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Affordable European Vacations Without Sacrificing the Experience

June 11, 2012

Whenever I’m engaged in conversation about what I do for a living, the other person’s reaction is mostly predictable.  First, a look of zoned-out wanderlust materializes on their face.  I can see them dreaming of laying on a colorful umbrella-shaded lounge chair on a pebbled-beach in the French Riviera or sipping wine among the grapevines and cypress trees while overlooking the emerald-green undulating hills of Tuscany.

But at some point, that dreamy look turns to one of sadness, as those images turn to dollar signs when they start calculating the cost.  This is generally followed by a deep sigh and a statement to the effect of  “I hope to visit someday, but I just can’t afford it.”  And then my heart breaks, just a little.

Not only am I living proof that one can travel independently on a budget, but I have experience helping clients as well.  And yes, you can do it, too!  Here are some tips for keeping costs down without sacrificing the experience.

Be flexible; pick the right time and duration

Being flexible doesn’t work for everyone, but it’s the best chance for an affordable trip. Avoid traveling in high-season (summer) and choose shoulder-season (spring or fall).  For major savings, traveling to the right destination in winter shouldn’t be ruled out.

Flexibility is also key in keeping airfare down, which is likely to be your biggest expense.  Being open to different dates, days of the week, airports, and connecting flights gives you more options and allows for booking a good deal when you find it.

Keep in mind, each day of travel will add to the expense.  A month long vacation may be a wonderful goal, but it isn’t realistic on a tight budget.  Instead, opt for a shorter trip of seven to ten days. 

Pick the right place

Popular destinations come with a premium price tag.  Try to pick lesser known locales or off-the-beaten path spots for greater savings.  Paris, Tuscany, Venice and the Côte d’Azurare in demand and therefore, more expensive. In Italy, regions like Puglia, Umbria and Le Marche offer more bang for your buck.  Skip the French Riviera and head to the Brittany Coast or the Languedoc-Roussillon area. There will be no shortage of lovely things to do and see, but for much less money.  And as an added bonus, less people.

Stay put

Moving from place to place will surely add to your costs.  The additional plane fare, train tickets or rental car are easy ways to rack up your bill.  Alternatively, pick one spot that interests you and enjoy exploring at a leisurely pace without the added stress and expense of a multi-destination trip.

If you must move around, consider traveling by rail rather than car.  Europe has a vast network of high-speed trains that will far exceed your expectations. Trains are comfortable, efficient and affordable – it is the best way to get around.  And if the idea of discovering nooks and crannies really gets the best of you, rent a car just for a day, as opposed to your entire trip.

Don’t splurge on accommodations

Most of your time will be spent sightseeing, not in your room, so think clean and comfortable, not 2,000 thread count sheets and room service.  Finding something with breakfast included cuts costs even further.  Paying with cash will often score you a discount.  Try negotiating a lower rate if you stay mid-week or longer than three days.  If booking on-line, some hotels will offer special internet-only rates and discounts for pre-payment, but make sure plans are set in stone, as some deals don’t allow refunds for cancellation.

Renting an apartment or villa can be a very cost-effective option, especially when traveling with a family or group.  Having a kitchen allows for preparing some meals in, which will save on dining out.

The best things in life are free

Don’t feel the need to overspend on sightseeing to have a great experience.  Entire vacations can be filled exploring free (or cheap) activities no matter which area you choose.  Walk around a food market and drool over the unique ingredients, hike to an area with breathtaking views, hit free museums or visit during times of reduced admission.  Art-lovers can find churches littered with masterpieces and those who appreciate architecture can get their fix just by wandering the streets. Joining locals in Italy on their passeggiata (daily walk) and grabbing a seat in any village’s piazza is a great way to spend an evening and doesn’t cost a dime. 

Robin Locker Lacey is an Italy & France travel consultant, freelance travel writer, passionate foodie, and self-professed ‘Queen of the Carry-On Bag’.  Find out how she can help with your next Italy or France vacation and view her hand-selected food and wine tours by visiting her website. www.mymelange.net.  You can also follow her on Twitter @MyMelange or join her Facebook community.