Liz Weston, CFP®
Tourism rebounded in Europe this summer – and Europe wasn’t ready yet. Pandemic-related staff shortages led to massive queues and flight cancellations at many airports; At the same time, prices for hotels and taxis rose.
Added to this were record-breaking temperatures that caused roads, runways and train tracks to buckle and led to further disruptions.
Our family of three visited Europe this summer – our first trip there in three years – and had a great time despite the challenges. Still, climate change, growing crowds and the ongoing impact of the pandemic have transformed the way we travel. If you are planning a trip to Europe, consider the following tips to save money and have a better experience.
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1. Explore alternative locations
Europe’s capitals – Paris, Amsterdam, Vienna, Rome and so on – are hugely popular, and with good reason. But often in one of the smaller cities you can get a better sense of a country’s culture while benefiting from lower prices.
France’s third largest city, Lyon, for example, has a beautiful old town, spectacular Roman ruins, top-notch museums and fantastic restaurants. Even in high season, I found a three-star hotel room for less than $100 a night and never encountered long, nerve-wracking queues for attractions that could make Paris an exam.
We also enjoyed Austria’s second largest city, Graz, a lovely affordable alternative to Vienna, and pretty Delft, a canal town just an hour’s train ride from Amsterdam.
Europe’s capitals are still worth visiting, but adding a few alternative destinations can save you money and stress.
2. Reconsider summer travel
Spring and fall tend to be cooler, cheaper, and far less crowded. If summer travel is your only option, try to travel as soon after Memorial Day as possible, as crowds (and prices) skyrocket in July and August. Scott’s Cheap Flights, a deals site, recommends booking international travel two to eight months in advance to get great deals.
3. Don’t assume – ask
Early in our marriage—unaware that many old European buildings didn’t have elevators—we rented an attic apartment on Paris’ Ile Saint-Louis for a week. Our little attic had a great view, but it wasn’t fun facing up six flights of stairs after walking around Paris all day.
Nowadays we also provide air conditioning, which is not as widespread in Europe as it is in the USA. Hotels and apartments with air conditioning usually mention this fact in their online listings, but if you have any doubts about air conditioning or elevators, ask before you book.
4. Treat Europe like an amusement park
Hear me: Disney tips sites like Undercover Tourist and Mouse Hacking recommend arriving at the “Rope Drop” — when the parks first open. Then retreat to your hotel in the afternoon, when crowds and temperatures are at their peak, and return in the quieter, cooler evening hours.
Consider a similar approach if you’re traveling in Europe in the summer: head to the most popular attractions when they first open, escape the heat in the afternoon, and head out again when it’s more comfortable. If you book an outdoor activity, plan it for the morning or after sunset if possible.
Find refuge from the afternoon heat in cinemas, ancient stone cathedrals and the many art museums, which are air-conditioned to protect the paintings. Don’t stand in sweltering lines to buy tickets to anything without first checking to see if admission can be purchased online.
5. Prioritize flexibility
Before the pandemic, we often tried to save money by purchasing non-refundable trips. Nowadays we are happy to pay more for flexibility.
For example, we were due to depart from Amsterdam Airport Schiphol a few days after a baggage system malfunction, separating thousands of travelers from their bags and prompting KLM Royal Dutch Airlines to briefly ban checked baggage on flights within Europe. Even after the baggage issue was resolved, passengers reported hours of waiting to check in and go through security due to staff shortages.
Rather than endure the chaos, we decided to take the train to Austria instead. We didn’t get all of our money back — Austrian Airlines charged a fee of about $70 for each ticket, or about a third of what we originally paid — but the refund did offset part of the last-minute fare.
We could have paid a lot more for fully refundable fares, but this “refundable for a fee” option hit the sweet spot of affordability and flexibility.
We also avoided renting apartments or Airbnbs with onerous cancellation policies. Hotels tend to have much more flexible policies and staff to make travel easier. For example, a receptionist in Lyon recommended a wonderful restaurant that served traditional Lyon cuisine and arranged my taxi to the train station after three consecutive Uber drivers canceled.
6. Get travel insurance
We also had – but luckily didn’t need – trip interruption and delay protection through the credit cards we used. We also had travel insurance that would have paid for hotels, meals and rebooked flights if either of us had to go into quarantine. The policy added about $100 a week to our travel expenses, which seemed like a small price to pay for peace of mind.
This article was written by NerdWallet and originally published by The Associated Press.