When is a dollar not worth its weight in gold? When you're measuring in pounds.
British pounds, that is.
Last year, the pound reached an exchange rate of $2 against the American dollar for the first time since September 1992, and it's been hovering near that lofty benchmark ever since. Meanwhile, the surging euro isn't far behind; in February 2008, it hit a record high of $1.50.
What that means to U.S. travelers, of course, is that your next trip to Europe could be more expensive than ever before — bad news at a time when the shaky national economy already has many Americans fretting over their finances. But here's some good news: A weak dollar doesn't have to derail your European vacation. We've gathered 25 tips to help you save your pennies (or pounds!) on your next trip to Europe. Got your own suggestions to share? Post them on our message boards!
1. Get rate quotes in U.S. dollars. Long before you travel, when you are booking your hotel, car rental and other non-flight essentials, try to get quotes in U.S. dollars — and pay in U.S. dollars whenever possible. This way there are no surprises when your credit card statement arrives and you find out you paid a lot more than your quick back-of-the-envelope estimate when calculating the exchange rate. With the boom in Web booking, many international hotels now offer guaranteed dollar rates to U.S. travelers; inquire at the time of booking.
2. Find your focus. When planning your European itinerary, consider exploring one region or country in depth rather than bouncing around from place to place. For example, spend a week sightseeing in Florence and taking day trips to nearby towns in Tuscany rather than trying to squeeze Milan, Venice, Florence and Rome into seven or eight days. You'll not only spare yourself hours of sitting in transit, but you'll also save big on transportation expenses such as airfare or pricey train tickets. Learn more about slow travel.
3. Save on museum entrance fees. Many museums offer free admission on certain days or nights of the week or at certain times of the month. (For example, the Louvre is free on the first Sunday of every month, as well as Bastille Day on July 14.) Check ahead of time for free admission at the museums you're interested in, and schedule your visit accordingly.
4. Find free entertainment. Similarly, keep an eye out for free concerts or performances going on in local parks, churches and other public venues. The best place to find these is in the local newspapers or entertainment listings — or simply by stumbling upon them.
5. Purchase a pass. Most major cities offer special discount cards that include discounts or free admission for museums, attractions, tours and public transportation. These can be a great value if the card covers many of the attractions you were already planning to visit, but be sure to evaluate whether it's really worth it — if the card costs $30 and you're only going to use it at one or two museums, it may be better to pay a la carte.
6. Get cash from ATM's — at a bank. An ATM is your best option for a combination of a fair exchange rate and low surcharges and fees. At an ATM, you'll likely pay a transaction fee from your bank (typically 1 to 2 percent), but you'll also get the favorable interbank exchange rate rather than the higher rates you'll find at typical exchange bureaus. To avoid excessive fees, take out large amounts of cash at a time and store the excess in a money belt or hotel safe. For more tips, see our feature on money safety.
You'll do well to avoid stand-alone, off-brand ATM's of the kind you can find stateside in the back of convenience stores. These typically have the highest transaction fees; use an ATM from a reputable bank instead. (If possible, use your own bank to avoid fees from other institutions. Check your bank's Web site for ATM and branch locations.)
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7. Use your credit card. Many of the benefits of using an ATM card also apply to your credit card, particularly the strong exchange rates. However, keep in mind that many credit card companies charge fees for purchases made in foreign currencies, usually 1 to 2 percent. Choose the right card and you can avoid these fees; Capital One, for example, is one major credit card company that levies no surcharges on foreign transactions. Check with your credit card companies to figure out which card has the lowest fees for foreign purchases, and then use that one for your overseas purchases.
Out on the road, also check the fine print to make sure that your hotel, restaurant or other outfit does not tack on a percentage fee on all credit card transactions to cover authorization fees. For more information, see Money Matters on the Road.
8. Choose your counter wisely. If you absolutely must use a currency exchange counter, skip the airport or train station kiosks where you are almost guaranteed to get the worst rate available. Instead, choose a bank if you can find one. Wherever you are, exchange only enough money to get the job of the moment done (whether it be a cab ride, emergency rations or the purchase of a pinata), and then get thee to an ATM as soon as you can.
9. Fly cash (and coin) light. Wait until you reach your destination before exchanging currency, and spend the bulk of your foreign currency at your destination before you go home. This way, you won't have to pick up and then dump a lot of money at an exchange booth while taking losses both coming and going.
This is especially applicable to the piles of rattling coins you accumulate while traveling; good luck finding a place back home that accepts a bucket of euro tin and Queen Elizabeth heads in your neighborhood. (And remember — those two-pound U.K. coins are worth $4 each!) Spend all your change on the way out, or at least stop at a bank and convert it to bills; you might actually get your money back someday if you do. For more tips, see Foreign Currency.
10. Don't be afraid to haggle. We wouldn't recommend trying this at Harrod's or other department stores, but there are still plenty of places in Europe where bargaining is acceptable. Outdoor markets and street vendor stalls are good places to try your haggling skills.
11. Cut out the car. Most of us know that a rental car isn't really necessary (and in fact can be a hindrance) when visiting a major city — but many European nations have such comprehensive networks of trains and local buses that you may not even need a car to visit the countryside. Public transportation is available to many small towns and rural tourist attractions, which will save you not only the price of your rental but also the cost of gas (Europeans pay two or three times as much per gallon as Americans do). If you truly are headed out into the middle of nowhere for a day or two, plan to keep your rental for only as long as you need it rather than for your entire stay.
12. ... And the cab: Most European airports are served by trains, buses or other public shuttles that will take you downtown and back for a fraction of the cost of a cab. (Make it easier on yourself by packing light since you may have to schlep your own luggage.) Similarly, it's much cheaper to get around town via public transportation or, better yet, by walking from place to place. If you think you'll be relying heavily on a subway or bus system, a single- or multi-day pass could be a good buy.
13. Consider a rail pass. Whether you're concentrating on a single country or traveling all over the Continent, there may be a Eurail pass that will save you money. Before purchasing a pass, carefully plan out how many train trips you will take and calculate the total cost of point-to-point tickets at RailEurope.com. Keep in mind that short trips are relatively inexpensive — so if you're going to be sticking to a very small area, a pass may not be worth the cost.
14. Overnight it. If you're planning a lengthy train journey, consider traveling on an overnight train — that way you won't waste valuable daylight hours in transit, and you'll save on the cost of a night's lodging as well. Learn more about European train travel.
15. Go grocery. Stock up on bottled water, fruit and snacks at grocery stores rather than tourist shops — you'll pay what the locals pay and often get a wider selection too.
16. Learn to love lunch. Instead of eating a pricey multi-course dinner, make lunch your big meal of the day. Often you can enjoy similar dishes for half the price.
17. Don't overtip. Americans are used to tipping 15 to 20 percent in restaurants, but in most European nations, 10 percent is the norm unless the service was truly extraordinary. Check first to see whether a service charge has already been added to your bill — if so, you usually don't need to leave anything additional. For country-specific tipping information, refer to a good guidebook or ask at the local tourist office.
18. Save on breakfast. If breakfast is included in your hotel's nightly rate, then be sure to take advantage of it. But if it's not, skip the overpriced room service — you can almost certainly find a much cheaper croissant and cup of coffee at the cafe down the street. Ask your hotel's concierge or front desk about what's nearby.
19. Be wise about wine. If you're dining out, order the house wine; you'll save money, and in places like France and Italy, you may be surprised at how good it is. Want a drink out on your hotel balcony? Pick up a bottle at the local liquor store and bring it back to your room for an affordable taste of luxury.
20. Choose wisely. To find authentic and affordable food, skip the restaurants with the tourist-friendly English-language menus out front and seek out places where you see plenty of locals. Don't hesitate to ask your hotel concierge to recommend affordable restaurants in the area.
21. Follow the locals' lead for cheap eats. Eat the plentiful pizza in Italy, grab a quick baguette sandwich in France or nosh on takeaway curry in London.
22. Consider a rental. Choosing a vacation rental instead of a standard hotel has several cost advantages. Renting an apartment or house often gives you more space for less money (so it's a particularly economical option if you're traveling with a group or family), and having kitchen facilities means you can cook for yourself rather than spending a lot on overpriced restaurant meals.
23. Don't count out hostels. Many travelers steer clear of hostels, thinking that they're just for 20-something backpackers who don't mind sleeping 10 to a room. However, you may not know that many hostels also offer private rooms, some with private bathrooms as well. They may not be luxurious, but if you're looking for a clean, basic room at a low price, it's worth checking out the hostel scene.
24. Look at location. To get a lower hotel rate, consider staying outside the city center. As long as you're located somewhere near a public transit line, it will still be pretty convenient — and you could save big bucks.
25. Read more. Don't miss these tips for finding unique, affordable lodging in Europe from our very own Traveler's Ed.