the case you do get pickpocketed, stop by your nearest embassy and leave your address, your wallet won't show up anytime soon, but maybe before you need your insurance card again.

If you want to make your trip memorable, put in some effort

Ok, so I know that one of the reasons people want to go to Europe is so they can say they've been to (insert famous European city).  But while that may be a motivation or your main motivation at the beginning, you will soon realize that each country has its own flavor that you may not ever understand if you spend all your time looking at sites in the capital.  I feel there is something missing to people's trips when they tell me they took night trains from Amsterdam to Paris, to London, to Prague, to Vienna, to Budapest, to Rome, to Madrid and then flew to Athens.  And I ask them if they saw the tulip fields in Amsterdam or Mont St-Michel in France, or Stonehenge in the UK, or rafted Cesky Krumlov in the Czech, or stopped in beautiful alpine villages in Austria, or wandered through Tuscany, or had paelle on an empty beach in Spain, or a million other things that do not have to do with the capital.

I bring this up here because capitals or other huge tourist attractions are expensive!!!  Spending money at every attraction in a city can be quite taxing on a stinge because in the end you keep spending because you feel like you have to, this is the only time you will be there!  While in reality, if you had done your research well enough it would be: well I already know what I'm going to do and where I'm going to spend money.  And this is the important thing, after enough time in Europe, you will notice that many cities feel the SAME!  I know I must have struck some nerves now, because obviously cities aren't the same, and indeed they all have their own flavor.  But if you really want to experience Europe, plan it!  Mix it up.  Don't spend every day in a capital looking at yet another museum or yet another historical site.  That stuff is cool, but remember to go do something too, and here's the magical part of Europe.  Usually this can be done together!  So for example, you can go to Hallstatt(this ridiculously beautiful mountainside village in Austria) and hike the Alps!  You can go to Cesky Krumlov(Another otherworldly city) and raft underneath this huge castle!  You can leave the main city and find magic in the countryside, where food, board, and activities are usually much cheaper, and quite frankly, more fun.

You might ask how do I get ideas for trips like this?  One way is I've started keeping track of interesting places and things when people mention them in my phone.  Also I've found going to a bookstore can be extremely helpful, and you don't even need to buy the book, but can just note places you would want to go.  But probably the most useful is just start searching in google.  I know I've made the mistake of putting things off until I get to the actual place to finally look up what to do and oh yeah it's Europe so everything is closed on Mondays, or yeah that museum only opens at this time, or a bus to there is already sold out.  Moral of the story, plan ahead(or mitigate it by renting a car:))

Remember you're in Europe

The Russians have a saying, you buy twice what you buy cheap.  In other words, the other item may have been twice as expensive, but it will last twice as long.  This is a good thing to remember when traveling in Europe, and maybe one of the hardest things for any stinge to get over.  In the end, no matter how cheap your trip was, you still spent money to get there and to get around and for food.  What did you spend it on and did you spend enough? 

I'll always treasure my memories of sleeping illegally under a tree next to an unesco castle, or trying to save money by walking the entire city of Budapest, or having to walk a bike 6 miles at night in Slovakia when it got a flat, or a horrendous almost 24 hour drive from Holland to Italy avoiding toll roads and hotels.  But I am also happy that I spent money on things.  That I bought a Toledo steel knife.  That I went to the Louvre.  That I bought a nice shirt, or spent money for a tour bus or kayak.  Make sure that your trip is what you want it to be, stinge or not.

And when it's what you want, you'll find Europe to be one of the greatest places on earth.

If you have any suggestions or would like to contribute click here to send me an email.  If you would like to sponsor my trip somewhere to showcase your business or to work with me please send me an email as well.

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