How to afford a European vacation...

I haven't posted for a while, largely because my internet access in Berlin left a lot to be desired.  I blame communism.  That is probably not the problem, but that is what I blame.  :)

Rather than spend a lot of time going over the ins and outs of my last few weeks in Europe, I'l start with another how-to (in my opinion).  I found my European summer was, for the most part, very affordable.  And many of you are thinking "yeah, right".  But I'm serious... here are a few of my take aways for how to afford your own summer in Europe.

1.  Choose one destination and live in it.  Aside from airline tickets, housing will be your biggest expense.  Over the years, I have learned that apartments or vacation homes are much cheaper than hotels for a lengthy stay.  For a day or two, there's no real difference.  For more than 3 days, an apartment will generally save you money, especially if you are traveling with friends or family.  My French and German apartments were about $60 per night.  While my French apartment was very small (about 350 square feet), my German apartment was at least 1500 square feet - I'm positive it was bigger than my Las Vegas home.  It's ironic that they were the same price.

The longer you stay in one location, the better your price will be (generally speaking).  So many people think they need to do as much as possible in a European vacation.  I've been victim of that myself -- Rome, Paris and Amsterdam in 10 days.  Not only can you not see a single one of those cities in 3 days, but you spend so much time traveling that you never get a chance to unpack and relax.  If you have a week, choose one city.  If you have two weeks, two cities isn't unrealistic, but don't try to do more than that.  It gives you incentive to come back.

2.  Transit passes.  Look for week-long (or month-long) transit passes and utilize them.  Paris has a sort-of complicated Navigo system that you purchase Monday mornings and is valid for the entire week.  It is a hard card with your photo on it that you swipe every time you ride a train, bus, etc.  It is complicated in the sense that you need to get a photo and find someone to sell you a pass.  However, once you've got that, it's a great system.  Many of the major cities use similar systems.  Berlin uses a more low-tech system where you buy a ticket any day from a machine and stamp it on the platform to validate it.  Then, you keep it in your wallet or bag for the next 7 days.  If anyone asks, you show it to them.  No one ever asked me for mine.  However, Mike was asked for his once.

It is my understanding that most major cities use one of these two systems.  They are not advertised.  Ticket sellers and machines will not offer them outright.  You need to know and know how to buy them.  But, they save a lot of money.  Both Paris and Berlin were about 25 Euros per week.  This compares to 1.50 in Paris and 2.30 in Berlin for an individual ride.  There were times I rode transit 5-6 times per day.  One day in Paris, I took the train 8 separate times.  This was an exception, but I never took less than 2 rides per day and averaged about 4.

3.  Eat local.  I loved everything about my vacation, but the food was incredible.  Eating what the locals eat is typically much easier and less expensive.  This goes hand in hand with my recommendation to rent an apartment.  A kitchen will save you so much money.  You can keep things on hand for mid-day snacks, quick easy breakfasts, and cook your own dinners.  We went out to eat pretty regularly, but we also cooked a lot.  If you cook half your meals, you will reduce your food budget substantially.  We are still dreaming about the rotisserie chicken and fat-roasted potatoes that we got from the french butcher.  We spent maybe 10 euros on a whole chicken and container of potatoes that gave us a full dinner and some leftovers for the next day.  I picked up some green beans from the veggie market (less than $1) and a baguette (another $1).  We had a delicious, gourmet, hassle-free meal for less than $15.  Even the most basic take-out food would have cost nearly double that.

However, if you do takeout or restaurant meals, focus on the locals there too.  We ate a lot of turkish kebabs.  Remember the end of Avengers when they all went out for Shawarma?

That giant cone of meat that is sliced off into some sort of bread... that's Turkish kebab.  In France, they use a baguette, in Germany they use a home-baked brown bread, in Ireland, they use a pita.  In Rome they actually used tortillas (we called them kebaba-ritos).  Depending on the country, they serve french fries either on the side or inside of the sandwich.  Both ways are delicious.

4.  Do your research!  Most major cities have a variety of discount cards/passes for major tourist attractions.  Decide ahead of time what you want to see and do and see if these are right for you.  You may save substantially.  Look for other discount cards that you might qualify for.  The Louvre, for example, has an annual pass for professionals (artists, teachers, professors) for 30 euros.  Considering a single entry is 13 euros, this is a great option if you are on an art-heavy visit to Paris.  Mike went to the Louvre 7 or 8 times in the 3 weeks we were there.  He also got an annual pass to the Musee d'Orsay for the same price.

Many cities have discounts for family, university students, teachers, etc.  While Paris wasn't particularly great for us, I got a university student discount everywhere in Berlin (usually half off) by showing my UNLV ID card.  There was only one woman that wouldn't give me the discount.

Other things to look out for are late nights.  Often, sites will have one "late" night per week with a substantial discount if you enter after a certain time.  Similar to the "half off after 5" at the water parks.  :)

5.  Relax and enjoy.  Sometimes the best experiences are free.  We loved sitting in the parks and watching the people go by.  We had enough time to recognize that we could take a day off and not do anything particularly taxing.  We would go for walks, visit cathedrals (which are usually free, and one of my favorite things to see) and relax in parks.  One of our best memories is sitting in the greenbelt along the Champs Elyses, eating crepes and watching the people pass us by.  It was a perfect moment.  Relax, enjoy, and prepare for those perfect moments.  The marathon European trip can be exhausting.  Build in some time to just relax at cafes, stroll along the streets, go to firemen's balls... whatever it takes.


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