April 26, 2002 -- Budget travel writer Rick Steves, the host of the public television series, Rick Steves' Europe, and author of 22 European travel books, knows a thing or two about seeing Europe on a shoestring. Here are a few of his tips for saving cash on that European vacation. For more tips, see his Web site at: www.ricksteves.com.
1. Avoid touristy restaurants with "We speak English signs" and multilingual menus. Those that are filled with locals serve better food for less money. Look for a short, handwritten menu in the local language and go with the daily specials.
2. 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.
3. 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 and store the cash safely in your moneybelt.
4. 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.
5. Find a good travel agent who knows Europe and sells consolidator tickets. 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.
6. 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 $5 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.
7. Europe's highly competitive no-frills airlines — such as Ryanair and Virgin Air — can often get you from one city to another faster and cheaper than the train. You generally book the flights yourself by phone or on the Web. Beware though: cheap airlines often use small airports located far from town, which can cost a little extra time and money.
8. During summer and weekends year-round, you can get a fancy business hotel room at a cheap one-star hotel price. It's not unusual to score a $300 double for $100.
9. Throughout southern Europe, drinks are cheaper at the bar than at a table. The table price can be a great value if you'll linger and enjoy the view. But those just tossing down a quick drink do it at the bar for about half price.
10. Don't overtip. Only Americans tip 15 percent to 20 percent in Europe. We even tip when it's already included or not expected. Ask locals (who are customers rather than employees of a restaurant) for advice.