Budget Travel's Associate Editor Reid Bramblett answered your questions about vacationing in Europe on June 8, 2004
European travel has changed more in the past seven years than it did in all the decades after World War II. Eurail passes and traveler's checks are no longer your best friends when no-frills airlines can fly you pretty much anywhere out of London for less than $60, more focused railpasses allow you to customize your trip and pay less, and a visit to an ATM machine is quicker and cheaper than using cumbersome travelers checks. Experienced travelers are getting tired of the Great Capitals and pricey hotels heading instead for the smaller regions to rent a villa or stay on a working farm in Tuscany, the Dordogne, Andalusia, or western Ireland. To lure us back to the cities, destinations like Paris, London, Rome, and Madrid are modernizing their museums and offering passes for free transportation and discounted sightseeing.
With the current troubles plunging transatlantic airfares to historic lows--roundtrip airfares from the East Coast are currently as low as $178--this brave new Europe is just begging to be explored. And with the recent slew of more liberal trip cancellation policies put in place by airlines and tour companies faced with war-wary travelers, your reservations are ironically more secure and flexible than ever before--though that varies, and I'll take questions on insurance and cancellation policies as well. But mostly, I look forward to answering questions on travel in Europe and sharing some hard-won secrets and strategies to help you navigate the new European travel scene.
Reid will be answered your questions Tuesday, June 8, at noon EST.
Reid Bramblett holds the somewhat dubious distinction of having authored both The Complete Idiot's Travel Guide to Europe and Europe for Dummies. His love affair with Europe began at age 11 when his family moved to Rome and proceeded to spend much of the next two years exploring Europe in a hippie-orange VW campervan. Reid experienced a budget continent of campgrounds and picnics with the locals, though mostly he remembers having to sleep in the VW's moldy pop-top. After a brief stint as an editorial assistant at a travel publisher, began writing European guidebooks for Frommer's, Dorling Kindersley's Eyewitness, Idiot's, and For Dummies. He joined the Budget Travel editorial staff in 2002. He champions such underdog Irish causes as real ales, traditional Celtic music, Irish cheeses, hurling (that's a Gaelic sport, not what happens after too many whiskeys), pub grub, and tramping around bogs and wind-bitten downs in search of ancient tombs.
Reid Bramblett: Here I am--a bit late, sorry. Let the questions begin!
Milwaukee, WI: Will there be any Olympics events in Torino, Italy this year?
Reid Bramblett: Nope. The Turin Winter Olympics will take place in February of 2006. The official Website is torino2006.org/.
New York, NY: Got your June issue. Great stuff! The maps for no-frills airlines were incredibly useful, but only covered flights from London and a few other major cities, and my summer plans don't happen to include London. How can I research other no-frills airlines all across Europe?
Reid Bramblett: Frustratingly, there aren't many one-stop-shopping resources that survey the entire, ever-changing field of no-frills airlines in Europe. That's why, as it says in the article, I created nofrillsair.com/, which at least links directly to all the current ones flying (and lists their major hubs and destinations) and explains the pluses and minuses to using them, as well as linking to a few sites that offer fare-searches of selected no-frills.
For those of you who haven't yet heard of this revolution in European travel, more than 40 of these no-frills airlines---ow-cost carriers like southwest or jetBlue here at home---ave popped up in Europe over the past decade to make criss-crossing the continent cheaper and faster than the train. One-way tickets average $45 or so, including taxes, and rarely top $100, unless you buy last-minute. (In the interests of full disclosure: hofrillsair.com/ is not affiliated with MSNBC.com or Budget Travel magazine; it's just something I did in my spare time.)
Frankfort, KY: Am thinking of a fly, drive and B&B trip to Ireland. Is this advisable for a first timer or should I look at escorted tours? Do you have recommendations for such trips on the Isle? Thanks.
Reid Bramblett: Forget the tour. That Irish fly-drive-B&B package is one of the best deals in travel anywhere in the world. I've done it myself, and it works a dream: you get roundtrip airfare, a rental car for seven days, and vouchers for six nights in countryside B&Bs--you pick them yourself form a catalogue of hundreds all across the country, including Northern Ireland. And prices start as low as $499 in winter (I thin they're $599 right now; and in years past have dipped to a flabbergasting $399). Course that's out of NYC, but you can get cheap fares from other East Coast gateways (though I don't think there are direct flights to Ireland from Frankfort, KY yet :)
You can arrange this packages through the travel section of hreland.com/ or from hietours.com/.
Fountain Valley, CA: Reid, my husband and I are traveling to Southend-on-Sea, England, in August where his family is located. We will be in Great Britain for a month. We would like to visit Ireland and want to know what is the least expensive way to go about it. We are open to suggestions (fly, drive, coach, etc.). I'd like to check out my family backgroud in Tipperary & maybe sight see the West of Ireland. Any suggestions?
Reid Bramblett: Great chance to use those no-frills airlines I was just talking about. Since Southend-on-Sea is just outside London, when you're ready to nip over to Ireland, make your way back into the big city and catch a Ryanair flight (ryanair.ie/) from Stansted Airport into Kerry, Ireland (which is on the west coast, and not at all a long way to Tipperary...get it?). I just looked up the going rate for that flight in August, and it's a mere $32, including all taxes. (See? Aren't no-frills airlines great?)
Once you're there, rent a car to get around (Ireland is a countryside well worth exploring by car, even if you do have to drive on the left). In addition to shopping the rates at the hertz and Avis and such, make sure you check out the car rental consolidator hutoeurope.com/, which usually beats their rates, as well as Ireland's home-grown alternative Dan Dooley (handooley.com/).
Kelowna, British Columbia: Hi Reid, a few years ago we rented a car and traveled all over Spain for a month. How realistic is it to rent a car in, say Copenhagen, and then travel to multiple countries for 6-8 weeks? Would it have to be returned to Copenhagen or could it be dropped off in another country? Thanks for your help.
Reid Bramblett: Course it's possible! Dropping a rental car off in other countries, of course, incurs a fee--in general, the further away from home you strand your noble rented steed, the higher the drop-off fee. However, if you're going for 6-8 weeks, forget the rental. What you want is a short-term lease. You get:
Las Vegas, NV: What is your best budget suggestion regarding lodging for two adults traveling with two children in Europe? We usually find that we exceed the "fire code" maximum of three occupants per room and are relegated to two rooms or one very expensive "family room." Any suggestions?
Reid Bramblett: You're a bit out of luck. In Europe, it's nothing to do with fire codes; it's all about the head count. While in the US you are free to cram as many people into your room as you can safely sneak past the front desk--since you're paying a single rate per room--in Europe you always pay per occupant. That means if you have two people in that room you pay for two, if you squeeze in four on cots and whatnot, you pay for four. (The usual mark-up is that each additional body in the room cost an additional 30 to 35 percent on top of the regular double room rate.) Frustrating.
About the only concession is that many hotels will give traveling families a break and charge less for the little-uns than for an adult---hough how much less is all down to the hotel's own policy and the kid's ages. really young kids can sometimes get in free (though a nominal crib charge is usually incurred), or those under a certain age (usually pegged somewhere between 11 and 15) can stay in the parents room for a discounted additional rate---ay 10 to 20 percent, rather than that 30 to 35 percent.
Stamford, CT: My husband and I would like to take a tour to Italy this October and see Rome, Venice and Florence. I would like to book a tour online but I'm not really aware of which online travel agencies are reputable. I've seen two websites, Travelwizard and Vacations to Go. What can you tell me about these and do you have any other suggestions?!
Reid Bramblett: First of all, you really don't need a tour in Italy. It's very easy to get around--especially between those three major cities--and English is widely spoken, so there's little need to tie your vacation to a tour bus and be shunted around at the whims of a guide getting the same canned commentary they've been dishing out for 50 years.
That said, a few of the best tour operators out there---nes that, hopefully, will give you a bit more interesting of a tour---re Donna Franca (honnafranca.com/) and the Italiatour branch of Alitalia Airlines (htaliatour.com/). Intrepid Travel (hntrepidtravel.com/) now covers Europe with its innovative tours designed to get very small groups (8-12 people) up close to the culture of the destination.
If you are willing to try going it alone as I suggested, but still want a bit or structure or help getting the cut rates on hotel and airfare a tour would get you, try a vacation packager (which books you your airfare and hotels, but leaves the daily schedule up to you to fill). The best values are with ht-today.com/ and htrovacations.com/.
St Agatha, Ontario: We will be going to Athens in August for the Olympics. Should we wait until mid-July to book accomodations when all the tour operators will dump their blocks of rooms and pricing will be much lower?
Reid Bramblett: Each Olympics affects its destination differently, so there's no way to predict, but my gut reaction is: you haven't already booked??? Do it now! You're gambling on not as many people showing up as the local infrastructure expects, which very well may work out--or you may end up paying a premium to stay a two-hour train ride form the city. Take the safe route on this one.
San Clemente, CA: Is it possible to rent a small RV in Europe to travel from one country to another? Are there books about camping in Europe with an RV?
Reid Bramblett: A pop-top VW campervan (sleeps two below, one or two smaller chaps up in the pop-top tent) rents for around $50 to $65 per day in winter, which rises to $100 to $130 in the height of summer. A larger, more familiar "RV" sleeping four to five people will run you around $60 to $100 in low season, $110 to $180 in high season. European roads are narrow and winding, and gas incredibly expensive, so never rent anything longer than six meters (about 20 feet).
Also, read the fine print: there's usually a ridiculous "service fee" of $100 to $175 or so added to the overall price, and they usually require CDW insurance (another $30 per day or so). Make sure taxes (VAT) are included in the quote, sauce they can run as high as 19 percent! Rentals in Germany tend to be the cheapest, though you can drive it anywhere (check first about any Eastern European countries, and British rentals often tack on a fee for taking it to the continent).
I've got loads more on this subject at htyondhotels.net/. For good rates, look at htropeanrvtours.com/ and httinc.com/.
Warren, NJ: We will be visiting Florence, Italy for one day on July 6, 2004. Could you please advise me how to purchase tickets in advance prior to departure from the U.S. for the Pitti Palace and the Uffizzi in order to avoid long lines at these museums? Thank you.
Reid Bramblett: Definitely book ahead; that time of year, the line for the Uffizi can last two hours or more--no foolin'. You can book both the Uffizi and the Pitti (and the Accademia, which houses Michelangelo's David--anther long line) at firenzemusei.it/ or by calling 011-30-055-294-883. It's more than worth the 1.55 euro fee.
Anonymous: What is the best time of day generally to get a good meal at a reasonable price and what inexpensive wines are looking good for having with a meal in France?
Reid Bramblett: Sorry for the delay there. Computer problems.
In answer to your question: Lunch. Bistros, brasseries, and cheap restaurants will offer inexpensive prix-fixees (set-price) menus. Even the holy temples of cuisine like Alain Ducasse will be far, far cheaper at lunch than at dinner (you'll fork over $260, sure, but in relative terms that beats the pants off the $600 price tag at dinner).
Kent, OH: My friends and I are trying to plan a week-long trip to Europe, specifically to Paris. Since we're all college students, money is tight. We know that we can stay in hostels, but what are some other easy ways for us to save a little cash and still have a great time?
Reid Bramblett: Get the cards.
The Carte Musees et Monuments (hntermusses.com/---hough that site can be buggy), gets you into 70 of Paris's top sights, museums, and monuments. (Only notable exceptions: the Eiffel Tower, Montparnasse Tower, and Marmottan Museum.) Even if you use it only to visit the Louvre and the Pompidou, you've already saved $3 off individual admission charges. Plus, it allows you to skip all the long admission lines and just waltz right in, flashing the card to a security guard.
The other card is for getting around cheaply on the Metro, but it's a bit tricky, since Paris doesn't want you to know it exists. The tourism officials flog the Paris Visite card relentless to tourists, but that's astoundingly overpriced. They won't even tell you that there's such as thing as the "Carte Orange" (it doesn't even appear in the English-language version of the official transport website), which is a weekly metro pass that costs 14.50 Euros and covers the central transport zones 1 and 2-p--enty for most Parisian trips, though if you plan to travel to the outskirts of town a lot, you might plump 19.40 Euro for one good through zone 3. You can buy it at any Metro station-j--st don't let them try and sell you that Paris Visite!
Chicago, IL: Hi Reid, I will be studying abroad in France, Belgium and England in July. I need to find my own way from Brussels to Oxford, England. What is the most economical and scenic route? I am considering ferries -- what do you think?
Reid Bramblett: The ferry will be scenic, but it's gonna take you a minimum of 12 to 14 hours total (train from Brussels to Oostende; ferry across the Channel; train to London; change train stations London; train to Oxford; often long waits in between each step). Sure, it'll be scenic, but time-consuming and not all that cheap.
Your other option is the Eurostar through the Chunnel (hurostar.com/ or haileurope.com/)--you'll be dumped in London and still have to get to Oxford, but at least the Brussels-to-London bit is a lickety-split 2 hours 40 minutes, and costs $100 to $150 (depends on what kind of fare you qualify for). Less scenic, but it does leave you far, far more time to enjoy the scenery on either end of your trip!
Los Angeles, CA: Your article on renting a villa has me seriously considering it! I'm used to package vacations to Europe though - is it possible to do a package including a villa rental and airfare or will I have to book everything separately?
Reid Bramblett: Congrats! You should have a blast. though some third-party agencies who handle villa rentals can also arrange your airfare (or will work with a travel agent on your behalf to book it), in my experience they simply can't beat the prices you could get doing 20 minutes of research online yourself. Hit the major airline sites (not just the US ones, but the major European ones as well, like Virgin Atlantic, British Airways, Lufthansa, Air France, etc), run your travel dates through Expedia, Orbitz, and Travelocity
Then, armed with this "top price," really get down to business. Read out daily Savings Sleuth blog to find airfare sales. Check out the rates using met search engines like hheapflights.com/, hidestep.com/ (a browser plug-in; only works on PCs) and hixo.com/. Contact a consolidator like h800flyeurope.com/ ---they can usually sell you a ticket on the same airline for less than the airline can! There re some other tricks; my site hraveltools.net/ will walk you through the 11 Steps to Finding Cheaper Airfares. Happy hunting!
Denver, CO: I know that it's always cheaper to travel off-season, but if I really must go to Italy during the peak season (June 2005) because of a family wedding, when is the best time to shop for deals? Very early or last minute? Any suggestions?
Reid Bramblett: When in June is an issue, because High Season rates for airfares usually kick in officially on June 15 (high season hotel rates, sadly, kick in soon after Easter!), so if you can fly out before then, you can save a couple hundred dollars right there.
Don't ever buy more than three months out. Before then, airlines are only charging Hail Mary rates---he highest ones possible in the hopes that someone will bite. Between three months out and six weeks out, the price will get whittled down by the marketplace, consolidators will start releasing batches of tickets at cut rates, and sales will crop up as empty seats start needing to get filled. See my last answer for some airfare hunting techniques. Have a great time, and my congrats to the happy couple.
Reid Bramblett: Well, that's it! An hour's up. There were dozens and dozens of questions I couldn't get to, and to you folks: I apologize. But we do this "live chat" thing every week on different destinations, so tune in again and we'll do our best to help you plan the vacation of a lifetime.