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Europe 2018: 5 Money-Saving Tips

By Robert Firpo-Cappiello
February 2, 2018
A panoramic view of St. Peter’s in Vatican City, Rome
Scaliger/Dreamstime
Dreaming of hopping the pond? This is the time of year for turning dreams into plans, and we have five easy, start-today steps you can take to save yourself a bundle.

From the jaw-dropping natural beauty of Iceland to the ancient ruins of Sicily, from the fjords of Norway to the late-night tapas feasts of Spain, Budget Travelers ask us all the time, “Can we afford Europe?” And we’re more than happy to answer, “Yes, you can.” Here, our five best tips for doing Europe on a budget.

1. BOOK A BARGAIN HOTEL

Our hotel booking tool is showing reasonable rates across the continent this spring, including Dublin city center from under $150/night, a few London hotels well under $300/night (that’s an extraordinary savings for London, but do be careful not to book yourself too far from the points of interest you most want to visit), Paris hotels from under $200, and well-reviewed Rome lodging from under $150/night.

2. SAVE BIG ON AIRFARE

Airfare will, of course, be your big-ticket purchase when visiting Europe, and our friends at Skyscanner (Skyscanner.com), who mine discount airfares to deliver the lowest of the low, are uncovering spring deals such as round-trip to Dublin from under $500, Paris from under $500, and Milan from under $600 (with one or two options under $500). We also recommend that you follow the major air carriers on social media and sign up for their e-newsletters, which can give you the inside track into flash promotions and other good deals.

3. TAKE THE TRAIN

Speaking of Milan, Rail Europe (raileurope.com) is now offering direct service tickets between that Italian business and fashion capital with Frankfurt, Germany’s business capital, significantly shortening train travel time between those two countries. Rail Europe is one of the most efficient and affordable ways to explore, including Eurail One Country passes for 23 countries and Eurail Two Country passes for certain regions. New 2018 initiatives include One Country passes for Turkey and Serbia and a Two Country pass for the Czech Republic and Poland.

4. CONSIDER A PACKAGE TOUR

It’s one of the open secrets of the travel business: Hotels and airlines are willing to offer rock-bottom rates in order to fill their inventory, but the best way for you to take advantage of those super-low rates is to participate in a package tour. Budget Travel contributors and readers have loved the European tour experiences offered by Monograms, Contiki, Friendly Planet, G Adventures, and other tour companies. Today's package tours are a world away from the "touristy" treks your grandparents may have undertaken. The best tour company's offer exceptional guest services, plenty of independent exploring time, some great group meals and celebrations, informative guided tour options, vibrant people-to-people cultural experiences, and much more. And if you briefly crunch the numbers to compare the overall price of a European package tour with a vacation that you book yourself “a la carte,” you’ll almost always find that you’ve saved big.

5. DOWNLOAD THIS TRIP-INSPIRING APP

Our colleagues at Budget Travel's parent company, Lonely Planet, cover Europe like no other travel brand on earth, and we’re hooked on their Trips app, which allows you to browse a wealth of travel stories and images from Lonely Planet’s worldwide audience, editors, writers, and photographers. Of course you’ll find great intel on some of the popular European destinations we’ve touched on here, but you’ll also uncover hidden gems, locals-only secrets, and up-and-coming destinations where your travel dollar may stretch farther than you could ever imagine.

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Travel Tips

5 Cheap Flights for Spring Break

Ready for a spring break? We are too. Whether you define the phrase as a 24/7 tropical party or something a little more laid-back, like a couple’s escape or family beach vacation, our friends at Skyscanner (skyscanner.com) have rounded up some of the most promising projected savings on spring flights to some of the most desirable locales. Here, a taste of the top destinations where you can save a bundle: 1. PUNTA CANA, DOMINICAN REPUBLIC Book your spring flights around 12 weeks in advance and you could save up to 45 percent on an escape to the famously gorgeous, delicious, and affordable DR, a quick flight from many U.S. hubs. 2. NASSAU, THE BAHAMAS We love the Bahamas for their proximity to U.S. coast, amazing seafood like conch fritters, and awesome outdoor markets. Book your flight around 11 weeks in advance to save up to 34 percent. 3. PUERTO VALLARTA, MEXICO You can save up to 34 percent on flights to this beautiful and historic Mexican hotspot on the Pacific coast when you book around 10 weeks in advance. 4. SAN JUAN, PUERTO RICO We’ve been happy to report that more than 100 hotels are welcoming guests and more than 4,000 restaurants are cooking in Puerto Rico as it continues its comeback from Hurricane Maria. Choosing to spend your dollars in Puerto Rico is one of the best ways you can help, and if you book around 10 weeks in advance, you can save up to 20 percent on airfare. 5. CANCUN, MEXICO For those who want to combine warm beaches with significant cultural landmarks, Cancun is a place you can both play and learn in proximity to historic Mayan ruins. Book your flight around 10 weeks in advance to save up to 20 percent.

Travel Tips

Airlines' 10 Dirtiest Secrets

Lately there's been a lot of idle speculation in the blogosphere about the cleanliness of airplanes, the flightworthiness of the equipment, and the abilities of the crew. Here at Budget Travel, we regularly interview pilots, flight attendants, lost-and-found agents, and other travel professionals—sometimes on condition of anonymity—and we do our best to debunk the junk and deliver the truth. That said, the truth sometimes hurts. Here, we are not only delivering the airlines' dirtiest secrets, but also rating them on a "scary scale" of 1 to 5. 1. ARE PETS STORED IN AN UNHEATED, UNPRESSURIZED HOLD? I hate to get all Mr. Scott about this, but this legend absolutely defies the laws of physics: At 30,000 feet, that would mean temperatures below zero and not enough oxygen. The truth is, pets are kept warm and safe in the hold. However, airline travel can be harrowing for pets—the runway is so noisy during loading and unloading that the workers wear headphones. No such luck for Fido and Fluffy. Oh, and flying with a little dog in your lap—or asking repeatedly about the safety of your pet in the hold—really irritates overworked, underpaid flight attendants. If you're a pet lover (or even just a decent human being), that rates a 5 on the "scary scale." But before you consider sedating your pet—the way you might take, say, an Ambien before takeoff—get your vet's best advice for dealing with airplane travel! 2. AIRPLANE DRINKING WATER MUST BE SAFE, RIGHT?  Sorry, maybe not! Tests show that airplane water is sometimes full of bacteria that could sicken you, and this has been confirmed in tests by the Environmental Protection Agency and the Wall Street Journal. That goes for onboard coffee and tea as well. Water is better than it used to be thanks to airline-mandated tests, but the big tanks that hold water on a plane are a breeding ground for gunk you don't want in your cup. The EPA even warns people with at-risk immune systems (including children and adults over 50) to avoid airplane water. Buy a bottle! "Scary scale"? 5! 3. DO AIRPLANES JETTISON THEIR TOILET WASTE INTO THE AIR? Who started this weird myth, a fourth grade boy? No, airplanes do NOT jettison toilet contents in midair! Ever, ever, ever. Well... at least not intentionally. A California man once had a chunk of frozen airplane waste (which, by the way, was blue because of the chemical with which airplane waste is treated) bust through his sailboat. On a "scary scale" of 1 to 5, I've got to give the sailboat guy a 5! 4. WHAT'S WITH THE MOOD LIGHTING? Why do the plane lights dim before landing? Dim lighting prepares your eyes for seeing outside in the event of an emergency evacuation. (Similarly, you are asked to open your window shades before landing so the crew can see outside in the event of an accident.) On a "scary scale" of 1 to 5, I'm gonna give this a 1 because, once you understand the reason for it, it seems kind of comforting (am I the only one?). 5. CAN STRANGERS UNLOCK THE AIRPLANE LAVATORY FROM THE OUTSIDE? Yep! Toddler, grandparent, or spouse locked in the bathroom? Relax—right behind the no smoking sign on the door there's usually a little switch to unlock the door! On a "scary scale" of 1 to 5: If I have a toddler and I'm standing at the door, that gets a 0. If I'm flying alone and a total stranger decides to pay me a little surprise visit, 4. (And while we're on the subject of airplane lavatories, do not walk in there in your socks or bare feet. You don't even want to know what's on that floor!) 6. THE CABIN AIR CAN MAKE ME SICK, RIGHT? Wrong! Airplane cabin air is filtered and often tests cleaner than hospital air. However, just about everything else onboard should be considered a mile-high petri dish. In fact, your tray table may have been used to change a baby. Yeah, that's right. E coli bacteria are regularly found on airplane tray tables. What can you do about that? Travel with sanitizing wipes to clean off surfaces you or your loved ones may touch during the flight, and to clean your hands. On a "scary scale," the cabin air gets a 0 and the tray table gets, uh, number 2? (Sorry!) 7. HOW CAN I BE SURE MY PILOT KNOWS WHAT HE OR SHE IS DOING? How experienced is your pilot? And how worried should you be about that? You may be flying one of the big carriers in name, but here in the U.S. you may actually be in the hands of a subcontracted regional airline crew. Oh, and your pilot may make less in a year than a cab driver. Yep. Those regional airlines have grown so fast in recent decades that requirements for pilot training went down to accommodate the demand. If you were having, say, brain surgery, would you want the doc with more operations under his belt or the guy getting paid by the hour? That said, I've never had a bad experience due to pilot error, and we travelers often completely misjudge pilot actions—bumpy landings, for instance, are no indication of a pilot's experience or competence, they just happen. But how would you rate the issue of pilots' experience on a "scary scale"? 4 or 5. 8. ARE PILLOWS, BLANKETS, AND HEADPHONES CLEANED OR CHANGED AFTER EVERY FLIGHT? Cue Aerosmith and dream on. Flight crews are busy, budgets are tight, and you've probably witnessed the onboard scramble that occurs between flights. If your blanket is neatly folded and your headphones are in a plastic bag, congrats! That's about the best you can hope for these days. On our "scary scale," I give that a 3 or 4. 9. ARE PILOTS AND COPILOTS REALLY SERVED SEPARATE MEALS IN CASE OF POISONING? This is a really good idea, of course, and I wish I could tell you that it's strictly enforced. But the reality is that the crew eats whatever they want whenever they can get it. (Some bring their own food, others eat what's served out of the galley.) On some flights, the pilot and copilot will indeed be served separate meals. On others, not so much. On a "scary scale," considering that I've seen few, if any, accounts of poisoned pilots wreaking havoc in the skies, I give it a 2. 10. IS IT TRUE THAT OXYGEN MASKS HAVE ONLY A FEW MINUTES OF AIR IN THEM? Yes. But it's not as bad as it sounds. Airplanes are pressurized mostly because the air at 30,000 feet does not hold enough oxygen. In the very rare event of depressurization, the oxygen masks descend and, though it may be frightening, passengers use them for a few minutes while the pilot quickly gets the plane down to around 10,000 feet, where oxygen levels are comparable to a mountain summit. On our "scary scale," this makes me feel a little safer and I give it a 1. Though if you've ever been on a plane that descended from 30,000 to 10,000 feet in a matter of minutes, there's not a theme park ride in the world that will ever scare you again!

Travel Tips

5 Bargain Destinations for February

Whether the phrase “February travel” conjures images of a romantic getaway, American history, or a warm beach vacation (or all three), we’ve got good news: Airfares to some popular mid-winter destinations are down. Our friends at Skyscanner crunched the numbers and came up with some trip-inspiring data. Here, five U.S. destinations where airfares are surprisingly affordable. 1. CHICAGO Domestic airfares to the Windy City are down around 32 percent compared with last year at this time. That means the taste of Lou Mitchell’s incredible breakfasts, Seven Lions’ muffalettas, and, of course, a classic deep-dish Pizzeria Uno, are all within reach. Not to mention the views from Skydeck Chicago in Willis Tower, the astounding art collection at the Art Institute of Chicago, and selfies at Anish Kapoor’s iconic Cloud Gate sculpture (better known as “The Bean”). And while you’re at it, tell Sue, the massive T-rex fossil at the Field Museum, that Budget Travel says, “hi.” 2. HOUSTON With airfares down around 28 percent, the U.S.’s fourth-largest city is ready for winter visitors. While you can expect a heaping portion of Southern hospitality down here (BBQ, comfort food, and steaks, anyone?), you’ll also love the decidedly chic shopping, cutting-edge cuisine, and crowd-pleasing hotspots such as the Johnson Space Center’s Space Center Houston (where kids of all ages will love the array of spacecraft, moon rocks, and learning activities) and the city’s vibrant Museum District (comprising 19 institutions, including the Children’s Museum and the Museum of Fine Arts). 3. WASHINGTON, D.C. Airfares to our nation’s capital are down around 16 percent, and the city’s major cultural and historical institutions are all free to the public, making it the ultimate destination for commemorating President’s Day and Black History Month. Don’t miss the new National Museum of African American History and Culture, the National Gallery’s peerless art collection, the inspiring monuments along the National Mall, and the cool neighborhoods such as Adams Morgan and Dupont Circle where locals enjoy some of America’s finest eateries and unique shops. 4. DALLAS Flying to Dallas, with its awesome shopping and dining in West Village, history at Highland Park Village National Historic Site and the George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum, and superb art collections at the Dallas Museum of Art and Crow Collection of Asian Art, is about 15 percent less than last year. 5. MIAMI Warm beaches, from tony South Beach with its array of stately hotels and iconic Art Deco style to the quieter, family-friendly vibe of the North Beach area, are within reach, with fares down around 15 percent. When you bite into your first cubano sandwich, you'll thank us for the airfare tips.

Travel Tips

10 Things Europeans Say About You Behind Your Back

1. WE HAVE TERRIBLE FAKE ACCENTS Ouch. Turns out that posh James Bond imitation you think you've mastered sounds like the squeak of chalk on a blackboard to a Brit. And chances are, even as you read this, you believe you are the exception to this rule—that your Daniel Craig could fool a native? No. Stop. Please. 2. WE LIKE SMILING Boy, those French are unfriendly, huh? Guess again. They're just more physically reserved than you are, and that goes for facial expressions, too. A Parisian, especially when addressing a stranger, will rarely smile, and this is often misinterpreted by American as that legendary (and largely mythical) French rudeness. We, on the other hand, have been taught to approach new people, even total strangers, with our pearly whites bared. Down, Sparky. It just weirds them out. 3. WE HAVE BARBARIC EATING HABITS From way up in Scandinavia all the way down to Sicily, Europeans seem to be united in the opinion that Americans don't know how to enjoy a meal. Yep. Shocking as it may seem, the country that invented "fast food" and the "power lunch" puzzles its neighbors across the pond when it comes to table manners. Apparently, we start eating before it's considered polite, we don't stop to talk enough, and we perhaps miss the entire point of chowing down in the presence of other human beings. Wherever you may be visiting (but especially southern Europe), if you sit down to eat with locals, we suggest that you just quietly tell yourself, "Slow down." 4. WE ARE BAD DRINKERS Ok, in fairness to my American brethren, it's true that in some corners of Europe it is common to outdrink Americans at a truly magnificent pace. But overall, the European approach to beer, wine, and spirits is similar to their approach to a nice meal: What's the rush? It's perfectly acceptable to savor a two-hour lunch that includes a few goblets of wine. But binge-drinking is considered a weakness, especially in wine-producing regions, where the vino is regarded as much a food as a beverage. 5. WE ARE WORKAHOLICS Except in a few major economic centers, London in particular, the locals aren't going to be terribly interested in hearing your workplace war stories, how much money you're spending on your vacation, or how much your house back in the States cost. The country you are visiting may even have strict rules or customs about the length of a work week. But more importantly, Europeans just know how to pursue a work/life balance more healthfully than Americans: Take time to sit down for coffee and a croissant in the morning, consider an afternoon nap (if you're staying with your Italian cousins, they may insist on it!), and if you head out to dinner in, say, Barcelona, expect the tapas to go around the table well into the wee hours. Relax! 6. WE ARE SCARED OF NUDITY Whoa. Really? But isn't American culture awash in cutting-edge body parts and potty mouth? Yes, and that's actually a sign of our priggish problem. In many European cultures, the human body is considered simply, well, the human body. Our fascination with certain anatomical features is not shared by Europeans. That's why in some regions of Europe you'll see nude bathing and hear jokes that would make your mother blush. Next time you see a photo of the inscrutable Catalan Christmas pooper, just say to yourself, "Don't judge. Remember, you are a prude." 7. WE ONLY SPEAK ENGLISH Duolingo, people. Duolingo. 8. WE ARE UNCULTURED Be honest. Did you even know that "Sochi" was a thing before the Russian city hosted the Winter Games? Is Trieste in Switzerland, Croatia, or France? We're not suggesting that you prepare for a geography bee before boarding your Paris-bound plane. But, gosh, get some arrondissements into your short-term memory, remember that Marseille is France's second-largest city, and understand that "Omaha Beach" is not what the French call that stretch of Normandy coast. (Btw, Trieste is in Italy.) 9. WE NEED THE FASHION POLICE This applies to American men more than women, and it's difficult to argue. On any given street of any given European town on any given day, I will not be able to compete with the stylish dress of the gents who pass my way. While a few decades ago this may not have been the case (I can imagine Don Draper holding his own against an onslaught of silk-suited Florentines), my generation has admittedly opted to dress like overgrown boys, and our T-shirts, baggy jeans, and five o'clock shadows scream "Yank." 10. WE DON'T KNOW OUR OWN HISTORY I say kudos to Europe's schools for instilling in their citizenry the ability to understand the difference between Bill Clinton and George Clinton. Unfortunately, Americans' grasp of European and even American history is often as sketchy as their grasp of geography. So just know that when you drop a name like Churchill or Garibaldi overseas, you are inviting a conversation in which you may eventually be called upon to remember who sold President Thomas Jefferson the 800,000+ square miles that now comprises all or parts of Arkansas, Missouri, Iowa, Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, Minnesota, North and South Dakota, New Mexico, Texas, Colorado, Montana, Wyoming, and, of course, Louisiana. (Psst! It was France.)

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