Continental divide: secrets to a better European vacation

What's the secret to a better European vacation? Stop acting like a tourist.

Even for sophisticated Canadians, continental Europe can be a challenge. When you’re accustomed to dining at 6:30, restaurants that don’t open till long after dark can leave you feeling, well, gauche. Then there’s the expense ? how does anyone afford to live in Paris, Rome or Milan?

Ah, but Europeans do manage to live, and live well. And after a summer of living among them, I finally realized that the secret to enjoying the Continent is to do as the locals do. My moment of insight came on a very hot afternoon in Monaco, when I overheard a shopkeeper sneer: “A lot of shorts today.” Her companion nodded, and with a world-weary sigh added: “Tourists.”

Peering down at my own attire (shorts), I felt like sinking into the ground. I had just been privy to the first rule of European travel: dress like a tourist and you’re guaranteed to earn the contempt of the locals. Dress like a local and your standard of treatment immediately improves.

The incident made me wonder what else I was doing to unwittingly sabotage my vacation. So from that moment, I kept my eyes on the indigènes ? and in every country I visited, the more I did things the native way, the more I enjoyed myself. Here’s how you can do the same.

Sleep around

When Europeans vacation within Europe, they rarely stay in hotels. Nor do they book their accommodation in advance. Unless you’ve got euros to burn, you’ll shun these North American practices, too. For better value and more character, search for a pension ? a cross between a hotel and a bed-and-breakfast ? when you arrive at your destination. Morning is the ideal time for pension hunting. The local tourism office, often found close to, or in the train station, will call around to help you find the best deals. Or check out the city’s tourism website for special promotions. I secured a great deal in Bordeaux this way: city tour, wine tour and two nights’ accommodation for 76 euros (about $120 Cdn.).

When visiting popular cities, you can save hundreds of euros if you’re willing to rest your head in a neighboring town a short bus ride away from the tourist mecca. In Italy, choose Mestre if you want to visit pricier Venice, which is only a half hour away by bus. In France, consider Nice, a 35-minute train ride away from glitzy Cannes. Not only are rooms cheaper in Nice than in its more glamorous cousin, but especially in May, when the Cannes Film Festival is on, you’ll find a far better selection of hotels.

Go public

Unless you harbor a fantasy of driving the German Autobahn ? or you have a death wish ? there is absolutely no reason to rent a car in Europe. Rentals are ridiculously expensive and you’ll never be able to keep up with the locals, who weave in and out of traffic as though they have given up on life. Riding with taxi drivers is even worse. In addition to risking your life, they pull stunts like charging additional fare for your luggage.

Public transportation is a much better bet. Just about everywhere in Europe it’s clean, efficient and cheap with route maps posted everywhere. You can get all the way across town in Paris for just 1.40 euros ($2.25) on the subway, or buy a pass for 23.60 euros ($38) to enjoy a full day of unlimited travel in the City of Light.

In many cities, private companies run double-decker buses that stop at all the favorite tourist sites. You pay one price for a pass that lets you hop off and on at will. Just remember, where possible, to choose a two-day pass over a single-day ticket. You’ll get far better value. In Barcelona, for example, my sister and I shelled out 16 euros (about $25) to ride the bus for a day, then found out we could have had a second full day for only 5 euros ($8) more.

When it comes to travelling between cities, avoid the expensive rail passes so beloved by North American tourists. We pre-paid about $1,300 apiece for two-month Eurail passes. As it turned out, we would have been far ahead if we had done as the locals do and bought individual tickets for short hauls, while taking to the air on one of Europe’s numerous budget airlines for our longer trips.

Reprogram your stomach

One of the fastest ways to go broke in Europe is to eat in restaurants three times a day. This is also one of the fastest ways to outgrow your pants. Instead, begin your day by eating what your hotel or pension puts before you ? usually the typical European breakfast of soft cheese, crusty bread and coffee. Have a big lunch or snack on Europe’s marvellous street food to tide you over till 9 or 10 p.m., and you won’t be desperate for dinner at 6:30, when the only restaurants open are overpriced tourist traps.

Talking about tourist traps, you can save a fortune by avoiding restaurants and cafes located close by monuments, museums or other tourist magnets. All you have to do is walk three blocks away and you’ll be astounded at the drop in price. Once you figure out the optimal dining times, note how the locals eat. They don’t bolt their food, they linger over it. In Portugal, we became accustomed to asking for the bill a full hour before we intended to leave. Eventually, we stopped drumming our fingers on the table and nagging our waiter, and just enjoyed ourselves. Wine tastes better when sipped as the sun sets. And it’s after dark that the cities of Europe really come to life.