So you want to see Europe—but trips across the Atlantic don’t come cheaply, at least not without some work; neither does staying over there. Some travel lessons have to be learned the hard way. Here’s hoping you can learn from what I got right and wrong on a recent trip to Germany.
Read up on guidebooks (and get last year’s at a used or surplus bookseller to save $$$), talk to friends who travel and look around at several travel websites to find deals. Summer’s the most expensive time to go—weather’s the best, but attractions are crowded and everything’s more expensive since more people vacation then—so factor that into your planning. Take care of details like passport (or checking to make sure it hasn’t expired), etc., way in advance to avoid last minute scrambling and unnecessary expense.
Decide where you want to go, and begin researching options for getting there, staying there and seeing things there or nearby. When figuring expenses, aim high to be safe.
Finding flights can be tricky. I bought early, assured that $650 was a good fare for my trip and travel dates (roundtrip coach ticket from D/FW to Hannover, in November). That proved a mistake: fuel costs dipped and so did fares—down to about 1/3 of what I paid. Oops. Sometimes doing the ‘wait and see’ can work for you, as it would have for me, but you can also wait too long and see fares shoot up two or three weeks before departure.
I always check at least two on-line sources (usually Travelocity and Orbitz) and at least one airline’s posted fares to find the best. Many web brokers will send you an e-mail letting you keep tabs on fares to certain cities, which can be very useful in finding bargains. Other sites, like Hotwire, may sound appealing but make you sacrifice convenience for low fares, often hiding the carrier and even flight times (but not dates) until you purchase the ticket. No thanks.
I’ve never felt comfortable driving abroad (wrong side of the road in England, pedal to the metal in Germany, narrow streets everywhere), so I stick with the train. The rail system in Europe is clean, user-friendly, and typically cost-efficient. For my short trip (only eight days spent mostly in Germany), a rail pass wasn’t a good deal, though they often are. My two train trips from Braunschweig to Berlin (a hefty $86 on the express) and then from Braunschweig to Hamburg and Kiel (also around $100 for a longer journey) added up to $70 less than the cheapest pass. Make sure you understand enough of the language in your destination to navigate the trains, subways, etc. And pay close attention: I boarded a train I thought was bound for Hamburg and ended up headed to Bremen. I’d read the sign correctly—but didn’t know they’d split the train sending the halves in opposite directions. Luckily, the mistake only cost me an hour’s extra time on the train.
[WHERE TO STAY]
I cheated here—but perhaps you can too. I stayed with people I knew. It’s better to enjoy the sites with friends or family than staying in a hotel. They provide sightseeing tips and info about the country that make the trip much more enjoyable. (And on each of my trips abroad, I’ve found the personal interactions much more memorable than the actual sightseeing—whether with travel companions or simply people I talked to on a train or in a café.)
Beyond mooching off of friends or family, hostels and pensions provide the best deals—check guidebooks and on-line for lodging deals on your trip, or look for package air and hotel deals. A warning there: My last trip abroad, to England, was a package deal—and our hotel in London was abysmal. Ask for details on the accommodations before you book.
Many European countries operate on different dining schedule than we do; in Germany, a big breakfast (bread and cheese, yogurt, a boiled egg, more bread and cheese, and tea) makes lunch less a necessity, often replaced by an afternoon snack (‘kafee un kuche’) and a big meal (meat and potatoes, baby!) at dinner. Saves you a meal, and buying bread and cheese on your own may allow you to skip some more restaurant bills. I found dining expenses there about on par with here (a Euro trades for a little more or less than a dollar). My best tip here isn’t a money saving one, but a quality one: skip chain/touristy establishments for independent/family-owned ones. And don’t squander a big part of the travel experience by eating at the omni-present McDonald’s or Burger King. Dine like the natives.
A long-planned excursion to Prague proved un-workable on my recent trip: my housing fell through on the morning of my departure, and my bright idea to night train it to and from there to save two nights’ lodging hit a snag—I’d have to change trains three times during the night. No sleep wasn’t too appealing, so I went to plan B, spending those days in Berlin, which was awesome, and Hamburg, which wasn’t. Later in the trip, we ended up seeing Dresden, which proved the next best thing to Prague. And I’ll see it on my next trip—with a friend who has family there.
[MAKE THE MOST OF YOUR TIME]
Part of the reason my day in Hamburg was a bust was poor planning (and the train incident)—by the time I got there, I was less eager to seek out sights away from the city center, so I just wandered. Boring. And poor planning also cost me a valuable hour in Berlin—I didn’t know in advance exactly where the tour bus I wanted to take around the city started and wasted time looking and waiting. Getting a map in advance, in addition to my Lonely Planet guidebook, would’ve helped. (Money spent on a good map and guidebook is rarely wasted—just don’t lug too many of them around. Again, look at your town’s version of Half-Price Books or on-line at www.half.com.) But, I also was able to make the most of a four-hour layover in Zurich by taking a train into the city’s center and walking around the lake. How’d I know where to go from the Bahnhof? Read the brief Zurich section and memorized the map in a guidebook in Barnes and Noble.
Another tip: Don’t waste time doing things abroad that you can do at home (like most of the shopping you could do—unless it’s for specialty stuff, you’ll likely find much the same thing at the mall).
A bit more on that subject: Use self-control, look for things to remember your trip by, and plan ahead how you’ll get it home. My trip was near Christmas, and I wanted to buy at least a few gifts there. A $12 collapsible duffle bag from Target stuffed in the front pocket of my suitcase made that possible—and saved me having to buy something over there that would’ve been twice as costly and half as useful.
If you’ve already got a good camera, skip this: Want to preserve your trip and be able to share it with friends but don’t have a $500 digital camera? Could buy one, but then wouldn’t be able to afford the trip? I rely on a $5 Fuji disposable camera with flash—they take good pictures, and if you lose it or drop it in the Elbe, so what? If you’re into sharing pix on-line, simply get them developed to disc when you get back. Just don’t pack it in your checked luggage—that new high-powered X-ray equipment will ruin undeveloped film.
In general, doing some heavy-duty shopping on tickets and planning ahead, knowing what you want to see, and using discipline against unnecessary expenses (like going nuts in KaDeWe’s petites section) may make the difference between an affordable trip and one you’ll have to wait until next year to take. I may not be staying at the Hyatt or flying first class (yet), but I’d much rather take a sensibly budgeted trip than sit home.
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