A few weeks ago, while switching planes in Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport, we had one of those jaw-dropping moments.
The bill for two cafeteria-line coffees and two damp, flaccid croissants: $17. Yes, SEVENTEEN DOLLARS.
The fact that we were traveling on to Poland - where the living is still cheap and a couple of designer coffees and two heavenly pastries in the most expensive cafe cost but a handful of zlotys - only temporarily salved the wound. Because in a couple of weeks we're off to Sorrento in southern Italy, where once again we'll be faced with the dollar's disastrous decline and forced to move into full budget mode.
However, while flipping through our copious files in search of some dollar-stretching strategies that we can apply to our forthcoming trip, we were reminded that Euro-travel has never really come cheap. Not since the good old '80s anyway. And even in those delicious pre-Euro days, travelers were forever banging on about the high prices, and looking for more and more money-saving devices.
There are, of course, dozens of practical things we can all do to keep the costs down, tried-and-true strategies that work. But there are also some new or emerging ones that you may not know about.
Let's start with a couple of those.
We get really annoyed when reading in the mainstream press that hotel rooms in major cities have to cost $300 to $400. It's simply not true. And a new series of Michelin guidebooks proves us right by identifying hundreds of small, moderately priced lodgings in France, Italy, and Germany - hotels that generally cost less than 100 Euros ($130) a night.
The guides include brief descriptions with exterior and interior photographs and have titles like: Germany: 500 Charming Hotels & Inns. Italy's guide is Hotels and Country Guesthouses For Less Than 100 Euros. France checks in with its 1,000 Hotels and Guesthouses, in which 95 percent of the properties listed are less than 80 Euros ($100) a night.
The books retail for $20, but you can get them through Travel Essentials in Ashland, Ore., for $16. (800-258-0758 or travelessentials.com).
Even less expensive hotel and motel options are increasingly available throughout Europe, thanks to the opening of several budget chains that offer overnights as low as $35-50 a night for two.
These are essentially bed-in-a-box places, sometimes stuck out in the suburbs, on the edge of motorways or next to train stations. But if you're looking for real budget accommodations, check out names like Formule 1 (www.hotelformule1.com), Etap Hotels (www.etaphotel.com) and the slightly more expensive ($75 a night) Ibis chain (www.ibishotel.com).
For stays of a week or more, a city center apart-hotel is a brilliant budget solution. We've used the French Citadines chain (formerly known as Orion) in London, Lyon, Brussels, and Barcelona on several occasions and have always been very happy with the modern styling, fully equipped kitchens and 5-star locations.
Each comes as a one- or two-bedroom unit and goes for less than $80 a day. If you stay for a week or more, the price drops to between $60 and $75 (www.citadines.com).
Budget restaurant chains are also on the march across Europe, spearheaded by the French. Naturellement!
One such attractive and modern operation that serves hot meals for $10 or less is called "Flunch." You can find 150 of them, according to Arthur Frommer's Budget Travel magazine, in most major French cities as well as Poland, Portugal, Spain, and Italy.
Germany's entry into the budget food sweepstakes is "Nordsee," which specializes, as it probably should, in seafood. There are now more than 400 in the Hauptstrasses of Germany and Austria. We found ours in the Getreidegasse in Salzburg and were impressed by its inexpensive fresh offerings and the clean and attractive environment.
Other burgeoning food outlets like Paul in France, Brek in Italy, and Pizza Express and Pret a Manger in Britain can go a long way toward keeping the food costs way down.
We can't end today without mentioning the insanely cheap air fares currently available for traveling among Europe's major cities and tourist hot spots.
There was a time when flying within Europe cost as much, if not more, as the transatlantic portion. No more. And no-frills airlines are the reason.
In fact, you can fly practically anywhere within Europe these days for between $40 and $70 - and occasionally pick up even better promotional fares where the taxes are higher than the fares themselves.
Of course, no seats are assigned. You pay for everything you put in your mouth. There's no in-flight entertainment. And the luggage restrictions are tight. But as a way of hop-scotching around Europe, it's unbeatable.
Look for names like Ryanair, Easyjet, Virgin Express, and WIZZ. Ask your travel agent or go to www.nofrillsair.com, where these budget carriers are listed by country and the destinations they serve. There are links to each airline's Web site.
Next time: more budget thoughts.
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