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Thursday, June 5, 2008

Europe on a Budget?

Europe is expensive. No doubt about it. I recently returned from a monthlong stay on the Continent and have some thoughts about how you can actually make your puny dollar stretch a bit further.

First off, ponder the place you will visit. I went to four countries. Alphabetically, they were Albania, Denmark, Hungary and Sweden. Expense-wise, from cheapest to most expensive, the order changes to Albania, Hungary, Sweden, Denmark.

Yep, if you want to do Europe cheap, visit Albania. No, it's not inexpensive to get to, but once you're there, accommodations (such as they are) and food, are cheap. Of course, it's not easy to get around the country, and getting to the places that are of major interest (Butrint, Saranda, Gjirokastra) is nearly impossible. But accommodations and food are cheap. For a country that's a bit more accessible, albeit a bit more expensive, there's Hungary. A stay at the charming Hotel Gerlozcy in the heart of the city, just footsteps from Vorosmarty Square, runs about $125 a night. The Mercure Metropol, located on one of the city's main boulevards, is only $108 per night, with a full breakfast included. With a Budapest Card ($41 for two days; $50 for three days), most major sights and public transportation are free. And food can be had for reasonable prices.

Not so in Scandinavia. Everything is out of sight in Denmark and Sweden. A few years ago, one dollar bought 13 Swedish kroner. Now, it buys six. In Denmark, the exchange is five Danish kroner to the dollar. What does five kroner buy you? Maybe a stale Danish at the low-cost Netto grocery store.

But don't give up on the Continent. Aside from lower-cost destinations like Albania, Hungary, Romania or Bulgaria, there are other ways to save, no matter what country you are visiting.

1. Friend-hop. If you have friends living in Europe, now is the time to visit them. Don't have friends on the Continent? Get some. There are several homestay organizations that arrange for overnight visits (of course, you have to be willing to reciprocate). Two of the biggies are The Hospitality Club (www.hospitalityclub.org) and SERVAS (www.servas.org).

2. Find lodging that includes breakfast. Eat a lot. Then, have lunch later in the afternoon and make it your main meal of the day. Restaurants often charge much less for lunch than for dinner.

3. Stay at a place that has a kitchen, or, at the very least, an in-room fridge. Then, go grocery shopping. Stock up on snacks and items like bread, cheese, and yogurt that can serve as mini-meals.

4. Buy a multi-day or multi-ride pass for public transportation. In Denmark, a single ride on the Metro cost $5.00. Buying a card for 10 passes brought the per ride cost down to $2.50. Almost every city that has a subway system offers special passes.

5. Similarly, if you plan to do a lot of sightseeing, check to see if the local tourism bureau offers a special pass. In Denmark, the Copenhagen Card provides free entrance to scores of attractions, plus free rides on all public transportation, and restaurant discounts. It's $42 for one day and $88 for three days. In Sweden, the Stockholm Card offers free entry to 75 attractions, free travel by public transport, free sightseeing by boat, and other goodies. A one-day pass costs approximately $55. Two days cost $77 and three $97. Both cards offer discounted rates for children.

6. Looking for the best exchange rate? Use plastic. Your credit card will give you the most for your money. I used to recommend use of the ATM as the best way to get cash. Certainly, the commission rates changed at Bureaux de Change are a rip-off. And changing money at banks can be inconvenient and laborious. But I've got to tell you, while convenient, the money-saving appeal of the ATM is diminishing. Banks just keep adding on fees on ATM transactions. There's the fee you are charged by your bank to use an out-of-network ATM. That can be $5 a pop. There's the fee charged by the local bank. That's wrapped up in the exchange rate, so you never quite know what that is. Just this month, Bank of America has decided to charge an extra three percent of all foreign transactions. So, in addition to the ATM usage fee, you will pay another $3 for a $100 withdrawal; $15 for a $500 withdrawal. Nice, huh?

7. Check into Europe's low-cost carriers. There are some good ones. Of course, Ryanair nickel and dimes you for everything from beverages to bag, but the base fee is worth it. Scandinavia's Sterling is a real gem. If you book far enough out, it's really cheap. A one-way trip from Copenhagen to Stockholm booked 30 days out costs $52. And that includes the extra two percent charge Danish companies and websites charge for using non-Denmark issued credit cards. I'll admit, the first time I booked on Sterling, I was confused by the extra charge to book a seat. After all, one would expect that when you buy a ticket, you buy a seat. My confusion was cleared up the second time I booked on Sterling. You can buy a seat with extra legroom or you can buy a regular seat or, for free, you can leave seat selection to chance. I did the latter on the return flight from Stockholm to Copenhagen and was quite happy with my free window seat near the front of the plane.

8. Wait. What goes up must come down. And at some point, the dollar will regain its strength. In the meantime, if you are hankering to go elsewhere overseas for cheap, consider destinations in South America and Asia

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