Europe in the fall and on the cheap

May 5, 2004
Outside Magazine
Week of September 10-16, 1998
Europe in the fall and on the cheap
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Planning bike route from Bay Area to Yosemite

Europe in the fall and on the cheap

By Jake Brooks

Question: I want to go to Europe for the month of October, but I want to do it as cheap as possible. There will be three of us. Can you give me some general information on hostels, where to go, and what to do, and the average price of tickets to Europe? Also, what are the best countries to visit on a limited budget?

Lauralyn Throckmorton
Bountiful, Vermont

Trains are the best and cheapest way to travel around Europe
Adventure Adviser: That's a hefty question. While I won't tell you what to see and where to go (that's really a matter of personal choice), I can offer some general planning tips. For starters, here are some things to do before you go.

Pick a guidebook: Why do all the detective work that someone else has already done for you? A reliable guidebook is instrumental to your planning. Best choices for budget travelers to Europe are Lonely Planet, Let's Go, the Rough Guides, and Rick Steves.

Plan an itinerary: Don't be too rigid, since you're bound to change it once you're there and hear about other good places. Start by picking a couple countries and cities that catch your eye (every country in Europe has something good, so this is largely a matter of taste-though you may want to stay out of Albania and Serbia for a little while). With the strong dollar, even traditionally expensive countries, like Switzerland, are coming into the budget traveler's radar. Most eastern European countries are still very cheap for travelers, as are western European countries like Spain, Portugal, and even Ireland. Select countries that appeal to you rather than thinking you "should" see everything.

Purchase train passes: Trains are still the best and cheapest way to travel around Europe. Americans have the benefit of being able to buy Eurail train passes, which cover almost all train travel you could do-but be sure to buy them before you leave, since you can't get them abroad. If you think you want to confine your trip to just the major countries of western Europe, consider a Europass, similar to a Eurail pass, but cheaper since it covers less area. Call RailEurope at 800-438-7245.

Buy plane tickets: This is the biggie. Finding cheap plane tickets is an art, and you have to really want to find a good deal to spend the time it sometimes takes. The most consistently cheap way to travel to Europe is through one of the standby flights companies, such as Airhitch (212-864-2000), which will, in exchange for $180-$250 (one-way), promise only to get you to someplace in Europe within a certain window of time. This is only good for people who don't care where they end up in Europe and have flexible travel schedules. Moreover, it is possible to find normal tickets for almost as little money. One of my favorite "bucket shops" (no-frills travel agencies that sell unsold tickets for cheap) is Cheap Tickets (800-377-1000), but there are hundreds of others. Students have a definite advantage in air travel and can take advantage of bargain agencies such as Council Travel (800-226-8624) and STA Travel (800-777-0112). Of course, if you have a travel agent that you know and who is willing to work hard for you, that may be your best bet. Note that travel agents are not required to give you the best deal they can find, unless you specifically ask for it — and being flexible on routes and layovers can help a great deal.

Once you're there, There are a few rules of thumb to keep in mind.

Accommodations: Hostels are a grand institution in Europe. Almost every city and town has at least one, and they're almost always the best deal you can find. You'll often stay in communal bunk rooms and have to keep an eye on your stuff, but they're great ways to meet people and tap into the traveler scene, which may or may not be what you're after. Pick up a membership in Hostelling International-American Youth Hostels (202-783-6161) before your go to save a little money. Cheap hotels and pensions also abound, and often cost as little as hostels and come with more privacy and fewer students than hostels. Camping works too, though a "campground" in Europe is often the equivalent of an American RV park.

Food: It's easy, you'll find, to spend a lot of money on food when traveling in Europe. Hostels and hotels sometimes offer communal kitchens (another great way to meet people), but you may find that you just don't have the energy to cook in between museum hopping during the day and bar-hopping at night. Finding a good restaurant takes a mixture of a good guidebook, a willingness to ask locals, and some common sense. For example, if the restaurant you're about to walk into posts a menu in English, and you're not in Great Britain or Ireland, you're probably heading into a restaurant that likes to gouge tourists. Head a few blocks away from the center of town, wander down a quiet street, and keep your eyes open for something better and cheaper. You'll have a more authentic meal of the country you're visiting, too.

Sights: Don't get too caught up in sightseeing. Some of the most memorable (and cheapest) experiences I've had in cities come from just wandering around, checking out the architecture, the people, and the vibe. That being said, sights are sights for a reason, and many of them are very cool. Use a guidebook to get a rundown of what you think you'd like to see. If you're a student, use that fact: you can get in almost anywhere cheaper with a student ID.

Moving around: You've got your railpass, but there are other good ways to get around Europe. Car rental is sometimes an option for groups of people avoiding cities, where parking costs make a car prohibitive. Bicycling is very popular if you don't want to cover a lot of ground (sometimes a very good thing). Hitchhiking is much more standard in Europe than in the U.S., though still dangerous. Hitchers have the best luck in Ireland, England, Germany, and Austria. Happy travels!

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