Continental divide: secrets to a better European vacation

Part 2

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.

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From the April/May 2005 issue.

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