By Teresa McUsic,
THE SAVVY CONSUMER
Terrorist attacks aside, the strong dollar and lower demand could make this the summer for an inexpensive European trip.
Let’s start with the exchange rate. Today the Euro exchange rate is $1.14. Two years ago the rate was $1.40, so everything you buy over there—from souvenirs to lodging—will be around 20 percent less.
Couple that with lower tourist numbers since the attack last November in Paris. Lower demand translates to lower prices.
On a recent trip to Paris, we found prices reasonable on everything from three-course meals for 10 Euro ($11.41) in the Latin Quarter to an apartment two blocks from the Louvre Museum for less than $100 a night.
But like with any big adventure, planning pays off. Here are seven travel tips for your next vacation:
* Transportation — If you’re flying, check out kayak.com to find the best rate comparisons of major airlines. I recently booked a one-way flight for my son from Frankford to DFW for August through AirBerlin for $1,006, half the cost of any other airline for a non-stop flight. Be sure to look at the time Kayak shows for the flights when there are multiple stops. I could have gone cheaper but it would have taken him 22 hours to get home. If you’re flying within Europe, try RyanAir. My son hopped from major cities for less than $100 on this airline, cheaper even than the trains.
* Itinerary — I spend a lot of time digging into what to do whenever I travel. In addition to picking the brains of friends, family and even acquaintances who have been to my destination, I check out TripAdvisor, Lonely Planet, The New York Times, travel guru Rick Steve’s website and then just Google the city name and “what to do.” Over time, you begin to see the same things pop up, along with tips. For example, Rick Steve’s suggests going to the Louvre on Wednesday nights when it is open until 10 p.m. for less of a crowd. It worked.
* Lodging — I am becoming a big fan of Airbnb and have rented everything from just a room in the U.S to a whole apartment in Europe. But there are a lot of “gotchas” on the site that make shopping a lengthy affair. I scour entries with a fine tooth comb. Look diligently at all photos; read all reviews; assess the number of beds and bedrooms necessary for your group; take a hard look at fees, including cleaning, extra guests and processing. I found a lot of apartments available in Paris but realized that being five minutes from the Eiffel tower was not where we wanted to be for everything else we wanted to see. Instead, I found an apartment halfway between Notre Dame and the Eiffel, with lots of museums and activities in between. This enabled us to walk everywhere. So figure out what you want to do before you book. Then book carefully. Hotwire is another site we use regularly for cheaper hotel bookings. I saw a hotel this week in the same area we were for $91 a night that could be booked in early June.
*Venue tickets — Virtually all museums, monuments, palaces and other attractions are online, so consider buying tickets at home before you go. This is especially important in the summer months when lines at the Eiffel tower or Versailles can be long. Use page translators when necessary and remember that the European calendars start with Monday, not Sunday. Print your tickets out at your desk, take them with you in a secure folder, then bypass the ticket buying line. And forget the museum or attraction cards that cover multiple spots in the same city. I’ve done the math, and they end up costing more.
*Online sites -- If you don’t buy tickets in advance, still look up your favorite sites and make a note of times, days of week open, special exhibits, tours in English, etc. Two of our favorite times in Paris were on a city walking tour and a tour of Notre Dame Cathedral—both in English and both free. Some museums sites will tell you their most crowded times so you can avoid them then.
* ATM and credit cards -- We only needed to take cash out of an ATM once in Paris, but on other trips to Europe have needed cash more often. Either way, it’s good to have a bank that won’t charge high fees at foreign ATMs. Schwab Bank is an example of one card that reimburses ATM fees paid internationally. For a credit card, which we used extensively, look for a card that specifically offers no foreign transaction fees, like Capital One Visa. Otherwise, you likely will be paying fees for both your ATM and credit card use with your regular cards. Be sure to notify the card issuers of your travel plans, so you don’t unexpectedly get cut off while traveling if the bank thinks the charge is fraudulent.
* Cell phone — First check with your cellular provider to see if they have any low-cost or free international features on your calls, data and texting for the countries you are traveling to. Often texting and data charges are waived, but talk is still expensive. To get around that find a wi-fi spot and then use Skype, which is free.
Bottom line — travel to Europe or anyplace else doesn’t have to cost an arm and a leg if you plan.
Teresa McUsic’s column appears Saturdays in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. TMcUsic@SavvyConsumer.net