Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

December 11, 2017
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The frugal traveller’s guide to Europe

Those addictive, low-cost lifestyle shows like Trading Spaces and Diva on a Dime prove that homeowners and clotheshorses don’t need a big bank account to live large. The same holds true for European travellers. If you’re ready for a holiday makeover, try our 25 tips. They’re designed to transform fiscally-challenged tourists into cost-savvy vacationers.

Where And When

1. In travel, as in life, timing matters: this is why visiting off-season is one of the best ways to prune your budget. Aside from a brief blip in December, Europe’s low period runs roughly from Thanksgiving to Easter, and you’ll get top value by vacationing then. Airlines often knock a third off high-season fares, and, with the crowds gone, reasonably-priced lodgings are easier to come by.

2. Where you go is equally important because some regions — most notably Eastern Europe and the Iberian Peninsula — are always less costly than others. Not surprisingly, the best deals are found off the beaten path. Right now, try picking Warsaw over Budapest or Spain’s Costa de la Luz over the Costa del Sol. They’re up-and-coming destinations, so tightwads can masquerade as trendsetters!

3. Since the goal is to save — not sacrifice — also remember to weigh your wishes against your wallet. Dreaming of Tuscany? Go! Just avoid the Frances Mayes’ route and opt for more affordable (and authentic) hill towns like Massa Maritima (www.massamarittima.info). Desperate for a summer break? Take one, but play with your dates. A few days can make a difference in price, especially if it means travelling mid-week instead of on a weekend.

Fare Well

4. If you rely exclusively on Expedia and Travelocity for comparison shopping, it’s time to bookmark www.kayak.com. This “aggregator” scans 120-plus travel sites, including European-based agencies; it then links you to the appropriate booking addresses. Since actual suppliers (like Holiday Inn and Hertz) factor into the mix, you can reserve directly, thereby avoiding agent fees and accessing unadvertised specials.

5. Last-minute deals sound alluring, yet unless you have a free spirit and flexible schedule, you’re better off acting sooner rather than later. True bargains — whether for airfares, hotels or car rentals — go fast, and some travel products (rail passes among them) can only be purchased in advance. Make arrangements at least 21 days ahead. Penny pinchers hoping to score airline seats or hotel beds using reward points should get moving months earlier.

6. Planning ahead also gives you time to thoroughly research your destination. Tourism boards are a logical starting point. Austria’s website (www.austria.info), for one, has downloadable brochures, themed itineraries, event listings and cost-cutting shopping tips. Better still, parsimonious souls can type the word “free” into a search engine for info about “What’s Free in Austria.” To locate similar sites, scroll through the countries at www.towd.com.

Train Spotting

7. Trains are the traditional alternative for those who believe the journey is as important as the destination. You can see the scenery en route and then be deposited at a centrally-located station. No-frills carriers, conversely, prefer out-of-the-way airports. Whether taking the train is economical or not will depend on the type of ticket you buy. Passes can yield savings when you cover a lot of ground, while point-to-point tickets are generally best for shorter trips.

8. Rail Europe (tel: 800-361-7245; www.raileurope.ca) sells various types of tickets and you can use its website to compare fares. A handy chart outlines the various passes (they range from the classic 18-country Eurail Global Pass, now starting at $744 for 15 days, to single-country versions). Links to European rail databases let you determine what you’d spend for point-to-point tickets.

9. When pricing train passes, do the math. Many are for first-class seats: hardly the cheapskate’s top choice! Nevertheless, comfort is worth paying for on overnight trips that combine transportation with accommodation. Moreover, passes often feature cost-effective bonuses. For instance, the Greece-Italy Pass includes ferry crossings, and the Swiss Pass works for buses, boats, public transit and hundreds of attractions.

Road Rules

10. On a per-person basis, rental cars are a good value for larger parties (say a family or two couples), provided you rent by the week and stick to exploring the countryside. If big city visits are on your itinerary, you’ll avoid traffic headaches — along with parking charges — by positioning urban trips at the beginning and end of your vacation with the rental period in between.

11. Once luxury models are removed from the equation, the rule is “the smaller the car, the lower the cost.” Be prepared to downsize. Also, opt for a stripped-down standard that runs on diesel, which is cheaper than gasoline. For current fuel prices look under “Motoring Advice” at www.theaa.com. The “Travel” section is useful too: it details road tolls thus allowing you to budget accordingly, or plot an alternate route!

12. Note that add-ons (including insurance upgrades, airport location charges and drop-off fees) can double your bill. Although most are unavoidable, you can cut insurance costs by knowing what you’re already covered for. Exclusion clauses aside, you probably have theft protection through your own policy. Also, a Collision Damage Waiver may automatically be thrown in if you pay with a major credit card.

Chow Bella

13. Hotel extras such as phone calls and mini-bar purchases can be obscenely expensive: the same goes for breakfasts in major chains. Take the Holiday Inn in Florence (www.ichotelsgroup.com). It charges $183 a night for a standard double in summer when you reserve the room only. Go for one with “breakfast included,” and you’ll pay another $23 per person. Cappuccino around the corner is one-tenth the price.

14. For lunch, indulge in a picnic or sample the discounted noon menu at a fine restaurant. For dinner, suss out mom-and-pop eateries in residential areas or university zones; follow the locals’ lead by ordering the fixed-price meal — like a gedeck in Germany. Wash it down with the local libation. A glass of Kölsch ale in Cologne or Riesling wine on the Rhine will set you back less than a Coke.

15. Speaking of drinking, you might halve your tab just by staying on your feet. If the goal is to relax, pull up a chair. However, if you’re only interested in quaffing a quickie (be it a beer or an espresso), stand at the bar instead. Common sense dictates that you review your bar tab (or any bill for that matter) before paying. When a service charge is added in, tipping isn’t necessary.

Cheap Sleeps

16. Don’t let pricey accommodations turn your dream vacation into a nightmare. For weeklong stays, try a vacation property. Inexpensive ones can be rented from owners at www.holidayrentals.com and www.homelidays.com (our February issue has full details on page 32). For shorter stays, get a homey touch by booking variations on the B&B theme: try pensiones, gasthofs and chambres d’hôtes. Check www.bedandbreakfast.com and www.bedandbreakfastineurope.com for listings.

17. Hard-core bargain hunters of any age may enter hostel territory. Hostelling International (www.hihostels.com) members can spend under $14 a night in Portugal or Poland. Even the UK, where lodging costs are high, has deals: for $36 you’ll get a good knight’s sleep in Scotland’s Carbisdale Castle — assuming you’re not bothered by the resident ghost. Solo travellers willing to bunk in bare-bones dorms score the best rates. But private en-suite rooms are often available if you want to upgrade.

18. Prefer hotels? For budget rooms, check both global and European chains. Notable in the latter category are Etap (etaphotel.com) and Ibis (www.ibishotel.com): they’re sisters of Motel 6. Also check out two-star hotels in capital cities; www.holidaycity.com is a good source and has photos so you can decide exactly how much style you’re willing to compromise. For high-end digs, plan a weekend stay in a commercial or administrative capital. Hoteliers there reduce rates from 30 to 50 percent to fill beds vacated by businessmen. Participating hotels in the Stockholm à la Carte program (www.destination-stockholm.com), for example, offer rooms from $67 per adult and toss in free sightseeing passes.

19. When you’re down to choosing between two or three hotels, make sure you’re comparing apples to apples. The price listed on one hotel’s website may include tax, while another may not. Some budget properties now include added perks — continental breakfast, afternoon tea, free Internet on a communal computer — that can be worth a slight bump in price. A slight premium for a central location can also be worth it once you’ve factored in how much you’re likely to spend on taxis and transit fees.

Plane Dealing

20. Explore all options before booking transatlantic flights. If you’re willing to drive a few hours, departing from an alternate airport (particularly one in the US) can mean substantial reductions. Ditto for alternate airlines like Zoom (tel: 866-359-9666; www.flyzoom.com), which flies seasonally from eight Canadian cities. Popular search engines tend to ignore such carriers, but you shouldn’t. Also consider bundling your flight and hotel. You’ll save on average around $200, by buying them as a package.

21. When combining far-flung destinations within Europe, no-frill flights are the cheapest way to connect the dots. The biggest players are Ryanair (www.ryanair.com), Europe’s original no-frills line, and archrival easyJet (www.easyjet.com), both of which slash costs by dispensing with assigned seating and other niceties. There are, however, countless competitors. Try www.lowcostairlines.org and www.wegolo.com to find the best prices .

22. Those drool-inducing promotional prices — think one way from London to Dublin for $1.60 — seldom take taxes, surcharges or assorted other extras into account. Furthermore, they apply to a limited number of seats and you must follow certain rules (such as reserving 28 days ahead) to snag them. Even with standard fares, however, early purchase is imperative. Because no-frills work on supply and demand, prices rise as seats sell.

Get Carded

23. In certain destinations, sightseeing cards are just the ticket. A two-day Paris Museum Pass (www.parisinfo.com), for instance, admits you to some 60 attractions for $46. Adults will pay over half that simply to see the Louvre and Musée d’Orsay. The card saves money and, by allowing you to jump queues, time too. The one-day Lisbon Card (www.askmelisboa.com), meanwhile, covers public transit and entrance to dozens of sites for $21 ($9 for kids). Check www.europeancitycards.com for the skinny on 43 city cards.

24. In London (www.visitlondon.com), where 238 museums and galleries are free anyway, a sightseeing card seldom pays for itself. But an Oyster Transit Card (www.tfl.gov.uk) probably will. Valid on buses, subways, trams and trains, it automatically adjusts to give the lowest rate for all trips you make. Refillable ones start at $16 and, since they never expire, leftover credit can be kept for a return visit or used by someone else.

25. Finally, don’t forget your ATM card. Using it is cheaper than pre-ordering currency or travellers cheques if you keep transaction fees low. Minimize them by making fewer, larger withdrawals from ATMs affiliated with your home bank (Users of Cirrus or PLUS networks can locate them at www.mastercard.com/atmlocator and www.visa.com/atms respectively). One caveat is that machines may only accept PINS with less than five numbers. If yours doesn’t fit the criteria, convert it before heading abroad.

This article was accurate when it was published. Please confirm rates and details directly with the companies in question.

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