It's true that train travel can be an economical and convenient way to see Europe, especially on a first visit. But the myth is that trains are always the best choice on a continent so well-connected with rail hubs.
With that myth in mind, many travelers refuse to think beyond rail tickets in Europe. There are trips for which a car rental can provide a better and more economical experience. For example: With a family of four, I saved about $100 on a one-day journey between Berlin and Amsterdam. I also got to experience driving on the autobahn.
On longer journeys, a quick budget flight might save time and money. Notice "might" in that sentence. Trains provide central city service, while budget airlines frequently operate from airports well outside the city. You'll have to make this decision on a case-by-case basis rather than with a steadfast rule in place.
If you opt for train travel, you'll need to decide if a Eurail Pass is the best buy, or if point-to-point tickets are best for your itinerary.
Flying Within Europe Is Impractical and Expensive
Budget carriers such as easyJet have made Europe the world's best place to snag a bargain airfare. Decades ago, the opposite was true.
Don't get so caught up in the budget airline hoopla that you miss out on the pleasures of cross-country travel. It is still wise to rent a car or buy a train ticket -- admire the countryside as you travel.
Many flights are actually cheaper than the available ground transportation. So remember that a few well-placed discount flights in your European itinerary could save precious time as well as money.
"Off-Season" Trips Save Money but Result in Disappointment
The photograph above was taken on a cold, sometimes rainy February day in Greenwich, just outside of Central London. The weather was less than perfect, but certainly not miserable.
During this day, I enjoyed several world-class free exhibits in Greenwich and some stunning architecture without encountering any long lines or hiked-up prices.
Don't expect London to be mild and warm in the off-season. Don't be surprised by cold winds blowing off the canals of Venice in February. You might also find businesses in those places closed for the season, and even a few attractions shut down for remodeling. The key, once again, is research. Find out if the things you want to see and do are available in the off season. If so, trade-offs like shorter lines and lower prices might more than compensate for less-than-perfect weather.
The Best European Experiences Come at High Prices
The Galleria Vittorio Emanuele shopping area in Milan looks like an expensive place to buy souvenirs, and in this case, looks match up to reality. You can spend hundreds of dollars on a simple pen in these stores.
But window shopping comes at no charge, and there are even fast-food restaurants here serving pastry and delicious coffee at budget prices.
Care for another example? A trip to the top of the Eiffel Tower will cost you time standing in line and a healthy admission fee as well. But there is another spectacular view of Paris from Sacre Coeur where neither lines nor fees are involved.
If you look for free things to do in Europe, you'll find that many of them will create priceless memories.
Enter Europe With Lots of Local Currency
You want to be able to jump right in and buy from the quaint street vendors. You need to pay for transportation from the airport to the hotel. You should carry some local currency into the destination country. But how much?
While the answer to that question certainly depends upon your travel plans, it is often true that entering the country with a minimal amount of local currency is the best way to go. That's because exchanging your native currency at home is generally more expensive than obtaining it at your destination.
Get enough for some basic transportation and maybe an initial meal. But don't think you need to come in with everything you'll need in your pocket. It pays to consider your exchange strategies before leaving for Europe.
Even Rural Areas in Northern Europe are Budget Busters
Most myths have at least a kernel of truth that prompted their birth and growth. Northern Europe, in a general sense, is an expensive place to travel.
But for every high-cost London hotel room, there is a guest cottage in Wales offering lower prices and hearty meals.
Adding such rural areas to your tour of expensive cities can be a rewarding strategy. In Germany, the northern region of East Frisia (Ostfriesland) features pastoral landscapes, miles of hiking and biking trails and generous helpings of hospitality. You won't need subway passes here, but you might want to rent a bicycle for an afternoon if the weather cooperates.
In almost every part of Europe -- Northern Europe included -- there are places you can add to your itinerary that will provide a new perspective along with lower costs.
European Automakers Only Offer Trip Incentives to Luxury Car Buyers
While it's true that compact, budget-oriented cars are not on the list, you don't have to spend a small fortune to be eligible for European Delivery factory incentives. Several automakers offer models in these programs for well under $30,000 USD. If that's what you're likely to spend for a car in North America, taking delivery of the same model in Europe could add some substantial travel savings. Depending upon the company, you could receive free flights, meals, hotel stays, auto insurance and more. Warning: this option does not work out well for every car buyer. There are a number of considerations you must think through carefully.
European Hostels Are Only for Young People
Some places with the word "hostel" in their names also offer private rooms at prices well below what is available at a conventional hotel.
Many budget travelers shy away from the "H-word" because they think they'll find dirt, drugs or debauchery. Consulting a few visitor reviews for accommodations can help you avoid hostels that fall into these categories. That homework will also tell you if there is an age restriction at your proposed location.
If the hostel has the word "youth" in its name, you might find it only admits guests under a certain age. But many others cater to all ages. So if you're short on funds, it's always worth considering a few hostel stays, especially if private rooms are offered at bargain prices. Always consider a wide range of budget travel accommodations when making travel plans.
Online Hotel Auctions Like Priceline Don't Work Well in Europe
It is certainly true that extra caution is needed before booking in Europe with an online auction such as Priceline. Such arrangements are usually non-refundable. But larger parties traveling in Europe might find the smaller guest spaces and restrictions on persons per room might require two or more rooms. That expense can be a budget killer. Bidding for a bargain can offset these potential pitfalls.
The room pictured above was secured for $95/night on a Priceline bid within a four-star zone in one of Europe's fashion capitals. It was a free hotel upgrade. Naturally, Priceline doesn't usually work out this well for budget travelers in Europe. But the point is to at least take a look -- you never know what might result.
Duty-Free Stores Offer the Best Shopping Bargains
"Duty" refers to a variety of taxes placed on products.
Airport terminals, cruise liners at sea and aircraft flying overseas are considered "duty-free" zones because they don't fall under the jurisdiction of a single government. Sometimes, these businesses offer tremendous bargains for shoppers. Never assume that is the case with every product in every location. There are times when products bought outside the duty-free zone are cheaper.