By Charles Leocha Travel columnist
updated 6/9/2008 1:35:56 PM ET 2008-06-09T17:35:56

You've probably read all the stories and watched the TV pundits warn that Europe is getting outrageously expensive this summer. With the dollar taking a beating from the euro, a fast-food lunch in London costs $40, and a hotel room in Paris will set you back $500 a night. Maybe you should just stay home?

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Well, don’t believe everything you read.

Newspapers, TV and radio seem to always have some kind of overpriced story about Europe since the euro has been doing a tap dance on the dollar over the past few years. However, traveling to major cities in Europe costs about the same as visiting a big city in the United States.

Here’s how to save money and keep from being overwhelmed by the costs of a continental vacation this year.

1. Plan ahead.
Buying packages, tours, hotels and car rentals always costs more when purchased piecemeal at the 11th hour. Many of the packages offered for this summer were priced and set up months ago. That means many of the prices haven’t been changed as the U.S. currency has deteriorated.

2. Buy the daily specials.
Live like the locals and buy the Tagesmenu, Daily Menu or Menu del Dia. In France during a recent trip, the menu of the day cost only euros 9 (about $15) for salad, a main course and dessert. In Spain, the menu del dia is a requirement and sometimes includes water or wine as well as three courses. In Germany, the bargain Tagesmenu is always filling and matched with a beer will sustain touring for a long day. I don’t choose bargain restaurants by reading guidebooks; I look for places packed with working class locals and students for filling meals.

3. Use good guidebooks to research hotels.
Rick Steves’ guidebooks have some of the best-researched bargain lodging and Michelin Red Guides have the most accurate upscale ratings. I normally look for the least expensive hotel listed in Michelin, to know I am getting a well-kept, well-run establishment. For more out of the mainstream spots, try the Rough Guides — its writers do a good job of doing their homework.

4. Go online or to travel agents for packages.
Use the Internet to purchase “dynamic packages.” When using Expedia, Orbitz, Travelocity, Cheaptickets and many others, purchasing air and hotels together can save a bundle of money. The Internet sites allow travelers to select the types of rooms, the location and have detailed maps of the hotel areas. It is hard to go wrong. Or, check with a travel agent. They often can match online package prices, provide added personalized services and a point of contact if things go wrong.

5. Check into transportation passes for the city bus and subway systems.
Tourist passes are almost always a bargain. Take the train from the airport into the city if possible to save even more — these transfers are often included in the transportation pass. Some online travel sites sell these as an add-on to your package.

6. Buy a museum pass.
If you are planning to visit more than three museums, these passes save you money. You also will avoid any lines at the ticket window when arriving at popular museums. In Paris and Venice this can save hours. Some online travel sites also sell these as an add-on to your package.

7. Get cash overseas using your credit card for the best exchange rates.
Be aware of the added credit-card fees. Credit Union credit cards normally are the best deal. Avoid credit cards that have overseas charge fees, extra exchange rate fees, cash machine fees and cash advance fees. If you use the right credit card, you will only be charged a $1 transaction fee and the 1 percent minimum exchange fee.

8. Do not exchange money at the airports.
If you insist on bringing cash or traveler’s cheques avoid airport banks (both in the U.S. and overseas). The difference can be as much as 10 percent between airport banks and others downtown. All airports have cash machines. Use your credit card or debit card following rules in item 7 above.

9. Call back to U.S. to get cheap wheels.
If you want to rent a car, always call back to the USA and make your reservations a day in advance. I suggest calling AutoEurope 1-800-223-5555 (check their Web site, autoeurope.com, or call in advance for their toll-free numbers from Europe). Their minimum three-day rental is often less expensive than a one-day local rental.

10. Buy a telephone card for local and international calls.
There are many types — all require that you dial a toll-free number and then follow the prompts (in English) to make your call. Cards that cost as little as 5 euros will give you hundreds of minutes of talk time with the USA.

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