The economy may be wobbly, but our travel dreams are still strong — for good reason. Europe is every bit as magical as ever, and no recession can change that. What matters is how well you manage your travel budget, and how you use those skills to create a better trip. Playing your cards right, and spending less will lower the barrier that separates you and the culture you've traveled so far to experience.
To help you keep your dream trip affordable, here are 50 thrifty ways to stretch your travel dollar in Europe...
A B&B offers double the warmth and cultural intimacy for half the price of a hotel. You'll find them in most countries if you know the local word: Husrom is Norwegian for sobe which is Slovenian for Gästezimmer which is German for rooms in a private home.
Avoid touristy restaurants with "We speak English" signs and multilingual menus. Those that are filled with locals serve better food for less money. I look for a short, handwritten menu in the local language only. Go with the daily specials.
Fly open-jaws — that's into one city and out of another. Save time and money by avoiding a needless costly return to your starting point. When considering the beginning and end points of a long trip, try to start in mild countries (such as England) and work into the places with greater culture shock (such as Turkey). This way you'll minimize stress, and save countries offering the cheapest shopping — and greatest health risks — for the end of your trip.
Travel off-season — generally October through April in Europe. You'll get cheaper airfare, find more budget rooms, spend less time in lines, and meet more Europeans than tourists. Big cities such as London, Paris and Rome are interesting any time of year.
Family-run businesses offer the best valuesbecause they employ family members to get around Europe's costly labor regulations. In mom-and-pop shops you're more likely to be served by people who care about their reputation and their customers.
Picnics save money. Ten dollars buy a fine picnic lunch for two anywhere in Europe. Stock your hotel room with drinks and munchies upon arrival. You can pass train rides enjoyably over a picnic meal. Many grocery stores have elegant deli sections. Know the metric system for buying produce. In Italy 100 grams (about a quarter pound) is a unit in itself called an etto.
Eat with the season. Germans go crazy for the white asparagus. Italians lap up the porcini mushrooms. And Spaniards gobble their snails (caracoles) — but only when waiters announce that they're fresh today. You'll get more taste for less money throughout Europe by ordering what's in season.
Use a guidebook. Guidebooks are $20 tools for $3,000 experiences. Saving money by not buying one is penny-wise and pound-foolish. An up-to-date guidebook pays for itself on your first day in Europe.
Use ATMs rather than travelers checks. You'll get your cash cheaper and faster. While ATMs give the best possible rates, they do come with transaction fees. Minimize these fees by making fewer and larger withdrawals. Store the cash safely in your money belt.
Stay in touch cheaply by dialing direct.International phone cards with PIN numbers are sold at newsstands throughout Europe. They offer calls to the US for ten cents a minute — a huge savings over the $3/minute rates offered by the big American services.
Cars are worthless and costly headaches in big cities. Pick up your rental car after the first big city and drop it off before the final big city of your trip. Paying $20 a day to store a $40 a day car while touring a city is an expensive mistake.
Do your shopping mostly in the cheaper countries where gifts are more interesting and your shopping dollar stretches the farthest. The difference is huge: For the cost of a pewter Viking ship in Oslo, you can buy an actual boat in Turkey.
Look up friends, relatives, and contacts. Assume you are interesting and charming and enjoy local hospitality with gusto. This works best if you actually are interesting and charming. Bring a show-and-tell Ziploc baggie filled with photos of your family, house, and hometown.
Adapt to European tastes. Cultural chameleons drink tea in England, beer in Prague, red wine in France, and white wine on the Rhine. They eat fish in Portugal and reindeer in Norway. Going with the local specialties gets you the best quality and service for the best price.
Look for consolidator tickets for overseas flights.Consolidator or "discount" air tickets are perfectly legitimate. By putting up with a few minor drawbacks (no changes allowed and no frequent flier miles given) you can save hundreds of dollars. Student agencies are not limited to students and offer some great airfares.
Don't let frequent flier miles cloud your judgment.Choose a plane ticket, car rental, hotel or tour according to the best value for your trip, not in hopes of scoring a few extra miles.
Know your railpass options. Railpasses can offer big savings — if you're traveling a lot. For short trips, point-to-point tickets are cheaper.
Second-class train cars get there just as fast as first-class ones. Throughout Europe first-class tickets cost about 50 percent more than second-class. The difference in comfort is usually minimal — it's not like first versus coach on a plane. The vast majority of Europeans don't travel in first class unless someone else is paying for it.
Buses, while often slower, are cheaper than trains— especially in Britain, home of Europe's most expensive train system. For instance, traveling from London to Edinburgh could cost $145 by train or only $45 by bus.
Groups save by driving. Four people sharing a car generally travel much cheaper than four individuals buying four railpasses. And don't worry about gas costs. Even at $6 a gallon, you'll find cars get great mileage and distances between sights are short. A single two-hour train ticket can cost you the price of a full tank of gas.